Vet is much like working in a Startup

This week has made me realise something that I had long suspected: being a vet is very much like being a start-up entrepreneur, or certainly an employee of one. This idea crystallized in my mind after watching the fascinating and very motivating documentary “The Startup Kids,” which takes a look at a number of tech start-ups and their founders, a subject that I have always been utterly fascinated by.

What characteristics or features of working as a vet do I consider to be in parallel to being involved in a start-up? I reckon the following merit mention….

  1. Multiple Simultaneous Roles – I have oft advised potential new vets that a career as a veterinarian is not simply a matter of wearing the “fixer of sick and maintainer of healthy animals” hat. The truth is that most days involve us having to swap our various hats more often than a lady at Ladies Day at Royal Ascot. In any given day we could act as doctor, negotiator, team-leader, social worker, financial planner, debt collector, psychologist, gymnast, electrician/ mechanic, inventor, problem-solver extraordinaire, confidante, sprinter, weight-lifter, endurance athlete, receptionist, diplomat, surgeon, clairvoyant, magician and, at times we are also expected to be both super heroes and miracle workers! Only the other day I found myself spending a good hour taking on the unexpected role of financial problem solver, empathetic negotiator and fiscal planner whilst carefully navigating the options for a possible payment plan structure for a client who clearly could not afford the required treatment for their pet but didn’t wish to consider euthanasia of said injured animal. I am no financial planner but found myself having to assume the role, liasing between various members of the clinic team and the client in the process. Fixing the animals, it seems, tends to be the easiest bit of being a vet.
  2. Small Dynamic Team Players – Most vets work in relatively small clinics as members of small, focused teams, with de-lineated roles such as vets, nurses and reception team. Working so closely with so few people in what is often a high pressure and rapidly changing environment is very akin to that seen in most start-ups and whilst highly stressful at times can lead to superb examples of team-work and extraordinary results. I think back to the example I had when a rabbit we were anaesthetising suddenly went into cardiac arrest (ie died!) and as a direct result of superb teamwork involving skilled, focused and motivated professionals we were able to resurrect said bunny!
  3. Cope with Caos & Rapid Growth – Think that your vet spends their day floating along from one kitten consult to the next puppy on a cloud of serene tranquility? Think again. In many busy clinics the hectic schedule kicks off the second you arrive (usually early) to the minute you finally exit the building (usually late), with the spectre of the unexpected always lurking around the corner and with every phone call. This level of (organised?) chaos is amplified if you happen to be in a rapidly growing clinic, with new clients and their new and newer animals rolling in. Embrace the chaos! We do.
  4. Work to Tough Deadlines & Multi-task like a Juggler – Can you spay a cat quicker than it takes to spell cat? No? Well you’ll quickly learn. Especially when you cop a look at the ops list for the day as it spills off the board and starts streaming down the wall. But no worries as you can just keep going as there are no consults in the afternoo….. oh, wait… yes, there are. Vets work to deadlines all day long and swap out roles as mentioned above like a juggler on a Red Bull infusion.
  5. Lunch? What lunch?! – One really cool feature of most tech start-ups that I frequently read about is that many place real value on taking breaks, especially lunch, to catch their collective breath and hang out with colleagues, with many of their best ideas often coming out of this time. I make no secret of the fact that I value my lunch highly and can become a tad grumpy if and when I am denied it. The most productive people I know are those who are actively encouraged to tune out and re-fuel, even if it’s not for very long. Ironman races see athletes encouraged to re-fuel – in fact, not refueling would quickly lead to poor performance and probably failure. So I don’t see why it should be any different in our industry which has unfortunately seemed to collectively hold on to this “lunch/ breaks are optional” mentality. Start-ups know that rested, fueled team members usually perform awesomely and I am convinced that vets, nurses and the rest of the team are no different. When it does happen then I have seen how awesome team spirit and performance can be.
  6. Super Flexible – Part of the excitement of being involved in a start-up is that it’s never always possible to predict exactly what is going to happen. Vet clinics are the same, as previously mentioned, with a new emergency or challenge literally a phone call or walk-in away. We have all been in situations where our manageable consult or surgical list has suddenly been thrown into disarray by an unexpected event and the ability to be super-adaptable and flexible to a dynamic work environment is key to being a successful vet, as it is to being a start-up team member.

I daresay that there are many other examples and feel free to add any you can think of. In the meantime I am off to grab some lunch.

Dining in the Dark

Being able to see what you eat is something that we all take for granted. We rely on our sight to inform us about dining in a number of ways, from the actual colour, expected texture and physical form of our food, and thus whether we even like the look of it, to the pure logistics of eating, such as simply navigating the food from the plate to our mouths. Taking the time to really savour other aspects of a dish, such as smell and flavour, can perhaps fall down the list of priorities in our hyper-visual world. Having the chance to indulge the other senses, therefore, is always going to prove to be an interesting experience.

