Fear: The Ultimate Performance Drug

I've been hearing a lot of fear lately in relatives and friends. It's not about global warming, the economy, or terrorism. It's about how they are going to perform in a race.

It started when a relative rattled off a laundry list of why he might not participate in this year's Bolder-Boulder 10K - a recurring pain in his leg, not enough time to train, the hassle of finding a parking space, not liking the wave he might be placed in because he doesn't have a qualifying time. But his real reason, he divulged, is he fears that he won't run under a time he picked out of thin air.

Then my wife said she was worried that she hasn't gotten enough running milage in to run the Bolder-Boulder as fast as last yearbecause of the rough winter. So she is picking up her milage with six weeks to go before the race, easier with the days getting longer and the weather warmer. Actually, she ran a lot this winter (once at 8 above) and worked out hard with weights and an elliptical on most days she didn't run.

Then my daughter, a nurse with two young kids and a challenging work schedule and who was preparing to run a 30K trail race, said she was worried that she might "bonk" because she wasn't getting in enough mileage. I was immediately skeptical about that because I'd gone on a couple of trail runs (one which goes straight uphill for the first three miles) with her two months ago and she flew away from me like I was standing still. (No surprise, she ran the race last week and did great.)

Then a work colleague, who is going to walk the Bolder-Boulder, said she was worried she's be forced off the course for not finishing in the allotted time, like she was a few years earlier, which was humilitating and discouraging. I asked a couple of questions and learned she has been walking more than ever for several months becasue she had moved from the snowbound mountains onto the plains where there were some great trails, and might be in the best shape she's been in for a long time.

I know their fear. With six weeks to the Bolder-Boulder, I'm trying to lose a couple of pounds and put in more time road running, less on trails and doing stength training. My knees feel the miles on the asphalt. I worry: Can I get my pace figured out so I don't start out too fast? Can I beat last year's time?

What's ironic (and sort of funny) is that we reach goals by fearing we won't. Maybe we don't always reach them, but fear get us closer to them. Fear of failure motivates us to train harder, or start training earlier and more systematically, or sacrifice a desert or beer or two, or raise our pain threshold a little.

Like any performance enhancing drug, fear must be used in moderation. Too much can lead to injury because you try to go too fast or too long before you're physically ready. And it can create counter-productive performance anxiety, like that which elite runner Kara Goucher describes so honestly in "Mind Gains" in March 2010 Runner's World.

But fear is really our friend. When you to step up to the starting line, the nervousness and anticipation you feel are the miraculous alchemy of your fear turning into adrenaline as the fight or flight response kicks in. When you hear the starting gun fire and take that first step, you have chosen to fight, and the adrenaline will help you perform the best you could that day.

Anatomy Lesson

This weekend, I got an anatomy lesson at the Body Worlds exhibition called "The History of the Heart" at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The exhibition features entire human bodies and body parts that have been "pleastinated" in a process invented by a brilliant anatomist named Gunther von Hagens.
Athletes of all ages have an appreciation for his or her body, spends lots of time studying how to properly feed it and condition it, and to get it to perform and stay healthy. But unless we're medical students for take college level kinesiology dissecting human cadavers, few really get to see how the body is actually constructed. Now von Hagens has extended anatomy lessons to the masses. Two dimensional diagrams, drawings, and videos are helpful, but there's nothing like the real thing. Now I know what's been broken or strained, what feels so tired or burns.
Beyond just presenting gross anatomy, the exhibit promotes good health. And because this exhibit has an emphasis on the heart, the importance of exercise is prominent, including a wall size poster of Lance Armstrong, noting his heart is 30% larger than average, alongside a case with specimens of an average and enlarged (hypertorphied) heart. When you see all the sinewy red muscle tissue, especially in the legs, it's easier to understand why aerobic exercise can consume 85% of the heart's output.

No surprise, good nutrition was touted for good heart health. Some of the messages were subtle, others brutal. There were specimens showing peripheral artery disease in the lower leg and arteries dissected open to reveal blockages. A large poster of a juicy hamburger (a refreshing change - no commercial logo accompanied it) was above long case containing a full length cross section of a 300 lb. man showing the deadly accumulation up of the fat tissue. A label pointed to where the saw had cut his pacemaker in half.

Beyond just teaching anatomical facts and didactic lessons about healthy habits, the exhibit displays incredible artistry. Clearly,von Hagens marvels at what the living human body can do and celebrates that fact in his full body dissections. The specimens are not laying on their backs and splayed open like in post mortems, but erect, crouched, bent in beautiful actions poses. One was of a man on ice skates balancing a woman overhead. Another was of a woman pulling back a compound bow, and another of a man throwing a javelin.
On the way out of Body Worlds, I thought about the nameless specimens and felt a sense of gratitude. Though dead, they still teach us how incredible life is.

Joyful postures of specimens.