Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On Fear

Alili has an interesting post on her blog about "Fear", where she talks about her nearly crippling fear of being on the bike. I.M. Able commented on that post that she's terrified of hills on the bike.

This got me to thinking about my own fears in the game - both to uncover anything worth exploring inside myself, but also in case I had anything useful to share with Alili (who mentions in her post that she's not looking for advice along the lines of "just get out there and do it" - which is understandably too easy to say...even where there can be truth in its simplicity.) I've mentioned before a truly watershed moment not just in triathlon for me but in my life - my first open water swim in 2005. I'd positioned myself at the front of the pack - because I didn't know any better - and, totally lacking the skills to actually hold my own there, was promptly run over by the masses. I'd never experienced such raw, troubling fear; so that my body took action with a nearly full-blown anxiety attack right there in the water. I'd never experienced anything really like anxiety (I'm the least anxious person I know), so the whole experience was just really terrifying. I nearly quit the race then and there.

But I didn't, and the question is why not. If it's not enough to say, "I just told myself I had to do this," then what's underneath that answer in itself? I don't absolutely know...I think it gets under the skin who we are. I have a general attitude in life that "I can do this." I don't fear fight. If we want to really get melodramatic, I've faced head-on the deepest, darkest places of myself and lived to tell about it. Scarred, but alive. So maybe it's just perspective - "I've been through worse." That sounds...unfair and inaccurate. But I'm not finding a simple phrase or an answer to satisfy the why, and the how, to overcome the things that make me afraid.

In '06, while training for Ironman, I was descending a hill on the roller-coasters near Garfoot, when suddenly my front wheel started wobbling horribly at 40mph. I screamed involuntarily as it happened, because I was losing control of my bike and could feel what was about to happen, as my bike prepared to buckle underneath me. I had just enough sensibility to try and move to the side of the road, so as to hit the ditch if possible, instead of impacting with the asphalt. At the precise moment when my mathematics said, "this is it", my bike slowed just enough for the wobble to subside and everything was fine. But I got off my bike shaking. It was like when you're in a car accident, and the last thing you feel equipped to do after that is drive - I could think of no way I could finish this ride, I was just too shaken up. So I sat there for 15 or 20 minutes and tried to collect myself. Scoured the bike for some mechanical failure to explain this thing that had never happened before. I found none, and that was more unsettling - what happened? How and why? And will it happen again? I did eventually get on the bike and finish the ride, but even the slightest descent was spent riding the brakes and sitting up high. It was weeks before I was really "over" that, and to this day I have to go through some mental warfare when descending not to get anxious about the possibility of "what if".

Early in the season I lack courage for fast descents. I develop it over my riding by picturing myself as an eagle, gliding on the wind. I try and relax completely, I let the road and the breeze move the bike gently around, instead of white-knuckling the handlebars with rigidity. I try and think about relaxing my fingertips, my forearms, my face. I push scary thoughts out of my head and just picture that eagle. It does help me. But sometimes, still, I'll quickly sit up in the saddle, or push the brakes a bit. And y'know -that's okay.

After that horrible first open water swim, I experienced the strangest phenomenon when I got back in the pool for training. My body just froze, paralyzed, unwilling to swim. I had to spend a full training session just kind of "starting over", with easy swimming back and forth with my head out of the water, then just slowly swimming through my strokes, to get the feel of the water. But I didn't really "get over it" until I put a blue rubberband around my wrist, as an object I could focus on and see underwater. I used it as a sort of hypnosis - look for the rubberband...look for the rubberband...look for the rubberband. With a single thing to focus on, I was able to push out whatever intrusive thoughts were keeping me from swimming naturally. It worked, and my workouts resumed to normalcy. As my life as a triathlete continued, I grew more and more comfortable with the washing machine in open water, and I don't fear it now at all. So maybe that's another piece of learning to overcome fear - maybe the most essential piece: experience. The more you do it, the more you'll understand yourself within it, and the less you'll have to fear.

Anyway, I'm wondering what you guys have been through. What scares you in this game, and why, and how do you deal with it? Probably we might all learn a bit about each other, and hopefully ourselves.


Anonymous said...

hi, I am stopping by your blog for the first time. I have enjoyed your videos on YouTube.

