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Regular readers will be well aware that I am a runner and specifically an ultramarathon runner. I have competed in a very special event, the Old Ghost Ultra, all four times it has been held and have waxed poetic (link here) about this event.

Part of my passion for the track and the event is that it truly makes access to the great outdoors in New Zealand more accessible – by allowing mountain bikers and event participants to experience the track, the Old Ghost Road is doing much to spread the message about environmental protection in New Zealand and elsewhere.

And here’s where it gets complex, you see our Department of Conservation, the Government department that holds the responsibility for managing our national parks, is looking to formalize mountain bike and event access to a handful of West Coast tracks. Alas, however, some groups have opposed the move, suggesting that “stampeding hordes” will come and decimate a pristine environment.

The submission period is open and I’d urge you, if you believe access to these sort of environments is an important way to educate people about why they’re so special and need protecting, to make a submission now. For those who are interested, below is the text from my own submission…

I have been an environmentalist and outdoor enthusiast most of my life. In that time, I have seen an ever-increasing urbanization of New Zealand and, alongside that, a sadly declining number of citizens, young and old, who experience New Zealand’s nature in all its glory.

In contrast, I have seen a huge increase in the number of international visitors who enjoy our great outdoors.

While one could simply say that decreasing numbers of New Zealanders enjoying the great outdoors simply mean more space for those of us who continue to do so, and increased foreign earnings through tourism, the reduced awareness of the expanse, fragility and importance of our natural environment have seriously deleterious impacts on those who seek to protect these Taonga.

A parallel occurrence that I have noticed alongside this move towards more urban pursuits is a lack of recognition of just how important it is to well-resource our Department of Conservation and other groups who protect our natural environment. And it is for this reason that I support DoC’s proposal to formalize access to some West Coast park areas for mountain biking and event use.

I have run the Old Ghost Road ultramarathon for the four years since its inception. In that time, I have thought deeply about what those behind the creation of the track have done for the general awareness of nature and the environment in this country. Indeed, despite having tramped over most parts of New Zealand, the area around the Old Ghost Road was a mystery to me and hence my awareness of just how special it is was directly created from my participation in the event.

Roughly 1,000 people have raced the Old Ghost Ultra over the four years it has been held and a simple Google search does much to show just how broadly their experience has been shared – hundreds of press articles, blog posts and videos do a fantastic job of showing the world the pristine wilderness which exists in the area the race runs. This directly results in increased awareness of the importance or protection and support for this environment.

Now some would say that any access at all – by walkers, runners or bikers – has negative consequences on a natural area. It is important, however, to be mindful of the positive impacts that access can bring, and to balance these against the negative impacts.

By making these pristine West Coast natural areas available to entirely new groups of users – runners who prefer organized events and mountain bikers – we will be greatly increasing the awareness of just what we have to lose and how we need to well-resource the protection of those environments.

As a long-time back country participant – both in terms of running and walking – I am deeply offended at some groups characterization of trail runners as “stampeding hordes.” My experience of people who enter events such as The Old Ghost Ultra is that they are some of the most environmentally conscious people around, and have a deep respect for their environment.

The situation isn’t as binary as some groups would have you believe – increasing access isn’t always bad and closing off access to pristine areas isn’t always positive – there is nuance that aggressive and partisan viewpoints simply try and ignore.

In formalizing access to these tracks for mountainbikers and event participants, DoC will do much to broaden the awareness of just what we need to be working to protect.

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The other day I was tasked by son #1 to purchase some running gear for him (because, after all, a father’s role is to be a perpetual bank account for his son, right?) Anyway, I went to my favorite US online running store, Road Runner Sports (RRS).

I’ve been buying from RRS for years and must have gone through a couple of dozen pairs of shoes in that time (not to mention shirts, shorts and socks) – so my buying history is fairly extensive.

I went online and filled my shopping cart with all the stuff needed and then proceeded to checkout. At which time I had some issues around my account – none of my historical purchases were showing and some discounts that should have appeared, didn’t.

Thinking that RRS was a global e-commerce store, I figured I’d be able to ask questions via email, Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Sure enough, all the social icons appeared at the bottom of the page.

