Running Scared

Fear keeps us planted. Fear keeps us is constant motion. It is both quicksand and the burning coals beneath our feet. We fear the possibility of failure, incertitude of change, and discomfort of pain. While a healthy dose of it is good, especially when in the presence of real danger, it is quite possible we’ve been oversaturated with fear. This has dulled our ability to distinguish between that which is necessary and that which is simply self-defeating. When fear seeps too deeply into our lives it creates the distractions and false reasoning for not pursuing what we desire, because what we desire usually scares us. It should. It takes hard work, change, and sacrifice to pursue the thing which is shrouded in uncertainty. Fear of losing, fear of slowing, fear of aging, and fear of not living up to our expectations or the expectations of others, often leads us to make choices that have negative consequences. For myself, the negative consequences are injuries.

Fear of not being as good as my brothers kept me from putting all my effort into swimming, biking, and running when I was pursuing triathlons. Fear of not being as capable of an ultra runner like many of my friends might be causing me to sabotage my own training. On second thought, maybe it isn’t the fear of not being as good as my family and peers, but rather fearing the expectation that I should be. I’ve allowed my brothers who became athletes, and the performances of those in my athletic sphere of influence, to keep me from being the athlete I’ve wanted to become. Fear of not being enough in their eyes has kept me on the periphery of my own capabilities, making damn sure I never would be enough in my own eyes.

The periphery athlete develops habits over the years in which he puts just enough effort into something to be “good enough.”  I recall one year, I swam a total of five times leading up to a 70.3 Ironman race in Boise, ID. My swim time was good enough, but I recall clearly suffering during the first part of the bike because I was gassed. I tend to swing like a pendulum between undertraining and overtraining. I believe the pendulum method toward achievement is strongly influenced by my fears. My fear of never living up to my own expectations because they are measured against someone else’s performance, keeps the pendulum swinging. My fear of lost freedom if I commit to the required effort to fully realize my goals, keeps the pendulum swinging. My fear of aging and perhaps having already seen my personal best, keeps the pendulum swinging.

Neither my brothers nor my friends fed my fears. On the contrary, each have been more than supportive while I’ve pursued my own path as an athlete. These fears are self-driven; my own insecurities born from seeking a place where I belong. I’ve become more aware in my forties that these fears drive me, and in many cases keep me stuck in neutral. The fear of not being able to accomplish my personal goal of a 50K trail run this year pushed me to run too much and through injuries, which caused more injury. As a result, I did not make it to the starting line of the first 50K on my calendar. That stung. More so because I’m now the editor of a magazine that caters to runners, writing a column titled “Trail Matters,” and I haven’t run in weeks.

I created a lofty goal. I do that. I also often come up short because I become blindly focused on the end result without creating a vision that includes the steps necessary to get there. I bite off more than I can chew in the short term, and choose to ignore the physical pain that is telling me to slow down. I like pain and don’t fear physical suffering. However, it’s the emotional pain I’ve associated with failure, judgement, and in turn, embarrassment that has been a large driving force in my life. So, I push through with misguided pride until the pain is unbearable. I consistently increase my training volume while what little strength and recovery work I do, slips. As a result, over the past decade I’ve consistently dealt with injuries every season.

How do we overcome the fears that keep us in a reactionary mode? How do we become aware of the fears holding us back? For myself it takes a quieting of the mind. I need to learn to recognize when fear is driving my internal dialog — then, just listen. I should listen without judgement as though I were listening to a friend. I need to learn to pause and detach from the emotional triggers that the internal dialog ignites. Then I can approach the problem (my fear) more analytically.

Before we can conquer our fears, we must identify them. I frequently spend time in nature thinking, or journaling in the coffee shop. This reflective time allows me to discover the root of my fears, and the reasoning behind some of my actions. Often what we are really afraid of isn’t that which immediately bubbles to the surface. A continual digging can unearth the true motivation behind our actions. For instance, through continued inner investigation I realize I don’t truly fear being a bad athlete. I fear judgement.

Conquering fear requires an embracing of uncertainty and getting uncomfortable. Cliché perhaps, but it holds true. Certainty and comfort are the enemies of growth. The maxim, “do something everyday that scares you,” may be unrealistic but the intent is sound. Essentially, conquering fear, even small fears, builds courage and confidence. Pushing your comfort zone regularly induces growth,making you more capable of managing fear. The methodology of adding 10% (and no more) to your weekly training volume is based on a similar principle; small incremental increases force adaptation. These physical principles of growth can be applied to one’s mental and emotional states as well.

Unfortunately, most of us have spent years on autopilot repeating patterns when certain fears are triggered. Therefore, to win this war we need to create a well-formulated plan. Whether we attempt a 5K or 50K, sprint triathlon or Ironman, most of us find a plan on the internet or tear out a sheet from a magazine, and begin the three to six month journey to our “A” race. More often than not this plan is simply a volume of mileage with some varying tempo sessions. Rarely does it include strength and stability work, recovery treatments such as massage, or nutritional specifics. Rarer still will a plan have adjustments for the many commitments in our lives. We need to take that generic plan and individualize it to our unique needs. We should create nutritional programs or seek guidance, as well as plan how we will juggle family, work, training, and other commitments. It may seem daunting, but the surest path to success is one that’s mapped out. A plan will help keep fear out of the equation by simply eliminating thinking. That said, try to set aside time periodically for reflection. Use that time to honestly gage your mental, physical, and emotional states and make adjustments to your plan and goals as necessary.

There is certainly a plethora of advice for dealing with fear, largely because there is plenty of fear being dealt. I believe most of us know what we need to do to address our fear, but there exists a gap between knowing and applying. I need to take steps to close that gap. I think I’ve always tried to jump over it and typically, at some point, I come up short. I — dare I say, we — need to build bridges to cross the gap that cuts directly through our fears rather than avoid them. We must attempt to be fully present as we craft the metaphorical structure that carries us to the other side where our desires lie. In this more mindful process we can regain our innate senses, and accurately distinguish between when we feel a necessary fear, and when we’re just running scared.