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“Everybody comes to a point in their life when they want to quit, but its what you do at that moment that determines who you are” David Goggins
What ultra distance endurance events can teach us about ourselves and our potential to realise change.
You enter a state of awareness and develop an inner sense of calm that feels almost meditative; you feel a quietening of the mind, a release of emotion unlike anything you will have experienced before. There are some noticeable effects that are often experienced when you push and then break through the boundaries of what you thought you were physically capable of.
When you apply your physical body and engage your mind towards a seemingly unimaginable feat of physical endurance what you experience is the live realisation of possibility and potential. The result doesn’t matter, it’s the journey that counts and the inner belief and self-confidence that you realise along the way has broad application across the other challenges of your life.
Ultra events also help you to forge mental resilience or to “callous the mind” as David Goggins puts it. All too often we can fall prey to procrastination and self loathing; suffering the curse of a thousand good ideas most of which we never put into action and all of which we justify away with excuses.
The act of putting one foot in front of the other and repeating the action until the task is done is a simple yet powerful action and the essence of the challenge we face in life generally and in endurance events specifically.
In many respects life itself compares to an endurance event and so often it comes down to how you want to manage the journey, how prepared you are to realise your full potential along the way and whether you will persevere when the going gets tough.
As a confirmed endurance addict I am a biased evangelist of the way that ultra events can drive positive change in your life so I thought I would outline below some obvious and not so obvious synergies:
1. Developing and nurturing your mental resilience
There is no short cut or easy way to complete an endurance event. Even if you have trained and prepared both body and mind appropriately then once you enter the “twilight zone” – the mythical phase post marathon level distance - all bets are off from this point onwards. The most effective weapon at your disposal here is mental toughness and resilience. David Goggins is fond of saying that when you think you are completely done you are in fact only 40% done and you have vast reservoirs from which to plunder – all of them in the mind. It is mental resilience that gets you through these events. Where the mind looks the body follows.
2. Testing and building self discipline
Waking up early every day to start building the miles into your legs, running with your head torch on in foul weather whilst others are still in bed. Sacrificing weekends in favour of the long run, cutting out alcohol, overhauling diet, planning rest, designing and then following a training plan. These are the minimum necessary requirements for competing in these sorts of events. Next the act of committing to an event that seems well beyond you and then incrementally breaking down the steps and actions needed to become ready and then the implementation of your race strategy. All of these behaviours, habits and routines are the result of a disciplined mind. And the cultivation and refining of a disciplined mind in order to pursue an audacious goal in one part of your life directly transfers into the other areas of your life. There is a halo effect at play here.
3. Planning and decision-making abilities
Rarely does someone turn up at an ultra race without any preparation or planning and actually succeed in the endeavour. From deciding which kit and equipment you need, what the course and weather conditions are like and what nutrition you need to the planning and execution of a training programme to get you match fit. There is no end to the level of meticulous planning and detail that people can get sucked into for these types of events and there is no better forcing mechanism for someone to get their act together and start self-organising than the impending threat of an audacious challenge.
4. Goal setting and commitment
A study from Harvard Business school surveying the graduating class from 1984 revealed that 4% of the class earned more than the rest combined over the course of their careers. Yet there was only one common trait shared by each of these over performers that distinguished them from peers – the act of regular, focussed goal setting. So, cultivating the habit of goal setting, expressing not just interest but real commitment to their successful pursuit and then executing towards the task at hand becomes a necessary condition of success. It takes a lot of commitment to sign up, prepare, train and execute on an ultra-distance event, or perhaps just plain foolhardiness!
5. Physical evidence of change
Needless to say most people tend to experience significant physical changes whilst preparing and undertaking these events. Most often there is a “re-distribution” of your energy to the wider environment, this results in a leaning down of the body to the operating essentials only. Your metabolism also goes through the roof and you return to almost teenage abilities to shrug off calories at will.
6. Mental well-being and clarity
This is perhaps one of the most underrated yet commonly experienced joys of ultra-racing. Despite everything else that is going on in your world, once you embark on that ultra race you enter a time of simplification and reflection. Some runners report a state of transcendence or meditation as a result of the experience – this tends to be correlated to the severity of the event but regardless of the distance, duration and severity a quietened mind satiated from the distraction of everyday life is surely of benefit to everyone.
This list is not exhaustive yet almost all of the main benefits above are mental rather than physical which suggests that the most important tool required to succeed at conquering our physical limits is the mind.