Maintaining work-life balance with Michelle Gianferrari

To maintain a sense of team spirit and connectedness, our Social Committee decided to run an Office Olympics step competition. We arranged ourselves into groups of 5 and the challenge was for each team to try to reach a total of 1 million steps over 28 days. The motivation was to keep people active while working from home and to raise some money for charity. Our team of 5, The Foreign Affairs (2 Irish, 1 English, 1 Chilean and 1 South African) found ourselves to be super competitive and each decided that together we could win this if we walked often and far. One in the team set himself a personal goal of 20,000 steps per day for the whole month of June!

I love walking and consider myself to be a strong long-distance walker. Each day I was covering at least 12kms and more than double that on the weekends. It was a double whammy for me: getting back into shape and contributing steps to the total for the team. We suddenly found ourselves in second place, only 4,000 steps behind the team in the lead. Winning became a real possibility and so The Foreign Affairs stepped into supercharged action. We had daily totals well past 20,000 and the two front running teams were more than 200,000 steps ahead of the rest. It became a competition of 2.

Since its launch, I had noticed the Bondi To Manly walk with keen interest. Having walked the Camino De Santiago (900km) in 2003, I thought a magnificent 80km walk around the most spectacular coastline in Sydney would be a great way to spend some time outdoors. The issue in our busy lives however is TIME, finding so many hours of free time to allocate to something recreational (and self- indulgent) like this felt like an unrealistic pursuit.

Enter, The Office Olympics. Now I had a real motivation to make The Bondi to Manly Walk a reality: Helping our team with an intense effort over the final weekend of the competition to hopefully win it. I had to arrange for my home commitments to be covered by my husband and I had to consider the 80km walk over 2 days, with sunset by 5:15 pm each day. I got the all-clear at home and blocked off the last weekend in June for the walk.

I started at 7:06 am at Bondi Beach Saturday morning. I had the Bondi To Manly Walk app installed and had familiarised myself with the route I was going to follow. I had decided that I would get through as much as I could on day 1 anticipating that my motivation and legs would be at their best level. It was an overcast morning and appeared to be threatening rain but there was not much that was going to stand in my way, I was set. I walked the first 5 hours easily, mostly in light rain around Dover Heights, Vaucluse, The Hermitage walk through Rose Bay, then around Point Piper into Double Bay, up and over Elizabeth Bay, through Rushcutters Bay and stopped at Potts Point for lunch. I was feeling strong, no pain, a little chilly but once I was fed and had another coffee for the day, I was all ready to go.

The next part of the walk took me through Woolloomooloo, into the botanical gardens, around the Opera house, for the first time ever walking over the Harbour Bridge and then down into Kirribilli. I had such a novel experience with this crossing having come from the calm, quiet scenic cliffs of Dover Heights onto the noisy, bustling bridge, seeing the calm below from such a height, one doesn’t realise driving it, just how high it is. Sensational views but I was very happy to get off and make my way through the, quieter and very much more unfamiliar to me, streets of Kirribilli and then into Neutral Bay.

By that point it was 3 pm and my mobile phone battery was fast running low, this was a problem as critical to the competition was recording each step. Without the phone, those steps would be lost. I decided to find a café and stumbled upon Thelma & Louise right near the water in Neutral Bay, slightly off the route but perfect for a 30 min recharge of the phone (they kindly let me use their charger) and a delicious slice of cake and cup of coffee and a necessary resting of the legs. I had planned on ending day 1 in Neutral Bay as per the 2-day route planning on the app, however, I found myself to be quite comfortable to continue, so with a charged phone, some sugar and caffeine in the bloodstream, I was ready to go again. Leaving Neutral Bay, I very soon made my way back on to the bush tracks of the lower north shore.

This section was magical. I was mostly alone with very few people out and about in the cooler, damper weather. The sounds, smells and sights were exactly what I needed to feel connected to nature and really clear my head since COVID-19 hit us in March. At each turn there was another beautiful photo opportunity and again and again, as had happened the whole day, I was reminded of how fortunate I feel to be able to call Sydney home. The solitude and silence are far better than many hours of therapy could ever be, in terms of the impact on replenishing my soul.

