Have you ever pushed yourself to the point that every part of your body seems to be yelling at you, “You’re a madman!”? That’s how I spent an entire weekend not too long ago in a mountain ultramarathon. After an unsuccessful attempt last year, a colleague and I committed ourselves to conquer it this year… but that didn’t make it much easier.
About 70% into the race, I was in a sorry state. I felt sick, was sweating like a pig, couldn’t catch my breath while my heart pounded in my chest. As the pain pulsed through my whole body, I kept asking myself “What was I thinking?!” And I still had 30km to go!
So as I sat, taking a moment to recharge my batteries, I naturally retreated into my mind, looking for any helpful advice to help me make it through. But with so much going on in my body and exhaustion really taking effect, I found nothing. Literally nothing. None of the books I’d read or the podcasts I’d listened to offered anything. I couldn’t focus enough.
Then suddenly, something else took over within me. Almost as if I’d gone on autopilot and my mind already knew what it needed. I realized later that by making certain choices in my life and turning them into habits, I had given myself the edge I needed to succeed.
Here they are:
Strength comes from the breath
If I could only do one thing to find power within myself, I would always turn to my breathing. They call it the bridge between the body and the soul, and I believe it. The first thing I check for is that I’m actually breathing enough. If I’m stressed, it’s likely that I’m not breathing much. After that, by focusing on and regulating my breath, I can calm down through long exhales, or energize myself by putting more intensity into my breaths. My biggest teachers here have been Pranayama and the more westernized Wim Hof Method, and I strongly recommend them both. Whether I’m in the office or at home, a quick 10-minute breathing exercise or even just a few focused breaths can make all the difference. I’m sure they can do the same for you!
Don’t resist the pain. Work with it. Then work through it
The more I study motivation and performance hacking, the more this advice comes up, and I’m always thankful for the reminder – confronting my own vulnerabilities and practicing acceptance of pain has helped me immensely on many occasions. Rather than fighting physical or emotional pain, I focus on embracing it and absorbing it. One trick I like to use is ending my normal morning shower with a cold one. Training your mind to accept the discomfort and relaxing your body actually help you feel warmer in those situations. I do this regardless of how cranky, tired, or unmotivated I feel. I won’t lie, some mornings are harder than others, but I never regret pushing myself to do this.
Gratitude is a great help in difficult times
Last year, halfway through the race, a giant storm hit us. We didn’t have a raincoat, had severely sprained my ankle, and, to be honest, probably hadn’t done my best to train for the race. As I muscled through it this year, I thought back on that experience and focused on how grateful I was to have good weather, two working legs, and more training behind me. Turning my mind to the positive and expressing gratitude for them helped me believe that I could overcome this.
I’m a firm believer that what you put into your body is what you get out of it, but I also realize that every person is different and has their own individual food needs. I won’t go too far into it, but I will say this: paying attention to what you eat and to how your body responds to it is the most effective way to find the best path for yourself.
Beyond that, I have one piece of nutritional advice that I think everyone can benefit from: adaptogenic mushrooms. Adaptogens are substances that improve your body’s natural ability to deal with stress. There is a lot of fascinating research out there about them, so if you’re curious, let me know in the comments and I’ll point you in the right direction.
I’ve made these special mushrooms a part of my daily routine and have noticed a very pleasant difference in my ability to tackle whatever life throws at me.
Sharing lightens the load
During that race, it was enough to just talk to my racing partner, or call my wife or my best friend and share what is going on with me. The advice and support they offered helped me see things from outside myself and in that moment, the challenge ahead of me suddenly felt a lot less… challenging. This reminded me just how important it is to constantly invest in your relationships with those close to you and to lean on them in times of need. Just knowing that you aren’t alone is very empowering.
BONUS: Routine makes it automatic
When I think back on the initial trouble I had in recalling encouraging advice from my books and podcasts, I realize that these tips still remained strong within me for one single reason: they had become habit. At some point in the past, I decided that I was going to do these things for one important reason or another. Those reasons fueled my discipline in remaining consistent and before I knew it, these practices were a part of me.
I think that any change we want to make in life should work that way: we make it for reasons that are important to us, remind ourselves of that reason when times get tough, and through repetition we turn that activity into a part of who we are, even when we can’t help it.
They say if you want to win, run a 100m dash. If you want to experience something, run a marathon. If you want to get to know yourself, take on an ultramarathon. And I’d say they are right. I learned a lot about myself that weekend, these are only small examples I wanted to write down and remember, both for myself and in the hope that they help and inspire others.
My struggles with this ultramarathon gave me a chance to strengthen my faith in how amazing our bodies and minds are. They can empower us to greatness, while also reminding us how vulnerable we are in this world. They are able to tell us what they need, at the deepest core of ourselves, as long as we take the time to listen, then act, then change, all towards a happier, more fulfilled version of ourselves.
Have you gone through your own “ultramarathon” and realized something about yourself? I’d love to hear your story and what you changed afterward.