The Endurance Ninja Guide to Drop-Kicking Your Fears

Post by Susan Lacke.

Fear is probably the thing that limits performance more than anything – the fear of not doing well, of what people will say. You’ve got to acknowledge those fears, then release them.

Mark Allen, six-time Ironman champion

Almost every morning, on my rides or runs, I pass a couple of movie theatres. Most of them are touting the scary movie du jour, promising a fright fest of epic proportions.

I laugh. I’ve got something ten times scarier than any chainsaw-wielding masked terrorist: I’ve got a 140.6-mile date with an Ironman triathlon, and it frightens the crap out of me.

Most of us have set some sort of goal for ourselves: finishing a half-marathon, taking on that first triathlon, losing 20 pounds, or making the leap from a sometimes-carnivore to a full-on veg-head. You take on the challenge with enthusiasm and vigor…until one day, out of the blue, a voice in the back of your head whispers, “What the hell are you doing?”

The brakes squeal and everything comes to a halt. What the hell ARE you doing?

Self Doubt: The Enemy

Have you bitten off more than you can chew? That whisper amplifies into a roar, those fears have multiplied, and that enthusiasm and vigor you once had for your goal gets pushed onto very shaky ground. Self-doubt can be a powerful thing, and the root cause of that self-doubt is often fear.

The amazing thing about fear is that we all fall victim to it, yet we’re so reluctant to talk about it. We push down the dread, trying to stuff it into some corner of our brain where we hope it’ll dissolve. But fear doesn’t like being put in a corner. It greedily demands your attention until it’s nearly impossible to focus clearly on your goal. If it has its way, you’ll give in to the fear and give up on your goal.

People, it’s time to karate-chop your fear into submission.

Mark Allen is on to something here. By acknowledging and releasing those fears, you’d be showing them who’s boss. Maybe you have some of the same fears I do. Maybe not. Either way, we need to be taking charge.

I’d like to invite you to join my stealth ninja squad of fear-busters. Get mad – no, get LIVID! How dare these fears intrude on our goals? It’s time to kick those fears right where it counts:

Open water, you suck.

It’s not so much the water as what’s IN it. This trepidation has two components: Frenetic people and…ahem…zombies. The mass swim start of triathlons, with up to 2,000 people scrambling for position in the lake or ocean…that’s theoretically 4,000 legs to kick you in the face, 4,000 arms to bump with yours, and 4,000 hands to pull at your ankles. It can be disconcerting. As for the zombies, it goes back to a recurring nightmare I had as a child involving lake zombies. Don’t ask…just go ahead and laugh now.

Done yet? Okay, good.

I’m aware of how nonsensical this is, yet I can’t shake the dread. The energy I expel trying to cope with the byproducts of this fear – rapid pulse, shallow breathing – takes away from the energy I should be putting toward form, stroke efficiency, and sighting in the water.

Even the most unflappable athletes fall victim to an overactive imagination. If you’re like most people, you probably put on a front and avoid admitting you’re scared of something ridiculous. I kept my “lake zombie” fear to myself because I didn’t want people to laugh at me. One day, at a recent open-water swim, a fellow triathlete confessed to me that she was always scared of a shark attack.

We race in a lake.

A man-made one.

In the Arizona desert.

Suddenly, my lake-zombie fear didn’t seem so crazy. I shared it with her. We laughed. Though it didn’t eliminate the fear entirely, it did put both of us slightly at ease. Now, she watches out for zombies while I have her back in case of shark attack.

Even if it’s irrational, try sharing your fear with someone else.  Whether you get a good chuckle out of it or a “ME TOO! OHMYGOSH, I thought I was the only one,” you’ll find telling someone will probably help you.

Peanut gallery, kiss my ass.

It’s human nature to care about what other people think. It’s why our fourteen-year-old selves begged Mom and Dad to buy those expensive name-brand sneakers…because if we didn’t, the cool kids would make fun of us, and we would just, like, totally DIE if that happened.

