Photo: Raina + Wilson
In person, Jim Willett looks nothing like a ninja. Short, with a slouch and a slight paunch, he is, in a word, unremarkable. In the world of extreme running, where even the spectators boast tattoo sleeves and wear fluorescent shoes, Willett stands out as much for what he isn’t as for what he is.
“There are lots of guys faster than me and guys who can run further. That’s not really what I’m about,” says the 41-year-old as he heads for the basement of his home north of Toronto, where piles of running clothes sit stacked on a treadmill like pancakes. “I run because I like to see what I’m capable of, physically and mentally. And then I like to share my findings, my vulnerabilities, with the world.”
Willett, a.k.a. Optimism Ninja, is the soft-hearted mastermind behind the Optimism Revolution, a social-media haven of unabashed “you can do it!” positivity that has over 242,000 likes on Facebook-more than bold-faced names such as k.d. lang, Jann Arden and Jeanne Beker. In the athletic community, Willett is known for his record-breaking run of Ontario’s 890-kilometre Bruce Trail in 10 days, 13 hours and 57 minutes, during which he raised money for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. (He has also completed gruelling ultra-marathons in Iceland and China.)
While these accomplishments are noteworthy, they’re more impressive when paired with Willett’s willingness to disclose his fears and self-doubt to the online masses-and when you know he was treated for colon cancer five years ago.
To Kathy Sharpe, Willett’s long-time partner, the rise of Optimism Ninja is astonishing. She met Willett in 2005, back when he was a self-effacing personal trainer with sparkling blue eyes. The odds of him becoming an Internet sensation? Unlikely, she says, but clearly not impossible. “Jim’s a private person, so watching him share his story has been tremendous, a phenomenon,” she says. “He’s always been genuine, and that’s the beauty of his blog: there’s no hidden agenda.”
Ultra-marathon running, generally defined as anything over 50 kilometres, is dangerous work. Since threats range from physical deterioration to inclement weather to black bears, mental fortitude is almost as important as a strong body. And yet, as Optimism Ninja, Willett produces videos, pictures and poetry that showcase vulnerability. “Being strong doesn’t mean not falling; it’s how you rise from adversity,” reads one Facebook post. “I want to get more comfortable being uncomfortable,” trumpets another.
Sarah Rogers, 37, cried the first time she watched “Take Another Step,” Willett’s spoken-word video about survival through optimism. “It’s not so much the running that I find inspiring; it’s what he does with it,” says Rogers, who turned to Willett for strength-training exercises and a sympathetic ear after battling postpartum depression. “Jim believes that, in a world where we have little control, optimism can be quite powerful in shaping, at least to some degree, our experiences.”
Willett wasn’t always a runner, nor was he always an optimist. Childhood was a grind: his father suffered a brain injury when Willett was six, resulting in blackouts, fogginess and poor impulse control. At 16, Willett’s older sister had her first child. Their parents divorced when Willett was in high school, and though he’s close to his mom, he doesn’t rely much on his dad, whom he describes as a “vagabond.”
“My father has a lengthy record, and to this day he’s in and out of trouble with the law,” Willett says, “but I’m not going to place any of my life’s problems on him. You can make the smallest thing into something big or something big into something empowering. Who I am isn’t predicated on my dad being on the wrong side of the law.”
Like his early years, Willett’s adult life hasn’t been easy. In 2010, he was diagnosed with colon cancer; the disease started in his intestines, then spread to his lymphatic system. To cope, Willett began running-a lot. “I wanted something I could do that wasn’t being dictated to me,” he says. “I liked the idea of just grabbing my shoes and heading out to be free.” At the time his cancer was detected, Willett was training for a half-marathon (21 kilometres). By the time he’d completed chemotherapy, Willett was signing up for a seven-day, 250-kilometre ultra in Central Asia’s Gobi Desert-one of the most challenging marathons in the world.
“Physically, I felt like I had jumped in too quick,” says Willett of the race. To suggest it was conducted in extreme conditions is an understatement: temperatures in the Gobi can reach 50 degrees Celsius. Willett knew he had the resolve to finish, but just how he would finish changed the day he came across a woman lying on the ground in a medical tent in northwest China. He sprayed her down with his water bottle, and they shared a quiet moment. “That’s when I learned I could gain so much not by focusing on myself but by helping somebody else complete their run,” he says.
