Tales of Being Afraid of Success: How to Not Shoot Yourself in the Foot when Things are Going Well
I was running scared. I wasn't running fearlessly
We’ve all been there. You are on personal best pace late into a race. Your breathing is calmer than usual, your legs haven't hit that fatigued feeling before seeing the line, and for all intents and purposes, you are feeling pretty darn good. But there comes a pivotal moment when you realize that these things are not normal. Usually, you are in great pain at mile 11 of this half marathon, or your lungs feel like they are seared by the effort at mile 2 of the 5k, so you begin to think. That’s where things go from a smooth ride along with an ethereal dreamscape to the daunting reality of what you are actually doing.
It sounds ridiculous, but those that have been there and experienced that know it all too well. You are afraid of success! You finish the race and think about what could have been. What if you took your shot in that last mile? What if you had gone with the competitor you were shoulder to shoulder with for the whole race, that ended up walking away from you as the finish came into view?
I remember the first time I withered under the perceived notion of a breakthrough performance. It was an indoor 5000m race in college. I was a junior at the time, and hadn’t broken 15:00 yet, though my workouts indicated I was capable. The first mile was by in a flash as I just looked at my teammates back. More of the same through the 2nd mile. I wasn’t looking at the lap counter, which can be soul crushing in an indoor 5k, or the clock. I was totally in the flow state, taking the race lap by lap and immersed in the race. Then it started to think. I was on PR pace for sure, but what was the “minimum” to run 14:59? I had a 1000m to go and the pack of guys I was running with began to pick up the rhythm. I let them go because I didn't want anything drastic to derail my performance to this point. For the next 4 laps I stared down the clock, totally disengaged from the competition at hand. As I heard the bell I looked up to see I had to run a 40 second lap to break 15:00. I had all the energy I needed to do that but I never caught back up to the 3 guys I had spent most of the race with. I ran 14:52.
I jogged around Whitewater, Wisconsin that evening, with mixed emotions. I had broken that 15:00 barrier and I was excited about that, but there was something hollow about the performance that was eating at me. I had been running with the guys that ran 14:45 until I looked at the clock and did too much thinking. I realized that I was afraid of success, of what it would mean to have such a jump in performance. In retrospect no one would have placed greater expectations on me, that would all be self-imposed, but I felt like I was just a 15:00-guy, so why would I deserve to run much faster than that. I settled for the comfort of knowing I could hit my attainable goal, instead of reaching far beyond that when things were going better than I could’ve ever anticipated.
Fast forward a few years to the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon. I was fit and ready to go, and the weeks leading up I thought myself surely a 2:18-guy. As long as I could walk out of there with the OTQ in hand, nothing else would matter.
I ran the Houston Marathon fearlessly and ran something I never thought possible
Fellow TeamWickedBonkproof athlete, Travis Morrison, and I went through halfway in 69:30, precisely on Olympic Trial qualifying pace. The group we were running with began to let off the pace a bit so we confidently separated ourselves. The only checkpoint I had mentioned to Travis before the race was to try to get to 18 in 1:35:00, just to make sure we were still going to qualify. Unfortunately, from mile 14 to 18 I was going through my own personal rough-patch. I tucked in behind Trav to let him pull me along as I fought the mental battle to settle or keep riding the line. We were coming up on mile 18 and I looked up at the clock. Miraculously, we were spot on, 1:34:57. I was relieved as my body settled back into a fast but manageable rhythm.
The pace seemed to get faster though. I was sure it was just the feeling of tired legs being pushed to their limit but as we started to clip off 5:00 miles after the 20 mile mark I was in shock. We were actually picking it up this late into the race. Everyone tries to just hold onto what they got by mile 22 but we were actually building a gap between us and the qualifying time of 2:19:00.
I distinctly remember crossing the 24th mile mark and thinking, “oh my god, I still haven’t slowed down, I’d have to totally blow up to not qualify.” And there it was, at mile 24, I was at the same precipice as the last 1000m of that 5k in college. I could play it safe, maybe even slow down to keep from potentially imploding in the last mile, or I could take my shot at being better than I expected. This time was different. I committed to continue to push the pace, so long as it didn’t break Travis who’d been in his rough patch around mile 22 but was still on my shoulder more or less. We made the turn together into the downtown area of Houston and I could make out a figure ahead of me, Pardon Ndhlovu, the Zimbabwean Olympian and training partner at ZAP Endurance.
I set aside pretense of pace, or finish time, and did everything in my power to sprint the life in my legs away in that final 200m to pass him. I took that risk and never looked back, and I am here to tell you, simply taking the risk, and not resigning to just being “good enough,” was the greatest feeling I have experienced in running. I crossed the line in 2:16:45, a massive personal best, but more importantly, I did not shy away from my own success this time. I embraced it with passion and excitement.
Everyone wants to be successful in their athletic pursuits, but sometimes we can get in own way when the moment arrives! Your success is purely personal, you are the one setting the expectations, you are the one putting in the training and time to set yourself up to achieve your goals, no one is holding your family hostage (god, I hope this isn’t true for anyone reading this) and saying you have to BQ. So here’s the simplest advice I give you. EMBRACE THE MOMENT. For better or worse, work on being present in the race or workout or run you are doing. Don’t try to predict where you will be at the end if you maintain “x” pace, or what your second half of the race will have to be to reach your goal. Instead focus on where you are at in the race and give your best effort in that moment. All too often we paint the picture of what we feel like a race should look like, instead of seeing what we are capable of doing on that given day.