#19: Why Do Hard Things? Lessons From Dean Karnazes’s Memoir “A Runner’s High” (Part 2)

A Runner's High by Dean Karnazes

As one of the world’s toughest ultra-runners, Dean Karnazes knows a lot about doing hard things. The races he participates in are so grueling that they break his body and sometimes even his mind. Yet, he keeps doing them. Why?

Why put himself through so much pain over and over again? Why can’t he take it easy after several decades of running ultra-long distances?

In today’s article, the second in which we discuss Dean’s memoir A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion, we’ll answer the following question: why do hard things?

Comfort Is Overrated

You’re either born a runner, or not. Simple as that. And it isn’t the act of running that constitutes this demarcation, but the desire. Running isn’t necessary—not in this day and age—yet some people choose to do it. Certain individuals seek out struggle and hardship, while most look to avoid such things. Nonrunners ask, “Doesn’t running hurt?” It does if you’re doing it right, we runners answer. The mind-set of the runner is universal, our reality communal, we “get” each other. Comfort is overrated. Life is easy. Why do something difficult? Because life is easy.

Running down that hot and dusty trail at the Bishop High Sierra Ultra, gasping for air and trying to absorb the punishing impact of each footfall, it occurred to me that this could very well be another person’s version of hell. Yet I loved it. It was hot, miserable, and painful—perfect, really.

This quote embodies the Discomfort Club’s philosophy.

Why put yourself through hell? Because comfort is overrated. And because fire forges steel.

For most people living in stable, developed countries, doing hard things like running isn’t necessary anymore. You don’t even have to take care of your body at all. The healthcare industry will be more than happy to provide you with countless pills and expensive surgeries.

But when you avoid struggle and hardship, you miss out on memorable experiences. Comfort is overrated because it gives you only one dimension of life. If you’re comfortable all the time, you don’t grow and never experience things that expand your world.

A man who has never pushed himself to utter exhaustion will never appreciate how far a strong human being can go. Because of too much comfort, his mind is impoverished.

A man who has never struggled will never understand the fulfillment you can find in pushing on as you face adversity. Because of too much comfort, he never enjoys the satisfaction a man gets after doing something extremely hard.

A man who has never voluntarily experienced pain will never understand how reinvigorating the experience can be. Because of too much comfort, he never discovers the value of what Ancient Greeks called agoge.

Too much comfort makes men weak. Frequent challenges create strong men.

Explore Your Edge

Until you go over the edge you don’t know how far the edge is.

Without doing hard things you’ll sell yourself short your entire life, hitting 20%, 30%, or perhaps 40% of your potential.

When you cultivate voluntary discomfort, you gain awareness of your true limits. You discover you can do much more than you think.

When I do hard workouts, I sometimes catch myself thinking that I can’t complete them. Yet, time after time, I prove myself wrong. My limits are more malleable than I think.

In Issue #15, I covered Jesse Itzler’s pull-up story. Initially, he finished his workout at 17 pull-ups. Ultimately, at David Goggins’s insistence, he did 100 pull-ups. This means Jesse limited his potential to just 17% of what it was. He thought he was training hard until he worked out with someone who showed him his true potential.

Exploring your own edge in various aspects of life will give you the same powerful realizations. But as Dean emphasizes, until you go over the edge, you won’t know how far it is.

Merely thinking about your limits gives you nothing. Exploring them as you do hard things is where you discover what you’re made of.

Live Fuller, Not Longer

This probably isn’t healthy, I thought. This is probably killing me. But it was also giving me life. Every step killed me a little, and every step gave me a little life. Onward I labored, gasping for air, my breathing strained and shallow. Perhaps I was cutting life short. Perhaps so. It didn’t matter, really. I didn’t run to live longer; I ran to live fuller. It may be killing me, but it was on my terms, I was doing what I loved, there is no finer meaning to be found in life.

One of Dean Karnazes’s core messages is to live a full life. In his mind, it’s better to live a full life that’s shorter than a long one that’s empty.

In modern society, doing hard things is often met with puzzlement, if not outright hostility. An individual who pushes his limits is advised to “be moderate” and not hurt himself.

Moderation may save you from some pain but it will also lead to a bland, mediocre life.

Do we admire people who lived to be 100 years old and never did anything exceptional or those who passed away earlier but filled their lives with adventures of ten lifetimes?

Ultra-running is not the healthiest sport. It has a huge impact on your body. It also gets even harder as you age. Yet, for Dean, running—and suffering—is what he loves. If you take it away from him, you won’t do him a favor. Quite the opposite: you’ll make his life worse. The challenge keeps him strong.

A similar topic is explored in Tony Hawk’s documentary Until the Wheels Fall Off. Pro skateboarders featured in the documentary alongside Tony Hawk have destroyed their bodies skateboarding. Yet, they still do it, to the bewilderment of “normal” people.

