Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fear and laughing in not las vegas

So, I had an extraordinary experience at the track yesterday.

Now, in the cold broiling light of the next day, it seems possibly silly.  Definitely strange.  Potentially unwarranted.  But yesterday, as I was running my last 1200, I totally went there.  I cringe admitting it, but the truth is yeah, cranking out that last 100 meters I was seriously worried I might die. 

just stick with me, House.
 I was doing my usual thing, trying to keep up with the plan for the group and manage my speed and breathing and emotions and music and hydration- you know, how you do- when one of the other women ran up next to me.  She started encouraging me to go faster, push a little harder, and throwing out all those kinds of encouragement I sometimes think but rarely believe.  "You look great.  Just a little farther.  Your arms are carrying you.  You're doing really well."  My running inner denial of whatever she said didn't dull my appreciation for it; it was really awesome to have someone right there in my ear saying nice things, even if I was starting to worry about how it was making me pick up my pace too much.  Every time she said, "come on, just a little faster", I immediately thought, "that's not in my plan, I'm already working hard, I don't want to overdo it, if I listen I'll burn out and positive split my last laps..." but every time I looked at Guru Garmin I found that I was following orders anyway.

By the last lap, I was breathing hard, and I would have said I was at capacity.  I was pretty sure I'd done a good job of negative splitting, and if I finished out at my new, faster pace I'd be really proud of having gotten the job done.  It was hot, I tend to the melancholic, I've had a lot of (at least semi-)failures recently.  I was impressed that she'd gotten me to pick it up at all, let alone sustain it for two laps.  But as we rounded the corner, she called two other people to come and run with us. 

These are them.  Just kidding.

It hardly needs to be said that all three of these people are faster than me (because everyone there is).  I wanted to live up to it.  I wanted to stay strong and happy and enjoy it since I don't often get to run *with* anyone, just near them as they whiz by. (Not bitter. Just sayin!) So with the addition of their energy and my gratitude at being "picked" in this way, the stage was set for a triumphant last lap.

The only problem was, I was spent.  I'd been running beyond where I thought I should be, where I planned to go, and I was already way beyond any breathing and heart rate that felt sustainable.  Like I said, I was looking forward to just keeping my pace to the end; if you'd asked about increasing it, I'd have said "I literally can't."

Except, they didn't ask.

With all three of them throwing out gleeful tidbits- "You're doing great! You look strong! Good form! The end is right up there!"- it was harder to hear the scream of protest in my head, just a little bit harder to keep track of my worries about how I was doing internally...and, unbelievably, I kicked it up just a little bit.  With every step and every screaming breath I still saw myself over and over dropping back, giving up, slowing down to where I could finally breathe again--but I guess I was too distracted to actually *do* it. 

I kept going.  Until that last little stretch, the last 100 meters when unexpectedly my impromptu coach suddenly said "Run it out! Don't stop! Give it everything you have, sprint to the finish!!" and for some unknown reason, my body listened to her.

This is probably how actual runners feel.

I can tell you, my mind was not on board.

How I found time to have so many thoughts in 1/16 of a mile I don't know, but there were an astounding number of them.  Chief and loudest was "I CAN'T DO THIS!!!" followed by "OMG listen to my BREATHING" and "MAYDAY MAYDAY!"  My breath was literally screaming in and out of my lungs; I think I might have started to have that panic-attack reaction where your lungs close in.  I vividly recalled, over and over, a story a friend once told me of her brother's mother-in-law dropping dead of a heart attack on one of her routine jogs, in only her 40s or 50s; of course that brought with it a horror-movie loop of exploding-heart imagery I just couldn't resist.  I became convinced I was about to throw up.  I couldn't see.  Over the chorus of frantic mental "NOO NOO NOOOOO" I don't know how I even heard my coach yelling "great form!", but when I did I thought, "why are you talking about form, can't you see I'm about to DIE?!"

Shut up, House.  Just shut up.
And then it was all over, except that it wasn't, because even though I stopped running and doubled over, my heart continued to pound (dangerously, I felt) and my breathing continued to scream alarmingly and I continued to imagine a million horrible things happening next....  The fact that they didn't barely seemed to matter.  The fact that I was finished barely seemed to matter, or the fact that I'd just done something (yet *another* something) that I didn't think I could. 

What felt important was that I'd just gone to the edge of what I know- and then stepped off.

I'm sure what everyone saw was a tired (cranky?) girl with a red face wheezing (shuffling) through a recovery lap.  I know from asking that "does anyone else ever feel like they really might die?" was kind of a routine question, as was the answer ("yeah, of course!").  And the assurance that no one actually does die, no one has died ("yet!" I thought) on my coach's watch came with a slightly incredulous 'duh' kind of air that I went along with, like that didn't really need to be said.  But for me, it did.  In those few seconds of panic and being beyond what I knew, I really wasn't sure.  If I'd had room for calculations I could have told you it was ridiculously improbable that I would die, but I hadn't had room and what eclipsed everything else for those few moments was that I might

I know. You don't have to say it.

