Be Afraid

XT4 threw the question out recently about what makes people afraid, and what use fear is.

Fear is something I know a great deal about. We're good friends, fear and I.

Growing up, I arguably had two of the most dangerous hobbies a girl could have. In the winter I ski raced. In the summer I jumped horses. And I don't care how used to doing each you get, there are still points where straight-up fear makes your arms feel numb and takes your breath straight from your lungs.

I am in eighth grade. I am standing atop the Super-G course in Winter Park, Colorado at the Junior Olympics. I can see the first two gates, and nothing more. I have never raced a real, honest-to-god Super-G course before in my life. I am wearing a borrowed helmet meant for motorcycle riding, not ski racing, and borrowed skis that are long and heavy and that I wouldn't be able to turn if I wanted them to. They are meant to go nearly straight down the hill, these skis. And it's a steep hill. The timer beeps -- five, four, three, two. I want to cry, but instead I breathe deep and push out. I get into a tuck, and I concentrate. I try to settle into the speed, my fear of it. My internal monologue goes something like this: "This is too fast. It's too fast." -- "If you try to slow down, you're going to crash. Go faster. That's the only way to the bottom." -- "It's too fast." -- "It's the only way." I am going more than 40 miles an hour on two slabs attached to my feet. I ride the rollers, pre-jumping them to minimize time spent in air, off the snow. Air is not fast. Coming off a roller at the bottom third of the course, I catch too much air, and upon landing, one of my edges. I somersault down the mountain. I lose my gloves, my goggles, and my helmet. I come to rest in orange netting that lines the sides of the course, like a fly in a web. I can't breathe. I can't hear. And then I can. Officials rush over to make sure all limbs are attached and in working order. Others gather my gear, spread over a football-length swath of the course. They put me back together. That was my final training run. The following day would be one race run -- the real deal. I will work all night on managing my fear. I will be more afraid standing in the starting gate the next day. But I will stand, and finish eighth.

I am 15 years old, taking a jumping lesson from my French riding instructor. He used to ride Grand Prix, a step below the Olympics. To him, the 3'6' oxer he had constructed was child's play. Just another obstacle. To me, it looked like certain death. Add its immensity to the fact that I was atop a stubborn horse who was prone to run-outs and refusals, and I was tempted to simply tell him, "No. I can't" -- words I had never said to him before. Not when he took away our stirrups for an entire winter. Not when he had me do an entire jumping lesson without them. Not even when, one summer, the inside of my legs were rubbed so raw from the previous day's lesson that they were bleeding through my jodhpurs, and he announced there would be one more hour of riding after dinner.

"You vill do zees," he yells to me.

It was an exercise to make my stubborn horse work. This is all fine and good, except that I could just as easily break an arm, shoulder, or hip...get trampled by my horse.

"You vill do zees," he says again.

I touch my leg to my horse's flank, gather my reins, and get up into a two-point position. I swallow hard with each step. The oxer looks gigantic, taller than my horse. I urge him forward, keeping my eyes straight ahead. Four strides, three strides, two strides. I close my legs, feel his front feet pick up the ground. And find myself flying through the air. I crash into the wooden jump poles. The sonofabitch horse had pulled up right as we were supposed to be taking off.

After discerning that I was okay, just rattled, my trainer shouts, "Again."

The next time we made it over, but he knocks a rail down and I land draped over my horse's neck like a dead man. The next he jumps from a standstill, my trainer shouting, "You vill go over!" and me thinking, "This is how I die."

But more than an hour later, my legs long past having turned to pudding and my horse's neck lathered in white, foamy sweat, we make it over like we should.

These are only two examples. I have hundreds more. But in these two sports, I learned how to manage my fear. I had no choice. Guiding skis down a mountain, or a 1,000 pound animal over poles suspended two or three feet off the ground -- as they say in Top Gun, "There's no time to think up there. You think, and you're dead."

And all last year was an exercise in managing fear of a different sort. In the run-up to Ironman, it did not come in the short, intense bursts of my childhood sports. Rather the fear was always there with me -- every morning when I woke up, every time I looked at my workout schedule, every time I saw the roiling waters of Lake Monona, every time I saw a cyclist ride by, every time I descended a hill on my bike, or set out on a seemingly impossibly-long ride.

