The importance of small victories

“Acknowledge all of your small victories. They will eventually add up to something great.” — Kara Goucher

A little over a week ago, we talked about American running great Kara Goucher’s new book “Strong,” and its approach to helping you build your confidence as a runner.

(In case you missed that issue, you can catch up here.)

As I’ve been reading the book, it’s dawned on me that this really involves two things: the confidence to get started, and the confidence to keep going through the toughest parts of a run or a race — the ability to believe in yourself when things go bad.

I keep thinking of the experience I had several years ago, when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. A steady shower fell throughout most of the morning, but the clouds lifted at about the half-way point, giving us some relief from the pelting raindrops.

The last 13.1 miles were some of the toughest I’ve ever run, partly because we all knew that if you didn’t keep up a fast enough pace, you had to board the straggler bus so the city could re-open the roads.

We were 23 miles into the race when I saw a woman flag down the bus as it was passing us by to go back to the slower runners. She asked the driver to stop and let her on, even though she didn’t have to. She was done.

I’ve thought about her at every race I’ve run since, what it must have been like to be so close to the finish line — she was less than 3 miles from finishing a marathon! — but still unable to go any farther.

Re-telling this story isn’t meant to judge her — she could have been injured, for all I know. But it’s an example of something that happens to all of us eventually, I believe. Sooner or later you hit a point where you just can’t keep going, and it seems like it makes more sense to give up.

It’s moments like these that can haunt us, because they remind us what could have been — and they’re not confined to running, are they?

The voice in the back of your mind tells you it’s okay to stop because who were you kidding — you were never really going to run all those miles, were you?

In her book, Goucher offers up a kind of mental toolbox to deal with those voices, from positive self-talk, setting goals, and deciding on a personal mantra to techniques to help you visualize succeeding, what she calls “enclothed cognition,” and the power of social connections.

These all sound simple enough, of course. What’s hard is incorporating them into your life and building new habits around them — so that you change your mind from the outside in, so that what you’re doing influences how you think.


‘Kara Goucher Shares the Secret to Finally Finding Her Confidence.’ In the preface to “Strong,” Goucher tells us why despite having success as a collegiate and professional runner, she still believed she was never good enough to be on the same stage as her peers. What changed for her? Writing down what she’d done right for each practice, each race, chronicling what she calls a “confidence journal” to help remind her of why she belongs. (Read it here.)

‘Mind Gains.’ This great profile from 2010 takes us back to a time when Goucher was nearing the peak of her professional running career, before she’d had a chance to do the mental work she writes about in “Strong.” The opening lines set the stage: “Her head has always messed with her. For as long as she can recall, it's thrown hammers at her feet. Some runners have trick knees or fragile hamstrings. She has an undermining psyche.” This pulls back the curtain on how our minds can work against us, and how we can turn that around. (Read it here.)

‘How to Strengthen Your Mental Game.’ In this, Goucher shares what its like to face the voices in the back of her mind that never believed. (Sometimes those voices weren’t only inside her head, she adds: “I have been called a ‘crybaby,’ ‘overly emotional,’ and a ‘total head case’ more times than I can count. It used to hurt my feelings because people said it under the context of it being a weakness. But now I just don’t care. I feel things in such a deep and intense way. It’s just the way that I am wired.” (Read it here.)


On how to end each day with something positive: Goucher explains to the hosts of the Consummate Athlete Podcast how powerful it can be to take the time at the end of each day to remind yourself of the good you’ve done and the things you’ve accomplished, no matter how small. Because big accomplishments come from lots of little ones. (Listen to the podcast here.)

On the need to do the work for oneself: In this podcast, Goucher shares why her book is designed as something the reader participates in as much as the writer, by providing plenty of space for you to write your own confidence journal in its pages (and what you’ll get from that). (Listen here.)


On dealing with expectations — others’ and your own: Kara talks with Maria Shriver about how the expectations we have for ourselves or our ability to perform can shackle us, and how women especially aren’t raised to learn about what they’re good at. “The women at my retreats, nine times out of ten, they’ll tell me ‘I’m good at caring for my family.’ Instead, she pushes them to talk about an intention for something they’re going to do for themselves in next year. (Watch it on Facebook here.)

Things you can try

Record every run. Whether it’s automatically via your Apple Watch or Garmin, or writing pen to paper in a notebook, Goucher is a strong proponent of creating a journal to record everything you accomplish as a runner, from a short 2-miler all the way up to your race day. Taking notes on how you felt, the toughest stretches and how you handled them, gives you the ability to look back at how you’ve succeeded and handled challenges over time.

Talk to yourself with intention. A river of thoughts is coursing through your mind (and mine) right now, influenced by everything you’ve seen and done — as well as your reflections on them. In all honesty, this is one of the hardest things for me to do. But I’ve found that trying to emphasize the positive in my own mind follows a flywheel effect — it’s really hard to get it started, but once you do, that movement seems to reinforce itself, which in turn fuels different actions and choices.

Visualize the finish line. Do you want to cross the finish line of your goal race feeling strong and vibrant, or barely able to crawl across it? (I think I know the answer to this one!) Starting with the end in mind both allows you to focus on the thing you want to achieve and on breaking it down, smaller goal by smaller goal, so that your experience will live up to your vision for it.

Wear running clothes that make you feel strong. I have one running shirt that’s my all-time favorite and one that… isn’t. I feel like an overweight schlub in it, but strangely enough it always seems to be clean and ready to go in my closet! One of Goucher’s tips is to always have clothes ready that make you feel good and look good, that you have the strength for the challenge in front of you. It may sound like a small thing, but in my experience it works better than you think it should.

Cultivate your running-related social connections. We talked about this in last week’s newsletter, and a reply I received from a reader named Eileen hit the nail on the head of why this works so well:

“I think missing out on the community that running can offer is the number 1 mistake of runners…

I had a few people over after the [road race in her city] and another resident of the building started chatting with us. My running buddies and I had a great time, but she did not and said she hated running.

After a few minutes of chatting with her about running it was clear: she needed running friends, not just tagging along with her boyfriend, who is a faster runner.”

Amen. Building a community of supportive people, who get why we’re doing this and are on the same path themselves, can be a huge lift to any runner trying to achieve a goal, or just become a better version of yourself.

What is your experience like in improving your confidence? I’d love to know what you guys think — feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments below, or in our Slack forum.

Your friend,

— Terrell

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