Like I said, it's a mundane place to confront your mortality.

But it really shook me.  And because it shook me I realized how even the edge can become a comfort zone; how even though I've eliminated a lot of fears, I haven't eliminated Fear itself.  I'm often tempted to assume I have, because the things that bother my people don't bother me.  My mom is quite allergic to heights; nT has a paralyzing fear of scorpions.  One of our kids at home literally trembles too much to actually make it off the high dive ladder, let alone out onto the board.  I've flirted with a serious aversion to flying things that sting, but have settled down into standing still and breathing deeply when they come around- at least a little bit, I've accepted that I may get stung and there's not much I can do about it.  So whenever one of these challenges arises, I have almost a little emotional routine about it that gets me through: I recognize that I'm uncomfortable, that my emotion is distracting me from handling it the way I want to, I breathe and accept, and then I do what I feel needs to be done.  I mean, I don't *like* scorpions, but something has to be done when they appear and I can do it.  When I walk out on the high dive at the pool, I definitely feel something...I just tell myself science has shown the only difference between excitement and fear is the label.  So I remind myself that the worst that can happen is barely anything, and jump.  The only time heights bother me is clinging to a rock face at the gym 30 feet in the air, but I exhale, remember that I'm tied to a rope, and just let go.  Confronting these things in my little way has made me prouder of myself, and led me to feel like I have a handle on fear.

But I don't. 

I don't know if having a "handle" on fear is really even possible; maybe we just desensitize ourselves to the situations and things that can cause it.  I thought that by repeatedly challenging myself with little opportunities to be brave that I was making friends with the idea of uncertainty, inoculating myself against the possibility of terror.  But what I learned at the track yesterday is that there's always a place for it to live, because there's always a boundary to certainty.  What I've been doing is giving myself an extra measure of certainty, and becoming practiced at it- an important skill, I'm sure, but not what I thought I was doing.  The thing about fear, I think, is that it's by definition about *Not Knowing*- and there will always be something beyond the edge of what we know.  What I've become adept at is walking right up to that edge- and not crossing it.

All of this could have gone right by me if I were less prone to dramatics; nothing incredible (certainly not judging by my times!) happened to justify tears in the car on the way home or this long, rambling, ridiculously introspective post a day later.  But I am who I am, and it mattered to me.  Immensely.  I'm so grateful to have had this experience and the realizations that came on its heels...and super grateful to my impromptu cheerleader-turned-teacher, because without her insistence I never would have gone to that place.  I didn't even know that place was there.  It was just a moment of surrender, maybe ten seconds of handing over the reins and trusting that someone else was in control, but those few seconds of going over the edge of my own certainty taught me more than years of strolling right up to it.  Camping out next to it. 

I thought the usual things, too, like oh my gosh if I really could die like that then I could die any time any way and life is precious so don't waste it...but somehow this doesn't impress me as much.  That you can be, not "out of control", but beyond your own control...*that* is exciting.  There really is something to all this "letting go" stuff we're always going on about, I guess...

Anyway.  After I calmed down, showered, worked, went about my day doing whatever it was that I did, the experience paid me one more big dividend-

I woke myself in the night, laughing.   

I know, dude.  Maybe it's funnier when you're asleep.

I still almost remember the joke, and of course now it doesn't seem that funny, except that I vividly remember the sheer hilarity and hysterical joy it produced, unconnected to anything and otherwise completely meaningless.  But in a lifetime of fretful nightmares, missed nights of sleep or no dreams at all, I've actually laughed in my sleep maybe twice.  I don't know if this regularly happens to other people or not so much, but it doesn't happen to me.

It.  Feels.  Awesome. 

And I know the two experiences are connected, because intuitively I recognize the same feeling of hysteria in both- it feels like, not knowing what will happen next, but still moving inexorably toward it.  Maybe those researchers really are right, it's the label that makes the difference... Once I pushed beyond my reasoned running limits, I didn't know what would happen next.  But once my legs had carried me to that internal state, that's where I was, like it or not, come what may.  Likewise, if there's anything you can say about sleep-laughter, it's that it's involuntary; you don't even know you're doing it until it's already happened!  Involuntary anything is beyond our volition, it doesn't need your assent or permission- in fact, it can't even coexist with "permission".  You may be able to see what uncertainty looks like by standing on its shore, but it doesn't actually exist there.  It only exists within Letting Go. 

I guess that's a place I'm going to have to go more often. 

And *that*, yes, is really scary.


  1. Really enjoyed this blog, bird. I have been to that place (beyond your own control) more than a few times since I started climbing. Even if I wasn't actually in imminent danger of dying, I have felt like I was. Even on top rope, stepping across a thousand-foot drop to a potato chip edge can drive fear so deep into your heart that you wake up in the middle of the night with a start, so grateful to be lying safe in bed you could kiss the floor.

  2. It's probably in my dna to want that experience then..can't say I don't come by it honestly. And I'm really grateful for that too, because if you hadn't found that little seed I might more have known what to look for. Love you always