The Most Valuable Lesson Learned from Running My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon

Written by Scott December 11, 2013

North face finish final

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

-Nelson Mandela

Choosing What’s Possible…

About a week and a half ago my good friend Leo Babauta and I drove out to the Marin Headlands just across the Golden Gate Bridge outside of San Francisco to go for a run. It was 3:45 am and it had been pouring rain all night – the first heavy wind and rain in over a month, in fact. Go figure…

We’re both pretty into challenges, and I also try to choose my own new “impossible” each year. So about nine months ago, we talked each other into signing up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile foot race. We had no idea what was involved — and we definitely didn’t get the memo that the North Face course was rated a 5 out of 5 on overall ultra-marathon difficulty. (We heard that detail from our pacer and friend Mike at mile 42.) We trained off and on for about eight months, but didn’t get serious until the last few, and still ran well below the suggested 50 miles a week that most trainers prescribed.

So at 5 am, thankfully the rain had cleared, leaving a gorgeous starry morning with nice fresh temps just below freezing. The starting gun went off, and we started finding out what we were made of. After about 20 seconds, I looked at Leo and gave him one of my standard over-excited high fives. I figured it was pretty amazing just to cross the starting line of an event like that, and plus, you gotta celebrate the small things, right? 🙂

The next 13 hours and 48 minutes were the most emotionally and physically intense I’ve ever experienced.

As for “finding out what we were made of,” that became quite clear around mile 37, when the bottom really started to feel like it was falling out.

Were we undertrained? Ha. Like I can’t explain.

Being our first real ultra, we naively thought we might finish in 12 hours, long before the sun set. Not even close. With four miles left, our headlamps went back on. And at mile 44, Leo and I heard one of the aid station workers say, “Okay, there’s just two more left after these guys, and the sweeper is about 10 minutes out,” as he casually looked at his clipboard.

The sweeper is the guy who runs the race at the cutoff pace. If he catches you, you’re out. We were 3rd and 4th to last of the 450 who entered. The thought of finishing last (or not getting to finish at all because you’re too damned slow!) turned out to be rather motivating.

It’s funny what’s left in you even when you think you’re empty.

We didn’t really say much to each other after hearing the news of our snail’s pace, but slowly we started charging up the final hill. You’re supposed to hike the hills, but Leo started passing people, running straight up. In the last four miles, we advanced to 15th from last place and finished 12 minutes before the official 14-hour cutoff. Later we found out that about 750 runners signed up for the race, 450 started and 395 people finished.

Never in my life have I underestimated an activity more. Not even close.

We were absolutely smoked. And we would not have changed a thing.

The day was beautiful, the company was unbeatable and the experience was perfect. You learn a lot about yourself on a day like that, but today I wanted to just cover one thing…

Why the hell would you want to even think about running 50 miles, let alone actually attempt it!?

I got this question a lot. It’s usually followed with, “Are you sure that’s good for you?” and the occasional, “That’s really not smart for your body.”

The thing is that Leo and I aren’t “runners.” I’ve never even run a sanctioned marathon. We love to get out and explore, but we have no illusions of becoming or being “ultra-runners.” This is probably the only event like this we’ll ever do.

The point wasn’t to break a record (thankfully!) or to beat someone. We didn’t do it to get fit, lose weight or look sexy in a Speedo – there are probably better strategies for that, anyway. Either we’d finish or we wouldn’t. But we’d get to find out. We’d get to learn about new limits and feel what it was like to live a day a little more on the edge.

So, why do it? To go out and see what was possible. That’s why.

Note: For those interested, Leo did a much more comprehensive post and I fully agree with all points, except he gave me way too much credit. I would not have finished without him. It was a perfect 50/50 partnership. Here’s his brilliant recap: 16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon

Nelson Mandela its impossible until its done

Everything Was Impossible Until Someone Did It.

I read or think about the quote above from Nelson Mandela almost daily, and even more so lately since his passing.

Everything used to be impossible.

It was a physiological impossibility for a human to run faster than a four-minute mile, right up until Roger Banister went to the track on May 6th, 1954, and ran a 3:59. You know what happened in the next six weeks? Over a dozen people did the same.

Human-powered flight was a fantasy. Then it became a part of daily life for millions. Candlelight was the only way we navigated after sunset. Anything else was unthinkable, and the idea of electricity was ridiculed. Until it became undeniable.

And that’s the most brilliant truth of all. Everything was impossible until someone did it.

And more personally – and much more importantly – everything was impossible until YOU did it.

Who cares about doing what the world thinks is impossible? The real power comes from accomplishing your own impossible. There is no more powerful confidence builder than showing yourself that you can do the things you didn’t think you were capable of.

That’s what makes fitness the ultimate Trojan horse.

Imagine if you couldn’t run around the block, but then, through gradual training, you eventually run your first 10k or a marathon. Or what if you decide one day you’re done making excuses about your body or diet and instead take a stand and start to treat your body the way it deserves? And what if that leads to you losing 50 pounds? Or even 10 or 15?

