The Real Cost Of Learning

It’s pitch dark, my soles are hurting like shit, the air that I breathe is scorching hot and I’m running somewhere in the middle of fucking nowhere.

It’s not a nightmare.

It’s my real life.

I’m running the Ultrabalaton for the second time, a 220 km non-stop race around lake Balaton, in Hungary. So, technically, I’m not in the middle of fucking nowhere.

As a matter of fact, although the alley that I run on is in pitch dark and I can barely see where I will put my next step, I know exactly where I am. I also know how fast should I run in order to make the cutoff time for the next checkpoint.

It’s almost midnight and the next checkpoint it’s 6 km away. I have around 40 minutes for that. I can make it. I can make it even sooner than the time limit, given the fact that it’s finally starting to get cooler.

Once I’ll get there, it will be the 130th kilometer of this race.

But that doesn’t make the alley less darker.

Running in the dark can be a very interesting experience. I’m kinda fond of it.

But, before diving into this, let me tell you why I run in the dark, while all the other runners that I get to see at refreshment points have their headlamps on.

To put it briefly: I miscalculated a drop-off bag. Yeah, I know it sounds strange. Hold on, I’m gonna explain this.

Before the race – more precisely, a day before the start – we had the option to send ahead our drop off bags to a few checkpoints in the race. For the drop off bag containing my headlamp I could pick from 78.8 km and 128.9 km. Guess which checkpoint I picked up? Of course, 128.9km.

In normal conditions, I could have been there in about 17 hours. Since the start was at 5:30 AM, that would have been 22:30. A good time. Sunset was at 9PM, maybe an hour of running in the dark, but not more. Acceptable.

But the conditions weren’t normal at all. It was hot. And by hot I mean way, way hotter than last year. When, by the way, I finished the race in 31 hours and a half (you’ll see a little bit later why this information is relevant).

Between 10AM and 9PM the temperature was over 30 degrees Celsius. And for a good 3-4 hours we ran on open fields, with barely any shadow. I saw dead snakes on the road, because they couldn’t get to their holes fast enough before the heat made their blood boil. I saw experienced ultrarunners giving up at km 100, or 108 or 120, because of the heat. People who usually run more than 4500km per year.

So, instead of 17 hours, I made about 19.

Yeah, the conditions where quite different from normal. But then again, that’s the beauty of an ultra: you’ll never know what you’ll gonna get. I think this was Forest Gump, and he was talking about life being like a box of chocolates, but let’s not forget that Forest Gump was also a runner, right?

Back to my story.

Like I told you, I love running in the dark. It may sound strange, and to some extent it is, but it’s also beautiful. When I run in the dark I can focus better. The mind has less stimuli, hence, less stuff to process.

I’m (almost) never afraid. I know many ultrarunners who are not very fond of the dark time of an ultra (and, in an ultra, you’re almost always going through the night). But not me. I kinda look forward to it.

It’s like my physical boundaries are blending out. I can’t see my feet (well, I see my shoes, but you got the idea) and I can’t see anything around me. Suddenly there is no “other” world or “other” people out there. And since there’s nobody out there,  why being afraid?

Well, when you hear something moving in the bushes, 1 meter away from you, and you can’t see a fucking thing, this sensation of blending kinda fades out, I agree. But only for a few seconds. And for those few seconds I’m borderline being scared, I admit it. But as long as I continue to run, it’s ok. Ten seconds later the bushes are way behind me.

And I can focus on what matters now: the next checkpoint.

Compared to last year I’m in much better shape. Except for the soles, where I can feel the blisters growing up with each step. And when I say “blisters”, I’m not talking about tiny spots. I’m talking about full sole blisters. Last year I got the same thing and it was absolutely brutal. I ran more than 75km basically with blood in my shoes.

At that time I was convinced that this was because of the equipment. Partially, it was. My shoes were a bit tight. So, last year, after I came home, I changed my shoes. Also changed my socks.

But it took me about 3 months to be able to run again, and about 6 months to fully recover. That was the extent of the damage. I’m not talking about minor incidents like losing a toe nail, I’m talking about the ability to get up from the couch and go to the toilet in less than 5 minutes. Which, apparently, I kinda lost, because I could barely touch the ground without feeling excruciating pain.

And now I was feeling the same thing happening to my feet. Not a very good feeling. The shoes and the socks were different this time, and thoroughly tested, with good results. But the sole blisters were slowly coming up to life again. So, I thought, it must have been the heat.

The other runners were hit by the heat at the fitness level, or at the dehydration level, or they had other types of injuries. My “hot spot” were in fact two hot spots: my soles. That’s where I got hit.

It’s always the most vulnerable spot which gives in first.

The Pivotal Point

A small light point ahead is starting to get bigger and bigger, as I keep pushing forward. As I approach it, parts of the alley are getting lightened as well. I can see shadows. Leaves and trees. I can see the elusive glitter of the lake Balaton on my left. The point is growing to the size of my palm, then to the size of a car and then I am in the middle of the checkpoint, hearing the music, the noise of the people and a lady marking my chip with the cutoff time tool. I was there. I made it.

But then another lady came to me and told me that I blew it up by 5 minutes. I had to give the her the number. My race was over.

I couldn’t believe her. I knew all the checkpoint times and I knew I was almost 30 minutes early. Baffled and incapable of any other reaction, I gave her my number. Then, after a few minutes of looking in a big, empty void in front of me, I remembered that my girlfriend, Raluca, just sent me a picture with all the cutoff times. I had it in my phone.

Suddenly energized, I took the phone to the lady who had my number. I tried to explain why I was shoveling an iPhone down her face but she couldn’t understand much English. Eventually, they called someone else. This lady seemed to understand me. Even more, she seemed to agree with me.

