The Ultra Confidence Switch

I’ve just completed a long think piece, relaying ultra runner extraordinaire Kat Ganly’s interview with me for the first Confidence Centred Coaching members’ journal.  Kat generously shared with me her experience of making a significant switch in her confidence through the course of some outstanding and very long ultras.  These culminated in a top ten place in the 143 mile Grand Union Canal, completing the epic five day Dragon’s Back and a storming run at the legendary 153 mile Athens to Sparta Spartathlon – with marathon, 50 mile, 100 mile PBs and podium places along the way.

As you’d expect from an ultra runner, the stories are long and lessons so rich that I ended up needing to split it into two parts – knowing my own and readers’ stamina cannot match Kat’s!  The two parts will feature in the first two editions of our new quarterly journal for members of Confidence Centred Coaching.  This blog post is to give a short taster and share just a few of the insights from Kat’s remarkable journey.

Of the various themes and lessons one interesting aspect for me revolved around place:

  • of feeling out of place amongst so-called ‘proper’ runners and athletes and so looking for a place (that seem to be at least a hundred miles long) in which she felt no pressure to perform according to others’ standards
  • along the way finding a freedom and excitement in the present moment (once certain demons had been banished)
  • and being in a place of pain and somehow having the resilience to continue to the end.

The ‘Proper’ Athletes’ Place

It’s noticeable how often I hear a would-be newcomer to triathlon or any one of its component sports say that they don't think they would fit in, even to the most friendly and welcoming of Clubs (one of which Brighton Tri Club prides itself to be).  It’s as if they feel there is a space occupied by ‘proper’ or ‘real’ sports people, which they are on the edge of and don’t deserve to enter, let alone make their own.  In Kat’s case, part of her motivation for going long and longer was the attraction of finding a place free of any feeling of being intimidated alongside 'real' runners and athletes, as if she wasn't worthy of being considered one herself.  As is suggested in the long write up, of course such feelings are likely to come from our own inner vulnerability rather than from those around us – so we’re likely to take them into new environments.  But at least initially, there was a freedom that I know I also experience in going into events where there are no pre-set expectations or comparisons to others’ or one’s own past performances. 

How important then as coaches to be conscious of the environment – the place – we create for the uncertain newcomer.  And how liberating it can be for those we coach when they find a space to run, swim, whatever… freely with an excitement about where it will take them.

Fluency and Freedom

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Which brings us to the next reflection from Kat’s runs and in particular the switch she made in her confidence.  Over the course of several key events Kat found herself, first, able to dispel a big fear of failing, previously thinking of a DNF as the worst thing that could possibly happen.  And with that, the next big revelation came from realising she could run in a less inhibited way and didn’t need to hold back for fear of over reaching herself.  Able to be much more focused in the moment, rather than impending failure, she fed off the excitement of running strong and where it took her – and with that the PBs for the marathon, 50 miles and 100 miles came tumbling along the way.

This is a key idea in Confidence Centred Coaching: encouraging those we coach to redefine what success (and failure) might be and thereby reshaping it away from an ‘all or nothing’, cliff edge that leaves us “hoping for the best and waiting for the worse”, as I sometimes phrase it.  From there in one sense we can shift the finish line (with its harsh gauge of times and positions) to the start line and focus on how it all comes together in the space between.  This is the space where (as Sports Psychologist Michael Gervais calls it) our "living masterpiece" can unfold.  And my experience has been that letting the times and places take care of themselves more often than not leads to extraordinary performances as we surprise ourselves with what we can do.

Place of Pain

Here’s where it gets scary – if the mere mention of the distances of Kat’s events hasn’t already done that for you.  In the interview Kat talked openly about her experience of pain in some of the biggest events, after running for close to 24 hours and still a long way to go or over several relentless days (as in the Dragon’s Back).  In each case there is a note of not really knowing how she made it to the finish.  “Then everything went wrong” and a massively understated “things started to hurt” being two of the memorable phrases.  Some of the gory details are in the long piece.


Worth noting here, Kat was very clear that you don’t “get through” such pain, as if it were something that can be by-passed or cleverly dismissed while you somehow just get on with it.  “If you want to finish you have to accept it.”  I think there are some strategies that can help in such moments – and the interview also captured much about the effect of supporters – but these start with an acknowledgement rather than a denial of pain.  And at its heart also lies a mystery of resilience, bringing together extraordinary will power (or stubbornness as Kat called it) and vulnerability.


I’m very grateful to Kat for sharing her long journey so openly.  The full write up forms part of the first two editions of our forthcoming Journal for members of Confidence Centred Coaching.  So if you haven't already, sign up and read on… and on.