Emilia Lahti, a doctoral student in psychology from Finland, set out to study the Finish concept of sisu, which she defines as “taking action against slim odds.” Much like grit and endurance, sisu is “the ability to overcome preconceived notions of one’s capacity or strength.” But she insists that sisu is not a cognitive concept. “It is about our embodied strength. The etymology of the word is ‘the intensities’ or ‘the insides’ or ‘the gut.’”
Ever since Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), most psychological research has been biased toward a disembodied and brain-centric understanding of the human mind. We’re supposed to be able to talk ourselves into our strength. “Sisu is the embodied counterpart of mental toughness,” Lahti explains. She believes it’s how humans overcome extreme adversities—and she decided to experiment on herself.
Lahti trained for two years to get into perfect shape, and then, last January, she embarked on a journey of 50 daily, consecutive ultramarathons to run the entire length of New Zealand. She also had an activist purpose. A survivor of domestic violence, Lahti had used running as a pathway to healing, and would tell her story along the way. The name of her New Zealand mission was Sisu not Silence.
“My body made the decision to go on this quest,” Lahti shares. “I remember the moment when it happened. I felt it. I knew that it was time to start putting things together and to aim for this crazy thing.”
But Finland had not prepared her for the challenges of New Zealand that would start on day 1, truly testing her sisu. The geography of south New Zealand is harsh, wild, and hilly, and the roads had a tilt that gave Lahti terrible knee pain almost immediately. The weather was also unseasonably hot. Her feet swelled, rendering her shoes too small. Her blisters soon became so large that pieces of her toes fell off. Her support crew (a woman with years of experience with ultramarathons, including in the Sahara Desert) did not believe Lahti could make it.
“When I got to day 10 (after consecutive 50K days) the pain on the lower part of my foot became so bad that I had to walk, limping [from what proved to be a stress fracture]. I felt as if someone was drilling a root canal, and yet I somehow struggled through that day.”
She told herself, I will never do that again, never put myself through so much pain. On day 11 she ran as if in a trance, stopping only for 10 minutes to devour a vegan wrap (Lahti ran her entire trip vegan). She knew that if she stopped, she would not be able to continue. On day 12, Lahti walked the entire day. “This was the biggest learning of the entire run—and will define the rest of my life."
“I was at kilometer 44 and approaching Franz Josef Glacier, a very hilly area. I got to a bridge and realized that if I took one more step, I was doing this out of fear of failure. Out of fear of what people would think if I didn’t meet my goal.” That’s when Lahti remembered: “It’s not about the run. It’s first about the campaign, then a personal pilgrimage, then the run."
“The run had started to own me,” she said. “I had run past beautiful waterfalls, humans, gorgeous scenery—without connecting because I was in so much pain. I understood what it’s like for people whose life situations are so difficult that they can’t be present. It’s hard to be present when you are in pain. I decided, tomorrow is a day off."
“It was an amazing pilgrimage from that moment on. What I heard the road tell me was ‘Emilia, you will never see the end of me and there will always be more when you turn the corner. This pain that you are experiencing will only stop when you say, Enough. You will be in pain and self-abuse as long as you make the call.’ It went back to my violent relationship, friendships, inner talk, things I did that were hurtful to me—the sense that I’m not worthy.”
Lahti took the next day off, got an X-ray of her foot, and then had to take another day off because of a cyclone. Then she biked for three days using a mountain bike that her crew kept in the car, but the bicycle gave her a knee injury. So she got back on her feet until her feet gave way—and still completed 2,000+ kilometers in 50 days. “I was experiencing 50 resurrections every day.”
Here’s the key takeaway that Lahti learned about sisu: “It’s not about willing it. It’s only by surrendering that we can find it. Surrendering means accepting yourself as you are, letting go of trying to determine the outcome, raising your hands, doing the best you can, and being OK with it. It involves self-compassion. It’s like coming home.”