Life-changing stories: Mountains to Overcome

By Julia Stallard

All too often we hear of people doing something to special to celebrate attaining a particular age – a party, a holiday. Less often some people celebrate by doing something they have always wanted to do – many of us saw the news footage recently of a man who celebrated his 96th birthday with a skydive! We’ve heard these undertakings muttered about, usually with an air of bewilderment – “why would he want to do that?” “does he know what he’s letting himself in for?” and all too often they are written off as some form of mid-life crisis.

So why do we undertake these challenges? What is it that we want to prove? I’m not sure I have the answer but I can tell you from my own perspective.

I was 39. I had been in a job that should have been challenging and creative but had become dull, full of red tape, form filling and the polar opposite of creative. My relationship felt the same. My weight had climbed, my fitness level declined and whilst not unhappy, I felt my motivation and lust for life needed a kick-start. Was this an early “midlife crisis”?

I had spent most of my adult life with a desire to see The Great Wall of China – whenever the conversation touched on our personal life ambitions, I would say “I’d like to trek the Great Wall for charity”. Since the loss of my father in 2004, I had also had a strong desire to raise money for a small charity – I was a frequent participator in 5k runs and had even completed The Moonwalk twice for a cancer charity, but small charities need help too and this one had been particularly supportive to my father and our family. So this tubby woman on the verge of the menopause decided to put her money where her mouth was and spend the year training for the trek, to be completed on or around my 40th birthday.

The year was difficult. I dieted like mad and trained as much as I could. My first learning curve was that I’m effective at neither. My partner, while ostensibly supportive, showed little or no interest. I was heading to Beijing with a great organisation to do this, but as a solo traveller. For the second thing I learnt on the way was that out of the 10 or so people who were enthused by the idea and vowed they wanted to do it with me, not one actually came through. The last thing I learnt before I even set foot on the Air China flight, was that I had failed to take into account my all-consuming fear of heights (it hadn’t even occurred to me that the Wall was built on the tops of hills and was over 25ft off the ground level). I was heading for disaster – midlife crisis? More like midlife madness!

Was it a good idea? Yes. Was it hell on earth? Yes. Would I do it again? You bet.

Looking back on this experience I know I would have benefited from health coaching as part of my preparation for this experience.  We have recently worked with groups of health coaches, supporting them to use motivational interviewing techniques in their conversations, and I have been impressed at the effectiveness of their work – so much so that I became a qualified Health Champion.

I learnt my greatest lesson – that anything is possible if you are determined. I was one of the slowest trekkers, the heights gave me terrible anxiety and even an asthma attack. The heat was unbearable – 49 degrees on the last day of the trek. My toenails blackened and bruised from the severity of the slopes when descending and a severe case of plantar fascitias after only day 2 (excruciating foot pain for those who have never experienced it) took their toll for 9 months afterwards. Insect bites, scratches, fatigue I could never have imagined and every muscle in my body screaming for a break. This was the hell on earth I mentioned.

BUT I smiled every second of the waking day, even when I cried – and believe me, every single trekker cried at some point. I lived on borrowed energy bars, Chinese pears, scrambled egg and boiled rice – rural China is not the best place for vegetarian dining – but was never hungry, never gave food a thought for over a week. I drank copious amounts of water and almost no alcohol, laughed a lot and trekked every step as if my life depended on it. I lost over a stone in weight in less than a week, felt better, fitter and happier than I had for years. I made friends, made memories and made decisions.

On my return, I set about making some changes and needless to say less than a year later, my partner and I parted company. Not amicably, not pleasantly and it caused a surprising amount of pain. BUT I knew this time what to do with this pain, how to cope with the feelings of desertion.

With my coaching hat on, I think one of the most important changes that I made as a result of undertaking this challenge was that I stopped asking permission. That was both at work and at home. I always felt I had to run my decisions past someone when in fact I was free to make a lot of those decisions without consultation.  This was strange and had built up over years, although I think I have always been a “pleaser” and therefore asking permission was second nature. I felt empowered, stronger and having proved to myself that I could do anything I set my mind to, I applied this creatively at work – seeking new opportunities and applying myself more effectively – being able to say no was a bonus part of feeling empowered. 

 Less than 2 years after the Great Wall, I found myself flying to the Sahara Desert, this time with some Great Wall Supertrekkers I had met 2 years earlier. And that experience (minus the heights this time!) was even better.

Change is one of the only things in life you can guarantee. Some embrace it – or claim to – while for others it is ultimate fear. How we cope with change is important as it will define our place in life after the change. The changes we instigate are easier to deal with, it is the changes we have no control over that cause the most anxiety and resistance.

I now coach people through life transitions.  I have absolute empathy with coachees who feel the need to prove themselves or who feel they are not content to be “capped” in their working life. I often ask coachees about any lifelong or important ambitions they have –  which is my adaption of the miracle question – to tap into unmet aspirations as by unearthing these I know coachees will be empowered to make bold, life-affirming decisions. 

Whatever change you are facing, coaching is a tool that can help you to make important life decisions, find your place in the world and lead to a richer, more fulfilling life.

 If you have been inspired by Julia’s story and would like to explore how coaching can support you through a current life-transition then please get in touch via


Twitter: @ClaratheCoach

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