... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Overcoming Inner Obstacles: Fears and Distance

I have a confession to make.

After the shark sighting incident, I got a little nervous. Not nervous enough keep me out of the water, but enough to make my heart beat out of my chest at every tiny shadow in the periphery of my vision, enough to make me sit on the sand staring at the water for a few minutes before collecting the nerve to go in. Now, I have never been one to be afraid of swimming in the ocean. In fact, I am more comfortable in open water than in a pool. I know the statistics: that I am more likely to die in a car crash driving to work than I am to be attacked by a shark, and that while hundreds of millions of people swim in the ocean each year, only a handful will encounter one. These statistics comforted me until about three weeks later when Sean and I were standing--standing--in shallow water up to our chests and saw something triangular and thin moving through the water twenty-five feet away.

At first I didn't say anything. I was convinced that my fears had finally progressed into full on delusions, that what I saw could not possibly be a dorsal fin. It disappeared for a moment as I kept my eyes trained on the spot it had disappeared. Sean was also suddenly silent, seemingly staring in the same direction. When it appeared again, I knew it was like nothing I had seen in the water before. Sean and I's "what is that?"s came at the same moment--the moment at which we decided to get out of the water.

If it was indeed a shark, it was a small one. Somehow, though, this failed to comfort me, and although I kept planning swim workouts, I kept finding excuses to skip them. The weather was bad, I didn't have time, et cetera. The truth was, I kept imagining huge, teethy creatures ascending from the deep. Since I have always been fearless in the water, I was ashamed to admit that I was scared.

This same phenomenon had also manifested in my running. I had been so afraid of re-injuring my foot that I hadn't wanted to run for longer than ten minutes without stopping to walk. There hadn't been any symptoms: no pain, no stiffness, but I was so scared to push to far that I was stuck in my walk-run-walk-run pattern. This week, I took control of both of these problems.

First, I did my first pre-dawn run. The moon was still bright and stars punctuated the sky as I dragged myself out of bed at 5am. The first five minutes felt horrible, but once the cobwebs cleared from my mind, it was fun to be up before the rest of the island. I put my running clothes on, then bundled myself in baggy sweats and fluffy socks. Even in Hawaii, 5am is chilly. I did some warm up exercises and sipped a hot mug of green tea, then set out just as the first light entered the sky.

At first, it was scary to run in the near-dark. I worried about cars and pot holes and all the things I couldn't see. But as I kept going, I felt empowered. I loved the feeling of starting my day moving, with nothing but birds and wind in my ears. I ran three miles without stopping once to walk, with a not-so-shabby post-injury mile time of 11:19. By the end of the run, I didn't want to stop and I couldn't wait until my next early morning.

Today, Sean and I went for the week's long run -- one hour and five minutes for a total of 5.3 miles, by far the longest I had gone since April. We walked the first half mile, then ran the next three, walked another .3 before running the remaining 1.5, enjoying watching the cyclists, many of whom are professionals gathering for the Ironman World Championships in Kona in two weeks, pedal like crazy up the hill, then fly back down minutes later.

It was hard... Very hard, especially when we turned around and had to run over a mile uphill against sustained 15mph winds. It felt like I was running against a wall, and my breathing got so strained that I was gasping for a full breath and had to switch from my normal in-2-3, out-2-3 pattern to a two-count. My legs felt like they weren't even moving despite pouring every ounce of strength and energy I had into each stride, but I determined not to walk until I hit three miles running and by sheer stubbornness I managed to keep my legs moving until then.

I walked until I got my breath back, then Sean got me running again and although I had planned to walk once more before the end, I did not. I ran. It didn't feel fast, but it did feel good and strong. When it began to rain with .2 miles to go, I basked in the cool water washing me clean. I even managed to finish with a speed burst as I reached the endpoint. I never would have guessed, until I looked at the GPS tracker, that I had cut my fastest mile time down by another minute.

And my foot? It is stiff, but not sore. the muscles were definitely pushed, but how can I find my limits without pushing? It still feels steady, strong, and doesn't hurt, and I know that with a few days rest, it will be better and stronger than before. It seems that I am ready to progress.

The swim issue was more of a mental game--a decision to move past my fear. I recalled what Cheryl Strayed said in Wild, one of my favorite books. In order to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, she made the conscious decision not to be afraid, to change the story in her mind to one where she was safe. This was what I had to do. The fact is that I am going to swim in the ocean whether or not there is a risk, so what good does it do to focus on being afraid?

My first swim back was with Sean at Hapuna, the same place we had seen the shark and had the shark warning. I used a snorkel, as I've been doing, and refused to be afraid. It felt good enough to encourage me to move on to the next step--swimming alone again. Since I have been having trouble finding time for my workouts and the pre-dawn run was such a wild success, I decided to take the same approach with the swim. I got up at 5am, gathered, my things, and hopped in the car. I went to Mauna Kea beach, arriving at 6:07, the first person on the beach.

It was placid and perfectly calm, barely a ripple in the perfect mirror of pale blue water. I sat at the edge of the beach and chose several things onto which I could redirect my thoughts should I feel scared--happy things like weddings and Ironmans, then took out my goggles, swim cap, ear plugs, and yes, the Ear BandIt. I hadn't worn them since the triathlon in April, and their familiar presence reminded me of a time when I wasn't afraid. After all, the last time that I put them on was when I was at the peak of my training confidence, ready to begin my first triathlon. The ritual of getting ready calmed me and comforted me, and when I stepped into the water I was ready.

I had forgotten how much I love the feeling of the water rushing over my face, unobstructed by the snorkeling mask. I love breathing real breaths, not sucking air from a plastic tube, and I love seeing the water and the sky with each couple of strokes. My rhythm came back and I was lulled into the same sense of comfort as I remember from swimming. Whatever I had lost came back to me. I swam two thirds of a mile, then took off my goggles and floated face up, watching the clouds turn beautiful colors in the sun rise. I sat on the beach and soaked up the calm before showering and heading to work.

What I found this week is that while injuries and the wildness of the ocean are legitimate concerns, much of what was holding me back was in my mind. Once I let go, I rediscovered the joy that had been missing in my training. Whatever your fears are, allow yourself to be free of them and the possibilities become endless.

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