It’s not a secret anymore. I’m registered for the TCS Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which will take place on Sunday, 15 October 2023. Running the marathon wasn’t on this year’s goals list. The decision to participate in the race came after I realized I was willing to be ordinary—too scared to take a risk, too scared of failure. But I’ve never liked being ordinary or doing ordinary things. Always looking to grow, to challenge myself in some way, it was time to move back into my discomfort zone.
I’d become so obsessed with my thoughts that I’d lost myself in them. And then I became stuck because I’d forgotten what I’ve done and, more importantly, what I’m capable of. All because of a foot injury, that happened more than a year ago, when I started telling myself that I couldn’t run long distances. And when you tell yourself something, and believe it, it becomes your reality. My reality became a struggle to run five kilometres, or even six or seven when I pushed myself. Any runs longer than that were one-offs. Flukes. Forget the ten-kilometre, twelve-kilometre, half-marathon and marathon races I’d run in the past. None of that mattered. Because I’d forgotten who I really was.
Avoiding ALL Sports
As a kid I used to bike for hours, and I loved to bowl. But otherwise, I spent most of my time at the piano, baking, or whipping up the family meal after school. Although my parents signed me up for baseball, basketball, gymnastics, and karate, I failed at them all because I didn’t have any interest in them. It made sense when I was older and understood my introversion, and, consequently, my aversion to people. Team sports weren’t for me. Instead, I channelled all my energy into my studies and creative pursuits. I met and exceeded all standards to be classified as a nerd.
From the time I began high school in 1989 to the summer of 2005, walking was the only form of exercise in my life. I was lucky to have a metabolism that kept me ‘fit’ in the loosest sense of the word. In 2005, I started crossing things of my bucket list and learned to kayak. That lasted a summer before I again took up my old habits of doing nothing.
Decide Who You Are
Everything changed at the end of 2007 when I stepped onto an old-fashioned scale at my then partner’s sister’s house. I told them it was broken. There was no way that I weighed 205 pounds. Six weeks later, my partner asked me to try on a pair of his black jeans; I’d tried them on before but they were too big. He stood six-three (three inches taller than me), and had more of a rugby player build. And this time those jeans—with a thirty-eight inch waist—fit me. So, his sister’s scale wasn’t broken, and no wonder I’d been struggling to fasten my other pants, which had a thirty-six inch waist.
That was the moment I decided I would not become a man who wore size thirty-eight pants. Too many people in my family were overweight and dealing with the medical conditions associated with it. I wasn’t going to join them.
It was February 2008, and in the dead of winter and in sub-zero temperatures, I went for a run. A sports neophyte, I didn’t know how to dress for winter running since I didn’t have much in the way of sportswear, and all I had to wear on my feet were court shoes. That twenty-minute run changed my life because by that summer I’d run my first ten-kilometre race. And in September of that same year, I ran my first half-marathon. I’d deliberately chosen to embrace everything ugly about my discomfort zone and had become, without wanting to accept the label, a runner.
I just started running. No research on how to do it, or how to do it properly. I just got out there and ran. And here’s the thing: stretching before and after a run never became a habit. On the rare occasion I ran with a running group, I’d follow the lead of the more seasoned runners and stretch, pretending like I knew what I was doing when I had no clue. Those years of not stretching impacted my mobility in different ways. The aches and pains became constant during runs. I couldn’t touch my toes. Or do a proper squat. But I was tired of being stuck in suffering mode—doing the same thing over and over and hoping, stupidly, for a different result. So, after a lot of humming and hawing and scouring the internet, I started fascial stretch therapy.
Starting the stretch therapy sessions was me asking for help, which is something I struggle with, too. But as I told my chiropractor, my goal wasn’t just to run better and without pain; I also wanted to touch my toes by my fiftieth birthday (at the time, that was more than a year away). My negative self-talk had ramped up, because I wasn’t convinced that that would even be possible. I had no recollection of ever being able to touch my toes. But within two months I had touched them, and felt less pain and stiffness when I stretched and ran.
