Kilimanjaro Academy winners

Academy winners reach new heights

Academy, News

After giving our Kilimanjaro Challenge You Are The Ref Academy winners a couple of weeks to wind down and recover following their trek through Tanzania with our very own Mark Halsey, we caught up with them to hear what they thought about their two week experience. Paige Kulm, a level 6 referee from Utah, USA and Stuart McKenzie, a level 6 referee from East Sussex, UK both participated in the Guinness World Record attempt at the highest game of football ever played, in aid of The Steve Prescott Foundation and as you may already know, it didn’t quite go as planned. Hear what they had say…

How had you prepared for the Kili Challenge?
I mostly tried to go on as many local hikes with my adventurous puppy as I could. Living in Salt Lake City Utah I am very lucky with my surroundings; being only 10 minutes  away from the mountains here that easily reach anywhere between 6k to 10k feet in elevation made training readily available. My favorite was doing my hikes just before sunset.
SM: From the moment I found out I was going to be taking on this challenge, I put together all the equipment needed to climb a mountain supplied by SPF,  I mentally was already there ready to climb to the top. Unfortunately I had a bug before I left so I mainly had to rest instead of train. I also had to spend time with my girlfriend Julia whose Dad I was doing the walk for and with only 2 weeks to prepare, I also had to sort out my vaccinations and malaria tablets etc. I did however, also have lots of games to officiate before I flew out and I think with the amount of football I officiate on, I have a good general aerobic fitness. I also focus on eating the right foods.

Did you have any preconceptions about your trip?
PK: Not particularly, I wanted to have an open mind going into this. I did try to do as much research as I could about the group I was going with as well as the local culture of Tanzania. Everything turned out kind of how I thought it would, although I will say I learned a lot more about the culture of those living in the UK than I thought I would. It was fun finding the differences compared to American culture.
SM: Not really apart from the different reactions to altitude, and how to get to the top safely.

How was it first meeting the other officials?
This for me was exciting. I love how it doesn’t matter where you are from when you are given an assignment, as a referee crew you basically have to have each others’ back from that point on. I definitely felt that from the moment I arrived at the airport in Manchester and met Mark, Mehdi and Stewart.
SM: I was very excited to meet other lucky match officials. I always enjoy working as part of the third team on the football field. It was exciting to meet Mark also because of his experience and knowledge of refereeing at the highest level.

We know how energetic Mr Halsey can be, did he manage to stay as positive and sprightly as always?
Yes he didn’t disappoint on that. He was a great leader not only for the referee crew but the entire climbing team on our way up the mountain. I felt extremely lucky to have him as a part of our group.
SM: Mark was a shining light for us as match officials and kept us all motivated to get to the top despite of the challenges we faced getting to the top.

Did the dynamics of the group change over the 2 week period?
Yes for sure! After about the second day of climbing no one was shy anymore. Everyone helped each other and was aware of how everyone was feeling (who was throwing up, who had bathroom problems, who was struggling emotionally). It sounds like too much information now but when you are up there in the middle of nowhere it is so nice to be able to have friends who help and keep track of each other, because at that altitude every little thing matters.
SM: Yes, we all endured different challenges. I was probably quiet for the first few days of the climb due to a tummy bug and my determination in getting to the top being driven by the memory of Leonard Thom.

How did you help spur on others/how did others help spur you on?
Does spur mean cheer?? Just the normal, positive words to those I was hiking with. Offering to help when I noticed someone was struggling. On the first couple days our group sang songs to keep spirits up…haha that only lasted those first two days. The rest of the time it was just talking and checking in to make sure everyone was good.
SM: I am hoping that my determination and focus to get to the top and my ability to keep going despite my health problems at the bottom. I was at the back of the group but the group I was in helped me get to the top, allowing me to literally go at the pace that suited me. Polepole (meaning “slowly” in Kiswahili and repeated to us by our guides) was followed religiously by myself. I was also spurred on by the group to make sure I was keeping hydrated and eating all the correct snacks.

Was there anything that particularly surprised you about Tanzania/Mount Kilimanjaro?
The one thing I guess I didn’t really take into account is how lifeless the last three days of the hike were in terms of surroundings. It was just rocks and clouds…at first it was really neat, but after that it got kind of depressing. I was soo happy to see life and trees when we came back down. It instantly lifted my spirits.