In celebration of (or is actually mourning?!) one of our vets and her husband making the move back home to South Africa, after several years here in the UAE, a bunch of us headed off to the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai to partake in the Noire dining experience. In essence: dining in the dark. Due to an initial issue with our booking we had time to initially hang by the very nice bar enjoying our complimentary drinks and anticipating the forthcoming and very novel experience, as not one of us had ever intentionally dined in the dark before. What would we be eating? Would we like it? What would the atmosphere be like? A whole set of questions were just waiting to be answered as we were eventually briefed, including instructions to remove any watches that might ‘glow in the dark’ to the somewhat obvious-when-told order to switch off any phones. The only source of light there would be visible to us in the dining room would be the red light on top of each of the waiter and waitresses’ night vision goggles. In fact, being met by our hosts for the evening decked out in black and adorned with what is effectively military equipment in the form of night vision goggles, was a surreal experience in and of itself.

view in Noire
Our view of our surroundings in Noire

We were led in small groups into the dining room itself in a strange conga-esque procession, with the diner at the front placing their hands on the shoulders of our waiter and everyone else following with their hands on the person in front’s shoulders. Shuffling into the pitch black felt alien and the first instinct was to wonder where the light switch was and search urgently for any source of light. The only glimmer of light was a very faint and occasional line of white creeping in through and between the thick black curtains that kept us in total darkness and separate from the world of light outside.

Seated at our tables, the first thing to do was establish our bearings, ascertain what was in front of us – cutlery, a small bread plate, water and wine glasses, with both water and wine present, and our fellow diners sat beside and in front of us. One of the most bizarre aspects of being in the dark was finding plates and food seemingly magically appear and disappear before us. Where once there was an empty plate, now there was bread, and vice versa when it came to dishes disappearing once finished with.

The most noticeable feature of human interaction in a totally dark environment is how much louder we all become. It is as if we live by the mantra of “if you can’t see me then you’re going to hear me,” as the conversation volume certainly ratcheted up several levels, with some of the diners virtually shouting at times. I wondered whether some were simply trying to employ sonar techniques to visualise their neighbours! The other human trait that comes out in the dark is our propensity for mischief when the opportunity presents. Whether it be stealthily stealing our neighbours’ wine or creeping up behind them and making physical contact with them when they don’t expect it, the experience was very playful and a lot of fun. Quite what we must have looked like to our hosts, however, is anyone’s guess but I imagine ridiculous is probably fairly close. Especially when we felt it would be a great laugh to initiate a Mexican wave! Can you imagine the sight?! It must have been the most mal-coordinated effort ever seen in the history of waves!

As for the food itself, it was undoubtedly delicious, as we started with a small spoon of a fried noodle dish, before enjoying a biriyani, which was one of the tastiest dishes I have had for a very long time. The flavours certainly jump out at you much more when you can’t see what it is you’re eating and if it were not for the fact that I was so hungry and thus devoured by fare pretty swiftly, it would have been a real treat to truly savour and appreciate the aroma, texture and taste of each dish. The main was a very tasty Korean dish, with marinaded grilled beef, mushrooms and a delicious rice base, whilst the dessert involved rice pudding, roasted carrot(!) and, again, was lovely. It was somewhat of a shame, however, that there was no attention paid to the drinks, as we simply had a standard glass of pretty average white wine to start and then a small glass of similarly unimpressive red to accompany the beef dish. Pairing each dish with a complimentary drink might have helped really elevate the entire experience and would be something that I would suggest as an improvement. The other suggestion I would make is to increase the amount of each dish served. I was not the only one who left the dining room still hungry and when the opportunity to finish off the chef’s presentation dishes was on offer I took it, which seemed like a bit of a poor way to have to end the evening as I should have left the actual dining experience feeling satisfied.

night vision goggles, NoireFinishing the evening with the chance to don a set of the goggles and venture back into look at where we were dining, I was surprised to see that the room was significantly smaller than I imagined. Again, thoughts of what we must have all looked like did make me chuckle. Overall, a fun and certainly novel experience, but at 325 AED a head, I would have expected a little more food. After all, it’s not as if they’re spending that money on lighting the place!

