This is a story about lululemon and a dream that came true. It is also about people and embracing the unknown and opening to possibility. What follows is a personal and honest account of a great relationship: what it has been like to be an Ambassador at lululemon Johnson Street in Victoria, BC, for the last two years. Right now in the store, there is a big photo of me running up the hill at Ross Bay on Dallas Road. It has been there since May 2014, and soon, it will be coming down. Without being too dramatic, the store has changed me; for it is my relationship to the store and the people that work there, not the brand that has been at the epicentre of my relationship. I will try to explain.
They will give me that photo soon, and I’m thinking of taking a black Sharpie and writing words all over it, to describe all that has come from and to me since becoming a lululemon Ambassador right before my 47th birthday in 2014. It would be covered: RESPECT, LOVE, LAUGHTER, DREAMS, GOALS, CREATIVITY, CONNECTIONS, ENTHUSIASM, EXCELLENCE, AUTHENTICITY, MEDITATION, YOGA, GRATITUDE, PEOPLE, AUDACITY, COMMUNITY, FRIENDS, SUPPORT, COMPASSION, COACHING, RUNNING, WOW, AMAZING HUMANS, GENEROSITY, GIFTS. And all this is real, not just random inspiration. Being an Ambassador has been a practice of inspiration and joy.
Everything about the lululemon experience has been fantastic and it has been one of the more interesting and worthwhile experiences of my running career and, as it turns out, my life. I never could have predicted this reaction, nor the sense of gratitude I felt daily during my Ambassadorship. I was totally wowed by the creative, original and youthful culture (at times I felt the whole company was run by a band of savvy and enthusiastic twenty something women with big smiles, great futures, and friendly personalities) and then the particular language they use needed some translation (lemons, humans, woo?), and I was challenged by the somewhat energetic and relentless goal setting that was juxtaposed with meditation and fun. I had a lot of curiosity about the way the company and its ‘amazing humans’ were managed, and as yet another package of run clothing was handed to me, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of my Victoria store. It was never ever boring. It stretched me and made me expand my concept of what is possible in a professional relationship, and I learned a whole lot more about my relationship to running and the world. It was literally community, connection and compassion in action. Sprinkled with a whole lot of glee club positivity and a jacket that keeps showing up.
During my first official meeting with my store team, Manager Paula Monks and Assistant Manager Care Nelson, and Key Leader Shannon Kane, in which we discussed the nature of the contract and the photo shoot, for the previously mentioned store photo, I was asked to write down goals that I had for my two years ahead. I wrote down an AUDACIOUS goal (in lulu speak there is also the goal known as a BHAG—big hairy audacious goal) about writing my book about running (that, for various reason, did not get accomplished). A year later I changed the goal to be more in line with my Run For Joy coaching. I wish I had just been more honest with myself at the time, but I felt I needed a bigger goal that seemed ‘realistic, measurable etc.’ enough. Being well aware of the oxymoron of hindsight goals, my goal really was and would have simply stated: ‘I embrace being an Ambassador with open heart and an open mind and accept everything that comes my way’. After a lifetime of setting athletic performance goals, I knew I was in a goal drought. Sometimes you have to admit things to move forward. And then, somewhere near Christmas this year, I came up with my own private goal, which was to extend my Ambassador stint past two years. I just wasn’t done yet.
In my time as an ambassador, I was literally showered with gifts and love and like any great relationship, I learned that being able to receive is as important as being able to give. It took me a while to get used to the gifts and opportunities that came with this Ambassador relationship, things that came over and above the transaction of giving my talents (performing) in exchange for (very cool) apparel. Gifts came in the form of invitations to be a part of retreats and store events, yoga and meditation experiences and goal setting workshops. I created a run clinic for Sea wheeze half marathon, attended Wanderlust Whistler as a run coach, and received a plethora of flowers, random gift cards, and books, chocolate and other unexpected goodies.
I should clarify who I am. I am a 49 year old former professional but still elite master’s athlete. I am a full time mother of two, a coach and a writer. In my career, I was in involved in the sports of road running, cross country running, track and field, duathlon and triathlon, including Ironman. This literally took me all over the planet on many national teams. I had two babies while still competing full time, and they are now school age and have their own activities and interests and extremely important lives. I write (still want to and will write that book) and still compete on a schedule carefully crafted around my not so young body. I love yoga but I am not a yoga teacher. (In fact in 2003, I had my first go –round as a store ambassador and we still laugh about how the photographer had me do yoga poses, when I was clearly not that photogenic in a back bend.) I love yoga as it supports my life but what I really love to do is run and to teach others to enjoy running. I can coach athletes to run fast, but my passion is to coach them to run well with joy in their hearts.
