Back in 2010, I was not a runner. In fact, I had never even run more than a mile.
I had an athletic background; I played basketball and threw javelin in college. But for basketball, we ran sprints, and javelin training consisted of throwing spears, lifting weights, and yelling, "This is Sparta." OK, not quite that, but I wasn't a runner and had no interest in becoming one.
I graduated in 2009, in the midst of a terrible economy with no job prospects, living in my parents’ basement. I looked around and saw friends landing jobs or quitting the jobs they landed and traveling the world. I, on the other hand, couldn't even get a call back from Starbucks. So I wrote down a list of things I really wanted to do.
Everything on this list seemed impossible, and that attitude started to seep into the health and fitness aspects of my life. I felt bad for myself for a week or two and continued to do nothing, but I kept coming back to this list. A few weeks later, I sat down and went over the list one more time. When I did, one thing on the list stood out as something I actually could do: a triathlon.
I knew nothing about triathlons. I hadn't done a triathlon before, and I didn't know anyone who had. Hell, I barely even knew what three activities made up a triathlon (swim, bike, run, for the record) or that there were different distances! But it sounded interesting, way more interesting than running a marathon. Three to four hours of just running nonstop? Uh, no thank you. But one to two hours of doing three different sports? That sounded interesting and maybe even a little fun.
Plus, while I had a ton of excuses for why I couldn't do the other things on my list (like get to space or put $100,000 in the bank), I had no excuse not to get on my bike and ride around the block. And I definitely had no excuse not to put on my shoes and try running for more than one mile. So I took a deep breath and signed up for my first sprint triathlon—indoors.
I signed up for an indoor triathlon because I was so worried about the swim portion that I figured if I had issues swimming, I could just stand up. I wasn't going to drown in my first race!
And so I did it: a 10-minute swim, a 30-minute stationary bike ride, and a 20-minute run on a treadmill. At the end, you add up the number of laps and cycling and running miles to get your score. The race itself was small, but I remember finishing the entire event and thinking to myself, "You spent so long telling yourself this was impossible, and you did it! What else could you start doing if you just went for it?"
And so I did. I asked myself, "What's next?"
At first I stuck to triathlons, because I still couldn't imagine running for more than an hour. Plus, while I didn't think I was great at swimming, biking, or running, at least I would be switching up what I was doing every so often. I figured I might be bad, but at least I wouldn't be bored.
I figured I might be bad, but at least I wouldn't be bored.
And so I started training. And I started racing—sprint triathlon here, mud run there, another sprint triathlon. I kept asking myself that same question, “What’s next?”
I still didn’t particularly enjoy the running part of each event, but it was fun to have something to get less bad at, and I was addicted to finding out what I was capable of and how much farther I could go. I kept signing up for more races (an Olympic triathlon, a duathlon), each longer than the last, and then somehow I found myself signed up for a half-marathon.
I vividly remember looking at the people running the 15K during my first 5K and thinking to myself, "I think I can handle this 5K, but I have no idea why someone would want to run a 15K. That's just too long!"
Now I was running a half-marathon. What was happening?
I realize now I was slowly growing addicted, not so much to running but to the challenge of finding out what's next. What else is out there? What else am I capable of? What can I do that originally seemed totally impossible?
At this point, I kind of forgot how boring I thought running was, and I added a full marathon to my list. Check. Then I was challenged to run an ultramarathon (between 30 and 50 miles) for charity, and since I'm terrible at turning down a challenge, I ended up doing my first one—50K, or about 31 miles—in 2012.
Then I really got into ultras and fell in love with the adventure of trail runs. Now, seven years later, the ultra bug pushed me to create the 777 Project, in which I ran seven ultramarathons on seven different continents to build seven schools with Pencils of Promise, and I finished the last race this past spring.
To be honest, I still don't think of myself as a runner. Sure, the races have been run, but I don't identify with being a runner. I just found something fun that led to something I was interested in that led to a few more races. I didn't worry if it seemed too hard, too far, too boring, or straight up impossible.
But as it turns out, if you run—one block, one mile, a bunch of 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons, or ultra races—no matter what the story in your head says, you're a runner.
So, I guess I tricked myself into becoming one.
Joel Runyon created IMPOSSIBLE to help people push their limits by taking on impossible challenges. He is also the founder and finisher of the 777 Project. You can follow his adventures on Instagram.