What running a 134km race for my 40th birthday taught me about 'luck'

What running a 134km race for my 40th birthday taught me about attributing success to luck

Like many women, I’ve had great difficulty owning my successes. I’m adept at removing any personal accountability for doing well and generally attribute any accomplishments to pure luck.

At no time have I felt more incapable of recognising my successes than when I was the winning female of a 134 km running race.

I’d signed up for the four day race for my 40th birthday. As a person who thrives on being outside of my comfort zone, choosing this race seemed like a suitably scary challenge. If I was successful in completing the run, it would be my first multi-day race, my first solo trip away, my first desert run and my longest running event by a considerable distance.

The initial two days were spectacular (19 km and 41 km). The start times meant that we ran through sunset and sunrise. During these transitions, the hillsides reflected intense shades of orange juxtaposed against brilliant, blue, cloudless skies. I’d never experienced such stunning scenery while running. We traversed glorious single track that wound its way through the rocky landscape. It was a marvel to watch the runners move slowly through narrow rocky gullies and up onto the expansive mountain ranges of the desert landscape.

As I crossed the finish line on the first two days, I was genuinely surprised that I’d come second female. My delight at placing so well was heightened because a woman whom I recently befriended was the lead female. I was overjoyed for her. Playing the supporting role to the major act was a spot where I felt very comfortable.

The start of day three (29 km) began in a similar fashion to the previous days. The lead female and I began in the front pack of runners, chatting to each other as we picked our way across the trails. Within a few minutes, she gradually ran ahead of me and out of sight.

Along with the runners, there were many hikers walking the trail. Around the 15 km mark I passed a group of hikers who’d stopped to rest. One of the men in the group called out encouragingly to me: “Well done! First female!”

I stopped dead in my tracks and rebutted his comment. I couldn’t be the first female, as she was ahead of me. He answered firmly that he was sure I was the first.
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Read more from Dr Rowan Brookes on how she put work and domestic life aside to rekindle her adventurous spirit
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Concern for my friend overwhelmed me. I ran as fast as I could to the next aid station to raise the alarm there was a runner lost on course.  For the remainder of the run, thoughts of how to tell her parents, who were waiting at the finish line, circled through my mind. I crossed the finish line and immediately looked for her parents. To my surprise, there she was sitting with them. Through tears she explained how she’d taken the wrong turn, run 16 km in the wrong direction and then decided to hitch a ride to the finish line. The hiker was correct, I was first female of that stage!

For the rest of the afternoon I sat by myself on the river bank near our accommodation crippled with guilt at my win. I’d never been remotely good at sports and had certainly not imagined I could win a race.

My head spun with the thought that I wasn’t the deserving winner.  I was so embarrassed by my win I couldn’t bring myself to look at the other runners milling about the river. As soon as the evening prize-giving was over, I scuttled away to my tent to hide my overwhelming feelings of being a fraud.

We lined up on the start line for day four (45 km) in the predawn darkness. By this stage most runners were feeling exhausted and carrying a range of injuries. I stood amongst them fuelled by ibuprofen to help ease the pain I was in. My mind was awash with self-loathing, but I was determined to find ways to enjoy the final stage of the race. We began by running 15 km up and down Mt Sondor (the highest peak in the NT) through the dawn break. Despite burning lungs and legs, it was a magical way to commence the final day.

Pic courtesy of The Matt Image

Halfway through the day, I passed the lead female. She was struggling and was clearly fighting her own mental demons. I still really wanted her to win, so encouraged her to run with me in the hope that my words would give her a boost and she’d take the lead again. However, she wasn’t ready to run, so I moved past her and hoped she’d soon find her own strength again. The remainder of the run was a battle between my mind and body. My mind worked hard to remind myself I could push through the pain and fatigue I was experiencing and reach the end. Several hours later, I crossed the finish line as the overall female winner in 19:31:38.

Despite the completely objective measure that I was the first female to cross the finish line, my overwhelming reaction was to deny my success. I felt shame and a deep sense of discomfort at my placing.

Since then, I’ve come to accept that I won because I had a strong race strategy, I’d trained with commitment and my mental toughness helped see me through.

In the week’s following the win, I’ve tried to untangle how I managed to persevere through the feelings I experienced during the event to win the race, so that I might apply them in other areas of my life.

Avoid comparing yourself to others 

As we descended Mt Sondor on the final day, two other females passed me. This put me into fourth place. I was taking my descent from the mountain slowly, as I knew that descents could drain the power from your legs. My coach had also reiterated to me the phrase of being ‘patient and wise’. Tempting as it was to speed up and catch them, I resisted the urge to run faster. As I watched them move ahead of me, I spoke kindly to myself. In a soft and gentle internal voice, I reminded myself to run my own race, own the strategy I’d chosen and avoid comparing my ability to theirs. Once we were off the mountain, my legs still left fresh and I was able to quickly move back into second place. This was a reminder for me about what a trap it is to compare yourself with others. When we make comparisons, we fail to recognise our own unique talents and capacity to use them to our advantage.

Trust other people and their assessment of your ability

In the lead up to the event, I’d spent time training with two competitive runners. Both of them had told me several times that I’d do really well in the race, but I’d brushed their comments aside.

Other people frequently see your abilities long before you recognise them yourself. The capacity to recognise our own worth, is the reason so many women put their successes down to luck, or fail to put themselves forward for big challenges. Pay attention to the messages other people are giving you about your skills. Even if they are not completely correct, they will likely give you the boost to try out bigger things than you would not have done otherwise.

Pic courtesy of The Matt Image

Positive thinking and visualisation will carry you a long way  

Sitting on the river bank after the third day agonising over my win, I received a message from a friend. He told me to be overwhelmingly positive through the final day and that the final stage of the race didn’t need to feel like a struggle. Each time negative thoughts welled up on that day, I committed to myself to banish them and regain a positive mindset.

Once I took first place female on the final day, the visualisation that kept me moving forward was imagining a conversation I would have over dinner with my three children if I won. I visualised telling them that you don’t need to be particularly good to win, but what you do need is perseverance, courage to dream big and a belief that you can make it with the talents you have.

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