I proceeded to send the store a message via Twitter to which I received no reply. After publicly asking them for a reply (since… name and shame), I got a response saying:

Road Runner Sports @RRSports

Hi Ben, Have you tried calling? The absolute fastest way for you to get help is by calling an agent at 1-800-743-3206. If the discount is for the Spring Forward sale it does run today also.

Hmmm – a global e-commerce store that only does customer service via phone? How 1990. Begrudgingly I gave them a call (thanks to the joy that is Google Voice) and sat on hold for 25 minutes before getting a response. After explaining what I was after, the customer service agent patched me through to a VIP support person.

Sadly (and, to be honest, as expected) said VIP support person made me repeat all my personal details again before she could offer me any assistance.

Now I totally get it – I’m involved with a business that sells via e-commerce as well and we certainly drop the ball pretty frequently. But the thing is that RRS purports to be a global player when my experience suggests that they’re far from it.

So if you’re looking to scale, please first make sure you’ve got the stuff in place to allow that scaling to happen.

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I’ve been racing the Old Ghost Ultra since its inception back in 2016 (see my previous race reports, 2016, 2017, 2018). The Old Ghost is my favourite run bar none. From a purely scenic and terrain perspective, it abounds. Racers start off from Seddonville in the dark and slowly make their way along the Mokihinui River. As the sun gently rises they’re treated to some incredible views of bush-clad gorges. After some lovely forest running, the track heads up and competitors navigate the infamous Skyline Steps and a series of switchbacks to Ghost Lake. From there one enjoys some incredible rocky ridge running to the high point of the course at Heaven’s Door before heading back down through the forest to Lyell. At 85kms and with just shy of 3,000 meters of vertical gain, the race isn’t the toughest one out there, but it has a few unique aspects that make it harder than one would imagine.

Firstly, it’s pretty isolated. Unless you’re carrying an inflatable helicopter in your race vest, your only option is to continue forward or turn around – both of which mean more time on your feet. The race is also tricky since the alpine sections are both high and exposed – meaning the chances of weather impact are huge. And finally, much of the track surface is broken rock which means that by the end of the race, pretty much everyone is more footsore than they should be after 85km.

So, yes, the Old Ghost ultra is an incredible race when one looks at the terrain and location aspects in isolation. But what makes it truly unique, and something that so many people commented upon at the weekend, is the spirit that everyone who touches the race is caught up in.

The Backstory of The Old Ghost Road

You see the Old Ghost Road was simply an idea on a map less than a decade ago. A century or so ago some miners had envisaged a track running between Seddonville and Lyell and had even built some of it at the Lyell end, but faced with seemingly insurmountable barriers, they gave up the fight and the trail was left to be reclaimed by nature.

Fast forward a century or so and a few good keen West Coast locals found a map of the proposed route and decided to investigate finally making that map a reality on the ground. Long (very long) story short, after incredible amounts of work, countless funding applications and a huge amount of blood, sweat and tears, the Mokihinui Lyell Backcountry Trust, under the incredible leadership of its chair, Phil Rossiter, completed building the track and The Old Ghost Road was complete.

Onto the next thing

Not being one to rest on his laurels, Rossiter decided that the perfect thing to celebrate the opening of the track and to encourage its continued use was organizing a trail running event from one end of the track to the other. And so the Old Ghost Ultra was born and in 2016, 60 hardy souls toed the line at Seddonville to challenge the course.

Every year since the event has been held and every year it has gotten more popular to the point that this year 300 entrants, the maximum number allowed by the race permit, were at the race briefing in Westport. And of those 300 competitors, a third had travelled from outside New Zealand – this race is quickly becoming one with huge international recognition.

My 2019 race

Last year I achieved a time that I honestly believed was as fast as I was capable of. Going into the 2019 race, however, I figured that my only option to make up some time was to take the risky approach of going all out from the start. 85kms is a long way and that’s plenty of distance to suffer from the effects of too fast of a start, but time lost in the first half simple can’t be made up later on.