People would discover I was training for an Ironman and would inevitably ask how I stayed motivated. "I'm afraid," I would answer.

They thought it was a joke. I couldn't have been more serious.

When I didn't feel like working out, or when I didn't think that I could possibly do another mile, or the last hour of a 8-hour double-brick, I would hear, loud and clear, the phrase, "If you don't do this..." The last part of that phrase was, "...how are you going to do an Ironman?" But it never had to get that far. The "if" was enough. I didn't want to die out there on September 9th, or worse, miss a cut-off and have to pull out. I also cried, a lot. After a few bad swim sessions. On the sides of country roads throughout southern Wisconsin. On my bike. Behind several rest stops on the Dairyland Dare.

And this year, the fear has returned, albeit anew, in a different form. After months and months of sporadic workouts, I have started training again. And I am afraid. Last week I was afraid of a 30-mile bike ride. I was scheduled for a 10-mile run yesterday, and until 4:30 when I set out, I had fretted about it all weekend. For the past few years, I have uttered ridiculous phrases like, "I just have to do a quick ten and then I'll meet you for happy hour" or "I only have ten miles today -- almost seems like a day off." But lately, that me feels like a distant cousin at best...a stranger I might meet on the street at worst.

I am afraid I am not fast (I am not), that I am not in shape (I am not), and that my Ironman finish was a fluke (I know it wasn't). These fears are ridiculous. But they are there all the same. So I am going to have to make friends with them. Invite them in for coffee. Get to know them.

And I'm looking forward to it -- the getting to know them. Because this thing wouldn't be worth doing if it were easy. If there was nothing at stake, nothing to risk.

As a wise man told me over burritos not long ago, that becoming an Ironman is a huge accomplishment, and one you'll always have. But the 8:30 miles, the 4-hour bricks, the feeling like a fish in the water? Those things come and go. They take work. Hard work. They have to be earned. Over and over and over again. No matter who you are.

And so, yesterday, I made another small step toward earning it. Again. I ran a comfortable 6.5 miles with Chief of Stuff, and Leonard and Newt the Vizslas. It was one of those runs where it was easier and more comfortable to keep running than to walk -- not my usual m.o. And when I dropped them off at our house, I set out by myself for another 3.5 miles.

The sun was on its way down for the night. The air felt more winter than spring. My opposite foot and glute ached. I had no Garmin, no idea how fast I was going. But I was moving forward. And last night, laying in bed with aching legs and the familiar cough that comes from long workouts, I remembered what it felt like to be afraid, and do it anyway.

Posted by Erin 9:13 AM

6 Comments:

  1. Melly said...
    (I think the lack of comments means you've left readers speechless!)
    Alili said...
    Excellent post, thanks for sharing Erin.
    Kelly said...
    You are amazing!!
    MadisonDuo said...
    Wow is all I can say about this post.

    I am going thru this same feeling/emotion. Fear, fear, fear is at the forefront of my thoughts when it comes to training! I am constantly questioning myself, can i really do IM again, do i have it in me, will i be able to pull off a 14 hr IM again, and will i even be able to make the cut-off times?

    Like you, i can run 6 miles, but it seems daunting at the same time and I am supposed to be able to run 26. Yeah right...and we are only 144 days out from the race. Oh frick, now that is scary shit!

    But you know what the funny thing is, as scared as I am about IM this year and how my mental focus is less than last year, I am already talking about which IM we are going to sign up for in 2009. I am thinking IM AZ in Nov. We can worry about the wind on the AZ bike course vs. the Wisconsin rolling hills.

    Want to do it with us?
    Megan said...
    oh my gosh, that was awesome - i could have written it myself (well, if I was that articulate, which I am not). I, too, function on fear. I have woken up with that fear, fear when looking at the two-week training schedule that was sent each Sunday night *my coach wants me to swim HOW far on Tuesday?!?!), fear as I went through the actual workouts (still got a run off this bike, Megan), and I too cried a lot (mostly during and after runs). And just like you said, it was fear of not being prepared on race day.

    Awesome, awesome post.
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