It’s Not a Sprint, It’s a Hike up a Mountain!

Last summer, I had the opportunity to hike Algonquin. For those who are not familiar with Algonquin, which included me up until about two days before I climbed it, Algonquin is the second highest mountain in New York state. This translates to roughly 5100 feet, which may not be much by Sierra Nevada standards, but when actually doing the hike such subtleties swiftly become irrelevant. The trail up Algonquin starts at 2000 feet and climbs 3000 feet in 4 miles. There are a number of words for a trail like that; one of the less emotionally expressive ones is “steep.” The estimated time for the hike was 8 hours.

I have long believed the old adage that building a software project is a marathon, not a sprint. I was wrong. It’s a hike up a mountain. Consider that a marathon may be long, but it is basically predictable. You know how far you are going and exactly what the conditions will be along the way. When you get to the end, you’re done. Maybe it’s a big circle or there are busses waiting to take you home; either way, the finish line is the finish line.

Climbing a peak like Algonquin, however, is a different experience. At the base camp, the weather was sunny and warm, a typical August day. My wife directed my attention to the sign that said that the temperature at the peak was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, just a tad cooler. I hadn’t noticed that as my attention was on the sign that explained that no matter how beautiful the weather, sudden snow storms were still possible. Yes, even in August there are occasionally snow storms at and around the peak.

The trail itself started off very smooth and easy. My brother-in-law set a good pace, since we wanted to be up and down before dark. Assume one mile per hour, was what he told us. I was thinking that the trail wasn’t that hard, so why such a low estimate? Then we reached the steep part. Well, at least the part that seemed steep until we got to the really steep part. Then it got steeper from there. Suddenly, a mile an hour seemed optimistic.

See the connection to a software project yet?

Even a difficult project seems pretty manageable at the start. Sure, everyone talks about the inevitable rough patches, but no one really expects them to seriously derail the schedule. But then it gets steep; or, in other words, something turns out to be much harder or more complex than expected. Lack of planning? Not really; planning is important, but it can only take you so far. Sometimes you have to plan to not know something until you get there. Your plan needs to include how you’ll deal with that discovery.

I didn’t realize how steep the hike up Algonquin would be. But, I had a hiking stick and my wife was using poles. My stick was very useful; on one particularly wet and slippery section of rock, it nobly sacrificed itself to save my ankle. The, now much shorter, hiking stick was still useful in various creative ways on some other impressively inclined sections of the trail.

Preparation can seem pointless until you need it. If you haven’t prepared properly, your will to win won’t matter. That said, sometimes you also have to improvise and be willing to back up and try something different if your first idea doesn’t work.

Algonquin peak was beautiful. Despite the weather reports, it wasn’t nearly as cold up there as expected. No sudden snowstorms came rolling in. Of course, it was also only the halfway mark; we still had to hike back down. That didn’t stop us from having a picnic and enjoying the view; it’s important to celebrate successes along the way, even if you still have more to do. If you never stop and recharge, you’ll never maintain the focus necessary to reach the end. Hiking a wet, steep, trail, that can mean a blown knee or busted ankle; with software, it can mean endless delays, poor design decisions, and a buggy release.

In the end, our 8 hour hike took us closer to 10 hours. Fortunately, we’d started early in the day so we didn’t run out of light; if night had fallen, that would have been a serious problem. Although I did have a flashlight, I had neither a headlamp nor any desire to spend the night on the mountain. Leaving a little more time than you think you need is always a good idea; projects inevitably take longer than expected. Getting stuck on a mountain means a very long, unpleasant, and potentially serious delay; being too aggressive with your schedule can likewise trigger unexpected problems. Putting in some slush time prevents the unexpected from becoming the catastrophic.

As we finished the hike and emerged from the woods into the sunset, we were both exhausted and exhilarated. Algonquin is a tough hike; we celebrated with dinner at a very good restaurant. At the end of your projects, what are you doing to celebrate? No matter how dedicated people are and how much they enjoy the activity, there are sections that are just exhausting. Taking the time to relax and have some fun after the slog helps us appreciate our accomplishments and prepares us to tackle the next big challenge.




Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” sold out at two days after it was released. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or


Comments (1)

bubblersJune 7th, 2016 at 10:52 am

Great article, good job on surpassing that feat, I really liked how you linked hiking and work together, thank for sharing!

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