zen habits : breathe

16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon

‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’ ~Nelson Mandela

By Leo Babauta

On Saturday, I did what I thought I couldn’t do.

I ran a 50-mile ultramarathon.

Now, I’m certainly not the first to run a race like this — thousands of other stronger, tougher runners have done it. I’m not even one of the faster ones to run this kind of race — I was so slow I almost didn’t make the official cutoff time.

So I don’t take any special credit for running the race. If anything, most of the credit belongs to my friend Scott Dinsmore, who encouraged me to run it and then played a huge role in getting me to the finish.

But I am proud of running the 50-miler. Because it showed me that my limitations aren’t what I thought they were. And it was a way for me to teach my kids the same thing about themselves, through my example.

There’s a lot to say about the race, which started at 5 a.m. in clear, freezing cold conditions … and continued for nearly 14 hours in beautiful (though cold) weather up and down endless hills in the gorgeous Marin Headlands. Seriously, it’s extremely beautiful country and you should hike it if you’re ever in the Bay Area.

But instead of walking you through a boring recap of my race, I’ll share some lessons that I learned along the way.

Lessons from My Ultramarathon

Here are a few of the things I learned:

  1. It was way, way harder than I anticipated. I mean, I knew it would be really hard. But it was way harder than that. I was definitely under-trained, as I took about a month off running to travel to Europe and China, but I thought I could make it based on the fact that I ran a 26-miler, 19-miler, and 17-miler the month before the race. I was right, I could finish on that training, but it was far from ideal.
  2. Running with a partner was everything. Scott was the perfect running partner — fun to talk with, he appreciated the views and the experience as much as I did. He was relentlessly positive and excited, even when things got hard and I was in pain and wanted to quit. He didn’t let me quit. I owe him a lot.
  3. Toes can really hurt after 30 miles of pounding. My right big toe kept jamming into the front of my shoe on downhills (possibly the shoe didn’t fit just right?), which is fine for the first 30 miles. Then it started to really hurt. Going downhill became murder. I kept going, but several times I had to stop and walk. Scott probably would have finished a couple hours earlier if it weren’t for my wimpy walking down some of the hills.
  4. There are a lot of hills in the Northface Endurance Challenge. I knew there would be a lot of hills — we’d run the trails a bunch of times and it wasn’t a problem during training. However, the entire race was either uphill or downhill. It was neverending. If I were going to go back and do it again, I’d do much more hill training. More than half of my 26-mile training run, for example, was on flat land … I should have run up and down Twin Peaks repeatedly.
  5. Seeing my family at Mile 44 really motivated me. Because of the pain of my toe on the downhills, I really felt like quitting somewhere around Mile 40. But I knew Eva and the kids would be waiting at the Mile 44 aid station, so I kept going. When I saw them, they gave me a hug, and I told them I was going to try my best to make it to the finish before the cutoff time. Scott and I really pushed it for the last 6 miles, to the point where it felt like we were almost sprinting the last 4-5 miles (we weren’t, it was probably 8- or 9-minute miles). Seeing my family made a huge difference for me and really strengthened my resolve.
  6. Junk food doesn’t agree with me on these long runs. I don’t normally eat chips and candy, but I figured my body needed the energy so I ate whatever looked good (Newman O’s are awesome — both the Oreo and ginger flavors). But because most of my blood was going to running muscles and lungs and heart working overtime, digestion is harder. So I had stomach issues (best without details) the entire race. The second half I switched to calories from liquid and gels instead of solid food.
  7. It’s important to smell the roses. I was running a race, but the race wasn’t just the running. It was through some breath-taking trails, and focusing on getting to the finish is missing the point. I tried to notice the beauty of the race and the people around me, even later when I was in pain.
  8. There are some seriously inspiring people who run these races. One guy planned to run a marathon, just as an afterthought, the day after our 50-miler. One woman in her 50s was on her 6th or 7th ultramarathon. A bunch of people who didn’t look like super athletes were out there with us, running just as determinedly as the superfit ones. People in their 50s and 60s were way ahead of us. It really shows you how determined your fellow human beings can be, and humbles you.
  9. Pacers are super useful. Scott’s friends Ryan and Mike (now my friends too) split the last 23 miles or so and ran with us, talked and joked with us, encouraged us, and basically didn’t let us just slow to a crawl. I doubt we would have finished before the cutoff time if it weren’t for them. They were the perfect pacers for us, and I owe them a lot.
  10. You feel really good when you start an ultra. Scott and I were really excited as we crossed the starting line and ran the first few miles. It was exhilarating. Your body feels good because you’ve tapered the last couple weeks after training so hard. You are surrounded by people attempting the extremely difficult, who are all excited too. I kept looking around me and saying, “What a day!”
  11. It feels absolutely amazing to cross the finish line. I’d suffered for 20 miles (the first 30 miles were fairly easy) but with the finish line approaching, I forgot all that and wanted to shout my joy to the world. When I crossed the line, I raised my arms in victory, because it was a deeply personal victory. I hugged Scott. I loved life.
  12. It’s very tempting to give in to urges. Being really tired means your mental discipline is low. At the same time, the little child in you wants to give up, go home to a warm bath and bed, and stop hurting. That’s normal. And it’s very tempting to listen to this little child, these urges to quit. I watched the urges, felt their power, and let them go. Repeatedly. It was a continual process of letting go for me.
  13. Resisting the pain makes it worse. When my toe was killing me on the downhills, and my shins and knees and quads were all hurting, I noticed that my entire body was tensed up, anticipating the pain with each step. When I allowed myself to relax, to surrender to the pain, it actually made me feel better. It didn’t hurt as much. I was making it worse by anticipating it and tensing up. Surrender, let go, relax.
  14. You’re so sore you can barely walk the next day. At least, I was. I knew I should have taken an ice bath as soon as I got home, to reduce swelling and soreness and inflammation, but I was so cold from the race I was shaking, so I skipped the ice bath. I used ice packs for my feet and ankles. But I was incredibly sore and had a hard time doing anything the next day, and it was almost as bad the 2nd day. Also, I had a feet swelling problem (edema) for about 3 days. Yikes. It slowly got better, but I think I just beat up my legs and feet too much.
  15. An epic vegan brunch the next day is so damn good. Oh my goodness. I took Eva & the kids to Herbivore the next morning, and ate like I never have before. I had blueberry pancakes, roasted potatoes, vegan sausage bisquit, pesto tofu scramble, coffee, green juice, blueberry corn bread, some of Noelle’s mocha milkshake, and chili cheese fries … best meal in my life. I was ravenous. Also, vegan breakfast food is the best.
  16. You have more in you than you imagine. I knew this would be a hard event, one of the hardest of my life … but I severely underestimated it, and there were times when I felt hopeless and desperate and unequal to the task. Each time, I was able to keep going. I always had a little more in me than I guessed. And this happened repeatedly, which means there’s a huge reserve of determination and grit that I don’t realize is there. We all have it, not just me. We just don’t know it, until we test ourselves. If I learned anything from this race, it’s that we all, every one of us, should put ourselves to the test just to discover the true self that’s lying in hiding within us.


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