7 Things Running A Marathon Taught Me About Fear

You don’t have to do what fear tells you.

Pema Chödrön, the Tibetan Buddhist nun and author, tells a great story about fear.

Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle.

The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other…The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked: “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said: “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said: “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied: “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and do whatever I say…You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”

Running the New York City Marathon felt a little like going into battle with fear. It taught me a lot about myself, and about the nature of fear. Here are seven things I learnt when I pushed past it to cross that finish line…

1. Fear challenges me

The first time I watched the New York City Marathon, standing on the sidelines on Fifth Avenue, I thought, ‘I could never do that’. At the time I’d never run more than a 10-mile race; I couldn’t imagine running 26.2 miles! The idea was overwhelming and scary. I guess that’s why I decided I wanted to do it. I’ve never been big on letting fear keep me from trying anything.

2. Fear holds me back

Sometimes fear challenges me to do things, and sometimes fear keeps me from doing them. I didn’t let fear stop me from running a marathon, but I definitely allow it to run the show in other areas of my life, like my relationships and my career. Now I try to be conscious of when I’m not doing something because I’m scared, and apply my marathon-running attitude to the situation. I don’t want to let fear hold me back from anything – ever.

3. Fear tells lies

The voice in my head that said ‘You were exhausted after 10 miles – there’s no way you can run 26.2’ was fear. If I’d listened to that voice, I would have missed out on one of the greatest days of my life. And it wasn’t just the voice of fear in my own head, either. When you’re fearful, you’ll always find people around you to give voice to the lies fear tells. More than one ‘friend’ expressed concern about whether or not I was really up to running a marathon, telling me horror stories of injuries in an attempt to discourage me.

4. Pushing past fear can be tedious and uncomfortable

The times I felt most fearful about running a marathon were during the countless long, boring training runs I did in the brutal Summer heat and humidity. Getting up at 5:30 in the morning to run wasn’t fun, and running the same loop in the park got old really fast. While I ran, I’d imagine it was marathon day, and I’d get scared, but all I could do was keep slogging through it.

5. Pain isn’t something to be scared of

When you’re training for a long race, it’s important to pay attention to pain. Pain might tell you that you need to wrap up your knee, get better shoes or do some stretching and strengthening exercises. But pain doesn’t mean you have to stop running. In fact, it will almost always go away if you keep running. There are two important things to remember about pain, in life as well as when running: pain gives you information, and pain is temporary.

6. Fear doesn’t define me

I’ve been afraid of lots of things in my life: dogs, the dark, swimming, speaking up for myself – and guess what? Now I like dogs, I love swimming, the dark doesn’t bother me, and I’m no longer afraid to stand up for myself. I also used to think I wasn’t athletic and could never do anything like run a marathon. The things that scare us might be part of our story, but they aren’t who we are. Every time we do something outside of our comfort zone, we push the boundaries of how we define ourselves.

7. I’m stronger than fear

I didn’t know how strong I was until I crossed the finish line of my first marathon. The secret to running a marathon? Just. Don’t. Stop. Fear only seems strong when you let it boss you around. Push back and it will dissolve. The months leading up to the marathon were pretty brutal, and I’m not even referring to the training. There was this big, scary goal sitting in front of me, looking intimidating, but once I was running the actual race, I felt pretty blissful. I’d made it, I was there, and all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.

You don’t have to run a marathon to learn these lessons. They’re available to anyone, anytime you do something you’re afraid to do and come out the other side. What scary thing will you do today?

GIFs via giphy.com.

Comment: Take the first step in fighting fear by telling us, in this public forum, what you’re scared of.