How to start running by conquering your fears (AKA Proof Kat reads too much Zen Habits based on the title of this post)

A while ago, a few blog readers asked me how I started running. I spent a long time typing up a blog post addressing that question but it didn’t resonate. I think it had sound advice- slowly build up (I’d recommend starting with C25K, then a spring-training type program and then a marathon program), listen to your body, rest is important, embrace your supports and ignore the naysayers. But the thing is, none of that is new information. People who want to be runners can go to’s communities to find a wealth of information and support or Google “how to start running.” Then last night, while brushing my teeth, I figured out what I think the real answer is to how to start running: stop being scared.

Running is scary. You may be spotted looking tired, sweaty or walking. Neither spandex nor shorts are particularly forgiving. You could get stranded miles away from home after becoming exhausted and unable to continue.  Insert other scary scenarios. When I started running I had expectations for myself: I should be able to run a mile. “Heck, 4th graders are expected to run a mile, it’s the least I can do. And I need to run it fast. I don’t know what fast is, but I want to be fast. Runners are fast.”

The mile was hard (what are they feeding those 4th graders now, anyway?) and it wasn’t fast (clearly only Olympians run sub-9 minute miles). The problem with starting running is, why would anyone want do something that is both hard and scary? So I quit. It wasn’t until I had the goal of running a marathon that I had a bigger picture to find value in my “slow” runs. People tell me all the time: “I try running, but it’s so hard. I can’t go further than 3 miles.” The crazy thing about running is that, even as an ultrarunner, there are days when I struggle through a few miles. But that’s the thing: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great. (5 imaginary points in Kat’s game of awesome if you can tell me where that is from )  I like that my sport is your sport’s punishment. I like that when my heart pounds, my lungs burn and my muscles ache that I feel alive. I like that even though running still isn’t easy, that over time and with training, it has gotten easier.

Then the bottom line would then be: How do you stop being scared and overcome the fear? Sorry, but I have no idea. They say to do something you fear every day. I don’t have such an active life that I have a daily opportunity to face fear. But when I realize that I’m scared to do something, the therapist in me asks myself two questions:

  1. What’s      the worst that can happen?
  2. What’s      the best that can happen?

Recently I’ve been starting to stare down my fear of biking. I’m so bad at biking I’m scared of pretty much everything about it: falls and cars and my clipless pedals and aerobars. Every time I’m about to get on my bike I get so nervous I actually get shaky. I could stop and say that biking isn’t for me, but instead my fears make me realize how much I need the practice and that I only have potential for growth. And so far, every time “the worst” has happened (last weekend I ended up in a bush after failing to unclip- see below about losing the ego and having a sense of humor), I’ve gotten back up, no worse but for a bruise or a scrape (okay, or a few of both). But that’s nothing to be scared of, particularly when the best that could happen- improved fitness, a social outlet, competing in an Ironman- is incredible.

All smiles on a bike ride past Pittsburgh’s skyline

I’ve also heard that you are most free when you have nothing left to lose. When I got back from Antarctica it was an incredibly powerful time for me: I had simultaneously realized how small the world is and how much I was able to conquer, all while losing one of the things that was most important to me. When Chris left me, I felt like a failure (don’t worry, that was short-lived). But when I felt like a failure as a person, what would happen if I failed at an ultramarathon? Nothing. My ego had been smashed and left on a glacier somewhere in the South Pole. I felt as though I had nothing left to lose. So I tried to run my first 50K. And I did it. It took training and hard work, but that’s all it really took to not only run a 50K but to start to put myself back together.

Antarctica: The place where I lost and found myself

I don’t want to sound flippant, but if you want to be a runner, then run. Put one foot in front of the other and don’t let your fear stop you. We all have bad days and insecurities. But what can set you apart from others is starting to conquer yours. Until you start competing, forget speed and time and leave your ego at the door. Be okay with “failure” (I use quotes because isn’t it a subjective concept so much of the time?), rejoice in the triumphs, laugh at yourself (or laugh at the image of me upside down in a bush) and be amazed at how far you will go, literally and metaphorically. Happy running.