Fear’s a Man’s Best Friend

Mt. Williamson

Mt. Williamson

Oh baby, baby – Oops I did it again.

I’ve signed up for Mogollon Monster. I feel as though I haven’t been running well for the last year and a bit. I feel as though age has caught up to me. I feel as though my performances, from now on, will be increasingly embarrassing. So…what better time to sign up for a race, right? Especially one as tough as Mogollon.

Zane Grey is one of my favorite races. I’ve started three years in a row. I have two finishes and one dislocated toe, which was followed a week later by a broken collarbone, the last (I hope) in a series of trail mishaps caused in large part by being so distracted by a job I hated. Well, actually, by imaginary arguments that were playing out in my head involving people at a job I hated. Heated arguments. Lots of self-righteousness. Totally imaginary extensions of real arguments – imaginary extensions in which I triumphantly made my point. In my anger, I reminded myself of Donald Trump. Nothing gracious whatsoever. It was kind of awful.

The way I reacted to the stresses of my job was literally breaking me.

Anyhow, I love Zane Grey, and at 53 miles (it’s grown in the past three years) it is almost exactly 3 miles longer than perfect, so why not go ahead and do a race that doubles that perfect mileage, pretty much on the same course – rocky, punishing, beautiful in a this-is-no-fun-at-all kind of way.

I’ve finished a few 100 mile races, but I’ve never run one even close to successfully. When I fall apart at other races (and I can count on one finger how many races I didn’t fall apart at) it’s usually close enough to the finish that I can put a cork in it.

This has not been the case in 100 miles.

What comes up, always, is fear.

Mt. Williamson

Mt. Williamson

Fear is a Man’s Best Friend.

“Fear is a Man’s Best Friend” is one of my favorite John Cale songs. Well, maybe my favorite, period. When I was a frightened punk rock kid who channeled all his fear into outrage, mostly at institutions that I was convinced were at fault for all my problems, I probably really thought that fear was indeed a man’s best friend.

According to Buddhism, it is fear that causes most of our suffering, as individuals and as a society. Fear might not be our best friend after all.

“The essential cause of our suffering and anxiety is ignorance of the nature of reality, and craving and clinging to something illusory. That is referred to as ego, and the gasoline in the vehicle of ego is fear.” – Judith Lief

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche talks about fearlessness as a pinnacle. Only those who are enlightened are fearless, but if we are all striving to enlightenment, we should strive to fearlessness. For underachievers like me, striving only for a diminishing of the suffering of existence, a little more happiness, and some better race performances, a little fearlessness would be a great help.

The starting point on the path of fearlessness is the discovery of fear. We find ourselves fearful, frightened, even petrified by circumstances. This ubiquitous nervousness provides us with a stepping stone, so that we can step over our fear. We have to make a definite move to cross over the boundary from cowardice to bravery. If we do so properly, the other side of our cowardice contains bravery.” – Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So there’s the good news: a requirement for fearlessness is fear.

A quick inventory of the fears that come up somewhere between mile 50 and 75 of a 100 mile race:
1). Fear of loosing to someone else I have arbitrary picked as my “competition”.
2). Fear of seeming inadequate as a runner.
3). Fear of being exposed as fraudulent as a runner.
4). Fear that people are going to laugh at me for a poor performance, just like I sometimes revel in the poor performance of others that I resent for some reason or another.
5). Fear that I will fail in some undefined way.

What are the thoughts that go through my head?
1). I’m a fraud
2). I suck at this ultrarunning stuff, just like I suck at pretty much everything else.
3). This is it. This is my last race. I might as well quit now.
4). I’m overwhelmed by frustration and need to get the fuck out of here.
5). I hate my job and it’s all their fault.
6). I’m old and I’m probably gonna die soon.

Here are the only things that are real:

1). My feet really hurt.
2). I am super tired, my legs are sore.
3). This hotspot might turn into a blister.
4). I need to take a shit.

These fears break up into two categories: Existential Crisis, and things-that-are-actually-happening. The things that are actually happening are the only ones that should actually affect my race, and they all have solutions: ibuprofin, change shoes, slow down a little, take in some food (you might be bonking), wash your feet and put on clean socks, where is the porta-potty?

The other ones all take place in the future, so I can worry about them later. Yes, it’s true I am much closer in years to death than to my teens. This crushing realization should not have any impact on whether or not I finish this race. Pause and take a few deep breathes. There is research that shows an emotion lasts 1.5 minutes. In order for these negative feelings to persist, I need to keep resurrecting them. Stopping this is easier said than done.

Fear arises the moment you ask yourself, what is this all about? Inevitably, it has nothing to do with right now. It has to do with the future, but the future doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened yet. The past doesn’t exist. It has already happened. The only thing you’ve got is what’s right here, right now. And coming home to the moment makes all the difference in the world in how you deal with fear.”- Judith Lief

How to salvage a bad race.

La Sportiva athlete Kristina Pattison has written a great article called 6 Ways to Salvage a Bad Race.

