Sometimes our worlds collide. This spring, professionally, I am in the midst of guiding a team through developing a new market systems programme in a challenging environment. When not busy with that, I am training for my longest ultramarathon to date – nearly 500km across some of the most remote Scottish bogs and bens. Whilst suffering through a windy training run the other weekend, I realised that many of the strategies I use to get through ultras (short hand for ultramarathon, which is any race longer than a marathon for the non-ultrarunners out there), can also help teams get through market systems programmes. Here are a few tips that emerged from my four-hour slog that may be useful for market systems programme managers – or budding ultramarathoners.

Chunk your way to success: One of staple strategies of successful ultramarathoners is “chunking.” This doesn’t refer to the phenomena of having a meatball sub for breakfast following a herculean effort, but rather breaking down a seemingly impossible task – like running 100 miles – into smaller, more achievable targets. So instead of thinking “how on earth am I going to get to the finish line 30 hours later,” successful racers just focus on getting to the next aid station, road crossing, or any other landmark. The same is true of market systems programmes – how to improve the incomes of hundreds of thousands of people in 5 years can seem like a paralysing task. But by practising chunking, it starts to feel more possible to reach intermediary goals, like piloting a new business model, rather than taking on the whole challenge from day one.

Make friends with pain: Nervously awaiting my first 100 mile attempt several years ago, the ex-miner turned race director finished his pre-race pep talk with words I’ve never forgotten: “Make friends with pain, and you’ll never be alone.” Running 100 miles – or any distance – can be very hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. And so is stimulating meaningful and lasting economic development. Simply recognising and embracing that it is normal to be difficult gives people the mental edge they need to continue, whether that’s climbing up a 3,000-foot climb at mile 50 of a race or trying to sustainably improve people’s well-being.

Experiments of one: Smart runners recognise that improving your ultramarathon skills is essentially an experiment of one. What works for me – from kit to mileage to nutrition – won’t necessarily work for anybody else. I can’t assume that because my race plan worked out running on canal paths between Glasgow and Edinburgh that the same one will translate into similar results in the boggy, midgey Highlands. The same is true of smart market systems programmes. Solutions need to be based on sound diagnosis and context specific. Many an ultrarunner has fallen prey to the dreaded replicabilititis that has been known to plague international development professionals. After training for months with a specialised calorie-dense electrolyte drink, it made me sick to my stomach within the first hour of what would be a 30-hour endeavour. Surprisingly, bacon and beer, both of which I frequently consume, but not usually during physical activity, settled my stomach and allowed me to finish. Don’t assume because something worked in one place it will work in another, whether that’s a race or a new programme.

Adaptive management: The only thing certain in ultramarathons is uncertainty. Runners can’t control the weather, other competitors, if cheeky elk eat the course markings, or a litany of other factors that can influence a race outcome. You must be prepared to use socks as toilet paper, forge another path to avoid aggressive cows, slow down in the heat, speed up to get away from a black bear, or just stop when the tornado sirens go off. Getting comfortable with adapting to changing circumstances, some of which are beyond your control, is one of the critical factors in successful market systems programmes.

Doing too much too soon rarely ends well: Eager to jumpstart my fitness following the winter break last year, I decided to subject myself to a few downhill repeats on one of one of England’s tallest peaks (hush now, continental readers, we do have mountains in the UK). Rather than beef up my quads, however, this caused a pre-stress fracture in my upper thigh, distorting and damaging my long-term running plans. The same lesson rings true for market systems programmes – it can be tempting to get out there and “do” things, but often, that will just hurt your chances for lasting, positive changes.

My runs will only get longer in the months leading up to the 8-day, 500-kilometre race, so stay tuned for more musings on how market system programmes can embrace the ultramarathon that is systemic change!

Leave a Reply