Imagine you are a runner standing and waiting for a race to start.
In each hand you hold heavy rocks. In your left hand you hold a big rock that represents all your fears of what could happen.
You’re afraid of not running fast enough, of getting tired, of being passed by competitors or coming last.
When I was a young track and field athlete I used to have this recurring dream. I would be trying my hardest to run as fast as I could but going nowhere. My legs were impossibly heavy and they wouldn’t turn over fast enough for the race, no matter how much effort I put in. It was a dream, much like the way our fears are dreams.
Most of our fears don’t come to fruition, and in our worry, we miss what’s right in front of us.
In the other hand the heavy stone represents your past regrets. The training you didn’t complete, the failed session where you didn’t make your splits, the race you started too fast and blew up, the people who beat you when you gave up too soon before the finish. These events are past. They are done and you can’t worry about them because they aren’t going to change.
All you can do about the past is learn. You can reflect and have intention to improve your errors and be a better version of yourself.
Running while holding onto these stones will be difficult. Far more difficult than it needs to be. You will feel burdened and heavy and they will slow you down.
Can you see yourself setting these stones down. Can you let the heavy stone of fear just drop to the ground. How about you uncurl your fingers from the heavy stone of past regret and disappointment. Let it fall.
And now, unburdened by a past you can’t change, and future that is a dream, step up lightly to the start line. Pretend to hold feathers in your hands. These feathers are light, soft, and represent freedom, strength, and courage. To hold them you must be relaxed and calm.
Step to the start line and feel free, happy to be right here in the moment, working with what you’ve got.
Run For Joy
It’s GO Time and YES you should be excited And after months of learning, preparation and dreaming, you GET to toe the start line and run the streets of Victoria. You get to test out your mental and physical strength. Please notice that I wrote “GET TO” not “HAVE TO”, as this is a gift and a choice. Some of you will be eager to test out your new fitness and excited to finally be at the main course of your challenge. Others will be feeling a little fear perhaps, some trepidation and nervousness at the unknown. And finally, there will be the others who seem to take it all in stride - it’s just another day in the unfolding of their lives. By Monday morning there will have been some ups and downs and a lot of middle ground: this much is true. This weekend there will be some great moments, some incredible victories and some races that are...well...pure adventure.
Time to clear your head. If you clear your head to the task at hand and review your goals for the race, your mind will calm down, you will know where you are going on race morning and your path will be full of fun. Now is not the time to ask yourself a million questions that have no answers. Do you know how much energy it uses to ask yourself questions that you can’t answer? Not to mention that it gives you a confused muddled feeling that saps your strength. At this point, you are logistically organized, sorted out and on time. There is one last thing to drive home before you hit the starting line: are you ready for the game?
Racing is a game. It is a competitive arena, a test of determination, strength, skill and savvy. Some of the games are more important than others; some come heavily weighted with expectations and goals. Some races are just for fun, to remind us how to enjoy the game. All races are opportunities to excel, to show mastery and skill and to learn. This is what makes sport so satisfying.
There is no magic to racing well. You merely have to be ready to embrace every situation, and be open to the present moment. While ‘Beginner’s luck’ is often true, it is mainly a factor of having no or little expectations. It is easy to be happy and content when your baseline is so simple and not loaded with ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’. You can take this beginners’ attitude into any event, by checking your unrealistic expectations and having honesty and clarity about what you can achieve.
Racing is a combination of being internally focussed on your best effort at all times, while being aware of external factors: knowing the course and knowing your competition (and using this knowledge to your advantage). External factors in racing also include having a strategy, pacing well, and making solid (and quick) in-race decisions.
Nowhere can you watch a microcosm of his game unfold better than in track and field, in middle and long distance races, where runners jockey for position, use patience and tactical skill and unleash their full running potential all at the same time. On the track, athletes are forced to run in a tight pack, and the good racers can run behind the leaders patiently, immersed in the act of racing, fully present in the grace of their movements. There is no anxiety apparent in their position, but their senses are wide open, looking for opportunities to challenge, to make a move, to take advantage of a small opening as soon as it presents itself.
If racing well means being fully immersed in the experience of the moment, how do great racers look at what’s unfolding around them? Being externally aware is both necessary and crucial, but that awareness is purely objective and not hinged on the self in endless negative self talk: am I doing ok? You have to run with your cognitive senses wide open and with complete inner confidence that you are doing right. Your awareness just is.
In other words, the external awareness has to be free of anxiety. The freedom from anxiety is easier for some athletes than for others, but all athletes can hone this ability. To illustrate, consider a situation in which you are racing close to another competitor. As you run (or walk), you can focus on running in rhythm with them, and creating a positive feeling around this aspect of the race. The external awareness of racing, footsteps, breathing and moving is a huge part of the sport. There is no anxiety in this moment, until you bring it in. Wondering if you can maintain pace, who will win in the end, and if you are doing well enough are all irrelevant thoughts about the future, that creep in out of habit.
