Last weekend I took part in the world’s biggest half marathon for the third time.
I’m not saying that to brag – this run is something of a rite of passage for people where I’m from, and none of my times have been anything to write home about – but because for me, every time I’ve crossed the finish line has been a huge deal.
Every finish line moment, and in fact physical challenge I’ve completed as an adult has been a huge step to shaking off one particular label that I’ve carried with me for over 20 years and that has shaped the way I’ve seen myself for a huge part of my life.
Let me take you back to the time an 11 year old me took home her mid-year school report. I was pretty damned good at school and worked hard, so my parents and I were all pretty pleased with the majority of it…. Until we reached the PE page. On that page my teacher had graded me with an E.
Not only was I upset – I’d never seen an E on my school reports and as someone who prided herself on being good at school this was a bloody big let down, but my dad was furious. At the subsequent parents’ evening he asked my teacher (Mr Knowles, who was actually a lovely man) how he could justify an E.
In my dad’s words “I’m pretty sure as long as you turn up to class and manage to move around while you’re there you deserve more than an E in year six PE.” The teacher’s excuse was that I just couldn’t do it; although looking at me he thought I should be good at PE, actually I just wasn’t – I wasn’t fast, strong or coordinated and just wasn’t good enough.
Here are some other things you should know about eleven year old me: I worked damned hard at school at a time so was nowhere near one of the cool kids, I hadn’t yet lost my puppy fat, I was already wearing a C cup bra and had boobs but hadn’t yet discovered the benefits of a sports bra, and I had just started my periods – meaning that for one week of every month I was even more self conscious than usual.
While I’m not making excuses, none of these things are particularly conducive to doing any form of sport or exercise in a room of 30 people that you then need to spend the rest of your week with. And so I didn’t really try – I didn’t do anything that made my boobs jiggle, that might make me look silly in front of the class, and did my best to hide when I was getting changed before and after the session.
Following on from that report did my performance and PE get better? Of course it bloody didn’t. If anything it got worse. The teacher in charge of physical activity had told me that I wasn’t good at it. He was the expert so who was I to argue?! I even stopped wanting to swim – something I’d always loved and been brilliant at.
I wonder if teachers - or for that matter anyone who comes in contact with young people - realise how much impact their words and assessments can have on us as adults? Because undoubtedly you’ll have at least one memory to report back on too – the English teacher who said you couldn’t write, the first school tutor who told you you weren’t academic, or the Home Ec supervisor who shook their head at your burned cake. We carry so many of those words with us as labels not just in that moment but into the future right up until we deal with them fully.
For me, that experience marked the beginning of over 20 years of feeling completely incapable when it came to any sort of exercise, from dancing when I was cast in the school production of Grease – the video is awful because I barely even tried – to taking part in any form of organised sports; and with it years of hating the physical body that wasn’t able to do those things.
Isn’t it crazy how much one simple experience, and one person’s views can affect you, your outlook and your life?
At 24 I went backpacking around the world, and as part of that decided to trek the Inka Trail in Peru. It was physically exhausting, and if I’m honest I spent about six weeks beforehand paranoid that I wouldn’t be able to do it.
I won’t lie, I seriously struggled at times. But that was likely more down to the fact I’d done next to no training and had existed on a diet of alcohol and stodge for the six weeks beforehand than the fault of my body! But despite the struggle, and despite being one of the last ones in my group to get there, I made it.
I came home determined to see what else I could do, and to test my body again, so I signed up for my first half marathon, the Great North Run. Again I wasn’t fast, not by any stretch, but I did it. The following year myself and a friend did a marathon walk – 26.2 miles and we did it. Five years later I once again did the run again, and despite having no time to train for that one, finished it again.
In the time since then I’ve started to realise how much I do love exercise. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of work to do on my own rewiring to make it my top priority and go to when I’m feeling stressed, but there are few things more likely to settle my mind that powering through a swimming pool, and a stint on the cross trainer never fails to leave me buzzed and positive.
Given my newfound love of exercise I’d intended to run this year’s Great North Run and get a time I was proud of… but the Universe had other plans. Four years ago my dad was diagnosed with cancer in his hip and spine and, to cut a long story short, can’t now walk very far. Taking part in the run had always been a dream and so, in a moment of determination, myself and my brother volunteered to push him.
With a week to go, nowhere near enough training runs under our belts and the increasing realisation that my dad weighs a lot more than I do and that the weakest, pre-injured parts of my body are also the ones most needed for long-distance wheelchair pushing, all of those old fears and year six panics came back to haunt me… what the hell was I doing. Who on Earth was I to think that I was not only fit enough to do 13.1 miles but also strong enough to push someone else there?
Guess what? We did it. My brother did a lot of the uphill pushing, but certainly not all of it. And although it took us over four hours, we reckoned that by the time we’d added in stopping to collect money in our fundraising bucket (we were fundraising for Marie Curie – if you’d like to donate, or just to read more about our family’s story you can click here.), making the odd toilet stop or making a much needed painkiller break for the man in the moment, it would’ve been more like 3:45, faster than some people run solo.
What has that experience – and in fact all of these experiences – taught me? It’s that my body can do anything it damn well wants to. My body is strong, my body is capable, and while it may not be the fastest that’s more because I haven’t conditioned it to be that way rather than a fault in its makeup.
And most of all, these experiences have taught me that Mr Knowles did not know everything. In fact on this occasion he was wrong and almost out of order in his response to my dad’s question.
What are the labels you carry with you from your past? The things you were told in the moment that have shaped the way you see themselves forever? Whatever they are maybe it’s time to let go of them once and for all and step into your power as the fullest version of yourself.
The most simple way to do that is to literally get rid of those labels – write them down on a piece of paper and then burn them, bury them, rip them up and throw them into the sea; whatever it takes to make you feel you’ve gotten rid of them entirely. And once you’ve done that start challenging those things: to fight through the fear and go out there to show the world just what you can do regardless of what someone may have once said about you.
Of course I know it’s not that easy – the labels of the past can stick deep and sometimes it’s tough to get rid of them. If that’s something you’re struggling with then get in touch – it’s definitely something I can help with.