Embracing the Fears of Racing


I was living in Kona when I joined “The Church of Triathlon”.  My first race was an unofficial (no permits, no applications, no insurance) Thanksgiving Day Peaman Triathlon in 1998.  We started and finished right there at the pier on Ali’I drive, just like Hawaii Ironman. 

I rode my rusty Stumpjumper MTB, tattered panniers flapping in the breeze.  But heck, I was good to go!  I had some clip-on aero bars! 

Eleven months later, I was there again at the pier on Ali’I Drive.  This time, I was lined up with the world’s best for Hawaii Ironman.


Just 35 days before that first Ironman, I woke up on a Sunday morning feeling as if I was going to die – really.  Blessed with excellent biomechanics, I had succeeded in taking my body well beyond the point of over-training.  Despite the absence of overuse injuries, my endocrine system was fried.  In that final 5 weeks before race-day, I tediously balanced on a very fine line between staying alive to make it to the starting line and training enough to make it to the finish line. 

It was an experience of absolute terror and intimidation. 

Hammer Nutrition fuels and supplements, and a comprehension of the principles of sound and sensible training would certainly have diminished my catastrophe, but fear and anxiety were the true dragons I faced.  I promised God and myself that if I survived this ordeal, I would write a book to heal the discrepancy between the glorious athlete and the ordinary human being.  (I kept that promise, publishing Zendurance 4 years later.)


Our greatest challenge in racing is often fear.  Once we embrace our fear, racing is transformed from dangerous to joyful.  The two most common sources of fear are uncertainty and pain.  As we gain familiarity with uncertainty and pain – as we befriend them – we can choose another more empowering response than fear.

Training Versus Racing

What distinguishes one from the other?  Training is like a rehearsal; while racing is akin to a performance.  In rehearsal, we stop and start, repeat certain sections, break things down into smaller, simpler increments.  We practice drills and conduct interval sessions.  We can pause to rest and examine, then repeat. 

Rehearsals and training sessions are unencumbered by audience and expectations.  However, in races and performances, we strive for uninterrupted continuity and perfection while in the presence of others.  For this, we must eschew the security and familiarity we enjoy while training.

The Elixir of Uncertainty

On race day, our energy and anticipation are piqued after months – perhaps years – of preparation and rehearsal for the big event.  Like the moth drawn to the flame, we are drawn to racing by one of the very same elements that elicit our fear – uncertainty

For those of us attempting a triathlon for the first time – or a longer distance than ever before – we are uncertain of enduring to the finish line.  Toeing the starting line or entering the water for the swim feels like the start of a death march.  And there is a part of us that will die today – the part that doubts we can do this. 

Seasoned vets at this race distance are facing the uncertainty of producing a personal record.  Despite all the preparation, we just do not know how our race will turn out.

Yet, uncertainty is the sweet nectar that sparks our aliveness – both in athletic performance and in our mundane everyday lives.  We may invest lots of money, energy and time attempting to eliminate uncertainty from our lives, grasping for security, but ultimately all of these attempts fail. 

Change is inevitable.  Everything is impermanent – including our human lives.  Without uncertainty, without mystery and change in our lives, we stagnate – we’re as good as dead.  If we know ahead of time exactly how the race will turn out, or how our lives will progress and end, we probably would not bother training – let alone get out of bed each day.

If we choose to welcome and embrace the mysteries of change and uncertainty, we are like children gathered around the Christmas Tree strewn with wrapped gifts that spark intense curiosity and anticipation.  Like children filled with hope and promise, we are drawn to racing – at least in part – by the wonderful elements of mystery and uncertainty. 

We seek to discover the promise hidden within.  Whether we judge the results as good or bad, there is always the promise of growth and discovery, of learning from the experience.

Base Building and Uncertainty

We cannot – nor should we – eliminate mystery and uncertainty from our lives.

Rather, let us learn to welcome uncertainty, to use it as a powerful tool for growth in athletic performance and everyday life.  Let’s explore this athletic opportunity, and then consider how it may carry over into other areas of our lives.

As we train our bodies to function efficiently and gracefully for the duration of our goal races, so we can train our minds to function efficiently and gracefully in the presence of uncertainty and to curb our fear response. 

We first build a foundation of aerobic base.  We strengthen our metabolic and muscular function by increasing capillary and mitochondrial density.  We train our bodies to burn fat more efficiently and at higher levels of intensity while conserving glycogen.  This metabolic training requires patience and consistency as we morph our bodies.  This metamorphosis empowers us with the physical capacity to endure the distance.  Building aerobic base also builds psychological confidence and familiarity, alleviating some of that uncertainty.

There is however a fine line between building adequate aerobic base – appropriate for the distance of our racing goals – and enslaving ourselves to endure massive quantities of base miles and hours in a vain attempt to quell the ego’s fear of uncertainty.  I tried this approach… unsuccessfully:

Riding 112 miles every Saturday morning – rain or shine, fatigue-be-damned – for months on end just to assure oneself, “Yeah, I can still this” is not an efficient and effective way to train for the iron-distance.  This kind of obsession leads to long-term burnout, family and occupational neglect and overall misery – not to mention a slow bike split.  I know this first-hand!


