A Quarantine Challenge: Taking a Million Steps in a Single Month

We all face times in life where the headwinds of challenge are strong.  Sometimes this is due to poor decisions we’ve made, other times challenge comes out of nowhere. Since March of this year, we’ve been in one of the most unique and unprecedented times due to Covid-19. While we haven’t been impacted equally, we’ve all had to adjust our lifestyles. For many, this has been a time of challenge.

When COVID-19 began to touch our lives, my family and I were on our spring break trip. When we returned home, like you, all that was normal to us quickly changed. Two of my college-aged kids were back home, my son’s high school abruptly ended, and work suddenly got even busier. I manage 150 sales and clinical people within the U.S. for Becton Dickinson, a global medical device company. I had an army of people who call on hospitals, suddenly grounded. This, along with instantly declining sales, prompted many new questions. I typically travel every week but now was looking at the potential of being in my house for months staring at this computer for hours every day.

I knew instinctively it was important to begin to frame this situation in my favor. I started asking myself and my team “When this is all over, how do you want to remember this time?” The benefit of this question is that it gives us control in a time when everything feels very out of control. Yes, our lives and routines had just been taken over by an invisible virus, but that didn’t need to mean we were paralyzed. With every change comes all kinds of opportunity!

I knew I wanted to remember this time in a unique and positive way

In order to have that happen, I needed to make a plan. Coincidently, a friend of mine was involved in a work “step challenge”. As he told me about what he was doing and how it was motivating him, I had an idea! Could I walk or run 1,000,000 steps in a single month? It was a huge number and instantly made me nervous and excited. A quick google search revealed that I’d need to run or walk 500 miles during the month to reach one million steps. I’ve been an active runner all my life, but I’d never done anything like that before!

When we begin to focus on something we want, the stars often align. Colin O’Brady, someone I knew from prior endurance events, posted a challenge on Instagram called “Calendar Club”. The idea was to run miles equal to the date: April 1st, run one mile. April 2nd run two miles, etc. When completed, you’d have ran 465 miles. I thought “perfect timing!” and jumped in no questions asked!

I set a few goals for myself when the month started. Run all the calendar club miles nonstop each day (no breaking up the miles). Start earlier and earlier as the miles increased so that I didn’t miss work. And stick with my writing commitment by logging 12 hours of mentor calls and journaling about this experience.

I ran my commitment for the Calendar Club each day and added a few extra walking miles to bank some of those million steps early in the month. By the end, I’d run eleven straight 20 mile (or more) runs and ended with 5 straight marathon or greater efforts. In total for the month, I managed to move 1,001,000 steps and cover 502 miles. I ran 471 miles, walked 31 miles and burned 76,000 calories. All of this took me 66hrs and 22min.

It’s hard to actually put into words how personally rewarding this journey was. Experiences throughout the month continuously challenged what I believed was possible for myself.  I don’t think any of us intentionally put limits on what we are capable of, but all of us certainly have said “that seems impossible” a time or two in our lives. But have we actually challenged those limiting beliefs?

Going into this, I also committed to run the half marathon (April 13th) and full marathon (April 26th) as hard as I could, like a race. Typically, I’ve trained for several months for either event and then taken time off after to recover. The half marathon went great. But it was still early in the month and I knew the true test would be on marathon day!

I feel great.  Let’s go!

On the morning of April 26th, I woke up early, excited to see what I could do. The 24 miler on April 24th had been one of the more challenging days in the month thus far. I was now clearly into uncharted waters but still excited to see what could happen. My goal was to run under 3 hours and 25 minutes which is a Boston Marathon qualifying time for someone over 50 (I’m 52). I truly had no clue if I could pull it off. There weren’t going to be aid stations, cheering fans or a finish line like a normal marathon either.