Whether you’re focused on business, sports, relationships, anything, you have to be committed to saying, ‘I’m doing this, I’ll give up whatever I have to give up so I can do this, I don’t care what anyone thinks, and if there are consequences that affect the other parts of my life, I’ll deal with them when I have to.’ – Tim Grover 1
Stuck in My Comfort Zone
I was still using my foot injury as a crutch, and held to the lie I’d been telling myself about not being able to run long distances. And that meant I wasn’t willing to grow. The truth, though, was that I was afraid, terrified, of the hard work that was necessary to take me back to where I was in 2019. When I was dedicated. Committed. Unafraid—of success or failure. A few weeks ago, my chiropractor began asking (repeatedly) if I’d signed up for any races. The question annoyed me. Why would I sign up for a race when I was seeing him every two weeks? When, despite the progress made, I was still in pain? Race? I was barely running more than five kilometres.
It would have been a lot easier for me to stay in suffering mode, where I was happy to be, and let my injury hold me there. Whenever I thought about running, I’d convinced myself that I didn’t have the mental or physical capacity to push past the pain. I’d talked myself out of running any distance longer than seven kilometres. In the past, visualization helped me to complete those long, exhausting, bone-rattling runs. At the thought of racing, I only visualized running out of energy, the barrage of negative self-talk that followed, and the humiliation of giving up mid-run and calling an Uber.
Like a dream sequence that wouldn’t shut off, I flashed back to 20 October 2019, remembering the pain and exhaustion that destroyed me after crossing the finish line of my first marathon. That flashback kept me wrapped up in defeat, cozy and warm. Have you signed up for any races yet? The question repeated over and over in my mind.
Step Past the Fear
What was holding me back? Fear. That I couldn’t guarantee a better performance compared to 2019. Fear. That I’d injure myself again and end up stuck. Fear. Because I remembered what people said—much of which was unkind and not helpful—when I went off the grid four years ago to train and completely changed my diet, and my life, to increase my chances of success on race day.
When fear gets its hands on you and tightens its grip, a lot of people crumble. I had. I remember clearly that sunny October day in 2019 when, just past the thirty-kilometre marker, my right foot exploded in pain. I’d passed runners who stopped to walk and who never started running again. The pain exploded every time my foot touched the asphalt. As much as I wanted to cry, as much as I wanted to walk for a bit to ease the pain, I kept running. I couldn’t afford to stop because I knew fear would win. I was frustrated that several runners who I’d passed earlier caught up and sailed passed me. Yet despite the pain, and an awkward ‘sprint’ to the finish line, my official time was 3:49:12—beating my goal to finish in 3h50m by forty-eight seconds.
Become Who You Really Are
My chiropractor’s question kept poking at me. And on Saturday, 20 May, something had shifted during my morning run—in my mind and my body. I’d let go of the fear. It was time to stop coasting, time to push myself again. Time to go off the grid, ignore the naysayers and do the hard work to unlock the lion (I’m a Leo) in me who, four years ago, ran twelve kilometres in excruciating pain and still finished the race. On the morning of 20 May, I ran twelve kilometres, then sixteen kilometres the next day, and another eleven kilometres the day after that. Those runs weren’t easy, but they weren’t the struggle I’d imagined or feared. Because I’d gotten outside of my mind and remembered what I was capable of when I showed up and did the work.
When I stepped past the fear, when I was ready to step back into my discomfort zone, David Goggins’s advice rang loud and true in my ears. In his book, Never Finished, Goggins writes: “Whatever it takes for you to believe that you’re better than good to achieve your dreams is what you must do. And remember, your greatness is not tied to any outcome. It is found in the valiance of the attempt.” 2
At my next stretch therapy session on 23 May, it took a little longer than I expected, but my chiropractor finally asked, “Have you signed up for any races yet?”
“Yes,” I said with equal parts excitement and nervousness. “I’m running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October.”
That was the moment I knew I’d thrown off the blanket of defeat. I wasn’t finished. The lion was back. I was back in my discomfort zone, primed and pumped to do the necessary work to become again who I knew I could be: a relentless, committed, actualizer of dreams.
- Grover, T. (2013). Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, New York, Scribner, p. 227.
- Goggins, D. (2022). Never Finished: Unshackle Your Mind and Win the War Within, LionCrest Publishing, p. 303.