Get it on Google Play
Download on the App Store

16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon

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

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.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life Tips for Traveling with Kids My Grand Travel Experiment The Parent I Aspire to Be The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief 7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges The 30-Day Learning Challenge The Place Where You Are Feeling Determined to Change Practicing Non-Judgment Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire Don’t Waste Your Opportunity How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method When Others Frustrate You Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play Leave Yourself Wanting More Fail Faster at Habits The Anti-Bucket List Getting Started with the Discipline Habit The Case for Caring About Your Work Questions of Priority The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More Pare Down with the Declutter Habit You’re Not Doing Life Wrong Getting Lost in Just Doing An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit The Source of Contentment Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It” The Things That Get in the Way of Doing The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive The Contentment Habit The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books In Praise of Limits The Art of Being My Dad 5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015 Essential Zen Habits of 2014 Karate Chop Practicing Slowness & Being Present Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make My 2014 Successes and Failures Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life When You’re Lonely The Brain’s Fast Mode 5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide The Four Hidden Habit Skills The Power of Delay Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book Please Support the Zen Habits Book Are You a Lift or Drag Force? When Resistance Smacks You in the Face When Your Plate is Too Full The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize The Empty Container The Realization A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits The Smart Way to Stick to Habits My Most Effective Learning Tools What I Do When I Fail How to Put Your Writing in Public The Productive Sprint The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear What to Eat for Fat Loss The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification How to Get Motivated After a Vacation 7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction How to Breathe 7 Discipline-Mastering Practices 7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes How to Believe in Yourself Don’t Waste a Moment How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach How to Be Great Making Yourself Work Inhabit the Moment How to Master the Art of Living The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day Living the Simple Life How to Be Prepared for Anything Turn Toward the Problem The End of the Day Philosophy The Painful Beauty of Impermanence How to Change Other People Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent Looking for Love How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed Why We Have Regret The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes My Struggles with Eating Boring Food The No Procrastination Challenge Creating a Lovely Morning A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women Turn Inspiration Into Action Coming Back From a Setback The Gift A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids How to Make a Marriage Work Love Notes Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness The Letting Go Ebook, Free The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit How I Tackle a Big Writing Project The Habit Action List The Reality of This Moment Confidence in Your Business 10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do On Making It Through Tough Journeys The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most What to Think About During Exercise You’ll Be OK The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome You’re Not Worse Than Other People Being Mindful of Your Stress What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself? The Universe of a Single Task Simplifying Is Painful Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress My Month Without a Smartphone What I’ve Learned as a Writer What the Exercise Habit Did For Me Fear is the Root of Your Problems This Moment 36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums How I Conduct My Business Constant Task Switching The Habits of Five Amazing Founders The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project? I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard! Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem Letting Go of Judging People Don’t Scratch the Itch Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit Zen Productivity When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation The Child That Holds Us Back Stateless Mindset My Month of (Almost) No Internet 12 Changes for 2014 Essential Zen Habits of 2013 The Fear of Being Alone The Calm Approach Things Every Man Should Own Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled A Method to Find Balance 16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go Finding Focus When You Run Out of Ideas The Necessary Art of Subtraction Jealousy & Suffering How Creativity Works, & How to Do It Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences Make It Your Job Developing Selfless Compassion Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong A Month Without Sugar Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations) 12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools Burn Down the Farm My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee 3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities My Pursuit of the Art of Living A Month Without TV or Video The Way of No Debt Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One The Way to Be Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits The Time to Shut Down The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes 8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’ The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling My Advice for Starting a Business Creating Your Habit Environment Travel Lessons with My Family Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches The Fear of Being Found a Fraud The Flexible Mind Declutter Your Life A Month Without Coffee The Healthful Vegan Diet Living the Quiet Life The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life The Habits of Happiness How to Keep Habits Going During Travel A Year of Living Without The Key Habits of Organization I Failed Vegan Guide to San Francisco The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others A Secret to Dad Greatness Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now 6 Steps To Being More Creative How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems Working with the Obstacles in Your Path 9 Rules for a Simpler Day The Little Book of Contentment The Obstacle is the Path 5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger Smile in Each Moment A Guide to Practical Compassion 6 Steps To Healing Yourself The 7-Day Vegan Challenge Why You Should Write Daily Achieving Without Goals Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else) Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger A Guide to Practical Contentment The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen Quitting Your Habits The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers How To Make It Impossible To Fail The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years Walled-in: Life Without Facebook The 7 Habits of Calmness The Four Habits that Form Habits Advice to My Kids My 10 Essential Email Habits The Daily Checklist Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring The Power of Habit Investments Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early Do Less: A Short Guide How to Savor Life What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World Simplify the Internet 12 Rules to Live By The New Rules of Fitness for 2013 52 Changes for 2013 The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program Essential Zen Habits of 2012 The Other Person is Never the Problem The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do 28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life The Clutter-free Holiday Guide The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck The Work You Love is Waiting For You The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013 How to Learn Anything Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring 15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan The Willingness to Think Differently Create a Superhealth Community A Vegan Tour of NYC