Confessions of a terrified athlete

I’ve been so happy to be back in my old Masters Swim class at Supreme. I really enjoy swimming with Coach Mike and my classmates, Randi, Darcy, and Janice.

But since I’ve gone back to this class that pushes me and challenges me, I’ve become more aware of something that I think I always knew was true.

See, this whole summer, swimming in Middleton Masters, I was kind of on my own. The coaches provided workouts for us, but it was up to me how hard I was going to push myself. And really, I did not push myself all that hard. I did the distance, for sure. More distance than I had ever swum in a week before. I still remember the astonishment I felt when I realized I swam 2 miles. Two miles! That’s like the distance from… somewhere to… somewhere else. Look — it’s a long way to swim, okay?

But, I didn’t push the speed this summer. Ever. Sometimes I’d try to “sprint,” but I don’t think I ever went all out.

Back in my current, more hands-on class, when an interval is described on the whiteboard as “all out,” I’m expected to go all out, and I’m having a difficult time determining what that is. I have a definite trend of starting slow and only really pushing the speed on the last 25 meters. On the one hand, how wonderful to always have a negative split, but on the other hand, I could do so much more if I weren’t so afraid to.

Another example:

In the recent WOCA Whisper 5K that Josh and I competed in, I was able to hold off a group of three women challenging me for the last mile, and near the end when one of them passed me, I was able to dig down to sprint past her right before the finish line. Granted, I was battling a sinus infection and hadn’t really planned to push the pace, but the reality is that the thoughts going through my mind when those women were on my heels the entire end of the race was, “I let this happen.” I spent the first mile and a half, practically the first half of the race, jogging along and having a very nice leisurely conversation with a woman I met on the race course. We were talking about triathlon goals and training and she was telling me all about the triathlon group she trains with. It was really pleasant and an informative talk, but was I pushing myself? No.

Do I ever push myself?

Which leaves me wondering. Have I ever tried as hard as I can? I really don’t think I have. Why not?


I’m afraid of so many things that I couldn’t even begin to make a list here, but probably the most applicable fear in this case is that somehow I’m going to try so hard athletically that I’m going to die. When I first started swimming, I remember that feeling of running out of breath in the water and it really does feel like the end.

I know this isn’t going to happen. If I were in dire straits in the water, all I need to do is put my feet down or, if it’s too deep to do so, roll onto my back and float. I can do this. But I am still afraid. If I’m biking or running and I have pushed to the limit, I can pull over to the side of the road and get off my bike. I can sit down on the ground. But I am still afraid.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that another fear was embarrassment. What if I were in the middle of a swim meet and everyone was watching and I spent all my energy in the first lap of an event and had to stop because I’d pushed to the limit? What if I didn’t finish a triathlon or had to walk during a running event?

The obvious answer is: “So what?” We’ve all seen other athletes do this, and I don’t think any of us judge them for it. Concern would be a more likely response.

The other obvious answer to me is, “Maybe this is why you should push harder during training, so you know what your current limits are and how to pace yourself for them.”

According to this article discussing how hard to push during a race, women seem to have a different natural mode of racing than men: “Women tend to be more naturally suited to endurance events and maintain a more even pace, but they often find they reach the finish line with energy to spare.” That sounds like me, at least so far, but it’s certainly not my whole story.

And the whole story is?

I believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before that when I was in the Peace Corps, I was the victim of a violent crime. I’d love to say that hasn’t changed my life, but that would be a big fat lie. This was three and a half years ago, and I do think I’m mostly back to normal. But the thing about thinking you are going to die is that, for me anyway, it makes me really, really not want to die. Like, all the time, I’m thinking, “I would love not to die.”

And this is part of why learning to swim and competing in triathlons means so damn much to me. It’s a scary thing that could kill me (even though probably not — don’t worry Mom and Dad), but I can do it. I’m not running away from it. I’m scared of it and I love it and it pushes me and it’s hard and it’s rewarding, and I’m not hiding.

The truth is that I’m not putting 100% of myself into it. That is my confession. I’m not pushing all the way. I’m not going all out. But I keep coming back. And I want to go faster, longer, harder, and better. And if I keep trying and keep looking towards my goals, maybe I’ll figure out how to push through the pain and, more significantly, how to push through the fear to discover what I am truly capable of.

  1. Did you read my most recent post at On the Jericho Road? It’s not about athletics but it is about my own struggle with a fear of dying. Yours is a very good post. Struggle is good. Crappy sometimes,, but good …

  2. Your Dad who is not worrying said:

    People who excel at things generally do so when overcoming fear. Then, of course, there was FDR’s saying. Also, the not wanting to die thing is good!

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