A friend of mine once asked how to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. I replied, “Well, just like running a marathon, one step at a time.” She replied, “well, that’s big coming from you. You’ve actually run a marathon.”
While her praise felt good, I still put on The Mask of False Humility and mildly deflected the praise. But in retrospect, I think she’s kind of right and it took a month of injury and forced indoor training for me to take off The Mask of False Humility. I had irrevocably changed my life when I took on the mantle of training for an ultramarathon.
I’m not a morning person and I easily sleep in later and stay up even later if left to my own devices. But with the heat this past summer, training couldn’t happen at any other time other than sunrise. I spent hours researching training techniques, gear, racing strategy, nutrition, wilderness survival, etc. I changed my diet and learned to treat food more like fuel.
And then I ran fifty-three miles. One step at a time. I now understand better how to prepare for and accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve acquired a little more authority on the subject than some people. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
1. Just Start Even When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing
The first few weeks of my training, I just went out to the trails and ran. Every time I went out, I wrestled with myself. I’d say, “you really don’t know what you’re doing, do you? Why are you even out here?” Was six miles a day sufficient? Should I be doing something different?
These were the questions I asked myself every day. But I stubbornly kept at it, waking up at 6A.M. and heading to the trails. And I’m glad I did.
Doing this prepared me for the grueling work ahead. I was introducing my body and mind to the ritual of early morning runs. It was an awful shock to my system and I didn’t figure out later that I needed to eat before my runs. I’ve never done well running fasted.
Nike’s slogan “Just Do It” seems cliche until you actually put it to the test. Whether you’re starting a relationship, setting up a website or learning to run a marathon, just do it. Get started now, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. Even if you fail, you can try again. And you’ll quickly see where you’re deficient and figure out where to find advice.
2. Consult the Experts
See, I didn’t just start running this year. I’ve been running since middle school cross country 20 years ago. When did I get better? When my coach made us do speed work and that was always near the end of the season.
Conventional wisdom tells you to “build a base” before starting on speed work. You need to prepare your body for long miles by running long miles every day, right? Sorta. But according to Coach Koop, this focuses too much on volume and not enough on intensity. Long story short, intense and fast running builds you cardio engine which in turn powers your legs. Without this, you will never be fast.
I immediately bought his book and never looked back.
I studied his book as I would a textbook for any class. I took notes, I underlined sections, I even bookmarked with sticky notes. His stuff is science-heavy and I had to wrestle and push my mind to grasp some of the concepts. But once I got them, I felt more prepared than ever.
I eventually quit saying, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
Who are the experts in your niche? Did they write a book? Do they offer a class? Are they simply mentors willing to walk beside you?
Beware of the N of 1
Another advantage of just starting immediately: you can begin to network. Sometimes the experts are your peers. But beware of the N of 1. Coach Koop never uses an “I” statement when training his athletes and giving them advice. Instead, he uses science-backed information.
What works for one person doesn’t always work for another. But experts and scientists do study every aspect of life. Legitimate science and knowledge do exist. But you’re gonna have to work for it.
3. One Wave at a Time
In my previous job, I taught a class about crises prevention. To learn how to teach the course, we took an extended version of the course. Our professor was a PhD in Psychology.
The man was from Michigan and he had a friend who often kayaked on the Great Lakes. One day, his friend was kayaking near the boundary waters when a storm came out of nowhere. The water rose around him as the wind pushed and pulled on the water. He faced twenty-foot swells that threatened to destroy him.
At first, he panicked. The waves kept coming no matter how hard he paddled. He was going to die if he didn’t make it back to shore. And there were hundreds of waves between him and the shore.
He took a deep breath and decided to only focus on the wave before him. Once he conquered that wave, he focused on the next. He kept his mind in the moment and tackled one wave at a time. The man survived to tell the tale.
One Section at a Time
I took this lesson into my first ultramarathon. In an ultramarathon, the race volunteers set up aid stations every 3-10 miles. These stations often feature a type of buffet with bananas, oranges, potato chips, water, sports drinks, candy, and if you’re lucky, cooked foods like quesadillas.
I didn’t think about anything beyond the next aid station. I’d say, “Ok, next aid is 10 miles. You’ve only got ten miles.” I was most tempted to quit when I began to worry about the finish line and who I was inconveniencing by not running as fast.
If a task seems impossible, start with what you have before you. Worrying about the outcome or the billions of steps ahead will only overwhelm you.
If you need to, write out what you have to do. Your brain will create resistance to a task if it perceives a billion steps. For some reason, our brains dismiss future tasks as done if we write them down. This frees up processing power for the task before you.
And then get started. Just do it. And don’t stop until you’ve finished or you’ve failed. And remember, it’s ok to fail.
How to Run 100 Miles
I’m about to undertake the longest race I’ve ever run (IMTUF 100-mile). I came away from my last race with a minor injury and that coupled with the unsafe air during fire season kept me training indoors and more sporadically than usual. My last training bloc didn’t go as planned.
I’ve accepted the fact I didn’t get that last adaptation I was looking for. I may not run as fast as I anticipated. But I’m going to tackle this race just like I tackled the last. One step at a time. One section at a time. One mountain at a time.
If you haven’t already, follow my ultrarunning adventures on Instagram at FeelMisery4Happy. And don’t forget to start using the hashtag #feelmisery4happy to show me your awesome adventures and for future giveaway chances.