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The Expat Marathon – my marathon learnings and why they matter for expats

In 2013 I ran my first ever marathon. I’ve done a few half marathons before and after that, but the marathon was certainly my Everest. Not only did I did I finish on the day, I also beat my original goal time of 4 hours. I often look back at the marathon experience (the training, the mindset and the race day) and think about how similar it is to a big move, except maybe for that funny looking walk you do with sore legs for a few days after a big run like that.

Many expats see the big move as an adventure (which it absolutely is) and fail to understand the challenges that come with the move. Until one of these challenges knocks them over.

A marathon is very similar. It’s a big adventure, but unless you come prepared it’s likely to be the most painful day of your life. Unless you listen to others, learn from them and then create your own plan from that – you won’t know what hit you.

What then were my key marathon learnings that we can find helpful as expats?

  1. You know what you don’t know. I knew I needed to find out more about training plans, nutrition, sports massage and recovery. I knew there were so many things about this new experience I needed help with to be successful on the day AND not get injured. The last point is key for us expats as well – it’s not just about getting there, it’s about feeling ok after you’ve landed as well. This is rarely something we can achieve on our own, so make sure to ask for help!
  2. You don’t know what you don’t know. Whenever we move into something new, we have a huge blind spot about things we never had a clue about before. The small, yet subtle things that make a big difference. In running it’s about specific stretches, getting rid of lactic acid and knowing what to eat and when. It won’t make or break the run, but it will help more than you realise. In relocation it’s about educating yourself beyond the need for food and shelter. If all you have is a house and food on the table, will you be ok? Understanding the emotional side of a move is something you might not realise beforehand how important it is.
  3. Pain comes and goes. Training hurts. Your muscles will sometimes break down to some extent before they come back stronger. There are times during those long training runs of 20+ km when you just want to give in to the pain and stop. Sit down and let the pain pass. This is when you need to realise there is a difference between ‘good pain’ (the kind that helps you get stronger over time) and ‘bad pain’ (the clear signal that you’re doing something that’s really wrong and you need to stop right now). If you think about it and are able to listen to your intuition you probably know this difference already. It’s the same for your move. Listen to the pain, but don’t let it call the shots. If you do find yourself stuck in ‘bad pain’ and you’re not sure what to do next, make sure to ask for help!
  4. Your mindset is everything. Yes, you need to do a lot of physical training for a marathon, but you need to condition your mind even more. I once heard someone say that a marathon is 80% psychological and I would wholeheartedly agree. Unless you can condition your mind to work in your favour and know how to think at the different stages, it’s a lot more likely that you’ll give up and listen to the pain. The same goes for relocation and this is probably the most neglected part of a big move. Much like in sport, there are fundamental, yet basic things you can work with here that will really help you to a successful move.
  5. Make resilience your best friend. It will take time, you will need to commit to some kind of step by step plan and there will be days when you want to quit. Be prepared for the good days and the bad days and keep moving. The best way to finish anything big is one step at a time. There are about 50,000 steps in a marathon and your relocation might feel much the same. Just keep moving and you’ll get there eventually.
  6. You owe it to yourself to do your very best and give it a solid go. Of course you want to finish. Whether it’s a marathon or a big move. The key thing here is to give it your best. You may not finish the run or settle down in your new home forever, but make sure that when the day comes, you can decide on the next steps and stand for it. If you get injured and can’t finish the run despite all your training, so be it. Go home, rest up and come back next year. If you don’t like your new home despite solid preparation and every effort from your side to make it work, so be it. Maybe this city or country simply was not for you. Sometimes clients will come and tell me about a time when they decided to give up and go home in the past, all the while asking themselves asking ‘what if…‘. If you give it your all, there will be no thoughts like this later. You’ll know in your heart that you gave it your very best effort.

If you’re about to embark upon your expat marathon, I can strongly recommend my online relocation prep program. Much like running it’s designed to teach you the things you might not know yet, when to pay attention to them, how to deal with them and how to tailor this new experience to you. You can run a marathon on your own, but it’s so much easier to prepare with the right support.