I haven’t spent much of my time on the North shore since being in Sydney and so each new bay and reserve was a new discovery. I had no real idea where I was and had to look out for signs on the reserves or beaches to identify the name of each little gem as it appeared so that I could come back to them with the family of course! I felt odd asking people “Excuse me, where am I?” even though I was tempted to do so often.  As I entered the next part of the reserve, I noticed the time and that the light was changing as it approached 4:30 pm, do I go on or stop then? The app showed an extended part of the trip in bush and quite removed from any development so it was about if I could get through that section before it got dark. I took my chances and kept going.

Along this track were signs showing the wildlife to be found in this area: ticks, magpies, leopard pythons, foxes and others, all sounding awful for me to encounter in the dark… I became very conscious of being a woman alone in these isolated areas and then again felt tremendous gratitude for the fact that Sydney is such a safe City and our personal safety is yet another benefit we too often take for granted. I did see a mother alone with a young child which gave me reassurance that if the locals were out and about alone at that time, I too should be ok.

The next bay and picnic area I came out in was Clifton Gardens, it was a bit after 5 pm, and getting dark fast. I decided that was it for me for Day 1, I would return to Clifton Gardens tomorrow, if I followed through with Day 2, and start from this point to go on to Manly. I had completed just on 48kms for the day and a little over 71,300 steps.

On Sunday morning I woke up and my legs and feet felt good, my husband said he could manage the kids for another day alone and I decided I was going to finish the Walk. I drove through to Clifton Gardens, parked my car, and hit the path: I was on my way to Manly. Sunday was better weather and so there were more people around. I only began the walk at 9:45 am. It was a very steep start to the day, lots of steps and little climbs here and there, I was warmed up quickly as the walking began.  

I felt like I was on the adventure again, discovering new parts of a city I’ve lived in for 9 years and never visited before. So spectacular. After just over an hour I found myself at The Spit Bridge and I realised I was about to get onto a path that was a little more familiar as I had walked The Spit to Manly twice many years before. Another team member from The Foreign Affairs, Charlie, had arranged to meet me for this part of the trip. This was the only 90 minutes where I had company and the comfortable chatting passed the time well and allowed me to focus less on the soles of my feet which were feeling ready for a rest.

We got into Manly Wharf just after 1:00 and it was perfect timing for me to sit, rest my feet, fill my belly, and plan the last part of the route. Charlie pointed me in the direction of good coffee and headed home. Sitting at lunch I was deciding if I call it a day as I had in fact arrived in Manly having walked from Bondi, or do I complete the final 13kms up and around the North Head, down via Shelly Beach and back along the Manly Beach promenade. My pace had dropped off from 5.3kms per hour on day one to just over 4kms per hour for day 2. There was far more climbing on day 2 and the soles of my feet felt in need of rest. Hating to miss a goal, I decided I would give it my last push and finish the last 2-3 hours. I knew it would be worth it in the end.

The last stretch took me up into the North Head reserve, less scenic than the rest until reaching the Fairfax lookout point which was magnificent looking out over the North and South Heads and the vast ocean beyond. It was windy and cold so after a picture and a selfie, I continued along the path. This led me around to loop back down and through to The Hanging Swamp which was swampland covered by a slightly elevated metal grid path (I wouldn’t like to be there during heavy rains as it would be under water). It was very slippery and I had to slow down. From there I was taken along the reserve towards Shelly Beach and then finally after another 28.5kms on Day 2, I came into the Manly promenade to finish the walk. I found a café and enjoyed an ice-cold beer as a reward for achieving the goal of walking 76.5kms in 2 days (I somehow lost 3.5kms of the walk en route).

It was the most exhilarating 2 days of walking. I felt like I had been on holiday. The scenery, the weather, the sounds, the new places I discovered and the gratitude for having the strength to complete it. At the end of each day I gave thanks to my feet and ankles for supporting me, to my knees and legs for carrying me, without their strength, it would not have been possible.

We are so lucky to call Sydney home, our team of 5 from all over the world, all landing up working together, living in this incredible city and united with an Office Olympics challenge. As I write I am not yet sure if we won or if we came second, perhaps that has become less important, I’m pleased that we have raised funds for charity and increased our overall physical activity for the month of June. I am impressed that our team managed to add 481,003 steps for the last 3 days of the competition and that I was able to contribute 127,637 to that.

Having shared what I did with family and friends, I am now planning to do it again, this time with my sister and over 3 days. Walking is a unique way to slow your life down and allow your thoughts to brew. A time to take stock, breathe in the beautiful fresh air, observe the perfection in nature and appreciate our surroundings. I am going to make sure I invest the time in myself for this kind of nurturing at least once every year, I deserve it.