What was the most challenging part of the two weeks?
The most challenging for me was the emotional aspect of everything. I had just gotten married and been on my honeymoon, I hadn’t been home…I just went straight to meet up with the group. That was the hardest. My puppy and my now-husband are my everything, being away from my puppy for a month killed me inside and then when a lot of other people on the trip were able to call home and I wasn’t that hit me kind of hard. Those days hiking up I spent a lot of time in my own head, alone…which I had done before but not for that many days in a row. I think it made me stronger though, coming back now I have noticed a change in my personality but I think for the better. I like to explain to others that it was like 6 days of PMS times 10 haha. It was very emotional for everyone, some really great highs as well as some tough lows..which in its self is tiring.
SM: I found the Baranco Wall challenging due to all the different stories I had heard online and the way it look getting near to it, however the satisfaction and the enjoyment of climbing it turned out to also be one of my highlights of the whole trip.

What was your personal highlight of the whole trip?
Surprisingly it wasn’t summiting or leading up to it, but the days back at the lodge after everything, realizing that I knew I’d made some really great friends. I felt really emotional at the airport as well, leaving them in Manchester as I continued on my journey back home. I feel like I have gained an entire new family of great people that I hope to continue being involved with.

What would you have done differently if you had this opportunity again?
Nothing really, I think maybe brought a few different clothing items haha but that is about it. I feel like I really got to know everyone quite well and overall had a great experience.
SM: I would of probably taken some altitude tablets with me next time to help sooth some of the symptoms. Also I would of taken a duffel bag rather than the rucksack I had with me.

How was moral following the match cancellation?
Moral was definitely weird at this point. I say that because there were so many things going on. I know a majority of people were sad, including myself…I was really hoping to set a record and have a once in a lifetime experience with these great people. Before the decision was made though a couple of people in our group were struggling and the weather took a bad turn. As soon as we started the hike back down people started dropping like flies so I think the correct call was made. That hike back down though was very difficult. Many people got back super late, the weather made it very difficult to see, everyone was tired. I was hallucinating on the way down, from being so tired as well as elevation. It was the longest most challenging walk of the entire trip, this was the part where so many times I wanted to just collapse, give up and cry. Positive self talk is what got me through that extremely long day.
SM: I was a bit disappointed that the match got cancelled as I was all ready to go, however I also respected the decision made in light of some of the critical conditions of two members of the team.

Do you feel you would have been able to go ahead with the match if the weather hadn’t gotten so bad?
I think we could have, but I am still hesitant on this. It would have been a very difficult challenge, and then making that hike back down would have been even harder. I think it could have been done, but at the same time, it  would have broken a couple people.
SM: Yes I was ready to go.

What recommendations would you give to others who are about to partake in the Kili Challenge?
I would say to take it day by day and listen to the guides. Everything they say to pack/bring, do it! There is a reason. I would also say to bring clothes and hats that are a little too big because everything swells when you get that high up. My hat didn’t fit me anymore! Also work with other members who are going to do a fundraising event if you can, makes it much easier…and a lot more fun.
SM: Listen to your guide, what the mind believes the body will follow, and most importantly….. go Pole Pole!

We hear you instead officiated an official local match in Moshi between The Moshi Club and The Reggae Boys, how was that?
This was a very interesting experience. I learned a lot about the different styles between UK officials and my American customs (communication expectations were different, small mechanical things were also different). It was a great experience, the teams were both very respectful. I was expecting a bit more protest. The weather was MUCH nicer than on the mountain, and it was really cool that from the field you could actually see the mountain that we had just climbed. The game in itself was easy, I think communication went okay with Mark in the middle. I felt really lucky to be able to par take in that game.
SM: It was a really good experience to referee a game in Tanzania, but one disappointing thing (considering the amount of money in football), were the lack of facilities available to these footballers. However, I was very impressed with the grass on the pitch considering we were so near to the equator.

Were the teams happy with the football kits you donated to them?
Yes extremely! As they came up to collect them they had big smiles on their faces. After the game when they got to keep everything you could tell they were very grateful.
SM: The teams really enjoyed being involved in the football match and wearing the donated kits. The football was difficult on the pitch due to the length of the grass, however it made for an entertaining game of football.

How do you think the Academy helps progress you as a referee, what content do you use the most and what else would you like to see introduced into the site?
I signed up to the Academy, to give me insight into the differences between Stateside and UK officiating – which surprisingly I’ve found there aren’t many of. I continue to keep my subscription because I feel it helps give me context around topical issues and where better to receive it then from high-profile former referees who have officiated at such a high level.  I use Coach Call whenever I need an answer to a particular on pitch scenario and if I can’t find it, I use the Call a Coach function to get it answered by one of the coaches. I’d love to see more Podcasts introduced onto the site.
SM: I joined the Academy to give me some additional support around my refereeing, a place where I can dip in and out of and enjoy a library of interesting articles and videos. I can’t think of any topics which aren’t covered, so I know it’s preparing me for every eventuality on the pitch and aside from that I just find it really interesting to read. I really enjoy the monthly webinars where I can ask the coaches direct questions, as well as the Psychology section – which helps you look at things in a different way in order to achieve your goals.

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