Just recently I faced the by far hardest challenge of my life. I participated in a 24h endurance and obstacle competition that many claim to be the toughest on earth. This experience taught me that the only way to develop mental stamina is fighting it out. But what does it take to keep going?
Welcome to the desert, where the days are hot and the nights are cold.
What makes this race in the desert of Nevada special is there is no set distance but every runner or team has 24h hours to finish as many 8 kilometer rounds as possible. On every lap, runners will face 250 meters of elevation, tough desert trails and 18 strength-demanding climbing obstacles, hurting crawl obstacles and obstacles that force the runners to go through the water, including a 13m cliff jump. Due to the temperature going down close to 0 degrees Celsius, it was necessary to run the last 21 hours in a neoprene wetsuit.
Apart from the cold, the distance, long hours, elevation and obstacles made this by far the hardest challenge I’ve faced in all my life.
We participated as a team of 6. After 24 hard and long hours, we managed to reach 14 rounds (112km, 3,500m of elevation, 252 obstacles) and were proud to cross the finish line second.
This success outweighed by far all the toughness and all the pain we experienced during the race and when preparing for it. And it taught me quite a bit about what it takes to keep going when the going gets tough:
1. Define commitment
The race’s slogan is “No one is better than your best, but your best will make you better!” It pretty much always takes a lot of effort and hard training to reach your ‘best’. In order to get properly prepared for the race, we’ve spent pretty much all of our leisure time in the past 9 months for training; countless hours of running, climbing or in the gym. I trained 9 times and more than 20 hours in my hardest week. Besides working and sleeping, there was not much else I had time for. Boy, it wasn’t always easy to stay committed and to keep going – not even talking about the pain during the race. Trust me, being hypothermic, tired and exhausted are not really ideal conditions to enjoy another 13m cliff jump into the cold water. All along the way, my team and I suffered setbacks, got demotivated and sometimes even intimidated by the challenges we faced. But we kept telling ourselves we’d manage it if we just stayed committed. We accepted all of this as being a part of the commitment we entered into. But then there are also moments where you need to be careful not to overdo it.
2. Don’t get overly obsessed
We were some hours into the race when we fell back from second position to fifth. Obviously we weren’t very happy about this but we didn’t go nuts, while other teams over-paced. Many hours before the sun rose, we were passing one team after another and successfully defended our second position until the end. It was crucial for us to keep ourselves and our ambitiousness under control in order to succeed. Keeping control and balance had also always been very important to me before the race even started. I tried to never let go or even neglect other important areas of my life (like my job, family or friends) for the big goal.
“I guess there is a narrow ridge between passion and obsession.”
3. Rely on others and be reliable – on all fronts
During the race everyone in our team had his good and his bad moments. At some point I was just so tired and cold that I fell asleep, slipped on the trail and lay down for a few seconds until one of my team members picked me up. I just didn’t want to continue. From this point onwards, my team was talking all the time about how soon the sun would rise (liars!) and how much better and energized we’d all feel soon. Later, I lied to them in return, how soon the race would be over and how happy we’d be. By helping each other over the obstacles, motivating each other during everyone’s personal low point and enjoying the high point all together when we crossed the finish line, we not only managed to run constantly through the 24 hours, but also beat many favorite teams coming all the way from the US, Australia and Denmark.
During such a long race it’s just not an option to only rely on one leader who motivates everyone and keeps the team going – because it’s surefire EVERYONE will have a low.
Why should we deal with this any differently in work life? Why should we expect our corporate leaders to never be in need of a bit of encouragement? Any intense project requires the collective energy of a team and it’s each team member’s responsibility to add to this energy. My 24h world’s most brutal desert obstacle course experience helped me to understand these three key areas of mental stamina a lot better. I’m self-confident enough to say: No day in a nicely air-conditioned office should be long, tough or mentally demanding enough to keep me from leaving my comfort zone in order to strive for my personal best.