When you think about the way you want your life to go, the things you’d like to happen, chances are that pretty high on the list is to avoid too many challenges – we tend to want things to go smoothly and be as straightforward as possible. Not many of us relish the thought of experiencing something difficult, and even fewer of us would actively choose to go down that route and actually welcome an ordeal.
But for some, and indeed for YU founder Paul, adversity doesn’t have to be the terrible thing it’s always assumed to be. Overcoming challenges can make you stronger and more resilient, better able to cope with future difficulties that may arise. It can teach you about yourself and help you grow as a person, change your perspective and priorities, and give you an enhanced sense of self-esteem and confidence.
Paul decided to test this theory by pushing himself as far out of his comfort zone as he’d ever been and signed up to run a 56-mile ultra-marathon.
“Everyone thought I was mad – I wondered that myself, if I’m honest. But I wanted to challenge myself, to see whether I could actually do what I said I was going to do, to find out what I’m capable of. I knew it was going to physically tough, but I was fairly confident that I could train my body to do what it needed to do. I was more concerned that I would find it too mentally tough.”
The adversity experienced during an endurance event like an ultra-marathon is unique. The training required for it will make you physically stronger and fitter, with a more robust immune system and healthier body function overall. It can also have a major impact on your mental health – to push yourself through an extreme endurance event is to appreciate your capacity to persevere, to set and achieve goals, and to learn what you’re capable of.
This is exactly what Paul found:
“Just under halfway through the race, when I’d just run a marathon and still had more than that distance to run again, it felt like my body was about to reach its limit. Everything started seizing up and I wasn’t sure my legs would be physically capable of carrying me any further. And yet, they did – it wasn’t pretty, but they kept going and going and going for as long as I needed them to. Which showed me that when I think I’ve reached the maximum of what I can do, there’s always more in the tank.”
To achieve something that many would deem impossible, to endure the physical pain and mental barriers and come out the other side, is to gain an enormous sense of pride, confidence and accomplishment that will foster firm belief in yourself, your capacity to exceed your own expectations, and your ability to cope with adversity in all its forms.
For Paul, it was the very fact that it was so tough, that to even attempt the event was potentially setting up for failure, that made it so rewarding:
“It was one of those experience that was one of the most challenging things that I think I could have done, but one of the most rewarding. If you challenge yourself and put yourself into situations where failure is a very distinct possibility, when you succeed, my god does that feel good!”
Even if running ultra-marathons isn’t your thing (and it definitely isn’t for everyone!), there are other things that constitute a challenge that can have the same effect on your mental health:
Try something new – whether it’s a new hobby, meeting new people, or travelling somewhere different, venturing into the unknown is a great way to push yourself;
Set yourself goals – giving yourself something to aim for will give you a great sense of reward when you eventually achieve it;
Be creative – it might seem like it’s just for fun, but by being creative, you’re actually innovating by solving problems or generating new ideas;
Understand yourself – it doesn’t have to be a big scary feat in order to be challenging. Taking the time to really look at yourself and your thoughts can be intimidating, but learning how can help you feel more comfortable in your own skin
It’s important to note that the key to benefitting from the positive effects of undertaking a challenge such as an ultra-marathon or other endurance event is the element of control. This is something you have chosen to do, have trained for, and can (to some extent) determine the outcome of. If you are facing adversity that is out of your control, something that is happening to you with little chance of influencing the result, this can end up having the opposite effect. You can be left feeling helpless and vulnerable, which can be a scary place to be, and can ultimately be detrimental to your mental health. If you find yourself facing this kind of struggle, it’s important to reach out for help to manage the situation.
But if you get the opportunity to do something that safely pushes you, that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable - whether that’s an endurance event or something else – be brave and give it a try. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself.