Jim Willett’s story of distance and perseverance

Jim Willett will be running his first-ever marathon on May 8 in Fredericton, NB.

Three weeks later, he’ll be running his second at the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon on May 29.

And in between, he’ll be running all the way from the east coast to the national capital—about 1100 kilometres in total.

But Willett is familiar with distance; he’s an ultra-runner who has completed extreme multi-day, 250 km races like the Atacama Crossing in Chile and and the Kalahari Extreme Marathon in South Africa.

In 2014, Willett set a new record for the fastest time running the Bruce Trail, covering the almost 900 km distance between Niagara Falls and Tobermory in 10 days, 13 hours and 57 minutes.

While the physical endurance these runs require are significant, Willett said the mental endurance required is much greater.

“In my opinion, it becomes almost all mental,” said Willett, who is also an MEC Running Ambassador. “You can will your body to go a lot further than you think it can.”

His journey to ultrarunning began in late 2009 when he completed his first half-marathon. But only weeks after that race, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

“Up until that point, the only health problems I’d had were typical sports injuries,” he said. “So to get that news in my mid-thirties was crushing.”

After several surgeries in early 2010 and 6 months of chemotherapy treatment, he was in recovery and reflecting on what he wanted out of life.

“What the cancer did was create a sense of urgency,” he said. “I liked the idea of adventure and it was always something I thought I could do later on.”

“It woke me up to the the fact that I should do it now because who knows what later on will hold.”

After recovering, Willett wanted to aim high for his second race: the Gobi March.

The 250 km race through the Gobi desert in western China takes place over 7 days and has runners tackling oppressive temperatures and a variety of difficult terrain.

Willett completed the race in June 2011.

“The cancer was life-changing, but the Gobi race was really defining,” he said. “Once I did that, it completely changed things for me in terms of what I thought I was capable of doing and what I wanted to see in the world,” he said.

As he went out and started to compete in ultra-marathons and see the world, Willett started a blog about his experiences, which at the time was mainly for his friends and family.

But soon his posts spread, and he started getting emails of from all over the world, many of them thanking him for inspiring them to stay positive and keep going.

He also started a Facebook page called the Optimism Revolution, where he shares motivational thoughts and tips. The message has connected, because the page now has almost 250,000 fans.

Whether the challenge is a 250km ultra-run or just the day-to-day challenges life presents us, Willett said he believes the path of perseverance starts with how we talk to ourselves.

“I really believe the thoughts we tell ourselves are self-fulfilling,” he said. “If you tell yourself something is too difficult or too hard, eventually that becomes your reality.”

That’s the reason Willett is making the 1100km run from Fredericton to Ottawa, bookended by two marathons.

As he’s tackling that challenge and making his way along the Saint Lawrence River, Willett’s other goal is to stop and meet people along the way to find out their stories of perseverance.

On his previous runs through forests and deserts, Willett has been running against the clock and didn’t really have the time to stop and talk.

He wants this run to be different.

“As I’ve gone on these adventures and met people, I realize everyone has their story,” he said. “I want to help them share those stories so they can help others on their journeys.”

Willett’s journey starts on May 8th at the Fredericton Marathon. Follow him from the starting line to his finish three weeks later at the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And be sure to say hi when you see him running in Ottawa!