Friday, June 27, 2008

Training for the IronMan: A Conference Worker's Guide

(NOTE: This post is dedicated to hundreds of my colleagues who will be literally running our upcoming quadrennial mega-event. You know who you are!)

I spent last week in Barcelona where my organization is going to hold its World Conservation Congress of 8,000 people, which we have been blogging about these past few months. During my trip to Barcelona, we visited the Congress centre and saw the various rooms and halls, and most importantly were given some very practical tips about the centre, where we would be spending around 10 days of our lives, day and night.

On my way home to Geneva from Barcelona, I read an article in the inflight magazine about two London office women who decided to do the Ironman triathalon. The story explained their learning and preparation for this grueling competition, which includes a marathon, 112 miles of biking, and 2.4 miles of swimming. You need to be competent at everything to finish - similar to our Congress. You might be a mild-mannered project manager for 355 days a year, but at Congress you can take on the role of media spokesperson, usher, VIP handler, translator, and high-level panelist in one day, with super quick changeovers between each.

And like the Ironman you need to prepare yourself if you want to finish in one piece. No showing up the day of the race and lining up at the start (or the registration table). For our Congress, preparation means practice of these new roles (I took my media training course today), getting rid of your sleep deficit, and taking care of that low grade cold you have been nuturing for months. Hard work and many nights of minimal sleep will find your immune system a real pushover - probably on day 2 of the Congress.

Another thing the Ironwomen learned in their preparation for the event was that you need to learn things you never imagined you needed to know. Like how to fix your own bicycle - during the race, no one is going to stop and help you fix a blown tire. They are too focused on their own race to even notice, or be able to stop and help. Our Congress may be the same, with everyone flying in every direction preparing for any of the 40 simultaneous events at any given time. When your caffeine withdrawal is giving you a whopping headache, and there are 300 people waiting at the coffee bar, you need to be able to produce your own solution. What about a thermos of coffee that you made that morning in your hotel room? (bring your travel kettle, instant coffee and thermos - sorted). When you just need a glass of wine at the end of the day - know where the nearest supermarket is, and pack your corkscrew. Lay in some nutritional snacks, proper meals will be few and far between - think of those Ironwomen and their protein bars, water bottles, energy drinks.

And don't forget the proper kit and gear. You might not need the wetsuit and onesie, but something that will work for day and the evening reception (that you will never have time to change for), a fanny bag that you can wear even if you are on the podium - so you don't have to retrace your steps over the last few hours to look for the bag you left under a table somewhere. And the essential thick soled shoes (think miles of granite floors, with not a centimeter of carpet in sight.)

And at the end of your test of extreme endurance, you will have the great satisfaction of knowing that you could do it, you finished it, you learned some new things about yourself and your co-racers, and perhaps can help advise the next group of Ironmen and women, or Conference workers, on how to prepare, and hopefully enjoy, this once in a lifetime experience.

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