What we say to ourselves has an incredible impact

What Kara Goucher, Roger Bannister and my 7-year-old son can teach us about believing in ourselves

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

— William James

If you weren’t already familiar with her, the photo above is of Kara Goucher, a now 42-year-old former Olympian and one of running’s best-loved ambassadors — for her accomplishments as well as the vulnerability with which she shares her struggles.

I share it with you this morning because I had an experience this week that reminded me of a struggle we all go through, the difficulty — the impossibility, it can often seem — to believe in ourselves.

If I’m being completely honest, this is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. When I look at photos of myself when I was in grade school, I remember the shy little kid who was terrified to speak up in class, even when he knew the answer — afraid that somehow, someway, what I said would be wrong.

Fast forward to today, and I can already see my 7-year-old beginning to experience the same struggle. On Friday, he had his first big math test of this school year. He’d shown a lot of ability in first-grade math, which prompted his teacher to bump him up to second-grade math — which, at first, was something he was excited about.

But as the day of the test inched closer, I could see him getting anxious. All he could talk about was how he couldn’t do it. The questions were too hard. He couldn’t figure them out. The word problems, especially, were too convoluted for him to get his head around.

On Thursday night, when my wife and I put him to bed, he was in tears with his face in his pillow, in anguish over the bad grade he was certain he’d get on the test the next day.

Changing your inner voice is a process

What they say really is true — to have a child is to “decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

So when you see your child struggle, your natural instinct is to try to rescue them. But this isn’t something I can save my son from; it’s something I can only try to guide him through.

That’s why I value the words of someone like Goucher so much. She’s accomplished amazing things in her running career, including competing with Team USA at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, but that’s not what impresses me about her.

Rather, it’s the openness with which she shares how steep her own hill has been to climb, how self-doubt has been an obstacle she’s wrestled with her whole life, that makes me admire her.

In her 2018 book Strong, she shares how tough a struggle it has been to learn how to believe in herself:

“Throughout my career, I had the debilitating problem of letting negative chatter cloud my head. I lined up in a race, and the destructive thoughts began: ‘You aren’t good enough to be here. You have never run as fast as her. You have no chance. You are just a girl from northern Minnesota, and you don’t belong on this big stage.

Before the race even started, I talked myself out of contention. What a stupid thing to do after all the effort and dedication I’d put into training and preparation. I knew this negativity was completely self-defeating, but I wasn’t sure how to stop it. How could I stop the terrible thoughts in my head?

Working with a sports psychologist, she started to peel away the layers of why she spoke to herself this way.

And she didn’t try to change everything at once, she says: “Instead of focusing on the reasons why I wasn’t good enough, I focused on one positive reason and one thought at a time to motivate me to continue toward my goal.”

The ‘Bannister effect’ can change the way you see everything

Last summer, if you’ll remember, we took at look at one of the most famous moments in running history back in 1954, when Roger Bannister broke what was believed then to be an impossible barrier — the 4-minute mile.

(I’ll spare you the details now, as we covered the historic day at length here.)

What amazes me about Bannister’s record-breaking time (3:59.4) isn’t that he did it — it’s how quickly other runners broke the 4-minute barrier in fairly short order after him. Six weeks after Bannister, Australian John Landy ran even faster, with a new record of 3 minutes, 58 seconds, after a string of previous attempts had fallen short.

Mackenzie Havey, the author of the book Mindful Running, says what has come to be known as the “Bannister effect” has transformed the way we understand performance — and limits of any kind:

“It is the idea that once someone sees something seemingly impossible is possible, they are then able to achieve it. How many of us harbor beliefs about our identities and abilities that place limits on our achievements?” 

This may sound like a silly comparison, but that’s exactly what I thought of when my son got home from school on Friday and told us about his test — he’d done great!

My son — who’d been so reluctant to practice word problems earlier in the week that you’d have thought someone was about to call child and family services — now wanted us all to do word problems that he’d written on his own. So the whole family did word problems with him all afternoon and even Friday evening, before we put him to bed.

Let me add that I know many of us have struggles far more challenging than word problems on a math test, and that far too often the answers aren’t simple at all.

But even the small wins are worth celebrating, I think — especially when they help us learn how to become a little bit better version of ourselves. In fact, those wins might be the ones worth celebrating most of all.

I hope all is well in your world, wherever you are in the world — as always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going ☀️

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Great running reads

The Nepalese Runner Who Escaped an Arrange Marriage to Dedicate Herself to ‘Something Greater’. Whenever I think I’m going through something hard, I’m going to come back to this wonderful story about Sunmaya Budha, now 23, who left home at 17 to pursue her dream of becoming a professional trail runner, like her hero Mira Rai, who went from being a child soldier in the Maoist insurgency in Nepal to one of the world’s best mountain runners. Though she told her parents she was leaving to become a teacher, she was often too tired for her classes:

“Even though I lied to my parents, I justified my decision [to drop out of school] by doing what I was truly interested in.”

👉 Dig deeper: What Makes Mira Rai Run?

Apple Makes Your Daily Walks More Interesting. Time to Walk is a new feature for the Apple Watch that pairs famous/influential narrators with a guided walk you can listen to via your AirPods (though you’ll need an Apple Fitness+ subscription to listen).

“As you walk, the narrator shares personal stories that include their connection to certain songs. If a visual is mentioned, your watch will ping with a photo of it to guide you through what you are hearing.”

What You Need to Know About Working with a Health/Wellness Coach. Of the things I hear most often from readers, motivation — how to motivate yourself to exercise or get healthier, especially if you’ve laid off from it for an extended time — is at the top of the list. Here’s how to find someone who can help.

“Health coaching is about the here and now… Often clients know what they want, but haven’t found the motivation within themselves to get where they want to go. That’s where health coaches can make a difference.”

Running Mates. This is an oldie — if you can call a piece from 2013 an “oldie” — but a great reminiscence in Garden & Gun by journalist and professor Vanessa Gregory on her then 4-year-old dog Frank, who showed her what running and enjoying the bodies we’re in is all about.

“We don’t know where Frank came from or the exact composition of his pedigree. But we know he is a runner. An athlete. A being who becomes his fullest self in these moments spent striding across hills and fields.”

This week’s training schedule

For this week, we’ll run exactly the same mileage as last week, from our 16-week training schedule. Twenty miles last week, twenty miles this week:

  • Sunday, Jan. 31 (today) — 3 miles

  • Tuesday, Feb. 2 — 4 miles

  • Thursday, Feb. 4 — 4 miles

  • Saturday, Feb. 6 — 6 miles

  • Sunday, Feb. 7 — 3 miles

By the way, can you believe it’s almost February?! I’ll share our schedule also in our Strava group, as I hope to get back to running this week. 👍

A nature break

One of my all-time favorite newsletters is Clara Parkes’s The Daily Respite. Here’s a video she shared the other day, one she took near her home in Maine:

Words to run by

“One step at a time is all it takes to get you there.”

— Emily Dickinson