  • Don’t Panic
    Ellie Greenwood says “things WILL go wrong! But don’t panic, instead be a problem solver and focus on ways to deal with unexpected issues. Also, Ann Trason recently wrote in her column in Ultrarunning Magazine that during an ultra you can expect at least 6 things to go wrong, so when one does, smile & check it off the list! This helps keep your mind flexible and ready to roll with the punches.”

    In other words, don’t succumb to fear. If the problems are real, deal with them, following Ann Trason’s advice to smile and check it off the list. Be flexible.

  • Don’t Worry, Be Happy
    this is the key to working through any tough situation. Finding any small reason to smile… Notice some of the beauty of the scenery: the alpenglow of sunrise on surrounding peaks; are the wildflowers in bloom? Cheer for someone else! “GO CATLOW!” Think about how exciting it was to meet an elite racer and stand with them at the start line: “Oh my god, RORY BOSIO!!!””

    In Buddhist terms: be in the moment. The future doesn’t exist, nor does the past. All that exists is the present moment, so I must find ways to bring myself back to it, and enjoy it as best I can.

  • Don’t Compare Yourself
    Now stop comparing yourself to Rory right now! (Or Max, or Emelie, or Kilian, etc.) … Do not let your mind go there. … everyone is on a different path. Your path may not seem so glorious or…attractive, but as you’re wheezing and sweating and spitting your way up a tough climb, focus on your path. It’s pretty awesome! Resist the temptation to base your results on what others are accomplishing right now…Recognize what you have done that means something to you and back to step two: be happy!

    Sometimes this is a tough one. It means to detach from ego and from attachment to identity. I am a 57-year-old middle-of-the-packer. My life isn’t over because that guy just passed me. I need to bring myself back to the present moment.

  • Remember Your Roots
    …there are people who really want you to succeed…

    This is hard. Intellectually, I know it is true, but I remember those days running the 400 meters in highschool. I would round the second bend in front. I would hear cheering. “Oh fuck,” I would think to myself, “he’s getting closer!” I’d turn it up a notch, and as I tore down the straight the cheering would get louder and I would panic, thinking he was getting closer, and find another gear. I won every race I ran that way. Never once did it occur to me that those cheers were for me. Maybe this was because the people who meant the most to me weren’t there to see it. Why would anonymous people cheer me if my own parents couldn’t be bothered? And when will I ever get over this one?

  • Celebrate your accomplishments
    Finally, think about the old you, the one who didn’t run ultras. Could that person do what you do now? NO! HECK NO!! They probably still drank too much beer and never saw the sunrise. No matter where you are at in this sport, you have probably come a long way.

    The old me was an alcoholic and a drug addict.

Shenpa & Attachment.

The Tibetan word shenpa is generally translated as “attachment”, but in her book Taking the Leap Pema Chödrön proposes a translation of “hooked”, which in turn results in being stuck.

Here’s how shenpa shows up in everyday experiences,” she writes. “Someone says a harsh word and something in you tightens: instantly you’re hooked. That tightness quickly spirals into blaming the other person or denigrating yourself. The chain reaction of speaking or acting or obsessing happens fast…This is very personal. What was said gets to you–it triggers you…It touches your sore place.

The fundamental, most basic shenpa is to ego itself: attachment to our identity, the image of who we think we are. When we experience our identity as being threatened, our self-absorption gets very strong, and shenpa automatically arises.

Me, 1998

Me, 1998


I’ve cycled through a lot of identities. In high school, I was a runner. In college, I became a punk rocker, and then a music guy. I ended up living in Europe and working in fashion, and my identity became that of photographer. I came back to the states and got stranded. I started taking personal photos. People called this stuff “art”, and I identified, somewhat uncomfortably, as an artist. I also became sober and identified as an alcoholic. And I found myself returning to my punk rock roots with a ferocity that wasn’t there so much the first time around, so I identified, again, as a punk rocker, which was a surprise – I thought I’d put all that anger behind me. Turns out I had just been heavily sedated for about a decade. That was the point of all that drinking and drugging.

Some of those identities never seemed to fit. Others fit too well, and giving them up was difficult. This was true even when I felt fraudulent, because I always felt fraudulent. Giving up identifying as a punk rock artist was a struggle. A friend said to me “I’ve retired from punk.” This was in 2006. We’d both declared that “punk is dead, man” back in 1982. I thought about this for a while. Could I actually retire from punk? What did that even mean? Would that mean I would go live on a farm? It sounded like a great idea, aside from the farm part.

Lost in all of these identities is who I actually am, which is someone most likely completely independent of his ego. I’m also someone completely independent of the way others view me, which might not have much overlap with the way I view myself.

It’s really all a load of shit…but it’s what we humans do.

