I ran a 20 mile trail race last Saturday with my husband Bill. I was excruciatingly under-trained. I don’t usually prepare for one single race; I like to prepare for an entire racing season. In this case, I did neither. Oh, I had plenty of excuses – I have a recurring injury that I have been dealing with for months, I got the flu a few weeks before the race, blah, blah blah. The hard truth is I did not buckle down and get out there to do the long miles required to train properly.
Looking back, I enjoyed the race. It’s kind of like looking back on childbirth. When you’re going through it, it’s not exactly fun, but afterward you forget the pain and the suffering, and only remember the wonderful outcome. If this mechanism had not evolved in humans, every child would be an only child. I almost always look back on races with fond memories.
There were some low spots for me during this race. At one point, in desperation, I said to Bill “Tell me something good.” He tried to encourage me, but I know motivation has to come from within. No one else can do it for me. I did discover one interesting fact about myself during the race. I like to run in front of Bill. When I followed him, I felt overwhelmed, like I couldn’t keep up. I kept asking him to slow down or walk. When I was in the lead, my speed increased, I felt better, and he sometimes struggled to keep up to me. I guess I like to be in control. That probably surprises no one who knows me!
The larger truth is that my running has changed in the past year, and not for the better. I am more anxious, more tentative, slower. I know that we all slow down as we get older, and I accept that. (I don’t like it, but I accept it.) The change in my running, though, was more abrupt than the gradual slowing down that comes from getting older. Last fall and winter, my running was great, then I had a milestone birthday, and the wheels fell off. My times slowed, my confidence evaporated, and the joy that I felt during each run diminished. It has taken me this long (a little over a year) to realize what is going on. I am afraid.
Last year in January I ran a timed race with two friends. I had a great time and ran well. Next, I ran a 25K trail race. I was fine. I just looked at my running log from last winter. My runs from last January and February were normal. I can’t believe the times I hit for my intervals and tempo runs. They are so much faster than I am currently running. My attitude was good. Then in March, something happened. I started writing in my running log that I was discouraged, that I didn’t want to be running, that I was always tired. My times slowed dramatically. Fear was seeping into my psyche.
Fear is insidious. When it wraps its cold, bony fingers around your heart, it is difficult to pry them loose. I understand that fear is necessary. If we didn’t have fear, we wouldn’t survive. Fear is part of normal brain function. Fear can be instinctive or taught. The fear of pain, for example is instinctual. We all fear being hurt. Fear of spiders is taught. Maybe one of your parents was afraid of spiders or maybe they look scary to you – big and hairy with lots of legs and fangs – but most spiders are harmless to humans. Some social groups are feared, and therefore, persecuted (think Jews in 1930s Europe or African-Americans in the US today). This type of fear is taught.
Problems arise when fear controls your actions. Kristen Armstrong says, “Fear wants to keep us nice and small, in our little box where we ‘belong.’ Fear hurls boulders of self-doubt, whispering messages of danger, negativity, and shame.” We have the fight or flight response hard wired into our brains as our reaction to fear. Trouble arises when we do neither of these two responses. We freeze and fret instead.
What am I afraid of? I think the response “getting older” is too facile. I think I can explain it best by describing my response to some signs posted along the trail near the end of my favorite trail race. I always get choked up when I see these signs. Literally. Tears well up in my eyes, and I have difficulty breathing. The first sign says “Someday you will not be able to do this.” You run for another 100 yards, and you read the next sign that says “But today is not that day!” Tears are welling in my eyes as I type this. I am afraid of not being able to run.
Running has become such a big part of my life, I can’t imagine being without it. It is an integral part of my identity. It is the method I use to calm myself, to meditate, to burn off excess energy and to socialize. I belong to two running communities. There is the local community, where I run and mingle with the road runners club and other friends. This is such a large facet of our social lives. I am afraid without running we would become isolated. I also belong to the online running community. When I hear about social media being a place of sniping, negativity and clutter, I cannot relate. The runners who are my “followers” or “friends” are without exception friendly, encouraging and sympathetic. We laugh at each others’ jokes and commiserate after tough runs or injuries.
I have a friend who intuitively knows the right thing to say. We occasionally do our long runs together. A few weeks ago, she was talking to me about her mom. She told me how much she appreciated her mom’s method of parenting. Her remark to me was “My mom raised us to not be afraid.” That is such a wonderful gift to give to your children! Children must be taught to be brave. This sounds tough, even dangerous, but children who are anxious and afraid are not happy. Adults must be able to distinguish between acceptable risks and foolish ventures, and advise our children accordingly. Is it alright to advise our children to jump off the garage roof using a bed sheet as a parachute? No. To climb up the slide rather than the ladder? Maybe. When children accomplish a difficult feat or overcome their fear, they develop self reliance and self confidence.
So…..what am I going to do? How do I get past my fear and recover the joy of running? I have to relearn to be brave. I must picture myself running for the rest of my life. I must be willing to take some chances, run some races that are out of my comfort zone. I signed up for an intimidating (read scary) trail race next month. Although I am running this race alone, I have many role models to show me the way. One fearless friend is going to run the original marathon in Greece this year one day after her 80th birthday. Another is running the 56 mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa the month after she turns 60. I am not alone. I have a whole running community supporting me.