“There are no impossible goals, perhaps just timelines that are too tight”, Mike Osmond, a Palo Alto-based seasoned triathlon coach said to me during our meeting.
After researching life force and inner strength for most of my life, initially through the experience of ‘life lived’ by having to transform emotional, psychological, physiological barriers into frontiers one after the other, and for the past six years, within the more formal context of academic research, I can say I fully concur with Mike.
That day, I told him about my plan to run 2400 kilometers across the length of New Zealand the following year and train for my first full Ironman triathlon while at it. The dream (literally, I had a dream of this run back in October 2010), which at first seemed nothing short of an actual impossibility, became a reality earlier this year.
I completed the Ironman in New Zealand — we endured one of the worst swim and cycling conditions Lake Taupo has witnessed in about a decade — and finished my 2408 km journey across New Zealand in 50 days, while speaking in 15 community events we organized along the way. The run was my act of citizen activism to help build cultures that embrace compassion and have zero tolerance to abuse in our societies. It was also the launch of Sisu Not Silence, a non-profit movement that seeks to break the silence around interpersonal violence and any abuse we hide. I founded it as result of my own past experience of intimate partner violence. The events brought together survivors and overcomers, and people within the community passionate about taking action for positive social impact.
While there’s a book’s worth of learnings to share from the journey, and the run was also part of my PhD dissertation exploring the human experience of unearthing inner strength in the face of extreme obstacles, in this post, I’ll share four insights that have been most helpful to me. They seem to also translate especially well to any real-life challenge I face. I hope they stir some ideas and remind you of your own big life learnings. Feel free to write any insights or ideas below so that they may help others!
1. Pace yourself
A principle I learned during a 230 km training run with ultra runner and COO of Hintsa Performance Annastiina Hintsa, was to walk all uphills. “When you have to be on the go for a long time and do extraordinary things”, she said, “there is no point wasting energy in fighting gravity.”
Whether we are pushing through a self-selected demanding uphill or going through a rough patch in life, we increase our chances of succeeding, and succeeding with less damage to ourselves, when we momentarily slow down our pace. This means to take more time to rest, recover and connect with people who care about us when we are going through challenges. Assess your energy reserves, focus, drop some stuff from your to-do list and return to it later. We can do (almost) anything but not everything.
2. Honor your body
Be conscious about approaching any challenge and life journey with compassion and awareness. Check-in with yourself by including a moment for meditation every morning and find stillness in your evening time. Attune to your body and be conscious to not to let yourself slide into an autopilot mode.
The difference between a flow state and autopilot is that in the first one we are aware of what we are doing, we take charge and craft our story consciously and with presence. When we switch to mental autopilot, life and events are happening to us, instead of us happening to life. We are passively engaged and less likely to notice the subtle changes in our body, energy or environment that would require us to adjust our direction, update our pace and care for ourselves so that we help our body to help us. On autopilot, we are prone to react (instead of acting from a place of consideration and good judgment) and to lose our composure instead of moving from a grounded place within us. Explore what kind of a dialogue i.e. two-way connection might you create with your body, and how might you use this wisdom to know when to push hard and when to slow down. To be able to tell the difference between the two and know our limits is one of the hardest lessons to master, but it’s also one of the few major keys there are to experiencing more balance, harmony, and peace in our lives.
3. Trust the process and expect to find a second wind
To any grand journey, there are basically at least two key moments. The beginning: taking the first step is always hard — it took me 16 years to finally start training for the Ironman, so I dare to say I know what procrastination is. The second key moment is when we have been moving for a long time, and feel we have come to the edge of our mental or physical capacities. Just like in a marathon, where most people report ‘hitting a wall’ and yet pretty much all of them finish the race, in life we hit all kinds of obstacles and experience what seems to be an end.
However, what people also report, and what seems to be of our most defining human qualities, is that we have dormant, untapped and hidden energy within us waiting to be released. An extra reserve of energy that we can’t really unlock unless the situation calls for it. Adversity, significant challenges, and fatigue seem to act as a pathway to what in the Finnish language is called sisu, and which I’ve researched since 2012. We are much stronger than we generally think but we’ll never know how strong unless we dare to say ‘yes’ to things that scare us.
4. Seek not to just succeed, but to succeed gracefully
View your work, striving and challenges as something that can help you become an emotionally strong, more rounded and upright individual. Working smart is better than working hard and to find not just the ‘what’ and ‘why’, but the ‘how’ of your doing will allow you to do something that you can be proud of. What will you feel when you look back at the proverbial finish line? Did you run a good run and do things from a place of good intentions. When we do things with gracefulness and aim for high quality, our story is a success even though we occasionally fail to reach what we set out to reach.
Ask yourself what does success look like? Then write down or think what is gracefulness, and finally, what does it mean to succeed gracefully? I asked this from myself in New Zealand to understand what kind of mindset, attitude, value-base and even way of moving my body will allow me to tell a good story and look back with gratitude. To say I didn’t just complete my run at any cost but that I did it in a balanced manner. I believe this not only paves a way for greater future challenges but as we go on about our journeys from integrity, it allows us to grow internally with each tribulation transformed into triumph.
Emilia Lahti (MSc, MAPP) is an international presenter & trainer on topics related to high performance in leadership, athletics, and personal development. In her Ph.D., she is pioneering the research on the ancient Finnish construct of sisu, which denotes courage in the face of adversity and the fascinating ability of humans everywhere to tap into hidden strength.
As part of her social action initiative called ‘Sisu Not Silence’ that is focused on nonviolence and unlocking human potential through psychological safety, along with her personal quest to understand what allows individuals to exceed their previously thought capacities, she recently completed a 2400km/50-day run/bike journey across the length of New Zealand. You can read more about Emilia’s work at www.emilialahti.com