Last November I began training for the American River 50 mile ultramarathon (in case you’re wondering, any race over 26.2 miles is considered an ultramarathon). Many asked why I would do such a thing. At the time I couldn’t really provide much of an answer except to say that the idea of running that long seemed to pique my interest. I am 46 years old and not a competitive runner by any stretch of the imagination. In my lifetime, I’ve run four half-marathons, and 2 marathons (my first, just before my 45th birthday). In other words, this wasn’t exactly predictable behavior.
As my practice and podcast have evolved, I too have evolved, engaging ever deeper in my own small step philosophy. I strive to live the example of my own approach to health and happiness, and have the very same struggles that my listeners and clients have. Life in the modern world can be wonderful, but also fraught with fear, anxiety, stress, and also preconceived ideas of who we think we are. In contrast, my approach helps people define who they truly are, not based on what they’ve done in the past, but on what they value, and who they want to be. Having never thought of myself as someone who would run 50 miles meant drifting into uncharted territory for sure, and definitely called into question how I see myself. Yes, it’s just a running race, but attempting something so seemingly out of reach had fear and anxiety wrapped up in it…Add to that a trip to Wisconsin that I took just days before the race causing jet lag and overall fatigue, and, well, let’s just say I wasn’t in the best state of mind the morning of the race.
When we choose to take on something truly outside our comfort zone, we feel, well, uncomfortable. This trek was no exception. Messages swirled around my brain as if trying to prevent me from taking on this gargantuan task: “You’re probably not going to be able to finish” and “This is going to be miserable” and “This may have been a huge mistake.” But making the decision to train and finish this race meant showing up to the starting line in spite of the voices in my head. I imagine that most if not every one of my listeners and clients have moments where the voices in our heads are at conflict with what and who they want to be. It is in these moments that we can actually choose what we will be going forward. It is in the very presence of discomfort when we can find strength and clarity. While I intentionally put myself outside of my comfort zone in this instance, the fact is that life presents plenty of circumstances that put us there without our choosing. My goal is to help people negotiate these times more and more over time according to who they truly are, and what I learned from my ultramarathon experience relates this in a very serious way.
1) What you hear in your head isn’t necessarily you. We hear the messages all the time, and unfortunately we hear them in our own voice. Waiting for the race to start I heard the sound of my own voice tell me I should bail on this race, that it wasn’t a good day, and that it was the last thing I wanted to do. I heard these messages as I walked to the starting line and began the race, determined to finish what I had started regardless of whether I was actually able to finish or not. When the gun went off, I had already won. The voices I heard were simply not me in that moment (if they had been me, I would’ve quit right then and there as it was definitely what I felt like doing), and I was not too concerned about making them go away. They’re there from the past that lead up to that moment, but were clearly not what defines me now.
2) There’s no substitute for training. This is especially relevant to my practice. With my clients I am constantly up against the allure of diets and quick fixes. We all want to feel better in our bodies and be healthier, so why not achieve it as fast as possible? The challenge I face is helping my clients figure out what is truly ‘as fast as possible.’ When I showed up to the starting line, it was with a confidence that the training and nutritional support had provided me. As I wrote above, the challenge on race day was mental not physical. There was no way to cheat the process of preparing for that race, and thank goodness, since I showed up with true knowledge that I had a really good chance of finishing. Likewise, diets may help people lose weight super quickly, but they do not train people how to be ‘healthy people’ or ‘fit people.’ Diets cheat the process and don’t deliver the confidence necessary to sustain long-term change. Physically I was ready to complete a 50 mile race, but had I not had the advantage of earning this through true hard work (and the sense of accomplishment and confidence that comes with it) I never would’ve finished given the fatigue I faced at the starting line.
3) One rough day ain’t that bad. Even an off day like the one I had was just one off day. Of course I would’ve preferred to have been in the same mental state as I was when I ran my first 50K (about 31 miles) race a month before as part of my training. On the 50K day I definitely was nervous and anxious about embarking on an unknown, but overall I was excited and optimistic, and definitely better rested. On the 50 mile day it just wasn’t the same, but one thought kept coming back: I can handle one rough day. And, I can’t help but throw down the trite but true message that it definitely could’ve been worse. I was running on gorgeous trails with access to plenty of food and drink along the way. People everyday endure hardship beyond anything most of us can imagine.
4) Without struggle, we stagnate. Our bodies and minds need stress. We adapt, adjust, and grow as we confront stress in our lives. The problem in the modern world is that we are up against chronic (i.e. most of the time) and inordinate amounts of stress. And, in the absence of substantial opportunities to recover, we become weakened. Professional athletes know all too well the importance of quality recovery time so that they can hit the next training session with as much energy and stamina as possible. The challenge is to find a balance with the stress in your life rather than expend a bunch of energy trying to make it go away (ironically that pursuit comes with its own stress).
5) The plans don’t own us, WE own them. Since I had never run an ultra, I entertained the idea of working with a trainer. I have gotten better over time at knowing what I don’t know, and training for a 50 mile run definitely fell into that category. I found a coach who was very qualified and affordable at the same time and asked him to take me on. That turned out to be super helpful because during the almost 5 months of training, unexpected things in my life came up—trips, family parties etc.—that meant necessary adjustments in the training plan. I would let my coach (Matt Flaherty: runflaherty.com) know that something had come up and he’d make an adjustment to that week’s schedule. Lo and behold I still finished the race even though the initial plan had changed significantly. Here’s what most diets, exercise DVD’s, and training plans DON’T take into account: real life. Things come up for most of us, and when we realize that we are free to make adjustments to the plans we’re on, we understand that we are truly in control of our lives. I had to remind myself that the goal was not to stick ‘perfectly’ to the (or any) plan, but to finish the race.
With any real move to achieve greater health and happiness in our lives comes discomfort. We do things that we’re not used to doing yet, and if we don’t stick with them for a while, we never will. It’s taken years to be as healthy and happy as we currently are, and will take substantial time to make real shifts. But, each time you step just a bit outside your comfort zone, you grow and you adapt and you find out that you already have the strength for change inside you.