Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Actually, he said, “The only thing we have to fee-ah, is fee-ah itself.” It’s a pretty profound statement and, at opportune times, sounds nice to say (especially with a heavy East Coast accent).
The thing is, it can be difficult in application.
I’m scared of a lot of things. Head cheese, for instance. Overly tan people. Black ice. Excessive tarmac delays. North Korea. Rabid opossums. Snail and slug slime. Broadway shows. (They just weird me out. I think it’s the excessive gesturing and non-rhyming “songs” that sound suspiciously like surplus dialogue.)
And there is such a thing as healthy fear. Healthy fears keep us from doing really stupid things, like eating expired sushi or antagonizing a grizzly bear or buying underwear at a garage sale. As runners, we have our own unique set of healthy fears—bean burritos the night before a big race or cotton socks in an ultramarathon come to mind. Such thoughts make us tremble. As they should.
However, I don’t think healthy fear was the target of FDR’s famous proverb. FDR wasn’t talking about fear that keeps us from doing things that we don’t want to do or things that we shouldn’t do. He was talking about fear that stops us from doing those things we want to do most. Fear that keeps us from reaching our fullest potential. Fear that prevents us from testing our limits. Fear that causes us to sell ourselves short. The problem isn’t that most people reach too high and then fail. It’s that most people never reach high enough. (Except for Napoleon when he invaded Russia… but that doesn’t count because he was French.)
I was jamming out to the radio during a recent run (yes, I’m old school like that), when a particular song caught my attention. That is, the chorus caught my attention. Over and over the refrain blared through my earbuds: “I wanna be reckless! Rehhh-ckless!”
Dagnabbit, I thought. I wanna be reckless, too.
No, not like “distracted driving” reckless. Reckless like living free of fear. Reckless like living—as the saying goes—with reckless abandon.
The problem is, more often than not, I’m full of reck.
I know this because I run. Running is a revelatory sport. Painfully revelatory. I am convinced running is the most profound and perceptive recreational activity there is. The miles strip away affectation and social veneers. You can’t be a poser when you run. You can’t fake anything at mile twenty. Running is a war of attrition that exhausts artificial resources and exposes what lies beneath.
And for me, what lay beneath was fear.
I never knew how much fear I harbored until I started running. I’d step onto the track only to be overcome with dread that I wouldn’t be able to complete the intervals. I’d toe the start line of races convinced that every other girl there was fitter and faster than I was. I’d take the first steps of a tempo run terrified by how badly it was going to hurt. I’d wait in the start corral of a marathon weighted down by anxiety that I wouldn’t PR, that I wasn’t up to the task before me, that I would let myself down, that I would fail.
It disguised itself as humility. It disguised itself as honesty. It disguised itself as realism, as modesty, as practicality. As something good. It disguised itself as all sorts of things except for what it really was.
Fear. Plain and simple.
The thing is, our lives our not compartmentalized. I realized that if I was holding back in running because I was afraid, I was inevitably holding back in other areas of my life for the same reason. Where else was I selling myself short because I was scared of the pain? Where else was I surrendering because I was comparing myself to others? Where else was I missing out because I felt inferior to the task? Where else was I letting fear rob me of life—of my life?
Running provides us with an invaluable sphere in which we can discover our fears and overcome them. It gives us a tangible forum in which we can push our limits and test how we handle fatigue, pain, discomfort, setbacks, monotony, inconvenience, defeat. Running concentrates the entire gamut of human emotion into mere hours. Running lets us succeed. Running lets us fail. And, ironically, without the latter, the former is impossible.
Far from fearing failure, we should be grateful for it. John Keats, who was basically the Steve Prefontaine of the literary world, said that he was never afraid of failure, for he would sooner fail than not be among the best. Thomas Edison was quoted as saying he failed his way to success. And Teddy Roosevelt famously declared that he would rather come up short time and time again, that he would rather fail while daring greatly, than be with the “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It is a strange paradox, but in some ways, running to win and running to fail are one and the same. The first is our goal; the second comes with the territory. Both are impossible when we give in to fear. After all, running to avoid failure only guarantees mediocrity.
No hurt is wasted. No failure is in vain. No blown race or disastrous workout is for naught. As the great Victor Hugo wrote, acts of daring light the pages of history and the soul of man, and we dismay calamity simply by not being afraid of it.
As runners, we can claim our acts of daring on a daily basis. It may be a PR, a marathon, a first 5K, a tempo run, a trail race, or repeats on that hill that’s been mocking us for two years. Whatever your act of daring is, claim it, for while fear exists only in the mind, your victories are not limited to the miles.
So fear not, noble runners, and run daringly. Run to win. Run to fail. And always run with reckless abandon.