“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.”
My first day as an assistant professor at the University of Washington found me at the Faculty Fellows orientation on the Seattle campus. My social anxiety was through the roof, and I felt intimidated being surrounded by so many colleagues talking about their research and academic backgrounds. Everyone was so clearly confident and excited, and I was holding on by a thread, overwhelmed with the belief that I simply didn’t belong here. The new Seattle faculty exhibited the faintest, but still detectable, snobbery when they learned that I was working at the Tacoma campus.
During an orientation session, one Faculty Fellow provided a name for what I had been feeling ever since I signed the job contract with UWT: “impostor syndrome.” It was a new term to me, but the feeling was all too familiar. It was a relief to hear that I wasn’t alone in experiencing this, as several other new hires let out audible gasps of solidarity when he mentioned his suffering from this condition. Having a word for what I felt was a revelation.
A few days later, during orientation on the Tacoma campus, an Associate Dean came over to introduce himself and mentioned how impressed he was that there were 600 applicants for my position, and that I was the University’s top choice. (I believe the number was closer to 550, but this dean always said 600. Splitting hairs at that point, I guess.) An uncomfortable smile spread on my face; inside, I panicked: I really had fooled all of these people into thinking I know what I’m doing. This dean introduced me to others throughout that first year by mentioning the 600 applicants, and each time it further fueled my doubts. While I was completely confident in my teaching, I wasn’t convinced that I was Research-1 University material. Surely, the faculty and administration would discover this, and I would be out of a job before the first year was up.
To (over)compensate for this, I threw myself into my work, regularly putting in 60-80 hour weeks. If I was going to keep this job, then I needed to excel in teaching, service, and research. I said yes to everything; gave my students and courses all of my self; and submitted too many conference proposals and sent out articles. If I wasn’t smart enough, at least I could work hard and hope that it would get me through. I would work until 9 or 10 pm during the week and work through the weekends. I took time 3 days a week to run, and that was the full extent of my personal life. My home life was unraveling, but I was too consumed to even see that. This was hardly a life at all.
Last June, during a meeting with the School’s Dean to discuss my Interim Review, she took a serious tone and looked me dead in the eye: “You need to hear this. During the faculty discussion of your file, they mentioned that you have serious impostor syndrome. They charged some of your colleagues to work on this with you. One faculty member stood up and said, ‘She is brilliant. Her work is brilliant. It is our responsibility to help her get past this impostor syndrome.’ You need to know that we all see you’re good at what you do.”
Hearing this, my impostor syndrome dialed up to 11.
A week later, the faculty member who had made that remark pulled me aside and told me so. He added, “In my position, I have seen many assistant professors, so I am a good judge. I know a brilliant scholar when I see one. You are one of them.”
Nigel Tufnel, please add a 12 to your dial.
If you traced my academic trajectory back to my undergraduate days, you would find a very different character. The younger version of me was overly confident, even cocky, you might say. Graduate school tempered this a bit, but it wasn’t until I landed the UWT job that impostor syndrome took hold. By the end of my second year, that hold had turned to a strangle. This was not sustainable.
This complex carried over to my running as well, although to a different degree and of a slightly different nature. In my younger days, I competed quite successfully as an equestrian. I went into every event expecting to win. Most times, I did. I was accustomed to being the best, the person everyone else was out to beat. I did not like losing.
Coming to running later in life, I learned to humble myself as a competitor. Other runners I met in local groups or at races were more experienced, faster, or generally more talented than me. This was actually good for me. There were so many incredible runners to admire and learn from. Races became a competition with myself, working toward personal bests instead of trophies. It was liberating.
When I initially heard about the Barkley Fall Classic, I thought about who among my running friends could finish that race. A list of talented runners all came to mind, but I did not make that list. Of course, I did go on to register for, and finish, the BFC. Thanks to the inaccuracy of Ultrasignup’s algorithms, for a time it projected me to be the second female finisher at the BFC. This seemed hilarious to me, seeing my name listed above the 2015 winner’s, Alicia Rich, who is a phenomenal runner.
I understood that the projection was off (it was based on the result of one race that wasn’t too difficult), but somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a flicker of faith in myself slowly formed.
