“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” -Mark Twain
Fear is in all of us. But it’s what we do with that fear that distinguishes us as humans. Twain hits on this idea of mastery of fear. This is a tall order. How do we master our fears? Just like how we master anything else … practice.
When I watched Kilian Jornet’s Matterhorn speed record video [click to watch] a few years ago, I was certain he was otherworldly, insane, a freak – a psychological anomaly – maybe he was born without the fear gland in his brain. Yet the more I consider what Kilian and others do, the more I believe that it was only by repetition, habitually choosing courage, and utilizing experiential confidence that allows them to not back down – to overcome the fear – to slay the dragon.
I am as scared as hell before a hundred. At the start of a hundred miler, we often stand around, using jokes and small-talk as coping mechanisms to battle the dread and fear that comes with running 100 miles (or really any distance for that matter). Every runner on that starting line has had to overcome some demons just to toe the line. This needs to be celebrated.
Personally, I fear literal death the most. I am totally aware that it is irrational. I know the odds are heavily in my favor that I’ll return home safely, yet the fear of that one in a million chance remains. I don’t want to die while running. I don’t want to slip off a rock face, get eaten by something higher on the food chain, get lost in the night, or have a freak heart-attack. I think about these things before long solo training runs and races. I lay awake at night pondering what might happen to me, and then subsequently, my poor family. And I’m supposed to be some “elite level” ultra runner! Psssssht. I’m still a novice at courage. But I’m getting better.
If you are human, you are like me. So if we all have those little whispers of fear running through our minds, why do we plow on? Our human nature tells us to avoid danger – to avoid pursuits that implant fear and anxiety. I think we forge on because of the overcoming. It’s in the overcoming of adversity that soaks us with euphoric satisfaction. If you just finished your first 5k and you were scared that people were going to judge you because of your body, but you did it anyway, hell yeah! That’s an achievement to be proud of – you are now ready to step it up a notch – to gain a little more ground – to take another stab at the dragon. If you got spooked on your solo moonlight trail run and carried on anyways. That’s a victory. You can draw on that as the stakes rise.
So what can we do? This is the crux. This is hard. This will hurt. My fear manifests itself in anxiety. Sometimes, when I’m all alone in the mountains, and I begin to look around and contemplate all the ways things could go wrong, waves of nausea flood through my body. I get weak in knees and my self-preservation bells start singing like a boiling water.
I have to get down. Down. Down. Down. As fast as I can. I don’t want these feelings.
But you know what…SCREW THAT! I love it up there. I love the feeling of being alone in the world – away from social media, away from life pressures, soaking in the elements of a unique environment. It’s totally worth it and I refuse to let fear ruin it for me.
Exposure therapy. This is real and this is what I do. There’s no getting around it. If you truly have the desire to begin a journey towards mastery, you need to make incremental gains. But rest assured, you don’t need to do it all overnight! If you are deathly afraid of running alone in the woods at night, don’t start with a 4 hour night run on a remote trail in grizzly country. Instead, shoot for an early morning start when you know the sun will soon rise – perhaps on trail you know well with city lights in view. Remember: incremental gains.
When I’m on a summit and my fear is telling me to go down, I purposefully resist. What I started doing was bringing my lunch and forcing myself to eat it on the summit. To sit and ruminate in my discomfort and strive for a sense of calm. It has helped.
Whatever your fear, start chipping away at it.
The reward is worth it – it really is. Progression towards emotional maturity is a lifelong journey. I have improved a lot over the years but I am still far from where I want to be. I am not aiming for the fortitude of a Kilian Jornet or a Ueli Steck [click to watch] – I didn’t grow up in the mountains and have only been sojourning there for a handful of years now – but I am willing myself to improve. I don’t want to open another can of worms, but I also know this skill will transcend into other areas of my life: in my work, in my relationships, and in my quiet space. It’s a worthy pursuit.
So here’s to getting after it. Today’s the day to push your limits. To overcome. To challenge your inner demons.
Free the chains.