I’n writing this in an airport, waiting for my flight back to Bucharest. For the last 3 days I’ve been at a running event, called S24h. It’s an ultra-marathon competition, with races from 12 hours up to 48 hours. It’s the my second participation at this event and this year I ran the 48 hours race.
“Ran” may be a bit of an euphemism, though, and you’ll see later why.
The Ugly, But Oh, So Necessary Truth
I ran my first ultra in 2014. It was a 60km race. Since then, I ran more than 20 other ultra-marathons, both in official competitions and as part of my trainings. The longest distance I ever ran was Ultrabalaton, 222km, in 2015. And the longest running event was a 48 hours race in Athens, in 2016 (and, obviously, S24h).
I run for many reasons and one of them is related to self-improvement. But not in “how to become the best physical version of yourself” kind of self-improvement. More like “run until your conscious masks will fall down, since you won’t be able to run away from your problems anymore, because, well, you’re already running”.
I didn’t know from the beginning that ultra-running will work this way.
I think I discovered it accidentally, when I found myself lost around lake Balaton, in complete darkness, without a torch lamp, without knowing if I run in the right direction, without anyone around me to ask and with blisters the size of my fist in my soles. Or when I’ve been hit by hypothermia in Athens, shivering on the floor of an abandoned Olympic Complex, not knowing if I was able to get up, let alone to run another day, in my first 48 hours race. Or on the road from Carpathian Mountains to Bucharest, at my first 100km run, when I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle, half way home, in the middle of pretty much fucking nowhere.
Thing is, I realized that each long (and by long I mean really long, between 100 and 200 kilometers) race leaves me a better person. But first it throws me to the deepest shit holes that I can imagine.
So, what started out of curiosity soon became one of my favorite self-discovery tools. I call it “scooping”. It’s like when you scoop with a spoon to dig the best tasting part of an ice-cream.
Only you don’t dig in ice-cream, you dig into yourself. You dig into your fears, into your uncertainties, into the ugly, dark parts of yourself.
Because, when you run for 10 or 12 or 14 hours continuously, your mind enters into an altered state of consciousness, where you are forced to deal with reality. Not with the conscious lies you call reality, but the “real” reality. That reality that you may have tried to avoid by making more money, or by pursuing a certain type of self-destructive relationship, or by projecting a lighter, more successful persona than you really feel you are.
As you may imagine, these altered states of consciousness are not exactly “nice”. On the contrary. They’re quite uncomfortable. And for a while I even mistakenly thought they were the result of physical fatigue. But not. It’s the other way around.
The more “unsolved shit” you hide, the faster you get into that state and feel more physical fatigue. And the more balanced your life is, the farther in race the “scooping even” will take place (if ever).
I wrote many times about the Ultrabalaton race, about my 5 marathons in a row and about the physical challenges that I had to overcome. Just do a search on this blog, buy my book from Amazon, or just bare with me for a few more paragraphs, for the TL/DR version (too long, didn’t read).
So, the TL/DR version of pushing through is: just keep moving. Just put one step in front of the other. Just do it.
And in many situations, pushing through is the only way out.
But not in all of them.
Or at least that’s what I’ve learned during this last race that I just finished.
The first quarter of this race went on absolutely amazing. That means I covered 80km in 12 hours, without any conceivable problem: no physical stuff, no pain, no nutrition problem, no mental setbacks.
All went on just beautifully.
And then, just when I was starting my second quarter of the race, all relaxed and flowing and smiling, something hit me.
In the beginning, I had no idea what it was. I just felt that my feet were suddenly heavy, my ankles started to send me pain signals and running became almost impossible. I decided to walk for a while, until I catch my breath.
After 10 minutes of walking I started to run again, but couldn’t make it for more than a few hundreds of meters. And what was more puzzling was the complete lack of clues. I had no idea what was wrong with me.
And then I realized that I was actually entering another “scooping event”. So I just continued to walk, silencing my mind, breathing constantly, trying to detach myself from all the props of the race. It was just me walking, in an almost desert park, in the rain, waiting for the spoon to come out in the light and to watch what was scooped this time.
Slowly, a huge sadness and fatigue started to emerge from invisible depths, climbing towards my perception and covering me in a thick layer of immobility. The more I was letting it come to me, the slower I was going.
Until, overwhelmed by something from deep down, I stopped. I sit on a bench and let it cover me.
A huge burden was sitting on top of my shoulders. And it wasn’t just materialized itself out of thin air: it was there all the time, I just chose to ignore it.
You know, during the last 2-3 years I was struggling. I was struggling on the business side, on the personal side, on the emotional side. And I always chose the “pushing through” way out of these struggles.
Just keep moving. Jus put one step in front of the other. It will pass.
But while I was pushing through, gaining some temporary relief, in the background the garbage was silently accumulating. And the burden became heavier and heavier.
Until I wasn’t able to push through anymore.
As I was sitting on that bench in the park, I realized the rain stopped.
And almost at the same moment I realized that I just need to let go. To accept the fact that I was going through a swamp, and leave back everything that was slowing me down.
Just let go.
I got up almost instantly, without feeling any pressure at all.
And so I realized the “scooping event” unfolded, again, filled with clarity and liberating me in a rush of adrenaline.
Now I knew.
I knew that, this time, pushing through was not the answer. Letting go was the answer.
Because if you keep pushing through, without solving what you chose to carry with you, sooner or later your own weight will crash you down. And I was on the verge of that crash.
I started to walk again, briskly and almost joyful. I hit the tent designated to the 48 hours runners, found my bed and went to sleep for about 9 hours.
Oh boy, that felt good!
And when I woke up, I just got out on the circuit, alternating running and walking for brief periods of time, smiling and feeling lighter and lighter.
Because with each step I was letting go of peer pressure. Of fake rewards (I don’t really need a medal to feel valuable). Of social recognition (I don’t have to post my finisher photo on Facebook and eagerly wait for the likes and shares to pile up, at the same time with my self-esteem).
I don’t need all that.
All I need is to be here and now, present. And let go of all the garbage that I was carrying with me.
Sometimes, the answer is not pushing through.
Sometimes, all you need is just letting go.
Running For My Life - from zero to ultramarathoner
The spooky thing about depression is that it sneaks in. There aren’t really trumpets and loud voices announcing: “Hail, hail, this is depression entering the room, all rise!” Nope. It’s slow, silent, creepy. It doesn’t even look like depression. It starts with small isolation thoughts like: “Maybe I shouldn’t get out today, I just don’t feel like going out”. And then it does the same next day. And then the day after that and so on. And then it starts to whisper louder and louder in your ears: “Why would you go outside, you loser? Didn’t have enough yet? Want more people to make fun of how much of a big, fat loser you are?”
And then you start to breath in guilt and shame, instead of air. Every breathe you take is putting more dark thoughts into your body.
Until you get stuck. You can’t move anymore. At all.
If you want to know how I got out of this space, eventually, check out my latest book on Amazon and Kindle.