10 Life Lessons I Learned from My First 50-Mile Race

The sun setting over the 50-mile race course, with the Tetons in the distance
The sun setting over the 50-mile race course, with the Tetons in the distance

1. Any great endeavor requires patience.

I ran my first ultra last year. Actually, I limped most of it and ended up hurting myself pretty bad. Sitting on the sidelines only seemed to reinforce just how impatient I am–I was cranky, angry and eager to try again. I didn’t listen to anybody, and I kept trying to run. I ended up being injured for six full months.

The Yellowstone 50-miler this year landed on the exact date as did my first ultra attempt. Recovering from injury and training smarter and harder this year taught me that while I do love to push my body, I need to be kind to it and allow myself sufficient time to become strong and able to do the things I want it to. Anyone can run, and anyone can dedicate his or herself to a cause, but not everyone has the patience to remain dedicated and consistently work hard until–and beyond–the finish line. And despite the fact that I can and have worked my butt off, I realize that I have a LONG ways to go.

2. You can always take another step.

Yes, I finished my first 50, but it was not pretty. In training, I ran two 50Ks earlier this year and felt tired but great. During the 50, by mile 25, I had blisters from between my toes to the back of my heels, my feet felt like they were on fire, and I had 25 miles to go. It was hillier and also a lot hotter than I anticipated, with absolutely no shade. And I was wearing long black compression tights. And occasionally ran out of water. After the sun went down, I ended up spending about four hours in the pitch black and now cold temperatures, again for which I was unprepared. Bottom line: I felt like shit.

No matter what happened, I knew I was going to force myself to finish. I ran, I walked, I limped, I tripped, I stumbled, and no joke, I almost got on my hands and knees at one point (and would have, if it weren’t for all of the rocks). But I was there for a purpose, and I was going to finish no matter how many popped blisters or tears it took. Unless you’re extremely sick or injured, you can always take another step.

3. You can’t be successful all on your own.

By nature, I like to be alone. Of course I enjoy others’ company, but I’m comfortable with silence, and I often enjoy having peace and meditative time by myself. By nature, I’m also very independent and stubborn, and I don’t like asking for help. I once dated a guy who I wouldn’t let me give me a ride anywhere until a few months after we started going out, if that paints any kind of picture. I played sports growing up, but I gravitated towards things I could succeed in on my own–swimming, golf, tennis (I didn’t like doubles) and running.

As I’ve graduated to running longer distances, however, I’ve learned the importance–and often, the necessity–of having the support of others, whether it be friends, family or other runners. During Yellowstone, I kept passing back and forth between two women, whose husbands were always close by, ready to give them food, drink, a change of clothes, whatever they needed. And after a while, I started to get a little envious. One of the guys, however, began offering me a cold towel when the sun became brutal, and he never stopped asking whether I needed anything. At one point, Lisa, the race director, drove by, stopped her van, and dumped ice cold water all over me without my consent. And as much as I hate to admit it, I needed every bit of help I received, and I couldn’t have done it alone.

4. One act of encouragement goes a long way. 

Over the course of the race, I learned that you should never underestimate the power of one small kind gesture. The runners who passed me probably did not give a second thought as they did so, but the words, “Looking strong. Keep it up” were extremely encouraging as I fought to keep the demons out of my head. Runners and their supporters who were on their way back to their hotels while I was still making my way to the finish probably only had showers and food on their minds. But the words, “You can see the finish line from here” was like nirvana to me. And at the last aid station, with 10-11 miles left to go, I collapsed on the ground and could barely move. Then one of the volunteers gave me a cup of hot chicken broth and salted potatoes, which I’m pretty sure saved my life.

As I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned, I’m reminded that we can do these types of things every single day. Give that man a dollar (or better yet, buy him breakfast), compliment someone who isn’t nice to you, or just look up and smile at the stranger walking past you. We’re surrounded by opportunities every day to spread kindness with someone. It doesn’t take much, and we never know just how much one small act could mean to someone.

5. Suffering can’t be avoided completely, but it can be avoided.

Something I once read and now always tell myself before a race is, “Expect a journey and a battle.” I went into this race knowing it was going to be a long day and knowing that I was going to suffer at some point. And suffer I did. It was pretty obvious I was a newbie, with my inappropriate clothes and layers that I was able to remove tied around me anywhere that they would stay. I had arm warmers tied around my waist, my headband wrapped around my wrist and vest tied around my chest. I looked like a freak.

But had I done a little more preparation, I wouldn’t have had to suffer so much. By the time my blisters swelled, man, did I wish that I had worn more cushioned shoes. I also wished I had not done most of my training on trails, since this race was on hard, rocky pavement. And by the time my Garmin died, I had wished I had a different watch or had not started it until after the going got really tough–stumbling around for hours at the end of a race not knowing how far left you have is not the most fun. There will always be trials, there will always be suffering. But through planning and preparation–and forcing yourself to have a positive attitude even when things still go wrong–you don’t have to suffer so much.

