The 7 Biggest Life Lessons I’ve Learnt from Ultra-running

I was first inspired to take up ultramarathon running while watching the Marathon des Sables (MdS) on French TV. Each night, I watched the day’s action, admiring how the competitors talked about their highs and lows, and seeing the sheer buzz they were experiencing as well as the pain they were in. That was almost twenty years ago – where has the time gone?

Read more about my Marathon des Sables journey –

In 2010 I completed in my first ultra; then in April 2011, I took part in the MdS. What a life experience! Since that first race, I’ve learned a lot about myself and have also have developed transferable skills which help me every day – at work and in my personal life:

  1. Persist, and persist some more

First and foremost, ultra-running has taught me the power of never giving up. Things may seem difficult but difficult is rarely impossible. That persistence is what drove me to set up this site.

I remember as a boy watching Michael Parkinson interview the wife of a South African apartheid activist whose husband had sadly been imprisoned for many years. The lady told the story of how a diamond starts life as a grain of sand and only by resisting immense pressures over a long period of time does it transform into a diamond. Those immense pressures are crucial for its transformation and very being. This story has stuck with me ever since, and I actively recall it when the chips are down and my mind is telling me to quit. I know from the story that pain and discomfort make us stronger, both physically and mentally. This works in every aspect of life: pressure and strain refines, defines and makes us who we are – in business, in sport, and in our personal lives.

  1. Feel the fear and do it anyway

Withstanding those pressures does not mean that we need to be macho or physically strong. On the contrary, I was told once to embrace my fears and to embrace the moment – to try and love what was actually scaring me. What awesome advice! Suddenly, what was scaring me became my friend. Gaining comfort and companionship at a time when I was fearful is such a powerful and enlightening process.

Just consider how much more inner self-confidence you will have when you know and understand that what is scaring you will actually help you to be stronger and to succeed.

  1. Hard work gets the best results

It takes a lot of hard work and endurance to push yourself to the edge of your physical limits. Many ultra-runners hallucinate from fatigue. That’s when it takes total mental concentration and physical effort to get through these periods of sheer exhaustion and out the other side. Believe me, you are a stronger person – mentally and physically – afterwards.

  1. Hone your focus

Focus is a hard discipline to have. It’s about not letting myself get distracted, staying on the journey, and completing what I set out to achieve. I have always been a daydreamer, and often have to give myself a nudge to get back on track.

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll be familiar with the idea of life as a sine curve, following life’s many ups and downs. When tough times arrive or distractions try and stop you from completing your journey, you need to ask yourself ‘why?’ and take a step back to reset. Revisit what ignited your enthusiasm at the start of the journey – why are your goals so important?

  1. Let the ‘why’ be your drive

We all need to be driven by the ‘why’ we do things. By knowing what is so important to you, it will steer  you beyond your own preconceptions of what is achievable. I’ve written more about this in a previous post: Why run an ultramarathon?

  1. Believe in every step

The fourth day of the MdS is the infamous Long Day – over 50 miles long. I vividly remember my self-belief as I approached check point four. After having suffered hallucinations during the previous miles and feeling so low, I got myself back together again and decided to walk in to the check point. After something to eat and a friendly supportive word from Mark Gillett (who is sadly no longer with us), I left the check point, heading out on to a flat plain with the sun starting to dip to my left. Here I found an inner belief and self-confidence that I would not only complete the event, but that I was going to enjoy every step of the way – and I pretty much did!

  1. Plan, plan, plan

There’s no underestimating thorough preparation: being ready for different eventualities, and to be able to adjust my plans as events unfurl – or sometimes unravel – around me. If you can learn how to deal with different scenarios and your responses are ingrained, you’ll have so much more thinking space to deal with unexpected situations.

This brings me back to Life is a Sine Curve and your journey. What’s your goal? Have you got a plan to achieve it? If not, you need to make one. Figuring out where you are on your own sine curve, adjusting your plan and actions where required, will help you to achieve your goal and build future successes. By being prepared for all eventualities, you’ll stay calm in the face of adversity because you know what is coming. When the unexpected really does arrive, you’ll have the mental space and agility to do the right thing.

I’d love to hear if this post resonates with you. Perhaps you’re a fellow endurance runner and you’ve got your own lessons to add? Or perhaps you’re someone struggling to achieve your own goals – whatever they may be. Get in touch by emailing to find out how I can help.

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