If I can… I can. How a mental block was shattered and turned on its head

Starting up on the treadmill again after a lengthy absence reminded me of the very early days of my running. I talked a little about this back in one of my first posts, describing how I got to running 7km but couldn’t seem to get any further. I wanted to run 10km, and when I spoke to one of the trainers at the gym about it, he looked at me gone out, and simply said ‘If you can run 7, you can run 10!’ And I did. I’ve since taken those words, turning them into a bit of a mantra for myself – if I can… I can… and filled in the blanks along the way.

It’s stood me in good stead, and through a combination of not thinking about it too much coupled with a good dollop of blagging, I’ve pushed myself to some pretty harsh limits. And you can, too.

My first race was the JCB 5-miler in 2008. I was running a lot back then and pretty quickly got up to 10km and then half marathon distance during that year. After a brief hiatus while I travelled, I picked up running again in the summer of 2009, finally tackling my first marathon in Nottingham in the autumn of 2010.

For that race, I’d got up to 23 miles in training, hoping the adrenalin of race day would get me through the final 3.2 miles. And it did. Prior to doing this race, a ‘friend’ of mine, Burt, had convinced me that it was a good idea to tackle 3 marathons in 3 days (the same ‘friend’ who has talked me in to a Half Ironman in July. He knows I can’t swim). We’d signed up for the Atlantic Coast Challenge, organised by the excellent folk at Vo2. This race follows the South West Coast path from Padstow to Lands End. As I sat on the floor immediately after that Nottingham marathon, a great pal of mine (the same great pal with who I’ve since shared almost all of the ultra races I’ve done) asked me if I still thought doing three in three was a good idea. Good question! I thought about it, and in the post euphoria of my first marathon, I honestly felt excited by the prospect. I was much less excited the following morning.

If I can… I can

There wasn’t much time, only a few weeks, between that first marathon and the Atlantic Coast Challenge. It was long enough to get really nervous. Who did I think I was, after one marathon, trying to do this?! Three trail marathons in three days? I lay in bed in the chalet the night before the first of the three listening to an almighty storm battering the south coast. My insides were heaving in sync with the wild sea…

The next day though, all was calm, and it turned out I was in good company. There were quite a few folk who’d never even run one marathon before, and they were going to have a go! Day one went well, day two even better and day three was a nightmare. But I got round in a total of 19h44m, finishing 82nd out of 158. And my confidence shot through the roof. I found myself sat in the chalet drinking a beer and thinking ‘if I can do this, what else can I do…?‘ If I can… I can…

If I can... I can. Remove your limits and have a go.
At the finish at the end of day one, The Atlantic Coast Challenge

Things just went from there

The following year was Round the Island, organised by the very lovely team at XNRG. This was a two-day race round the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of the UK. Day one was 38 miles, day two, 32 miles. The negative voices in my head were saying ‘Hang on, Timbo. You’re going to try to run further than you ever have in your life, and then get up the next day and do nearly the same again!? You’ll never do it!

This race was mine and Ian’s first crack at an ultra together, and it was a great solace for me to know that he was going to be sharing the journey. We both started. We both finished. I was 32nd with a total time of 16h 11m. Ian was just awesome that race, as he has been in every race since – 12h 24m saw him romp home in 6th place on his first ultra.  We were both buzzing. On the days after the race, I caught myself thinking ‘If I can run 38 miles in one day, I can run another 12 and do a 50-miler!’ If I can… I can.

If I can... I can. Remove your limits and have a go.
Ian and Tim at the finish of Round the Island

The distances kept increasing

In 2014, the South Downs Way 50 was the aim, again with Ian. Training for this hadn’t gone at all according to plan. I got very ill on a holiday in India, and ended up in hospital, losing 1 stone of weight and feeling as weak as a kitten for months. After a few weeks of riding my bike to work again, with some running, I got knocked off my bike. My knees were painful to the touch and my right leg swelled up. I couldn’t run for another few weeks. I eventually got up to 20 miles in training but genuinely thought I wouldn’t make 50 miles. But I got to that start line and had a go. I got round in 9h38, finishing 149th out of 301. ‘If I can run 50 miles on the back of all that, what else can I do?‘. If I can… I can.

Following on from that 50-miler, the next step up for Ian and me was a crack at 100. Signed up for in the true spirit of blagging and bravado, The South Downs Way 100 haunted my dreams for months on the build-up. I got up to around 35 miles in my long training runs. My thought process being that if I could run a 50-mile race with 20-miles being the longest training run, then, by that same formula, I should be able to get to 87 on the back of 35 and then hang on for the rest. Ironically that’s what happened!

Spin the negatives on their head

I’ve not yet gone further than 100 miles, but I have some ideas, some wild dreams. Before that first 100, the furthest I’d run was 50. After initially being worried about running another 3k on a treadmill, the irony of tackling 100 miles when I’d only run half of that before isn’t lost on me. But within that comparison lies one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life. Just have a go. I was limiting myself through nothing but my own thought processes. If I can run 100 miles, I can…

Quite why I needed someone to tell me that I could run another 3k to get up to 10k, I don’t know. But those thoughts were very real back then, that wall an obstacle I couldn’t get through for quite some time. But once I did, I realised how powerful the mind can be, as both a brake and as fuel.

So, if you’re just starting out on your running journey, or are a seasoned runner looking for the next challenge, be bold. Don’t do what I used to do in overthinking it. Just have a go and see where it gets you. If you want to run 5K, you can. If your aim is to run 10K, a half marathon, a full marathon or an ultra, believe me, you can. When you hear those negative voices inside telling you that you can’t do that, try to spin it on its head. Instead of thinking that you can’t do something, think more about what you might be able to do. And then, just have a go. Sign up for that race, pursue that dream, apply for that job – whatever it may be, it’s all in your mindset. Just get to your start line and have a go.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve set yourself to date? Comment below and share your story.


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