Last week I had the opportunity to run (and finish) the Zion 100k Ultra marathon. For those who are interested in the full experience, I actually posted a video taken throughout the day here. While this was not my first ultra distance race, it was my longest and definitely most challenging. Held just outside of Zion National Park this race had incredible views and over 6,000 ft. of vertical!  It was an incredible challenge and one that I am thankful I could take on. As with any major challenge, physical or otherwise, there were quite a few lessons learned that I had the time to process over the 17 hours I was running (and walking if I am being completely honest). And since I would hate to keep these hard learned lessons to myself, I thought I would share them here. 

So, in no particular order, here are Seven Lessons Learned from an Ultra marathon:

1. Do everything you can to prepare BEFORE the race begins

This is a big one but should also be self-evident. There are a lot of things in life that you can do without much preparation, but the things that matter require hard work, grit, and determination BEFORE you even step up to the starting line! This is one of the biggest reasons that people don’t do hard, meaningful work. The cost of time and preparation is just too high. This is also the reason that many who attempt to do hard meaningful work and fail, fail. They weren’t prepared and thought they would just figure it out along the way.

If something is important to you than you will do everything that you can to prepare. You won’t ever be able to prepare for everything, but when you are as prepared as possible it makes the unexpected much less overwhelming. I have been running since I was in fourth grade but started training specifically for this race eight months before stepping off. I wasn’t ready for everything, but I knew when I started running that I was as prepared as possible.

2. We all need coaches (mentors if you prefer) and they can be found everywhere

We all need mentors and coaches in our lives. I have talked about this before, but there we need to take advantage of the experience and expertise of those who can help us see what we would otherwise miss on our own. These are people who have done the things that we are endeavoring to do and have figured out the best possible way to move forward. When we find a good coach or mentor we are able to take advantage of their life experience instead of learning the hard way from our own. I have been running for a very long time but when I started to run distances that would take several hours I knew that I would need help.

I had never had to worry about nutrition or the hundreds of other issues that arise when you are running on a trail for 5, 10 or 15 hours. Ideally I would have been able to hire an experienced Ultra marathon coach, but that was not an option. So how did I get the coaching I needed? By reading several books, countless blog posts and listening to hundreds of hours of podcasts on the topics of endurance, recovery, nutrition, trail running and Ultra marathons. The burden was on me to apply what I was learning, but I was able to obtain the knowledge necessary to shorten the learning curve and give myself a competitive advantage.

People often talk about how difficult it is or expensive it is to find the right coach or mentor. I purchased two books totaling less than $25 and found the rest on the web. We are living at a time in history when there is no excuse for a lack of knowledge. Would an in person coach who can individualize training be preferable? Of course. But I have still received incredible value and countless hours of help by simply taking advantage of the resources available to everyone. You do not need to take on the big goals by yourself. Coaching is everywhere. 

3. Take advantage of the Aid Stations

Along the course of the race were incredible Aid Stations. These stations had everything from water and sports drinks to an in a variety of foods designed to keep runners fueled and moving. Many of them also had first aid support and all of them had volunteers who were working hard to help the weary folks passing in front of them. While it’s not necessary to stop at every aid station, taking a brief stop, if only for a few minutes, can recharge your spirit and allow you to collect whatever you need to keep going.

Hopefully the application to the rest of life is obvious but if not, all of us need to have those places in our lives where we can take a quick breather from the pressure of the world around us. Maybe it’s church or time with family and friends, a sports league or a long run. Whatever it is though, it needs to be built in to the normal course of life so that you know you will eventually get there if  you just keep moving. The location of every aid station on the route was known to every runner and served as that needed motivation to keep going when the fatigue was unusually heavy. Create and take advantage of the Aid Stations.

4. Be kind to your fellow travelers

Every time I have done and ultra distance race I’ve had the same thought: It’s amazing how kind everyone is in spite of that fact that everyone on the trail is hurting! I guess there is just something about shared suffering that causes complete strangers to be nice to each other, but it really is remarkable. How many times have you said out loud, or at least thought quietly, “I would be nice to them but I am struggling too much to be kind?” Imagine how much better your home, or workplace, or community would be if everyone decided to support those around them even when they didn’t feel like it. The truth is that we are ALL dealing with something. Lets do what we can to be kind to fellow travelers.

5. It’s ok to encourage people you don’t know

Similar to point number 4, I was struck this time just as in the past with how encouraging people that I did not know and will never see again can be. Throughout the race from early morning to late at night there were spectators along the course cheering as though they traveled all the way to south west Utah just for you. But they didn’t. I’m sure they were there for someone, but they didn’t only cheer for those that they knew. They clapped, and whistled and shouted encouragement to EVERYONE! That may not seem like a big deal if you have never been on the receiving end of it, and may even sound a little strange, but it is incredibly motivating.

I can’t count the number of times I have not encouraged someone because I didn’t know them. I simply dismiss it as, “not my responsibility.” You cannot encourage the wrong person and it’s ok to encourage people you don’t know. And I promise it will mean a lot to them!

6. Follow the signs

For 62 miles I had two goals: keep moving forward and find the next pink flag. I have no idea how many pink flags there were along the course but I do know it was those flags that got me from the starting line to the finish line without getting lost. The lesson here is pretty simple: follow the signs and keep from getting distracted. Moving is good. Moving in the right direction is better. Stay focused as you put one foot in front of the other.

7. Decide to finish before taking your first step

This is a short one but critically important. You do not decide to finish somewhere along the course. You decide to finish BEFORE you take your first step. I have had quite a few people ask me if I ever considered quitting. There were a whole bunch of times I wished that I was done, but I can honestly say that I never thought about quitting. The reason for that is really simple: I decided months before the race even began that unless I was actually injured, like trip to the hospital injured, I was going to finish!

This principle is true in every meaningful endeavor in life. The journey from start to finish will be filled with both highs and lows. If you wait to decide whether or not you are going to finish , you will ALWAYS make the wrong decision. Make the decision once. Make it before you start. Get mad at yourself for making it. Keep going. The only way you will finish is if you decide that you will BEFORE taking your first step.

I am really thankful for the opportunity to finish a course like this one. It was challenging and beautiful, and I learned so much about myself and life that I will be able to apply in the future.

Do something hard. Do something that matters. Push your limits. Keep moving forward!