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Connecting Ultrarunners Across The Globe

International 100+ UltraRunning Foundation

Success or Mastery? An Ultrarunner's Paradox By Claire Nana, LMFT

July 2014

Success or Mastery? An Ultrarunner's Paradox

By Claire Nana, LMFT

In the world of ultrarunning, as in every area of life, success is the desired outcome. We want the win, the promotion, the corner office, the new personal record. And often, we will go the great lengths to get it. This is the reason Dan Pink, the author of the bestselling, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, states that motivation strategies that focus on outcome -- like those using external rewards -- don’t work. According to Pink, one negative effect of focusing on the rewards -- those often tied to success -- is that they lead to undesirable behavior, like cheating.

And while cheating in ultrarunning is not as common as it may be in other areas of life -- Pink, and later Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves, studied this phenomenon in corporate settings -- there are several negative effects that follow focusing on the outcome, and more importantly the success needed to achieve it.

For one thing, ultrarunning takes time -- a lot of it. To really be ready to finish a 100 mile race, most “master ultrarunners” -- using the definition of more than 8 hundred mile finishes, and no more than one DNF (also known as “did not finish”) -- would agree that it takes at least one year of training. And then, given that most master ultrarunners would also concede that getting to a total of 8 hundred mile finishes should take between 2 and 3 years, that adds up to a lot of time. Yet when we focus on succeeding early on in ultrarunning, we also become inpatient -- too inpatient -- to put in the days, months and yes, years of training needed to master ultrarunning.

Eyeing the ultrarunning bling a little too much also doesn’t prepare one well for the variety of setbacks that are par for the course in ultrarunning. In any race of a hundred miles or more, things rarely go as planned. The weather is hardly ever perfect, and inconsistencies such as intense heat, unexpected cold, rain and wind can be impossible to train for. Then there are the physiological setbacks -- muscles can hurt in places they never did before, old injuries suddenly rear their ugly heads, some foods go down, others come back up, and then there are the blisters, broken toenails and jammed toes. Let’s face it, ultrarunning is ripe with setbacks. So it goes without saying that in order to master ultrarunning, one has to learn to master setbacks. Focusing too much on the winning, placing, or even besting your last time, causes a person to view the race as a finality, as oppose to a process of learning. And in learning you don’t always win. As a matter of fact, Robert T. Kiyosaki, the author of the bestselling Rich Dad, Poor Dad, states that “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” 

Mastery, on the other hand, is not a commitment to a goal, but rather a commitment to a constant pursuit, according to Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. And this pursuit of mastery presents us with many paradoxes along the way. In order to have strength, we must be willing to be vulnerable. In order to find novel solutions, we must first be without answers. In order to have faith in our ability to finish, we must first have doubt. And in order to master ultrarunning, we must first learn how to overcome our failures.


  1. Pink, Dan. (2011). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead, New York, N.Y.
  2. Ariely, Dan. (2012). The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone -- Especially Ourselves. Harper Collins, New York, N.Y.
  3. Lewis, Sarah, (2014). The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. Simon and Schuster, New York, N.Y..