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False Fears

It can be terrifying to look a barrier — whether real or imagined — square in the face. To break free, acknowledge it, shake hands with it and realize you are probably capable of more.

Tiffany Duncan
November 28, 2018

Well, I did it; I ran my first official 5k. Without stopping. Without giving in to the pain, or to the negative voices in my head. And let me tell you something: I have not felt quite that amazing in a very long time.

When I crossed that finished line at Fourth Street and Boston Avenue after running three consecutive miles — music blasting, hundreds of people yelling and cheering, the October morning sunshine peeking around the downtown Tulsa buildings — I cried a little bit. I really did.

I actually felt myself tear up multiple times during the race. I kept getting the same revelation over and over: here was the thing that had frightened me for years, and I was actually doing it. Not imagining it. Not fearing it. Not thinking about worst-case scenarios. Actually doing it. And I wasn’t dying!

For a couple of months up to race day, I practiced running on Riverside Drive. At first I couldn’t even do a mile without stopping, though I used to run cross-country in high school (which, by the way, can we just once and for all tell our high school selves to stop barging into our adult lives with their fast metabolisms, skinny little bodies, and naively idealistic ways?).

It’s been 11 years since those cross-country days, and it was hard not to feel discouraged, and to have intrusive thoughts like, you could be out here every day and you are never going to be able to run that mile. Completely ridiculous, right? Anyone who practices anything for a month can do it. Yet, in the moment, thoughts like this can seem like the golden gospel truth, because it is truly terrifying to look a barrier — whether real or imagined — square in the face.

For me, feeling pain is a very real barrier. I really think my fear of pain came from when I was younger, and I would push myself in whatever sport it was — especially track — until many times I threw up. You see, when I was a teenager, I rarely if ever lost any track race I ran in (I was also in a small private school sports division, which I probably owe a lot of that success to). At the time, though, compliments showered down on me like rain, and I started to feel like I needed them to survive. So I pushed myself to the mental and physical brink in every area of my life to ensure that the compliments would never stop. Because, if they did, surely that meant I’d become unlovable. If I wasn’t the best, then I was expendable. Valueless. Thus the study sessions that didn’t stop until daylight, and the workouts that ended with me doubled-over, vomiting into a ditch.

I think I beat myself up emotionally so much back then that the day finally came when I literally broke something inside of myself. I think finally my mind and my body revolted, and ever since that day I have lived a mediocre life, because anything that even gives off the faintest hint of pain or discipline has frightened me in the deepest, most vulnerable parts of myself that I boxed away a long time ago.

But with lots of counseling, I’ve been able to start prying open the dusty lids of those boxes and have started to form a revelation: just because something feels hard, it doesn’t automatically mean that I also have to be the best at it.

So back to Riverside Drive a couple of months ago, when I first came back out to really show down my adolescent demons. When I felt pain trying to run that first mile, my first gut-reaction thoughts were ugly: “There’s no reason you should struggle running one measly mile;” “You’ll never be able to do this;” “Worthless, worthless, worthless.”

Any other time in the past, and these thoughts would have folded me like a cheap card table. But I am not the same person I was even last year, and like it or not, race day was coming. I’d signed myself up for this 5k so I couldn’t get out of it, so I couldn’t hide any longer. I wanted to test my mettle and see what was in there. So instead of pushing so hard into the pain that I hurt myself — like I would have done when I was younger — or simply going home and giving up — which has been my M.O. for the past 10 years — I acknowledged the pain and shook hands with it. This meant I walked when I needed to walk without shaming myself, and I continued to show up day after day to progress as slowly as I needed to, without heaping on any pressure of needing to be in first place, or even finish in the first half come race day.

When race day arrived, I was ready. Nervous as heck, but ready. I joined over 2,000 other Tulsans at the starting line at 7:40 a.m. for the Tulsa Run 5k. And I shudder to think what I would have missed out on had I not shown up for myself all those days on Riverside to prepare for this experience. It was beautiful. The October morning sunshine poured down gold on the cathedral spires throughout the race, and there was a shared camaraderie with all of those running with me that is hard to explain. From young to old, and in all shapes, sizes, and athletic abilities, there we were, each running for our own reasons when we could have been sleeping on a Saturday morning, facing down personal demons and dragons and all things in between.

As I ran, I did not try and keep up with anyone going faster than me; I did not speak unkindly to myself when someone passed me. Instead I thought about how blessed I was that I had legs to run at all, and that I got to enjoy the fall weather and my home city in such a unique way. I finished in just over 32 minutes, which is definitely no beacon of athletic prowess. But to me, the real achievement was doing something athletic for the first time in my life that wasn’t built around needing others’ approval. I could not have been more proud of myself.

I had built up running in a race to something of monstrous proportions in my head, thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish and I was going to embarrass myself, or something else totally ridiculous. But when I got out there and really, truly, actually did the thing and I crossed that finish line, I wondered: what else am I capable of that I’m letting fear of the unknown — or the false fear that I have to be the best at it — hold me back from?

Instagram handle: rightyes_rightno_918
Blog handle: rightyesrightno918.com

Utilizing as many free and cheap resources as she can find in the 918 area, routinely forsaking her fitness comfort zone to discover effective workouts, and cooking more intentionally from home, Duncan is publicly documenting her progress in each issue as she works to lose 30 pounds in 2018.