Effective, intelligent athletic training is not a panacea for the fear of uncertainty.  There is no panacea!  Security is an illusion.  Just as health insurance does not assure us of good health, we cannot eliminate uncertainty from our lives. 

Transforming Uncertainty

Instead, when the fear arises, we welcome and embrace uncertainty; we marvel at the mystery of what we don’t know.  Uncertainty stimulates our curiosity and heightens our sensitivity and awareness.  As racing athletes, we make the conscious choice in our lives to seek out uncertainty – especially when we choose unfamiliar races, new distances and new formats.

With experience and self-honesty, we learn to discern intelligent training from fear-driven training.  We train with clear intention and strong desire – however, we must also train without attachment to our future results.  Detachment empowers us with accurate discernment.  One of the greatest benefits of a good coach is the detachment that allows her/him to accurately discern the effectiveness of our training regime.

As we train, we will experience fears, doubts and anxieties.  The most effective way to deal with them is to disengage from them.  Fears, doubts and anxieties are simply byproducts of our mental training – just as lactic acid is a byproduct of physical training.  In both cases, we strengthen our ability to process the byproducts and eliminate them at progressively higher levels of intensity. 

During interval training, we push our limits then pause for recovery.  Similarly, when we recognize our fear response, we can pause, disengage, and relax with conscious breathing – reminding ourselves that uncertainty is a wonderful element in our lives, one that heightens our senses and our mental clarity.

Race Day

On race day, a great asset for transforming fear into acceptance and peace is gratitude.  As we arrive and prepare for each race, we affirm all that we are grateful for – family, health, home, athletic equipment, this day, safe and successful training that has delivered us to the starting line, the nutrition we enjoy each day and the divine guidance we receive in our training and in day-to-day life. 

We triathletes are so very, very fortunate.  Less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population enjoys the health, wealth and freedom, or the cultural and family support that enables us to pursue our athletic dreams.  (Yes, I’ve written this same statement in past articles and blogs.)  We are fortunate for the opportunity to push beyond our perceived limits and boundaries – as athletes and as ordinary human beings.

Gratitude, Humor and Kindness

As we prepare for the race and set up our transition, we can gratefully acknowledge our competitors in this race with smiles and greetings, offering support and encouragement to all.  Humor and kindness can go a long way to melt the ice of fear for all of us.  Enjoy the embrace of companionship as you gather together for the start – especially at large venue races, with thousands of athletes. 

Are these folks your opponents or our companions?  If they are your opponents, the odds are stacked high against you.  If they are our companions, we are bathing in a sea of support that will carry us through effortlessly.

Embracing Pain

Our other common fear in racing is pain.  We are conditioned to avoid pain and to pursue pleasure.  Both are neurological stimuli, but we judge one as good, the other as bad.  As we let go of these judgments, we begin to examine the true essence of our neural stimuli. 

Effective training is a balanced cycle of stress, recovery and adaptation.  Each of these three elements is necessary if we want to gain strength and endurance.  Pain informs us of the location, degree and quality of stress we are encountering.  If we perceive the pain stimulus clearly and accurately – without avoidance, judgment or fear – we can accurately discern whether this pain is caused by “healthy” or truly detrimental stress.  This is a valuable asset for effective training.

As athletes, we have numerous opportunities to disengage from our judgments and fears, to explore the true nature of pain.  Part of our training is the physical and mental conditioning to be present with pain and not resist it. 

As you perform hard-driving hill intervals on the bike or endure a long run, you will certainly experience pain.  Notice your physical response: Do you tense other parts of your body, or contort your face into a grimace?  Consciously strive to relax all the muscles of your body that are not required for the task of pushing up the hill or running the distance.

Responding to pain with muscular and joint tension is far more likely to cause injury than the actual hill interval or long run.  It is an inefficient use of energy that is detrimental to your efficient and graceful form.  Races are performances.  Performance” can be defined as the perfection of form.  If we respond to pain with physical tension and mental disassociation, then the grace, efficiency, economy and speed of our swim, bike or run form deteriorates.

Practice, Practice

Training is a rehearsal – our opportunity to relax and recompose ourselves as the pain of our stress builds – to recondition our response to pain: 

– We train our bodies to let go of physical tensions and resistance. 

– We train our minds to accurately and intimately observe pain without disassociating and running away. 

With practice, we remain physically and mentally calm and relaxed in the presence of pain, without complicating it.  It is a powerful asset for our most challenging races, and for the most challenging and painful moments of our lives, when we experience great physical, mental and emotional pain.  As athletes we learn to respond appropriately, rather than confounding our experiences with fear, judgment and avoidance.

Our athletic “training-rehearsals” and “racing-performances” are empowering opportunities in our lives.  As athletes, we clearly choose to create and orchestrate the cycle of stress, recovery and adaptation in order to gain fitness.  We can clearly see our choice in this athletic process, so we can begin to see the same choice in our everyday lives. 

When we encounter stressful situations in our daily lives, we are less likely to judge them negatively, to blame others or to victimize ourselves.  We are empowered to accept and embrace these stressful situations as opportunities for building spiritual fitness.  Without the encumbrance of fear and judgment, we can masterfully orchestrate these life situations as successful cycles of stress, recovery and adaptation and truly enjoy genuine spiritual fitness