Conquering Obstacles While Helping Others Reach New Heights

Some of us choose to set high goals, pushing our limits as a way to motivate ourselves to new levels of personal or professional success. Most of us, however, probably haven’t taken ourselves to the extremes that Philip Clark, Associate Chair of Administration for the Department of Orthopaedics at The University of North Carolina (UNC), keeps striving for.

From trail running competitions in remote terrains, to world championship level obstacle course racing in Hong Kong, the U.K., and other locations, Clark keeps pushing the bar higher—and now, the altitude is literally getting up to record heights.

If all goes well, Clark, along with co-adventurer Dr. David Berkoff (Co-Director of the Sports Medicine Institute of UNC), will claim a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

They’re aiming to successfully be among the finishers at the 2022 World’s Highest Obstacle Course Race at Mount Everest, and claim a place in the record books for completing an “Absolute Total Ascent and Descent of an OCR in One Day (10,000m).” Teams will:

  • Trek 12 days to the base of Everest,
  • Climb to the competition site— Kala Pattar—at 18,546 feet
  • Race through a world-class obstacle course
  • Trek back down…
  • And THEN complete a marathon distance trail run to the town of Namche Bazaar.

In addition to the enviable skills and mindset lessons he’s gained by pursuing this go-big-or-go-home attitude—skills he brings back to his UNC organization and team—these adventurers are contributing to important high-altitude performance research.

Clark (above left, and below in the altitude tent with a 40lb sandbag at simulated 14,000 feet) recently shared a little about the research, and ways that pushing physical and mental limits has helped with his day job:

Tell us more about the research project that’s associated with this Everest challenge.

True to his nature, Dr. Berkoff (above right), enterprisingly chose to use Everest to contribute to research, as well as a mean of challenging himself. In conjunction with the University of Bournemouth (U.K.), the work this team is doing will provide critical insights into how altitude affects athletic performance, and for developing standards for altitude sports training and safety.

So many people have suffered and died because of the lack of standardized protocols, and this research should provide invaluable help for future competitors. It’s exciting to be a part of it.

Obviously, given your track record, you must enjoy big challenges. How does the preparation and mindset work required for these intense competitions support your work—or vice versa?

There are a few ways. First, the long-term mindset. Academic institutions require both extremely complex decision-making, and long-term planning. It’s important for both individuals and teams to be adept at chunking these big goals down into steps that ultimately lead to the bigger vision. This is exactly the type of approach needed to train for—and to participate in—intense contests like OCRs and trail runs.

With adventure racing you must also be comfortable stepping outside your comfort zone—both physically and mentally. Being overwhelmed by your barriers will hold you back, and may even carry its own risks.

The same fears can keep you stuck at work, whether in your career or in the progress your organization can make. It’s important to recognize the difference between a mental barrier and a true limit or risk.

What about teamwork, and/or leadership? Are there learnings in these areas that you’ve been able to apply?

The motivation behind the goal or vision is certainly one piece. I’m inspired by challenges that at first glance seem almost too large. I started racing because I was feeling out of shape and that being less fit was negatively affecting my personal life, attitudes and behaviors—but I also needed a big goal to make me want to change my behavior.

The energy and enthusiasm I share when I’m talking about the vision of accomplishing these big events can rub off on others too—I became a Spartan Coach during COVID and we used this to get past tough patches. It’s why you don’t always need a formal “leader” role; getting people on board begins by feeling the energy of ambition, and reaching for something that excites you.

While training my first Spartan team, I was also reminded that it’s so important to build teams consciously: growing connections, building trust and accountability, honoring who’s good at what—and focusing on people’s strengths as well as helping one another through weaknesses. At work, in particular, we can tend to get caught up in, and distracted by, the day-to-day, forgetting to prioritize the lever that will take us to our big goals: a healthy team.

Anyone interested in following along with the research, training plans, or our adventure overall should connect with UNC Sports Medicine Institute’s social media on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. And if you’re inspired to take on Everest yourself, or are curious about other adventure challenges, visit WorldsHighestOCR.com

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