I can't say that I have any wonderful transcendent story to tell about overcoming fear. I am afraid of weeds and critters in the water. In that aspect, mass starts calm me -- what critter would possibly place themself in
the middle of that? Oh, I am also afraid of floating garbage.

Also, afraid of fast descents. Once I get to the Run I am good.

Hope your next commenters have more inspiring stories :-)


Team Brazo said...

My only fear is really the long fast downhills on the bike. But to overcome that, I just brake through them. During training rides I brake often, but once I'm in race mode (not looking to go fast, but instead to get to the finish line) then I tend to let it go just a bit.

I'm all about the finish and I can't finish if I'm sitting on the side of the road with a busted up bike.

xt4 said...

Heidi, I'm with you - weeds could not suck more. Nothing worse in a training swim than a tendril of weediness wrapping around my ankle. Totally creepy.

I hear you Brazo - I had a race once where this dude on a rocketship came screaming from behind me into a turn. I hit the brakes for a nice, gentle turn, and he thought he'd make up 2 seconds by screaming through. His wheels slid right out from under him and he skidded 50 yards or something to the curve. First (and only) time I've smelled burned flesh. Meanwhile, I finished drama free.

LBTEPA said...

I'm afraid of being laughed at for being heavy and slow. When I did my first Olympic distance I nearly threw up I was so scared. I have to keep concentrating on the fact that no-one is looking at me and that if they are sorry for me or scornful that's not my problem.

Heidi said...

I've desperatley wanted to do a triathalon and every time it gets to the swim I totally freak for the same reason you describe. I know I am not a strong swimmer, the thought of getting mangled and dunked and pulled immediately sends me into a panic.

Since I've never gotten over it, I can't say that I've actually experienced any of the fears realative to tri's. However in college I was in a swimming and diving class. I slowly was building my confidence. When it came to diving, we were required to try the back dive off the board. (I should note, I am EXTREMELY flexible, also was a college High Jumper) Thus, I jumped high enough, but when it came time to bend backwards for the dive I "overbent" and my calf muscle came smashing down on the board as I enterred the water. I thought I broke my leg and went into a panic. I couldn't even get out of the pool since my whole body was sent into the shakes. I've never expereinced the panic quite like that before.

I'd be open to suggestion of getting back in the pool, and on the diving board once again. I've always wanted to get over it. Its not as easy to just get back up and try it again.

xt4 said...

Ugh Heidi, that's pretty much terrifying. The thought of having to do a back dive would be the end of my day then and there. Puke. Plus, I've be envisioning just what happened to you - same reason I'm afraid of flip turns in the pool. I'm afraid I'm going to bash my ankles on the wall. So hey, there's another fear of mine - flip turns.

You know, you don't have to "mass start" the swim in a triathlon. You can just hang way back, wait for everybody to get in and do their thing, or move way over to the side. I avoided much of the washing machine at Ironman by hanging off to the one side. It'd be a great way to just get into the flow of racing, and in time if you felt courageous enough to start more ahead in the pack, at least you'd have some experience with what you might have to deal with.

Alili said...

Wow, I'm not sure where to start-I'm flattered that I'm mentioned in a post:) It's interesting the way fears are everpresent. Instead of facing them head on I have a tendency to use them as my crutch. Bad news! As this is goal-inhibiting behavior!

My first OW swim went beautifully, so well in fact that I was positive that my race would be just as easy. Oops. Major panic in the water resulted in about 10 extra minutes in the water...but I did get back in the water eventually and actually enjoyed the washing machine effect. I was much more aggressive in my next race.

The bike is a new entity-my first road bike. I feel exposed and that is very difficult right now. In races I feel safer with low traffic courses, race volunteers-it's all very reassuring.

At the moment I am examining my goals and my fears while trying not to be overwhelmed. As for finding my courage-I think this process is going to be full of growing pains!

Thanks-and sorry this is like another entire post!:)

Steve Stenzel said...

Nice post. Yeah, those early season descents can be freaky.

And I saw in your side bar that you're deciding between 2 possible marathons. Do I even need to tell you what one to do? I mean, do you want to see a high chicken, cow, and pig cheering you on or not?

