It all started with a woman; the best stories often do.
That fateful July day in 2019, I found myself meandering alongside the Cuckmere River, each step I took weighed down by the oppressive heat that hung in the air like a heavy curtain.
Not just any old curtain but the heavy, 1960s kind made of thick polyester that would one day end up as a pair of unfashionable trousers for some unlucky child.
It was one of those really hot days you get in the UK, almost as if the sun had decided to bestow the years’ worth of sunshine heat that it had been squirreling away for the past few months in one day.
And for some reason, I choose that day to wear jeans on my 8 mile walk from Seaford to Eastbourne via the Seven Sisters.
If you're unfamiliar with the Seven Sisters, they are a breath-taking sequence of seven rolling sea cliffs that majestically line the Sussex coast of the English Channel.
I would recommend visiting it if you never have. It’s a magical place, full of tourists during the summer weekends, where you find yourself standing in the middle of 'England's green & pleasant Land' as William Blake wrote, the countryside of J.M.W Turner, John Constable, and Thomas Gainsborough and in front of you is nothing but the wide expanse of the sea and perhaps if your eyesight is good enough, a glimpse of France.
At the time the prospect of the walk, up and down, up and down, up and down…the hills…was a fairly daunting prospect and as I got near the first hill, I was wondering why I had chosen today for the walk and regretting my sartorial choices when she ran past me.
I looked on mildly surprised but mostly fascinated as she reached the bottom of the first steep hill ahead of us and started running up it.
Till that day I had always assumed people who ran up and down the trails were a certain type.
You know the type, someone with a lean, muscular physique, whose favourite meal is cold baked beans straight from the tin, washed down with strong west country cider and probably has a beard that screams "I spend weekends conquering mountains!".
Instead the woman ahead of me looked like on Monday morning she would be back on the train to London for her job in a Law firm, or perhaps the local primary school where she taught or the supermarket where she worked. She didn't look superhuman, she looked very much human.
She got about 30% up it and then started speed hiking, soon she’d caught up with some hikers ahead of her.
I was too far away to hear what they were saying but they looked like they were having a friendly chat (probably telling her it was too hot to be running) and she was clearly enjoying her run.
They soon got to the top of the hill, and she left her new friends to run the descent towards the next hill and repeat the pattern.
And so, over the next hour or two, I would catch glimpses of her further and further away until she disappeared toward Eastbourne.
We never spoke, we didn’t even make eye contact and I had forgotten about her by the time I reached Eastbourne.
But she gave me something that day, a gift I was unaware of, she gave me an idea.
Three months later for some ‘inexplicable’ reason I, a non-runner, bought my first trainers specifically for running and a GPS watch.
A few days ago, I hobbled home well into the night, having spent the whole day running.
I could barely walk from the pain in my legs as I opened the front door trying not to fall over and carefully sat down for the first time that day, but the pain was worth it. I had just completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon.
Below are a few of the lessons I’d like to share from it.
(Cuckmere River and the Seven Sisters in the distance, I took this picture on my last training run before my 50 miler)
Lesson 1: Consistency is your superpower
Running on the trails of Sussex teaches you these little lessons constantly that are applicable to life in general.
On a run for example you learn that just because it starts off difficult doesn't mean it won’t get easier a few miles in (sometimes the reverse happens), the trick is to keep going.
You learn that going off the beaten track or getting ‘lost’ isn’t a disaster but actually an adventure that rewards you with a new perspective on your surroundings.
But the lesson of consistency is the big one. Albert Einstein once said that “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it…he who doesn’t…pays it.”
And the last 4 years of my running adventure, starting with a very hard 1-mile benchmark run in the autumn of 2019, to running almost a double marathon a few days ago, is a testament to this.
For my training I researched and found a 26 week training plan and then followed it consistently.
I ran more than 1000 miles over the 26 weeks by simply running the required miles everyday regardless of the weather or how I felt. It's only by taking a step in the right direction every single day (pun intended) that you progress.
When it comes to achieving difficult goals, the most indispensable asset is unwavering consistency.
Armed with a potent 'Why,' a well-laid plan, and a commitment to daily action, I learnt after 50 miles that I was capable of doing more than i had thought possible a few months previously.
Every step I took, literal and metaphorical, was a deposit into my 'account' of progress.
The same principle applies universally, whether you're accumulating miles on picturesque trails, investing quality time in meaningful relationships, or dedicating hours to a project that ignites your passion.
