HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsGoing the distance — Life lessons from long distance runners

Going the distance — Life lessons from long distance runners


Some of you may have heard the story of how I came to run in the Comrades marathon. Although I have told it countless times, I’m still somehow a little amazed at how I could go from the last person to be picked for any sporting activity at school, to being a person who can run one of the world’s longest, toughest ultra-marathons in the world at age 34.

By Thembe Khumalo

I am not a fast runner, and in the running community I am still a novice, but through running I have build physical and mental endurance that is considerably higher than that of the average Joe or Joan.

I came upon long distance running by accident, while trying to lose some weight. Today, I think about losing weight more to ensure that I can be a better runner, rather than running so that I can lose weight.

In any event, working with the body is only a small part of what gives long distance running such a powerful allure for me. I have found it particularly useful for the leadership and life lessons I have gathered from it.

The first thing seems an obvious one, and it is that I have learnt to play a long game. No one wakes up one morning and suddenly runs a marathon.

Some who have tried this have ended up faced with serious consequences; and the knowledge that even healthy runners have died running marathons is sobering.

When you are facing a big challenge, you don’t expect instant results, and you learn to pace yourself, so that your resources last for the entire duration of the race.

Added to this, preparing for a marathon can take a novice runner like me up to a year or more; so I am not looking for quick wins or reaching for a low hanging fruit.

I understand that the glory of completing a 42km standard marathon is won in my daily five-kilometre training runs.

It is won in my seemingly inconsequential food choices, in my commitment to getting to sleep on time and in my choice to rest when I have an injury.

These small daily decisions are what is tough about a big race like the Comrades.

People often ask me if it is hard to run in a marathon. The truth is that every race is different, but for me, the race itself is never tougher than these daily commitments.

And so it is in life, that if you have mastery over your daily habits; if you play a long game with your goals, you can develop the discipline to eschew instant gratification in favour of more enduring and more meaningful rewards.

Another lesson that stands out for me is the fact that I compete against myself.

Long distance running is a lonely sport, and you will often spend hours on the road alone with your thoughts. You have to be comfortable with that level of intimacy with yourself — isolation is not everybody’s cup of tea.

When you measure your success you will measure against your own goals, and your own performance from your previous run.

When I was new to running, I would panic at the start of a race, as faster runners would take off at an alarming pace, leaving me far behind.

Trying to keep them within sight wreaked havoc with my race plan and left me without the necessary energy to finish strong.
I quickly learnt to pay no mind to what other people were doing, and found that if I concentrated on my own plan and my own progress and milestones, I could finish and meet my time and long distance goals, regardless of how bleak things looked at the start.

It is the same in life I think. The more you focus on what other people are doing, how quickly they appear to be making progress, the more this will distract you from your own progress.

You have to learn to stand in your own light and measure yourself against yourself, not other people. After all, when you stand before the Lord, you’ll be standing alone!

Running has also taught me that most setbacks are temporary. Just thinking that thought gives me a whole lot of comfort. And truly, no problem lasts for ever.

As Audrey Lourde put it: “We all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end”.

Adjustment and adaptation are part of progress. I have gone through seasons when I haven’t run for months, because of injury, personal crisis, or work pressure. But I don’t stop calling myself a long distance runner in those seasons.

Even when you are in a bind that prevents you from practising your craft, from speaking your truth or from pursuing your goal, remind yourself that it is temporary.

Don’t stop calling yourself what you are because you don’t see evidence of it right in front of you.

Whenever, I resume running after a long sabbatical, I am amazed at how my body and mind remember everything — the technical knowledge and the mental skill and the also the joy of running. A set back will pass, but your inner being will remember who you are.

Running has also taught me a thing or two about focus. Exercise trends come and go, and many of them are alluring and exciting and I am often tempted to try them out.

Aerobics, Zumba, pilates, step class, hip-hop dance class, kick boxing, pole dancing, yoga, cross fit, belly dancing and more are all options that have been available to me at some point.

But, one thing I come to see is that, because I have chosen to commit to running, I need to put my energy into those activities that will make me a better runner.

If yoga is going to enhance my running by improving strength, flexibility and mental focus, then I am in.

If core training in pilates means I will be a more efficient runner, then I am down. Energy is a limited resource, so I have learnt to be conscientious in how I use it.

When you have a goal, you can’t afford to be distracted by too many things, no matter how attractive they may seem — self-denial is big part of developing the discipline that delivers sustainable success.

A monomaniacal focus is a golden treasure in a world full of endless distraction.

Thembe Khumalo is a brand builder, storyteller and certified life coach

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