The first few miles went off great. I was well ahead of my target pace and telling myself to “slow down” every time my Garmin beeped with another mile. It’s not atypical for runners to get overly excited and start out too fast in a race. But I was also hearing my body tell me, “I feel great.  Let’s go!” It was the oddest thing. I did slow the pace some but still ran through the half marathon faster than expected. If you’ve ever run a marathon you know, the real race is the last 6-8 miles. My son Max joined me at 16 miles and the added energy of another runner quickened my tempo and redoubled my commitment to finishing strong. When we crossed the invisible finish line, the Garmin said 26.2 miles in 3 hours 13 minutes. What had just happened?!

I’d run within 16 minutes of my personal best which I set 23 years ago! With no marathon training! After running 325 miles over the prior twenty-five days! I cried at the end of that run it was so overwhelming. And immediately I thought, “How was that even possible!?”

How much untapped potential are we leaving on the table?

The results beg that we ask this question: How much untapped potential are we leaving on the table? Personally or professionally, we seldom proactively test ourselves under super hard conditions. What if you actually had a lot more capacity than you think?  If you set limitations on what is possible for you, are you shortchanging yourselves? And the absolute answer is “YES!” we all are!

After 11 straight days of 20+ mile runs, how many more could I have done? If I’d started the marathon faster, could I have run even better? On the final day, I ran 31.1 miles (the distance of an “ultramarathon” or 50k) and it was a breeze. How much longer could I have continued this challenge? The results in April now have me looking for new and bigger challenge to answer those questions. Think about this, seriously, think about this: are you undervaluing your capacity to be a better version of yourself?

Lessons Learned

While this story is about a physical challenge, the lessons learned apply to every other part of our lives. Here are a few of my learnings that you might find valuable as you consider taking on a big challenge in your personal or professional life.

1. The most important rule: “Just sign up!” No growth happens and no lessons are learned when we say “I need to think about it” or “the timing just isn’t right”. If you believe in yourself or you need a challenge to help create that belief, just sign up. If you can’t finish, you’ve learned.  If you do finish, you’re ready for more!  When was the last time you volunteered to do something tough? Take inventory. Be honest. And, if you have to look back more than a couple of years – sign up for something today!

2. At some point during a huge challenge, our mind shifts from protection to support. Prior to day 20, every day was consumed with worry and dread. “Tomorrow is going to be harder than today.” Every night, these thoughts consumed me like vultures circling over my tired body. But at some point, your mind recognizes your body isn’t going to stop and the coolest things happen. Fear turns to excitement. Worry turns to a sense of peace. I’m no scientist but this clearly happened and when it did, each day just got easier mentally even as they got harder physically. So stick with it!

3. Giving yourself permission to not be perfect releases pressure. Up to day 15 I felt intense and increasing pressure about the rest of the month because I’d committed (to myself) to run all the runs nonstop. But on day 15 I said, “I’m going to walk 8 miles on Friday”. Almost instantly I felt a huge relief.  More interestingly, I didn’t ever need to walk those miles.  The permission I gave myself to not be perfect reduced the mental stress. We can be tough on ourselves! Give yourself some grace.

4. Working and fitness don’t have to be two different things. Most of us default to the “not enough time” and “work” as two excuses to justify everything we don’t really want to do. When April started, I struggled to determine if I could fit this in with work too. But I recognized that I could get up earlier, block time in my work calendar and take a few calls while walking instead of sitting in my office. When you do this, it’s easy to find one to two hours every day for fitness or to reach a big personal goal. Life is short. Don’t let work consume you to the point that you’ve lost your fitness.

Challenge is where the growth is

When you wake up the day after a significant challenge is over and there’s nothing big waiting for you, you recognize a normal life is just not quite as fulfilling as living on the edge of possible and impossible. Challenge is where the growth is. It’s where I feel most alive!

Whether it’s a pandemic or another year of living, “When this is all over, how do you want to remember this time?” When you sit down to consider this question, I hope you too decide that taking on a big challenge might be a great way to grow and make a huge memory! Then when you wake up the next day, you too might begin saying, “If I can do that…what else am I capable of!”