As an avid hiker, I am always looking for ways to elevate my time outside, whether it be exploring local hikes wherever I go or backcountry camping in some of my favorite places throughout the world. Last year I discovered yet another way to explore what I love about the outdoors—trail running. As a roadrunner, this was intimidating at first. But once I got past the fear of twisting my ankle on a boulder or falling face-first into a pile of sticks and stones, I found it to be an exhilarating experience. Not only did trail running help me see my favorite places differently, but the peace and tranquility of the trail encouraged a quietness of the mind—the dopamine effect of being outside.
What ultra-athletes can teach us about grit
Recently I had a chance to visit Chamonix, France, to experience the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB)—a race many consider to be the Super Bowl of trail running. As I watched more than 10,000 athletes spend anywhere from 20 to 46 hours running, sleeping and eating on the trail to finish a grueling 100 miles (170 kilometers), perseverance and dedicated love for a sport took on a whole new meaning.
So, what does it take to compete as an ultra-athlete? What roles do consistency, mindset and perseverance play in driving people to accomplish seemingly impossible feats? I needed to find out what ultra-athletes can teach us.
Lesson 1: Motivation to keep going and do whatever it takes
As with anything in life, the drive to achieve a goal is a huge motivator to get things done. In ultra-trail running, this attitude can make or break your race. When you have a huge milestone of 100 miles in front of you along with factors like unpredictable weather, elevation, uneven terrain or potential injury, it is easy to feel like you are facing an impossible feat.
In a 2018 study on the psychology of ultra-marathon runners, researchers found that mental toughness helps overcome the perception of physical, psychological, emotional and environmental obstacles. Ultra-trail runner Katie Asmuth, who competed in Bandera 100km and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run while being a full-time nurse practitioner, agrees. “In an ultramarathon, the level of awareness is so extreme you have no choice but to be present. To me, ultrarunning is about solving puzzles, testing limits and expanding grit.”
To achieve that pinnacle of mental toughness, Darcy Piceu, a licensed psychotherapist, 20-year veteran professional ultrarunner and two-time UTMB winner (3rd in 2011 and 5th in 2015), suggests breaking down your goals into manageable chunks and using simple management tools like a calendar to keep the momentum going.
“I think what’s helped me over the years to stay motivated is having something on the calendar, whether that’s a race or a big adventure with friends,” she says. “I always try to have something that I’m looking forward to for that push.”
Lesson 2: Consistency is key
A big part of being successful at anything, be it business or sport, is consistency. When we first start with a dream goal, we have all the energy and gumption to make it big. We are willing to face uncertainty and the unknown because we have a “go big or go home” attitude.
But as we slowly go through the motions, we gain valuable insight: knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Call it maturity or experience, but we start to listen more—internally and externally—and learn to course correct to stay consistent.
For people like Asmuth, the uncertainty is what drives the consistency. “The uncertainty of not knowing my potential feeds me. Running 100 miles takes courage no matter how fast you are, or no matter how many times you have done it,” she says. “The mystery excites me. I expect the challenges to occur and accept them when they do as an opportunity to problem solve and ultimately learn more about myself.”
But if we are feeling particularly stuck, Piceu suggests a shift in thinking to drive consistency. She took up gravel biking and skiing as a way to keep herself active when she was not running or training, and took a similar approach with her business.
“After 20 years, I had a sense I needed a new kind of spark for what I was doing in my career. I signed up for some training, and that helped me to kind of become even more excited, invested and motivated,” she explains. “… When your motivation is starting to wane and things are getting stale, then maybe it requires introducing something new to keep consistent.”
Lesson 3: Perseverance and grit go hand-in-hand
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perseverance as “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure or opposition.” As with any long-term effort, including running 100-plus miles, maintaining interest calls for a lot of grit.
Grit is seen as the tendency to pursue long-term challenging goals with passion and perseverance. “Grit, perseverance, flexibility, having a positive outlook—these are core attributes to all trail runners,” Asmuth says. “The success is in the life lessons you learn from pushing yourself to your greatest potential.”
Both Piceu and Asmuth agree on the importance of perseverance and suggest a few actionable ways to achieve it:
- Be flexible and work through the tough spots. Sometimes all the best plans fail, and you have to use whatever time you have to train, run or work. Embrace it, accept it and make it work.
- Ask for help. Asmuth suggests leaning into your networks to ask for help. “We swap watching each other’s kids regularly, and I can rely on that time to get in my workout,” she says. “I’ve made friends with a lot of active parents who understand the importance of getting out.”
- Incorporate rest and recovery in all aspects of your life. Piceu says that sleep is our best recovery tool. It is critical in terms of recovering from a busy work life as well as in athletic performance. “Now I’m even willing to not go on a run if it means getting a little bit more sleep,” she notes, and Asmuth concurs. “I believe that potential grows in the space you leave for it. Rest is how you absorb fitness, and slowing down allows you to speed up later.”
Lesson 4: Be a part of something bigger
Piceu is an ambassador for Smartwool, a brand that makes Merino wool socks and apparel for everyone from weekend warriors to professional runners. As an ambassador, she continues to collaborate and engage with the trail running community by testing products or cheering on other athletes.
Asmuth is sponsored by Saucony, which offers best-in-class footwear, running shoes and running apparel. She appreciates the comradery that trail running has brought into her life. “I have learned to trust my team—to be open, to be flexible. Running is only an individual sport if we let it be. I have a strong foundation because it is rooted in community,” she notes.
This same principle applies to life and business. Surrounding yourself with people who share a commonality can be uplifting in so many ways—exchanging ideas, challenges and opportunities increases your drive to be successful, whatever success may mean for you.
Problem-solving, setting priorities, time management, being flexible and thinking through logistics are just some of the lessons ultra-athletes can teach us. These are skills we can transport to all other aspects.
“Each part of my life teaches me lessons for other parts. It is an ever-expanding experience,” Asmuth says. “And running can give me the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s the full spectrum of the human experience. It’s beautiful and sacred.”
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