website statistics

Choosing “Impossible” Challenges

Posted by on Feb 21, 2012 | 29 Comments

Over the years, most of my running friends have made the jump from shorter distances to ultramarathons.  My group of friends (mostly Facebook-based) has even developed a bit of a reputation of ignoring conventional wisdom and jumping into ultras head-first.  As soon as one finishes their first, they immediately join me in coaxing the rest of our friends to make the same jump.

The discussions that ensue are fascinating.  All of the people that have made the jump encourage others to join the fray.  A handful of people offer counter-points.  Invariably, almost everyone chooses to take the plunge.

How?

Most of the runners attempting their first ultra aren’t serious runners that have trained at a high level for years and years.  Conventional wisdom says we have no business dabbling in the world of exceedingly long distance running.  They tell us we should start with a reasonable distance and slowly work our way up as we master each and every distance along the way.  Yet we ignore that conventional wisdom and just go for it.

Facing the prospect of running your first ultra is scary as Hell; self-doubt alone can be paralyzing.  It’s easy to create a million reasons why we can’t do it.  We can convince ourselves we’re not fast enough, we don’t have the time to train, or we don’t have the mental fortitude to get us through the race.  Yet we overcome the self-doubt and just go for it.

So why do some people take the plunge while others do not?

I’m convinced there are two types of people in this world.  The willingness to attempt an ultra can be used to divide these two types of people.  So what are they?

  1. Those that do not try: This group does what society tells them to do.  They conform.  Their self-worth is tied to external validation.  They generally avoid all forms of risk, especially if the risk is tied to social validation.  This group is often uses logic and reason as an excuse to avoid risky situations.
  2. Those that do try: This group generally rejects societal expectations.  Their self-worth is tied to their internal drives.  They welcome risk even if it may lead to them looking foolish.  This group acknowledges ideas may be stupid and make no sense whatsoever, but they do it anyway.

Interestingly, the vast majority of the people that follow this blog seem to fit in the latter category.  It’s not surprising that so many of my friends have made the plunge into the world of ultras.  It’s also not surprising so many have made plans to run their first ultra this year.  Or run a longer ultra.  Or a more difficult ultra.

They’re intentionally seeking out seemingly impossible challenges.  They’re ignoring the voices, both external and internal, that tells them they can’t do it.  They’re intentionally seeking out awesome experiences.  Group #2 definitely has a lot more fun.

So how do you get from group 1 to group 2?

Over the last few years, both Shelly and I have done stuff that was scary as Hell.  Not only have we tackled a fair number of ultras, we’ve quit our jobs, hit the road full-time, and started homeschooling our children.  How did we do it?

I wish I had some secret formula, but I don’t.  I use a deceptively simple process- I commit.  Then I do it.

When those voices of doubt arise, either from others or in my own head, I ignore them.  If I can’t ignore them, I distract myself.  Sometimes the anxiety can be crushing, but I persevere.  I know the anxiety isn’t the kind that indicates a life and death danger.  It’s the kind that assures I’d lead a safe, predictable, boring life.  It’s the kind of anxiety that prevents awesome experiences.

Many of my friends have repeatedly proven it’s possible to run an ultra against all odds.  They’ve moved from group 1 to group 2.  In the process, they’ve become advocates of biting off more than they can supposedly chew.  They all tell the same story: “If I can do it, anyone can.”

What about you?  I know many of you have taken on challenges that were seemingly impossible.  Some are related to ultras.  Others are related to other critical life decisions.  Tell the rest of us about them in the comments section.  Also talk about how you overcame the doubt, both your own and doubt expressed by others.

###

 

Be Sociable, Share!
Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

29 Comments

  1. Kate Kift
    February 23, 2012

    You forgot the important “group 3″.

    Those that don’t care about conventional wisdom, take chances, but don’t do an ultra because they aren’t particularly interested at the moment.

    We are more of the “can’t be arsed” group. Who know’s if there is a cask of wine waiting at the end, then I may have some incentive. :)

  2. Erik
    February 22, 2012

    Jason, you got me dreaming. What’s the shortest ultra I could do and have it still be an ultra?