The fundamental, most basic shenpa is to ego itself: attachment to our identity, the image of who we think we are. When we experience our identity as being threatened, our self-absorption gets very strong, and shenpa automatically arises.”
– Pema Chödrön

This is very, very true. My attachment to my identity as a runner (based largely on high school successes from more than two thirds of a lifetime ago, and getting increasingly distant) causes all kinds of problems when that identity is threatened. I believe I am that identity, so it is me that’s threatened, in what feels like a very fundamental way. It is extremely frightening. My reaction is full of hostility.

All because I am having a bad fucking race.

My foot hurts. Some guy passes me. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a full blown existential crisis. Every race and half of my training runs become dark nights of the soul, and this 57-year-old middle-of-the-pack underachiever starts overachieving in a big way, becoming St. John of the Cross, having a crisis with God Himself, even though I am more-or-less an atheist. It’s all very dramatic, at least in my head. Most people don’t even notice the crisis happening in their midst. The few who do, like Andrea, are a little frightened by it. “You slowed down a lot from the last aid station,” she told me this year at Zane Grey. I’d been running for 12 miles with a dislocated toe. “I was afraid you were going to be really angry.”


I have depression. I suffer pretty badly from it. This shouldn’t be a surprise: I’m an alcoholic, (twenty years sober, but it never goes away), I’m about as introverted as anyone can be, I have Aspergers, childhood was not particularly gentle, neither physically nor sexually. This is not a recipe for happy-go-lucky.

I’m not the first ultrarunner with a melancholic disposition. Many of us are folks who find our peace in the mountains, pushing ourselves, filling our lungs with clean air, rejoicing in the quiet and stillness, as far away from anyone as we can get. Ultrarunning is a heaven for introverts.

Rob Krar has been pretty upfront about his struggles with depression.

In “The Zen Path Through Depression” Philip Martin writes “Many of our usual fears are magnified in depression. We fear what others think of us. We fear that no one will love us. We are afraid of death. We are afraid of our own death. We feel that our depression and pain and fear will never end.

Yeah, that’s about right.

Note to self.

Alcoholics are people who, when we find ourselves in a rut, we furnish it.”

That’s something an AA old-timer used to tell me. That and “I am a spiritual being having a human experience.

This entire post is really just a note-to-self. I’m collecting my thoughts, so that maybe I can better deal with my shit. If it is valuable to anyone else, that is a huge bonus, but this is mostly a reference guide for me, so that I can work on climbing out of the rut I’ve made home these past few years.

There are two tests at Mogollon Monster. The first is physical. The second is mental. The second is where I most often fail. There’s no shortage of good instruction on how to avoid the things that routinely do me in. The question is whether or not I am willing to follow direction.

2 replies
  1. Matt
    Matt says:

    I just stumbled across this article and I’m not sure I’ve ever read something that is so relatable to who I am. I, too, just attempted the Mogollon Monster. I dropped at Mile 64. I have finished one 100 and dropped at the last two now. While I’ve been dealing with an injury this year, I know in my heart that I was recovered from it and my reasons for dropping are not related to that, especially yesterday morning.

    I am a recovering alcoholic going on five years now. I also feel that I have suffered from depression for as long as I can remember, even though I’ve never been formally diagnosed. I always relate with others who have it and completely feel like “me too” every time I listen to people who describe their struggles with it. I am also extremely introverted and have trouble relating with others in a casual social way. Even though I don’t often run in the mountains, I feel like I am drawn to the Ultra races in no small part because of that isolated lost in nature feeling that you described.

    I feel like my mental state is both a positive and a negative in my 100 mile attempts, which is hard for me to explain to my Ultra friends. The recovering addict/depression mentality is what makes me feel completely at home in this sport in a way that I am not sure many other runners will ever completely feel. But that same mentality also makes it really hard for me to persevere when the inevitable “why the hell am I doing this” moments come up in a 100.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Hopefully someone stumbles on this and relates to it and realizes they are not alone, the same way I just felt when I read your article. I’m crushed that I didn’t finish Mogollon when I am a day away from it and already know I could have done it. So, thanks a million for your article, and now I try to appreciate the beauty of the run and have the gratitude of a body that allows me to even experience the most beautiful places on Earth. It was an epic adventure that I will remember always and helps me know and feel that I am truly alive. But I will do this all the while dealing with the lowly “beat myself up” thoughts that I know will persist in my mind for weeks and months to come. It’s a ridiculous, beautiful, and absolutely painful place to be in, and knowing that I am not alone in this space right now is what will help me live in the reality of that space.


  2. Geoff
    Geoff says:

    Thanks, Matt. Strong stuff. I finished the race, well in the back, largely because I approached it with those intentions. In other words, I made a point not to worry about who was ahead and who was behind and how my ultrasignup percentage would look or any of the other competitive things we so often engage in. Those things tend to do me in. Instead I just made sure I had a sufficient padding on cut-offs, and if things went wrong, I tried to just laugh it off, as suggested in the post (I wasn’t kidding when I said it was mostly a note-to-self). As it turned out, a lot more went wrong than usual, so I had plenty of material to work with.


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