What a 12-Hour Adventure Race Taught Me About Finding My True North

true north

“No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.” – Turkish Proverb

Feeling disoriented? You’re not alone. We have all had periods of our lives when we felt completely and utterly lost.

For me, that moment came the summer after my freshman year in college. I had just left the wrestling team after being an All-American in high school. I knew it wasn’t fulfilling me anymore, but I didn’t know what to do next.

I decided to sign up for a 12-hour adventure race in rural Vermont with two of my friends. I figured it would help me stay in shape. Little did I know what I had just gotten myself into.

The Race That Changed Everything

An adventure race is an outdoor orienteering competition consisting of two or more disciplines (e.g. running, mountain biking, canoeing, etc.). Teams use some form of navigation, in this case a map and compass, to find all of the hidden checkpoints as quickly as possible.

The morning of the race, my team awoke from our tent at 4:00 am. It had rained all night, and we could smell the wet grass all around us. The only light was from the stars.

Half awake, we strapped on our headlamps and got a course map from the race directors. All of a sudden, the starting gun went off, and we followed everyone else into the woods.

The mob of racers soon spread out. My team of three got in a tight huddle, took out our map and compass, and tried to get our bearings. We were quickly able to determine where we were. The first checkpoint was marked off directly to the south.

And so we ran south, keeping our eyes open for any sign of the orange checkpoint.

Five minutes passed. Then ten minutes. Then thirty.

After an hour, we were still looking.

“It should be right here,” my friend mumbled, out of breath. We had been going exactly the way the compass was telling us. We were frustrated, exhausted, and lost.

“Where the hell are we?” asked my other friend.

I looked all around us. No orange markers, just a sea of green. “Absolutely no idea,” I said.

All of a sudden, I noticed something. My friend’s backpack had chest strap, which helped secure the Camelback nozzle for easy access. Our compass had been hanging from that chest strap. And that chest strap had a magnet.

Suddenly, I realized that the pull from the magnet had reversed our compass. We just spent the first hour of the race headed in the wrong direction.

There is nothing worse than working incredibly hard to get somewhere, only to figure out it was not where you wanted to go.

By the time we figured out what had happened, the sun was already starting to come up. We hadn’t even gotten to the first checkpoint yet, but at least now we could get our bearings. My friend took out a fresh compass and we started heading back the way we came.

While we never fully made up for the time we had lost, we did eventually end up having fun and finishing the race.

Are You Following A Broken Compass?

For most of us, the answer is yes. Whether it is friends, family, or the media, we all have different magnets pulling us off course. It’s so easy to lose touch with our own True North.

Knowing your True North means understanding what you are good at, what you love to do, and how those things can be used to serve the world. When everything around you is changing, your True North is what grounds you.

Until you know where you are, it doesn’t matter how fast you are running. You are still just wandering. Once you find your True North, it is much easier to navigate effectively.

As a wrestler, I spent countless nights hungry and thirsty, losing weight for an upcoming meet. I woke up early in the morning to run. So much of my identity had been wrapped up in wrestling that when I left the sport, I lost touch with who I was.

That’s when I decided to get deliberate about my life. I had spent so long doing what I thought was expected of me, and not enough time listening to my own True North. It was time to choose a path that mattered to me.

How To Find Your True North

Before you can decide where you are going, you need to figure out where you are. That summer, I spent a lot of time in introspection. I kept asking myself three main questions:

  1. What am I good uniquely good at?
  2. What sorts of things get me excited?
  3. What gifts can I give to other people?

After a while, I started to see some common threads. I began to see myself as more than just a wrestler. The following year, I dove headfirst into new activities that aligned with my True North and everything changed for me.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to keep following a broken compass.

When you find out that you are headed the wrong way, will you keep going or will you turn around?

Photo by Walt Stoneburner

8 thoughts on “What a 12-Hour Adventure Race Taught Me About Finding My True North”

  1. Greg, l appreciate that you shared this thoughtful blog with others. Recently life used a series of events to open me up and show me that l had been following a broken compass, by limiting myself exceedingly. I know that your blog came at the right time to inspire me and others because l believe that there are no coincidences. Now l can also draw strength from your story and the Turkish proverb, ‘No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.’ Thank you so much.

  2. Your analogy of a ‘broken compass’ and finding your ‘True North’ really clarifies things for me and puts what is important to me in a concise perspective. “Life is like sailing. You can use any wind to go in any direction.” ~Robert Brault.

  3. Hi Greg,

    I guess this is the right way to be. Needless to say life isn’t flowers all around. Sometimes our compass breaks or something else confuses the correct dirrection. What matters is that you found your way out and headed to your True North.

    Broken compass isn’t good, neither bad. It happens.


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