Fifteen years ago, I was getting ready to embark on my first true endurance activity, “24 Hours of Canaan”—a 24-hour mountain bike relay race taking place at Canaan Valley Resort in the mountains of West Virginia. I had been putting in hours and hours of training in the mountains outside of Blacksburg, where I was living at the time, and physically felt in good shape. Mentally however, I really wasn’t sure how things were going to go, as this was so much more than I had ever done before in one day. Doubt was creeping in, but the excitement of a challenge and adventure kept me moving forward to race day.

While expressing this doubt and excitement to a friend of mine at the time, he told me a story that has since stuck with me. He told me that in ancient Japan, the Samurai warriors of the time were required to complete an arduous test of their physical and mental strength once a year. Each year, these warriors would set out on their own, on a long trek to Mount Fuji, and then up to its summit. Their journey was not only difficult physically, but through their trials and sufferings it proved to be just as difficult mentally as well. These “trials of the mountain” made the Samurai truly great warriors. He told me there was a Japanese name for this test that translated: “to climb an impossible mountain once a year.”

I have since completely forgotten the Japanese word and have to admit that these things were being discussed in a bar, and the whole story may very well be a fabrication! But still, it’s a powerful story, isn’t it? Once a year, going on a journey that is so physical and mentally demanding that you will be a changed person at its completion! Trial of the Mountain.

Fifteen years later, I remember this story as I get ready to run my goal trail race of the year. The training for and completion of this race is not unlike the Samurai’s challenge. I started my trek five months ago as I started ramping up mileage and figuring out a training routine that will weave into the tight family schedule. I had to persevere through travels, illnesses, work and family commitments. I walked the fine line of injury, not enough sleep, and too much stress. But I held toward that goal and was able to come out of the woods. Completing the race itself is akin to the Samurai climbing to the summit. It’s going to be difficult, and I might fail to finish or meet my time goals that I’ve worked so hard for. I won’t know what it’s like at the summit unless I get there. I’ve got to trust my training and have confidence that I can do this. After all the training and hard work, sometimes it’s our mind that keeps us from the summit.

This leads me to consider, why the heck do we do this stuff anyway? Why step out of our perfectly nice and easy comfort zone? Running races and doing challenges won’t pay any bills for 99 percent of us, so why are more and more Americans running marathons and half-marathons every single year?

My theory is that there is a basic human emotional need —I’m not sure there is a name for this either —but a need to feel challenged, physically and mentally. 2000 years ago, everyone was challenged physically and mentally regularly to simply stay alive. Food, water, shelter, basic health were the basic needs. Survival was certainly not a “right,” and it was definitely not guaranteed. This constant challenge kept us sharp, and kept our physical and emotional parts in balance.

Today, look at our country. According to the CDC’s tally of anthropomorphic data from 2007-2010, the average 30- to 39-year-old male in this country has a body mass index of 29, one point shy of obesity. Yes, we are incredibly fortunate to have a mostly unquestionable food supply, basic health care for everyone, and ample shelter. We quite literally never have to walk more than about 100 yards at a time, and our bodies show where this leads us.

But what about our mental and spiritual health? Are we strong upstairs? Can we handle big problems? Are we ready for major challenges in our lives? The stresses in life today are very different from those 2,000 years ago, but are they are just as real. Taking on your own “Trial of the Mountain” will make you stronger physically and mentally. There is a lot of power in that.

I challenge everyone reading this to tackle a yearly physical challenge. For some this may be a marathon, triathlon, or half marathon. For others this may be a 5k or the Women’s Four Miler. For others it may be losing 50 pounds, or walking one mile without pain or fatigue. Here is a guide to help you select the right type of challenge:

It would not be possible for you to do it today.

It will require you to work hard physically to be able to accomplish this goal.

This challenge should take you several months if not longer to prepare for. It must take significant commitment.

You will have to rearrange your schedule and change your life a bit to prepare for this challenge.

It is realistic. Not easy, but realistic.

I don’t care if my friend’s “Trial of the Mountain” story was true or not, because it was powerful and meaningful. We have great capacity to grow ourselves mentally and emotionally if we are willing to take risks, make mistakes, and overcome obstacles.

“I dare you to train for a marathon and not have it change your life.” —Susan Sidoriak