What running a desert ultramarathon taught me about breaking challenging goals down into manageable steps

Just over six months ago, in March 2021, I raced my first ultramarathon, the Al Marmoom Desert Ultramarathon. It’s one of the toughest events in that distance category in the region – 50 kilometres over sand dunes – in temperatures that hit the 40s once the sun rose on that particular morning. The dunes shimmered beneath an indifferent blue sky as we scurried over them like little ants. By mid-morning, it was so hot that many runners were unable to continue. The heat made an already challenging feat of physical and mental endurance even more difficult. I’m sure every runner out there had moments of crisis – a voice in my head said it was a pointless exercise and I’d be better off going to brunch. If you’ve ever walked on sand and experienced the one step forward, half a step back sensation, you’ll completely relate to the sense of futility that plagued my darker moments. I may have even shaken my fist at the sky at one point. But, somehow, I just kept plodding on, pouring water over my head to try and keep my core temperature down and counting down the final distance in increasingly desperate increments. I was happy to finish 4th female overall and honestly, on that day, just to finish.

Fast-forward to today, and I’ve started a new business, made some life-changing decisions and embarked on exciting – and sometimes daunting – new journeys, both personally and professionally.

What does that have to do with endurance running, you might wonder? Well, as it happens, quite a lot.

One of the things that you practice over and over again, as a longer-distance runner (and I write as someone squarely in the ‘beginner’ section of that category) is to keep pushing ahead when your mind and body are insisting that you absolutely and categorically ought to stop. Just like lifting weights builds muscle, running long builds an endurance mindset. It teaches you that the greatest distances and even the most towering of accomplishments are all, at the end of the day, things that can be broken down into small, achievable steps.

And that’s what endurance runners train – those small steps. I lace up my ASICS FujiTrabuco Pro shoes and go trail running every weekend without fail. Getting up at 3.45am on a Friday morning is now routine. Am I the best trail runner out there? No. But do I give it my all every time? Also, no. Not always. I’ve struggled with illness, recovery from Covid-19, personal challenges and the kind of semi-permanent tiredness that any woman with a full-time job and a small child to keep alive will recognise as the norm.

You don’t have to be a super-athlete to build mental stamina and use it to improve other aspects of your life – it’s for everyone. Our goals and dreams are easier to achieve when broken down into tasks, and running long gives me the inner conviction I need to succeed in other areas of my life – even when I’m running in last place with my trail buddies (thanks for waiting for me!)

I believe that anyone can harness the benefits of pushing themselves a little further than they believe is possible. Our brains are hard-wired to reward us with endorphins when we achieve a task, such as a project, but also when we run over longer distances at a reasonably respectable pace.

“During physical activity, muscles secrete hormones into your bloodstream that make your brain more resilient to stress. Scientists call them hope molecule,” writes Kelly McGonigal in her book The Joy of Movement. When you regularly train yourself to feel good after achieving something, it becomes a habit applicable to every aspect of your life.

And, as every runner knows, success isn’t linear. You have good days and bad days. Motivation may not always be strong, and sometimes the lure of an extra hour under your blanket trumps the spectre of lacing up your shoes and pounding the pavement. But, we get back what we put in, and when you see progress, it encourages you to take ownership of your own success.

Knowing that I am capable of pushing my physical and mental limits gives me the inner confidence to achieve in other areas of my life that are seemingly entirely unrelated to running. I’ve learned, time and time again, that you can accomplish amazing things when you break the process down into small, relatable and attainable baby steps – even if it does feel like you’re running on sand sometimes, forwards is still forwards.

written by

Jola Chudy

Communications & Media Consultant from Dubai

Coach: Lee Harris - Running. Rory Buck - Triathlon

My Disciplines
10k Trail Ultra trail Mountain running Ultra marathon Half Marathon

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