Cambrian Patrol Training: Go for Gold

In this year’s RUSI Land Warfare Conference, WO1 Glenn Haughton OBE made a powerful speech on ‘why soldiers fight’. In relation to the human factors bearing on 21st Century manoeuvre, the Army Sergeant Major put the following question to the audience, “Why do we volunteer to be soldiers, and why do we do what others are not prepared to do to fight?” The WO1 presented the audience with a picture of his section from 27 years back; he described his poignant experiences in combat and the brotherhood he was part of whilst purposefully stating the six values of the British Army; courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, and selfless commitment. The Army Sergeant Major concluded his RUSI speech with one standout sentence, “When it comes to crossing the start line in combat, soldiers will always fight for one thing and one thing only, and that is each other.” The Army Sergeant Major’s speech left me, an Army Reserve junior soldier in the digital corporate landscape with a lot to contemplate.

Desk-bound, I continued to attack through a weekly performance report but as I punched data into empty cells I found myself reflecting on the Army Sergeant Major’s speech. Despite a gaping lack of deployments, operational experience and rank, the WO1's raw and honest accounts still enabled made me to reflect on my own training experiences to date. In a world that now thinks digital and data first, telling a personal story from a place of conviction is the most powerful communication device a soldier has. Powerful speeches like the Army Sergeant Major’s are incredibly moving due to the stories they contain. Our authentic, relatable stories expose our flaws and our struggles, their transparency are what makes them memorable and inspiring and not sharing them is a missed opportunity to connect and relate with an audience.

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(First ever tab with my new Plt - second row back, on the right, Catterick, Dec 2013)

For any soldier, great highs and punishing setbacks have all been navigated through (and no doubt for any junior driven to achieve a goal they will continue to do so). I agree to a recent forward-thinking article in The Wavell Room, the British Army is made up of beating hearts, flesh and blood; we are people not machines, therefore in an increasingly digitalised and AI driven landscape, I would agree that it is indeed time the Army was allowed to speak for itself. Collectively, our shared stories serve as the connective tissue that unifies and captures the pulse of our unbridled enthusiasm and optimistic approach to our training. As opposed to something staged and scripted from #thisisbelonging, I support the call for more authentic communications that reflect a truer representation of soldier’s experiences today. In a digital first world, and with the Army's values and standards in mind, should a soldier remain fearful of contributing their ideas and experiences in open discussions and debates – is that belonging? In relation to content, I argue that digital collaboration and sharing oxygenates discussions and exercises innovative thinking enabling us to breathe in new learnings and insights.

Speaking of data, there's zero correlation between being the loudest talker and having the best ideas. From open discussions on Defence Connect, to social media debates and insightful blog posts from The Wavell Room and The Army Leader, it is clear the best talent and catalytic ideas are amongst us – I wonder if the Gatekeepers also recognise this?

With an open and accessible physical training blog of my own and associated closed social media accounts, I continue to document my training experiences for the benefit of others. This latest training article concerns personal development; namely 'learning by doing'. From all the waypoints on my journey thus far, on reflection of my own development, if I had to direct other likeminded junior soldiers to one waypoint in particular, I’d most certainly direct them to participate in this year’s Cambrian Patrol. Despite the back breaking loads, mangy feet and a few battered body parts, staring at my screen I asked myself, “Would I do it all over again tomorrow?” Put me on the start line with either G42B or H30B and I most certainly would (and I've no doubt many more of us would do the same too).

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(H30B training in Brecon Beacons, October 2017)

Calling for Cambrian

For any junior soldier or Officer, it starts with a simple but high-pressure question: “Can I do this?” As with all endeavours, the question we ask ourselves is understandable and entirely sensible given the events reputation and high training demands. Over the years Ex Cambrian Patrol has become synonymous with hard graft, hills, and bleak weather conditions. But in some ways it’s like trudging up a peak armed with your head torch in the early hours to catch the sunrise – it requires effort but once on the summit and coffee in hand it’s always worthwhile. Sat at my desk, I had a flashback to my own memories that had an impact on who I am today; it's strange how some of the worst environments I've been in have also somehow been the best. Therefore, if the odd battered body part and bloody blister is a worthy exchange for challenge, excitement, experience, personal development, camaraderie and an unrivalled sense of achievement then keep reading.