Why do they continue hurting themselves? Because they love the challenges of skateboarding. They don’t look for injuries but they accept them as a part of pushing their limits in this sport. Like Dean, they’d rather kill themselves on their own terms than die after decades of a mediocre, boring, moderate life.

Let the Wild Beast Get Out

Inside every tame man is a wild beast yearning to get out. We’d become domesticated in our time, with our institutions and paved-over earth, our iPhones and internet, our fitness trackers and group spin classes. Gone was the uncultivated human experience. There was little solitude left in this world, few chances to truly escape humanity’s trappings and feel the realness of what we are.

Running provided that gateway, and I much preferred it to a contented modern existence. Out here I was more alive, I could feel the movement of my body and the beating of my heart, I was in touch with my breathing, and my senses seemed more acute and in tune with earth’s rhythms. Running great distances was a means of purging the modernity from my conscious, of rinsing the outer man from my skin and letting the inner animal reveal itself. It was at times like these when I could see most clearly, when everything within me came together and life felt very true. It wasn’t every day, but today, running on this trail, I was genuinely alive.

Through running, Dean lets his wild beast get out. It’s how he forgets about the modern world, connects with his primal side, and feels alive.

All men need such an activity in their lives. It’s how we can temporarily throw away our civilized selves. In this reduced state, we feel genuinely, unquestionably alive.

One of the activities that gives me a similar sensation is open water swimming. When I’m swimming, as cheap as it sounds, I become one with the water. As a student (and instructor) of the Total Immersion swimming school, I never fight with the water. Instead, I look for every little adjustment to improve my hydrodynamics and further smoothen my glide. I do my best to swim as quietly as possible and eliminate all splash. The experience is deeply meditative and makes me forget about the world around.

When you’re swimming in open water, there are no distractions. You can only look into the depths below you (if there’s visibility) or you look at nothingness. In such a state of deprivation, you purge the modernity from your consciousness. Your hyperactive mind resets. It’s just you and the water.

When you engage in running, swimming, climbing, or another immersive activity that captures your full attention, you reconnect with an ancient part of yourself.

Don’t be tame all the time. Find an activity in which you can unleash your wild side.

Discomfort Gives You Great Memories

That which is most difficult to endure is most satisfying to reminisce.

You may hate your guts for putting yourself in a challenging situation. But once it’s over, you feel proud of the accomplishment. As much as we suffer during a marathon, a long hike, or when trying to overcome a fear of ours, ultimately these experiences create some of the greatest memories in life.

Why? Because doing hard things brings out intense emotions. While we may not remember little details, we remember how we felt. Each challenge becomes a part of our identity. You’ll forever remember how you pushed on despite overwhelming adversity or fear—and how you felt when you succeeded.

If you have a goal to live a rich life, each memory is like a new deposit in your mental bank account. How can you regularly deposit more?

To Know Yourself You Must Push Yourself

I think we run 100 miles through the wilderness because we are changed by the experience. What takes a monk a month of meditation we can achieve in twenty-four hours of running. With each footstep comes a slow diminishment of self, the prickly edges of ego whittled down until something approaching the divine emerges. Even during a race with no shortage of human folly, great moments of clarity are achieved. Running an ultramarathon builds character, but it also exposes it. We learn about ourselves, we gain deeper insights into the nature of our character, and we are transformed by these things. To know thyself one must push thyself.

Doing hard things, especially when we try to exceed our limits, is a meditative-like experience. We’re reduced to the challenge in front of us and the battle to keep going. As we explored in the previous issue, it’s in these moments that we learn what we’re made of.

The suffering diminishes the ego. What’s left is our bare character.

As Dean postulates, 24 hours of running can bring the clarity equal to a month of meditation as a monk. Suffering cancels out your ego, letting you access a deeper side of who you are.

Does everyone have to run ultra-marathons to know themselves? Of course not. We can use other vehicles more fitting for our own lives and interests.

Perhaps you can go on a multi-day hike through the wilderness, carrying a heavy backpack and camping far away from civilization.

Maybe you can gain some moments of clarity about your character when sparring with a stronger opponent who keeps dominating you.

Or maybe you get to build your character as you deal with an overpowering challenge at work or in your business.

When you push yourself, you expose the parts of your character that you may not necessarily like. And in that moment, as you stare at your ugly, hidden self, you have an opportunity to transform, improve, and get closer to excellence.

Questions to Ponder

1. Why do you do hard things?

2. Have you ever gone beyond the edge to see where your true limits are?

3. What makes your life full and rich? Do you engage in this activity as often as you can?

4. What is your escape where you can let your hyperactive mind rest and unleash your primal side?

5. What are some of the hardest self-imposed challenges you endured in the past that now bring back great memories?

6. What experience could help you diminish your ego so that you can learn your true character?

If you want more advice on how to do hard things to become a better man, sign up for a free weekly Discomfort Club newsletter. Enter your email address below:

Lessons From Dean Karnazes’s Memoir “A Runner’s High” Series

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