Overcoming the Fear of Running

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by Benjamin Freeman-Prichard

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Many deep seated feelings of fear can be stirred up when we go running, especially when we are running for more than a few hours. It’s no wonder so few of the 7 billion people in the world run any more, it can be just too overwhelming. A few of the reasons for the fear might include shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, the feeling of being chased, nausea, the fear of falling and pain. Strangely enough all of these feelings are precursors to death but none of these necessarily kill us.

Granted there are moments when a runner is in the zone and not thinking of fear but the majority of time feelings of fear and discomfort are present. If you have been experiencing any of these then welcome to the world of ultrarunning, it comes with the territory.

From a Buddhist’s perspective, fear can be both healthy and unhealthy. Either way, fear must be addressed head on if we are to overcome it. Aversion to fear only amplifies the situation. For instance, imagine a comical situation of running backwards up a mountain because it is too scary to look up at what lies ahead. Fearing something out of our control or something that has not yet come to pass is counter-productive. But the fear of falling off a mountain is useful only when our attention makes us aware of the danger and we take a few precautions to remain safe on the mountain.

The author addressing fear head on.
Photo: Minna Freeman-Prichard

There are many ways to remediate the feelings of fear. The most common being even, consistent breathing. The fact that we have the choice to take a deep inhalation and hold it as long as we want is evidence enough that we have the ability to control and deal with our situation whatever it might be. Humans are the only animal on planet earth who has the ability to control breathing.

I found one deep breath in through my nose then a deep slow exhale through my mouth is usually enough to calm me down. If not I repeat once more or whenever I need to relax again. The ability to calm down is the most crucial part of overcoming fear. Staying relaxed even in the worse situations puts us in a huge advantage over everyone else who clams up at the first feelings of fear.

Ultrarunning is about going the distance, both literally and figuratively. Death is inevitable, we have no reason to fear it. And as Ram Dass says, “It’s completely safe.” Once we internalize that we can make decisions to make the dying process easier on us. We have a choice to die healthy or unhealthy and I would have to say that years of running would put our bodies into the healthy category. I am aiming for dying of old age.

Here are three techniques for dealing with anxiety, delusion, and pain. To clear anxiety try blowing air on the backs of your thumbs. If I am feeling delusional and things are getting weird, I do reality checks to make sure I’m not dreaming. I do this by looking at the palms of my hands then closing my eyes for a second and looking at them again. If I were dreaming I would not be able to recreate the same visual of my hands. Stretching has been a technique used for thousands of years to alleviate pain. The process of stretching a tight muscle might be more painful for a moment and then when we release it, we feel comparable relief. When the body is feeling good, the mind is put at ease. Addressing pain before it comes insurmountable is often the difference between finishing a race or DNF. Long may we run, free from fear, exulted.

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