Conquering the Unknown

I am terrified of the unknown. I take comfort in knowing that I have a set of backup plans for every facet of my life. And backup plans on those backup plans. While this can be interpreted as the work of a careful planner, it can also become a cage keeping me from exploring the thrill of the unknown.

I recently had a friend decide to take a break from her cushy and safe corporate job to travel Southeast Asia, just because. She announced her trip via Facebook and left the next day. I stalked her photos throughout the entire six month trip. She had no set plans, just a few key places she wanted to check out before she returned to the States. When she got back, I pressed her for details and hung on her every word. The experiences she had, the people she met, the food she ate, and the cultures she experienced sounded like scenes from my dream life.

I was inspired. That conversation renewed my belief in the power of now. Since I’m hoarding what’s left of my vacation days for my race in August, I wouldn’t be able to take a spontaneous trip to Southeast Asia. But I decided I would still capitalize on my new found bravery however I could. Two weeks ago, I had my chance. Around 6pm on a Friday, I read about a race called the Wahsatch Steeplechase taking place the next morning. The race was a 17 mile trail run, and since I was scheduled for a 16 mile trail run, I figured, “Oh, what the hell. Why not?” It also helped that the starting line was less than five minutes from my house.

For somebody who obsessively prepares for every real and potential scenario, the idea of running a race without looking at the course or previous years’ results wasn’t just terrifying, it was suicide. But this was the perfect opportunity to push myself. I knew my body was healthy enough to tackle the distance but the unknown elevation gain, possible heat, and other unknown factors kept me awake long into the night.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to head down to the starting line. As a comparatively bulky distance runner, it can be intimidating to line up next to the long legged gazelles and gracefully athletic competitors. To line up next to the competition knowing they had prepared for this race and I hadn’t was nerve-wracking. I could hear the voice in my head already starting up,“You don’t belong here. Why are you even here? You can’t do this.” But I remembered my coach’s advice from my first marathon months earlier, “run your own race”. I took a deep breath, turned my focus inward, and the gun sounded.

To say the course was “challenging” would be a gross understatement. The course was brutal. Unlike anything I could have imagined. The first 8 miles were a steady incline, climbing over 4000 feet in the last three miles. The course poured over the spiky peak of the mountain, requiring competitors to climb (yes, as in rock climb) down giant towering crags.  But as the course dropped into a steep downhill section, the kind that turns your quads to hamburger and threatens to blacken what’s left of your toenails, I was smiling. I looked like a maniac, grinning while flying down the trail, pouring through the hairpin turns, and feeling as powerful and free as a flash flood roaring down the mountain.

No, I didn’t win. I didn’t even set a personal best. The last few miles of the race were a gentle descent through an urban trail but I was taxed. I didn’t have the luxury of a recovery day the next day so I took it easy and just reveled in the personal glory of tackling a challenging wildcard experience. And actually enjoying the process!

Taking risks, even the calculated kind, never appealed to me. The parade of worst case scenarios would always dissuade me, drowning out any argument in favor of the spontaneous adventure. But after finishing this race, I’ve since softened my stance. Sometimes what hold us back are the obstacles we create within our own minds, obstacles that may never actually materialize. But rather than pursue the unknown and find out for ourselves, we hold back. We play it safe. We let the imaginary roadblocks defeat us long before we even set out on an adventure to find out for ourselves. And who knows what we’re missing out on?

Sometimes the lack of preparation sets you free. You’re in a position to test your own adaptability and improvise your own solutions. And you haven’t had time to psych yourself out and doubt what you’re truly capable of overcoming. Honestly, if I had known how tough that race was, I would never have stepped foot on the course. I would have found a million excuses disguised as reasons why I couldn’t. But on the trail, sweating and out of breath, quads trembling, it was pure exhilaration. Each step was an obstacle and an opportunity to stumble, to get injured and derail my entire training season, but I was doing it. And it was fun!

No matter what adventure or dream you’re chasing, just do it. I promise the reward is bigger than the risks. Whether it’s an overseas adventure, signing up for a race, going back to school, or starting a business, there’s a reason why you daydream about it. Chase it now, take steps to pursue that dream today. Trust yourself and your abilities. Have faith in yourself and know that you already possess the tools to transform your dream into your reality. The first step is the heaviest and often the most timid but living a life fueled by pure passion is worth the risk.