At about 7:00 AM in negative 3 degree-Celsius weather with no proper training, I was standing a few meters away from the start line at the Fujisan Marathon in Japan in November 2018, also known as the Mt. Fuji International Marathon, physically freezing while attempting to channel a level of excitement I hadn’t felt before.
This was going to be my third ever full marathon and possibly the most mesmerizing experience to date, and the conditions could not be more perfect for it: despite my shivering legs and the unfit pair of shoes I had decided to run with, the early morning fog had dispersed to welcome a clear blue sky. Other fellow runners seemed to be fully “in their zone” mentally and physically; I couldn’t help but try to visualize what the view would be like after the first-kilometre checkpoint.
That checkpoint had been rumored as one of the greatest sights of the marathon; a turn that leads to unobstructed views of Mt. Fuji which I had only glanced at once a day before the race when my friends and I got off the bus to check in our hotel. “Are you gonna try to beat your PB (personal best)?” a friend asked me a few weeks prior, to which I answered with slight confidence, “Probably not.”
Knowing how little I had trained and how gorgeous the route would be, I figured that taking it slow and capturing a bountiful of photos would be the right game plan to follow.
Or so I thought.
The buzzer went off at 7:00 AM sharp, indicating it was finally time for all 12,000 registered runners to put one foot in front of the other and start racing. Having prepared my Mt. Fuji Marathon playlist on Spotify a few days prior, I tapped on the first song I knew would pump me up and began running. I hadn’t locked more than 12 kilometres in one go with the pair of Adidas I chose to run with that morning, nor had I eaten as properly as one should before going on a 42-kilometre contest. And yet, despite all the things I knew I hadn’t done properly, the adrenaline rush I felt flowing through my veins in those few first hundred meters trumped all negative thoughts. At that moment, everything did feel right.
And after much anticipation, this is the view I was finally granted after the first-kilometre checkpoint 👇
The first half of this marathon was a mashup of so many incredible sights that I couldn’t help but laugh at how magnificent everything had come to be. Freezing temperatures had risen by a few degrees; the sky continued to show its truest and most beautiful color; leaves were displaying a perfect blend of orange, yellow, green and red; and my legs (and shoes) were doing surprisingly okay. I had told myself that I would be taking a lot of memorable photos throughout this race, and over the first 20-something kilometers, that’s exactly what I did.
I was feeling at the top of my game. That thing I had told my friend a few weeks before about not wanting to compete and taking it slow? Flushed it down the toilets in a heartbeat. Barely a couple of kilometers into the race, I was already using every runner within a dozen-or-so-meter perimeter as motivation to push through and run faster. Given the pace I was holding by that point, I was well on my way to beat my previous record.
Until kilometre 22 happened.
Seeing one of the professional photographers hiding behind a tree to capture runners midway through the race, I felt excited and prepared myself to jump as high as I could with all the stamina I had in me for what could potentially be my best Mt. Fuji marathon photo. I made a few weird movements with my hands to warn him of my upcoming performance, bent both knees and launched myself in the fresh clean air.
Although it seemed like a good idea a few seconds before, landing from that jump triggered some painful cramps. Not one, not two, but three cramps — one on each calf, and one in my right thigh.
A sharp pain I probably could have foreseen had I put my brains to work and realized that jumping in the air half-way through a marathon was not going to turn out the way I imaged it would. The only thing I could do at that moment was to walk it off while letting some of the runners I had distanced myself from a few kilometers before run past me. That, coupled with the physical pain I was just starting to manage, left a very bitter taste in my Pocari Sweat-hydrated mouth.
All I thought about over the following 5 kilometers wasn’t whether I would cramp up again or not, but when the next one would come. For the first time since my previous trail marathon six months prior (for which I was slightly more prepared), I struggled, feeling complete hatred towards the thought of having to walk while everyone else around me was running.
What I had initially imagined would be a lovely stroll around Mt. Fuji and nearby lakes became a mental challenge I had not anticipated nor prepared myself for. By kilometer 27, I had gone from enjoying the music I was listening to and the mind-blowing views of the mountain to being physically and mentally exhausted. Cramps dominated my every thought as the one and only focus. Whenever I was able to get my muscles back, every step was followed by a terrifying question:
“Is the next one going to have me cramp up again?”
I felt inexplicably scared. But what for? After all, my joints were still okay. My ankles weren’t broken. Music I loved was still playing and despite the few collective seconds I spent walking, I was still on pace to finish with a decent record.
Kilometer 30 was the tipping point.
The moment I found the grind I needed to make it through the next 12 kilometres.
By that point, my goal wasn’t just about beating my personal best. With 12 kilometers left and flat surface all the way to the end, I suddenly decided to take full ownership over what I could and couldn’t feel. I decided to be in control. Instead of fearing the three cramps I had been struggling with for a long stretch, I embraced them. I welcomed them. I wanted them to come back. In pure masochistic fashion, I genuinely enjoyed them.
All I aspired to accomplish was to make my family and friends proud with another medal to add to the pile. Crossing the finish line had become one of the greatest rewards I ever set my eyes on.
As NBA legend Kobe Bryant once said:
“Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is all an opportunity for me to rise.”
Just as positive self-talk can impact your outcome, so can a negative mindset. If you think you’re going to fail, chances are you will fail. We all have self-doubt and insecurity; moments of pain that make you think twice about your ability to pull through it. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s dreading. It’s exhausting. Challenging. But the satisfaction we feel once we’re past the finish line or when you make that buzzer-beating shot makes you forget about everything else that came before it.
You’re a champion.
Draymond Green, the starting power forward for the Golden State Warriors, recently spoke out about his claim to be the “best defensive player ever” and dropped some unexpectedly-motivating truth on NBA media:
“If you don’t have the mindset that you’re the best ever, you’ve failed already. My mindset is that I am the best at what I do, and that will be my mindset for as long as I can remember anything. But before you can reach anything, you have to believe it. You don’t just mistakenly become great.”
Every kilometre felt like three. Every cramp took more energy out of me. I was dehydrated and would not come across another water station until the end which felt harder and harder to reach. But every step I took throughout the end of this race solidified my mindset and showed me my true potential; my ability to fight through tough challenges and overcome fears I knew I was in control of.
The last two kilometres had us loop back into the village I had left not long ago with Japanese supporters shouting encouraging words I couldn’t understand to help us finish that last stretch. My shoes were close to being completely ruined, leading a misstep with only 1.5 km left to cause a mildly sprained ankle. Cramps were acting up again. The sun was giving me its all. But my mind could not be swayed.
I was not going to stop.
After finally crossing the finish line and finding a place to rest, I checked the text message that was sent to me from the organizing committee to announce my time.
I had beaten my personal record by two-and-a-half minutes.
Ready? Get set… Suffer.
Only when facing the darkest of times will you meet your true self and unlock your greatest potential. Embrace adversity. Take full control of what you have the ability to control, and transform your struggles into unstoppable strength.
Said Ryan Holiday:
“The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth.”