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Feel the Fear and Don’t Do It Anyway

by Carilyn on March 5, 2013


I’ve never been smart enough to do what’s good for me. In fact, most of my life, pretty much everyone around me has asked me, “Why?”. Why did I quit practicing law? Why do I run so much? Why did I let my kids go to school in Los Angeles? Why did I wear bright yellow knee socks with black patent leather shoes – with the ribbons tied up my legs – for school pictures? Why?

Frankly, I’ve never had a good answer. And I’ve tried really hard to come up with a good one, a reason for why I always seem to be swimming upstream, or at least in a different lane. “Because I want to,” comes off surly and snide, when I feel exactly the opposite. Just like I always get lost during trail runs because I’m so busy daydreaming and taking in the sights, I’m the same way in real life – I’m just going along, getting excited about something new, and venturing off before I realize that I’m suddenly on the trail alone. It’s not intentional, it just happens.

This was a very roundabout way of saying that I am not usually afraid of much because I’m not usually paying enough attention to realize I should be afraid; that the choice, road, trail I’m about to take is probably fraught with danger, and a wiser person would stop, turn around, and do something different – something smarter. I’m not putting myself into challenging situations because I’m brave, but because I’m oblivious.

But on Saturday, I was confronted with a lifelong fear that got my attention – my fear of heights. Since I can remember, I’ve always been afraid of heights. Once, on a date, I had a full-blown panic attack replete with hyperventilating, crying, and near-vomiting when our ferris wheel bucket got stopped at the top. Let me just say, the date was over the minute we were safely back on the ground. The poor guy probably saw a lifetime of mental health counseling bills to be paid if we ended up together.

And I have no idea why I’m so afraid of heights – I don’t remember having a near-death experience on top of a mountain, or anything – but it has plagued me my whole life. AndΒ because of this fear, what was supposed to be an “epic” 20 mile trail run with friends, turned into an embarrassing reminder that I can’t control everything. Especially not my brain.

Much of the run was on an old unpaved fire road, so all was well. But then, we did a detour onto a singletrack trail – and all hell broke loose for me. One minute I was running, thinking how lucky I was to be out in the forest, running with friends on such a beautiful day, and the next, BAM! Vertigo, nausea and full-tilt panic. We had come to a section of the trail where one side abutted rock face and the other was a sheer drop down 2000 feet. And I couldn’t move. It was like a switch had flipped in my brain and I had turned to stone. Sweaty, panicky, freaking out stone.

I urged my friends to go on, not wanting to compound my panic with further shame for having ruined their run, and then after they left, I gingerly tried to make myself move forward.

“I can do this. I can do this,” I repeated to myself again and again.

But I couldn’t. I made it another mile, feeling as if I was going to throw up the entire time, and finally turned back – having to go back the way I came. It was excruciating.

And the thing that extra sucks about this scenario is that it happens EVERY TIME I run singletrack, mountainous trail. It doesn’t matter how many times I “successfully” get through the run, I still fall apart the next time – and each time it gets worse. I thought if I “felt the fear and did it anyway,” I would overcome it, but clearly that isn’t happening.

So, for now (or at least until I find a good shrink who can hypnotize me, or something), I’m going to swim with the sharks, run with the bears and the mountain lions, travel the world – but NOT run mountainous singletrack. Really, as often as I fall down, the odds are pretty high my fears are justified anyway.

Happy Running!


{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate March 5, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Oh, that stinks. πŸ™ I’m afraid of heights, too, though not to the degree you are…though that kind of situation would likely paralyze me. We have pictures somewhere from the Chimney Tops at Smokey Mtn Nat’l Park where I’m crouched down, too scared to stand up on the rock, while 8 year olds scamper fearlessly.

I have to say, though, I definitely recognized myself in your first paragraphs. πŸ™‚

Carilyn March 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm

I know, Kate, that’s what makes it worse. You see kids and old people on the same trail (rock, hill, etc.) and you know the fear is irrational. I hate it. But I’m just going to be a ninny for now πŸ™‚

Marcia March 5, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Yikes, that must have been terrifying for you. I dated a guy who was afraid of heights and he exhibited all of the symptoms you describe when he tried to climb an observation tower. I’m surprised you even rode a ferris wheel.

Char March 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

I’ve been there with the irrational fear thing. For me it was planes – kind of a fear of height issue too. Heart racing, nausea-inducing, vomiting. It’s just the most horrible feeling in the world because you know that nearly everyone else can’t understand why your so afraid. And you can’t explain it to them because you don’t understand why you’re afraid either. You just are.

I’m a lot better about it these days. And I didn’t have therapy. I just make sure I carry diazepam and just knowing I’ve got them makes me able to cope.

Jeff Dinkin March 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm

That’s a tough one, especially for a Trail runner. πŸ™

I understand the overwhelming fear thing though. Mine is water. If I can’t see my legs and feet while in a large body of water, I completely lose it. As absurd as it sounds, even if it’s a pool, I freak out. Only clear bodies of water work for me, and even in those I’m still nervous.

pensive pumpkin March 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm

+1 on the whole dang thing.

There’s this local race I had to defer last year because I couldn’t run across a bridge. Yeah. It was scary. Granted, it’s on Travel Channel’s top ten scariest bridges, but still.

Gotta figure it out this year. Ugh.

Rebecca March 5, 2013 at 9:02 pm

I am getting chills just thinking about being stuck at the top of a ferris wheel. I think it is a control thing for me, the fear of heights.
20 miles with friends sounds awesome!

Kent March 6, 2013 at 4:36 am

I’m there with ya Carilyn! My stomach does flips if I see someone get near the edge of something high or forbid it that they should look over it – and that’s just on TV !

olga March 6, 2013 at 7:53 am

Try Bear trail at Hardrock. It is actually worse during a day when you see it all, but in a race for us, mid-pack folks, it’s always at night, no matter what direction, which is mentally very helpful (that, and the fact that brain is dead by then:)). When I climb, or even hike mountains, I never look down. And when and if I do, you’ll find me clinging to the side on my belly from time to time:)

SteveQ March 6, 2013 at 9:24 am

The three natural inborn fears: falling, loud noises and strangers. I’m afraid I’ll make a loud noise when I fall in front of strangers.

When I decided to try to climb all the 2000 foot “mountains” of Minnesota, I found myself frequently going from hugging one tree to the next one on the way up, terrified to let go.

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

I was trying to impress the cute guy, Marcia! πŸ™‚

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:51 am

If only diazepam would work for running, Char! πŸ™‚

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:53 am

I know so many people who feel the same way as you, Jeff. But glad you can handle heights!

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:54 am

Oooooooh, scary bridge – ick! I probably couldn’t do it either, PP! πŸ™‚

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:55 am

Mine is probably a control thing, too, Rebecca :).

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:56 am

Yes, Kent! I hate watching other people on high places almost as much as I hate being on high places!

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:57 am

No Hardrock for me, Olga! Yikes!

Carilyn March 6, 2013 at 9:58 am

And you got through it, Steve? That’s really encouraging, because I’m convinced I’ll never get through it. Okay, maybe I won’t quit trying.

Kirstin C (@ultrarunnergirl) March 7, 2013 at 7:38 am

Cliff running is scary. This is a pretty rational fear.

Carilyn March 7, 2013 at 9:42 am

I agree, Kirstin. I just wish it wasn’t ruining my mojo πŸ™‚

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