Overcoming Fear

Sometimes we allow ourselves to get sucker punched by our personal demons. An example of this is something that happened to me back in 1994. I was smack dab in the middle of the best year of my running career, and yet I nearly had a meltdown before a race. As I was standing in line to register, I saw something that made the blood in my veins run ice-cold. Honestly, I grew so worked up I almost jumped back in my car and fled from the scene.

What I’d seen was that one of Chicago’s premier male runners had shown up to run the race. Truth be told, the guy was actually slightly past his running prime. But, that didn’t negate the fact he’d qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5k a few years back. Once upon a time, a time not so long ago, he’d run under fourteen minutes for 3.1 miles (a 4:31 minutes per mile average). I myself had never even run under fifteen minutes and thirty seconds over the same distance (a 5:00 minutes per mile average). It is a fact that of the course of nearly thirty years of competitive racing I would never be able to run at speeds approaching what this guy had run. To put this in perspective, even if I were to run the entire 5k distance downhill and with a wind at my back, my legs were simply incapable of matching the turnover required to run as fast as this guy had done on multiple occasions. Perhaps you’ll agree, my concern was warranted.

Twenty minutes before the race, I changed into my racing shoes and began to warm up. As I jogged, my mind waffled back and forth between thoughts of, “I think I might be able to beat this guy”, to “there is simply no way.” I got so worked up that I again considered climbing into my car and leaving to avoid the confrontation. I gathered myself, and with butterflies flitting about in my stomach, made my way to the starting line. As I stood waiting among the other participants, I grew increasingly anxious. That’s when the runner standing next to me asked how I thought I was going to do. I pointed out the elite runner and began a diatribe on what I knew about the guys running history, about how fast he could run, about how he’d qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5k―to which the runner responded, “But, this is a 10k”.  And, he was absolutely right!

Instead of looking for ways I might win the race, though, I’d been focusing on reasons (excuses) to lose. I decided to run my own race, and quickly formed a strategy. While the other runner’s expertise was in the 5k, I’d cut my running teeth on 10k’s. I realized that rather than running conservatively and letting the other runner dominate the pace with his superior speed―if instead, I took the race to him―I just might be able to wear him down and significantly reduce his chances of defeating me. I knew from experience that the runner who takes charge early is able to dominate the pace, and thus controls the tempo, and often the outcome of the race.

At the sound of the starter’s pistol, as I’d anticipated, the faster runner attempted to take the lead. So, from the outset, I positioned myself next to him and determined to take the race to him. Less than a half mile into the 6.2 mile race we approached our first challenge. It was a steep hill climb, perhaps fifty yards long. Instead of easing back, as most runners do when running up hill, I pressed the pace. The runner followed my lead. We charged up the hill, quickly distancing ourselves from the other runners.

Perhaps it was his unfailing confidence in his superior leg speed. But, I suspect the runner thought the hard pace would take its toll, and that he would break me early in the race. Then he could settle in to a comfortable pace and handily defeat me. In charging that first hill and subsequent others, however, he too was given little opportunity to rest. Each brief respite where the course flattened out was quickly followed by a series of rolling hills. Whenever he would surge, I mirrored his effort. A mile or so into the race we entered a long uphill grade which lasted for perhaps a quarter mile. And, I continued to press the pace.

Of note, is that the other runner might have conserved his energy by backing off just a bit while running up the hills. While I would have gained a couple of strides on him, with his superior speed, he would have easily caught back up with me on the down hills. Yet, he chose to stick with me. We ran in this fashion for the next several miles. Always, I kept pushing the pace while going up the hills. Instinctively, he would press the pace on the down hills. Then things started to unwind for the other runner. Somewhere between four and five miles, his breathing became labored, and his running form grew sloppy (a sure sign of fatigue). Still, if I was to have a shot at winning, I needed to get some distance between him and me to escape his finishing kick.

Legs burning and heart pounding, I put in a final surge with about three quarters of a mile to go. I prayed my endurance would hold out until I crossed the finish line. The runner attempted to answer my surge, but couldn’t maintain the increased intensity. As I continued to press, the sounds of his labored breathing and feet striking the pavement grew ever fainter with each step. I crested the final hill and, as I did so, flung myself down the other side. Summoning my remaining reserves, I sprinted to the finish. I crossed the finish line. Gasping, I collapsed into the grass a short distance beyond the finish. I’d won the race!

You’ll recall, this was the very same race that less than an hour before I had contemplated avoiding. I wonder how many of us give up before allowing ourselves the opportunity to run our race. Too often, I think, we allow fear or uncertainty to derail us. Instead of allowing our personal demons to dictate our actions and behaviors, sometimes we need to rethink our perspective and go forward anyway. Even if we don’t quite reach the intended goal in that instant, we have at least given ourselves the opportunity to compete in the race. Whether we win or lose, just running the race is a small victory. With each race we gain confidence continuing to hone our skills and thus increase our chances at winning. My challenge to you is to keep showing up. Figure out what you need to do to quiet your demons and keep them at bay. And, then run your race. Eventually, you’ll find yourself successfully doing the thing you’ve signed up to do

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