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Feel the fear and do it anyway

by kirsty
Friday 24th October 2014

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade points out that to become a stronger, smarter runner, you sometimes have to try something different - and she gives us some great examples of how to 'spice up' our training!

When you think about running you probably think about the wind on your face, lovely sunny days, trotting along with your friends or your club, enjoying the sights and sounds on your route and feeling  whatever your personal choice is along a spectrum of happily coasting along to feeling that your lungs might burst. What running may not conjure up is fear, panic and dread but these feelings can be an important part of the best kind of runs and I implore runners to include a bit of fear in their plan.

I’ll start by clarifying that I’m not talking about the sort of terror that finding dead bodies in the woods or being attacked by a flock of angry seagulls on a run might cause. I’m thinking more of the kind of fear that comes from biting off a bit more than you can chew, from pushing yourself out of that comfort zone of your normal running.

I’ll ease you into this and start with what I consider to be somewhat frightening and yet very enjoyable: getting lost on a run. This can be experienced to a mild degree on routes you are fairly familiar with by taking a different footpath, or turning right instead of left, and it might cause some slight alarm but chances are you will find your way home fairly easily. But let’s take it up a gear and put you on unfamiliar ground, possibly out in the countryside, and you’re fairly certain that you came this way but this doesn’t look familiar at all. Panic bells start to ring, you up your pace a bit, you run round in a massive circle and eventually find the car, having run 20 miles as a progressive run (pace rising with panic levels) instead of an easy 10 mile jaunt in the countryside, you are possibly crying a bit, and within half an hour you think it was the most fun you have ever had on a run. And the result?

You’re becoming a fitter runner. Fear is good for your running.

Another scenario which is good for those wanting to inject a bit of fear in their running is running at night, in the countryside, on your own. I like to do a bit of ‘going out when it’s just about dusk without a head torch and having to really up my pace to get home before it’s really dark’. This is a good starting point. But if you want full-on terror then I recommend ‘middle of nowhere, pitch black, perfect place to dump a body’ type night runs. I once volunteered to clear course markers for an ultra and the only time I could do it was at night. I didn’t think anything of it, having done lots of races where you need to run at night in the middle of nowhere. However, what I didn’t factor in was that there are always other people in races. So I negotiated miles of fields, deserted railway underpasses, cattle (sometimes scary in daylight), even floods, and I jumped at every single noise, upping my pace with every fright, and possibly said non-religious prayers, pledging to stretch every single day if I just get out of this alive, under my breath. I couldn’t wait to jump back into that car and drive home but it was a very memorable run and it constituted a good mid-week long run with a few fast intervals.

The 2013 TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) © Pete Aylward

Photos: When the going gets tough... Kirsty during the 2013 TDS © Pete Aylward (Article HERE)

Running terrifying routes is another way of upping the ante. Situations in which I’ve been very scared when running have included: very high places, very high places with opportunities to fall very far, very cold or very hot places, routes with deep/cold water to wade through, races which are very long, high winds, blizzards, and when I’ve felt the very early stages of hyperthermia. But I think that if I hadn’t been very scared in many of these situations then I wouldn’t have been respecting the courses. Fear of these sorts of situations is what makes you be rigorous about always having the right kit, taking on enough water/nutrition, knowing when you’re in danger and unfortunately, sometimes, knowing when to quit.

So fear can make you a faster runner and it can make you a smarter runner, but it can also make you a stronger runner mentally. Last year I ran the TDS race at the UTMB, which is around 120km and 7250m of ascent. I’d run the slightly shorter CCC race the previous two years so I knew what it entailed and I was fairly well prepared. The weather was looking good and I had every reason to feel positive about completing the race. However, for some reason I was utterly terrified, I was literally tearful at the start. It just felt like such a huge undertaking and I was so full of doubt about whether I could do it. I felt like a fraud next to all the other runners with their tanned, tree-trunk legs. I’d never felt like that at the start of a race before and although some thoughtful texts from my best friend calmed my nerves a bit, it took a good few miles and a couple of big ascents before the fear subsided.

I think the fear came from the fact that it’s a huge and scary race, where a lot of things can go wrong, the fact that there were a lot of people at home following online, who I didn’t want to let down, and just a big dollop of self-doubt. But to have overcome that fear and completed the race gave me a bigger sense of achievement than anything else. It showed me that doing something to terrify yourself once in a while is a life-enhancing experience and it can give you the confidence to carry through into other things and to attempt bigger challenges.

So I plan to make fear a part of my running for many years to come. There will be races involving navigation, mountains, darkness, water and difficult weather and I will be a better runner for it. Fear has given me many memorable experiences, more confidence in running and in life and the courage to try even scarier races. I’m with Eleanor Roosevelt on this, who said: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” 

Thames Trot 50 - February 1, 2014

Photos: Fighting the demons at the Thames Trot 50 © Julian Moore. The finish line © Eileen Naughton (Article HERE)


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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