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      50k, Erik. I’d recommend the Ultrarunning Magazine’s online calendar to find one. ;-)

      • Erik
        February 24, 2012

        Thanks Jason. I checked it out. There’s more events than I would’ve thought possible here in Minnesota. I’m probably at least two years away from it–mainly because time constraints will involve a very gradual building up to it–but for the moment it’s an inspiring daydream.

  3. Richard
    February 22, 2012

    I’ve probably asked you this before, Jason, but is running an organised ultra a lot different than just going out and running, say, 50km for the hell of it?

    I’m not big on organised events and don’t like people telling me where to go and when to go there. I prefer just wandering about wherever I feel like, but reading about these races that people do kind of makes me want to try – at least once.

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      Richard- you get the whole “race” atmosphere and the opportunity to meet a lot of cool runners. The ultra community is one of the best parts of running ultras. However, the actual running experience is pretty much the same.

      • Aaron (aka Alejandro 10 @ BRS)
        February 23, 2012

        Jason,

        I don’t know. It seems to me I would have been more likely to be successful at my 50K attempt last Saturday if it had been at an organized race rather than a Solo Fat Ass to celebrate my birthday. Am I off on that thought?

        Gracia y paz,

        Aaron

        • Aaron (aka Alejandro 10 @ BRS)
          February 23, 2012

          I’m thinking about the fact that after five miles of my out and back there were only 3 or 4 runners that sprinkled onto the trail from different locations to run a mile or two and at a pace much higher than my 16 m/m average. Had I been with like mined company it seems it would have been mutually beneficial for all involved. I suppose that is the “race atmosphere” you talked about, right?

          If I didn’t have crap to do on Saturday, I would like to go out and try again. The swelling in my feet is gone and my right ankle pain is nearly gone. Oh well, maybe after a week of steady running.

          Gracia y paz,

          Aaron

      • Richard
        February 26, 2012

        Cheers! Do let me know if you ever make it over here. Believe it or not, Tokyo has some very nice trails.

  4. Matt M
    February 21, 2012

    I’m glad you wrote this, Jason. Since I first witnessed ultrarunning while crewing at WS last summer, I’ve wanted to just jump right in and try it, having never considered myself to be “a runner.” I’ve run for crosstraining purposes for years, but never had the passion until this point. Now I don’t feel so crazy…or stupid.

    By the way, I love Rob Y’s comment about “the capacity to endure extreme suffering and boredom.” That’s something I do well, and if I get to do it outside in the woods, all the better. I’m starting with a trail 25k in May and my first “real” ultra this fall, a 50-miler on the Superior Hiking Trail. Cheers!

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      Good luck, Matt!

  5. Aaron (aka Alejandro 10 @ BRS)
    February 21, 2012

    Back in August I ran 7 miles on a Saturday and then Sunday 4 more with the Georgia Chapter of BRS. I came away with some patellar tendonitis. December comes and I got back to 49 miles for the month with a nice 5 miler directly into a lake effect snow storm back home in Little Valley, NY. This past Friday, 2/17, I turned thirty. So naturally on Saturday I had my wife drop me off at the head of the Silver Comet Trail in Smyrna, GA so I could go on my birthday run. 26.77 miles later and 3.23 short of my goal and 4.2 short of the parking lot she came back to so she could pick me up I called it quits in the rain.

    As a friend pointed out, I might failed to get in 30 miles, but I made a statement. I’ve been trying to figure out what the statement was. I suppose it might be that I am in group two and F$%(ing happy to be alive after nearly being hit by a semi-truck in our little Civic today. Well, the truck did leave a mark on the driver’s side mirror and knocked it back, so I guess it did hit us.

    Gracia y paz,

    Aaron

    • Aaron (aka Alejandro 10 @ BRS)
      February 21, 2012

      As a friend pointed out, I might *have* failed…

  6. Janice Nicholls
    February 21, 2012

    I enjoyed this post given that I’m planning on my first ultra this summer. Last summer, I dove into trail running and racing as well as off-road triathlon. In my first off-road tri race, I hadn’t done any mountain biking for over a year! I had a big grin on my face through the whole race…it was so much fun! I’m definitely up for trying new things and making my own way. It all started when I ditched the shoes….

