It was a beautiful, foggy and snowy winter day in a Dutch National Park. There I was: running. And I did not quite enjoy it at that moment. In fact, every step hurt. Every step felt like a marathon on itself. And with every step I took, I saw my frustration growing and growing.

I was mentally and physically rock bottom.

I was already running for more than nine hours and I was close to finishing my first 80 kilometer ultra-run, but the finish line did not feel close at all. You might be already screaming to your screen right now like: ‘WHY on EARTH would you choose to do something like that?!’ But please stay with me on this. I would like to take you along my personal journey and show you the lessons I toke from this profound experience. The lessons that taught me a lot about myself, but also about my work in the field of social entrepreneurship. 

Three runners running in de Veluwe

Wies, Max & Mike: my pacers for that day. Photography by Rick Mellink

Table of Contents

This is What my First 80 KM Run has Taught me about Social Entrepreneurship

1. Raceplan

- Expectations
- My vegan diet

3. Lessons

- Transform your critique into action
- Put one foot in front of the other
- Deal with the beautiful struggle

Race plan

Expectations

‘Sorry dude, I have to walk for a while now’. This is what I said to a friend that was running with me at that moment. It was already hard to say those words out loud and admit that I really needed to have a break from running. But it was even harder to say it at a point of the race I was not expecting to stop. It was 54 kilometers in the race. I knew that the finish line was more than 25 kilometers away. This was not what my crew and I had anticipated.

This was not our race plan.

So this should have been our race plan. I set out a course to run 80 kilometers in de Veluwe, the second biggest natural area in the Netherlands. I wanted to finish the race within eight hours. My trainer and I made three plans each giving us three different scenarios. In all of the three scenarios we expected that I would be finished under eight hours. The ‘slowest’ plan, Plan C, would be a pace of 10 km/hour for eight hours long. To put it mildly: I set the bar quite high for myself. Not only was I expecting to run 80 kilometers for the first time in my life, I expected to run it pretty quick as well.

My vegan diet
The biggest challenge for ultrarunning is nutrition. Some say that runners who are able to eat the most, are the best ultrarunners. If you push your body for over 8 hours, you can never take in enough energy to complement your efforts. However, it is vital to stay eating and drinking, because if you stop doing that for already 20 minutes you can stop your journey and head home. This is a challenge on its own, but I wanted to train and race on a vegan diet.
I had decided to go vegan shortly before I started training for the race and I just did not want to change this. At the same time, I knew that while training for an ultra race you constantly need to focus on your health. 

That is why I went to a nutritionist to run through all of the things I ate and didn’t eat. We went through the nutritional values of products and we looked at the diet changes I had to make. I learned a lot about my diet and it was really interesting to analyze my food habits. The last appointment I had with my nutritionist was focused on the race. We made a plan. I had to take in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Before I go into too much details, this amount basically means that you have to eat and drink all the time for the whole day… fun, right?

Race day

At seven o’clock in the morning when it was still dark at de Veluwe, my friend and I started the journey. He would run with me for the first 20 kilometer. We used our GPS-watches and our headlamps to navigate through the forest in the cold winter morning. We had to be careful for not stumbling over the fallen trees from a stormy weekend before. So we were focused. The first 20 kilometers went smooth. No stress, no distractions, just perfect. After the 20 kilometer point I continued on my own. I would run on my own for the coming 30 kilometers. At the 40 kilometer point my crew was waiting for me to give me a hug, a new hydration pack and some food. After a short stop there, I continued my run on the beautiful trails, through thick, green forest and purple, hilly fields.

Aerial picture of Radio Kootwijk in de Veluwe, The Netherlands

One of the highlights of the run: Radio Kootwijk. A monumental sending station located in the middle of de Veluwe. Photo used from Indebuurt.nl.

Then suddenly something caught me off guard. Right in front of me, I saw a train track and my GPS watch gave me directions to go straight. Straight over a train track. I looked around and didn’t see a tunnel or a bridge. It felt strange and a bit scary to cross it. I was already feeling tired and this got me mentally out of balance. Eventually I crossed the train track and after being lost in the thick forest for a while, I was able to navigate my way back to the course. After this small incident I was back on course, but mentally out of balance.

From that moment it all became more and more difficult for me. At kilometer 54 I started walking from time to time and I started to become less focused on my running and nutrition. This was the moment from which the race actually started. The moment where you are mentally stripped of by fatigue and pain. The moment where mental resilience is more important than physical fitness. The moment where you learn the most about who you truly are.