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With training commencing for Ex Cambrian Patrol 2018, the intent of this training article is to fuel further interest, encourage participation from juniors, and arm soldier athletes with physical training advice and previous exercise intel in order to encourage individuals of any age, background, and ability to take part in the event. In addition to the above, a further aim of this article is to encourage other soldiers to share their own experiences and contribute their thoughts to the discussion.

Resilience is one of the most important assets on the battlefield. You cannot get that from AI. You have to put your soldiers out in the field, through intense training so that they can suffer, adapt and learn to handle uncertainty.” – Brigadier General Ori Gordin speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2018.

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Outline of the Event

For those unfamiliar with the event, as a brief outline Exercise Cambrian Patrol is a continuous, 48-hour long-range patrol exercise around the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales. Cambrian Patrol is delivered by HQ 160 Infantry Brigade (160X) on behalf of Commander Field Army CFA; the exercise has been running for over 50 years and is the British Army’s principle All Arms patrols exercise open to all three Services (Regular and Reserve) as well as international participants. The event is a mission focused and scenario based exercise using role players to enhance the training benefit. Cambrian Patrol is not a competition, although patrol performance is assessed throughout and performance is awarded based on the conduct of the patrol, quality of patrol reports and performance on each task/activity.

The exercise is considered to be one of the most arduous and prestigious military events, testing a soldier athletes leadership, field craft, discipline and both mental and physical robustness. Serving as suitable training for Special Forces Selection, the event is known to be one of the most challenging and rewarding exercises a soldier athlete can take part in. Each patrol is set within the context of a realistic scenario which often involves patrols having to traverse enemy territory, interact with friendly and hostile civilians or militia groups, and undergo reconnaissance tasks. For reservist teams, this year’s exercise takes place on set phases from mid to late October 2018 at Sennybridge Training Area, South Wales.

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(Intelligence gathering from encountering friendly forces, Cambrian Patrol 2014)

The exercise tests Battle Craft and Soldier First Syllabus at the UK Military Annual Training Test (MATT) levels, including robustness, leadership and navigation. Each phase lasts for a max of 48 hrs, in which each patrol will usually cover over 60 km (average climb and descent is over 1000m) carrying no less than 25kg per person.

It is important to highlight that Ex Cambrian Patrol is a mission and task orientated exercise and the fundamental criteria used to assess the performance of the patrol is by determining whether or not the team completes the various tasks set and achieves its mission. At the end of each patrol, the final test is a lengthy debrief, with every patrol member being questioned in-depth on the scenario, including everything they encountered on the route. The debrief itself is worth approximately 15% of the total marks, therefore being able to maintain professionalism and retain vital information when exhausted is a critical ability to all patrol members.

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(Training in the Brecon Beacons with G42B, August 2014)

Patrol Composition

Besides having a strong Section of eight soldiers, team managers will most often have additional team members as reserves due to the high injury rate during build up training/team selection weekends. Each patrol has a non-participating Patrol Manager of at least the rank of SNCO and two drivers who usually act as reserves. The composition of the patrol is as follows;

Appointment Military rank Remarks
Ptl manager SNCO Non-participant; must be minimum of SNCO
Dvr (x2) Pte Can act as reserves
Ptl Comd Offr/WO/SNCO
Ptl 2IC JNCO
Ptl member (x6) Pte

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Physical Training

Due to the heavy loads and steep cross-country terrain, individual and/or team training for the exercise usually begins from July and runs progressively through to October. Poor timings can cost a team crucial points; excluding navigational errors, a team is only as fast as their slowest member therefore, initial emphasis on individual fitness should focus on hill fitness, strength and conditioning and mental resilience training. The fitter and more mentally robust a soldier athlete becomes the more they’ll be able to maintain their alertness, contribute more on behalf of the team and maintain a high performance during each scenario. Train before work, train after work, train on weekends and most importantly train cross-country on hills.