6. You are a role model to somebody.

Unless you permanently live in a box, you are a role model to somebody. Think about that. Somebody in this world is affected by your actions, your words and the way in which you conduct yourself and respond to life’s many situations and hardships. It could be a sibling, a friend, a co-worker, an acquaintance on social media, or even a stranger.

Even though I was determined to finish the race, I’d be lying if I said the thought of quitting never passed my mind. But I thought to myself not only how disappointed in myself I would be, but what kind of message I’d be sending to my little brother, my Sunday school students, my co-workers and my running friends if I had just quit because the going got too tough. We are all a role model. We should all decide what kind we want to be–inspiring, hypocritical, uplifting, dishonest, genuine, authentic–and act accordingly.

7. Pride gets you nowhere.

You can tell yourself all you want that you’re better than someone else, that you deserve something great, or that you’re entitled to have or do something. But that’s pride, and just like my mother has always told me, it always leads to destruction.

With running, or with any sport or activity, it is easy to feel self-important, or even better than someone else, based on your accomplishments. But it only takes one small turn of events for your abilities–your blessings–to be taken away from you. I found that out when I was kicked to the curb for half a year. And it could have been worse. But this sport is filled with so many kind-hearted humble people, and I’ve realized why. Pride gets you nowhere. You must be humble. If you don’t learn to humble yourself, something or someone else surely will do it for you.

8. The greater the difficulty, the greater the reward.

One of my favorite shirts is one a friend made before running 450 miles from D.C. to Boston to raise money for the Boston Marathon bombing victims. On the back it says, “Nothing great is easy.” I’ve found that to be true in all areas of my life, not just running. Thinking back on the times I’ve felt most accomplished, those times were the accumulation of years of hard work, frequent obstacles, moments of self-doubt and constantly having to pick myself back up again.

There are times when a goal seems unattainable and all you can think about is how difficult it is and looking for the easy way out. I think this is why people cheat. I was appalled to learn on the way to the race start that cheating during ultras has been happening more frequently recently. Why would you sign up to run any distance–whether it be 3 miles or 300 miles–if it’s not something you truly wanted to work for? Those people will never know that there is nothing more satisfying than reaching that initial goal–whether it be graduating college, getting accepted onto a sports team or music group, landing that promotion, or running a long distance to a finish line–and knowing that it took giving absolutely all you had to get there.

9. There is always somebody better than you.

I grew up a straight-A student. I was what you’d have called a “goody-goody.” I was student government president and won first place in sports tournaments and music competitions. I was NOT used to losing. In fact, I was one of the worst sore losers you ever met. My own mother didn’t want to play me in a game of checkers because she knew I’d throw a fit after losing. Not cool.

When I got into running, I quickly realized that I was NOT the best. Far from it. I was not the fastest, the strongest or the most resilient, and I knew I would never be. The fact is, there will always be somebody better than me in some aspect of running and in all aspects of my life. The key is to not only accept this fact, but to learn as much as you can from those smarter, stronger or more talented than you. When I meet other runners, I love to ask about their training plan, their diet, their gear, what lessons they’ve learned that they can pass on to me. Accept the advice of those more experienced than you, and make yourself your own competition rather than that guy next to you at the starting line.

10. Even when you hit rock bottom, you can still be grateful.

I was hoping I could avoid saying this, but here it goes–there were tears during the race (and not tears of joy). One of the worst stretches was between mile 40 and 48, where I was wandering around in the darkness (there aren’t many lights in rural Idaho), with my body shivering, feet feeling like they were stepping on needles instead of pavement and my spirit crushed. I was constantly tripping and was so delirious that I almost accidentally walked off a bridge into a small body of water. This was one of my lowest–if not THE lowest–points during the race. Just then, I was ecstatic to see the headlights of a car drive up behind me, as I could barely see and was desperate for some kind of interaction, having been alone for hours on this dark back road. It was Lisa in a van, and she said that I was almost there and asked if I wanted Gatorade or pizza. I declined, and as she drove off, she yelled out of the window, “Look at the stars!”

I switched off my headlamp and directed my gaze upwards. My jaw dropped. I have never seen the sky so filled with stars as I did just then. The sky was vast, with hardly a building in sight, and I could see the haze of the Milky Way stretch from one farmland to another far, far away. I was so busy focusing on my pain that I had not spent a single minute enjoying the wonder that was all around me. I did not get a big smile on my face and finish the race with flying colors–no, I struggled and left a few more tears on the race course and kind of waddled across the finish line. But in the midst of those difficulties, and others that are surely to come–the kind of difficulties that test you to your core and make you question your purpose and entire sense of being–there is always something beautiful or something amazing to be incredibly grateful for. All you have to do is take your eyes off the negative and look.

4 thoughts on “10 Life Lessons I Learned from My First 50-Mile Race

  1. This is a wonderful and inspirational post. I am absolutely itching to tackle my first 50k, and having a hard time not thinking about the 50 miler beyond it. But as you said…patience. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

      1. Not until the spring. I haven’t picked the exact race yet, but I’ve got my eye on one that is April and another May. I’m trying to be really careful – but also not too careful – with my injury history. So for now, I’m just trying to run 30 to 40 miles a week for the fall.

        Thanks for the visit and the follows!

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