If you can get yourself to run a marathon or lose 50 pounds, who’s to say you can’t double the sales of your business next year? Or quit that job that’s been killing your potential? Or finally start that charity or business you’ve had burning inside you?

You see, how we treat our body is 100% in our control. And for the most part, our level of fitness is also dictated by us. No one can take that from you. Few things in this world are actually in our control. It’s on us to control the things we can. Because when we do, we build a new level of confidence. And that confidence compounds over time and throughout the rest of our lives.

If we can train ourselves to attempt and do the things we used to think were impossible, that impossibility starts to become our new normal.  Our default belief shifts from “How could I possibly do this?” to “How could I possibly NOT?” That thinking then ripples across your world.

Your new normal starts to change everything.

If you would have asked me five or ten years ago whether I could run fifty miles in a day, I would have laughed at you. Now I know better. If you would have told me a group of nine-year-olds were going to swim 1.5 miles from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco in 54 degree water, I would have said it was suicide. Until I did the swim with 50 elementary and middle school kids (in fact, the only reason I swam was because of them – huge thanks to Jonathan and the rest of you guys!).

A few years ago, if you would have told me you could launch a revolution to help people find and do work they love, all from a laptop in a home office in San Francisco, I wouldn’t have even heard it. It was too far from my reality. But in three weeks from now, we have 226 people hosting Live Your Legend events in 150 cities in 44 countries across the world for as many as 64,000 attendees – with the sole purpose of bringing people together to support each other in doing work that matters. And it’s all happening on the same day (find and register for your LYL local meetup here). That’s still hard to believe. But it’s reality.

And you want to know the really crazy thing? Now that we’re here, I feel like we’re only just getting started – and that fills me with excitement and possibility like I can’t describe.

You Get To Decide What’s Possible.

Do you realize how freakin’ amazing that is?!?

No one can tell you you can’t take a shot at a dream, change a habit, dance to a different beat or hang around inspiring people. That’s for you to decide. And this is why Doing Your Impossible is the second pillar of our 3-part Passionate Work Framework. It’s the core of our TEDx Talk on How to Find and Do Work You Love. And it’s at the heart of our Live Off Your Passion Guided-Discovery career change course.

When you show yourself you can do the things you didn’t think could be done, you start to realize that possibility is a choice. And the fastest way to do the things you don’t think can be done is to hang around people already doing them. Brainwash the impossible.

If you hang around friends who run twenty miles before breakfast, you’ll start to become a runner. That’s why environment is the foundation of everything we do at Live Your Legend. It’s why we created our How to Connect With Anyone course and it’s why we’ve spent a small fortune in time and money in developing our Live Your Legend LOCAL platform and app (coming real soon, I swear!). It’s going to be 100% free to you all and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about a project.

Because I know what happens when you surround yourself with the right people. A long walk turns into fifty miles. An idea turns into a revolution. It all starts to become possible. That new normal becomes real life.

Scotts LYL Finish

So, what impossibility can you tackle?

Start small. Bag some little victories and let the confidence snowball. Pick your own impossibility and get to work.

Oh, and are you curious at all about the 379 other people who kicked my ass in that race? Well I know at least 12 of them were women over 55 years old. There was one woman, about the age of my mother, who beat me by over two hours.

If you removed the finish line, loud music and celebration, and just watched these people run by, you probably wouldn’t suspect a thing. Why? Because they looked exactly like you and me. And as it turns out, that’s exactly who they are. The only difference was their conviction and their belief of what could be done. Of what was normal. That, along with a little training, turned them into super humans.

So my biggest lesson was quite simple and I guess it’s more of a reminder than anything. Probably the most important reminder of all…

Most People Drastically Underestimate What They’re Capable Of

I don’t care what your story or excuse, you tell me what you think can’t be done and I bet we can find an example of someone with the deck even more stacked against them, who’s living that new normal. One of our biggest jobs at LYL is to find and showcase that potential in others.

And all of our biggest job as Living Legends is to be a living example of that possibility.

It was actually pretty cool to have someone double my age beat me by 2 hours. More power to ’em. She gave me a new belief and I’m grateful for it.

After all, it’s kinda nice to be humbled every now and again. Seems to happen to me a lot these days.

And sometimes you just gotta find out…

-Scott

Want Help Doing the Impossible?

Pushing personal limits (physical and mental) is the heart of our revolution at Live Your Legend. And like I mentioned above, it’s the foundation of our Live Off Your Passion Guided-Discovery course.

To give you a feel for our dedication to helping you all do work that matters, in the past few months we’ve invested over $11,000 (and many dozens of hours) in improving our Live Off Your Passion experience. The price will stay the same and all current members will, of course, get all the benefits. We just thought it was the right thing to do.

Now, have an amazing pre-holiday week, and remember to share some love and do something to make those around you smile. It’s free and priceless at the same time!

And remember…everything was impossible until someone did it. Now all you have to do is decide what you’ll do first. Then start walking (or running ). 🙂

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