I was also mindful that this year I had a bunch of friends racing the event. Apart from all the usual suspects, the entire Hagley Hombres running squad, other than Yonni, were at the race. In particular, I figured that Kevin Grimwood, with his combination of fast leg speed and knowledge from having run the Ghost the year before, would be a threat. Similarly, Lee Butts, while not having run 85kms before, has far higher leg speed than me and would be able to carve me up if we were together in the last 25kms. The fourth Hombres, Andy Higginson, has been a running mate ever since my first ever ultra during which he spent a leisurely hour or so throwing up and sleeping in the middle of a big climb. I was almost tempted to run with him just to try and get another sight of him having an epic nutritional battle but competitiveness got the better of me.

Nervous before the start. From the left: Speedy Lee, Road Cone Kev, Chunder Higg and Old Slow Ben

The first 20kms, in particular, is narrow and so getting caught up behind lots of runners can make a big dent in your total time. Also the first 45kms or so is pretty much entirely runnable and so, while risky, trying for a fast first half can pay dividends.

I’d also done some stalking of historical times and Bernard Robinson, another four-time competitor in the race and someone who has always finished in front of me at the end of the day seemed to go out fast and it worked for him. Also, the fact that Bernard looks very much like a Roman God motivated me – maybe if I copy his race approach I’d start to look that cut as well?

Only a few minutes after the start. Nervous, but glad to be into it

So from the start, I gave it a nudge and ran far harder than is wise. The first aid station, at around 18kms, clicked by 12 minutes faster than last year and by the Stern Valley aid station, roughly halfway into the race, I was 20 or so minutes up on my previous best. I have to admit I was helped by another past competitor, Simon Neale, who was keeping a great pace in this section – faster than I would have done on my own, but not so fast that I was redlining.

Still early on (you can tell since I have my headlamp on) and closely following Simon.

Running through the boneyard, an other-worldly landscape and somewhere you don’t want to be in an earthquake (and still following Simon)

Past Stern Valley I heard a runner approaching from behind and saw that Mel Aitken, the defending women’s champion and international representative (on both the road and trail) had caught up to us. I expected Mel to come past but she seemed happy enough to follow behind.

Nearing the top of the climb and almost at Ghost Lake aid station

I always find myself tiring in the middle section and purposely used the section from the Skyline Steps to Ghost Lake Hut to regroup – I mainly walked this section and ate and drunk a bit to fuel myself for the hours to come. Even the downhills on this section are somewhat technical and any time lost due to walking is probably gained through taking care of nutrition and letting the legs recover from the ascent of the steps.

At Ghost Lake aid station I took the chance to fuel up and have a chat with Top Dog Rossiter and Kerry Suter. There was WiFi at the aid stations and the crew were doing an awesome job of streaming interviews and footage across Facebook live. It was awesome to hear encouragement from Yonni, who was watching the race from England, and Viv at home, as well as a bunch of other running mates.

The section from Ghost Lake Hut up to Heaven’s Door is quite fun. I tend to fast hike it – it’s pretty rocky and the slight ascent makes running it a bit hard. To be honest in sections like this I don’t think there is much time difference between jogging and fast hiking, and with a few twinges of cramp starting, I wanted to take a bit of extra time to fuel up, take some magnesium tablets and make sure I was in a good state for the flowing downhill that marks the last 25kms of this event.

As the track headed down and back into the forest, I opened up the legs and was stoked to be able to run this section at pace – the cramps of previous years, while always threatening, never came on hard. It was also great to spot runners in front and catch and pass them as they suffered from the impacts of their earlier speed. I felt a little bit bad passing Simon Neale after all he’d done to tow me for the first section, but with the potential of picking up a podium spot, I wasn’t feeling charitable.

On the last 10kms, I came across a few buddies who were hiking up to spot runners – but didn’t stop and chat since I was in a good space to keep up a good pace. The last five kilometres went on a bit longer than I would have liked, my legs just wanted to get to the end by this stage.

DONE! Not much else to say, really

Coming around the corner with only a few metres to go I was amped – a quick run across the bridge then up a few steps and the finish line was in sight. The last few meters and I crossed the line in 8:11, just shy of half an hour faster than last year’s time. Best of all I got to stop running, take my shoes off and enjoy a cold beer which quickly dissolved the memory of how hard the last eight hours or so had been.

