Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Overcoming Fear and Anxiety Before an Ultra

My wife and three children were asleep in our cozy little rented cabin high in the San Juan Mountains in Lake City Colorado.  It was a cold night but warm enough in the cabin that I could crack a window to let in the cool mountain air.  I was tossing and turning and wide awake.  The following morning I was to report for duty for a 5:00 am start of the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile Run.  The SJS 50 Miler is considered to be one of the toughest 50 mile runs in the country.

We had been in Lake City for a couple of days on vacation and I had allowed the intimidating mountains begin to creep in on my psyche.  As we enjoyed the mountains, I began to imagine how difficult this race was going to be.  Most of the race is above 10,000 feet on the Continental Divide, nine miles is above 12,000 feet.  They recommend that you buy a rescue permit for crying out loud.

It didn't help that every other high altitude mountain race I had ever done had gone very bad.  I had raced Jemez 50 Mile (also one of the toughest 50s) and suffered terribly.  I felt like my temples would explode as my head pulsed with each heartbeat.  My flatland blood refused to sufficiently provide oxygen to my muscles.  The headache was terrible.  I did manage to finish that day at the beautiful run through the calderas at Jemez but barely and painfully.  The psychological scars were still very fresh.

And now, here I was back at another tough high altitude 50.  Why did I do this?  What does it matter?  Why should I put myself through this?  Ultra running is crazy anyway.  I could just enjoy my vacation with my family.  I could just sleep in and have a nice breakfast and play with the kids.  As the night wore on and into the morning, I continued to allow the anxiety and fear to build.  I do not think that I slept more than two hours that night.  4 a.m. came.  I turned off my alarm before it went off and laid there awake thinking of how terrible it would be and how much it would hurt. I just laid in bed in fear.

4:15 came and went.  Time to get up, I have to hurry now but I couldn't remove the blankets.  The family was sleeping soundly.  4:30.  I must get up now, the check-in is almost over but I laid there paralyzed by fear.  And then finally through the open window I could hear the countdown to the start and the gun fire and the enthusiastic whooping and hollering as two hundred runners were off for an adventure in the mountains and there I laid convinced that I did not have to do this.  I had nothing to prove. I had already done a tough high altitude 50.  I had run a 100 mile race twice before.  I had done countless other ultras.  I did not have to do this race.  I could enjoy myself in the beauty of this place without challenging my body for 50 miles in the mountains.  I was sure that this was the right decision.

Needless to say, by noon I was just as sure that I had made a terrible mistake.  What was I thinking?  How could I have come all this way and not have run this race?  This was one of the most beautiful places on Earth and I am missing it.  It was a long ride home as I realized my mistake and pondered why I had turned yellow.  My poor wife had to listen to my self pity and self loathing for 15 hours as I castigated myself for giving in to my fears.  Internally I was so disappointed.  How could I not start?  I told myself that a DNS (did not start) is so much worse than a DNF (did not finish) because you are big coward.

I suspect that most ultra runners are like me and have at least some race anxiety.  Usually it is mild and we are able to overcome it but sometimes it may seem overwhelming.  Even before tough races I am sometimes able to put aside those worse fears, get a decent night's sleep and bravely go where I have never gone before.  Other times, inexplicably, the fear mounts as it did that night in Colorado.  As the years have gone by, I have become better at dealing with this anxiety and here now are my focus points.

1.  Remember why you entered to begin with - the sense of adventure, the beauty of the course, the comraderie.

2.  Think about the finish - this may be hard to do when your mind is focused only on the pain and the suffering before the finish but remember how good it feels when you have overcome this challenge.

3.  It's NEVER as bad as you think - sure there may be times that it hurts.  You may get an altitude headache or have really low points but in hindsight, it always seems to not have been a big deal.  The mind has a way of blowing this thing way out of proportion.

4.  It's ALWAYS better than you thought it would be - I don't think I've ever run a big race at a beautiful venue and came back thinking that the course or the race was disappointing and not as good as I expected.  I've NEVER thought that I should not have done that.  As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever regretted a single race.  Whether it's Lake City, Bighorn, Jemez, the Grand Canyon or a nearby ultra in Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas, they have always been even grander than I could have imagined them to be.  The beautiful scenery of each of these races is like a slideshow of panoramic photos that I can bring into my mind at any time.

5.  Take pressure off yourself - remember that you can always walk.  You can always sit down at an aid station.  You can make it more of a social event if times get tough.  I often liked to try to really compete in races and this led me to believe that I have to push hard the entire time.  But you know what, if you are feeling bad, then ease up and enjoy the scenery.  You may lose 20 minutes but guess what, nobody cares.

6.  As the Penquin from Runner's World said, "The miracle isn't that I finished, it's that I had the courage to start."  Even if you don't finish, just get to the start line.  If things really go bad, you could always turnaround after a few miles and come back (let race officials know of course).  Chances are, you will find it hard to believe you ever entertained the idea.

365 days after that terrible anxiety filled morning at Lake City, the gun went off again to start the San Juan Solstice 50 Mile run and the runners excitedly whooped and hollered.  This time my family was sound asleep in the cabin and I was whooping and hollering and on my way for the great adventure in the mountains and I loved every minute of it.  That evening I played with my children and we had the best pizza and that beer sure did taste good in the shadow of the San Juans.  I still kick myself when I think that I allowed my negative demons to get the better of me the year before.

I've had other sleepless nights before other races but I'm always sure to now look back at that sleepless summer night in Lake City, Colorado.  And that brings me to a seventh way to overcome anxiety.

7.  I never again want to feel like I did that morning in Lake City when I was so paralyzed by fear that I would not even start the race.

Overcoming My Fear and Finishing SJS 50 With My Kids!

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written! Great advice. I've sat out a race or two with that same paralyzing fear and it helps to know that other runners deal with the same thing. I'd definitely be an anxious mess if I was about to run SJS!! Congrats on finishing that beast and for having the courage to go back the next year to run it. See you in a few weeks!