Four years ago I weighed about 210 lbs. I was somewhat athletic, but just recreational. I was a hiker, practised martial arts a few times a week, played the odd pick-up volleyball game. The few times I tried running were very difficult, but I was proud of myself. An hour-long six-mile run would leave me barely alive, unable to do anything but feed and suck back a litre of Coke or OJ. I thought I was good because the same run would leave my brother more debilitated than I.
I am 33 at the time of this writing and I can run 26 miles in 3 ½ hours: A marathon. I can run 13 miles on a whim without even bringing a drink while pushing my kids in a stroller. When I run I can sometimes catch people on roller blades or even bikes. I never get tired doing any of my ordinary activities like my martial arts class, my weekly aerobics courses, bike riding, swimming, or playing with my kids.
This accomplishment is mind-expanding for two reasons: First because I thought it was impossible and second because it was EASY! My intuition at the time was that marathon runners were genetically different from normal people. I couldn’t imagine my body being able to survive running that distance, which is annoyingly long even in a car. What pain would result from running those six miles I could barely do, then running twenty more afterwards?
One winter day four years ago a work friend made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: “Let’s train to run a marathon together in four months.” It sounded like torture, but I agree to his suggestion. The reason? He was a 50-something with a substantial pot belly who didn’t look like an athlete. I was a 29 year old who played outside a lot. Besides, I don’t back down from a challenge. Now how? Run more than six times the distance that I could currently barely run.
Here is how I accomplished the impossible.
- Sweet-talked myself. If I could convince myself of any scenario that ended up with a victory then the task would at least become possible, which is a lot better. I figured that, worst case, I can walk about 3 miles per hour. So if I didn’t improve at all then I could run for 6 miles in one hour and walk the remaining 20 in seven hours. It would be long and boring and probably hellish but I could definitely do that. I could do it now!
- Took all my friend’s advice, and all the training programs on the Internet , and distilled them into a simple rule of thumb: Run one long-distance run per week and increase the distance of this run by 10% per week.
So the weeks started. I ran my 6 miles first, but a little slower than I had been running it. It was still tough but running slower let me survive. I started to run at lunch a couple of times a week for ½ hour with a running crowd that went out nearly every day; I could not hope to stay with the good runners, but there were all levels so I found some who just jogged and chatted. I could keep up with them.
The next week I ran my six miles plus a little loop to add more distance. It was about as difficult as the 6 miles were the previous week. I continued running sporadically at lunch and increasing the distance on the weekend. After about a month or so of this I took notice of transformation in my body. I was up to about 9 miles, or 50% more distance than when I started, and I hadn’t really noticed it! My lunchtime runs became easier and I moved up to the next level of lunchtime runners.
It was about this time that I decided I could jump more than 10%. I decided, on my long run, to try adding 5 miles in one week. Amazingly enough, after about 9 miles a dark shadow descended upon me, making me very sad, and teaching me why I should not have added that much distance. By the end of it my legs were destroyed and they immediately seized upon getting home. I hobbled around like a cripple the rest of the day and was sore for a few afterwards as well.
I tried one more time to make a big jump from about 15 miles to 19, with exactly the same result. As I approached my previous limit the running became very tough very fast and I was shattered. I didn’t do it again, simply using the 10% rule until I was over 26 miles.
Then I ran my marathon, harder than my training runs since it was a race after all, and finished in 3:31. I got a shirt and a medal to prove that I’d done it, but I got a lot more from the experience.
The most important insight is that I don’t have a clue about what is possible or not, nor even about what is easy. Running 6 miles was very hard for me before, now it is trivial. Transferring a fork of food from the plate to the mouth is beyond imagination for my 2 year old, but I know this will be easy soon.
Nurturing an idyllic family life, becoming rich, escaping the grind, achieving bliss every day, simply surviving until tomorrow; these may all seem more-or-less impossible to some depending from where they look to these goals. Nowadays I don’t resign myself to categorizing anything as impossible. My rule is that if someone, anyone, has accomplished something then it’s been proven possible and the option is open for me to accomplish it too. In fact, it’s easier for me to accomplish it than those who came before me because they’ve already figured out how to do it.
The next most important insight is that people adapt naturally and easily. Small changes are absorbed transparently and humans don’t need to protect themselves or be afraid. Break down a huge transformation into a sequence of successive steps and the transformation can be accomplished with you barely noticing.