In 2012, 18 months after Willett got serious about long-distance running, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Writing helped him manage. “My blog started like a journal-putting my feelings out there proved very therapeutic,” he says. “It provided perspective: none of us are every really in the clear, so you better make the most of your moments. For me, that meant being really honest and vulnerable.”
Holly Knowlton, Willett’s 62-year-old mother, has been cancer-free since January 2013. For her part, she draws strength from the evolution in her son’s attitude over the years. “When Jim was first diagnosed, he didn’t want anybody to know. He wanted to keep it quiet,” says Knowlton. “Then he started to realize he could beat cancer and use his experience to help other people. He sat with me through chemotherapy, and this was our discussion: it’s scary, but you have to think positive. Even though that’s hard, Jim’s stubborn. Always was.”
Following his mother’s recovery, Willett applied that stubbornness to taking over a running club offered through Mountain Equipment Co-op. It’s where, thanks to his quiet yet powerful nature, his reputation as a “ninja” grew.
Patrick Voo, a 44-year-old technical support specialist and former pastor, has been running with Willett since 2013. “He seems so unassuming,” says Voo. “Then you find out what this guy does, what he’s been through and it’s like, Wow!” When Voo signed up for a 56-kilometre run last year, Willett offered to join him. That decision proved fortuitous when Voo’s leg seized and his blood pressure plummeted, both unpleasant yet unsurprising possible side effects of submitting one’s body to an ultra-marathon. Willett knew that Voo, with a little rest and water, could regain his composure. And, sure enough, with his mentor’s encouragement (and the course’s medics nearby), Voo finished the race.
Willett’s talent for bolstering spirits has galvanized legions online and in person-and now companies are paying attention. Optimism Ninja is currently an ambassador for both Mountain Equipment Co-op, where he helps supervise racing events, and Brooks, whose sneakers he wears in training. Neither of these programs are paid-compensation comes in the form of gear and, in the case of Mountain Equipment Co-op, a travel budget.
One could argue that the companies get as much, if not more, out of the deal than Willett. “Jim’s outlook is remarkable, and the way he inspires people to live fully is, I think, almost beyond compare,” says David Cavasin, the Brooks marketing coordinator who got Willett the gig. “He didn’t let his battle with cancer deter him. I think it actually helped him become who he was meant to be.”
Eager to see how Optimism Ninja would interact with a roomful of newbie runners, I invited Willett to a clinic I teach in downtown Toronto. The group, gathered on a blustery evening in mid-December to race along Lake Ontario, was five months away from its first marathon. And the members were scared: a marathon can take more than five hours if everything goes according to plan. Standing before them, Willett fidgeted. Usually speakers trade war stories about old races, but he never mentioned a run. Instead, he mumbled and slouched and looked down at his shoes. He was anything but polished. Where was the quiet yet powerful ninja? Then, softly, he told the aspiring marathoners that whatever happened, they should appreciate the opportunity to be doing something out of the ordinary.
“Stepping outside your box is, at the very least, an authentic experience; at best, it’s life-changing,” he said. “Things seem daunting until we’ve done them, but you people have an advantage-you get to live out your limits right now. I had to make it through cancer to find mine.”
Back in 2011, near the end of his first epic race in the Gobi, Willett stopped long enough to entomb his chemo port in the burning sand. He knew the cancer might return; he knew he might need another tiny chunk of plastic to pump drugs through his veins. But for now, he was calling the shots: it was time to bury the past.
Still, the past informs everything he does. From his hardscrabble beginnings to his cancer to his mother’s own illness, Willett is the sum of his experiences. In running, he was able to find something that belonged to him, something in which he could lose himself. And through writing, he was able to learn-and repeat to others-what had never been said to him: how you interpret each moment is up to you. And from each setback, there’s something to learn. Life is something to be embraced, downturns and all.
“He seemed thankful for being given the opportunity to run,” a member of my running group said after that chilly December race with Willett. “He was faster than me, and as he turned and came back in my direction, he cheered me on. He had the biggest smile on his face.”
Jim Willett doesn’t immediately register as a powerful force. And as Optimism Ninja, that’s where his true strength lies.