Noire at Spectrum on One, Fairmont Hotel, Dubai

The Long Way Around

“If you can’t complete this then really you have no place competing in an Ironman in September.” These words were uttered by a good friend and triathlon mentor of mine, referring to a race called the Urban Stinker. Run over a mountain in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) and a total of 36km in length, with about a mile of total climb involved, this was pitched as a test of my base level of preparedness for the challenge of taking on an Ironman, especially given that the furthest I have ever run is the half marathon distance of 21km. With the Ironman seeing triathletes tackle a full marathon (42km) after swimming and cycling heady distances, the prospect is still a daunting one.

training shoes, pack for runThe other reason that it was keenly suggested that I sign up for the Stinker was that my upcoming Ironman takes place at altitude and the run apparently does involve undulation, as you’d expect up in the mountains. This race, therefore, promised to be perfect preparation and a great way to “get the miles into my legs,” as my friend put it. It certainly did achieve that and as I write this, a few days after the event, my quads are still screaming at me and I still look and feel like an old man each time I get up from a chair and walk.

The Urban Stinker is a race run by a group called Urban Ultra, who also organise other long distance races here in the UAE, typically involving getting hot, sweaty and sandy. The venue for this particular race was in the emirate of RAK, at the base of the Golden Tulip hotel, a classically castle keep-esque structure perched atop a hill with views over the small mountains that border the UAE and Oman. Following a long and often stationary drive up from Dubai, and a pre-race beer at the bar in which we were entertained by a Russian belly dancer, the alarm went off to signal the start of a long day during which I would find myself tested.

There were a few unknowns at play with this race, not only the distance. We had to carry a number of pieces of equipment and provisions with us and so I had been out to purchase among other things, a small running backpack and bladder, which I had tested out on a very short local run a few days before. I was worried, based on that experience, that the pack was going to rub my shoulders over the course of 36km and that it would be really uncomfortable. As it turned out, the pack was perfect and one of my better purchases, causing no discomfort in the slightest and the bladder volume of 2litres proving spot on for the length of race. Nutrition was the second major concern as a race of such length requires athletes to take on additional energy and fluids, something that I only had limited experience of with short triathlons. I had consulted with a former vet school friend of mine, Nick Weston, who has in the past completed a number of Ironman races and now regularly competes at a high level in ultra marathons. Based on his advice I took along several gels, dried fruit, sweets and a cereal bar, as well as adding electrolyte tablets to the fluid in my pack. In the end the kit and nutrition worked seamlessly, and I performed well using just the energy gels and fluid, which literally ran out as I was descending the final leg.

The start of the race was relatively flat, taking us through an area of scrubland before reaching the start of the climb, with a small cluster of houses, complete with many goats of varying ages running around. The start of the climb was relatively gentle and I felt confident as I repeated the mantra “just keep moving” to myself as I kept up a good technique and passed a good number of runners who had elected to walk very early into the race. I always find that the hardest thing to do in any race is start running again once you have started to walk or, worse still, stop. However, my determination to “keep running” was severely tested and ultimately defeated as we hit the seriously steep sections of the climb, which were very very steep. Running up them would have been impressive for mountain goats, let alone us mere mortals, and so I did walk sections of the higher course. The turnaround at the top was marked by the organiser’s tent and cries of encouragement from spectators as we breathed a sigh of relief and headed into the lengthy downhill part of the course. The main risk during this part of the race was to keep a safe footing as the rocks were, at times, really quite loose under foot and it would have been easy to take a tumble. Committing to the slopes and keeping more of a forward stance, as well as carefully balancing seemed to be the key and I thankfully avoided any issues. Keeping up a good level of awareness and safe technique on the final leg, however, when the legs were screaming was a challenge, and I am aware that it is normally at such times, when you are tired and inattentive, that most injuries occur. As such the race really did keep participants mentally focused and engaged.

One of the nice aspects of the course, apart from the breathtaking views out over RAK toward the Arabian Gulf, was the fact that we passed by and through resident dwellings, with a group of local men working on a house near the top of the climb looking on amused as the bunch of nutters that we so clearly were repeatedly ran past, each time looking more fatigued than before. The waves, cheers and general friendly exchanges between the villagers, including the group of enthusiastic and animated children, in the village at the base of the race, was really nice and a great way of feeling more connected to the UAE, especially as limiting your time to Dubai can offer a very blinkered and skewed version of what the UAE is and stands for.

With the first lap being taken relatively steadily, owing to the fact that I had no idea what lay in store for us further along the course, I felt relatively fresh as I set off on the second lap. The climb, however, did get tougher second time around and I ended up ascending a little slower, or so it felt, before having something really kick into gear on the descent as I felt like I literally flew down. The third lap was when it really got tough with the climb being much much harder and really needing some mental grit to resist the real temptation just to stop. There was a sense of real ‘in it together’ as I slowly caught up with and eventually pulled away from another young runner who was finding the climb tough. It’s one of the great features of sport and events like this: knowing that when you really want it, there are reserves of energy and determination to tap into that will help you push on beyond that which you previously thought yourself capable of. I felt totally elated as I came in to the finish in a time of 4 hours and 14 minutes. The sense of achievement was wonderful and I feel so much more confident about the upcoming Ironman race now that I have this race under my belt. After all, with the climbing it is widely accepted that running this race very much signals that I should be capable of tackling the marathon on the day.

