This week I went for a run with NZ’s no.1 ultra-distance runner Lisa Tamati. It was a short run for her, but it was long-distance for me. The best part was I got to ask Lisa questions along the way; I really wanted to know what it was like to run for days on end through scorching desert conditions, and why anyone would choose to devote their life to doing this.
What I learnt and what we discussed truly has value for everyone, whatever your own level of fitness and activity. Because long distance or short distance, it’s about much more than just running.
I haven’t run for a few weeks because my running shoes are too old (What? Is that a good enough excuse? You haven’t seen the state of my shoes…). I’ve spent the last while doing my cardio trainings on the rowing machine (I love the rowing machine). So when Lisa Tamati asked me out on a run I was a little concerned about my abilities. But not for long. I am fascinated by athletes of any type who put their bodies through tremendous challenges. And to run with Lisa meant I could find out what on earth motivated people to put their body through this particular type of challenge.
The good news for aspiring ultra-distance athlete – or athlete of any sort – is this: Lisa’s abilities do not come from any special genetics or unique physical attributes. Why is this good news? Because it means all of us are eligible to achieve amazing physical goals if we wish. All we need to do is some work.
Where Lisa came from
Lisa was recovering from serious illness in 2001 when she decided to complete her first ultra-marathon. Four years earlier, she had broken her back and doctors had told her she would never be able to run again. Now, she was experiencing kidney failure and further spinal damage. Lisa is also an asthmatic, and suffered severely from this as child. Not an ideal background at all. But, you see, this is a lesson not so much in what you get given, but what you work for and can earn.
Lisa assured me during our run that she was no natural athlete. It’s passion, effort and a will to never, ever give in that has allowed herself to, in a nutshell, transform a whole load of physical adversity into a body capable of tremendous endurance and fitness.
And that's one of the greatest things Lisa can teach. Wherever you are, whatever natural talents you were given, you can always push forward and change for the better. With some effort, you can always achieve more than you ever might have thought possible. Her journey of developing her strength and fitness, without genetic advantages and with health challenges, is a powerful example of this.
The first ultra-marathon
It was in 2001 when Lisa saw an article about the Marathon des Sables, a 240 km self-sustaining run through the Sahara Desert. And in an instant she decided that was going to be her challenge. The experience proved life-changing. Finishing the event and achieving her goals was one thing. However the coming together of 700 runners from all around the world all going through the same challenge, united by some strange desire to push their bodies to breaking point, was what got Lisa hooked.
Running through the Sahara Desert
Why would you want to keep pushing your body to it’s limit?
Lisa and I agreed about how funny it is that we soon forget about pain we go through during exercise. During demanding physical events – yeah it hurts. But it doesn’t last. The pain goes away, eventually (I favour short-term trainings where the pain is intense, but it’s over soon!). And once the pain goes, the body quickly forgets. And all it has left is the amazing feeling that it’s pushed through a challenge and succeeded. And let me tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling. Lisa knows it very well.
Lance Armstrong once said: "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever". Hard to argue with him.
That kinda sums it up. The achievement of finishing is all that matters. Pain along the way is just part of the deal. You need to be strong to handle hours and hours on end of such pain. But I get the impression that over time – and we’re talking years – it can be developed.
It can get real tough stuck out in the desert for days
Eating goat curry the night before an endurance event sounds risky. Especially when the goat has been on the roof of the van you have been travelling through the desert in for 2 days. The result for Lisa was her toughest run ever. Food poisoning set in after one hour of the 64 hour Trans 333 event through the Sahara Desert. Now there were only 17 runners in this race and it’s self-sufficient. Lisa found herself sick and alone in the desert, and at night things were potentially very dangerous. There was only one way safely out. For Lisa quitting is never an option. So instead of completing the 333 km of the Trans 333, she completed the 222 km of the Trans 222 event that was taking place at the same time and called it a day. That’s 222 km of intense pain instead of 333. That is a very long way to run with food poisoning.
Lisa also competes in the Badwater ultramarathon through Death Valley, USA
A New Zealand First
In October this year Lisa will run the length of the country from Bluff to Cape Reinga. This has never been done before in a straight-line from one end to the other. To do this within the given timeframe Lisa will run the equivalent of 52 marathons in 33 days (!). Um, that’s quite a big workload. She will perform speaking engagements in cities and towns along the way. Why? This is what it’s all about now: Lisa is using her abilities and profile simply to help others. She is raising money for the childrens charity organisation Kids Can. Check it out.
Starting on October 31st, Lisa arrives in Auckland (via Cape Reinga) on December 2nd. Run with the group alongside here along the way or on the final day.
What it’s really all about
So if it’s not all about running, what’s it all about? Well firstly, it is still about running. Lisa loves to run. Being outside and seeing new things and moving. It’s very relaxing at a certain level. It can hurt, pain comes and goes, but there is an underlying feel-good that is always there. So it’s a given that running for Lisa is a pleasure and not a chore.
But now, having climbed the mountains of ultra-distance running what do you do next? This is one very important thing Lisa and I discussed. What do you do when you’ve already done it? Firstly, you keep going, because you love to challenge yourself and keep evolving. And so you keep pushing yourself to perform better. But the real growth comes from this:
When you have achieved amazing challenges yourself, for yourself, and you’ve experienced the rewards of that, the next rewards always come from sharing with others.
Whatever form that takes, it’s contributing to others that is the only way forward. It’s inspiring others with your stories and your challenges and achievements. It’s showing people what is actually possible. It’s simply being the example.
So that’s where Lisa is heading from now on. She plans to share her achievements and abilities with others for the purpose of supporting worthy causes and helping others out. Cos that’s what it’s really all about.
Let me finish with this
There is something very important underlying all this. You see, people being people, we truly respond to positive and powerful examples set by others. Why? Here’s the kicker. Because intuitively we know that the potential that we see another has fulfilled, is the same potential that resides within us.
It’s getting kinda heavy I know. Bear with me. When we recognise an inspiring achievement of someone else, a small spark goes off within us that suggests that maybe we too could ‘step up’ and apply a greater effort ourselves. It doesn’t mean we have to go and do exactly what they have done. We don’t all have to go and run ultra-marathons (necessarily – you can if you want). But you may want to challenge yourself or push yourself in a way that suits you.
So just by being the example of challenge and achievement Lisa will be able to influence many thousands of people in a positive way. As we all can, but only once we have first truly influenced ourselves in a positive way.
Oh, and enjoy your next run =)
PS I warn you. If you want to see the absolute pinnacle of strength and toughness in an endurance athlete, check out http://davidgoggins.com. He is simply unreal. And possibly not to everyone’s taste.
PS Something a little tamer? Check out the inspirational Dean Karnazes: http://ultramarathonman.com