Why not me?
“It all depends on who shows up that day.”
The Race: Carkeek 12 Hour
The race directors over at Endless Trails bill Carkeek as “The Toughest 12 Hour Out There. Period.” I seem to have a proclivity for choosing races described as “toughest.” It was an intriguing challenge, consisting of a 1.93 mile trail loop with 436′ of gain.
I had run for 12 hours twice before (White River and BFC) but never while running short loops. My main concern was the sheer boredom of running in endless circles. After a disastrous run at the Portland Marathon, and my wrecked body still recovering from 6 months of intense training for the BFC, I nearly dropped out of the race altogether. Not wanting to bow out of something I had signed up for, I decided to show up with no expectations other than to meet new people and enjoy spending the day with them. I could always drop to the 6 hour race if it came down to it.
I’m not sure what sparked it, exactly, but at 4:30 am on race day, as I made my way up north to Carkeek Park, I decided to win this race.
It struck me, as this novel thought took shape, that a timed event might be the ideal conditions for me to succeed. I’m firmly middle pack in a traditional race, but if the parameters were altered to favor someone who is persistent, then I might just have a shot. Drawing from two lessons I took with me into the BFC (Frozen Ed’s Relentless Forward Progress/RFP, and Ann Trason’s 2-minute aid limit), it seemed possible to fit in more miles by simply not stopping for the duration of the race.
The ground rules were pretty streamlined here:
- Consume at least 100 calories every half hour.
- RFP (including only slowing down long enough to grab food from the aid station or my car between loops; no stopping).
The race started at 6:00 am, which meant we would run the course in the dark for the first hour or so. The prospect of running an unknown trail in the dark was intimidating. I’d never run a trail in the dark, and it seemed like I was asking for a(nother) broken leg. The plan was to settle into the back of the middle pack on the first loop to learn the course and get a feel for running by headlamp in the forest.
To my great delight, night running was a blast! Because your vision is impaired, you have to just trust that you will lift up your feet high enough and that you will find a good place to land each step. It helped me to realize just how much energy I exert attempting to find the perfect footing on the trail; it taught me to believe in my ability and to channel that energy into more productive outlets, like moving faster. Yassine had recently told me this would be key to me becoming a faster runner. It was a revelation at the time. I had imagined he would schedule more track work and hill repeats; it hadn’t occurred to me that I could get faster just by believing in myself. I clocked the first loop in approximately 20-22 minutes, coming in toward the front of the pack.
An overview of the course: it begins with a flat stretch along the Sound that leads to a monster stair climb that winds endlessly up a steep hill. At the summit, the course dips into the fern-filled forest on a runnable, rolling trail. There are some climbs in there, with nice descents and a few flattish stretches, but overall this section was quite runnable. Of course, this is also what makes the race difficult, because you feel pulled to run when your body wants to power hike. Along the way, you climb two more sets of stairs separated by grated bridges. After a bit more climbing, you descend a hill that has some steps and some of those long wooden erosion boards (making footing tricky) before hitting a straight stretch of semi-paved trail that flanked what appeared to be a water treatment plant (which The Ginger Runner fittingly dubbed “the murder house.”–I was glad to learn that I wasn’t the only runner assigning nicknames to landmarks on the course.) Here, you crossed the road and started up a hill that I thought of as the second part of the course (I had heard a runner say that we were past the halfway point there.) I called this the “Chimney Top” section, because, like its namesake at Frozen Head State Park, just when you thought there was nowhere else to climb, the trail found a way to go up. This section had four major climbs, with several good-sized climbs in between as well as rolling sections and a few descents. Having landmarks was quite beneficial. The white rock meant only two more climbs to go. The small wooden bridge meant I was nearing the final climb. The giant bolder, which I named Chimney Rock, meant that it was all downhill from there. I used these and other landmarks as a way to track my progress and keep my mind busy. The final descent became quite treacherous as the day wore on. From the six hours of rain and repeated foot stomping, it was slick, and there were a few Carkeek casualties (all ankle injuries, which I had to not let terrify me.) At the bottom of the descent, you returned to the aid station and parking lot, where you could grab what you needed, or just keep running on to the next loop. You yelled out your number as you passed, and the volunteers would track your loop on a leader board made of hot pink poster board and sticker stars.