When lululemon and I started talking, I was looking to create more than a product endorsement. I knew I had a more creative ability to contribute, after years of training sessions and sweat, working my butt off for every pair of shoes, and every dollar of prize money. I was looking for something beyond the 2-way transaction of sponsorship for speed, somewhere I could contribute as a human being, somewhere I was valued for my input and my spiritual maturity, not just my list of Championships and my PR. I was looking for involvement, process, and to give, to be a part of my community and the energy of the Victoria fitness scene. I didn’t know how to define it, but I was looking for a culture.
As an elite athlete—if you stick in your sport for longer than two decades—you naturally mature; there is a reason you stay in. You mature physically: I started racing full time at 20, and I didn’t reach my peak until I was 35, a full decade and a half later. I also matured emotionally: I changed as a person during that time, from wanting to train and run as a full time athlete, to making being a full time athlete my passion and career. During the most intense and successful years, my sponsorships were a huge part of my career, and I spent hours making sure they worked, from writing contracts to writing a blog and sending video and other media of me ‘winning’ while representing my sponsor. I remember my first marathon well: I came 3rd in California International Marathon with a time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, and won three thousand dollars. At the awards, an age grouper quipped: “Not bad for two and a half hours work!” I wished I was making 1200/hour as an athlete. But we all knew that an unmentionable number of hours went into the making of that marathon. Hours and hours of effort and training. I earned every penny of that prize money and I earned every pair of shoes from NIKE, every gel from PowerBar.
And then I matured again. The years of highs and lows started to blend into one long graceful river of life. Running and racing became a deeply profound extension of learning how to just be: how to both set goals and be non-attached to the outcome in order to be present in the moment. My career is like a huge body of work which is now behind me in many ways, but will always be present. I don’t think any elite athlete ever fully moves on from what they accomplished. Being a high performance athlete is so self-defining and so closely tied with who you are. When you love your sport, it is both meditative and balancing while teaching you to be comfortable with discomfort. You learn how to win and lose with grace, to be disappointed and not crushed and be elated but not changed. To be aligned with a company whose product I already loved and was buying and wearing on a daily basis was an opportunity! Lulu had already gone through their own wins and losses, was growing and looking for a new definition and connection. Within months I had donated all my New Balance running clothes to my daughter’s soccer team (the girls were all the same size if not bigger than me now, at 14), and my closet was filled with a dazzling array of multi-coloured, fun and fashionable shorts, tanks, hoodies, and tights. I guess I don’t do anything half way. If I was going to be with lulu, I was going to wear lulu. What a hardship that was.
And then the gifts and opportunities to be involved in the community started and the miraculous power of yes, of jumping in, of the leap of faith, took off. I got to be myself, to continue to do my thing and what I was good at, and I got to do it while meeting a whole new crowd of people in my community. Amazing humans, yogis, business owners, other athletes from other sports, and of course, the indescribable lemons: the amazing humans who luckily work for lululemon for a paycheque.
For the next two years I experienced sponsorship, partnership and gratitude like I had never experienced before in my whole career. As a lululemon Ambassador I ran Sea Wheeze Half Marathon in Vancouver twice; was a coach at Wanderlust Whistler; participated in a local retreat for city Ambassadors which included yoga, self-growth and a strength workshop with Tracy Hutton; went to an amazing Regional Retreat near Whistler and met other store Ambassadors who were simply outstanding humans; was involved in many store events, including a goal setting workshops and meditation; read my stories at a Christmas meditation, yoga pop up store; received countless creative and beautiful gifts on birthdays, Christmas and other occasions; was invited to attend the Landmark Forum, which I said yes to.
Before races I would often visit the store for Fit Sessions (I called these my outfit makers), and be overwhelmed at the selection and choice available. In the past, I would receive boxes of apparel from sponsors, in twice yearly shipments, with about a 50% success rate on fit and wearability. With the help of the lemons in store, most of who always knew me by name, I would get kitted out and I have about a 90% success rate with my outfits. Because the colours from year to year often match, I just added items to my wardrobe without getting rid of previous season items. The joke in our house is that I could literally wear lululemon every day and always have a different outfit.
One of the more amazing experiences was the three day Regional Ambassador Retreat held in the Brew Creek Retreat Centre close to Whistler. I have already written about this rich and soulful wonderful weekend in a previous Blog post (Peace, Harmony, Laughter and Love in Whistler) but there is nothing more comforting and gratitude inducing than arriving at your hotel room, and finding a huge gift basket, just for you. When I checked into the serene lodge, amid the snowy forest, a huge gift basket awaited me: not your normal gift basket, but thoughtfully and artfully chosen items including socks for the lodge and a water bottle, bath salts, a colouring book and pencils, chocolate and Baileys and a packet of Gratitude cards. And the only thing more amazing than that was being able to spend three days with other exceptional people: the energy was inspiring. As ambassadors, we got to contribute to the program, give feedback and offer ideas. As we were given space to connect and dream and do yoga together, I really wished I could work with these people for the rest of my life.