Whenever I wear my No Meat Athlete shirt during a race, I always have a lingering fear in the back of my mind that I will bonk mid-way through the race. I can already hear the Peanut Gallery in my head: They’ll thump their chests, wave their corn dogs, and leave me in the dust, crying. I’ll have failed myself as a racer and as a representative for awesome and strong vegetarian endurance athletes everywhere. I also fear that in my weak bonk state, I won’t have the resolve to think up or deliver the sharp-tongued lashing they deserve for making fun of me. If you’ve followed any of my writing on this site, you should know by now I love a snarky comeback.

We don’t like to be judged unfavorably by others. That fear of criticism can hold us back.

The good news: Not everyone’s a critic. Find people who will cheer you on during your first race, eat healthy meals with you, or promise to be there when you finally fit into those size 6 jeans at the Gap. When you accomplish your goal, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the Peanut Gallery will shut it. That, in and of itself, should serve as motivation enough! When it happens, you can smile graciously, or you can do the “I told you so” dance. You’ve earned the right to rub it in.

Injury – go pick on someone else.

Most people have employed logic which lists the following statements.

I don’t like pain. This could cause me pain. Therefore, I won’t do it.

Pain and injury are two things a lot of people fear, and many of us will go to great lengths to avoid such discomfort.

Overtraining is a huge source of apprehension for a lot of athletes. Most of us know someone who has trained diligently, only to fall victim to a stress fracture or other overuse injury. It’s a fine line between pushing yourself to improve and overexerting yourself. Newbies, especially, don’t quite know where that line is drawn. We don’t know what happens once that line gets crossed, and frankly, we don’t want to know. So we stay in our safe bubble, going at the same pace for the same distance.

I sometimes don’t give a training session my all because I’m terrified of injuring myself. Even when attempting speeds or distances I’ve easily covered before, at the slightest twinge of pain I’ll find myself backing off. I second-guess myself constantly.

Physically, I’m in the best shape of my life. Mentally, I’m still that overweight girl who couldn’t run a mile even if her life depended on it. Sometimes, my fear inhibits me from pushing myself just one small step farther – even though rationally I know it’s the very thing that will make me better.

It’s time for us to put on our big-kid pants and deal with it. We’ll never get better if we don’t push it. This week, identify something that takes you just one step beyond what you’ve done before. When you do it, I dare you to not smile and feel like a bad-ass.

Ironman Wisconsin: I’m gonna make you beg for mercy.

I’ve said throughout this whole endeavor that my goal for Ironman Wisconsin is not to do anything impressive. It’s just to finish. Competitors have 16 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds to do so.

There are so many factors on race day that could prohibit finishing before that cutoff time. These factors could cause me to take a DNF. It also could mean a race official could cruise up beside me and strip my timing chip off my ankle because there’s no way I would make it to the finish before the cutoff time. I would hate to come within grasp of my goal and not make it.

My friends and family will be there, cheering me on, and I don’t want to let them down. I’ve shared this journey with thousands of you on this website, and having to admit in a very public forum that I failed compounds my fear. Most importantly, there are certain people I love tremendously and have given me so much in this journey. If I didn’t make it to the finish, I would have to look them in the eye and say “I didn’t do it.” Just thinking about that is enough to make my heart sink into my stomach.

So all I can do is train. I train, I put forth the effort required of me, and I trust that on race day, it’ll all come together. Is it a leap of faith? Certainly. Is it foolish? I don’t really care. If I don’t try, the regret I’d have would be ten times worse than any fear. If I do fail, well…I guess I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it.

Whatever your goal, whether you’re doing your first 5K or gearing up for your tenth ultramarathon, I know you’re willing to take that leap of faith, too.

It’s time to show your fear who’s really in charge.

NMAs: During last week’s ass-cream extravaganza, I asked you for ideas for NMA testing — products, foods, training plans, workouts, races, etc. Y’all have some good ideas! Keep them coming…comment on that post with your suggestions, and you might just win a prize! Winners will be announced next week.



