I Can’t Do That! How Fear Keeps Us From Running Barefoot, Running Ultramarathons, and Leading A Boring Life

Two of my favorite authors, Chris Guillebeau and Tim Ferriss, talk about the idea of overcoming fear.  One of the most valuable life lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is a simple, effective method of conquering fear.  have a boring life?  Get on the fast-track to awesomeness and learn to overcome fear!

First, it’s important to understand fear.  It’s an evolutionary response designed to alert us of danger.  Back in our hunter/gatherer days (or whatever the religious equivalent would be), it was important to avoid stuff that could kill us.  Or injure us.  Fear caused us to avoid dangerous stuff.  The response is triggered by a little structure in the brain called the amygdala, but the entire response involves many structures.

When we see something that causes fear, like Carrot Top, our autonomic nervous system kicks in.  This is pretty much an involuntary response, we can’t really control it.  Ask anyone that suffers from panic disorder.  Anyway, our sympathetic nervous system turns on the “fight or flight” response and our body is flooded with chemicals that prepare us for physical activity.  We also have a corresponding feeling of dread.

WARNING- tangent coming up!  It’s worth noting, our body has a similar response when we fall in love… only the perceived dread is replaced by a single-minded obsessive focus on the object of our love.  Think the Coco Puffs bird’s affinity for those crunchy, chocolatey nuggets of goodness.

Anyway, this fight or flight response used to save our lives.  In some situations, it still does.  However, the “fear” response is also triggered by events that do not pose much of a threat.  Thanks to our metacognitive ability (the ability to think about thinking), we can see events in the future.  Many of those events may seem scary.  Accordingly, they cause us to have a fear response.  That fear response may be strong enough to paralyze us and not take action.

I see a lot of people missing out on some awesome experiences because of this fear.  That includes anything from attempting to run barefoot to taking a trip to making major life changes.

When Shelly and I decided to quit our secure jobs and hit the road with our kids in a small, enclosed space, it scared the Hell out of us.  Our minds repeatedly created lists of worst-case scenarios.  What if we couldn’t make enough money to survive?  What about health insurance?  And retirement?  What if we kill our kids (not literally, CPS)?  What if we hate the RV lifestyle?

All of these questions and more were swirling around in our heads.  There were several times where we were close to scrapping the idea and going back to our suburban existence.  The slow, silent death we were experiencing sucked, but it felt safe.  It was like wearing sandpaper underwear… you know it’s wearing away at your soul, but nothing sudden is going to happen.  The slow erosion of your genitals is only slightly annoying but predictable and safe.

So how did we plow ahead despite our fears?  We employed this method:

1. Understand what fear is, when you experience it, and why you experience it.  This one is simple, I more or less explained it above.

2. Understand that your fear response may or may not be rational.  If it is rational, we’ll deal with it.  If it’s not rational, we’ll still deal with it.  Since fear is automatic, we have no control.  Accept that it’s out of your hands.  One of our biggest hangups involving fear centers around the societal expectation that we should be able to control it.  That’s just dumb.

3. Actualize the fears.  Make a list of your fears.  Leave a few spaces below each fear for the next exercise.  Be COMPLETELY honest.  The bigger the event, the more fears you’ll likely have.  If you fill a notebook, so be it.  Write down EVERY fear, even the irrational fears.

4. For each of the fears, write down the WORST case scenario if that fear comes true.  Again, be completely honest.  We have a weird tendency to avoid thinking about the worst case scenario as if considering it will cause it to happen.  Fight that urge.

5. Create a plan to deal with each worst case scenario.  What will you do if this happens?  Be resourceful.  I’ve found all people love solving problems… use your skills to solve THESE problems.

By the time you get to the fifth step, you’ll find something interesting.  The fear that once paralyzed you into inaction suddenly becomes a lot less scary.  It’s no longer a vague fear with unknown horrifying consequences.  It’s now a potential bump in the road.  It’s okay, though, you now have a plan to deal with that bump.

For us, complete failure was a huge fear.  What would happen if the whole thing ended in disaster and we couldn’t afford it?  The answer was pretty simple- we could just go back to our old lifestyle.  We are skilled teachers with tons of experiences AND we’re willing to move almost anywhere… it would be pretty easy to find a teaching job somewhere.  Interestingly, our travels have allowed us to meet a ton of cool people in a lot of different industries.  Our decision to leave and travel has given us an incredible network if we ever needed to go back to the world we left.

This same fear process prevents some people from trying to run barefoot.  The standard response given by experienced barefoot runners is to simply assuage the fears by dismissively saying something like “Worried about stepping on glass?  I’ve been doing this for X years and newver stepped on glass.  You’ll see it on the ground and just run round it.”  While this is true (glass is no big deal… in many cases you can just run right over it), it doesn’t always overcome the fear enough for the person to act.

Explaining this process of identifying and actualizing their fears will be MUCH more effective.  Quickly explain the nature of fear (step one).  Assure them that their fear is justified even if it is not rational (step two).  Have them list their fears, like stepping on glass (step three).  Have them think about the worst-case scenario if the fear comes true.  You pick the glass out with tweezers… or in an absolute worst-case scenario, make a trip to your doctor for him to pick the glass out (step four).  Have them make a plan if the fear comes true , like buy a pair of tweezers or keep the doctor’s phone number handy (step five).

