Lessons Learned From Ultra Running

Updated: November 23, 2021
female ultra runner tying her shoes for an ultramarathon
By: John O’Regan

Looking beyond the finish line

No matter how many ultras you run or will run, you are always learning. Conditions are always changing. Goals constantly evolving. Running an ultra teaches you many lessons about courage, goal-setting, determination, and perseverance.

You’ll hear it said that ultra-marathon is mostly mental, but unless you’ve worked hard on the physical the mental can only take you so far.

If you have a strong mind but a weak body, you are more likely to get injured. There are no shortcuts - to be successful you need to train and put the work in

Over the past 20 years, I’ve competed in some of the most extreme races in the world taking in the 7 continents plus the North Pole and have represented Ireland on 10 occasions in the Ultra Marathon, but my running career was almost over as quickly as it had started.

My first Ultra Marathon was a 150 Mile race across the Sahara Desert called the Marathon des Sables and it took 2 years of preparation to go from zero to being fit enough and able enough to complete this epic race. Every day of every month was pre-planned and I knew exactly what I was to do and when to do it and before I knew it I was in Dublin Airport starting my journey to western Africa.

My 2 focused years were now leading into this one week and then all of a sudden it was all over. Crossing the finish line was a very strange experience because rather than having that feeling of success I felt empty. My first thoughts were not about what I’d done but instead, I was thinking what do I do now? I was lost and without any sense of direction.

I returned home and lost all interest in what I’d done and hardly wanted to talk about it. With no intention of doing anything like it ever again, I started to regress back to my old ways. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to but I just didn’t feel motivated enough to set myself a new goal.

It was only when another interesting race presented itself almost by accident that I began to regain my focus. When I started back training I got quite a shock to realise that I wasn’t as fit as I had been and a valuable lesson about running was learned when I stopped running. Fitness is not something you can just hold onto. You either use it or you lose it.

Since then I’ve always thought ahead and had future ideas but wouldn’t get too caught up in them too soon as they can distract from the closer short term goals and you may lose focus. I now use the finish line of a race as a new start line even if only to start back training.

Learning how to deal with this negative mindset has allowed me to continue on my running journey and even though these moments still arise I feel better able to deal with them as rather than fear them I expect them and that allows me to prepare for them.

Think beyond the finish line but stay in the moment. Always have another goal in mind.

Stay focused. Keep moving forward. Never forget where you’ve come from.

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