How happy am I?

Last thoughts

My 13th place, out of 275 runners, isn’t a genuine picture of my running abilities and I was reflecting upon this on the way home. While Bernard Robinson is undoubtedly a classy athlete (and has far more ability than I do) I think he would agree that neither of us should be top 15 candidates for an international field of this calibre.

It’s not false modesty but simply a reflection of the truth that in one’s mid to late forties, trying to remain competitive in a fast race with twenty and thirty-year-old athletes is unrealistic. Without wanting to sound too airy-fairy, I truly believe that having been at the Old Ghost since the first event, all of the ten remaining “Originals” get caught up in the spirit of the event and this gives them an edge that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Maybe there are some random Mokihinui spirits that imbue runners with a certain power after spending enough time in their home territory – whatever it is, The Old Ghost has always seen me run outside of myself and able deliver, beyond expectations or reality, on the day.

I am, however, realistic and realize that I’m unlikely to continue the trend of ever-decreasing times. But that’s OK. I’ll continue returning to the Coast and racing the Ghost so long as my body allows. And thereafter I reckon I’ll keep going back in order to continue immersing myself in the spirit of the Old Ghost.

Oh and if you’re feeling generous, and want to donate to this incredible project, you can do so here.

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I’ve been thinking lately about our expectations on CEOs and leaders generally. Having a variety of different roles, as an investor, director and consultant, I’ve had the privilege of observing leadership dynamics over a long period of time.

I was thinking about this yesterday when reflecting upon something I saw at a board meeting I attended. The organization in question is focused on growing the social enterprise sector in New Zealand. As such, it is not unlike a startup in the commercial space and, like every startup known to personkind, this organization works in a rapidly changing and high-pressure environment. There’s nothing new there.

What was different is that, through a combination of factors, the board members present and the CEO of the organization did something unusual in that they jointly and almost imperceptibly gave permission and encouragement for some raw truths to come out.

Emotions bubbled, eyes got misty and some very heartfelt things were said and, at the end of it, a more cohesive board and one which truly shared the journey ahead walked out. I’m reminded of an old Maori proverb which says:

He waka eke noa – A canoe which we are all in with no exception

Or, to put it more succinctly for this conversation, we’re all in this together.

Unfortunately, a trait of the traditional models of leadership is that permission to display emotion and admit frailty is not only not tacitly given, but it’s also actively frowned upon. We have this culture of the superhero leader and any signs of human weakness are deemed to damage that image. The fact that it’s simply not natural to have no weaknesses, never have doubt or to not need guidance seems to be forgotten.

So my question is for the leaders out there – be they board members or managers: what are you doing to create a culture in which those who work for and with you can show weakness and feel empowered to ask for help?

Remember, as the saying goes, we’re all in this together

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I’m lucky enough to spend time with entrepreneurs and leaders from a raft of different organizations, and recently I’ve been thinking about which patterns are the ones that indicate potential. Of course, it’s not black and white and every exec I’ve worked with brings their own skills and experiences to the table. That said, there are some patterns of note.

That thinking was encouraged by some recent exchanges with people involved with developing entrepreneurship in young people and an overarching theme from those fledgling entrepreneurs of: “We’re just looking for the killer idea to chase for our business.”

There’s a saying in the investment community that, while crass, is also an accurate summation of what really matters – “Ideas are like assholes (or arseholes for some of my readership), everyone has one.” The extension of that off-colour quote is that ideas are important, of course, but what really matters is execution. A great team, as is often said, can pivot from a lame idea onto a more feasible one. But a lame team, even when blessed with a killer idea, will likely screw it up.

And so, circling back, I’ve been thinking about this stuff in the context of working alongside Emily Heazlewood, CEO of Romer, a company that I’ve invested in and have joined the board of. I’ve also been thinking about this stuff within the connect of the oft-mentioned generational issues we’re facing – you see as well as being a first-time entrepreneur, Emily is young and a member of that frequently criticized generation, the millennials.

There are some patterns that I’ve seen in Emily, that give me a high degree of confidence in her future success. She moves fast, takes criticism well, and is continually displaying an attitude of developing and testing new ideas. While it’s a simple example, an exchange just this weekend clearly demonstrated this.