The interesting thing about a loop race is that you’re never exactly sure if the runner you’re passing, or being passed by, is ahead of you or behind you in terms of the rankings. For all you know, the runner passing you might also be 3 loops behind you. This adds a unique challenge, because you’re never certain if you should try to hold off that runner or let them go.
The first loop kept runners pretty packed together, but from there out, I found myself alone more than in company. I zoomed through loops 2 and 3, and by then I could ditch the headlamp. This is also when the rain started, and it didn’t let up for 6 hours. I like running in the rain, though, so I thought of it as an advantage in my favor. It occurred to me that I should change into dry clothes once the rain stopped, but by that point I didn’t want to lose a single second, so I ran in the same soaked clothes for all 12 hours. (This is no feat compared to another runner who completed all 12 hours in a bacon costume.)
At the end of every single lap, one of the race directors, Matt, yelled out “Go Ellen!” while the other race director and the volunteers hollered. This provided an incredible boost. I had showed up alone, not knowing anyone, and this group stepped in and made me feel like I had my own crew and cheerleaders. This certainly played into my successful run. Upon completing loop 6, Matt said, “You’re just knocking out those loops, Ellen! You’re killing it!” I thought perhaps he was just being nice, since I had mentioned that I had never done something like this before, but in the back of my mind, I thought it might also mean that I was doing well compared to other runners. He asked, “Are you having fun?” I was! He replied, “We like to ask earlier rather than later.” In fact, despite my initial fears, I enjoyed every minute of this race and never found it boring at all. There was a zen-like comfort in hitting the same landmarks over and over and over again.
It was around loop 7 or so when a runner ducked out of my way on the final descent and said, “I’ll get out of your way; you’re coming in hot!” I laughed and told him, “I should probably settle down; there’s a long day ahead!” This moment actually played an important role in the race for me. All too often, I get anxious when a runner comes up behind me and worry about being in their way. Trail running etiquette dictates that the runner who wishes to pass must make their intentions clear; it’s not the responsibility of the runner in front to step aside or ask. Despite knowing this, I always say, “Just let me know when you want to pass,” or I’ll just go ahead and step aside. This isn’t something I should even think about; I should just run and leave it to them to say, “On your left.” It’s what I do when I pass others, so why couldn’t I just relax and let them decide when they want to pass? After this encounter, I decided to address this aspect of my running; there would be plenty of time to practice that day. There were several moments out there when I had to resist saying, “Just let me know…” but I managed to rein in that impulse and focus instead on moving myself forward. It seems like a minor detail, but it contributed to my deepened sense of confidence on the trail.
On loop 8, I remember feeling a little tired, so I power hiked a few of the hills that I had run during the early race. When I completed loop 12, I took my first look at the leader board. I’d had a serious case of ultra brain all day and had some trouble assessing the star sticker count, but it looked to me that I was the lead female. With that knowledge, I tore out on loop 13 with a renewed sense of urgency. Up to that point, I had been finding my rhythm and hadn’t focused too much on winning. Now, the race was on.
This was my first experience viewing a race as a competition against others, and not just against myself. The drive to win enabled me to push through some serious pain in my ankle that steadily increased with each loop. It started as discomfort in my right ankle, the one I broke last year, but by the 6-hour mark, it was screaming. One part of my brain told me to stop before I did more damage. The other part thought back to my orthopedist saying I would have pain and swelling in it occasionally, and that this was normal. Of course, I wasn’t sure if it was normal for this to happen a year later, but decided to interpret it in this way. When a sensation of heat started to throb in the ankle, I worried, but once again banished that thought. Running through pain had gotten me in trouble before, but I was too set on finishing this race to quit. I figured that I could make it through the race, and then deal with the injury later. If I didn’t focus on the pain, I was able to ignore it, so, onward!
