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If Fear is Taking Over, You Might As Well Let Fear Drive.

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A lot of things get put into motion largely due to fear. A lot more things never get started because of fear. Running, like just about anything else, can be put in motion or halted because of fear. This post is largely a result of a somewhat recent episode of the 5by5 podcast Back To Work titled 'Scream, Poop, and Run', which is in turn a discussion of a piece at by Radiolab's Jad Abumrad. A few links, and lots of fantastic (and certainly more coherent/useful) things to read/listen to as a jumping off point.

"For some reason, at the beginning, every decision DID feel like life or death. Like I would literally die if a story didn’t work. There was a kind of existential dread that hung over the entire endeavor, even though we were just making a radio show…heard…by no one." - Jad Abumrad, "The Terrors & Occasional Virtues of Not Knowing What You’re Doing"

I've spent a lot of time the past few months thinking about my attempt at a fifty mile race this November. It will to be my first attempt at running an ultramarathon, and that intimidates me; ultramarathons are understandably intimidating things -- I haven't finished one, but I'm guessing that it's going to be quite difficult. Ultramarathons are also 100% voluntary. This notion in particular has been weighing heavily on my mind.

I signed up for this race completely of my own volition. I'm terrified of the race that I signed up for.

I'm also terrified what'll happen if I stop running.

I can stop training/racing at any time.

A few months ago I drove through the Hagerstown/Frederick area where the race will be taking place. The hills intimidated me. At that point I was struggling to run ten miles at a time, and spins of even five miles were received by my body as punishment. Now I've gotten my mileage up significantly (from ~25 miles a week to ~40 a week) and I'm soreness-free. I'm adapting to increased mileage, but it's not enough.

Last week I struggled terribly during my 20 mile run attempt. While I was out dragging ass and generally being awful at running, a friend of mine was balls-deep in his second Ironman triathlon, which he finished just under 13 hours. He will be running the 50 mile race with me.

While I was giving myself excuses to back out of a long run, he was exerting himself for damn near 13 hours. While I was walking the last half mile to the Metro station, he was running a marathon on dead legs.

In purely cardiovascular terms he'll be ready for the race. On that failed run Sunday, I was terrified that I'm nowhere near where I need to be to get past mile 30. I wasn't wrong to think so.


Every decision feels like life or death.

Training calls for a prescription. Preparation for the race is almost strictly mechanical, calling for an exertion of X miles Tuesday, something shorter on Wednesday, X minus 2 on Thursday, and then a long run on Saturday and 5 miles on Sunday. No pace is assigned to the mileage; we build until four weeks before the race. Distance is the goal, not speed.

But speed is always a question. What if I'm running too slowly -- am I not pushing my legs enough? What if I'm running too hard -- how am I going to recover from this run, total 45 miles this week, and then 48 next week? What if I'm screwing this all up?

The second I decided to turn around early and "only" run 15 miles on my long run instead of 20 is the second that I conceded all ground gained during that week's runs and let the fear run rampant. 7.5 defeated miles are far more difficult than 10 dead-legged miles. Three miles and a Metro ride are an angst-filled nightmare.

Every decision is another opportunity to second-guess everything that I've done or have failed to do. Over-analyzing is ubiquitous.


Like I would literally die if I don't run.

I've stopped running for stretches of time before. Not surprisingly, when I'm not training I gain weight, my blood pressure goes up, and I'm generally a bit more lethargic. In January I was near my all-time-high weight and my blood pressure measured in the pre-hypertension regime.

Being in my late 20s and in relatively good health, that scared me, a lot.

While generally healthy, my parents are both overweight. They have some health issues that are likely a result. Further down the line, members of my family have had issues with heart disease.

Being overweight and having a slightly high blood pressure at 27 didn't sit so well when taking all of that into account. If I don't keep myself healthy there will be consequences.

I will probably die sooner if I don't run. That's reality, and reality is scary sometimes.


There is a kind of existential dread that hangs over the entire endeavor, even though I'm just trying to finish a race…which is followed…by no one.

I've chosen my path, or at least my path for the next few months: no matter what I do, every day that passes is another day closer to the race. Every time I have a shitty run -- or worse yet, skip a run -- I make the task just a bit more challenging. But I made the choice to run the race, and now I need to follow through with it. Knowing the race is looming, there's this sort of basal concern that never really goes away that Abumrad aptly describes as 'gut churn':

Kierkegaard talked about it this way: a man stands on the edge of a cliff and looks down at all the possibilities of his life. He reflects on all the things he could become. He knows he has to jump (i.e. make a choice). But he also knows that if he jumps, he’ll have to live within the boundaries of that one choice. So the man feels exhilaration but also an intense dread, what Kgard called “the dizziness of freedom.”

So gut churn is double edged. It’s impending death but it’s also the thing we all want: profound freedom.

I've made my leap, and now I'm dealing with the fear that's a result of that decision. I'm absolutely thrilled to find out what I can do. I'm terrified to find out what my limits are.

That fear isn't going to go away. It's nowhere near as terrifying as the other option, which would mean me not running; finding a happy medium isn't a thing I do well (c.f.). Taking into account the fact that I've essentially pigeon-holed myself into leaping off the largest, most difficult cliffs I can find, I've got no choice but to embrace the fear and find my way through the race.

Hopefully the view is nice on the way down.