Letting go is hard to do. Itís serious business, work for real men and women. Itís not something you can do if youíre feeling at all cowardly, or so I thought. Recently, I let go of a couple of biggiesómajor fears that have been boulders Iíve stumbled over again and again. Iím still not quite sure how I feel about it all. Itís not like someone kindly lifted a steamer trunk off my shoulders so I could float off into happyland. Itís more like a foggy window was wiped clean. Now I see a lot of things a lot more clearly.
Fear is a sneaky thing, isnít it? Sometimes it just creeps under your skin, like a leech, and you donít even know itís there until you contemplate doing something andóbingo!ófind that youíre suddenly scared to do it. It gives you a convenient excuse for a whole host of bizarre behaviors. Fear of riding alone, or riding with a group that could drop you, or riding in the rain can all add up to lots of time on the bike to nowhere. Fear of injury can make you stop short of pushing yourself as hard as you might like in a raceóor keep you from doing the speedwork that would prepare you to push yourself in a race. Fear of committing to truly change your body can make you reach for another cookie. Fear of racing might keep you from filling out an entry form.
And the list goes onófrom small ones to big ones. Hey, a little fear can even be a good thing: Itíll ensure you have a healthy respect for traffic when youíre on your bike, for example, and it will make sure you are appropriately cautious about swimming in the open water. Itís when the fear meter gets out of whack that problems creep in.
The big one, for me anyway, is a fear of success. Thatís because it has helped me hold on to a host of other fears and sneaky excuses, compromises, and hedgings so I can avoid ever finding out what my potential as an athlete actually might be. Knowing what that potential is brings responsibility, doesnít it? You have to respect it, and develop it, and nurture itóeven if your best might be a 7-minute mile, not a 5-minute mile.
You have to work it, too. Work it hard.
It all started not long ago when my wonderful 80-year-old, until recently ponytail-sporting Dutch stepfather gave me a piece of advice. It has become a touchstone for me. He knows of my tendencyóand my motherísóto worry. So one evening, he was gently mocking the fears that my mother and I carry around like matching valises. Of course he knew heíd have an ally in my husband, perhaps the most optimistic man to walk the planet.
"Dear," he said to me, "just live."
Well, that snapped my head around. "What?" I said, not quite sure Iíd caught it all.
"Just live! Go ride your bike. Go have fun. Live your life!" This from a man who survived the Second World War, who had to hide from the Nazis when they marched into Amsterdam, who carried less than 80 pounds on his frame when the Americans finally arrived. When he talks, I listen.
His advice isnít complicated, is it? (OK, apparently the concept has been hard for me.)
So hereís what I did. While it doesnít sound all that monumental, Iím telling you, it was huge. First, I rode in the rain. OK, rain and hail. This is not something I like to do, in general. Yes, Iíve done it before. But being wet and cold and on the roads just isnít my thing. But on a recent rainy Saturday the skies cleared for a while and we headed out, a group of three friends. At first, we thought weíd stay close to homeóyou know, not get too far afield lest the heavens open up again. (Foreshadowing: I brought no food on this trip for this precise reason. I was fairly well certain the heavens were going to open momentarily. This was a Mistake.) About an hour later, one of these friends said, "Hey, letís head out towards the Peninsula. It looks good." Indeed it did, and it was, with only occasional brief sprinklings. We had an out-of-town pal with us, and we really wanted to show him the spectacular route of our regular Saturday rides along the coast. We decided against the big climb out of respect for the descent, though. (Everybody has limits, and this was ours.) After a while, we neared the house of a fourth friend and decided to roust him. Understand: The skies were clear-ish, and it was now about 11 a.m. Weíd been riding since, oh, 8:30. Our friend had been enjoying his couch, channel surfing and waiting for the weather to clear before mounting his bike. But peer pressure is a powerful thing, and soon we were four.
Thirty seconds into the ride back home (because we original three were now turning toward home), the heavens opened in a big way. In a Biblical way. We soldiered on because, as you know, what else can you do? Finally, about 45 minutes later, the hail came. At that point we were on Canne ry Row among people and hotels. We darted into a fancy hotelís carport and waited until the hail stopped as the valets shook their heads and grinned at us. Of course, at this point, about four hours into the ride, I was fairly well hungry. So I mooched from my friends, something I hate to do. But I also knew I was dangerously close to not being able to pedal at all, and that would probably be more burdensome to my pals in the end.
As we rode off again, my friend Graham, who is English, looked at me and said, "This is real rain." Well, I figured, if an Englishman says that, it really must be.
But hereís the thing, for me: We reached our destination in one piece. We did not catch pneumonia. We did eat pancakes and drink hot tea and take showers of a length that might seem indecorous given Californiaís current power crisis. In other words, all was well.
Fear was squirming. I started to think about products, always a good sign. How booties mightíve helped, or at least some toe covers. (I have neither because usually my feet are just fine. But warm feet, dry feet might be nicer than "just fine" feet after all.) I remembered that I do have a fantastic light for my helmet, and that I should just get out and ride on the roads more, darkness and rain be damned.
And now you could see chinks in the armor of other fears.
The next day, I ran a 10K that was, ironically, the race where Iíd first tackled the distance a few years ago. This time, though, I wanted to run a little hard, just to see what would happen. I visualized good outcomes the night before and kept myself in a positive frame of mind as we made our race preparations that morning. (Usually, I find my mind drifting toward shredded ligaments and pain, pain, pain. Yes, I know thatís a sickness, but I also know I am not alone in it.)
Had a good warmup once a little tiredness from Saturdayís 52 miles left my legs. Arrived at the start line just as the race started. I had a secret time goal that I hadnít told my running partner, my husband. So we ran along, him keeping my pace because this was, after all, the Together With Love run for Valentineís Day. (Had he run his own race, we would logically be the Apart With Hate runners and that didnít seem sporting.) The splits were uncannily even. Finally, after about four miles, Dave asked, "Did you have a time in mind?" I sheepishly told him, one eye on my heart-rate monitoróthe number was a bit high, but it was holding steady. "Well," he said, "weíll have to pick it up just a bit over these last couple of miles." Thank God for his ability to calculate fractions and run at the same time. So we picked it up a bit. And another bit. And soon enough the finish line was in view, my goal time right there, within seconds. I was stunned.
Again, I found myself in one piece at the end. Yes, I was sore the next day (and the day after, and, OK, the day after that, but in rapidly diminishing numbers of body parts). So, hm. That gave me something more to think about.
Itís finally sinking in that this adage is true: To get better at something you have to be willing to risk. You have to be willing to shed your fears, say good-bye to your old self, and walk down a new path. The way will be obscured to you at many points, and old, comforting habits will be hard to change, but you have to trust what your bones tell you about how youíre getting stronger.
So perhaps I am getting stronger. I wonít say my battle against injury isover because I donít want to invite trouble. (See my wise publisherís piece called In Flagrante Delicto if you donít believe me. Like him, Iím a firm believer in keeping your damn mouth shut.) But I will say that I now am learning, oh so slowly, where the edges of the envelope might beóand how far away from them I really am.