In June 2016 I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. At the time I could barely run two miles without feeling sick and dizzy, stopping to walk every couple of minutes.
The idea of running a marathon filled me with a mixture of feelings: uncertainty, fear, excitement and self-doubt. The overwhelming feeling was one of curiosity and a repetitive thought of ‘could I actually do this…’
In October 2016, I ran my first marathon.
I’ve since run dozens of half-marathons, over half a dozen metric marathons (a 26.2km race), a handful of marathons and an ultra-marathon, where I won my first ever second place trophy.
We get lots of medals as runners so receiving a trophy was a special moment for me.
Through creating new habits I can confidently now call myself a marathon runner.
So, yes, I run - but it is not race day or the finish line that taught me the real lessons in grit, it was everything that happened between the two-mile limit I had placed upon myself, and the realisation of 26.2 miles. That’s where the real lessons lay.
Whether it’s running long distance or standing up to do a presentation at work, we all fall into the dungeon of limitation sometimes.
So, what did I learn on my journey through those initial five months, from sitting at my desk to reaching the finish line of my first marathon? What were the life lessons that we could all learn from long distance running?
Develop a strong sense of purpose
When you’re setting off on a long run you have to know ‘why’ you are doing it. A strong purpose and sense of meaning is exactly what will get you out of bed for an early morning training session, through those later miles when your body is tired, yet you keep you putting one foot in front of another when those legs are starting to feel heavy all the way to the end.
Lesson 1 – Life is about facing into challenging situations and meeting them head on. When you feel defeated your personal ‘life mission statement’ will help you bounce back even stronger than you were before. The habit of purpose is a great one to have in life.
Seeking and accepting the support of those around you
There is a common misunderstanding that marathon running is a solo sport. In my experience it is not: long distance running requires the support, understanding and compromise of your family, friends and peers during your training period. It is that support that gets you through the training.
I recall a specific moment, on opening the door to a very cold, rainy and dark winter morning. Just as I started to close the door and retreat back into the warmth of my house, I heard my son’s voice behind me: ‘Mum, what are you doing? You love running in the rain, and you have always told me the morning is the best time of day to exercise’. I just smiled, thanked him and left for my morning run.
Lesson 2 – Life is not a solo journey, it’s the people we meet and love along the way that make it special, so remember to let them know how much they mean to you and invite them in to support you. You will need that little extra support when things get tough.
You are capable of more than you realise
Remember I said I could barely run two miles without feeling sick and dizzy? Never in a million years did I think I would be writing and article which contains the statement, ‘I am a marathon runner’.
Only a few nights ago I achieved a 10k personal best, smashing my previous race time by over 17 minutes. Long distance running has opened up an opportunity to bust so many beliefs I held to be true about myself.
Even when you think the tank is empty there’s always a bit left in the reserve. Running is about continuous progression, pushing to go a little further and/or a little faster each time you go out there.
Lesson 3 – Embracing failure is a critical part of life. To be successful in both the long and short term we need to create new boundaries and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Make friends with your Inner Critic
Over the past six years running has given me the time and space to make friends with my inner critic, the bullying voice in our heads that tells us ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘who do you think you are’. We all have one.
Every time I run I get to practice making the positive voice louder, and more dominant. That practice continues to strengthen the habit of positive self-talk and therefore turning my limiting beliefs into enabling beliefs – in fact, I have a lot to thank my inner critic for!
Lesson 4 – Remember to talk to yourself like you are your biggest fan: thoughts plus action really do become things, and you can create the life you want and love. Tell yourself you can, and you will!
Make long term goals
A participant at one of my workshops made a statement to me during a conversation we had about running: ‘you can’t blag a marathon’.
It has stayed with me ever since. Marathon training requires planning and time. We must celebrate the mini victories such as your longest, fastest or most runs in a week. It has taught me to stay focused on the goals and enjoy the whole training process.
Lesson 5 – We live in a world of instant gratification, a place where most of what we want is available 24/7. So remembering to stay committed, celebrating the small stuff and not giving up before the finish line allows you to not only stay committed but to enjoy the journey. Life is a journey, not just a destination.
Look after your body and your body will look after you
We only get one body, and if I want that one body to help me achieve my running goals, I have to help it by fuelling it properly with healthy nutritious food, drinking plenty of water and taking time to allow it to rest and repair itself properly.
Lesson 6 – Take time out for yourself, to look after your brain and body health. Remember to put yourself first if you want to be the best version of yourself in work, as a parent, as a partner and as a friend. If you only had one car to last you a lifetime, would you treat it differently?
Leave everything out there
I am going out to run to feel great, stretch myself and I enter every run with an excellent attitude. I do not run perfectly, I am not the fastest, I have not run the furthest, I have never competed professionally – but I do have an excellent attitude – and that’s okay!
Lesson 7 – Perfection is somebody else’s idea of ideal, it’s a concept that exists only in someone else’s mind. If you strive for excellence in life you will live a happy and fulfilled one. If you strive for perfection, you may experience a very different existence. Remember, when you approach all aspects of your life with an excellent attitude, that is enough.
Don’t compare yourself to others
Marathon running helped me know that I don’t need to compare myself to others, because I am not them, and they are not me.
I will run my own race and be the best version of me I can possibly be in that race. My targets are always very simple: turn up with an excellent attitude and enjoy the journey, not just the destination.
Lesson 8 – You cannot compare yourself to others, there is no comparison. You are perfectly unique: value the difference in yourself and the difference in others – the world would be a boring place if we were all the same.
Remember, life is a marathon, not a sprint.
Kay Woodburn is the founder of Gritty People. She is also a regular guest on our podcast The Reset Room.