An Epiphany on Running and Living Habits

I learned exactly what was holding me back in life by running my first 10-kilometer race.

Running a 10K race is no big deal. Even a kid could do it. But I was unhealthy, weak, and going nowhere in life. That run pushed my mediocre limits. It revealed the self-limiting habit that messed up my goals and life decisions.

This has nothing to do with dieting or exercise at all. It’s interesting sometimes, the things we discover when we reach our physical and mental limits. And this sobering self-awareness pointed out exactly what I had to change with the way I lived.

A self-limiting pattern

During the race, my run went this way: I would run or jog until I couldn’t run anymore, stop, then switch to a comfortable, walking pace. Eventually, I’d catch my breath and recover enough strength to run again — but I didn’t. I continued walking, even when I was no longer tired.

That’s pretty much how I approached life: Pursue, surrender to a comfortable (and wickedly slow) pace, then maybe pursue a bit again.

Back in 2015, when I first worked on independent films, my goal was to create a feature I could submit to major film festivals within 4 years. I aimed to create two short films within 2 years. I figured those shorts would prepare the experience, network, and portfolio I needed for a feature-length project.

I finally showed my first short in 2016. And though I’m too embarrassed to show that film now, it was a start.

Making a film, even a short one, is strenuous work. Mine was a hectic month of writing, organizing, securing funds, shooting, and editing. After showing my film, I stopped running and slowed to a walk; I wrote scripts without a deadline and imagined scenes without shooting them.

Like my running pattern, I extended this comfortable pace of stagnation. Eventually, “life got in the way,” and I never created another film up to the present.

Every goal requires a certain pace

If you’re aiming to cover 10km in an hour, your average pace has to be 6 minutes per kilometer. Sometimes, you might run slower, at 7 minutes. You can compensate by running faster and covering the next kilometer in 5 minutes. You can do other variations, but the required pace has to be maintained.

To reach my original goal, I should’ve created another short film and joined a bigger film festival the next year. But the next year ended, and I don’t even have a script.

This pattern manifests even with smaller goals. From keeping a diet to improving skills, we tend to stay too long at a comfortable pace. Worse, we become totally unaware of our stagnation whenever this happens to the more important aspects of our lives.

This is how we stay in jobs we don’t hate (but don’t love, either) for years without noticing. Or wake up one day to find that you’ve grown old, and you haven’t done anything meaningful that you deeply care about.

Forgetting our pace can leave us going too fast and burnt out. Or too slow and stagnating.

Don’t stay too long in aid stations

In every race, there are aid stations: Pit-stops with all the drinks, meals, and first aid a runner could ask for. A veteran running friend’s advice with aid stations: Don’t stay too long.

If you want to reach your goal at your desired time, this should be common sense, right? “Don’t stay too long in places that don’t push you forward.” Of course! But I only understood the essence of his advice after running my first “baby ultramarathon” (55 kilometers), a year after my first 10K.

Imagine this: You’ve been running for hours. You’re tired. You can feel the fatigue in your muscles, lungs, and brain. Your legs feel like a block of granite, and every step is a test of willpower. You have painful cramps. Then, like a beacon of light in a stormy sea, you spot the aid station.

The people manning aid stations in mountain ultras are some of the most helpful, most supportive, friendliest human beings I have ever met. They give you whatever you need, fill up your water canteen, pack your food for you.

After hours of painfully scaling mountains under the glaring sun or the biting gale, you reach this oasis full of the most delicious foods, the most refreshing beverages, and the sweetest, kindest people on Earth. Beyond that, hours upon hours of heat, cold, exhaustion, and solitude, await. Would you really want to leave that aid station?

But to reach the finish line, you have to wave those thoughts away. Getting out of an aid station quickly doesn’t just improve your running time; It keeps you from dropping out of the race altogether.

Many ultra runners I know who became “DNF” (Did Not Finish) didn’t drop out in the middle of a trail path: They stopped at an aid station. Their will to keep going evaporated and they couldn’t leave.

Keep up with someone faster

Leaving an aid station quickly, or breaking out of a comfortable pace is easier said than done. But I found one solution, among many, that works.

At the starting point in my first 10K race, I caught up to the runners ahead of the pack. Those runners are amazing. Their pace is fast and consistent. They didn’t break into walks. Their relentless drive kept me from slowing down.

We all want to keep up with the people around us. When I’m surrounded by friends who finish among the top five in 100-mile races, it’s difficult being stuck to a crawling, 10-kilometer finish. I wanted to keep up, so I eventually upgraded to ultramarathons.

Of course, we have to keep a pace that’s according to our — and not other people’s — goals.

The real impact of reaching your limits

In such a short race, I’ve learned useful things. But the biggest epiphany was the realization that I did something I thought I could never do.

The app that recorded my pace said my run with the fast runners took just a little over 8 minutes. But in that period, we’ve covered roughly a fourth of the entire 10-kilometer route. It was the fastest pace I had in the race, and the longest, consistent run I ever had in my life at the time. I didn’t know I could run that fast, for that long!

Going beyond your comfortable pace means you’re pushing yourself. And when you push yourself, you’re bound to reach your limits; This box dictating what is and isn’t possible for you. Being forced to survive and overcome your limits destroys that box.

All of a sudden, your possibilities, your potential, your world have expanded. You realize how much stronger and better you are. And you get to see the horizon of what more you can be.

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