I'd set myself the daunting self-improvement challenge of running 100 km in a day.
As I explained in my previous blog, I thought it would be hard, but I was hoping to learn a lot from the experience – and I was right, on both counts!
"Endurance races are a microcosm of life; you're high, you're low, in the race, out of the race, crushing it, getting crushed, managing fears, rewriting stories."Travis Macy, author and professional endurance athlete
I certainly had plenty of time to think about myself and my life last Saturday – the day of my first "ultra" race.
I set off – with 300 other runners – at 6:50 a.m. on a bright, late summer morning. The race was two and a half marathons long, along bumpy riverside paths, through grassy fields, and over steep bridges, so it was slower than I was used to. But that allowed me to take in my surroundings, to chat with people around me, and to enjoy the chance to relax my mind.
I had a whole day ahead of me free from phone calls, emails and family demands. I was doing something I loved, able to move and think at my own pace – and I was going to make the most of it!
And I did – for the first half, at least. The track was clear, the other runners were supportive, and the organization was superb. I felt great.
About 45 km in, my legs started to feel sore. I could feel my muscles tightening up – and then keep tightening, from my calves to my hamstrings to my quads – until every step was a real strain.
My pace didn't crash completely, but I got slower. Each step felt harder than the last. I stopped noticing the scenery, and started focusing on everything that hurt.
Instead of letting my mind drift wherever it wanted, I now had to put all my effort into keeping myself from giving up. Less self-improvement, more self-preservation.
And I still had 55 km to go.
I learned a great deal about myself in those 55 km. Some insights occurred to me as I ran, but mostly they came during the days after, when the struggle was finally over, and I had a chance to properly reflect.
So, what did I gain from the experience? And how am I going to apply it to the rest of my life?
I've come up with ten self-improvement lessons – one for every 10 km I went, on that brutal, life-changing day:
Joining the ultrarunning "gang" was both a privilege and a source of priceless support. Conversations quietened after a while, but that made each small interaction all the more important. It reminded me just how valuable it is to be part of a like-minded, trusted team, whatever you're trying to achieve.
Early in the race, I was blissfully ignorant of how hard it would get. But I'm sure that I benefited from spending the first few hours feeling relaxed and calm. I drew on those happy memories later, when my energy levels dropped. And never once that day did things seem hopeless. Nearly, at times, but never completely.
This race reminded my how important it is to be flexible – even before it started. The friend driving me to the start line got lost, so we arrived with only minutes to spare, and I pretty much had to throw my bag onto the truck before it left – leaving behind some vital bits of kit.
Later, despite the forecast for a dry day, black clouds came over and it started to rain. Again, it was good self-improvement to cope with conditions that were different from the ones I'd expected, to make a few quick kit changes – but, mostly, to just get on with it!
I was very glad that I had a range of thinking strategies ready to deploy. When the voice inside my head urged me to stop, I challenged it with positive thoughts. I reminded myself of everything that was motivating me, and imagined what it would feel like to get to the end.
I also used a proven runners' trick of alternating between inward-and outward-looking thoughts. At times, I'd focus on coping with my feelings and improving my running. But at others, I'd think very consciously about absolutely anything else!
Early on, I found it useful to treat each kilometer separately. If one didn't go well, I'd simply write it off and start the next one afresh – an approach I'm now keen to bring to some non running-related tasks!
Later, I broke the remaining distance into "chunks" – thinking about getting to the next rest stop, for example, or spotting when there was "just" a marathon distance left. I guess I was using a form of cognitive restructuring to make a tough task seem that little bit more manageable.
The more I struggled, the more I benefited from the warmth of race organizers, volunteers and onlookers. I was left in no doubt about the power of praise!
I also noticed how some runners were able to make new friends and gather them into "packs," staying together along the route and helping to keep each other going. They set a great example for anyone challenged with leading "equals" within a team.
I knew that the challenge would only become too much when I thought it was, and I wasn't going to let that sort of thinking win. My self-talk became more and more forceful.
But I also worked hard to be kind. I celebrated every time I passed a key distance marker. And a few treats along the way worked wonders, too, such as the candy and cola I'd never normally eat, or a few extra minutes' rest before hitting the road again.
I got off to a good start, by minimizing my worries, and dealing with a few early difficulties (such as fixing a broken belt pack on the move).
But I should have done better with the remains of a plastic tag that I'd left attached to the inside of my running shorts, which was uncomfortable after about 5 km – and, after 100, had rubbed away a sizeable chunk of skin!
In future, I'm determined to use sensible problem-solving strategies early – even for seemingly small problems – to stop them becoming major issues later on.
When I'd tackled marathons in the past, I'd never had to stop running. In an ultra race, however, it's vital to pause a few times, otherwise you simply won't get the nutrition and hydration you need. And that teaches you the importance of momentum.
Getting up to start running again after each stop was torture for my muscles. But it was just as hard on my mind, as I struggled to rediscover focus and "flow."
It made me realize why I've sometimes taken too long to finish projects. In future, if I have to rest, fine – but, if I don't, maybe I can maintain the momentum, and stay "in the zone" all the way!
OK, stop for a while, enjoy conquering your challenge, celebrate your success. The relief and pride when I met my family at the finishing line, after 106,078 steps, and nearly 12 hours of running, are feelings that I'll never forget.
But they also made me hungry for more. So, don't make any one challenge the "end," because it will likely have set you up for even greater things. I'm determined now to keep pushing myself beyond my comfort zone.
And my ambitions aren't just about running – for all the reasons listed above. I know that I've gained a great deal from this experience, and I'm keen to set myself a variety of new personal and professional goals.
Even with the soreness gone from my muscles, the lost weight replaced (5 pounds!), and life pretty much back to normal, I'm sure that I've been changed by my exploits. And I want to make the most of everything I've gained.
I agree with author and endurance athlete Vanessa Runs. Writing about self-improvement in "The Summit Seeker," she says, "If it's a nod from society you're looking for, run a marathon. But if it's a life-changing experience of personal strength and perseverance that you want, finish an ultra."
I may or may not run another long-distance race, but I feel ready to tackle other challenges head on. I discovered a lot about myself last weekend, and I'm eager to find out more.
Don't tell my family, but I'm already looking for my next adventure, and the chance to learn even more of these battle-forged lessons for life.
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