Those are the words stamped on a necklace worn by Olympic runner Kara Goucher. In a blog post last spring, she reflected on fear, saying: “No matter who you are or what your passion is, trying to do something as well as you can possibly do it is challenging, and with challenges comes fear.”
The elite runner certainly knew a thing or two about the matter. Two weeks later she’d line up to race in the Boston Marathon.
Her goal was to become the woman who would end the American drought at Boston. No timidity there. Unfortunately, Goucher finished in fifth place in her division behind winner Caroline Kilel of Kenya. In her race recap, she said her body never quite felt comfortable. It was tight and out-of-sync, and by mile three she knew she was in trouble.
At the midway point, she began struggling mentally.
By mile 20, she knew she wouldn’t place in the top three. In pain, she debated with herself: Is the physical pounding worth it if I’m not going to be on the podium? But she rallied, made peace with the situation and pushed herself past her body’s desire to quit.
Her one nagging fear? Letting her husband down.
“The one thing that continued to bother me was knowing what Adam was going through,” Goucher said. “I know how much my happiness means to Adam, and I could imagine how tormented he probably was, seeing me off the back and assuming I was crushed by it.”
In Psychology of Champions: How to Win at Sports and Life with the Focus Edge of Super-Athletes, authors James J. Barrell and David Ryback say super-athletes aren’t as motivated by ability-based fears.
At that level, they already know what they’re capable of. When at their peak, legends like basketball star Michael Jordan or tennis champ Chris Evert have confidence that they and their bodies can perform well during a game or match. But, while their anxiety over their skills is pretty low, they worry about things like defending their reputation (Jordan), not wanting to lose (Evert) or the pain of loved ones (Goucher).
But fear can also inhibit or paralyze rather than motivate (especially for those just setting out). Think back to when you took those first running strides. It wasn’t easy was it? Your legs felt like jelly. Your feet felt like Tony Soprano had them fitted with a new pair of cement shoes. And your lungs? Burning with every breath.
“I’m gonna die,” you thought. “Why am I doing this? I’m going to have a heart attack!”
“Breathing. This. Hard. Has. Got. To. Be. Bad. For. Me.”
“This sucks. I suck. I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m no good at this.”
“How did I get so out of shape?”
“I don’t want to be like those nutty running fanatics with ruined knees and no life.”
“I’m in my 40′s. I’m too old for this stuff.”
Fear of failure is a powerful force. And we humans have made a fine art of it.
Rather than challenge ourselves and risk looking foolish, sometimes we pull back. We hit auto-pilot. We miss whatever mark out there we might aspire to reach in our dreams.
We’ve never run a race in our lives and would like to tackle a 5K, but are too self-conscious. We worry what we’ll look like in running clothes. Or that we’ll be a ghastly hot, sweaty mess. Or that we’ll finish last. Or that we’ll have to walk some of it. Or most of it.
Or — gasp — see a DNF (did not finish) by our name on the race results.
We might be anxious that others will know we’re new to all of this. They’ll note our hesitation in the registration line. Or see us fumbling with our race packet (“What do I do with this, now?”). All thumbs, we pin on our bib hoping no one is watching. (“Where does it go exactly?”) We’re trying to remember to drink enough water — but not too much. We start worrying when we see how long the port-a-potty line is, and how near it is to the start of the race. (“And where the heck is the starting line, anyway?”)
A few races behind us, maybe we’re thinking about doing a half marathon or triathlon or marathon or ultra race, but are afraid to take the plunge. Maybe we think we don’t have it in us. Or worry what our friends or family will think. Or we’re not sure we’re using the right training plan. Or we don’t know how to fuel properly pre-race. (“Should I eat dairy or peanut butter or nothing at all?”) Or don’t have a clue what to consume when we’re running so we don’t bonk, hit the wall. (“Gels? Bloks? Jellybeans? Electrolyte tabs? Beer?”)
Maybe we’ll start too fast. Maybe we’ll finish too slow. Maybe we won’t PR.
Maybe we’ll get lost.
Maybe it’ll rain.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
If it sounds like I’m writing this with some authority, I am. My thoughts have made nearly all of these pit stops — and more. Over the past two years, I’ve worked through these common jitters and now feel confident competing in half marathons. Yet, I still haven’t worked up the courage to attempt a marathon, tri or ultra. Maybe … someday.
The beautiful thing about fitness goals is this: If you stick with it, the physical and mental byproducts of consistent exercise have a way of magically propelling you to your dreams.
- Builds not only muscle strength and cardio capacity, but self esteem, too. (“I just ran 10 miles! I ROCK!! Bring on that 10K!!!”)
- Works off stress and floods your brain with positive neurochemicals like serotonin, which regulates fear in the prefontal cortex and calms down the amygdala. (“Pre-race jitters? Zap!”)
- Increases your endurance and boosts your energy by rushing nutrients and oxygen to your tissues. (“I can complete this race, no problem.”)
- Puts you in control of your life and fosters a feeling of freedom. You’re out strutting your stuff, not passively ruminating over what you’re not doing. (“I am limitless, baby!”)
The key is getting out there and just doing it. Once you get going, tamp down negative thoughts with mind-over-matter chatter. Sure, contemporary life is so hectic and busy. Going down a tried-and-true path can comfort and even de-stress us when we’re tapped out and everything seems too much to handle.
But, every once-in-a-while, we humans need to stretch our wings. Explore the envelope.
Race and train like nobody’s watching, and like no one (but you) cares.
Here’s to living fierce and fearless.
What fears do you have (or have you had) about racing or training? How did those fears push you to places you never thought you could go?