Anonymous said...

Wow - great dialogue!

FYI - there are two Heidi's posting here, I am not talking to myself..

Heidi, As far as the swimming and diving go, two different things. it sounds like you would do great in a tri. Also, thrashing mass starts are really the domain of ironman and some large 70.3 events. If you did a local tri with a female wave, you might even find people taking the time to say, "oops, excuse me!" if they happen to bump you. Also, what Xt4 said. If it is going to make the difference between doing or not doing a tri -- why not just count to 30 after the gun and swim without anxiety.

XT4 - I think jellyfish are actually worse than weeds, but I just avoid that issue entirely...I also go for the drama free descents...

Ibtepa - big people go fast downhill! And they swim fast too. I think triathlon is evolving to the point, that people just don't write a Clydesdale or Athena athlete off from one glance. And, as you say, the truth is, nobody really cares that much, they are bizzy thinking about their own insecurities.

XT4, I feel like I know you, I actually put that video on every time I warm up on the trainer or pull up to do some graphics work at my computer. :-)


Triteacher said...

I feel lucky. I have no huge triathlon-related fears. So why am I commenting? Oh, just cuz I really like the thread - and appreciate that tri helps you work through and face your fears - tri-related and non. (Melodrama right back atchya, X!)

jason said...

Nice one. A very well-written post on methods to attack anxiety.Here is a very good wesbite that has plenty of guides regarding simple methods toattack anxiety. Thought I might share it with you. It's at

Erin said...

Per usual, I did a little more with the subject than can be tackled here in the comments section, as this is something I've been struggling with lately too (
I don't know why I'm afraid...I have no huge goals this season, nothing to prove in the immediate future, but it's there all the same, that fear.

xt4 said...

This is such an interesting conversation.

Ibtepa - I can only speak for me (well, actually I know quite a bit about the integrity of a lot of people here, so I'll speak for them, too) - if you're out there, doing a triathlon of any distance at all, then my feelings are respect and admiration for whoever you are, whatever reasons got you into getting to the starting line. Be you heavy and slow or fast and lean, whether just trying to finish or finish in first place. Everybody's experience is relative, you know? If I had any encouragement for you, it would be to take seriously that you're doing something just by showing up that most people don't do. You accomplish more on race day while most people are sleeping than they will in a whole weekend of being awake. Don't be concerned with anybody looking at you or thinking anything negative about you. Life is too short. It's a victory just to toe the line, and that's not just kool-aid talking.

Heidi (as opposed to Heidi), I was aware there were two Heidi's (or at least made the assumption), but thanks for clearing that up. I've never swam in the ocean, so jellyfish are a heretofore unknown phenomenon. I could not hesitate, however, to pee on my foot, should the need arise. If for nothing else than the interesting blog-post about peeing on my foot on race-day. (Hmm, maybe I'll do it sometime just for the hell of it...)

I'm glad you enjoy the videos! They were obviously a blast to make. I hope you'll continue to hang around and share in the blog at large! (And you too, Heidi!)

Erin, as usual you create tangential thoughts that I wish to explore. But I will ask: Do you really not know why you're afraid? You have no clue at all? It would seem you would have some inkling, even if it were half-thoughts or vague ideas. To that, then, as it serves this general conversation - is it important to know only that you afraid, or is it critical to overcoming that fear to identify plainly what you are afraid of?

Erin said...

Two things, to answer your questions. One, I don't necessarily think fear is a bad thing. It's helped me out a whole lot over the years, both as a motivator and backing me away from some perhaps not-so-safe edges.

As for why I'm afraid now...this new fear. After thinking about it, I think it's that now, after doing a few marathons, after doing an Ironman, it's not enough anymore to just do the race. There are standards, expectations...even if they are only my own. I feel as though now I need to keep getting better, I need to get into better shape (both fitness and weight-wise), and I need to keep challenging myself. And you know, sometimes I just want to go out and run, or ride, and not worry about how fast I am, or where my HR is, or that I should really be turning that ride into a brick.

The first time you do anything big, it's a challenge. Each time out after that, it's an expectation. And that creates pressure and stress at times, at least for me. It's not debilitating or all-consuming, but it's there all the same.