Marathon training coach reveals how to overcome imposter syndrome

Marathon training isn’t an easy process. Physical training is one battlefield, but mental training is another thing entirely. Lawyer-turned-running-coach Jen Brown reveals how you can tackle imposter syndrome head-on.

Everest. Base Camp. Marathon. Each of those things by itself is intimidating, but when you’re training for all of them at once? A few things spring to mind straight away (you know, terror, pain, extreme cold, can-I-get-a-hell-no, that kind of thing), but when Jen Brown says it, she smiles.

We meet for coffee at Glenbrook, in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, on a humid spring day. Jen’s fully committed to the marathon training process – in fact, she’s already been on a 13km run through the nearby bush and her cheeks have a rosy, healthy glow. Me? I dragged myself out of bed (late), threw on some clothes (hurriedly) and drove up to meet her (on time, thankfully) before taking myself on an easy four-hour hike nearby.

Clearly, we’re on completely different playing fields.

But after a few minutes with Jen, a former commercial lawyer who now runs her own business as a triathlon and running coach, the world’s highest marathon almost sounds possible. 


Training for the world’s highest marathon

The race, which has been held every May for the past 18 years, celebrates the first ascent by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. The route criss-crosses the trails of Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, starting at Everest Base Camp (5380m) and finishing at the market town of Namche Bazaar (3440m). The altitude is extreme; so too is the weather. Marathon training is never an easy feat, but preparation for this one is particularly difficult.

“Nepal is an amazing country. It stays with you,” says Jen, who plans to tackle the race in 2021. “It’s hard to train – normally, you would tape your training two weeks our, but I’ll still have to walk into Base Camp. Once the race finishes, you have to walk back down. Actually, I’m most concerned about how I’m going to get down that hill the day after the marathon.”

Source: Jen Brown.

She has an impressive trekking resume, which includes two previous trips to Nepal. She’s climbed Mera Peak (6476m) and Imja Tse (also known as Island Peak – 6189m), hiked the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (5895m) and Mount Meru (4566m) in Tanzania, and made an attempt on Aconcagua (6962m) in Argentina. 

Her passion for trail running started about 15 years ago when she was looking for a way to regain some fitness while working long hours at her old desk job. She started running regular circuits around her neighbourhood on Sydney’s lower north shore until one day, when she noticed a little dirt track that disappeared into the bush off to the side.

“I remember thinking, I wonder where that goes? It was a goat track. One day I decided to find out and literally within five or ten not even minutes – metres – I remember feeling joy,” she says.

“If I think about that moment, I just feel joy. It was just fun, it was hard, but there was something very joyful and fun about it. It took me back to being a kid, not really worrying about running through puddles. It was just fun and joy and I thought I need to do more of this. I was hooked, absolutely. Just like that. I would have been on that trail no more than two minutes and I thought that was it. It was very much a lightbulb kind of thing.

“I think what it is, is that trail running, being on the trails, is almost a form of mindfulness – especially if you’re running. You have to be present; you have to be thinking about your line and the footwork. You have to think about what you’re doing, and anytime you stop thinking about that and start thinking about work or dinner or whatever, you stumble. You trip, you kick your toe, whatever.  Occasionally you’ll end up on your face, or your butt. I’ve done all of those!”

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Dealing with imposter syndrome in training

Marathon training followed soon after. She started her coaching business, Sparta Chicks, in 2012, and a few years later, she launched a podcast of the same name that now has 131 episodes and more than 200,000 downloads. Each episode includes an interview with a successful female athlete or adventurer talking about things like success, failure, performing under pressure and imposter syndrome. 

The idea first popped into her head while she was coaching a female client for a triathlon, and noticed the different kinds of conversations she was having with her male and female clients.

“My male clients, very often, would ask me questions about training sessions and equipment and gear and equipment. The women were saying, what will people think, what if I fail, what will people say when they see me in my lycra, all that mindset/self-doubt stuff,” she says.

“I launched Sparta Chicks as a way to talk about that. At the time and even today it’s not being talked about particularly openly and in a practical and useful way. That fear/self-doubt stuff can be wishy-washy, I’m a very practical and solutions-based person. I wanted to find out how we could learn to manage it so we can still go and do the things we want to do.”

Source: Jen Brown.

The conversations are – at times – brutally honest. Many of the women featured have been extremely vulnerable about the fears and self-doubts that challenged them at different points in their journeys. Imposter syndrome, which includes feeling like a fraud, feeling like you don’t belong and being too scared to even start chasing your goals, is a surprisingly common theme.

“When someone has those conversations, you start to realise you’re not the only one, that lifts the shame,” Jen says. She explains that her favourite episode so far was an interview with Olympic gold medallist Natalie Cook, who won the women’s beach volleyball event at the 2000 summer games in Sydney with teammate Kerri Pottharst.

“It’s my all-time favourite. She called me out on my shit. She was so present in the conversation, sometimes – and you would know this – people have rehearsed answers or they’ve been asked the same question 100 times. She was so present, so passionate, so enthusiastic.”

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Sometimes, the marathon is in your mindset

It’s actually how we got onto the topic of the Everest Marathon. In that episode, Jen told Natalie that she was training for a big goal, but she wasn’t ready to share exactly what it was. Natalie asked why not and Jen admitted she was keeping it quiet over a fear of publicly failing. 

Imposter syndrome is a real and present challenge, even for accomplished athletes like Jen.

Training for this race has been a long process. Truthfully, she says, she’d hoped to have completed it by now, but injuries and a subsequent surgery have slowed her down. The good thing about publicly announcing a goal like this is that she’s motivated to get back into it.

“Running is hard, anyone who is starting out or has started out knows it sucks. It’s really, really hard. I’m only started to get back into it after the surgery, and it’s a really great reminder that it is just sucky and hard,” she says with a laugh.

“But you do get to a point where if you stick with it long enough there will be one day when it all comes together and you’ll think to yourself I get it now. This is why people run. I remember thinking to myself it was just a short-term thing, but now I can’t imagine a life where I’m not running. I might take a break here or there but it will always be something that stays with me.”

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? How did you overcome it?

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