Alone at mile 61 of the 74 mile Georgia Death Race. Trudging up a mountain trail in the middle of the night, the light of my headlamp was casting disconcerting shadows and my body was flooded with nausea.

Everything in me wanted to stop moving and lie down in the dirt. I was in the place of mental and physical suffering that runners lovingly dub the “pain cave”.

When I finally stopped fighting it and embraced the discomfort, I found a new mental gear I had never fully tapped into. I emerged stronger, more focused, and able to come alongside and support fellow runners in their dark moments that night. And at 1:30 a.m. I crossed the finish line and collapsed with relief into the arms of my crew.

Natalya Wallin, alumna of the Weekend Executive MBA program at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, completing the Death Race

This scene is admittedly melodramatic, but I share this because the pain cave taught me things that I would not have learned in my air-conditioned car or sitting at my laptop.

Entrepreneurship, business school, mountain running—it’s a mental game

Previously, I wrote a blog post for Duke on parallels between pursuing an MBA and running an ultra-marathon. And in August 2022, I wrote another on the myth of easy wins after completing my first 100-mile race.

Building on these experiences, here is the simple thought I want to share: there is value in attempting really hard things and being deeply uncomfortable. We can develop grit and resilience that can be applied to all aspects of our lives and careers.   

Whether it’s prepping for an accounting midterm in the Weekend Executive MBA program or founding a company, our ability to succeed comes down to mindset.

Practice being uncomfortable

Pursuing anything ambitious in the business world, it’s not a matter of if we will hit a mental wall, but when. How do we prepare for the inevitable moments of discouragement?

I do not pretend to be the first to write about the importance of discomfort for building mental fortitude. There is plenty of content out there including “The Comfort Crisis” (a book I highly recommend by the way!).

But I do want to encourage us to remember the big picture. Entrepreneurs, business leaders, MBA students—we already invest significant time and resources to achieve our goals. And it’s easy to neglect the mental and physical training that could give us an edge when the stressors hit.

Whatever your version of unhappy mile 61 on the mountain looks like—seek it out, embrace it. We can use these moments to build mental grit and tackle the impossible.