This method can be used for ANY fear.  Here’s another example:

Recently, a few of my friends and I ran the Across the Years timed ultramarathon (Vanessa Rodriguez, Shacky, Pat Sweeney, and Sarah Johnson) and two more finish a 50k trail race (Kritsa Cavender and Pablo Päster).  Some other friends, Trisha and Larry, had a Facebook discussion about entering a timed ultra.  Both expressed reservations about their readiness.  They were likely experiencing fear.  I assured them both were ready to take on such an event.  After all, my friends that ran the ATY race put up HUGE miles… more than they ever have before.  Check out Vanessa’s account of the timed race here, and Krista’s account of the 50k here.

What is the worst case scenario in a timed race, even a 24 hour event?  You might get injured.  That’s an easy fear to actualize.  Based on the format, if you start to feel an injury coming on, you can stop.  Get off your feet.  Rest a bit.  Hell, you can even sleep for a few hours.  If you feel better, you can get back out there.  What if you’re worried about putting up high mileage?  No sweat!  If you don’t just blame it on explosive diarrhea!  If you can’t, you still get to hang out with a bunch of super-cool people.

Conquering your fears can lead to some awesome experiences.  The actual process of conquering those fears is pretty simple.  Give it a shot.  I think you’ll be impressed with the results.

For discussion- Do you have any preferred method to overcome fears that differs from my method?  What about those of you that have overcome fears in the past?  What were the fears and how did you overcome them?


10 thoughts on “I Can’t Do That! How Fear Keeps Us From Running Barefoot, Running Ultramarathons, and Leading A Boring Life

  1. Good post – I think MGBG is starting to influence your writing!

    Your sandpaper underwear analogy, while odd, gets the point across. I however like to think of life in terms of electron orbitals. A valence electron think it is happy, even though it lives in a safe, lower-energy orbital. But for that little electron to fulfill it’s higher energy potential (next orbital), it might need to take a scary hit from a photon. Once it reaches that higher energy (more fulfilling) orbital, it is actually quite stable there. See, that wasn’t so bad?

    Okay, I don’t get out much. And don’t knock sandpaper underwear til you’ve tried it. Just watch out for TMTS. Not. Pretty.


  2. The higher the risk the greater the reward. Even in complete failure there is always experience earned which is in itself a form of reward because those experiences accumulate and lead to success down the road. Just in the ultrarunning realm it’s quite often my past failures that help spurn me onward to take on bigger challenges; to keep me motivated. It’s the events I really struggled in that I remember the most. The only scary step should be the first one; just getting out the door or to the starting line. After that, everything is a success as far as I’m concerned!


  3. Hi Jason,

    Great post. You tie running and psychology together very well. I just wanted to recommend a book for you that I think you will appreciate very much because of your interest in psychology. And the book is closely related to many topics you have discussed. The book is “Vital Lies Simple truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception” by Daniel Goleman. You may know of it but in case you don’t he sums up his ideas in the preface:
    “My thesis, in sum, revolves around these premises:
    1) The mind can protect itself against anxiety by dimming awareness.
    2) This mechanism creates a blind spot: a zone of blocked attention and self-deception.
    3) Such blind spots occur at each major level of behavior from the psychological to the social.”

    One thing he discusses (which fits your recent posts so well) is how our brain is like a filter. Any information that fits into our preconceived vision of the world is allowed to pass. The rest is subconsciously deleted from our awareness in order to avoid the anxiety of dealing with the dissonance.
    I would love to hear your take on this book some time if possible.

    Keep up the great writing.
    Dave Goulette


  4. Jason ~
    I believe the most important thing about fear is giving yourself permission to fail. We learn more from our failures than we do our accomplishments. 😉


  5. I’ve rarely had to overcome my fears because I’m delusional. Reality has started to catch up to me of late though. Routine is slow death, to be sure, but regret and anxiety are no fun either.


  6. Fear is most often a response to something new and foreign. As such, the best cure is persistent practice and exposure. If running an ultra scares you, put in the training until you gain sufficient confidence in your fitness.


  7. The biggest fear is fear of the unkown. It is all unkown. Accepting that I don’t know is a big step. I have never been as systematic as you but this works for me.


  8. Great post!

    Fear is natural and in some cases should be embraced. Fear of failure can be a strong motivator. Where that motivation leads you is the difference. The key is to own the fear, but don’t allow the fear to own you.


  9. As a Christian, I try to break my fears down into two categories.

    1) Those I can do something about.
    2) Those I cannot.

    For category #1, I just do whatever is necessary. Fear of getting a speeding ticket, slow down. Fear of running injury, just run with the best form possible and pay attention to the trail.

    For category #2, I turn those over to God. He is going to be up all night anyway so I’ll let Him worry about it. Nothing I can do about it anyway and worrying or being fearful won’t help.

    Interestingly, our pastor last week said worrying and being afraid was useless, but if we *really* wanted to, he gave us permission to worry every day from 6:00pm to 6:05pm if it made us feel better.

    I am worried I won’t have enough to worry about to fill the 5 minute window.


  10. Inspiring post! I like your sandpaper underwear analogy, that is how I feel about the suburbs too. I have dealt with fear a lot in my life, as someone who’s had panic attacks. But in a weird way panic attacks made me realize my worst fears could come true no matter what so I decided to take the plunge anyways and travel around the world.

    I feel like if I am going to have anxiety, I may as well be someplace I love and do something big. I just picked up and moved to NYC a few weeks ago and people thought I was nuts b/c I had no job lined up and no set plan. But so far it’s been great~I got more freelance work and a dogwalking job quickly. I am so happy I pushed past the fear to go. I just had a feeling it was the right time to go (I have always wanted to live in NY) and I was right. Things all just fell into place. For me sometimes following my “gut” on things helps me push past fear.


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