What’s the secret to overcoming fear?
Guest post. Imagine riding a bicycle for over 100 miles in one day. Add in triple digit temperatures and 85% humidity. Combine that with 30 mph gusting side winds trying to knock you off your bike. Now, late in the ride when you’re already tired, put in a big, long scary descent that has you bombing downhill at 40 miles an hour for 15 minutes.
Put all of that in the context of a race, with other riders getting blown all over the road by those fickle white-knuckle winds. And finally, before you start that bike ride, begin your day by swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean, and after the bike, be ready to run a marathon in that heat.
That’s what Jodie Browning did this past October at the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. To even qualify for this race, she had to have been one of the top three age group finishers in a previous Ironman. But she was no rookie – this was her third trip to Kona.
Yet the prospect of racing on the Big Island in that hostile environment brought fear to her heart, and her poor race results in past years showed it. The idea of taking on the heat, hills, and wind again terrified her.
Her story of overcoming fear and what she learned about herself in the process can serve as inspiration to anyone facing fears, whether it’s on a bike, in the board room, or braving the daily challenges of life.
It is my pleasure to introduce to you Jodie Browning of Queensland, Australia:
Madam Pelé’s World
The Ironman World Championship, held annually in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii, is the pinnacle event on the endurance triathlon calendar. The top professional and leading amateur triathletes from around the world race to determine who has best mastered the art of self-imposed suffering.
According to Hawaiian culture, Madam Pelè is the creator of the Hawaiian Islands and the Goddess of Fire. Any athlete who has experienced her version of hospitality will vouch that her reputation is true to her character. She defeats those athletes who fear her and wounds the egos of those who think to tame her. She makes the island of Kona a worthy endurance battlefield, so that when the best of the best come head to head, it is true mastery of self that ultimately defines who is at the cutting edge of the elite.
Pretense Stripped Away
As an athlete who has been privileged to tango with her volatile moods on more than one occasion, she has repeatedly stretched me beyond my capacity, and in the process introduced me to the rawest version of myself. She has stripped me of all pretense, and witnessed my false bravado as it crumbled into confusion and uncertainty. She has captured pitiful bouts of self-deprecation, doubt, disappointment, and shame at my own lack of courage. She has tested me and bested me.
She has asked me, over and over, who I really was, and when I could not answer her with authenticity she called my bluff and forced me to confront the weakness of my own charade. It is often said that sport is a vehicle that transfers lessons across the breadth of life and so it is unsurprising to me that my #roadstoKona have had a profound influence upon mine.
Kona is renowned as a challenging course habitually presenting athletes with a trio of misery: heat, humidity and wind. I first qualified for Kona on only my third attempt at the full Ironman distance, and from the outset I felt that I had not yet fully earned the right to compete at such a prestigious event.
My coach, who understood that the purpose of life was much more than merely chasing performance outcomes, encouraged me to have faith in myself and to embrace the opportunity. Over the years, I have come to value his insight.
Coaching is Leading
He is a leader amongst leaders. He observes quietly, thinks deeply, and imparts his wisdom thoughtfully. He is often the last to speak and I have come to learn that when he does, it pays to listen.
The wall in front of my indoor bike trainer is peppered with snippets of quotes and thoughts that he has shared as reminders of how to draw out the best in myself and maintain my integrity in the pursuit of my goals. Standing out from the rest, bolded for importance is the philosophy by which he has always guided my development; “Excellence is never reached. When you are just about to touch it, you raise that bar and you keep on reaching.”
Exceptional leaders nurture environments that set standards which require an investment in personal growth in order to achieve them. They offer the opportunity of self-exploration and encourage the habits of curiosity over criticism.
So, despite harbouring the trepidation and timidity of someone who thought they were reaching too far too soon, I determined to see just how far I could stretch.
My initial flirtation with Madam Pelé did not lead to a first date worth bragging about. I found her intimidating and, to my great shame, I am certain she found me cowardly. I would consider her opinion deservedly fair, as I had allowed both my fear and feelings that I was an unworthy imposter to influence my performance. My first experience left me humbled and more than a little chagrined. I was almost defeated.
However, I understood that a willingness to face uncertainty and to be exposed to the vulnerability of failure were the very foundations of personal growth. It would have been folly to waste that opportunity by succumbing to the easy lure of wallowing in defeat; not when the potential for growth was so great.
Success in endurance sport, or any arena where the ability to persevere determines long-term success, requires physical durability, mental resilience, patience and a well-governed yet adaptive and tenacious mindset.
