I got on my road bike for the first time this season two weeks ago, and I actually did a tiny dance of joy when I put my cleats on, tap tapping against my wood floor. I love putting on the gear, wheeling my bike out the gate of my condo courtyard, turning on the strava and resetting the bike computer, thinking about where I’m going to go.
And, as soon as I started riding, navigating streetcar tracks and left turns, I felt that flicker of not-quite-fear, the anxiety that thrums at me the whole time I’m riding in cleats. Will I be able to unclip if I need to? What about my plan to go up Brimley Hill — what if I get the gear ratios wrong and topple over?
I did my 30K ride and exulted in the sunshine, the sensation of my body and bike completely one, the flow you only get clipped to a bike that fits you perfectly. I rode up Brimley Hill and I DID get my gears wrong, and there was one steep bit where toppling was just one hard thrust away. I didn’t fall — but I also didn’t trust myself to stop and take off my jacket even as I overheated. I powered through the hill because I was too nervous to stop.
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. It shows up everywhere, of course — Tracy wrote about her fear of riding in traffic a few months ago, and Nat wrote about cleats, and Catherine about learning to scuba dive. I talked a lot about fear when I interviewed my friend Pamela about ski racing. Fear is easy to see in relation to our physical stuff — we can see where it stops us from trying things, or inhibits us from going hard, or just provides a steady soundtrack. For me, understanding and overcoming my physical fears is part of understanding all of the other fears in my life.
I met someone recently who seemed like a very chill and relaxed person, but as I got to know her better, started to see a long list of things she felt like she “couldn’t” do because they felt too risky. Travel outside North America, go on water in any way, ride a bike anywhere but a bike path, be in an enclosed space. For some reason, her list of fears triggered me far more than anyone else’s emotional landscape should.
I finally realized it’s because I’m a really fearful person who masquerades as brave. And one of my biggest fears is letting my fears control my life. I have always been anxious. When I was younger I was afraid of fire, drowning, heights, people vomiting, dogs, bears, food poisoning, strange men on the street at night, being alone in the house at night, flying, missing flights, being locked out, being in enclosed spaces. I once yelled at my then-partner because she accidentally abandoned me at a rest stop in New Brunswick and I was momentarily panicked that she would never come back. It’s awful to live that way. When you spend your life trying to avoid your fears, you shut off possibilities, and sometimes put way too much pressure on the people around you to make you feel safe.
(Rising Cairn, by Celeste Roberge)
The same year I started running, when I was 30, something about my relationship to fear shifted. As I let myself feel the discomfort that comes with trying something new, pushing my body, I let go of my tight clench around other fears. That same year, I went on a wilderness canoe trip and announced at the beginning that I was there to confront my fear of the woods. It turned out to be an amazing trip to Temagami, marked by the magical experience of lying in a canoe on a lake for hours during a full moon watching the August meteor showers.
Since then, I’ve almost fetishized confronting fears. I’ve run marathons, hung over the edge of sheer drops mountaineering in Scotland, bungee jumped off a bridge, forced myself back underwater to pass a scuba test even when I panicked and shot out of the water the first time, rappelled down a cliff, learned to ride in cleats when fatigued. Hiked up mountains and traveled alone in Myanmar, Iceland, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Vietnam, China. Faced emotional pain head on.
I’m still anxious about many things. But I think I understand more about what fear does now. I think we feel fear and either just freeze, or try to decide whether it’s rational or not, assess and avoid risk. I see different categories now, different and distinct threads of anxiety. For me, fear and anxiety rush up as a proxy for these questions: Will I be able to cope if something goes wrong? Will I look foolish? Will I be in pain? Will I cause others pain? Will I be able to emotionally manage it if I injure myself in a permanent way? Am I in danger of losing something important to me?
I think physical fear tangos with our own individual emotional anxieties to create the fear that blocks us from doing things. Fear of injury or incompetence doing physical things taps into our biggest fears about being human — if I end up injured and need help, will my people stick around? If I end up in pain, will I be able to cope with grace? Will people judge me? Will I end up alone? (Fill in your own darkest fears here).
To me, these “big” fears are closely linked to the things we list as our physical fears, are all tangled up. But if we can untangle them and find emotional fortitude, physical strength and trust in our competence, something changes. For me, it’s about distinguishing between reckless risks and risks I can take a big deep breath and just step into, because stepping in makes me more of myself.
Sometimes stepping in is about forcing myself through my fear — and sometimes it’s about pulling apart fear of looking foolish from understanding real risk. I’ve actually crashed on my bike because of my clips many times — always while stopped or going slowly. I look stupid and end up bruised, but it’s not really serious. If I have the mindfulness to work my way through “will I know what to do?” I realize I DO know what to do — practice unclipping, develop competence at the sequence of anticipate/slow/unclip/stop. Get better at gear ratios on uphills. If I can mentally work my way through this, gain mindful physical competence, the big fears recede.
I know I do some things that feel reckless to other people, because they make me feel alive — whipping down a hill on my bike where one bump could send me flying, riding behind a friend on a fast motorcycle in a country with lousy healthcare, running even as my body ages and strains, hiking or traveling by myself. Traveling to places where there is threat of unrest.
And, everyone’s lines are different and “real” risk starts to break down when you look at it closely. Every week someone marvels at the fact that I ride my bike to work meetings because they could “never” ride in traffic, or others tell me they could never go on a silent meditation retreat. And we all know people who are seriously injured doing things that aren’t remotely “risky” — I have a colleague who is battling a severe concussion caused when she tripped and hit her head on the desk getting up to pee in a hotel room in the middle of the night two months ago.
I’m not fearless in any way. But there’s something profoundly important to me about stepping into the wrap of fear that constantly shows up. Yes, it’s about feeling strong in every sense, but it’s also about something else — it’s about knowing that even though I have a carefully cultivated store of existential fear, it doesn’t control my life. That every time I navigate a dicey turn or don’t get agitated by a truck behind me on my bike, when I get off a plane in a country where I know no one, or when I let myself float like a mermaid among the fishes, I’m choosing to be fully in my body, fully in my life. To be here, now.