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Build-up training in the form of dedicated reserve training weekends focus on the development and testing of the skill sets need to successfully undertake Cambrian Patrol. Due to the amount of military skills being tested and the arduous nature of the event, it is common for teams to undergo at least six weekends of training in order to cover the training syllabus and sufficiently practise drills and different scenarios.

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Military Skills Tested

A strong team of physically fit and robust soldiers at similar standards of fitness is advantageous as it leaves more training time to focus on improving existing military skills. It is important for a patrol team to remember that military skills alone are worth 70% of the total points. In relation to skills, the patrol manager and/or supporting staff will cover the following subjects:

Orders (worth approximately 15% of the total points)

Obstacle crossing and river crossings

CBRN drills

BCDT (including CASEVAC procedures)

Radio communication skills (BOWMAN)

Captures persons (CPERS) handling

Section attack

CTR (including writing patrol reports)

Navigation (including night navigation and optics)

Artillery target procedures/OP – fire control orders

Dismounted Close Combat Skills

Obstacle crossing drills.

Recognition of aircraft, vehicles, weapons, mines and other equipment.

Counter Ordnance Explosive (COE)/minefield clearance drills.

Patrol techniques including harbour drills.

Helicopter drills.

Media handling

PTI Thompson: "The key details that are uncovered in our work are a result of close study, diligent care, constant application and always trying to improve our existing methods represent the best and most valuable knowledge we get in our training. The sum total of this attentive attitude is what we call skill - learn, revise, and adapt."

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Physical Fitness: Hills Training

Individual physical training over the summer months should focus on getting yourself ‘hill fit’. To put it simply, if you know you’ll be carrying half your body weight of kit for 48hrs in the Welsh mountains then you need to train for this appropriately by building up loads gradually. Just like building up to run a trail marathon, our bodies need sufficient time to rest, repair, and get accustomed to heavier loads across longer and longer durations; if a soldier increases the weight too soon or leaves load bearing training too late they will be more susceptible to injury or quickly find themselves underprepared to the detriment of the team.

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It’s also worth highlighting that if a team member unfortunately VW’s and comes off the patrol, the soldier’s serialised patrol kit will also need to be carried. Due to the terrain and difficult ground underfoot, it is recommended that groups head to adequate mountainous regions such as Snowdonia National Park, Brecon Beacons, Cairngorms, and the Lake District in order to get comfortable on steep, cross country mountainous terrain as opposed to manmade tracks and roads on your local training area. Like any young professional in 'the big smoke', lugging my kit on a sardine tube across London to the unit after work on a Friday (only to travel to Brecon for a 2-day beat-up) isn’t exactly anyone’s preferred Friday night activity, but getting out training on such terrain is always worthwhile (after all, tabbing up Primrose Hill a few times was never going to cut it).

We in the British Army want to be trained hard, made and allowed to fail and fail often in order to learn. We want to train hard so we can fight more easily.” – Capt Ali Smith and WO1 (RSM) Wendy Eagle speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2018.