It reminds me of the idea Oprah once shared that we are the artists of our own lives. At any given moment, we can go back and re-paint our canvas however we choose. At our own discretion we can add vibrancy to the dull, feather the lines with texture, or temper the fluorescent with the soft hue of pastels.
If we embrace the creativity and flexibility of this mindset we begin to see that within every failure there is immense opportunity and that each triumph over struggle is a step in the right direction, even if the path we follow meanders a little.
My greatest fear of Kona has always been managing the descents at speed, despite the fierce crosswinds that are part of the island’s heart and soul. Negotiating these elements separates the good from the great, and the courageous from the tentative.
The unpredictability of these elements forced me to understand that it was my relationship with myself, how I managed my own emotions, and my choices stemming from those feelings, that would allow me to control my destiny. The words of Dr. Brene Brown resonate:
There are so many life lessons littered along my roads to Kona that it is difficult to narrow them down. It wasn’t until my third attempt at trying to negotiate the ferocity of the island winds that I finally realised that the greatest obstacle in my way was myself.
Racing at Kona taught me that you cannot control your environment; you can only control your response to it, and that it is your own thoughts that assign value and meaning to your experience.
Fear is what you create when you fail to trust yourself. To move beyond your fear you need to have the courage to relax your chokehold on the ‘need to predict and control the future’ and simply trust yourself to manage the moment. You may not always have all the answers, but when you find a way to believe in your own capacity and to reach beyond the shadows of doubt, there are no limits, and opportunity is infinite.
I have learned that humility will open your mind to learning in the same way that ego will stunt your growth, and that pretence is not a foundation upon which you can build success because when adversity finds you, the truth of who you are will ultimately surface.
Madam Pele by her own example taught me that true power comes from within and that harnessing that energy requires acceptance of what is, and the mindfulness of being entirely present in the moment. She echoes the voice of my coach with his visceral encouragement, “Close your eyes at times and listen to your body. Feel the stillness where it is supposed to be still, and feel the strength where it is supposed to be strong. Be in the moment.”
I have come to accept that rawness, fragility, vulnerability and discomfort are a part of the process of ‘becoming.’ The intensity of these experiences are what mould and shape us. If you allow the discomfort that comes with personal growth to reach its true peak, if you manage to ride that wave of fear and doubt that nudges you past your limits, then you will not only succeed, but you will never go back to the version of you that you were before.
Many people quit at the precipice of success, at that very tipping point where they have the potential to either teeter backwards into the pool of the average, or stride forward into the realm of the exceptional. They miss out on the opportunity to not only achieve beyond their own potential, but by example provide encouragement and guidance for others to do the same. The greatest champions in our sport speak often of following in the footseps of those exceptional athletes before them who led the way and showed them what was possible.
I have discovered that the true purpose of life is to simply do justice to the gifts that each of us have been given, and to encourage and honour the attempts of others to discover and do justice to theirs. I have learned that there is a chasm of epic proportion between merely surviving or fully thriving, and that the bridge between the two is built on the simple combination of choice and courage.
If you outsource responsibility, assume the role of victim, and assign blame to the environment or to others, there can be no personal growth. Focusing on the obstacles, the adversity, the discomfort and the struggle will hinder your progression.
If, instead, you accept responsibility, search for the lessons, focus on possibility, and have faith in your capacity to grow, you will become more than you could ever have imagined. You will discover an abundance of new bridges to cross, and you will draw renewed energy from every crossing.
Overcoming Fear – The Takeaway
Kona, with her elements of fire and wind, is a force unto itself. But for those athletes who finally come to understand her, to embrace and embody her spirit and integrity, she becomes a formidable weapon in their arsenal of life-long resilience.
She teaches you that living in the moment, bringing your unconscious to consciousness, becoming one with your own suffering and leaning into your fears is how you spread your wings and soar.
Once, before the race, I confessed to my daughter that I was afraid of chasing my dreams as I wasn’t sure if I would be able to reach them. Later I discovered she had made an addition to the wall of quotes in front of my bike trainer.
In her handwriting, the note she posted simply said, “Be scared, and do it anyway.”
I was chasing a dream of my own when I first met Jodie – it was at the athlete welcome dinner shortly before the race. Even in that super-charged atmosphere of elite athletes, she was matter-of-fact in confessing her fears of the gusty, high-speed cycling descents that had neutralized her ability to compete in the past. But she also expressed her determination to embrace them this time, and commit to giving her best when she faced them.
She radiated quiet, humble strength. I was impressed.
The next time I saw her was in the athlete recovery area after the race, and she had been true to her word. On her first visit to the island she had been humbled, finishing in the back half of her age-group. This time around she overcame her fears and placed ninth…in the world.
Jodie, you truly are an Ironman, and a great example for us all.