  7. Rob Y
    February 21, 2012

    I’m not sure why anybody cares about what “conventional wisdom” is or what “they” say or think about what we do? My wife and I both jumped into ultras fairly quickly in our running careers and at relatively young ages (at the time). Then again we had some awful influences early on; a lot of veteran ultra running sages that enticed us into the sport! ;)

    However, I do think to be successful at the ultras it does take time and experience. A lot of miles in the legs and so there is that sense of conventional wisdom I do believe in. Sure, anybody can jump in and do ultras. May not be pretty, but if you have a capacity to endure extreme suffering and boredom you’ll get through. More miles and experience helps smooth out the lows and the highs and makes for a more pleasant ultra experience in my opinion.

    After all the number “26.2” is not some sort of magic number or barrier; it’s an artificially arrived at distance; completely arbitrary. If not “26.2” then why not “50”, “100”, “135”, “335”, etc….?? :)

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      I agree- more training and experience make for a better performance and less suffering. My point is essentially supporting what you did- make the jump to ultras without extensive experience at shorter distances.

      By the way, I love the idea of the distance being completely arbitrary. Too many people get intimidated by the numbers.

  8. Shacky
    February 21, 2012

    The best thing about taking on “impossible” challenges is that even if you fail, who the F cares? The world was rooting against you and you were supposed to fail. But if by chance you succeed, look out world because it’s time to tackle the next impossible.

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      Good point. For ultras in particular, even failure is more than 99.9% of the population does.

  9. Sally
    February 21, 2012

    All I can say is I have no qualms about trying-it is THE injury that rears it’s ugly head-I am believing it is being healed and after 30 yrs of running I can make a decision for an ultra soon :)

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      Way to go, Sally!

  10. Richard
    February 21, 2012

    Although I agree there are 2 kinks of people, I don’t see how it applies to ultra running. The ultra just has no appeal for me. How is it risky in the first place? You either finish or you don’t. Sounds pretty safe to me.

    • Jason
      February 23, 2012

      Richard- it’s more of an analogy… ultras could represent any significant challenge most deem impossible.

      And I would agree, ultras are only risky in the sense of being able to handle the potential for failure. Well, there are mountain cliffs and cougars…

  11. A Runner Puts Her (Bare)foot Down « Barefoot Monologues
    February 21, 2012

    […] I would like to thank my friend Jason Robillard, who wrote this post about “Choosing Impossible Challenges“, for once again reminding me what kind of person I actually am – and it’s not […]

  12. Trish Reeves
    February 21, 2012

    goddamn.

  13. briderdt
    February 21, 2012

    There’s another possibility, and most likely not overly represented in your readership: Those for whom the question is not “how far?” but instead “how fast?” The idea of pacing through a long day holds no appeal.

    • MatD
      February 23, 2012

      Long time reader, first time poster, and I agree totally with this comment.

      Great post and I totally get your point, however it is certainly worth recognising that some runners simply have no interest in ultra-distance, and that in no way reflects upon their personality and propensity for ‘societal conformance’.

      If sprinting or shorter events are what blow your hair back, the stoke of competing and achieving results and PB’s can be just as fulfilling. And there are certainly no shortage of ‘impossible dreams’ to chase in terms of pushing your PBs lower and lower.

      • Jason
        February 23, 2012

        Agreed. I use the ultra analogy because it works for me, but you could use any sort of progressively more difficult goal. I have some friends that run 5Ks exclusively and constantly work to shave a single second off their time. All the same things apply to their experiences.

  14. Cliff
    February 21, 2012

    Dude, totally a group 2! I got inspired to run the wall (a 105km across Hadrians Wall, UK) and am going to do it in sandals.

    Thank you tons for always being so inspiring. you can check out my own journey http://www.lightpaw.wordpress.com

  15. Erik
    February 21, 2012

    After many years of backpacking through Latin America and Asia, I had gotten bored of the buses, hitch-hiking, trains, and whatnot. I told this to a friend I was staying with in London. He suggested I get a bike. So I bought a second-hand Peugeot. I didn’t know anything about cycling at the time, and still know very little. Two years later, I had pedaled through Europe, Africa, the Middle East–almost 24,000 miles. I got to see things and stay in places that would’ve been impossible to experience with more conventional transportation. It didn’t really take any commitment though, as I’m fairly delusional and so have only a loose understanding of reality. You may be talking me into doing an ultra in a few years now. As you point out, once you’ve leaped into one ‘impossible’ physical challenge, it’s easy to feel confident doing it again.