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(Patrol team selection phase for G42B in the Brecon Beacons, August 2014 - identities hidden for security reasons)

Open Water Swimming

Team members should not underestimate the river crossing; I’d certainly recommend incorporating safe and supervised open water swimming into any team training plan. Alternatively, a few visits to a local military pool is recommended. I stress this as throwback to 2014 with G42B, we hit the river crossing at around 0300hrs; under scrutiny of the DS (and at the same time being timed), as practised our actions were carried out tactically under darkness. As it was the final phase of the event, the banks either side were laden with thick mud up to our shins (which wasn’t the best of combinations lugging a 30kg Bergen) - it can only have been a scene of pure amusement for the DS. Naked under our garry (goretex), we were shivering uncontrollably; as soon as Delta were across and good to move off we had a timed 2 mile extraction tab uphill before finally completing the stand. From recollection the width of the 2017 river crossing was roughly 75 metres. In order to participate, all team members will need to have passed their MST; if swimming is a weak area I'd recommend a few sessions in the pool swimming lengths unsupported. You'll never have a better chance of success than the odds you give yourself.

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Functional Conditioning

Alongside hill work, complement your training with functional strength and conditioning 2-3 times a week. I've included two saveable Armoured Athlete WOD's as a guide;

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Team Selection

Cambrian Patrol is a team effort not an individual one man’s game; the success of a team very much rests on how it well it functions together in high-stress, unpredictable, and arduous conditions. In terms of team selection, it might be of interest to leaders, managers and members to read ‘Adventurous Training: Forging Fearlessness’ which features previous research carried out on military patrol teams and expedition teams operating in hostile environments.

I’d hope past participants of the event would be in agreement that individuals must be both determined and persistent. Personally, I’d say grit is the most important trait for a participant to obtain. When starting training with G42B my military skills and drills were initially poor yet week by week I transitioned. Despite our inexperience, every member of G42B had an unrelenting desire to work hard; when it came to the start line our bond was iron-strong, we knew our strengths and weaknesses, we had trained hard together and we were ready. It's an uncomfortable truth that self-doubt has crippled many soldiers, but not for us, it was an opportunity to prove all the doubters wrong.

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(G42B during a short admin break before hitting the river crossing - note the mud level)

PTI Thompson: "Mistakes are simply learning experiences, and there are things we learn only through failure. Fuel yourself with positivity and let that fuel propel you into positive action. If people don't believe in you - keep going."

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(G42B in the early and mid stages of Ex Cambrian Patrol 2014)

Ex Cambrian Patrol 2017

Last year, Ex Cambrian Patrol 2017 saw the biggest participation yet with over 1200 British soldiers and 28 international army teams taking part in the patrol exercise. The event was remarked as considerably tougher due to the unrelenting storms which resulted in a higher dropout rate of teams in which 47% of teams failed to complete. On average just 5% of the participating teams ever gain a gold medal, the top award.

The Cambrian Patrol traces its history back to 1959 by Welsh reservists. Patrol teams of eight are required to cover over 50km on foot carrying an average of 50lbs over the most unforgiving Welsh terrain in less than 48 hours, whilst having to complete tasks along the way to show their military skills in areas from field craft to CBRN as well as pushing teams both physically and mentally, including facing tactical cold river crossing. 'The exercise is notorious around the world and has on average a 30% drop out rate from teams' (The Military Times, 2017).

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(Impressive post-Cambrian feet from 2014's event)

Last years’ event was particularly challenging due to the extremely poor weather conditions which lead to 7 of the first 10 patrol teams failing to complete the first 24hrs of their 48hr patrol which led to their withdrawal from the event. The teams taking part in the first phase were from UOTC and Army Reserve Units. Only Northumbrian UOTC, 5RRF and 151Rgt RLC based in London completed the exercise from the initial 10 teams that took part in phase one of the Cambrian Patrol. The weather further worsened as the second phase departed which left many teams battling through Storm Ophilia and Storm Brian.

The exercise starts in a Patrol Base located in a wood block where each patrol team is assessed and watched upon from the very start on their field craft, discipline, model making skills, including the leadership of the patrol commander giving orders outlining the mission ahead. From the Patrol Base the 8 man team then steps off crossing the tough terrain of the Brecon Beacons where they are continuously assessed on their actions during surprise scenarios encountered along the patrol. Last year, the first scenario was a CBRN scenario involving a number of actors, where a drone released a chemical attack where teams had to react to the situation fast whilst being scored by on looking DS Staff on their actions on.

