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Wednesday, 6 December, 2023

A marathon isn’t a marathon

A marathon isn’t a marathon. And neither is this. Have you ever thought about running a marathon? Perhaps you’ve already run one, or maybe several. They are a real test. At least I found them so. In fact, the worst I have ever felt physically came in November 2002 when I was three-quarters of the way across the Williamsburg Bridge, in New York City. Somewhere between mile 19 to 20 of that year’s marathon run. Ouch! I was in big trouble and I genuinely didn’t think I was going to make it to mile 20 let alone the full 26.2.

The odd thing about training for running a marathon is that – certainly, for weekend warriors like me – in the months of training leading up to the actual event, you never run the whole 26.2 miles in one outing. I managed several 20 mile runs on Sunday’s, in the build-up phase but never ran the whole distance. And that’s quite usual. It’s typically deemed too demanding for most of us to put ourselves through such rigour and extreme physical and mental stress too regularly.

And that struck me as odd.

How could I be confident that I was going to get through the marathon, if I had never faced the full test?

Life can be a bit like that can’t it? You are often faced with challenges that are unique. You’ve never had to face them before. You have no frame of reference that exactly matches the situation you are facing in the here and now. It can make you doubt your ability to get to the finishing line.

But there are three things I learned from running marathons that might be helpful to you: firstly, I viewed every single training run, regardless of length, as a new building block, which I deposited in my own virtual bank. The completed session went into the ‘vault’ and I could draw upon each one during the actual marathon. (Proper) runners refer to this process as ‘getting the miles in your legs.’ The idea is that you build fitness and a depth of physical and mental resilience that you will be able to access when required.

Secondly, one of the very best pieces of advice I received from multi-time marathon finishers was to start slowly! In fact, “start much slower than you think you want to” they said. “It’s way too easy,” they told me, “to get caught up in the emotions of the event and start far too fast.” Throwing all your energy into a novel situation too early before you’ve had time to assess things fully, can result in you running out of energy before the finish. Getting carried away in those early miles of a marathon is a really bad idea. In 2002 I had completed the first 3 miles of the race 2 minutes quicker than I had planned. I was feeling good. But 16 miles later as I crossed the Williamsburg Bridge it really came back to haunt me and I was paying for my ill-disciplined start. The physical pain and exhaustion were now generating many psychological challenges, making me feel anxious about my ability to finish. I was in a doom loop.

Finally, and I hope you’ll understand this as a really helpful insight: the marathon isn’t a marathon at all. My experience of a marathon is actually a run of 385 yards plus 26 repetitions of one mile. Each mile is like a mini episode in itself. Each completed mile can be consigned to your rear-view mirror and your attention can settle on the next 1760 yards. In fact, as happened when my daughter and I ran the Berlin marathon, due to both of us carrying injuries, we just focused on the next 3 minutes of jogging, then the next 3 minutes and the next … from mile 14 all the way to the end.

A marathon isn’t a marathon. And neither is this.

A very short-term focus, when coupled with the longer-term goal is a good way to get through such extended challenges. Here’s my thought on why that is the case: Each small victory completed and milestone passed does two things for you: it provides some small measure of relief. Never again will that same mile need to be run. The end is nearer now than it was just moments ago. Progress has been made. And out of that relief comes something new and powerful: A sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977,) which is a term psychologists use to describe your belief in your ability to rally your own resources to affect a positive result. Every step, every yard, every moment and every mile reinforces a belief in your own efforts and capabilities to impact the outcome – you have some agency over the result.

It is important to note that the result is never guaranteed. And therein lies the chief difficulty when we enter situations of the unknown. Ultimately, the outcomes of sport, as with life, are outside our control. The best we can hope to do is influence the result as best we can. Our past experiences can be marshalled to inform our next step. Confidence from past successes can provide inspiration to push further. Learning from ‘failures’ should be drawn upon, encouraging exploration of a new range of ways to prevail in the face of the current context. Everything that has made you the person you are today becomes your own bank account that you can make withdrawals from when the need arises.

So, what if instead of many miles of running we were talking about living in a very different and difficult set of circumstances for weeks or even months at a time? In place of a big city marathon, what if we needed to endure weeks of a very challenging, highly uncertain viral threat like C-19? I believe the advice holds good. Be clear about your goal; draw on the depth of experiences you already have had in your life; break the experience down into small manageable chunks and celebrate and take confidence from every moment you are moving towards the outcomes you hope for.

It turned out that the miles I had ‘in my legs’ from the months of training were sufficient. Indeed, it was the very fact that I finally got off the Williamsburg Bridge and through to mile 20 that gave me the determination to get to mile 21, then mile 22 and on, eventually to the end of the race. I was totally spent. But grateful I had overcome my own small challenges. Stronger for the experience.

Keep safe and well in these challenging times.

Glenn Wallis
Glenn Wallishttps://www.glennpwallis.com
Dr Glenn Wallis is Principal of Glenn P Wallis, a boutique leadership coaching consultancy. With over 18 years of working with clients from large blue-chip companies and smaller, specialised organisations and start-ups, Glenn and his team help people to understand their own systems and drivers and those operating within their own organisations. Underpinned by an evidence-based approach, Glenn is both a published author and one of the few people in the world with a professional Doctorate in coaching and mentoring. His intellectual curiosity keeps him abreast of latest thinking, which he incorporates into his approach. Glenn represented Great Britain at the World and European Championships for judo and had England rugby trials. He is still a keen and active sportsman.

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