I didn’t recognize the woman in the mirror. The eyes staring back at me were sunken, and the dark circles underneath them contrasted with the white of my skin. My lips were chapped.
“Damn, you look tired,” I said aloud as I turned away from the hotel’s bathroom mirror and towards the shower.
My body ached, and I struggled to undress myself. The hot water soothed my body and my soul. And as I washed off the salty sweat that covered my body like a thin, invisible layer, I reminisced about the day before.
I participated in the 24-hour road ultramarathon German Championships and placed 2nd in my age group (35). It was my second year of running again after a 9-year long break.
Thoughts of regret alternated with thoughts of pride.
I regretted that I had excluded running for so long from my life. I regretted almost forgetting how pivotal it was for my healing and growth. And I regretted that I used “life” as an excuse for why I couldn’t run.
But I felt proud of what I had achieved in my first 24-hour race and the many lessons I learned leading up to it.
One year has passed since that race, and I have run a few more ultras and learned a few more lessons. But training for and competing in ultramarathons not only taught me lessons about the sport.
It also taught me critical life skills.
Here are 3 of them.
1. Solve Problems As Soon As They Arise. Don’t Let Minor Issues Become Big Problems.
I grew up believing one can get rid of problems by ignoring them.
When I could not learn for an upcoming test, I would simply get on sick leave. On other occasions, I would “forget” my sports clothes because I was faced with the problem of sucking at Volleyball (our primary sport played in Physical Education).
I ignored various other seemingly small issues in my life:
The small holes in my teeth.
The feeling of loneliness that crept in whenever I had a day off from my overly demanding job (which wasn’t very often).
And the letters piling up on my desk that I needed to file away.
Sure, some small problems seem more “critical” than others. However, they all have one thing in common: They wouldn’t have become more significant problems if I had attended them immediately.
Ultramarathons are like a time machine.
What you experience in the hours you are racing can make you feel like you have just passed a week, month, or even year.
Minor problems can turn into big problems very quickly. And you will soon learn that ignoring those problems when they are still small can lead to more significant issues forcing you to end your race early.
I needed three races to learn that lesson.
A slight headache bothered me during the early hours of the 24-hour race in 2022. I ignored it, and it disappeared after a couple of hours when the sun wasn’t as hot anymore.
During my first hundred-mile race – The Berlin Wall Race – I also felt a slight headache. Again, I ignored it, thinking it would go away once I had reached the forests and was out of the scorching sun. And sure enough, this headache would fade away too.
The third time I felt a headache during a race, I was not so lucky.
A slight headache turned into a huge one, and I had to end the race early. If I had slowed down a bit earlier, cooled myself down by putting a cool towel over my neck, or even resting for a few minutes, I might have prevented the headache from worsening.
Similarly, I would have avoided the unpleasant dentist visits in my mid-30s if I had dared to deal with my tiny holes in my early 20s.
I would have avoided that long day of sorting and filing away papers if I had filed away each important letter as it arrived.
And I would have avoided needing to restart my social life and rebuild friendships if I hadn’t ignored my soul’s whispering, “You need to stop working so much. You don’t have a life anymore.”
2. Be Comfortable with Uncertainty.
I used to hate uncertainty. Even the slightest spontaneous change of plans in my day-to-day would irritate me.
When my ex-girlfriend told me we needed to go shopping sometime that day, I felt anxiety rise. I needed to know when exactly we would go.
And back when I was still running only half marathons, I would run the 21 km beforehand in training. I needed to be sure I could cover the distance before I would toe the race’s start line.
When I decided I wanted to run ultramarathons, I knew I needed to learn how to let go of the need to have everything figured out in advance.
After all, I could only do so much training before embarking on my first 24-hour race.
And while I did run a 50 k in training before my first ultramarathon, a 61 km trail race, I had to accept that I couldn’t do a 24-hour training run just to see if I could pull it off.
Instead, I needed to befriend uncertainty.
I needed to accept that I would only know if I had trained well enough on race day. I needed to accept that I would venture into unknown territory because my longest run before the 24 hours was the 61-kilometer trail race.
I was so scared the night before the race that I wrote in my diary, “I feel so stupid. What if I mess up and make a complete fool of myself.”
I debated my start.
When the race ended, I realized all my worrying was for nothing. Despite intense period cramps and gastric distress, the race went much better than expected.
That day was a huge confidence builder.
It made me realize that I was capable of dealing with uncertainty and that I could figure out things along the way. I wouldn’t need to know every little detail before embarking on a new adventure.
It was enough to map out a plan, control the controllable, and stay calm and focused on the task at hand when problems arose and the strategy needed to be modified.
Since that race, I have been actively working on becoming more and more comfortable with uncertainty. By seeking out new experiences and challenges, scaring myself more often, and doing things I fear.
Over the past year or so, my tolerance for accepting uncertainty has improved so much that I was eventually able to quit my job and transition into my dream career. Something I had wanted to do for several years but had been afraid of doing.
3. Stay Present, Even If the Present Sucks. Running from Pain Doesn’t Work.
Before I started my ultrarunning journey, I was afraid of pain. However, it was not so much the physical pain that scared me. Instead, I ran from emotional pain. I was afraid to feel. Maybe because I never learned to navigate emotions and express them in a safe and supportive environment.
As a result, I adopted various self-destructive coping mechanisms.
I reached for a drink more often than not when the loneliness of a nigh-shift worker’s life was too much to bear.
I also drowned my sorrows in wine when I experienced heartbreak or when I had arguments with a friend.
I procrastinated on my biggest goals and dreams and told myself my ambitions were silly because I didn’t want to face the pain of turning my life upside down.
Through ultrarunning, I learned to stay present when negative emotions arise.
After all, I can’t just open a bottle of wine in the middle of a 40-kilometer training run 😅.
I still remember the first time I cried on the run. It was during my 50-kilometer training run for my first ultra. I spend hours alone with my thoughts. My mind went to places it never did before and asked questions I didn’t dare to ask before.
I also cried during my first 24-hour race, not because of my physical pain but because the mental exhaustion was overwhelming.
But I continued to move. Eventually, I surrendered to the emotional pain, just as I surrendered to the physical pain I felt.
I have learned that trying to distract myself from these feelings by listening to music or an audiobook doesn’t work. Eventually, those unpleasant emotions will return on my next long run. And if not then, then surely during the long run after.
You can not run from pain indefinitely.
Somewhen you need to face it. And when you do, it might hurt even more than if you hadn’t run from it initially.
We must learn to stay present instead of wishing the pain would disappear, ignoring it, or trying to numb it. We need to learn to breathe through the pain and develop a tolerance for it.
Admittedly I am still learning how to handle emotional pain just as well as physical pain. The less-than-admirable tantrums I threw after my girlfriend broke up with me prove that I still have a lot of work to do.
However, over the past three years, I have improved at allowing myself to feel those negative emotions.
Ultrarunning has taught me that no matter how much it hurts at the moment, all pain is temporary.
And when I let myself feel the pain and accept that it is there, I can learn from it and turn perceived suffering into strength.