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(Sunrise captured from the minibus window whilst driving to the start point, October 2014)

The exercise is designed so that teams will be pushed to their limits over the 48hrs mentally and physically putting them into scenarios that they could face in a real life operation. For example, further stands included coming across an NGO worker being attacked by a local militia wanting medical assistance. Furthermore, teams also crossed 75m of open water tactically with all their kit.

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(Team members of H30B training in the Brecon Beacons, October 2017)

The exercise is organised each year by 160th Infantry Brigade & Headquarters Wales. Although the exercise is not a competition, all teams are awarded and deducted points along the way and based on those points at the end of the exercise, the teams are awarded either a Gold, Silver, Bronze Medal and or a certificate.

Teams from around the world participating, take part in domestic exercises back in their home countries to be selected to take part in the Cambrian Patrol. Last year, out of the 28 international teams, 5 had never entered the Cambrian Patrol, they were Armenia, Uzbekistan, UAE, the Philippines and Moldova. Other international teams included Canada, Pakistan who won their fourth Gold Medal, Spain, France, Denmark, Bosnia and Serbia.

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(Kit packing with H30B, Cardiff 2017)

Major Steve Keir, Officer Commanding Exercise Cambrian Patrol, said the event had achieved all of its objectives in testing the basic military skills of soldiers over the harshest terrain in Wales. “This year was especially testing in that we had three serious weather fronts to deal with – two named (Hurricane Ophelia and Storm Brian) and one unnamed,” he said, “That means the dynamic of the exercise changed completely and we had more patrols fail to complete than ever before. Additionally, those who dug in with real grit and determination and who upped their game gained higher awards than normal. Our normal Gold medal award allocations increased by about 50 per cent and the number of Silvers were also up significantly. The feedback from those who had completed the exercise before was that this year was definitely much tougher due to the inclement weather thrown in.Cambrian Patrol 2017 is the biggest so far – 126 patrols took part. We’ve also had a number of countries ask us how they could replicate a similar exercise in their own countries. To us, that’s a good statement because it means they see this as world class. We’re content with the design of the exercise but we will adapt each year to make it better and better.”

The 2017 Cambrian Patrol Results:

9 Gold, 33 Silver, 11 Bronze, 15 Certificates of Merit and 47% of the 126 patrols who set out did not complete.

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(H30B training in the Brecon Beacons, October 2017)

Previous Exercise Intel

Patrol Commander of The Queen’s Own Yeomanry Cambrian team gives his account of the exercise.

“The patrol set off at a steady pace and moved through RV1 without any incidents. At RV2 however, while the patrol was being escorted through a quarry by the quarry foreman, we came under a chemical mustard gas attack by an unmanned aerial drone. The team reacted quickly to this by moving into cover and donning their respirators. After this the team proceeded to carry out a chemical survey to check the area for any residue threat. When this came back as negative permission was given over the net for respirators to be removed. The team then carried out two-man sniff tests in pairs before removing respirators and moving on. With the sun now beginning to set, the race was on to reach RV3 as quick as possible, so the team began their descent to the valley. At RV3 the team began the gruelling climb up to RV4 located on a hill at 564 meters.

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(G42B on the middle stages of Cambrian Patrol, October 2014)

“Then it was time to move to the final RV in preparation for our close target reconnaissance mission on a suspected enemy location, thought to be located in a forest. With the FRV established and secured the Patrol Commander and his lead scout set off to find and understand as much information as they could about the enemy, including their positions, capabilities and intentions. The pair returned shortly before sunrise and had been successful in their mission, remaining undetected and even getting close enough to the enemy to acquire the registration number of the enemy commander’s vehicle.

