Sunday, January 18, 2009

Feeling the Fear and Riding Anyway

I was a very small, anxious child. When I was around six years old my teacher wrote on my school report that I should stop worrying so much. I remember being scared of pretty much everything. The school maypole made me quiver and I could never scale the rope climbing frame in the playground. Easy bush walks in the nearby bush made me quake, especially if there was a drop off to one side of the track. I remember in particular a walk to a waterfall that included a two metre wide rockface that required scaling and which terrified me every time.

Silly things scared me. The motor of the machine that produced oxygen for the classroom fishtank used to vibrate slightly, and I remember one of the boys in my class scaring me by claiming that it could give me an electric shock. You can imagine how terrified I was of actual electric fences, which were common in the rural area where I grew up. I was scared of the leaches I was told lived in the local stream. I was even more scared that an eel might bite me if I walked through the water.

My father used to like to fish off rocks at the local beaches. My parents still laugh that, if they wanted to go home, all they had to do was tell me that the tide was coming in. For some reason I had a terror of being trapped by the incoming tide. Even today I still have vague issues with that one. As a young child I developed a fear of going underwater, which led to me tell the teacher that I had left my togs at home. I never learned to swim and it was only a year or so ago that I actually managed to put even my face in the water, let alone put my whole head. From that perspective it's amazing that I can now swim at all, even the few yards that I can currently manage without flippers or a wetsuit.

In my teens, for some unknown reason, I developed a fear of not getting enough sleep. I am still very reliant on having access to an environment conducive to easy slumber. Your average campsite next to a dance party, particularly one where the kids in the campervan nextdoor are playing Gatecrasher at full volume 24/7 is the kind of environment guaranteed to produce more than a little anxiety for me. And yet for years I worked as a volunteer at dance parties in Golden Bay.

I still have a fear of getting stuck in situations in which I can not get out of, and dance party campsites are a real trigger for that one. Being hemmed in by other vehicles will always stress me out. A few years ago we got rained out while camping next to a river setting up a party. Our little car couldn't get back up the hill and I ended up howling out the fear in my tent while a torrential downpour pounded against the tent fly. Did I mention I grew up on a flood plain, where regular flooding was a part of life?

If there is another pattern here it is that at some point I obviously made a decision not to give in to my fear. At some point I started deliberately putting myself in situations that scared me. It started in my mid-teens in a fairly obvious and typical manner. For a year or two my friends and I become theme park junkies. I sought out roller coasters. I even did a static line parachute jump. I left home and lived in Holland on student exchange for a year.

I no longer have panic attacks and I don't currently suffer from depression, although I did intermittently throughout my twenties. When I first read the definition of a generalised anxiety disorder I recognised myself in it. These days although I still live with an underlying disquiet, particularly when I get stressed, it doesn't really affect me too badly. I think I'm a fairly happy person, and perhaps my nervous tendencies do lead me to challenge myself more. Exercising definitely helps keep things under control.

Ironically, I really only started down the running and cycling path because it scared me. I took up the challenge to do a duathlon because the very idea was terrifying. And when I'd done that, the next most terrifying thing was a 10km race. And then it was time to run a half marathon. So now I'm training for a marathon and planning to do a half Ironman at the end of the year. I think it would have been much simpler not to be so afraid of everything, and then I could have gotten away with doing nothing!

Cycling is definitely still more of a courage thing for me than running. Running involves putting on a pair of trainers and telling my mind to shut up while I struggle up another hill. Cycling involves the fear of, well, death. Particularly times like today when my 8kg bike and my 56kgish self are out there battling 40kmph winds (gusting up to 60kmph). Actually, I think the winds worsened as we rode, so I hate to think what they were in actuality!

So today I'm proud of myself for even setting foot out the door, and for not getting straight back into the car when I got to Freyberg and saw that it was just as windy there as it was up at Mornington. I was gagging for a ride, and I was completely not thrilled by the idea of ninety minutes or so on a trainer. I was NOT going to let a piffling Northerly stop me!

We did the best we could to avoid the wind, but there's little you can really do. At some point the wind is going to be either in front of you or blowing across from your side. We rode up Brooklyn hill (flying, thanks to a lovely tailwind) and halfway up I totally managed to pass poor Stu, who was on a borrowed bike with far bigger gears than he was used to.

Down through Happy Valley to the Southern Coast and, although I was second-to-last, I managed to pull a record speed. Head down, hands on the drops and not once touching the brakes, I just went for it.

We hit the first headwind around Island Bay but it was at Lyall that things really got interesting. At that point I very nearly cut through Kilbirnie back to my car but then I realised something. I was still terrified by the wind, but I was more excited by the challenge of staying upright than I was scared. I was riding on an adrenalin rush and I was kicking it.

Today's ride was a victory for that very reason. I felt the fear and fed off it rather than giving in. I sat with the pack the whole way around the coast until we turned in and rode through the Seatoun tunnel. The headwind riding back through Miramar was ferocious and, in a moment of stupidity, I nearly got myself run over just past the cutting as I moved right to ride onto the cycle path. And then we were on Cobham Drive, with its inevitable crosswind.

That crosswind was, indeed, insane. However I knew it was coming and it was fairly steady, not gusty, which meant I could lean sideways and compensate for it. I was squealing like a girly girl for about half the distance, but I was squealing partly from the fun of it. It was the type of squeal I might once have let out as the roller coaster I was riding went into a corkscrew. The chance of death or injury was slightly higher on the bike, but I was older and braver to compensate.

At Kilbirnie we rode up to the top of Coromandel Street and it was there that I finally decided I'd had enough. Some of the Shifters turned up Alexandra Rd but I knew that the wind coming down the other side of Mt Vic would be awful. There were three other riders who wanted to skip the hill, so we rode together through Newtown and back down Cambridge into town.

So there it was. A completely terrifying but even more fun ride. I took my fear and enjoyed it. As Frayed Laces would say, today I refused to let myself deny my awesomeness. DDYA!! There was a little bit of WWCWD going on as well!

As a footnote, the running continues to go well. Yesterday, thinking I was going to be riding 100km today (something the poor weather put paid to), I set out from home for a short run. I ended up doing five very hilly, windy and extremely fun kilometres. I was feeling very lethargic and tired beforehand but, again, once I actually started running the magic happened and I found myself flying along easily, my heartrate and perceived effort both low. I danced back up Mornington Rd and was feeling quite smug until I realised that I was being benefited by a killer tailwind (which had not that long ago been a killer headwind as I ran along the ridgeline towards Brooklyn). I sprinted the last 500 metres or so. I definitely have my running mojo back!


Sass said...

I think sometimes I have WWPD (what would Pip do) moments when I'm feeling uninspired and it gets me out there. And if I can get at least half as fit as you this year, that would suit me just fine! I SO need a fitness goal (no ironperson or marathon for me!)

Marshmallow said...

I can't even begin to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post :-)

Calyx Meredith said...

I have had a very similar pattern to yours with my anxiety! I sometimes still have to find a work-around solution to get me out the door but overall I think the need to overcome my fears has led me to really good places. Thanks for sharing your story about this!

Dusty said...

Love your description of how you feel after exercising! So true.

Sounds like you need some salt or to increase your Florinef. I had similar problems this summer.