As I started my second year with the store, and we set out some plans for run clinics and reviewed my (non starting) personal goal, they offered me a more substantial gift, and that was to send me to the Landmark Forum in Vancouver. This was a big offering and a big ask. In order to actually do the Landmark Forum I had to arrange 4 days away from my family, and I had to sift through quite a bit of judgement and controversy that seems to go hand in hand with the Landmark forum and lululemon. I queried several people I know and that led to some negative stories about the experience, some cynicism about the ruthless marketing, and an internet search led to several scathing reviews and the obvious hate blogs about both the cult like methodology of the Forum and lululemon’s connection to it. Being a big fan of personal growth, and a curious consumer of the self-help movement, and also being connected closely to the personal coaching world, I felt unable to resist having my own experience with this popular yet divisive workshop. Going into the forum with an open mind and open heart felt important to me and honestly, it is the only way to fully experience the forum. A sense of humour helps too. Much has been written on the Landmark Forum, so I don’t feel a need to write a full review here but this account aligns closely with my experience, and is also funny: (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karin-badt/inside-the-landmark-forum_b_90028.html)
Being a professional athlete helped me immensely through the long 11 hour days, the strange and unsettling schedule of breaks and mealtimes, and the relentless marketing that was carefully scripted into the leader’s speeches. I coached myself through the tough stretches of profoundly annoying transparent marketing, the way I coped the long transatlantic flights of my running career, and I found seats at the end of the aisle so I could it on the floor and stretch. In reality, I found it pretty interesting on several levels: watching other people have personal breakthroughs in what is essentially psych and communication 101 was a great way to see theory in practice. The pedagogy was fascinating, as was the (obviously successful) business model. After being a part of the Forum, I believe you can’t actually know it until you experience it personally, and do the 30 hour workshop for yourself. You may still criticize it, but your perspective will be different. Eight weeks later, I find the change is subtle, and there are new ways to seeing that I have even passed on to my kids and friends as we talk about our experience with the world. The message that I took home was that lululemon believes deeply in the personal well-being of its people and they will ask you to be uncomfortable from time to time, which is one way to personal transformation.
Nowhere in my career of being a professional athlete and coach have I experienced the depth of partnership and the care of the human as I have with my time with lulu. They take the bar pretty high in everything they do. As my months as an Ambassador came to a close I felt some chagrin, some wish that it would not end, but as I reflect, I see now that what they have attempted to do, is actually shift and create a change in consciousness between the store and the product, and the people they serve. As an Ambassador I am one of those people: not an employee but a bridge of sorts between the guests and the product. I am a human being and a swiftly running clothes horse.
I think that what has struck me most about my relationship, is how much they cared about me as a person. They cared that I liked the product but they made time to sit down and meet to discuss goals and the state of the nation. Coffee at habit became the forum for me to ask the key leaders about the company and their role in it, to ask questions about lulu and the corporate culture, and to figure out my place—the place of all Ambassadors in it. Chip Wilson, the visionary and outspoken founder of the company, was already on his way out when I joined up in 2014, and like any global brand, lululemon has evolved: moved on and away from his controversial statements and towards a more peaceful, joyful and community minded approach to retail. I’m glad I fit into this small part of the growth on the company.
And then my dream came true!
Taking a lesson from my own children: Asking for What You Want: How to (Maybe) Get What You Want by Being Bold and Asking Repeatedly, I made it clear to Care (who took over managing once Paula had her baby and went on a mat leave) that I really didn’t want my time as an Ambassador to end just yet. I have more to accomplish in this role and I feel like I just got started. I asked what was possible and finally, I just came out with it. ‘Do you think you could keep me on.’
I had already completed the first three drafts of this article, and was sitting with Care and Shannon and Karen at habit again, and we were talking energetically about what is possible: run clinics and girls programming, and community events and my DREAM to help design the perfect run jacket and then they dropped the big question: Who should we bring on board as the next run Ambassador. I took a big breath and emboldened by my last two years with lululemon culture, I simply said. I think you need to have me for another term. At which point they told me that had something for me over at the store, so walked the block back to Johnson St, and there was the surprise. They asked me if I would be the run Ambassador again. Obviously I said Yes. I cried a little then. Slightly overwhelmed. In my heart I really wanted this to happen.
I think my 11 year son Ross said it perfectly in his Mother’s Day letter to me: ‘I feel so lucky for you that you are an ambassador at lululemon. I know you love being with people there.’
I sure do.
lululemon Johnson Street, I love you.
and Thank you.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.