The Growth Mindset

— Lessons from the Sahara

Two years ago I attempted to run a 156-mile ultra marathon across the Sahara Desert with my friend, Simon. This race, called the Marathon des Sables, is widely acknowledged to be one of the toughest foot races on earth and is the only race in the world that includes a repatriation fee in the event of death.

I had only been a runner for five years, but in that time had accumulated more races and medals than I could count. So what started it? The fact is that my very first run changed my life. As I ran, I was shocked by the disconnect between my body and my mind. It seemed as though there was a continual fight as my internal dialogue told me;

“This is painful. I can’t breathe, I should have worn another layer. Ah, cute dog. I wonder what I’ll have for dinner. It’s so cold. I think I’ll have pasta. I think I’m slowly dying…”

Driven by curiosity and a desire to align both body and mind, I started running in a small, incremental way. At first, I ran from my front door to the first lamppost on my street. The next day, I ran to the next lamppost, until eventually, I was running for a full 30 minutes without needing to stop. I couldn’t believe it! The sense of achievement was immense.

Eventually someone at work suggested that I needed a goal and that I should sign up for a Cancer Research 5k race. Following this, I went on to run a 10k race. Over time, other runners would say, “If you can run 10k, you can run a half marathon”. I signed up for the Cardiff half marathon. Slowly, I realised that there was a direct correlation between my pushing personal boundaries and an increasing sense of well-being and improved self-esteem.

Having completed the Cardiff half marathon, a friend told me, “If you can do a half-marathon, you can run a marathon”. I went on to run the New York Marathon. I experienced a tremendous sense of achievement, but also, perhaps strangely, a sense of loss. What would I do now? Race day, the culmination of many months of training was over. What would I dedicate my life to, now? There was only one thing for it. I signed up for many more marathons subsequently, until I found myself in the realm of ultra-marathons. I had heard of the Marathon des Sables and it captured my imagination like no other race. I wanted to be someone who could succeed at the seemingly impossible. I wanted to run the “toughest foot race on earth”.

Our first day of the Marathon des Sables in 2014 was horrific. It was characterised by miles and miles of sand dunes higher than the eye could see. My friend Simon and I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the runners.

What made it much worse was that we couldn’t see route markings once we entered the sand dunes. These factors contributed to us getting separated from the rest of the runners and it was then that we realised that neither of us knew how to use a compass. Instead, we agreed to follow two Japanese men just ahead of us, reasoning that Japanese tourists generally know what they are doing, so why wouldn’t Japanese runners? One man was wearing a bright red afro-style wig, whilst the other thought it would be a wise decision to run across the Sahara in a woolly cow costume, despite the 56°C temperature.

At 20 miles into the run, I realised that Simon was nowhere in sight and panic set in. Exhausted, afraid and all alone, I shouted his name, but I couldn’t see him. I tried frantically to climb the sand dune above me. Up and up and up. But it was no good. The soft sand and the weight of my rucksack pulled me down. I pushed my way further and then screamed louder, “Siiiiiiiiiiiiiimonnn!!”. It was so strange to not hear an echo. I screamed again and for as long as I could. I lifted the waist belt of my rucksack and tried to re-distribute the weight higher on my hips, but it was no good. At 5”1, I was too small and the rucksack was too big and too heavy for my frame. It was day one of the race, which meant that I was carrying the maximum load of a whole seven days’ worth of food. “Simooooooooooooooooooooon!” My throat was parched. Ordinarily, I would have cursed him, but I was terrified. I knew he had less water than I did. He could be lost. I tried to set off my distress flare, but it didn’t work.

Ultimately, Simon and I we were pulled from the race for not meeting the time limit specified for a check-point on day 3. Of course we were devastated because all that training had gone to waste. However, deep down, I was relieved that my friend was ok.

The details of what happened on that day are contained in my book, Big Steps, Long Strides. In summary though, during the course of that race, I lost eight toenails and felt totally and utterly overwhelmed, not only by the distance involved, but the colossal weight on my back. At just under eight stones, I was carrying the same in some cases as runners much bigger and stronger than me. I simply was not strong or fast enough to meet the deadlines specified for a check point on day 3 of the race. Simon and I had committed a series of catastrophic errors, which meant that ultimately, we failed to complete.

Why then, did I feel compelled to try again the following year? To my mind, the MdS was more than a race; it was proof to myself of my own personal strength and a reference point for me that I had achieved something remarkable. If the demons of low self-esteem and confidence ever came knocking at my door, I could point them in the direction of the one thing that I had done that was truly remarkable. I reframed my failure as “still having run 75 miles”.

In those last remaining days before coming back to the UK, I spoke to all of the runners that had successfully completed the race. I made a list of everything that I would need to do differently, should I decide to run the race again.

To my mind, failure was, and continues to be, a temporary set back. I resolutely believe that anyone can be good at anything, and that our abilities are entirely due to our individual actions. I later learned that this attitude is typical of what is known of a growth mindset, a mindset that thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of lack of intelligence or capability, but as a springboard for growth and for stretching our existing capabilities.

Upon my return to life back in the UK, I found that while the vast majority of my friends and colleagues supported me, some told me that I should just accept my fate and that I had perhaps reached the very top of my capabilities. But I didn’t believe that at all. In fact, not only did I not believe that I had reached the upper limits of my ability, I simply would not allow myself to even entertain the idea. Is this stubbornness? I don’t know, but what I do know is that my mindset kept my self-esteem afloat. I later learned that people with a fixed mindset believe that you are either gifted at something or not and that this is pre-defined as part of one’s character. A fixed mindset assumes that our intelligence, capabilities and circumstances are static and cannot change in any meaningful way.

As I returned to the UK, I remembered the words of Einstein, who said that “Madness is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result”. I did a complete overhaul of not only my training for the race, but a total re-analysis of kit, nutrition, items to carry and wear and, of course, training strategy — both mental and physical. I would try again, but this time, I would also write a book to explain exactly what others would need to do if they chose to run this race.

Training was long and arduous, more so because this was a second attempt for me. I spent a lot of time running and hiking over unforgiving terrain in remote parts of the UK. At the peak of my training, I ran 100 miles in one week, carrying 10kg on my back. I employed all sorts of creative techniques, including NLP to manage my fears and overcome the occasional inertia. I even resorted to bribing a London transport official with cookies for permission to sprint up and down the steps of a tube station on a regular basis.

So here I am, one year on, having completed the Marathon des Sables and achieved the very thing others told me I should give up on. As I write this article, I occasionally pause and look at a copy of my book, which tells people how to successfully run this race. On the wall hangs my framed Marathon des Sables medal. Of course, I’m proud of both achievements. However, I am most proud of my growth mindset, because this is what helped me to reframe adversity and find the courage to try something different.