One of the things I notice most with first-time marathon runners is doubt. Doubt they can survive the training, doubt they can make the distance on the day of the marathon, doubt they can push through the wall, or survive a setback, or tackle the hills.
I felt all these things myself in my first marathon, and, in fact, it was only after I crossed the line that I finally accepted I could complete a marathon. These days, a marathon holds no fear for me, only excitement – after completing so many of them, several while injured or sick, I now know that, barring disaster, I will finish.
The power of belief really struck home recently through my son, Adam. Adam is a soccer fanatic. He loves the game, playing it, watching it, studying it. Like many soccer fans, he idolises Lionel Messi. The Barcelona and Argentina genius seems more like a magician than an athlete, as he dances through defences to score so many wonderful goals. Like Messi, Adam plays as a striker, and he has a similar physique to his hero too.
Adam had been going through a bit of a goal drought early this season, and, like most strikers, his belief in himself began to flag a little as more games went by without a goal.
For his 12th birthday, he told me he wanted a pair of Adidas Messi15 boots like the great man himself wears. He duly got his boots, and went off happily to his first game the following weekend wearing them, an important cup game with his club. He had an amazing game, and he scored. The next weekend, he had a game for his county, Kerry, against Tipperary. He was in his second season with Kerry, and hadn’t scored for them yet. This time he did.
I noticed that his confidence seemed really high. In the club game, he had made some audacious shots on goal before he scored, shots he wouldn’t normally have tried. When I spoke to him about it, he agreed that he felt very confident, but wasn’t sure why. Except, maybe, just maybe, the boots. Messi’s boots. He knew the boots couldn’t be making a difference. But still. Maybe, just maybe, the boots helped, just a little.
Adam isn’t superstitious, and is remarkably level-headed for such a young kid. But I can see that light in his eyes when he watches Messi play, and I can see that the new-found confidence comes from a place beyond the normal, everyday, training he does.
Adam believes that the boots Messi wears help him, so the boots Messi wears help him.
Confidence, positive thinking, and belief in oneself are ethereal and unfathomable. It can come and go on a whim, and even a tiny thing can make a difference. I have noticed on races, especially ultras, that the effort required to keep going has a very strong correlation to how confident I am feeling at that moment. The pain involved in ultras always seems worse when the spirit is low, while it all seems like fun and games when confidence is high.
The key for me in long races has always been to visualise myself finishing, how it will feel, and how I will celebrate with my family. At times when I have wanted to give up or drop out, I have thought about the impression that will give my children – what kind of role model do I want to give them? Do I want them to think that if the going gets tough, quitting is an option? Or do I want them to see that anything is possible, that courage and determination will see you through any challenge?
In ultras, my kids are my Messi boots. They are the magic that makes me confident, makes me indestructible, makes me know, toeing the line, that I will finish.
Find your Messi boots, your piece of magic, your talisman, and it will get you through to the end.
And even if you don’t believe in magic, you can believe in Messi – that guy really is a magician.