Sometimes fear is essential for action.
I always heard growing up that we should do the things that scared us, but that never entirely made sense when I was young. Why would I intentionally do something scary? We’re meant to avoid the things that cause fear–it’s instinctual, it’s a way to protect ourselves. I didn’t fully grasp then that fear is unavoidable, that it will find you when you least want it to, and the only thing you can do is respond.
After Worlds last month I started thinking a lot about fear. At first it came in the form of why do we do the things that scare us in the first place? More than one person has asked me if Worlds is scary–if running courses there is a scary experience, if the pressure is a real thing. The truth? Running at Worlds is terrifying.
It’s an incredible shuffling event that comes and goes so quickly it’s hard to fully process. Before you know it, the vet check is over, opening ceremonies has concluded and you’ve got a course map in hand. My stomach flips at the idea of that now still, but yet when you’re in it it’s different. It becomes a survival mindset in lots of ways–you do what you need to do without thinking about it too much. Maybe if you did dwell on how many people were in the stands, how many people were at home watching, how many years and tears and worries went in to making it there, it would overwhelm you. I think you’d freeze in place.
So why do it? Why do it more than once?
I also saw that question crop up following the event from friends across the world. That answer is less simple, but I think it’s a truth most of us share no matter what level of competition we’re in: we do it because it makes us better. Facing fear in any form requires courage. Once you’ve done it once it’s an incredible wave of relief and accomplishment. That’s how I felt after my first run in 2016. I didn’t die. Once you realize that the fear of it all–the worrying about what happens if you screw up, or forget the course, or fall, or your dog forgets criteria, or you let your team down– can disappear, it’s replaced with newfound courage. If you did it once, you can certainly do it again, and again.
Fear, and our response to it, teaches us who we really are.
Every time you step into the ring with your dog there is a chance for those things to happen. While maybe less intense than the pressure of Worlds, there’s a jolt of fear that spreads through our veins at the sound of the “go” or the judge’s whistle. I feel it at even the most local of trials. But doing it over and over again dulls the fear and instead shapes it to something we learn to control. I always feel that I run better under pressure. Adrenaline, after all, is a by-product of fear.
The risk of failing or being disappointed is far outweighed by the benefit of facing what you fear.
Coach Nancy, before one of my runs, asked if I was okay. I realized my face was stone-set and focused. Maybe it looked like I was ready to puke, I certainly didn’t feel like it then, but I tend to internalize these sorts of energies. I worried before the second team round about more things than I can properly articulate. I worried about what my run could mean for my team; about what the people at home were thinking; about a bar coming down; about not executing the lines we talked about in the walk through. I worried until a knot formed in my stomach and my teeth ached from the clenching of my jaw. If I had less experience with this sort of fear maybe I would have collapsed under the weight of it, but I couldn’t. There was no choice but to face it.
I felt confident in our ability to tackle the course–more than I had about nearly anything in a long time. Find that confidence when you can and be sure to squeeze it tightly. We had what felt like no time before we were on the line. It’s impossible to really hear much of what’s happening when you’re on the floor, there’s a whistle, the din of a crowd, announcements, and then you’re running. I truly don’t remember a part of the course–I made a handling choice that wasn’t the original plan, or even the secondary plan, but we got it done. The clarity did not return for a long while. Long after we sat in the stands anxiously watching the results board. Long after we took a run around that arena I’ve dreamed of making all my life. Long after we stood on the podium, a medal placed around our necks. I remembered to breathe there–once, a big one. I reminded myself to take in the gravity of that instant because I knew how quickly it would pass.
And it did. And now we’re home. And now there is work still to be done.
When I got home from Worlds I got a tattoo. It was my third, or fifth depending on how you count these types of things. It’s three birds on my right shoulder–three swallows. Swallows historically meant successful travels around the world and sailors would imprint them on their wrists after 10,000 miles sailed. Back when sailing across the world was one of the most dangerous adventures one could make. In that way swallows also stood for bravery. I don’t count myself among these sailors, I’m certainly not as brave, and traveling tens of thousands of miles these days means sitting in a slightly cramped seat for seven to eight hours getting unlimited glasses of white wine. Still though, I loved their symbolism, and I have felt not a moment of regret since.
When my grandmother was sick last summer Bob Marley’s music became a fixture in our lives. We tried hard to not worry about anything as hard as it was, it was a mask we all wore to bear what cancer brought into our lives. Since then I’ve continued to carry this song with me through everything the year has presented, a reminder that everything would be alright in the end–even if I couldn’t believe it at the time. I realized more than ever how important that had become as a way to combat the fears that have washed over me time and time again.
But sometimes fear isn’t just in the things we do but rather in the things we’re afraid to know.
I had a nagging worry over this year that Bolt was not entirely right. He ran well throughout the months, but we had many starts and stops since returning to agility early in the year. I managed him and he thrived. We had chiropractic and massage checks and specialist appointments and everything came back glowing–still, I worried. When we came back from Worlds I decided to clear my calendar for the remainder of this year. I put EO tryouts on hold for another year and instead resolved to find first a diagnosis and then a solution. One thing I will never take for granted is the extensive network that this sport has brought me and the people who are willing to offer their help, guidance, and reassurance. After connecting us to radiology, orthopedics, and physical therapy I have what constitutes as much as an answer as I can have at this point. Bolt has a chronic, but mild, injury to his bicep muscle. I hate to even put that in writing, but there it is. I learned a long time ago not to put words to worries as they tend to make them come true. But the fact is, this is the truth. Writing it down will neither make it more or less true. Again, I’d rather face my fear head-on.
I’m unsure of what the road will look like over the next months. I tend to side with optimism, which is thankfully where our team of veterinarians also sides at this point. Physical therapy is to come first, a new experience for both of us, really, and then a re-evaluation. I plan on using this space to chronicle this next, albeit unexpected, adventure because fear and hiding no longer have a place in our world.
And in the coming months I’ll take with me the phrase that has gotten me through until now as will keep me going in the future:
Don’t worry about a thing–
‘Cause every little thing is going to be all right.