5 Lessons Learned From My First Ultra Marathon

This weekend I ran the Chicago Ultra Marathon.

I never thought I’d actually run an ultra marathon. I told myself after my first ever marathon that that was more than far enough and I was quite okay.

Then I found out about ultras and they kept popping up in my mind. At the same time, I found an amazing organization to partner with, and pretty soon I was working in a coffee shop sitting next to Nicky when I looked up at him and said, “I think I just signed up for an ultra marathon.” What am I doing?

A few months later, after a few months of trainig, I was staring at the starting line this past Saturday, listening to the race director shout out “5 minutes till start!” I lined up, took my sweats off and over the next 6 hours, ran the thing. Here’s what I learned.

Here’s 5 Lessons I Learned From My First Ultra Marathon

Reference Points Matter

The course was a about 31 miles. It was a 10.5 mile loop we ran 3 times. That meant it was a ~5 miles out, and ~5 miles back.

A lot of marathon courses don’t have loops. They’re like big running tours where you can see different parts of the city. That’s great for big cities where you have crowds out cheering, but on longer courses with smaller fields, the number of people tends to get spread out, it’s much quieter and can be more difficult to always know where you’re at on the course.

That’s why reference points matter. They help give you familiar segments throughout the race.

The race was 30 mles, but it was only a 5 mile run, 6 times.

That sounds way more manageable. And while it was still freaking hard, every 5 miles, I had a reference point that I had definitely seen before and after one loop, I was running in familiar territory and began to know what to expect. I knew where hills were, when the head winds would pick and where the break stations were. That might not sound like that big of a deal, but in the middle of the race, it makes a big, big difference when you know that you’ve been here before, you’ve done it before and you can damn sure do it again.

It Hurts Until it Feels Good

As we started running, the pack was pretty close for the first 5-7 miles. You don’t want to take it too fast out of the gate since you’ve got quite a few miles ahead of you. I started talking to a guy named Tom who had run a couple of ultras before and he said something I took me the rest of the race:

It hurts, it hurts and hurts until it feels good.

I didn’t really “get it” at the time, but 10-12 miles later I knew exactly what he was talking about.

It’s All About The Decision

Up until the run actually began, the idea of an ultra marathon was all cerebral. I knew I was running an ultra marathon, but it didn’t really set.

At mile 17 or 18, it hit me. I realized that no matter what, I was going to finish.

It was decided. No motivation needed.

It might take me all day, but it was going to happen.

Chicago Ultra

It’s Not About You

It was a good thing I decided that at mile 18, because miles 22-30 sucked. Like really sucked. I tweaked my ankle and spent an hour fighting a brutal headwind that was on special delivery from Lake Michigan just for me, but there wasn’t a chance I was going to quit.

Because I had perspective.

The race wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about how fast I could go or if I could beat the 200 other nut jobs spending 5+ hours on a Saturday pushing themselves to the limit.

It was about giving a small group of kids access to do something that’s literally not possible for most of their peers.

When you get perspective you realize that your problems aren’t that big after all. Sure, an ultra is tough, but it’s also the opportunity to push myself to do things I never thought I could do. Most people don’t have that same opportunity and there’s a lot of kids out there who just want the chance to read.

Realizing that most of your problems aren’t really that tough. And, when they are tough, don’t quit because they’re hard: keep going because it is hard.

Impossible is Negotiable

Ask anyone I knew 3 years ago if I would ever “run” and they would have laughed your face off. I hated running. I still do.

3 years ago, I laughed at my friend when they asked me to sign up for a 5k. I signed up because there was candy at the end. I remember hearing there was also a 15k race happening at the same time and I can distinctly remember thinking to myself:

15k? Why would you ever run a 15k? That seems WAY too far! There’s no need to run that far.

I’m running that same race this weekend as a cool down run.

When I announced our inital fundraiser goal to build an entire school, $25,000 seemed MASSIVE and unachievable. Now that we’ve raised over $17,000+ already with less than $8,000 to go. It doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.

Impossible is negotiable. Negotiate.

Chicago Ultra Finish


I’ve got videos of the event that I’ll editing and posting soon on my youtube channel. You can subscribe here.

You can still donate to the #impossible campaign. We’ve got just under $8,000 left to go. Almost there!

Grow Stronger, Do The Impossible

Get weekly emails on how to build a stronger mind, a stronger body and stronger life and do the impossible.

No Spam. Ever.


  1. Brian says

    Sub 6:20 is getting’ er done!

    Nice job Joel.

    The questions arises.. are all the “impossible” things simply thoughts we previously believed?

    What else is possible?

  2. Chris says

    I’ve found the opposite to be true for me as far as reference points.

    I prefer having something new to see, and if I pass the same point going the same direction twice, all I can think about is how much further to go.

  3. Amaryllis says

    Agreed with Chris – reference points are torture! Hence worth really reviewing the proposed run route. I ran my first half-marathon few weeks back (I was by no means a runner either) and miles 1-5 were annoying, 6-9 enjoyable, and 10-13 awful! I guess I gotta keep running to get to the ‘feel-good’ phase though! Congrats

  4. says


    Congratulations on completing the 50k. It is quite an accomplishment. IF I could offer a bit of what I learned during my 28 years of competitive running, was a person has to discover his own source of personal motivation. Some people are stirred to participate for charity, others for the sport of it, others for fitness. The way I see it, however, is everyone of us is in a competion; with a disease, a personal weakness, other people, whatever. Some folks will try to convince themselves otherwise, but in the end, each of us wants to be his best. It is a very few who will sacrifice to get it. Keep up the good work.

  5. says

    Hey congrats! That is really amazing.
    I ran my 2nd half marathon last week and it was grueling as I hadn’t recovered from the soreness of another 13 mile training run days before. Every time I finish hard races I always think “why or how would any one finish 2x’s (26miles) this amount!?”
    I then read awesome, inspiring post’s like this and know it can be done.

  6. says

    Great conquest Joel and a fab story. I have no idea how you did that (well ok I do) but still it takes a ton of mental endurance, not just physical so hats off to you.

    Every day you make the impossible possible




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *