The power of positive thinking

by Team Marchant’s better half, Hazel Marchant

I’ve often suffered from self-doubt and crises of confidence about running.  I took it up just before my 30th birthday when I picked up a friend’s copy of Run Away From Fat and thought: “I could do this”.  Before that I’d pretty much been a couch potato, never sporty as a child and definitely a bookworm rather than an athlete.  After I completed the 4-month plan in the book, I joined a running club and haven’t looked back.

Except I have.  Although I’ve completed numerous half marathons, marathons and ultramarathons, I have still been tied to the image of myself before running.  You’ve still done all of those races, so what’s the problem? You may ask.  Well, on one hand there’s no problem.  My love of instructions and following rules has meant I’ve stuck faithfully to my training plans, committing totally to them.  This should stand me in good stead for finishing strongly and making the most of my efforts during a race.

The long walk home – sauntering to the finish of the Autumn 100 in 2017

However, the fact I don’t see myself as a “real runner” means it’s all too easy to take an extended walk break in a race, to have an hour faffing about in a checkpoint, to give up on the idea of running or racing the whole way.  After all, everyone will be impressed that someone like me could even cover the distance, even if I stroll in for the last 20 miles, won’t they? – I’m not actually an athlete so nobody’s even expecting me to push myself all the way to the finish.

I’ve been working with my coach Kim Cavill for over a year now and can feel that my strength and fitness has come on in leaps and bounds.  I know I’m physically strong and although I might not be a race winner anytime soon, I’m capable of a lot more than I ever was.  However, my mental attitude has been holding me back from seeing how well I can actually do – without pushing myself, I’ll never know.

With all that in mind, I was excited when I heard that my friend Caroline Dennison had qualified as a hypnotherapist and set up her business New Venture Hypnotherapy.  By a process of therapeutic techniques involving deep relaxation and positive reinforcement,  Caroline helps people to overcome problems like stress, anxiety, phobias, stopping smoking, but also helping with confidence and goals.  I went to see Caroline to chat about whether she could work with me to change the way I think.

I knew Caroline was a scientist by training so I had no worries about entering a spooky unknown realm of hypnotism.  If she had bought into it I was confident it was a real thing and not some woo weirdness.  I’d also seen the benefits one of my university housemates had received when another of our friends, studying psychology, had done some work to hypnotise her to help her feel calmer about exams.  So I was eager to find out more and receptive to the benefits it could bring.

Feeling great at the finish of the HM55 in 2016 – I hoped Caroline would help me regain that feeling

My first meeting with Caroline started with an informal chat and a fair bit of catching up as we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but we soon got down to business.  We talked about what I wanted to get out of the session.  Ultimately I wanted to change my mindset from one where I’d give in and start walking when the going got tough, to one where I believed in myself and would be able to focus and keep pushing.  Caroline asked me lots of questions and we talked in some detail about how I felt and what I wanted to achieve.  We ended the session with a taster of what the deep relaxation would feel like, with Caroline counting me down from 10 to 1 with calming and relaxing words, so I’d know what to expect.

A week later we met again.  In the meantime Caroline had taken our conversation and written a script, from which she would read during the session.  She counted me back into deep relaxation and began to talk.  It’s worth pointing out that during hypnosis you remain fully conscious and in control.  As Caroline described it to me, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis and there is no power that can make you go into the deeply relaxed/hypnotic state if it’s not what you want.  I never felt that I was in a trance or what I would previously have imagined as “hypnotised”.  What I did feel was very relaxed and able to concentrate fully on Caroline’s words.  As she talked, asking me to visualise positive images and providing positive words about my upcoming race, a feeling of euphoria came over me.  For the first time I felt as if I knew I could do it, that I was just as worthy as anyone else to be taking part.

I really tried to focus on Caroline’s words and as the session progressed I took in the positive messages.  Before I knew it Caroline was counting me back out of deep relaxation and we were chatting about how the session had gone.  She’d recorded the session on my smartphone for me to listen to in my own time which was really great.

We met again the following week when the session was based around a slightly different script, addressing some specific challenges I thought I might face in the upcoming race.  One session would have been sufficient I am sure but it was nice to catch up with Caroline a second time as well as having the chance to reinforce the work we had done in our first meeting.

In the week leading up to the race I felt focused and positive, looking forward to race day.  As usual I scoured the internet in my spare time, looking for race reports written by previous runners to give me that last bit of advice that would help me on the day.  Two blogs I found particularly useful were James Campbell’s  – he recommended attacking the many, many, steps on the Hardmoors 60 route with the words “Bring it on!” – and John Kynaston’s – he repeated a positive mantra to keep him going.  Both of these provided inspiration to me on the day.   A couple of nights before the race I listened to the recording Caroline had made, to keep my thoughts on track.

On race day I woke feeling ready for the challenge.  Mark took me to Guisborough for registration at the Sea Cadets hall.  I was a bit overwhelmed by all the commotion and pre-race excitement but a quick chat to Hardmoorian and Durham University psychology researcher Paul Burgum really helped.  I’d agreed to take part in his ultrarunning psychology survey which involved completing a questionnaire about mood at the start and finish of the race, and at a couple of checkpoints during the day.  The pre-race questionnaire made me realise that my feelings were not worry, doubt or anxiety but just normal raceday excitement and I felt ready to start the race on a positive note.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the race but I will say that I have never felt so positive during a race.  Ultra races are by nature very long affairs, and so there are inevitably periods when things aren’t going great.  Even with a great crew like I always have (Mark!), this can sometimes get on top of you and in the past I’ve found it hard to stay positive when, for instance, my knees have started grumbling, the sun has started baking down, or I’ve started feeling sick.  Actually, scratch that – many times in the past I have totally failed to stay positive and in some of those situations I have (at best) ground out the race in a miserable whinge-powered fog or (at worst) quit the race entirely.

Going strong on race day

This time round, all of those things happened, but I found it easy to focus on the positives – that I knew I was strong enough to keep running and that the bad times would pass.  I believed I could do it!  I would definitely put the improvement in mental attitude down to the work I did with Caroline.   The very fact of taking part in the hypnosis sessions set me on a path in the fortnight before my race of looking for positives and thinking in advance of encouraging things I could say to myself to get through.

Obviously the self-belief I gained was only possible because of the months of work I put in with the support of my running coach.  Coaching has made me much more accountable – I don’t skive sessions and I give training my best effort because I know I’ve got to report to my coach!  As she said though, it seems as if hypnosis has provided the final piece in the puzzle.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who needs that extra bit of help.


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