Five Life Lessons from a 31-Mile Mountain Race

I’m not a “runner.”

I never thought of myself as a runner. I mean, I liked to go out for a spin through the woods a few times a week, but I never thought I would pursue much more than that.

Two years ago, I figured I would push the envelope a bit and run a half-marathon. I enjoyed it.

And I couldn’t help but be terribly curious about strange creatures called “ultrarunners.” These are people who like to run distances longer than the marathon, which is 26.2 miles (42km). Races are often up and down mountains, at altitude, with inclement weather. When I listened to their interviews, watched videos, and read articles about them, they sounded both humble and passionate about running for 30, 50, 100 miles at a time.

What could possibly make them want to do that?

As much as I was perplexed, I also found that my intrigue into the sport grew. Before long, I was considering whether or not I should try one.

No, it would take too much time. I’ve never been able to stick to a training schedule very well. The longest I’ve ever run is 14 miles. Sure, I like being in nature, testing my limits, and getting into great shape, but this is a bit beyond me.

Me at the third aid station.

Me at the third aid station.

These were my thoughts as I hit “register” for the Squamish 50k.

The lessons that followed over the next 9 months are about much more than running.

They are psychological and spiritual in nature and apply to the life journey itself.

Ultrarunning as a test of perceived limits

As I implemented my training plan, it soon became clear to me that I was going to have to go beyond what felt possible for me. Well beyond.

If we’re not careful, we can take our “limits” to be simply what we’ve done before. I thought 14 miles was a lot to run a year ago. After many months of training this year, 14 miles was relatively easy.

Something interesting happens when you overcome a limitation a few times. You get suspicious of the whole idea of “limits” in the first place.

At first, 14 miles is a lot. After you run 14.5 miles, you say, wow, that was great. But how the hell can I do 18?

And then you do 18 and think, wow, cool. But 24 miles? Too much.

And then you run 24, and think, hm… I’m seeing a pattern here.

Limits are made-up. Your ability to accomplish something is not restricted by your capability, but by your desire. In other words, I’m sure that if I really wanted to, I could do a 50-mile race, even a 100-miler. I just don’t know if I want to, given the hard work and sacrifices necessary to get there.

This applies to many areas of life. Perhaps you dream of being at the top of your field in your profession. Perhaps you want to achieve a physical goal, like completing a triathlon or squatting a certain weight. Perhaps you want one of your songs to be on the radio.

Whatever it is, you can accomplish it. That’s not to say there aren’t certain criteria that will inform which goal you choose: the goal must speak to your soul and make you feel purposeful on a deep level. And you must be willing to put in the hours.

For example, I love trail running very much, so it makes sense that my goal would be trail running-based. If I were to set an impossible-sounding goal in, say, ice skating or competitive hot dog eating, I probably wouldn’t accomplish it. Not because it’s not possible, but because I wouldn’t be willing to do the work required for success.

My point is, if you have a goal that feels impossible, and the goal is within a field you’re passionate about, that’s a good sign. It’s a sign you’re meant to do it. Your dreams are yours for a reason.

Limits are arbitrary thought-forms. They dissolve with just a bit of pressure.

Ultrarunning as a celebration of the physical

In the very best parts of some runs, running feels like a dance. My mind is quieter, I’m in tune with my surroundings, and intimately aware of sensations in my body.

There’s a sweet spot that is a combination of the right amount of effort and the right amount of ease; the right balance of concentration and the right balance of relaxation. In these moments, it feels like a joyous celebration of having a body.

The body is capable of amazing feats. It adapts and improves according to whatever way it is stressed. When we run long distances, our bodies get better at running long distances. When we get sick, our immune system strengthens and we gain a stronger set of defenses. When we stretch, we get more flexible.

Engaging in some physical activity, be it running, yoga, weightlifting, skiing, or the countless other ways we can intentionally use our bodies, makes us more aware of the wonderful machine we have at our service. Tuning into it makes us want to treat it right.

Ultrarunning as mystical experience

You’ve heard of “flow,” right?

It’s the experience of doing an activity and feeling like you’re not the one doing it. It feels like the activity is coming through you. You’re not playing tennis; tennis is being played through you. You’re not running; you’re being ran.

It might sound woo-woo, esoteric, or “special,” but it’s not. It’s extremely common. I guarantee you’ve had an experience of flow — maybe even today.

And in my opinion, “flow” is a mainstream term for mystical experience. When our sense of a separate self dissolves, that’s a mystical experience. If you’re not the one steering the ship, then a greater force, a divine force, is. If you’re uncomfortable with the spiritual terminology, that’s fine. Think of it psychologically. The personal mind, the ego, gets really quiet, and we tap into the infinite resources we’ve got within.

During some of my runs, I would find myself so deep in flow that I had no sense that “I” was “on a run.” I just felt like part of the landscape.

This experience alone requires no justification or explanation. It’s simply beautiful.

And it just so happens that it helps us function optimally as well!

When we’re in flow, we’re at our best. It’s possible to be in flow during any experience. Parenting, gardening, athletics, making music, theater, etc. Tapping into the state of flow is the secret behind athletes’ greatest performances, guitarists’ greatest solos, writers’ greatest prose.

