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Breaking Limitations: Why You Can Do Hard Things

Updated: Jan 18

A speciality of mine, both as an athlete and as a coach, is doing hard things. These have ranged from 40 mile obstacle course races, to record-breaking weighted runs, to marathon equivalent swims with regards my own feats, and from Ironman races to special forces selection for clients. Sure, lifting heavy things is hard, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but there's something about prolonged suffering that appears to be a greater test of will. I've taken on some of these challenges with little to no [specific] training and, so far, have come out not only unscathed, but thriving. As a general rule, each crazy undertaking has become just a little bit more crazy each time, with one event being dreamed up and taken on as a result of the confidence gained by achieving the previous one. I rand 50 miles, carrying 20lb - this gave me the confidence to take on the 24 hour loaded march record with 40lb. I swam 2.4 miles to start the Brutal triathlon - this gave me the confidence to swim 10km in the Great North Swim. I was part of a team that completed the British 3 peaks under 20 hours - this gav

e me the confidence to take on Mountain Murph; the 3 peaks, but with a 20lb weight vest, and 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats atop each peak.

So what? Is this a smart way to train? Does it make me a better athlete? Does it mean I'm fitter than people who haven't done these things? The answer to all of these is broadly no, albeit with some caveats. None of these feats had any training value, undoubtedly the opposite in some instances, setting training back somewhat. As far as being a better athlete is concerned, I'll argue yes, but in the moment, no. And better than other athletes? Well, not as a result of any one event. In fact, see the above comment about training being set back, and that would apply to this argument too.

So why do these things? This is probably a deeply personal and individual question, so I can only give my thoughts, however, I do believe there are principles which are scalable and applicable to all! Firstly, I wasn't always fit; in fact quite the opposite. Being fit (in a relative sense) now is something for which I'm extremely grateful, but it also makes me want to explore the limits of that fitness, and to make the most of it while I have it. Who knows when illness, injury or another catastrophe might cut short my adventures? Secondly, these sense of purpose while working towards an event, coupled with the sense of fulfilment for a long while after completing an event is a high I'm yet to top. It gives me direction, structure and grounding. A combination I haven't found elsewhere. Above all of this, though, is fear. I'm scared that I'll too easily return to the lazy, overweight, unmotivated individual I once was. I know that the path back down is far easier than the climb up. I know that the difference is in the everyday decisions. I know that the results of those decisions compound. My solution is to make hard choices daily. To follow through with things I don't want to do, but that allow me to do the things I do want to do. These grandiose events are simply an extension of that principle; a less frequent exaggeration of the choice to do hard things. They, in my experience, harden the mind and draw out the spirit. They expose the flaws of your character from which you've tried to hide. They ask you to prove the ethos by which you claim to live, and they ask you to back up your bullshit. Multiple hours into a gruelling event, with terrible weather, aches, pains and soreness everywhere, and nobody for company, you're only accountable to yourself. You can quit, but you don't need to quit. You can slow down, but there's no excuse to. You can pretend you didn't slow down when you tell the story, but you'll know. Sure, you can experience this to a degree in a 10km run, a long bike ride, or even a 10-20 minute workout in the gym, but it lasts for seconds, maybe minutes. The end is in sight, or within your control, and there is usually a safety net in place.

It is this prolonged internal dialogue, forced upon you by the reality of your situation. The fight to think about anything other than the fatigue, the lethargy, the hunger and the soreness. It is this that makes these events so beneficial. It is the ability to deal with this that is subject to progressive overload in the same way a back squat or 400m running intervals might be. But it is also this malleable quality that bleeds into your character; that presents itself in other aspects of your life that are seemingly unrelated. This is why I do these events, and this is why I think, no this is why I know you should too! Don't get me wrong, it's relative, and starting small, small but still scary to you, is most definitely the way to go. But whatever you do, make sure it's out of your comfort zone, and that it will allow the character test described above. Don't set yourself up to fail, but make sure it's a real possibility, with which you have to wrestle!

1 Comment

Tim Truett
Tim Truett
Aug 09, 2023

A compelling essay. Thank you Tom.

I have assigned to it a theme song: "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash, written to remind himself to do the hard things, "scared that [he'll] too easily return to the lazy, overweight, unmotivated individual [he] once was.'

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