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8 Valuable Lessons I Learned From Running a 58km Ultramarathon

Running is a bit like Marmite. 

Some people love it, and some people hate it. 

I love Marmite, and I love running. 

Beyond the obvious health benefits, running is also a powerful tool for your personal development. 

Running is a great way to:

  1. Clear your head. Many people say running is boring. But that is its beauty and power. That headspace is sometimes exactly what we need to just unplug from everything and clear your head. 
  2. Think things through. There are few activities more conducive to thinking things through than jogging. Perhaps because of the increased blood flow and oxygen levels, I always come up with great ideas and solutions. 
  3. Strengthening your mindset. Putting your trainers on and going for a run or pushing yourself during the actual run, you’ll sometimes (often) fight against your body and mind that want you to stop or not even start. This is where you can practice “mind over body“. This mind strength will be useful in other areas of your life. 
  4. Self-discovery. Whether it’s through thinking, reflections, or pushing your limits and beyond, all this will help you deepen your self-knowledge, which will allow you to be more effective in the future. 

This list could be much longer, but these are my top ones. 

Tomas Svitorka Ultra marathon 1

Let’s talk about the actual lessons from running the Ultramarathon.

I love long-distance running. 

For years I’ve been fascinated by UltraMarathons (a run over any distance longer than a regular marathon 42.2km or 26.2 miles). 

If you think a marathon is long (and it is), imagine races that are anywhere from 50-400km+ long!! Yes, people run these distances, and it is insane.

This year I set a goal to run a 50km Solo Ultramarathon (on my own). After a few changes to the plan, I decided to run the Jubilee Greenway route, a 55km loop around London.

I aimed to finish it within 6 hours, but my main goal was to just finish it. I’ve completed several marathons in the last few years, but anything beyond 42.2km was unknown territory for me. 

I’m proud to say I finished in 5h and 48 minutes. 

Frankly, I’m pretty proud I’ve finished because it wasn’t easy. 

(Who would have thought? :D) 

But, on top of crossing this big goal off my list, I’ve learned a lot through that experience and have done a lot of thinking (through the 6 hours, as you can imagine). And I want to share some of these insights with you. 

So here they are:

Running is a great metaphor for life and business.

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Running is a great metaphor for a lot of things, especially life and business. You can approach it recreationally (‘unintentionally’ as I like to call it) without any great aim, enjoy it as it comes and see what happens. 

That’s all well and good, but one must accept that they most likely never become exceptional runners. 

To explore how good they can be and reach an above-average level, one must commit to systematic and continuous improvement and be very intentional with their training. Same in life and business. 

Your body and your brain don’t want you to win.

Ultramarathon run

I highly recommend everyone to read about evolutionary psychology, biology, and neuropsychology (it sounds heavy, but there is a lot of popular literature on these topics that are easy to digest). 

It will help you understand how the brain works. 

It doesn’t quite work the way you would want it, though. 

There are three primary “layers” to our brain. 

Your brain want’s you to be as comfortable as possible with the least amount of effort. That is the default, albeit oversimplified. 

That’s driven particularly by the two oldest brain layers (the reptilian and mammalian brain). Unless there is a big tempting reward, these regions of your brain are typically responsible for you feeling lazy, unmotivated or afraid. That’s your brain’s way to keep you away from doing things that are dangerous or exhausting. 

But we also have the cortex (the wrinkly part of the brain), where free will, conscious action, logic etc., originates from. This part of your brain can “override” laziness, fear, and other emotions that are usually the reason why people play it safe or quit (too early). 

This is where self-discipline and self-motivation come from. It is your conscious ability to tell your soft self, “Shut up, You ain’t quitting yet!”

Needless to say, self-discipline is a big passion of mine and an incredible skill to develop. If you want to achieve great things in life, you’ll need self-discipline. Otherwise, you’ll be at the mercy of your emotional brain that wants you to be safe and comfy. 

Whether it’s to push through the proverbial (but very real) wall when you’re running a marathon or learning a language, pushing for the promotion or building a business. 

It’s just not possible without self-discipline. 

Check out my Self-Discipline Bootcamp if you want to master it. 

You’re underestimating yourself.

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Have you ever thought… 

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this off”? 

Most people think this quite frequently. Yet, most of the time, they do pull it off. Sometimes it just takes a few tries. So this means that we’re wrong most of the time. And we are. 

When you run for a long time, you will hit lows. It’s just inevitable. 

At that point, you’ll be doubting yourself whether you can push through this. Do you still have enough energy? Will your body hold up? Can you do this? And just as with most things in the past, you can and you will. 

Doubt is natural, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe it or give in to it. It’s just a doubt and not a prescription. 

It too shall pass

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As I mentioned above, when you run for long, you’ll hit some low points where you doubt yourself. You’ll question why you’ve started in the first place, whether you’ve prepared enough, whether you have what it takes. 

You may hit some walls. This is where for one reason or another, your energy level and strength just drops, and it takes enormous effort to keep going. 

*When I was going through one of my lows, I had a flashback where I went to a Mexican restaurant in the Philippines a few years ago and got carried away with food – Loaded nachos, quesadillas, many rounds of tacos and a pitcher of mojito. The carb-coma hit me so hard that I was struggling to stay awake on our way home. Unbelievable. I never experienced anything like that. I had 0 energy. 

For a moment, during the run, I felt a bit like that. Just 0 energy. 

You also descend into so-called “pain caves”. This is where your body just hurts at random places or all over. Personally, it wasn’t any sharp pains, but just sort of a dull pain of exhaustion that came over me. 

What’s amazing is that when you keep going, after some time, it just goes away, and you re-emerge again. How is that possible? I don’t know. The human body is amazing. 

To me, that is a great metaphor for life. We all go through lows, dark patches, and pain caves. When we stop trying, we can get stuck there. Regardless of how hard it is, we need to keep moving forward because it all shall pass, and you’ll re-emerge again. 

Find your buddies

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Most people join Ultramarathons races because you run with other people. There is a lot of support and several aid stations along the way where you can top up food and water. My run was solo, not a race. 

Luckily, my good friend, fellow runner and former client Robin offered to join me for the last 12km of the run to support me. I generally quite enjoy running on my own, but I knew this was a different kind of run, and Robin joining me would be helpful.

And it did make a difference. Not only he was kind enough to bring me water (which I ran out of) but also a bottle of Coke which at that point felt like rocket fuel. Thanks to Robin running alongside me, I picked up the pace for the last 12km (after I’d already run over a marathon), which I didn’t think I had in me because I so wanted to stop and not speed up. But a mixture of pride, wanting to be an inspiration and competitiveness helped me squeeze out of me a lot more than I thought I still had. 

How does this relate to everyday life? In whatever endeavours you pursue, make sure you surround yourself with the right people. People who will inspire you, people you can inspire, people who won’t let you quit, people you can learn from and people who will push you. 

It will help you get the best out of yourself. 

Overprepare 

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If you want to maximise your chances to succeed, prepare as much as you can. I’m not saying procrastinate because you’re trying to be perfect. That’s not the same thing. 

Give yourself a time frame and in that time frame, do everything you can to get ready and prepare for eventualities. 

They will likely come up and then some. 

But, preparation has an extremely positive impact on your psychology during your performance. Presuming it’s challenging, you don’t want to have a head full of worries because you cut corners during preparation. High performers always talk about the importance of psychology. You want to have your head full of positive drive and no worries or doubts. That’s not easy even with being overprepared, let alone when you half-assed it. 

In everyday life, this applies to interviews, presentations, meetings, whatever your responsibilities are and in whichever areas of your life you want to excel. Overprepare and then a bit more. 

A great example would be one of my clients with whom I had a session a couple of days ago. He’s an extremely successful entrepreneur with an international business who was expecting a financial audit any day. Where most businesses would be scrambling around all anxious about it, he could not wait! Why? Because, as he said during our session, “I’m so ready for it!” 

You can’t sprint a marathon.

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If you want to run a marathon or an Ultramarathon, you need to pace yourself well. You’re in it for the long run (totally intentional pun), so if you start too fast, you’ll run out of energy and fall apart before you reach the finish. And trust me, even knowing all that, sometimes it’s hard to contain the excitement and adrenaline at the starting line. It’s a well too familiar tale amongst runners: “I started off too fast, and I paid the price.” Even pros make this mistake. 

Sprinters can max out during their run because it lasts for just a few seconds. (I’ve listened to an interview of a famous female sprinter, and she referred to 800m run as a long run!). In life, you may have short projects as well, last-minute presentations, launching a campaign etc. That you can afford to sprint through. 

But for long term goals, such as building a business, losing weight, learning a language, or turning your life around, you need to pace yourself well, just as an ultra-runner would. 

I see it all the time where people are impatient with their goals, business, dreams and missions. Quick, quick, as if it was around the corner. It’s not. And so they start off too fast, go at it too hard, which is unsustainable for months or years. If you start off too aggressively, you won’t be able to keep it up. Learning how to pace yourself often decides who wins and who taps out.

The wins are underwhelming.

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This may surprise you at first, but I’d like you to think about it for a moment. 

Think of any achievement of yours. There was a build-up, excitement, then the victory moment, which lasted what, a few minutes, hours or day at most, and then… hmmm, what’s next? 

This is not a flaw of your goals. This is just how the human mind works. 

This post success downer or “is this it?” feeling has been well documented with many studies. (Such as post-tenure depression). 

After 58km and nearly 6 hours of running, I finally reached the invisible finish line (which was also a starting line 6 hours earlier) by Cutty Sark in Greenwich; I was fried. All I wanted was to sit down and drink as much lemonade as my stomach would take. (I always crave fresh fruit and lemonade after long runs) Luckily, there was a street market, so I got 3 pints of lemonade. It was the best lemonade I’ve ever had. Just perfect.  

How was I feeling? I was relieved and extremely uncomfortable. My legs were throbbing, and my face was burning from all the sweat salt drying on it. I don’t think I smelled too great either. 

As cliche as it may sound, the best part of the whole experience wasn’t the finish. It was the run. I was the happiest when I was in the trenches of it, sweating, hurting, wondering if I’ll make it. After, as with most of my other accomplishments, is a strange mixture of relief but also sadness that it’s over. 

And from the work I’ve done with my clients, it’s not just me, but pretty much everyone experiences that. 

Ironically, as much as we always want the challenge and pressure to be over, it seems like that’s the best part. 

So, if you’re working on something, hustling, putting the sweat and tears into it and thinking… “when will I finally get there” keep this in mind. When it’s over, you’ll realise it was the best part. 

These are my insights and reflections from my first Ultramarathon. 

And yes, I said “the first one”. Of course! 

Because it’s when you out there in the midst of it, that’s where the happiness is, even when it doesn’t feel that way sometimes. 

As David Goggins says, “I don’t know where my limits are, but I want to go there”. 

I hope you enjoyed reading this. 

If so, leave me a comment or a question. 

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