The game of racing dictates that you can be relaxed when racing side by side, enjoy the competitive arena in which you find yourself, and know that getting to the finish line isn’t about fear, it’s about the game. Your competitor is merely a player in that game.
Another way of looking at it is to consider the aspects of pacing and patience. Pacing requires patience. Being patient and knowing that you can run on someone's shoulder with patience, confidence and attention is crucial. In the strategic game of sport, it is sometimes worthwhile to sit back behind someone. A great athlete can lead, or follow with the same confidence in their ability. Following means to run your race, from behind.
The best athletes (the best in any field) are great at failing by being great learners: they take home lessons from every experience. The biggest factors to success are continuing to learn and making it fun. View your sport as a game, a game in which you are a key player in your own success, and make every move count.
Run For Joy!
You will probably feel nervous before a race. Don’t waste your energy trying to understand, over analyze or kill your fears. Say hello to the fear, and accept that it exists. That’s it. Then get on with the race that you have been training for. But because I'm me, here's some of my thoughts on fear, anxiety and courage in sport!
I get asked a lot about how to deal with pre race nerves and anxiousness. I feel that while nervousness and anxiousness sound the same, they are essentially a little bit different. Being nervous is a physical sensation caused by thinking about an event. The nervousness can actually be excitement and anticipation, and a sense of agitation that occurs as you get ready for a race – where you know you are going to be asking more from yourself. Performance anxiety feels more rooted in how you are thinking about the future event, and a sense that things may not go well, or as well as you hope. A sense of unease and apprehension best describes that feeling.
Nervousness feels like agitation, higher heart rate, a sense that you can’t stay calm, jittery. I have always been nervous before big events – the bigger the event, the bigger the nerves, and I have learned to manage the nerves by breathing exercises, being positive about the nerves (this means I am excited and that I care about what I am about to do!), and by finding space to be by myself in order to calm down and maintain a good balance between being overly stimulated and being asleep.
Performance anxiety, on the other hand is more deeply rooted in fear based thinking of ‘what can go wrong’ and ‘am I good enough?’. In these cases, people are using their wonderful brains, to actively imagine the worst things that can happen, instead of the best. There are many reasons that people do this, but one of these is simply habit and this is where the visualization exercises during training, comes into play. Give yourself permission to visualize the best possible outcome. You are not taking anything away from anyone by performing to your best, you are simply adding to the awesome energy of the event. It may take several tries to consciously start imagining all the positive things that can happen, and it may feel forced at first, but it works.
Fear is Normal
After being in sport for 40 years, watching athletes every day, racing with them, training with them, travelling with them and coaching them, I can tell you that fear cannot be made to simply disappear. Fear is part of being human, even if the fear is no longer valid for basic survival. Overcoming fear is not about denial and avoidance, it is about awareness and developing skills that work for you. Pretending that fear doesn’t exist means it sits there simmering and when push comes to shove, it will come out roaring with the power of being not only ignored, but neglected. If fear is preventing you from enjoying what you know you can enjoy, then it’s totally worthwhile doing something about it. Facing your fears of racing is a good start.
As an athlete I went on to have my own relationship with fear and courage during my high performance career. I had to conquer very real fears, like how to handle a bike while hurtling downhill at 80 km/hr, or through rain drenched corners, or when riding through the manic streets of Paris. My fear of swimming open water was almost paralyzing at times and brought up the most intense feeling of panic, and helplessness. I faced these fears out of a combination of desperation and determination and intense habit changing, because they were getting in the way of my goals. My determination to race as a pro meant that I had to figure out how to get past these fears and I put in countless hours of visualization and sheer practice building my skills. I followed the best cyclists downhills, I listened to every coach as they talked me through corners and bike handling skills, I trained in open water as much as I could, and talked myself through every single swim, and I did it over and over and over until my belief in my ability outweighed my fears.
The biggest fears, however, the massive monsters in the room, are the ones that are hard to name, and these are the fears that strike right at the epicentre of our self-worth, and I can assure you, the larger the goal, the larger the fear. If we try to trick fear by downplaying the magnitude of our dreams, it attacks us from a different angle. Pretending your goals and dreams are meaningless (in order to side track fear into taking a back seat) takes away the joy you will receive when you achieve those wonderful goals. To receive the joy, you have to acknowledge the great height of your feeling, and fear is right there with you! My fear came as voices, and taunts, and doubts. ‘You won’t make it.’ ‘Other people are great.’ ‘You’ll never be good enough.’ ‘You should probably get a real job soon.’ ‘Who are you to want so much for yourself?’ I was nervous about racing often, because I was so invested, but the single largest fear was simply feeling like an imposter in a world full of the ‘real deal.’