When I arrived at the finish line I got goosebumps. There were so many friends, family and roommates waiting for me at the finish line. They were all standing on a random, cold, winter day in the middel of nowhere to cheer us to the finish line. It felt heartwarming! I immediately forgot the pain and the negative thoughts that chased me the last 20 kilometers.

We made it.

Finish of Niels' first 80 km run together with three other runners in the background

Photography by Rick Mellink

Lessons

Now I look back at these profound moments with a smile and with a lot of gratitude, because this period taught me lots of wise lessons. Hopefully, it might not all be cliché what I will going to write and I don’t want to give you a list of motivational quotes. But what I do want is to share my personal experience and the things I learned about another passion of mine: social entrepreneurship. Four years ago I founded a marketing agency for social entrepreneurs. Our slogan is Branding for Change. I believe that every company with an impact, deserves a story with an impact.

After my race I thought about the social entrepreneurs I work with every day and oddly enough: I saw a lot of similarities with ultrarunning.

Lesson 1: Transform your critique into action
In a way, running is an enormous critique on our modern society. A society that keeps us comfortable all the time. A society where risks are reduced and pain avoided. A society where we now experience human life mostly from within our heads instead of our complete body.

However, runners don’t stay into this negativity. They take action. They run. They push themselves out of their modern, digital life into the real, wide open. In this way, they can step out of their heads into true human experience.

The same attitude I discovered in the personality of a lot of social entrepreneurs I worked with. Most of them discover a social or ecological problem. And then they simply try to solve it. They work on the solution. Most of the time this solution is, in itself, a huge critique on our culture.

Take Tony’s Chocolonely for instance: a Dutch social enterprise that wants to make 100% slave free chocolate. The critique on our society: why are we still exploiting human bodies for our own consumerist pleasures?

Or Fairphone: a Dutch social enterprise that develops a transparent (literally), ethical and modular phone. The critique on our society: why do we still buy products without knowing their true costs and without re-using or re-cycling them.

However, they don’t whine about it. Their critique is transformed into positive action. Action towards a new reality – towards change!

Lesson 2: Put one foot in front of the other
With ultrarunning you set huge, sometimes unrealistic goals. However, you cannot arrive there immediately. In order to not feel enormously overwhelmed by your ambitious goals, you have to just put one foot in front of the other. A good mental trick ultrarunners have during a race, is to just focus on the next aid station or checkpoint and not think about all the kilometers you still need to run.

When starting a social enterprise it can feel overwhelming as well. After all, you try to solve a social or ecological problem that is mostly derived from a complex social reality. It is not that easy to simply fix that. Once you are dedicated to solve a social or ecological problem with your business, it is therefore best to just put one foot in front of the other. I believe you will be more successful as a social entrepreneur if you have an ambitious (maybe unrealistic) goal in mind and at the same time focussing on the small steps ahead of you. The small steps toward your big goal.

Niels with a bottle of Champagne after the finish of the 80km run

Put one foot in front of the other towards your big goal. In this case for me it was champagne 😉 Photography by Rick Mellink

Lesson 3: Deal with the beautiful struggle
After I finished my race I started analyzing my mental game during the race. Initially, I was not satisfied about how I coped with my pain and how I dealt with the fatigue. But as I talked with my coach, friends and family, I realized this was just part of the whole race. It would have been weird if I would not have felt down, tired and frustrated. It would have been weird if I was happy the whole day during a challenge like that.

I concluded that I was just too hard for myself and this mental struggle was in fact a beautiful struggle that taught me a lot. The next ultra race I did in New Zealand, I focused on giving my frustration, feelings and pain more space. And it worked! I just dealt with it.

When I talk with social entrepreneurs I sometimes want to shake them and scream: ‘You can be so proud of what you have already done!’ Running a social enterprise is not easy. There are a lot of obstacles ahead of you: making your business financially sustainable, convincing others about your product or service and continuously being focused on increasing your social impact. But these obstacles are part of the game. Feeling overwhelmed, down or tired is part of the game. See the whole thing as a beautiful struggle, give space to your grievances and then deal with it – just by stepping one foot in front of the other.

Photo Niels Lap

Niels Lap
Founder of Lap.

Every company with impact deserves a story with impact.