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September 18, 2019

Turning Fear Into Fuel: Countdown to a Challenge

Jonathan Hancock

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©©Getty Images/DaveLongMedia

I'm full of fear, and I only have myself to blame.

Six months ago, I signed a form to say that I would run 100 km in a day. There's clearly only one sensible response to that: why?

Well, I wanted to raise money for a children's charity that's close to my heart. But I also wanted to do it for me – to step outside my comfort zone, and reinject some excitement into a slightly jaded exercise regimen.

I've done several marathons in the past, and I guess I've become fairly comfortable with that distance. So this "ultramarathon" looked like just the nudge I needed to start challenging myself again.

No Fear – at First

And what a challenge! I knew it would be tough, but I welcomed that. Here was a great opportunity to put both my physical and psychological fitness to the test. I was committing to run nearly two and a half times farther than I'd ever gone before, so it was very much a leap into the unknown. It would probably involve pounding the pavements for more than 12 hours, pretty much nonstop.

For a while, I was full of excitement. I signed on the dotted line, and it felt great to have such an ambitious, "stretch" goal ahead.

And, despite the enormity of the physical and mental challenge involved, with plenty of time to prepare, I felt confident that I was up to the task. I enlisted supporters, embarked on a training plan, and happily kept the event in the background as I got on with the rest of my life.

Ultramarathon websites like Run Ultra reassured me that many thousands of ordinary people complete these extraordinary events every year.

Fear Strikes

With a few weeks to go until race day, however, it all started to feel a bit more serious. I stepped up my training, made my travel arrangements, bought some new kit.

But I was still feeling OK about it until I downloaded the official app, and a large countdown timer appeared on my phone.

I'm looking at it now. I need to be ready to go in 5 days, 11 hours, 17 minutes and 6 seconds.

And suddenly, I don't know if I will be.

Fear: the Challenge Before the Challenge!

I haven't been sleeping well. One night, I dreamed that I couldn't get my watch to work, so I didn't know when to go to the start line (although that didn't really matter, because I couldn't seem to find the front door to get out of my house!).

And one morning this week I woke up with a cold. At least, it might have been a cold. Just like I might have pulled a muscle in my foot.

5 days, 11 hours, 16 minutes…

I suppose I should have known what to expect. Whenever I've run a marathon in the past, I've always gone into worry mode the week before. These last few days before an event are a weird time for most runners – exercising less, eating more, and generally having too much time to think.

My mind inevitably starts exploring all the things that could go wrong. I know it's probably trying to be helpful, making sure that I don't make those mistakes for real. But it always leaves me feeling on edge, doubting my ability, and picturing failure – which, in the latter stages of a 100 km challenge, could be a seriously unpleasant sight!

Facing My Fears

I've told myself that it's worse this time because it means more – and, actually, that seemed to raise my spirits a bit. I've logged hundreds of training hours, sacrificed time with family and friends, spent money on equipment and event fees, so no wonder I'm nervous about it all paying off.

I've also managed to raise a sizable amount of money for charity – but only if I can complete the course. So yes, there's more pressure on me than usual, but I've also got more reasons to push on.

In addition, I've now got lots of important things in my favor. Those hours of training will get me through. I've invested in the right kit. My supporters are willing me on (I've just reread some of their messages to remind myself) and I know they'll be with me in spirit. And if (no, when) I make it to the finish line, that charity money will make a real difference to vulnerable kids.

Getting My Thinking in Shape

I've decided that there's a balance to be struck. I need to think about myself, to keep in control of my feelings and to manage all the practical aspects, before and during the race. But I should also think about the bigger picture. The patience my wife and children have shown during my training. The hard work all the organizers are putting in. The families that my fundraising will help.

I also need to guard against lowering my goals – something I've been guilty of in the past, in a whole range of different challenges. I've always been too quick to give myself a "get-out" – like deciding I won't be very fast because of this cold, or I might have to stop because of the sore muscle in my foot. Talk about "getting your excuses in early"!

I've been guilty of similar self-sabotage before job interviews and big presentations. There's plenty that can go wrong, so don't expect too much, I've told myself on far too many occasions. I suppose it guards against disappointment if things don't go well. But it's time I stopped planning for failure, and put much more effort into expecting success.

So I remind myself that I'm doing the run because it's hard. Everything that's worth doing in life is hard, right? I shouldn't start buckling under the weight of the challenge – I should be glad that I've got this chance to do something amazing. I'm lucky, and I'll still be lucky, even when I'm at 90 km. Even when it really hurts.

I should set high targets, enjoy going all out to reach them – and truly believe that I can.

Turning Fear Into Fuel

Anyway, these are the things I'm trying to tell myself today, and they seem to be helping. I'm still checking the countdown timer far too often, and I know I'm thinking about the race too much.

However, if I can keep flipping the negative thoughts into positive ones, and generate some extra energy from my building excitement – and that ticking clock – I might just be OK.

I might even prove that I'm ready to embrace the next big challenge at work. The coming days will let me test how well I can use fear to fuel anything.

As for this particular challenge, I've got 100 very good reasons to hope that I've got my mental approach right – even before the physical test begins. We'll soon see.

To be precise, in 5 days, 11 hours, 9 minutes, 14 seconds, and counting.

In Jonathan's next blog, find out what happens when he attempts his 100 km run, and what he learns from pushing his physical and mental strength to the limit!

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