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Ultramarathons ~ smiling at the hills

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Uncategorized

24 ultramarathons in 24 months ~ learnings for day-to-day living

Seeking truths via scientific inquiry is familiar in our society and culture.

Consider the priority given to maths and sciences over creativity and arts in education — an huge oversight of course, as we need creativity to evolve. Listen to the great late Ken Robinson on this.

Some of the areas of my life that matter are subject to scientific investigation: e.g./ pain, running. Gathering data and establishing what it might mean is important.

But there is another piece. The lived experience. What is it like? The quality or qualia.

Examining the lived experience is vital to understand how the embodied mind works.

To know my tendencies, especially under pressure from fatigue and pain, I needed to be in a situation well outside my comfort zone.

One way to do this, I discovered, was running ultramarathons. Another is meditation (ultrarunning can be meditative), which I have practiced for many years.

So I set off on monthly ultramarathons for two years to find out.

Here are some of my learnings.

5 Learnings

ultramarathons ~ Smiling at the hills

It’s not what’s happening as much as how you relate to it that matters.

This is an insight I encourage people to contemplate and work with in their day-to-day experiences.

Life happens. You have not control over what turns up. You do have control over and can train yourself to respond skilfully to difficult situations. How you think about them has a big role in how they actually are for you.

Ultramarathons often involve hills. Or mountains. Lots of ups and downs. They appear whether I like it or not. How I relate and respond determines what it is like for me. Obstacle or opportunity to see what I can do? Problem or possibility for growth?

I learned to smile at the hills.

A hill can be any challenge or situation that takes you out of your comfort zone in your life. In the day to day.

Smile at it.

Suffering is part of life

Dukkha is The First Noble Truth, which refers to the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of life.

Everybody suffers.

Accepting suffering as part of life is a great step forward. Rather than resisting or thinking you shouldn’t.

Each day there are reasons to suffer.

For example, ageing, disease, loss, separation, injury, pain, dissatisfaction, disappointment.

Life frequently turns up in ways we don’t like.

Put another way, if you expect life to appear the way you want it to, you will be perpetually disappointed.

Instead, we can learn to be open to whatever life presents to us, and surf the waves.

On ultramarathons many different situations arise.

Some truly wonderful. Some truly awful.

Each offers something valuable, including learning and practicing ways to ease your own suffering (The Fourth Noble Truth).

To ease your suffering, you need to be able to see things as they are rather than as you wish them to be. For example, impermanence.


No matter how you are feeling now, whatever you are thinking now, it will pass.

Each moment is unique.

You have never been you in this moment before.

There, it has gone.

A matter of experience, flowing like a river.

During ultramarathons when you are on your feet for hours, enduring all weathers, through the day and night, you can feel every possible emotion.

They come, they go. Even the most intense.

Gain and loss is the way it goes.

Same in the day to day.

When you contemplate and examine your own experience, you will notice the impermanent nature of things that makes life possible.

Of course, this also brings great hope.

Heights are not that bad

And other fears.

The feelings are real. Like pain, anxiety and all else that is felt (embodied).

But they are being generated top-down by your body systems as a best guess to explain your lived world.

A prediction, or inference.

Your lived world includes everything happening for you in this moment, wherever you happen to be.

My fear of heights is being generated by my body systems to reliably explain the current sensory information whilst I am on a narrow path, up high, looking down. This is based on prior experiences and expectations.

We experience a world we expect to experience.

I expect to feel fear when I am up high.

Many anxious ‘on high’ situations in the past make the nervousness, sweaty palms and thoughts of falling, the best explanation and hence experience.

Until I update my model of being on high by exposing myself to thinking and situations to change my perception.

The fear of heights is inside me, not on the ledge.

I can’t change the ledge, but I can change the way I deal with it and hence the overall experience.

This is a key skill in the day to day.

As ever, cultivating a balanced equanimous mind helps you be present, aware and able to see things as they are rather than the biases from priors. This can be achieved with a regular meditation practice, which is about being with whatever arises.


I have been reading, learning and practicing Buddhist psychology on and off since I was 18 years old, when a good friend introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh.

Here in the West, the increasingly common practice is meditation. In Buddhism, this is just part of it.

Such a practice builds awareness.

(Understanding Buddhist philosophy, even the rudimentary and practical elements help enormously).

Awareness of what is happening in the here and now.

Ultrarunning brings you into the here and now, certainly when crossing technical ground or speeding downhill. And when it hurts like hell.

Whilst your mind will wander, you can practice coming back to this moment. Feel whatever you are feeling. See what you are seeing. Hear what you are hearing.

This is the rich experience of being present and open to life as it unfolds.

Ultrarunning necessitates getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Being aware is different to resisting or ignoring. These are both common strategies, but neither are living. The more open you are to whatever is happening, the more you will roll with life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Awareness is the first step to healing.

This maybe the motivation for some ultrarunners.

Presence and healing.

Bonus #1: getting lost

Often I would get lost.

Pass a turning because I was not aware.

Misread the map.

Thought I knew where I was going, and then…

Making mistakes is the way we learn.

This is said over and over, yet we still don’t seem to get it in our society.

You will make mistakes. You will get lost.

It is unavoidable.

So how do you and how will you handle it?

Bonus #2: Failures

I had a couple of DNFs.

They felt really bad.

But then led to successes.

Because I thought about what had happened and the changes I could make.

The first, I took on an 100k event with not much training, thinking I could do it.

I couldn’t. After 20k I was grumbling. I ended up taking a wrong turn and arrived back at a prior check point.

Deciding to pull the plug, they said that’s fine, it’s a 10k run back to the start. I had already done about 50k.

I made my way with plenty of time to have a good go at myself.

But, it led me to getting a coach, Damian Hall.

That transformed things.

The second, doing the South Downs Way solo and being unable to take on food. I simply ran out of energy around 90k. But did I?

It was going well until it wasn’t. There is the uncertainty build into the journey, like life. I was well prepared.

What did I learn? Life happens. It’s how I deal with it that matters.

But what if I had kept going….?

Bonus #3: keep going

You can do more and go further than you think.

Limiting beliefs hold us back. Maybe too many kicked in on the SDW in the pitch black, on my own. But that’s the challenge.

These are stories that have been imprinted on us by others and society.

Our minds are shaped. Conditioned.

Then you wake up and realise that these beliefs are not all true. Most aren’t.

Ultrarunning gives you plenty of time to see this.

Know your direction. Have an idea where you are going, but know you are not there yet.

Then you take a step from here, where you are. And another. And another.

Along the path. Use your compass.

And keep going.

I hope that brings some insights and is helpful.


‘Understand and overcome your chronic pain’ – out Dec 1.

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