Coming in to log loop 16, a glance at the leader board showed that a runner named Rene was out on loop 17 and that Gretchen was out on 16. This meant there was a woman in front of me and one right behind. Again, my brain was having trouble processing anything other than running, so who knows how accurate this was. It did, however, spur me on, and I ran the rest of the day with the thought of catching the woman ahead of me and keeping the other behind. Other runners ducked out of the rain to enjoy hot homemade soup, while I grabbed a pb&j tortilla for the road (and, once, accidentally, a salami tortilla. Start my vegan clock over, I guess. That was my worst loop. Not having eaten salami in 20 years, it made me incredibly sick.) I decided not to look at the leader board again until the clock stopped. Just run.
Most loops I ran solo, but there were interludes during which I had company or exchanged words of encouragement in passing. A pattern emerged of runners commenting on how strong I had looked all day. The war with my impostor syndrome raged in those moments; were they just being nice, or was I clearly crushing this race? I had several pleasant encounters with The Ginger Runner, Ethan Newberry, and his wife, Kim. It was another example of ultra brain clouding my awareness. They seemed so familiar, but I couldn’t place how I recognized them (I love their short films and live broadcast.) I ran with another guy who had placed second several years ago; he was very encouraging and we chatted each time we caught up to each other. I didn’t catch most runners’ names, but my brief conversations were always jovial; a reminder of how much I love the trail running community.
On lap 18, I met Dan Sears, a seasoned local ultra runner. We ran most of that loop together, and he had a lot of good advice to share as I prepare for my first hundred miler (including forcing me to consider how difficult it will be to run at altitude in Utah, where I will take on my first 100.) We talked a lot about how privileged we are to be able to run at all and spoke of the gratitude we feel for that opportunity. Finding that I don’t have a running partner, he offered to connect me with Rich White, the RD for Cascade Crest and a Tacoma runner. I thought to myself, “is this really my life?” That it would occur to him that I would be a good running match with such an experienced ultra runner blew me away. The tide must have been turning in that internal battle, though, because instead of voicing some sort of self-deprecating reply, I said that I would love to have Rich as a trail partner and passed along my contact info.
Math calculations become pretty difficult after 10 hours of running in a circle. From about lap 16 on, I had tried to determine how many more loops I could fit in before time was up. I had hoped for 26, as that would put me at 50 miles, but I wasn’t sure it would be possible. I felt pretty confident that I could do 24, so that became the goal. Occasionally, I would try to calculate if I was even on pace for that, but, as I explained, my brain wasn’t interested in anything other than telling my body to propel itself forward. As with the leader board, I determined to stop crunching numbers and just run as hard as possible.
On lap 21, I chatted briefly with Kevin, who was on lap 24. We joked about the strange route around what I called the glow stick tree, a tree in the middle of the trail with glow sticks on it to indicate that you were to run just past the tree and then make a hard right up the hill. This was how I initially ran that section, but after seeing others cut to the left, I did that for a couple loops until someone corrected me. It only added 30 feet or so, and it was tricky because it slowed you down for the awkward turn, but I’m not one to cut a course.
Finishing loop 23, I had roughly 43 minutes to spare for a final loop. I passed Ethan and Kim on the final descent, and they asked what lap I was on (I had made a point of not asking anyone this, only because I didn’t want their response to potentially deflate me.) Ethan said he was about at the same place, and we discussed if there was time for one last loop. There was. This lit a fire under me. I picked up the pace and left them here, because I assumed they were both on the same lap as me; my thinking was that if I at least finished loop 24 before them, then perhaps I could get in a few short loops to widen the margin. It was a strange thought process, because I had never viewed other runners as competition like this.
Hitting flat land by the aid station, I yelled out my bib number–“75!”–for the RD to mark the leader board, and kicked on the afterburners. When I dipped down onto the start of the trail, I thought of Dexter and said out loud, “This is where you dig deep.” I was tired and sore, but I wanted to run this final loop faster than the others, running as much of it as possible and only hiking the steepest climbs. It would be tough, but I knew I had it in me. Running hard would also give me a chance to add on a short loop at the end for a little extra mileage. I don’t remember much of that loop, other than feeling completely alive, dialed in, and strong. Sometimes I get wheezy when pushing while I’m tired, near hyperventilation, but not today. When I reached the top of the final climb, I yelled “Chimney Rock!” and blew a kiss at my favorite course landmark (I said “Chimney Rock” each time I passed it that day; part of the ritual.)
