I did it. I completed the impossible. I ran 314 miles across Tennessee in the middle of July.

What about you — could you do it?

I didn’t think so either. But, mile-by-mile, running has taught me seven life-altering lessons.

Running is a meritocracy. Your success is a direct result of your effort.

I’m not a lifelong runner. I never ran more than a mile until I had a drill sergeant screaming pleasantries at me after enlisting into the Army. 

I would love to say, a few months later I ran 314 miles, but it was a decade-long journey littered with peaks and valleys.

A two-mile race here, a six-mile race there. I quit running completely for a year. And, then I found myself trying to stay sane in Afghanistan.

These lessons have been hard-earned, but their application goes well beyond a pair of running shoes.

  1. The Power of Small Actions
  2. The Power of Habit
  3. Build Toughness
  4. Feel the Flow
  5. Make Personal Connections
  6. Clarity of Thought
  7. Improved Health

The Lessons Along the Way

Run in groups

1. The Power of Small Actions

Running is the epitome of small acts done repeatedly leading to great accomplishments. The journey of 1000 miles (or 314) literally begins with a single step.

Your dream may get you started, but motivation fades quickly. How do you bridge the gap? You find small goals along the way.

I remember when a 5k was the longest I’d ever run.  Could I do a 10k? Did I really just run a half-marathon? Each distance, a little longer than the last, slowly growing my confidence for the next.

On longer races, I might find myself focusing on the next aid station and what actions need to be taken to keep myself in the game. 

As exhaustion or sweltering heat degrades my mind, this exercise quickly degenerates into jogging to the next mailbox or telephone pole, maybe alternating with walking, and repeating a thousand times. 

The finish line could be a mile or 1000 miles away — both beyond rationalization in exhaustion. But, I can shuffle for a minute. A minute is no problem. I’ve done that thousands of times.

Zero in on the next step. Then the next, compiling wins. Often without realizing, you’ve made it all the way. Mission complete.

2. The Power of Habit

There’s significant research indicating we have a limited amount of individual willpower each day. As a runner, you can struggle each day or you can build habits.

There are many days when running is hard. It’s too hot, cold, or wet. You’re tired. It’s late. 

Habits don’t ask and habits don’t care.

Start off small, lace up your shoes and step out your front door for a few weeks; anything else is gravy. Slowly progress to running or walking a mile each day after work. By selecting targets of least resistance, you give yourself the greatest likelihood for success.

Laura Vanderkam calls these “better than nothing” habits. Low expectations in the short run, consistently met, lead to great things in the long run. By building, little by little, your confidence and motivation snowball. 

As the process becomes automatic, all previously wasted willpower can now be applied to solving the harder, more dynamic issues in our daily lives.

3. Build Toughness

In addition to the physical benefits, running builds mental stamina and resiliency.

Often, halfway through a run, you’re at your quitting point. You’re exhausted, lonely, just generally miserable. And, you have to do the whole thing at least one more time!

Mind over matter. If you refuse to accept defeat, the rest doesn’t matter. The body can’t quit without the mind’s permission.

David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL and ultrarunner, claims the body has a governor which initially allows you to use 40% of your maximum capabilities. This percent can be increased by consistently pushing your limits.

For me, this is often manifested not in a desire to go forward but a refusal to stop. I set conditions before many of my races — often physically injury being the only way out or seeking permission from others because I have the mind of a quitter. 

In ultramarathons, you experience the highest highs and lowest of lows. It’s an emotional roller-coaster. Your body lies to you. As long as you keep providing it fuel, it will find a way to persevere through the impossible.

The more times you overcome your doubts, struggles, and inhibitions, the more confidence you can repeat this in the future.

Can I make it to the end of the run? Can I still move forward? Yes? Alas, I must continue onward.

4. Feel the Flow

Flow is described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly as the optimal experience.

People are so consumed by an activity that nothing else matters. It’s challenging, enjoyable, and satisfying. Time can lose all sense of reality. Your senses are heightened and your connection to the world around you is deepened. You’re performing at your peak.

Sometimes, this is described as a runner’s high.

Flow occurs when you have a task with total responsibility for its success or failure, you have a clear, challenging goal near your maximum capability, and you receive frequent feedback.

When running, you set your goal — am I running a certain distance, a certain pace, or effort? Your physical condition, distance covered, and comparisons to other runners provide instant feedback.

There are many ways to similarly incorporate flow into work, but running provides an easy way to practice and experience flow. Flow is highly correlated with generating happiness within ourselves — something strongly lacking in our burnout society.

She’s feeling the flow.

5. Make Personal Connections

One of the best predictors of success is the company you keep. A group of runners, a group who by their nature is always striving to do better, is good company.

There’s something about running that breaks down social barriers. Everyone who steps out of the front door, walking or running, shares a common bond. 

I’ve had deeper discussions running with someone in 30-40 minutes than some people I’ve known for years. Running has a way of cutting through the superficial and builds upon the shared experience of running together.

Community provides accountability. A college friend and I would meet every Saturday morning. We started with painful two and three-mile runs, which eventually grew to 10+ miles while we explored new areas discussing the future of education, religion, and life.

And, when the hard work is done, these friends will enthusiastically celebrate and encourage your next crazy idea, wherever that might lead.

My brother and I after our first marathon. My buddy, Robert also joined (and beat) us.

6. Clarity of Thought

There is significant research indicating taking breaks allows your mind to unconsciously process learning and solve complex problems,

Ever had an epiphany in the shower or woke up with a long-sought solution after a long night of sleep? Running generates the same revelations.

Wracking your brain over a tough issue? Take a run. 

This post was born on a run, along with solutions to many other “unsolvable” problems. Running is a critical piece of my problem-solving plan.

7. Improved Health

With clarity of thought, running supports strong mental health. Running has helped me stay physically lean and is especially effective as a weight-loss method for beginning runners.

My resting heart rate is normally in the upper 40s compared to the average person’s resting heart rate between 60-100 beats per minute. Lower is better (with some medical exceptions). My stress levels are similarly kept in check, reflected by healthy blood pressure.

Running also burns off excess energy, enabling me to more easily fall asleep and start the recovery process. A healthy sleep pattern is critical to mental, physical, and emotional health.

Conclusion

A few months after my first marathon, I ran my first ultra. I ran 50 miles and suffered. I walked the last 15 miles like a real-life zombie. But, repeating left-right-left-right, I finished.

Finished the impossible. It took a little time for the shock to wear off.

A year later, I lined up at the starting line of the Last Annual Vol State Race, 314 miles across Tennessee. Using small goals, mentally incapable of comprehending more than a single painful step at a time, relishing the periods of flow, and connecting with other runners allowed me to complete the impossible. 

I finished, feeling like a conquering hero. Maybe it wasn’t so impossible after all.

Running is a microcosm of life. These seven lessons will change your life:

  1. The Power of Small Actions
  2. The Power of Habit
  3. Building Endurance Resiliency
  4. Feeling the Flow
  5. Making Personal Connections
  6. Clarity of Thought
  7. Improved Health

I didn’t wake up one day and run 300 miles, but I made it there, day after day, mile-by-mile.

Are you ready to get started?

About Scott

Writer. Teacher. Learner. Keen on process and individual improvement. And running really, really far.

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