Whatever activity you enjoy that helps you find flow — spend as much time as you can there!

I would be on a long run, see a massive hill coming up, and just think, “thank god don’t have to run up that hill.” Something greater was going to do it for me.

Ultrarunning, pain, and suffering

There’s a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is one layer of experience, and suffering is an additional layer of experience. The layer of suffering is what we make up about the layer of pain. When what we make up looks real and true, we have real reactions to it.

It might seem strange to say we can be in pain and not suffer. But we can. Pain doesn’t have to have a negative meaning. It’s just pain. And when it’s just pain, we don’t suffer from it.

Here’s an example. There is a particularly hilly run 45 minutes from home. The first time I did it, boy, was it hard. My body was in some pain as I pushed through it. I enjoyed it the whole time.

A few weeks later, I returned to the same run. I was theoretically in better shape the this time. However, I suffered way more the second time. (And not because my pace was faster — it wasn’t.)

My mind was busy. I was comparing myself to previous efforts. I was pushing myself at the wrong times because I wasn’t listening to my body. I was thinking a lot about what was going on. I wasn’t in flow.

And so the experience wasn’t enjoyable. I wasn’t in the moment, and I wasn’t present to the pain. The pain became suffering.

Running was a way for me to cultivate my relationship to pain. And not just physical pain. Emotional pain too. The same lessons apply.

Emotions and physical pain can just be what they are without an added layer of meaning that we construct. And when they are what they are, they cease being experienced as negative. Again, it might sound contradictory to say sadness isn’t negative. But sadness in itself is just sadness. It becomes more dramatic when more thinking is added to it.

In every area of our life, being more in the now, regardless of what Now contains, brings us more peace and wellbeing.

Ultrarunning and the “Why” behind hard work

I’m going to confess something.

I know I’ve been ranting about how much I love trail running for 1500 words. But 2.5 weeks after my race, I went on a short run, and I didn’t like it.

This helped me understand something. In order to put in the hard work, I had to have a strong “Why.” In other words, Why the hell would I want to subject myself to the hard work and sacrifice required to complete my goal race?

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It’s true what they say about BC.

My goal race spoke to me on a deep, soulful level. I wanted to go beyond my previous physical limits. I wanted to spend a lot of time in nature. I wanted to travel to Squamish, British Columbia for the race because I heard it’s beautiful there.

And most of all, I wanted to use running to see what I’m really made of. I became fascinated with what kept me going when my body and mind were completely spent after having run for four hours but with 3 miles still to go before I got back to my car. What’s left when you’ve spent everything you thought you had? At these moments of despair, I had to dig deeper than I’d ever gone in order to continue. That made me feel alive. I kept coming back for more.

In order to achieve the success we dream of, we have to put in hours and hours of hard work.

But hard work in itself isn’t pleasurable. The sacrifice has to feel worth it. When you love it enough, it doesn’t feel like sacrifice.

In a marriage, you’ve got to love someone enough to put up with the inevitable challenges you’ll face. In writing, you’ve got to love the creative process enough to put up with humbling rejection. And in running, the hard work becomes tolerable, even enjoyable, when you love it enough to keep going through the pain.

Because I had a deep Why, I didn’t hesitate when I had to wake up at 3 am to run before a flight to New York. I didn’t question whether or not I was going to try to maintain my running schedule during a two-week trip to Europe. I didn’t stay home if it was cold, raining, or sweltering.

That commitment and discipline becomes possible with a deep Why.

And here’s the truth: right now, my Why is spent. So running 4.5 miles felt like a lot and it wasn’t that fun.

If you’ve got a dream deep enough inside you that it is touching your heartstrings and sweetening the current flowing through your soul, following that dream is going to light you on fire. And that fire can drive you higher than you’ve ever been. Your Why becomes the rocket fuel that propels you past what you previously conceived.

Get curious

Gary Robbins, the race director, is an elite ultrarunner.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m bragging. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity and the physical health to get through it.

The experience was as humbling as it was enlivening. Entering the ultrarunning community made me aware of just how impressive some runners are. They blow me out of the water in many ways, and it’s an honor to know them.

The biggest thing I hope to pass on is to get curious. About what you’re capable of. About what makes you feel alive. And dream without editing yourself — your Why lives beyond your editing mind.

What can you experiment with? What do you want to try out?

With all my love,

Jock

4 thoughts on Five Life Lessons from a 31-Mile Mountain Race

  1. The experiential learning that takes place by actually taking the risk and testing your limits gets imprinted in the mind with such force. I’m inspired by your story. “You get suspicious of the whole idea of ‘limits’ in the first place” , “the joyous celebration of having a body” and “dream without editing yourself” are some of my favorite quotes here. Well done…again.

  2. Thanks, and thanks for all your support throughout the process <3

  3. “…These were my thoughts as I hit “register” for the Squamish 50k.” Great line, great timing.

    Two things stood out for me: 1) limits do fall away psychologically when we surpass them, supporting your point that they are mental constructs in the first place; and 2) the difference between pain and suffering simply a matter of how we respond to pain — a very well-made and important point.

    Thanks as always for new ways of thinking about things!

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