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  1. Negative self-talk is my chief enemy. Or call it self-doubt. I am both my harsest coach and my worst critic. Nine-tenths or more of my training obstacles are mental — me holding myself back. Fear of boredom, fear of looking stupid, fear of inconveniencing my family, fear of what the non-runners in my life will say, fear of success, fear of failure.

    Thanks. This post helps.

    • I don’t think you’re alone, Ed — we all have our moments when we’re our worst critic when we should be our biggest supporter. After all, we’re the ones who stand to gain the most from our success, right?

  2. Self-sabotage is the big thorn in my side! I know what to do to get back to my goal weight, and I keep ALMOST getting there.

    You brought tears to my eyes talking about the possibility of not finishing. I believe you will not only finish, you will finish strong! Go kick fear’s hiney for us all!!

    Elizabeth @

  3. This was such a great post. Thank you.

  4. loved this!

  5. haha I gotta say…whenever I’m wearing the “No Meat Athlete” shirt, I allow minimal walking breaks when I run. Can’t look weak 😉

  6. Great post! I can relate to all of it..except I have to admit, I really don’t get why so many people are scared of zombies! lol

    I spent 3 months training for my first 5k and got so far as to set my alarm for it the night before. But the morning of, I woke up with Scarlet Fever and had to go to the urgent care clinic instead of my race. I’m convinced that I only got sick because I psyched myself out so much. Now I’m back on the training wagon and determined to SLAY THAT 5K.

    • Zombies are THE WALKING UNDEAD, Maggie! And they SUCK YOUR BRAINS! C’mon…

      No, seriously, I don’t really fear zombies in any other circumstance…just in the lake. It’s horrible. I was doing an open-water swim once and had about 5 feet of clearance between me and any other swimmer, when I felt something brush on my hand. I freaked out and screamed “ZOMZBIE!”…and then discovered it was a floating weed. So embarrassing.

      There’s a direct link between stress and health — the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to come down with illness. So I’m glad you’re back on the wagon, but keep it all in perspective — this 5K is supposed to be fun, and you’re gonna rock it! 🙂

  7. Wonderful post, thanks! I’ve been conquering my fears pushing limits training for a half marathon and hopefully a full soon.

  8. YESSSS for Ironman Wisconsin! I can come cheer you on!!!!

  9. Great post. I can relate. I’m still that fat 12yo inside, and have just started tapering for my first 100 miler. I managed to run a marathon on a Sunday and a 53 miler the following Sat with 47 miles of training in between and that fat kid is still there when I look over my shoulder. Pretty ridiculous, eh?

  10. I’d love to know what you know about hydration packs, fuel belts and all that. I find fuel belts impossibly ridiculous looking but as my marathon training pushes my running distance into the higher double digits carrying a lone bottle is totally not cutting it. I live in the sticks of Maine so parks/stores and the like are not a given.

    Also I can’t wait to hear more about your vibram five fingers!!

  11. Kevin D says:

    Great post! And I truely believe it’s absolutely critical, as you (and Mark A.) point out, to recognize and embrace the fear you have inside. I live in the Madison area and took the plunge last year at IM Wisconsin. It was my second tri ever (first being a sprint tri) and I was scared to death the moment I paid up. Fear of failure and self doubt can be big deals but, as Matt said in his 50 miler post, it’s more a fear of the unknown for me. I’d never gone anywhere near 140.6 miles but now having done it I have the confidence I never though I’d ever have. Now I’m like: “What’s next?” Glad you so eloquently brought the issue to light!

  12. Great post! Here’s to kicking fear’s ass! I’m terrified of swimming and I’ve got an open ocean swim. Sharks, drowning, and not being able to swim back to shore are all present in my head. I went on my very first ocean swim last week and surprised myself by laughing at how freaking terrified I was!

    Laughing, scared, sucking it up and continuing to train! Nothing will stop me. Nothing!

    Thanks for an inspiring article =)

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