I’ve been thinking about fear, and its role in an athlete’s life, off-and-on for over a year. Anyone who has experienced competition knows about nerves. But fear is a different beast all together. Fear can be a good thing – that animal instinct that warns you of danger. Fear can also hold you back, standing like an unmovable obstacle between you and your goal.
I had my first experience with real fear as an athlete when I started training for triathlons. Both of my sisters were competitive swimmers, but I chose running because I was hopeless in the water. Over-coming my self-image as someone who couldn’t swim was easier than expected: I joined a pool, was able to build up to longer distances, and even learned to enjoy open water swimming. I may not be a great or efficient swimmer, but I learned to stop saying (even to myself) that I’m a ‘bad’ swimmer.
But here’s where the mind is a crazy and powerful influence. Despite enjoying swimming in all kinds of conditions (including practice where we swam in crowds and intentionally bumped and jostled one another), in my first two triathlons I literally panicked at the start of the swim leg; I’d start optimistic and determined, but after a stroke or two, my fear took control, I’d flip onto my back, and could only complete it by swimming a zig-zagging back stroke the entire way.
Talking to my friends and coaches it made no sense – I wasn’t afraid of the crowds, I wasn’t afraid of the open water, I wasn’t even afraid of drowning (there are so many people watching over you in competition relative to training I know I’m safer in a race). The only difference was being in a competitive situation, which is where (in running races at least) I typically exceed my training.
At my next triathlon I found a familiar face from our Triathlon club before the start. We chatted and I kept repeating a mantra: “this is just a fun swim with a really big group of friends.” She talked to me and encouraged me, and it must have worked. My swim was slow (and still zig-zagging), I was bumped and even had my goggles knocked loose, but I swam free-style the entire way. I let go of my fear and made it through the swim.
One source of my fear comes from trying to exceed my own expectations and facing new situations in which I’m not confident of how I can perform. Just over a year ago, I set a tough goal for myself in the Chicago Marathon: breaking 4 hours and (my secret goal, shared only with a few people) finishing under 3:55 so I could qualify for the Boston Marathon. I had a hard time sleeping the night before, and couldn’t eat more than a few bites before the race. I’d prepared well, but I wasn’t just nervous; I was afraid.
At the start line, I knew I was about to push myself harder than ever before. The last time I’d run a full 26.2 miles was 17 years earlier. I’d never run even a half-marathon at my goal pace. But in the first mile, I talked myself off of the ledge and released my fear. Instead, I trusted my training, my body, my discipline, and mental toughness to get me through. I’ll never forget the moment in the last 10K when I realized there was no wall, and that I was going to finish faster than I’d hoped, finishing more than 8 minutes below my magical, mythical Boston-qualifying time.
I’m training for Boston now. I’ve spent the past six weeks recovering from an injury, so I’m not as far along in my training as I’d hoped. There was one run where I couldn’t make it through a mile. Getting out the door for the next run seemed impossibly frightening – I procrastinated and put it off, worrying about what might happen until I finally realized how ridiculous I was not to try because I was afraid.
There have been good runs, too. The good runs are getting better, longer, and faster. I’m learning once again to release my fear of what might go wrong. I’m no longer focusing on every little twinge or discomfort. Instead, I’m trusting my training team, our plan, and my ability to adapt and overcome. In a marathon (just as in life), I can’t perfectly predict what will happen, and I can’t perfectly prepare for every circumstance. But I can build up strength and discipline so that when the unexpected happens, I can keep my cool, dig deep, and finish strong.