Heading into the first board meeting for the newly constituted board, Emily was tasked with preparing board papers. Now bear in mind that this is her first exposure to formal business and, I suspect, formal meeting procedure generally. On Sunday afternoon I received a notification that the board papers were ready to review on Google Docs. I took a look and was a little bit underwhelmed by the information, the structure and the clarity of the docs.

So I did the simple thing: borrowed some board papers from another CEO (thanks, Hadleigh!) emailed them to her and gave an outline of what board meetings attempt to achieve. Only an hour or two later, I received the updated documents which were as complete and clear as any I’ve seen from a seasoned exec.

Now extrapolate this experience around board papers to the huge variety of different tasks that falls into the lap of an executive – it’s clear that this embracing of a dynamic and proactive way of working will pay massive dividends over time. And, while many corporates are chasing this sort of approach in their embracing of #Agile, it’s rare to find people that actually live it.

So my question to those managers and executives out there who also want to help their organizations grow and prosper is: what patterns can you borrow from Emily to genuinely help deliver positive outcomes?

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Over on Idealog, New Zealand’s best startup lawyer (in my opinion) Andrew Simmonds from Simmonds Stewart, wrote an opinion piece on the local (local to New Zealand) capital scene and the gaps that exist.

It’s a great post and well worth a read but basically, his point was that there’s a bunch of angel investment going on down here, but huge gaps in the follow-on space.

I agree with Andrew, there are certainly some gaps in terms of follow-on capital, but there are also some structural gaps earlier on which get me really frustrated.

Let me recount a tale that, while not entirely typical of all angels here, is indicative. A couple of years ago I attended a demo day at which early-stage companies were pitching their wares to a large group of assembled angels. I was randomly placed at a table with two middle-aged chaps, who seemed to be corporate types. Both of them had young, attractive women with them and their behaviour indicated, at least to me, that they were entirely out to impress said young women.

Over the course of the evening, these two gents exuded the attitude that one would expect to see at a flesh market – with comments about “maybe throwing $10k at that startup,” or “maybe introducing that founder to his highly influential network.” Upon later investigation, I found out that neither of these two invested in any of the companies demo-ing that day. I also suspect that their angel experience amounted to turning up to lots of demo days and trying their hardest to impress people.

I’ve also been made aware of one angel group that was formed many years ago that seems to have had lots of demo days, many glasses of wine and had a large number of discussions about “what founders really need to do.” Alas, however, it would seem that the one thing this particular angel group has failed to do is… invest.

Now I have to say I’m not a big fan of angel groups. The word “angel” to me indicates someone who gives not only money but time, effort and introductions to founders of startups. Simply putting your money in a big pool and hoping something will come of it may be investing, but it doesn’t constitute angel investing in my mind.

But I understand that for some people, attitude, aptitude or time constraints mean that investing via a group is the right model.

But here’s the thing. The playing field (or, more correctly, the power balance) needs to be fair. Founders bring their idea, their sweat and blood, and their efforts to the deal. These group investors bring… money. And, while money is certainly the lifeblood of a startup, let’s not overstate just how important it is – money lubricates execution, but it’s still execution that really matters.

I’m not sure what the answer is here but one thing’s for sure, angels and early-stage investors need to take a long look at themselves and determine whether their motivations and their behaviours are really what one should expect from the (generally) more mature and experienced partners in a deal.

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A friend recently began a new role with an organization and was busy beavering away sorting out her induction process.

As she did so, it came time to set up her shiny new corporate email account. Being a consultant filling multiple roles in multiple different organizations, she was keen to continue using her client of choice: Gmail on the web.

Off she trundled to IT to help to get it set up, only to be greeted by the response that so many people have historically heard from corporate IT: “No.”

It seems that this particular organization has a locked-down approach to email and it can only be accessed via the corporate desktop or remotely via a virtual desktop.