So, how did I stay in sport so long if I had such negative voices to deal with, such fear running alongside me during every training run, taking the plane with me on every trip to Europe? I learned to work with my fear. I learned that it was going to be there no matter what and I could not make it go away. I took fear with me, but I did not let fear step in and ruin my party. I loved to run! Loved the thrill of racing, the excitement and the endorphins. I loved everything about training and racing, except for the fear. So I learned to embrace the joy, because while fear could get in the way of my dreams and my plans, and my goals for myself, fear stood NO chance against my joy. Joy made fear retreat to a corner and sit there silent. Fear never really went away, but as long as I felt joy in what I was doing, it stopped being so annoying. My whole website creativity around the running life and now, my clinics, are built around this premise: run for joy. Run for fear only when you are crossing the road and a truck is coming, or if something dangerous is in your path. The rest of the darn time, run for joy. It is intrinsic, it is not about what you achieve or what you win: it is who and what you believe in.
I felt that fear would either derail my personal pursuit of greatness, or it would have to live within me, unempowered.
Or my favourite quote about fear by Elizabeth Gilbert: “Let fear come for the road trip, but it has to sit in the back seat and doesn’t get to touch the radio dial, and it certainly cannot drive the car!” (Big Magic)
So, learning to deal with your fear in sports is not about being fearless. Very few people are truly fearless, and it’s actually sort of psychotic to be fearless, if you think about it. It’s not about defeating your fear. It’s about knowing your fear (knowing yourself!) and having the courage and tenacity to go for it anyway, because your gut feeling is right. It is what you want.
Facing fear, then, is about being brave! Having courage is about knowing fear and being ready to endure it. Once I knew my fears in open water, I could decide how I was going to overcome that particular hurdle. It wasn’t necessarily fun admitting that I was scared, but ultimately it was rewarding. Being able to swim with confidence and focus on racing, unhindered by the rapid breathing and panic that fear was dying to bring into the race was empowering!
The repetition of being brave, small acts of personal bravery and courage build resilience and self-esteem. Every time you show up to practice even though you are a little scared, this is what builds character.
To remind yourself of your ability to put fear in the backseat, hold firmly onto the idea of trust.
I have trust in my integrity, my training and my ability; I have confidence and reliance.
Read those lines over and over and take that with you into your last weeks of training and definitely onto the start line. I believe the moment of truth for a lot of people –that place somewhere in the late stages of a race when the discomfort is calling so clearly – is a lot about trust. Suddenly, in a flash, our belief in our ability to finish strong falters and then so does our stride. In my most flawless races, I bring massive trust of my own ability. I trust that my body will perform, I trust my confidence will not falter, and I trust that it will simply all work out.
Practice trust, and...
Run For Joy – Lucy Smith
This year I am running the TC 10K. After twenty plus years of racing the event as a competitive athlete, and elite master, this year I am entering the race non competitively, as the race Ambassador. My goal is to run 50 minutes, to pace as evenly as possible using only a watch, and to raise as much as I can for the BC Cancer foundation, one of the official charities.
Most people want to run faster. This year I am going to attempt to just run slower. At the peak of my career I used to shoot for a 3:15/km pace (33 minute 10K). This year, I am going to shoot for 4:59 (just under 50 minutes for 10K). Just like at my fastest, I am going to run with only my watch. No HR monitor, no GPS (I have to make it a little challenging!).
The way I see it, at 50 minutes, I get to run with a LOT of people, which is going to be fun and I get to run for another 20 minutes along the streets of Victoria on a Sunday morning.
I welcome people to run with me; I am an excellent pacer and if you run with me, I’ll probably throw some encouragement your way, because that is what I love to do!
Why am I doing this? Because I want to do something to help Cancer research and care in BC. Every year I support the Cops for Cancer and watch them ride through my community, and I attend the KidsRun in May, which raises so much money for kids battling cancer, and their families.
In May of 2016 I flew to Nova Scotia and ran with my childhood best friend Laura, in the Bluenose 10k. We ran 50 minutes and it was huge feat for Laura, who was battling stage 4 lung cancer at the time. Laura passed away that October – I learned so much about life, from Laura, in those few short months she survived. She was a beautiful funny human being, our birthdays were only days apart at the end of April, and I will always miss her.
As the 6 time winner of this event, I have very strong emotional ties to the TC 10K – this race was a cornerstone of my spring season every year and the race supported me in my elite career as a distance runner, with prize money and validation for my striving for excellence, for which I will always be grateful. Now, at the age of 51 (I turn 52 the day before the race), I am hoping that my pacing will help a few folks through to their own excellence on race day, and support people who can’t run due to the effects of cancer.
I feel so grateful for my health and my career in sport and will continue to support, motivate and inspire those who are in pursuit of their own excellence - I have set up my donation page in Racer Roster for those who want to support me in my goal of raising $5052.00
Thank you for taking the time to read this, thank you for your donations and see you on race day!
Run For Joy – Because You Can!
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.