“With this done the FRV was collapsed and the patrol moved on to RV5 where a full patrol report was written and passed on to a friendly forces agent. Here the Patrol Commander was also briefed up on his new orders for extraction back to a UN base to the North via a new series of RV points.

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(Ptrl Cmdr for H30B navigation training in Snowdonia, September 2017)

“At RV1 the team was required to carry out a river crossing to assist friendly forces whose boat had broken down while moving crucial supplies across the river. After this the team efficiently carried out their wet to dry drills and proceeded on to RV2. Here we came across a medical centre where the local doctor was being threatened at gun point by militia forces demanding medical treatment. The team quickly defused the situation by convincing the militia to give up their weapons. Once this was done they were searched and detained in preparation for the Royal Military Police to take over the situation. When the RMP arrived, the situation was under control and the injured militia were escorted under guard to receive medical treatment while the patrol continued on to RV3.

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(Hearts and minds tactics with local friendly forces, Cambrian Patrol 2014)

“Shortly before RV3 the patrol came across a crashed vehicle along the side of the road with two injured passengers inside. It was obvious from the nature of the crash and damaged vehicle that it had been hit by a roadside IED. The team quickly got to work with our mine expert clearing a safe path through the mine field to the car to extract the injured passengers. With the treatment given by the patrol Medic, the casualties were stabilised and extracted through a helicopter landing site further back along the road. At this point local media arrived on the scene requesting an interview. They were dealt with by our media handling expert who was careful not to give away any key information relating to our capabilities or intentions in the area. Shortly after the media had left, a team of Royal Engineers arrived to take over the situation and relieve us so we moved on to RV4.

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“RV4 was a disused farm house being occupied by the Royal Artillery as an observation post to assist with calling in artillery fire. However, the site was undermanned so the patrol commander and lead scout were required to assist with target acquisition for artillery fire as intelligence reports suggested the enemy forces were moving armoured fighting vehicles in a direct violation of the Bristol Peace Accord, signed only three months prior. The intelligence proved accurate and when enemy armour did crest over the horizon we were able to react quickly and call in effective and accurate fire control orders to rapidly neutralise the enemy vehicles with rounds of heavy explosive artillery fire.

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(CASEVAC drills training at night with G42B, October 2014)

“After this the patrol moved on to RV5, here we were met by local Special Forces who had intel pertaining to a crashed UAV suspected to be carrying key intel. Our mission was to retrieve the intel before the advancing enemy forces could seize it. To achieve this the patrol moved to a form up point and launched a quick attack on the enemy who were only meters away from the crash site. Delta Fire Team dressed right into a woodblock and began providing cover fire while Charlie Fire Team began bounding in pairs across the field to assault the enemy. The plan was successful and once the enemy were destroyed and the intel was secured the Patrol extracted back with haste to regroup with the special forces. Now the patrol had just one job remaining; take the captured intelligence back to the UN base only four kilometres to the North.

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(Hills training with H30B in the Brecon Beacons, October 2017)

“When we arrived at the UN base we were escorted into a secure building and met by a Military Intelligence Officer and an MI6 operative who we were required to debrief on everything of note on the patrol such as: Enemy locations, intentions and capabilities, key ground and vital terrain, potential avenues of approach, named areas of interest, interactions with local civilians and friendly forces. With the debrief then concluded the patrol was escorted back to a secure location to conduct administration in preparation for likely future operations.”

"The team were awarded a Silver Medal which was an incredible achievement. For those who have never competed, Cambrian Patrol is hard, very hard, both physically and mentally. Teams often cover over 60km in the 48 hours, tactically, over some of the most demanding terrain the British Isles has to offer (while carrying 40kg of fighting weight). Of the 31 Reservist teams who crossed the start line, 71% failed to cross the finish line this year."

PTI Thompson: "Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It's about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It's about creating the path for others' success, and then standing back and letting them go for gold."

Best of luck to this year's Cambrian teams.

For more training advice and photos of my training request to follow on Instagram or Twitter.

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