Ryan Sandes running in the Alps above Chamonix – photo credit Kelvin Trautman.

In my last post I spoke about clutter, and how easy it is to become bogged down in our lives by unnecessary things. It’s often said that the most difficult part of any race is getting to the start line. So much can happen in the build-up to a race, like injury or sickness or even logistical complications. The same applies to starting anything – often we allow our paths to become so bogged down with the clutter our lives throw at us that we struggle to even get to the start line. We all need to be aware of our propensity for clutter so that we work on keeping the path ahead clear. And not just once, it’s an ongoing project! It helps us to simplify things, making tasks that were looking daunting start to look quite do-able.

With that in mind, this week we move on to the strength that believing in ourselves can give us. Once we’ve stepped up and onto our new path, it’s so important to keep that positive momentum going. We need to believe in our own ability in order to grow stronger, faster, wiser. Self-belief is incredibly powerful, and can enable us to set goals and take on challenges we never thought possible.

I believe very strongly in the power of self-belief. Through believing in myself, I’ve achieved goals that three decades ago I hadn’t the courage to even contemplate taking on.

I’ll relate my running story as a good example of the strength of self-belief. My story is not special. Nor is it unique. I have no remarkable talent or distinctive disadvantage that I’ve had to work through or overcome. What my story is though, is a good example of the art of possibility. I choose that phrase, “the art of possibility”, specifically, as I loved it from the first time I ever heard it, more than 20 years ago – it’s coined from the leadership speaker Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, who lives by and promotes the notion that the realms of self-growth and self-development are limitless. His “art of possibility” shows that we should not allow ourselves to set limits – for it is those limits we set that stunt our growth and build barriers to our improvement.

I believe that we set our own limitations on our abilities. We only grow as tall as we reach; we only go as far as we think we can. And in so doing, we set our own boundaries. Often we set our bar really low for fear of failure. And actually, we are the only ones who can raise them.

My story
I took up running in ‘94, when I was 25. I started reluctantly. I’d played loads of sport at school, but the only running I’d done was during hockey or squash – running to chase a ball. To me running for running’s sake was utterly dull. After varsity I went backpacking overseas, did no sport whatsoever and gained weight. When I got back to SA, I felt horrid – tight in my own skin. I had to do something about it, and the thought of dieting to lose the weight was abhorrent. That’s how I found running. I was told that if I ran for at least 40 mins three times a week, I would lose weight. And hey, I would get my fitness back. That sounded a fair deal. So I started running.

Damn, it was hard at first. 5km seemed an eternity, and anything that even slightly resembled an uphill felt impossible. My lungs were in burst mode, my breathing sounded like an emphysema case, and my legs felt like lead. Gradually it became easier – after a couple of weeks 5km became more comfortable, and I found myself starting look forward to my runs. By Christmas I achieved 12km and I felt like I’d conquered the earth!

Then came the interesting part. The running bug had bitten, I was hooked on running regularly, but what now? Six months after I’d started, my running buddy who’d had done a few marathons and a Comrades, entered me in a half-marathon for the coming weekend. He assured me that because I’d achieved 12km, I was capable of running 21km. That sounded a bit crazy to me but hey, what did I know, so I agreed, and the following weekend I completed my first half marathon. Just two months later came my first marathon, simply because he told me there was no reason why I couldn’t.

It was my friend’s positivity, and his belief in my ability, that never allowed me to think that I couldn’t do it. I’ll never forget that first marathon – it was awful. Those final 12km went on forever, every inch of my body and brain hurt, and I staggered from water table to water table. I finished in just under 5hrs… and I felt physically FINISHED! Little did I realise then the extent of how the running bug had bitten me. And just how running would influence my life.

The following year I ran my first Two Oceans Ultra, then my first Comrades Marathon. I made the finish just 10 minutes within the 11-hour cut-off (not 12 hours in those days), and I remember how the crowd was roaring – the vibe was unbelievable. I’ll never forget the feeling of crossing that finish line – I had achieved something I never thought I was capable of, and I felt like I’d won the entire race.

After that I knew that ultra-distance was my thing. I still could hardly believe that I was able to run these distances, and yet there I was, crossing each finish line. In a short time, I had found something completely new in my life, something I had chosen to do, that I was completely in control of, and that challenged, excited and exhilarated me. I needed any excuse to head out for a run. I ran and ran, all for the love of it, and always celebrating the fact that I could. My times improved, each year I knocked off another chunk from what had become my main gauge, my Comrades Marathon time.

In 2003 I moved to Cape Town and with my love for mountains and hiking my running shifted from tar to trail. A year later I signed up for my first trail run, the PUFfeR, the 80k race from Cape Point to the Waterfront. I didn’t care that I’d never run that distance on trail before, I knew that this was the type of running that I best related to – I connected with it. I never for a minute doubted that I could do the distance. It was challenging, it was varied, it gave me another way to see and soak up the beautiful part of the world I live in, and it helped me discover more about myself than I ever thought running could.

While I continued to clock up road ultras, including my 10th Comrades Marathon, I’d found my passion in trail running. And the passion fuelled a talent I didn’t know I had, and it also fuelled the competitive side of me. The years that followed were riddled with race wins and podium finishes, fuelled by mountains, rivers, deserts, volcanic calderas, icy tundra, extreme heat and freezing cold over crazy distances.

Fuelled by passion and self-belief
Running has given me so much joy, and as the years have unfolded, running has, and continues to be, such an important dimension to my life. Of course the wins won’t go on forever, but the joy will, and the adventures, the discoveries, and everything positive our wonderful sport has to offer.

People say one of the most rewarding experiences in life is achieving what people say you cannot do. There’re so many examples of that in running – of people who have set themselves tough challenges, and they have dared to achieve them.

It was Roger Bannister, the first person to run a sub 4-minute mile, who said “no one can say you must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that. The human spirit is indomitable.” Bannister broke the 4-minute mile in 1954, something never thought to be humanly possible. With that barrier broken, the record has been smashed time and again, and now sits at 3:43:13 (Hicham El Guerrouj, 1999). It’s only a matter of time before this record too will be broken.

So, believe in yourself, trust in your own potential, and allow yourself the freedom and space to start something new. Unless you try, you’ll never know. Who knows, you might find a new passion, something that gives you purpose, something that makes you want to strive, to explore, and to discover more about yourself.