In the end, it's your consistent actions that compound into success.
Lesson 2: The hard things are easy when you love the hard things
As fate would have it, the Sunday I did my 50-mile run was another very hot day and about 10 miles into it, near a very picturesque place called Devil’s Dkye on the South Downs, I ran past a man walking just as that lady had run past me 4 years ago.
Expect this time we spoke as I ran past. He was ahead of me and had stopped to take in the view of the Downs in all its magnificent green glory.
“It’s too bloody hot to run in this heat!” he shouted with a smile as I ran past him, I threw my hands in air, smiled back at him and shouted back “It’s too late to stop now, I’ve already started!”. A few minutes later I reached my first big hill of the day and speed hiked to the top.
There I was, 40 miles ahead of me. The longest distance I had ever run previously was 34 miles and it had been a very tough last few miles to the finish on that run.
I had no idea if I would be able to run an extra 16 additional miles, I mean my tapering runs in the week leading up to the day had been 3 miles, 3 miles and 2 miles respectively and I had found them hard!
But it didn’t matter. I had discovered a love for running, of being out on the South Downs and seeing what obstacles my body and mind would throw at me on a long run.
Those 50 miles were the hardest I have ever pushed myself physically, but they were easy because I loved every minute of it.
Lesson 3: You get to meet your Alter ego
Eleanor Roosevelt once stated “"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”
For a non-runner the idea of a marathon, let alone an ultramarathon probably seems mildly crazy.
The dirty little secret of people who run long distances however is they’re not mildly crazy, very crazy maybe, but not mildly, instead it’s a secret rendezvous to meet their alter ego, the version of themselves that's a stranger at the start of their running journey but who goes on to be a trusted friend.
This version of themselves pushes the boundaries of what they think they are capable of and ultimately expands their horizons.
The reason they rarely meet that version of themselves initially is that they have to have the courage to put themselves in a situation where the outcome is uncertain and there is a real fear of ‘failure’.
There’s nothing like being 7 or 8 hours into a run, in the middle of nowhere, your legs aching and zero distractions apart from your thoughts to bringing out that fear and getting to meet your alter ego.
During my run that day, my friend Alex met me at mile 30 with some water and food and then ran with me to mile 40. The run was already starting to take its toll on my legs and mind, and I was and am eternally grateful for the support over those 10 miles.
And then at mile 40, I was alone again. The sun had gone down, it was now a cold October evening, I was more tired then I'd ever been and literally every step was painful.
I was now in the urban section of the run with a bus stop every 100 or so meters and an Uber a tap away.
I could have stopped, happy with my achievement so far (the longest distance I had ever run) and armed with the experience to try again another time but then my alter ego showed up, we had a brief tête-à-tête and I decided to keep going.
We’re all born as babies unable to read, walk or talk and the first few years of life are us discovering and going beyond these and many other limitations.
Somewhere along the way however we stop testing our limitations because life gets in the way...running 50 miles puts you back in a place of uncertainty and forces you and your alter ego in the most honest way possible to answer the question ‘What version of me shows up when the going gets tough?’
You should try it, I think you'll be happy with the answer you get.
Lesson 4: You can have a profound impact on someone’s life even if you don’t know it.
The last thing I learnt goes back to that very hot July day in 2019. Back to that pre-covid, pre-AI world when everything was simpler right? Or is my memory playing tricks on me?
That day the runner I saw inspired me to do something that thousands of hours and miles later over the past 4 years I am forever grateful for.
And she did it all without saying a word, she simply got on with her day, with a smile on her face and let her example do all the talking.
The examples we tend to celebrate are often the loud, awe-inspiring examples, think Roger Banister and the 4-minute mile, and rightly so.
But maybe we often miss the more lowkey, understated even unintended everyday examples.
She taught me that what we do matters. You don’t need to found the next billion dollar start up or be a world champion athlete to make a difference.
You can make a difference being you. By finding what you love and then just doing it with all the joy it brings.
The following year, 2020, a time of lockdowns, uncertainty and the world in flux, I found myself back on the South Downs running after a night spent listening to Nujabes and Hiroshi Yoshimura's Wet Land album playing on repeat, while editing the pixel sizes of photographs for a project I had been working on.
As always running was a great time to think and be inspired by new ideas. At the time I was thinking about this new art platform I wanted to set up and in particular a name because I knew the importance of a business's name. The idea that came to me that day was the name Pixel Gallery.
I owe that runner a lot, thank you whoever and wherever you are.