After almost 20 minutes, they gave me my number back and I was in the race again.

Happy and smiling, I took my drop off bag, finally arranged my headlamp around my head and took my shoes off. I was about to witness a “blister moment of truth”.

Alas, the truth was very uncomfortable.

Isn’t the truth always uncomfortable? Yes, it is. But that doesn’t mean we’re not clinging to what we want to be, instead of accepting what is is.

Philosophy apart, my feet were in a bad condition. And I still had 90km until 1:30 PM.

90 km to run with blisters on your soles is a lot of painful running.

But I put my shoes on again, lightened my headlamp and checked my watch. Fuck! Double fuck! I was staying (which meant I was not advancing) for more than 40 minutes (20 minutes of talks with the organizers and 20 minutes of care taking). Triple fuck!

I jumped up and started to run again, knowing that this time all the time buffer I got earlier was basically lost. I had to keep moving constantly for the next 12 kilometers.

I ran like this, with blisters on my soles, for another kilometer.

Then something happened.

I stopped.

And that’s the pivotal point of the race. That’s also the main topic of this blog post. So, congrats if you made it this far, it means your patience is about to be rewarded.

After sitting still for about 10 seconds, thinking and pondering my options, I decided to turn back to the checkpoint.

I informed the organizers that I’m out of the race.

The Cost Of Learning

Those 10 seconds of sitting still were probably some of the hardest 10 seconds of my life. In hindsight, I also consider them some of the best 10 seconds of my life.

If there will be a contest about what are the best 10 seconds of everybody’s life, these 10 seconds are probably in the top 5.

Here’s why.

For every thing that we learn, we spend something. We spend time, when we’re kids, or money when we go to college. There is a trade. Something must give in.

Last year, at Ultrabalaton, I learned what will happen to my body if I’m going through a certain type of activities. Like running for 75km with blisters on my soles. And the thing I learned was that it will take 3 months to be able to run again and 6 months to fully recover.

I paid with a lot of pain to learn this.

Now, I was in a point where I could keep pushing, rendering my learning useless, or stop before the injury was of epic proportions.

And then I realized it was all about the cost.

Keeping myself on the race meant that my last year pain was in vain. That I paid for nothing. What is the benefit of going through the same stupid thing over and over again, especially when you know beforehand the consequences?

And yet, we’re so doing this. Almost on autopilot, almost every day.

In those 10 seconds I decided to bank on my last year pain. To take advantage of it. To make it count. I took myself out from the isolated scope of the competition and placed myself into the broader scope of my running routine and activities.

Let me explain what I mean with “isolated scope” and “broader scope”.

At the level of the race – which is the isolated scope – me stopping was unconceivable. At the level of the race, stopping would have mean defeat. It would have mean I’m a loser. You got the idea. I can go on like this for days.

But at the level of my entire life – which is the broader scope – me stopping was the best option at that moment. Because I could heal faster, train more and participate in more running competitions during the season (which is basically just starting).

There was absolutely no benefit in repeating a learning experience I already had.

Or, in simpler words, if I do the same thing again (running with that type of blisters), I’ll experience the same consequences (losing an entire season of running).

I’m very goal oriented. Sometimes I accept the fact that I’m even stubborn. And that’s why those 10 seconds were incredibly difficult for me.

But the outcome of those 10 seconds: brilliant.

Let me give you a short update: it’s exactly one week since the race (remember, my slice was still was a solid 130km run, not just a meager marathon). In this exact moment, my blisters are healed completely. I still have 3 toenails a little bit rebellious (or, to be more precise, I don’t have them anymore), but that’s more than ok, it doesn’t prevent me from running.

As a matter of fact, I started to run again 3 days ago. My second run, a moderate 10km session, was yesterday. And today I did a full 15km tempo run, in the heat, starting my acclimatization process for the next race.

In other words, I’m doing great. Which means I didn’t spend my last year pain foolishly.

What’s In It For Me?

I hear you. Most of my readers are coming to this blog for business insights, not necessarily for ultrarunning advice (admittedly, I have a lot more experience in business, with over 17 years of entrepreneurship, than in ultrarunning, where my track record is only 4 years long).

Well, I think it’s obvious what’s in it for you.

When was the last time you didn’t apply what you learned in business? When was the last time you compromised long term quality over instant gratification?

When was the last time you jeopardized your broader scope of the business – your healthy growth, your stable evolution – for the isolated scope of just getting some cash from a losing transaction?

Let me give you an example.

A client comes to you and asks for some of your services. But he also tries to get a hefty discount. You know the type. You hit the type before. They don’t want (or can’t, maybe) to spend the normal price.

But they still want your product.

So, what do you do?

You still remember the pain of giving discounts from the previous client who asked this. But, because in the isolated scope of the transaction you don’t want to quit, you don’t want to be a loser (and, like I told you, I can go on for days like this) you give in. You accept a client who is not ok for you.

You generate a toxic business process that you could easily avoid, because you’ve already been there. You paid the cost with other toxic business processes.

And that’s not good. That will, eventually, ruin your business, the same way finishing an Ultrabalaton with blood in my shoes for the second time in a row, would have been ruining my running season for the second year in a row.

It takes courage to say no to a client. It also takes diplomacy and understanding. But sometimes it’s necessary.

Next time you smell something fishy going on in your business, stop for 10 seconds. It’s never too late. Just stop for 10 seconds and see in which scope you are playing: it’s the isolated scope of a transaction with immediate benefits (but long term toxic consequences)? Or you are at a broader scope of your business?

If it’s something that you already learned, and if it’s something that you know it won’t be good for you, then stop. Turn back. It’s not quitting.

It’s a wonderful gift for your future self.

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