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What can an exercise challenge teach us about resilience?

© Kurt Matthews / marceauphotography

What can an exercise challenge teach us about resilience?

MiNDFOOD fitness writer Anne-Marie Cook explains why putting your body through a challenge ultimately yields up mental benefits.

What can an exercise challenge teach us about resilience?

The OxFam 100. The Bloody Long Walk. Tarawera Ultramarathon. Ultra-Trail Australia.

Have your friends and family been posting their pics from out in the middle of nowhere and you’ve said, “Why on earth would someone go for a 12 (or 15 or 24!) hour walk or run? Are they crazy?”

I’m one of those crazy people. Last May I ran (well, I did hike a bit too) 100km in the Ultra-Trail Australia race in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. It took me 15 hours, 25 minutes and 57 seconds. I was handed a bronze finishers’ buckle at the finish line and I declared on the spot that I would be back again next year, aiming for a silver buckle – that means finishing in under 14 hours.

Yes, my legs shuddered with pain. Yes, I had grimaced and come close to tears at certain points during that long day. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

I undertook Ultra-Trail Australia out of purely selfish interests. I didn’t raise money for a cause, though many people do. I wasn’t taking on the challenge for the interest of humanity. I wanted to push myself to my limit for my own knowledge. I wanted to see if I could finish.

When I was born (1980), women were not allowed to run marathons (42km) because popular wisdom was they wouldn’t be able to survive it. Having run seven marathons, I was pretty sure I could survive 100km. Even counting the thousands of metres of climbing included on the UTA course.

Sure, I trained. A lot. I trained on the actual course and got used to the terrain. One day I was out on my own for 12 hours and did 60km. That was when I knew I’d be able to finish the 100km with the support of the aid stations and friends cheering me on.

Which is not to say it was easy. Training was challenging. I fell over more than once. I got cold. I got tired. I got annoyed with myself for not being faster/stronger/tougher/younger. I got past these mental blocks and kept going. The same things happened in the race. There were moments when I was thrilled to be doing what I was doing, and times when I tried to run and couldn’t because my thighs were so sore. I climbed the 951 steps of the Furber Steps, less than a kilometre from the end. My boyfriend met me at the top and said in response to hearing my panting ragged breaths in the darkness, “You’re working pretty hard.”

I sobbed “I want to run, I want to run.” And, somehow, I did manage to run the last 200 metres over the line. I hugged him hard. I may have cried a bit. My legs were shaking. It was very cold. I looked at the faces around me and they were all ecstatic.

I ran that race on a Saturday and went back to work on Monday. It felt a little surreal to be in the kitchen making small talk. “How was your weekend?”

“Oh, y’know, good.”

“Did you go running?”

“Yeah, yeah I did.”

I didn’t want the magic feeling of the achievement to wear off. I wondered how it would feel to say, “I ran 100 kilometres on the weekend.” I didn’t want people to feel like I was bragging or showing off, but I also didn’t want to downplay it as though it was a small thing. It wasn’t. It was huge.

That week I was on deadline for work. The days got long. The stress rose. Everyone was trying to do the best job possible with limited time.

While I was usually enveloped by the heightened tension of deadline, I felt strangely unruffled. Even though my body was tired from the race (it would be for several weeks), my mind felt calm and, though I still wished to do my job well, less concerned about the outcome.

My resilience to stress had been reset.

What previously had felt overwhelming now felt acceptable. Not that I wanted to stay at work late or that I was impervious to the workload, but my capacity to cope seemed to have a new, higher ceiling. My body had been through a real challenge; the challenges of the workplace seemed far more manageable.

I think that the challenge of Ultra-Trail Australia reset my reactions to everyday stressors and has made me more able to cope. That’s a pretty good outcome from a 15-hour run in the bush.

Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA), the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest trail running event, will take place in Katoomba, NSW, from 17-20 May 2018. The four-day running festival is now in its 11th year. There are five different races that cater to varying levels of fitness and skills including; the 100km UTA100 and 50km UTA50; the 21.6km Pace Athletic UTA22; the 1.2km stair climb Scenic World UTA95; and the free Injinji 1km-4-kids trail run. Entries are now open at ultratrailaustralia.com.au.

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