When asked if said friend could use her regular Gmail client, IT staffer’s response was that “No, we only support real email clients” (emphasis and frustration are mine.) An attitude that feels so, so old school to me… One that goes hand in hand with the sort of person that gets his thrills racking and stacking physical servers and counting flashing lights…

Now, I get it, it’s only email and conflating this response with organizational malaise is a bit of a step too far. I also get that corporate IT’s job is to ensure that bad stuff doesn’t happen and they’re only too aware of how much of a threat vector IT generally and email specifically are.

But still, I can’t but help but think that this is indicative of an attitude rife in corporate IT: that the business is there to serve IT needs not the other way around. There’s a reason that newer, more agile organizations are bypassing IT altogether and relying on third-party web-based applications where they don’t have to fight these internal battles on an everyday basis.

So, what do you think? Does IT have no choice but to batten down the hatches in response to modern threats, or in this day and age when agility is a core-requirement, do they need to relax a bit?

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I was talking to a friend the other day who told me about someone who had just signed on as an executive at his business.

The business was excited to have this person come in and take things to the next level.

Until…. after signing the contract, and getting things ready, said hire backtracked and advised my friend that he was no longer going to take up the job.

Now I understand that things change, and that sometimes, despite the best of intentions, life gets in the way. But my question for readers here is – how much do you think a move like this impacts upon the professional credibility of an individual?

It may be an old-fashioned idea but once upon a time, an individual’s word (not to mention their signature on a contract) was considered sacrosanct. I realize that we live in a dynamic and rapidly-changing world, but I’d like to think that trust was still a valuable currency.

Am I wrong here? What would you all feel in a similar situation?

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Time for a grumpy thought from me…

Today a friend on Facebook shared the fact that he’d just been ranked highly on a “Top 100 Social Media Influencers” list.

Now I’m sure many of you will have seen these lists, they’re generally a pretty simple calculation which equates influence to noisiness on social media (fatal flaw number one).

Obviously we’re in a broadcast era and it’s all about leveraging the medium, but it frustrates me that we can equate noise with influence. A case in point, I’ve featured on a bunch of these lists over the years, with titles such as “Top 25 Cloud Influencers” and “Top 100 Enterprise IT Influencers.”

But there’s the flaw, just because I’ve had cause, in the past, to opine extensively on these topics on social media, doesn’t mean that my opining actually influences anyone else to buy something or change their thoughts around a piece of technology.

So why don’t people call these lists what they are: “The Loudest People on Social Media” or, perhaps a little more charitably, “The Most Engaged People on Social Media.”

Is it just me or do others also feel a little queasy at these self-serving and cliquey lists?

And, just as an update, and to prove the point, the day after I posted this thought on LinkedIn, I received the following Tweet:

Congrats @benkepes you are ranked #36 on this week’s #Cloud Global Power 100 Influencer List. rise.global/the-cloud-soci… via @risedotglobal

Ironic, huh?

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As I do less public writing, and more behind the scenes consulting and governance, I’m starting to experiment a little bit with different forms of content creation.

Inspired by someone I’ve spent a bunch of time in boardroom discussion with (here’s to you, Sergio), I’ve been dabbling with LinkedIn content and have found I get pretty good engagement over there. If we’re not connected over there, feel free to engage – my profile is here.

Realizing that not everyone does the “LinkedIn thing”, I’m going to cross-post it in here for my regular subscribers – prefixed by the “quick bites” title so you know what you’re looking at. Enjoy!

Let’s talk a little bit about authenticity and karma in business.

Cactus Equipment is a 25-year-old manufacturer of workwear and backpacks, still proudly made down here in New Zealand.

Since its inception, Cactus has prided itself on making the best quality products in the world and firmly sticking to its ethical manufacturing beliefs. It’s not about consumerism and fads, it’s about making rugged, reliable products that our customers truly love.

This relationship that Cactus has with its customers was brought home to us back in 2010 when Christchurch suffered the first in a long series of earthquakes which greatly impacted the city.

After being given only 24 hours to vacate its premises, Cactus put out an all-hands call to its community for help in shifting the factory. The video below was shot to commemorate the occasion.

Cactus Shift Out - What a mission - YouTube

So my question to other business leaders is: how do you and your organizations measure authenticity, and how seriously do you take the interests of your customers to heart?

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