Khatt hot SpringsA well deserved post-race dip in the Khatt Springs, a natural hot water spring at the race finish, was the best way to ease tired muscles, followed by lunch at the hotel and thoughts of returning to the hustle and bustle of Dubai.

I would thoroughly recommend the Urban Stinker race to anyone and may well do it again next year.

Urban Ultra – organisers of the Urban Stinker race

The Start of the Iron Adventure

It’s official: I am in training for my very first Ironman, with the Lake Tahoe event a little over nine months away. Time enough to cultivate my very own baby of endurance fitness and stamina, such that I actually step up the challenge and avoid wilting on the day. I have enlisted the services of a coach for this challenge as I know that as much as I would like to think I am self motivated enough to find, prepare and actually execute a suitable training plan, the truth is that I am not. That may seem like a startling admission to make but it is the truth and I would argue that those people who can genuinely push themselves to the heights of their innate abilities without any help from external sources are few and far between. I know only a few people who I would describe as being genuinely super self motivated. As for me, I am driven but for an undertaking of this magnitude I feel that having someone I am answerable to each week will be essential and will get me up and out for training on those inevitable mornings or evenings when I am simply feeling like taking the easier option of staying in bed longer or kicking back with a movie.

My coach is a lady by the name of Trace Rogers, who has personally competed in many Ironman events and trained several athletes in the past. As such I know I am in good hands and feel confident that if I follow her guidance and advice then I will turn up in California in the best possible form. The initial period of my training programme is focused on preparing for one of my earlier A races, the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, which is in March, and is effectively an Olympic distance race albeit with a 100km bike leg as opposed to the usual 40km. The initial couple of weeks are focused more on building a base level of fitness, although I am pleased with my general level of base fitness at present. For example, a couple of friends from the Dubai Tri Pirates and I headed up to Jebel Hafeet, a mountain of 1,249m elevation and a steady 14km climb from the very bottom to the top, with stunning views out over the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and the town of Al Ain, and the Sultanate of Oman, with which the mountain shares a border. Initially apprehensive that I would have some issues with the climb, I actually felt very comfortable pushing up it twice in a row without having to feel like stopping. This is not something I would have been able to do back in February when I first moved out here.

Other training so far this week has included an early morning run session, focusing on hill intervals, and my very first turbo training session at home. What struck me about turbo training is that it is a) incredibly sweaty, as there is no air flow as you would get outside actually moving forward. It was also just generally a bit weird cycling on my road bike in the house, as I have only ever associated it with going out on the road or track. Still, it’s a great training aid, especially on those rare days when the weather isn’t great, which thankfully isn’t very often.

Iron Vet – Challenge for 2014

Iron Vet, IronmanThe New Year is traditionally a time for personal reflection and goal setting for the next twelve months, with a healthy majority of people choosing to include something of a health and fitness flavour among their resolutions. I guess in that respect I am rather unoriginal in what I have decided to do, although I did actually make the decision prior to New Year itself. Does that mean it ceases to be a resolution?! Anyway, I digress….

The challenge I have decided to set myself for this year is to race in the 2014 Ironman Lake Tahoe, California, USA

For those of you unfamiliar with Ironman and what this infamous format entails, I offer some insight here:

3.8km swim

180km cycle/ bike

42km run (a marathon)

One after the other!

I am a triathlete and have been racing now for a few years, although the furthest I have ever raced is the Olympic Distance, equating to a quarter of the distance covered by an Ironman. Although I consider myself to be active and relatively fit, the challenge associated with preparing for and competing in such a race of this magnitude is daunting. I had been putting off signing up for such an event in the past principally due to the fact that I knew how much time it was going to take to prepare fully and I didn’t feel confident that I was going to be able to do it justice, what with a busy job and many other activities and interests all competing with one another for my time.

What changed my mind? Nothing really, other than that sudden flash of inspiration – or perhaps moment of insanity – that just screams at you to go and do it. Sign up. Commit. Once you’ve made the actual decision to do something then it’s weird how a weight seems to lift off of you as you then make peace with your decision and change your focus from “what if’s” to “hows.” I am now committed. I have paid the entrance fee. I am a registered competitor. As such I now have simple choices to make: train and compete or don’t train and either don’t race or don’t finish, neither of which are even worthy of considering.

So, I have 9 months – the race is on the 21st September 2014 – in which to take this Nerdy Vet and turn him into an Iron Vet.

Ironman Lake Tahoe – the official page

The Worldwide Veterinary Service – the charity I intend to race & fundraise for

Ironman inspiration – a motivating video to tempt you to get involved yourself 🙂