I had been nervous about taking the short loop because I hadn’t seen it marked and feared getting lost. Another runner expressed the same concern to me, but I asked the RDs and they pointed it out. I tossed my handheld on the table and took off. There were a lot of runners walking the shorty, all looking very tired. It was a good climb, but I decided to run it in the hopes of fitting in another shorty after. I came up behind Kim, who turned to say, “I thought that was you, speedy!” Little moments like that gave me an added boost to push a little more. The trail meandered through the woods a bit before meeting back up with the full loop’s final climb, taking me past Chimney Rock. I blew down the hill, reached the aid station with 13-ish minutes to spare, and went back out for another. I assumed this would be the final time, so I thanked Chimney Rock (because you talk to rocks after running in circles for 12 hours) and barreled down the descent.
Reaching the aid station, I thought I was finished. Matt, the RD, said, “You have seven minutes, are you going out for another?” I hadn’t expected to, so this caught me off guard. I then said something that I regret: “Will it make a difference in my final results?” In other words, do I need to run one more to keep my place in the rankings, whatever that may be? He looked straight at me and gave the best possible reply: “You should do it, because you can.” I will never forget that, and am eternally grateful to Matt for calling me out. There was time on the clock, so I needed to run.
There wasn’t much time on the clock, though, so I needed to push. I saw a group of three runners ahead of me and decided to catch them. Surely, if we all came in together, they would count my last loop. They were a ways ahead of me, but I almost closed the gap as we neared Chimney Rock. I heard Gretchen say, “We have 2 minutes!” when they reached the summit just ahead of me, so I disposed of all trepidation and flew down that hill faster than I had the rest of the day. It was exhilarating. Kevin caught up to me, saying, “C’mon let’s do it!” as he passed, which summoned even more speed from somewhere deep. He nearly wiped out on the final set of stairs but recovered, and we charged into the aid station together to the whoops of volunteers and runners, the clock hitting 12 hours.
I honestly didn’t know where I stood on the leader board at that point. I had stopped looking, stopped wondering, and just focused on running as hard as I could. At least I could say that I gave it everything I had. Kerri, the other RD, gave Gretchen an award for wearing her costume the entire race, and then announced the race winners: “And now, for Overall Top Female, we have Ellen Bayer!” I was genuinely shocked, and said, “No way! Are you serious!” She laughed and replied, “Oh yes way, I’m serious!” She then awarded Kevin Overall Top Male Finisher. Kevin sat in a camp chair while a woman attended to him, and I just stood there dazed as people congratulated me. It was a surreal experience. I made sure to thank Matt and Kerri for the constant support, as well the volunteers and other runners who had made this such a memorable day and pleasant experience.
I had run 47.94 miles in 12 hours, with approximately 11,000 feet of elevation gain. While I would have still won even without that last short loop, it was nevertheless the most important loop of that race. It was a reminder that I need to always keep running, because I can.
Winning a race feels amazing, especially when you never thought of yourself as a competitor. I rolled into Carkeek by myself, a complete unknown, a mid-packer with a short race resume and who had just run her first marathon in February. Dark horse, indeed.
Coming in with a new mindset, determining to run it to win it, changed everything for me. More valuable than winning a race is the lesson that altering my mindset can influence the results of my endeavors, whether that be in ultra running, academia, or my personal life. I knew that ultra running was partly fueled by mental strength; it hadn’t occurred to me that my professional and personal life would benefit from that as well. It was now entirely clear why curing my impostor syndrome was imperative. Being confident in my work would, in turn, fuel that work. Being confident in myself would, in turn, help me begin the next chapter of my life. Once again, ultra running stepped in to teach me how to live.
In our post-BFC debriefing, I told Yassine that I would like to one day win that race. Always confident in me, he added that, “It all depends on who shows up that day.” By this, he meant that maybe the faster runner didn’t choose this race; maybe the faster runner had some race management trouble; maybe the faster runner gave up. In those scenarios, you have a shot at winning because the more talented runner wasn’t there. I don’t think about Carkeek in that way, though.
I’d like to think that, for this race, I showed up.