Overcoming Fear and Remembering to Just Let Go and Move

Though helpful in its ability to keep us away from danger, fear isn’t a good running companion. That’s when I realized that I just needed to let go and start moving.

When the pandemic hit, I focused on the fact that no matter what shut down or what happened with my kids’ schooling, I could still do one thing: run. And so I ran. A lot.

Illustration by Dola Sun

I’ve been running for 25 years. Most of that time, I’ve averaged about 60 miles a month. Last spring, I started logging 100 miles a month.

Running became my No. 1 mental health practice. Not only did it offer the rare chance to be away from everyone in my house, it was also a moving meditation. You breathe. You move. Time and miles pass. You come back home feeling more alive. What’s better than that?

Aside from some achiness and bouts of tendonitis here and there, I’ve stayed uninjured these past three decades. So when I rolled my left ankle in the middle of a run in May, I didn’t think much of it. It definitely hurt, but I was still able to run the three miles back home. It wasn’t pleasant, but I didn’t think there was any real damage. I iced. I rested a few days. And I went back at it.

About a month later, I rolled the same ankle again while running. Not quite as badly as before, but it still hurt. Not only that, I feared it now fell into the category of “recurring problem,” which runners don’t like to acknowledge.

Around mid-August, probably because my gait was slightly off from protecting the ankle, I developed plantar fasciitis in my left foot—a condition that feels like someone is sticking needles in your heel. I swapped out one of my running days for swimming laps at the Y, looked up stretches to do, and fought my way through it.

And then, at the end of that month, I fell while running. I got neither a concussion nor a black eye—two things friends of mine have suffered from running falls—but I banged up my right knee, hand, and shoulder pretty badly. My knee was especially gruesome. I cleaned it up with the tissue I had and continued to run. For eight miles. As I was gritting through the pain, blood visible on my knee, I knew my decision was questionable. But the weather was so nice! I couldn’t waste a Sunday run on a silly little thing like a bloody knee.

Within about a week, though, my knee became infected. The infection, which looked like a rash of big pimples, soon spread all over my right leg and part of my left (shaving my legs may have been the culprit). I washed my legs with alcohol, slathered on antibiotic ointment, and kept them covered for a few days.

It healed, just in time for a giant callus to develop on the bottom of my left foot, which hurt with every step. And the plantar fasciitis came back. And everything about my gait was strange, like I couldn’t quite pick up my feet in the right way.

What I’ve always loved about running is that it’s such a simple pact between you and the ground: I will keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you will keep supporting me. It’s exquisitely low-tech. But more and more, the ground was feeling like an antagonist rather than a trusted ally. The reasons weren’t secret. I was getting older. I was overtraining. I was having some bad luck.

Nonetheless, the feeling of unsteadiness was, well, unsteadying—inside a year that had already unsteadied us all anyway. With every run, it seemed, I was waiting for the next thing to happen. Which of course it did.

On a sunny Friday in mid-October, I rolled my left ankle again and crashed to the pavement. But this time there was no doubt that something was very wrong. The pain was shocking. Luckily, it happened at the very end of my run, when I was only a few blocks from home. I was a frightful, limping, sobbing mess when I walked in the door.

After X-rays, my doctor confirmed what I suspected: I had broken my foot. Fractured one bone and cracked a piece right off of another. As she showed me the tiny white dot of a bone fragment on the X-ray, I thought of breaking the wishbone on Thanksgiving with my brother when we were kids. Snap.

On the bright side, I didn’t need surgery. But the doctor told me no running for eight to 12 weeks. And then she handed me a boot. “Really?” I said, staring at the plastic and Velcro contraption. “Yep, if you want to heal.”

I did. But it all felt insurmountable.

I started running my junior year of college when I was out for a walk one night. I had a ton of reading still to do, and I realized I would get home more quickly if I ran. I had also gained some weight after quitting gymnastics and was looking for a way to get back into shape.

It was hardly a love connection at first. I struggled to breathe and didn’t understand pacing. But I stuck with it, and as I got better, my reasons for running began to shift away from weight loss or expediency. At some point, running simply became my space to think, with those solitary miles providing the chance to work out problems. Or grieve. Or celebrate. Or just let off steam.

Without running, how would I function? A conversation with my mom helped me reframe. My sisters and I were (safely) visiting her one Sunday, when she told us about how she got out of her winter funk. “Well, I was feeling down because it was cold out and getting dark so early,” she said. “But then I remembered, Oh, Mary, you’re a person who likes winter!” My sisters and I laughed, because that was so Mom. She’s an 85-year-old widow, and despite a bevy of challenges and losses she’s stayed one of the most contented people I know.

I tried her technique: Judi, you are a person who likes challenges! It worked well enough. I looked up physical therapy exercises for strengthening feet and ankles. I worked on shaving five minutes off my mile time for swimming. I bought an exercise bike for the basement, signed up for the Peloton app, and started cycling a few times a week. I focused on feeling grateful for all the privileges I had, like health insurance, a flexible schedule, a Y membership, and money to buy exercise equipment.

I wanted nothing more than to ditch that boot and hit the road. And yet, when my doctor gave me the OK a few months later to do just that—slowly, she cautioned—I was strangely ambivalent. My foot had healed, but my trust for my own body still felt fractured.

I took some walks to start, trying a few running steps. It didn’t hurt. But I was afraid. And fear—though helpful in its ability to keep us away from danger—isn’t a good running companion. First of all, it’s heavy and tight. Secondly, it’s loud as hell and plays cruel games with you.

I was no stranger to mental blocks about physical things, having been a gymnast who dealt with fear around certain tricks. On some, I overcame the fears. Others, I just stopped doing. I took them right out of my routines. Nope, not doing that vault ever again.

What would it be with running? Was I going to be perpetually afraid of my feet betraying me? Think about every step? Stop running altogether? Or was I going to find my footing again?

A few weeks of halting walk/runs had given me nothing but sore calves and anxious breaths. One cold Sunday when I was feeling particularly low, no sooner did I start running than it poured down rain. To avoid the overflowing sidewalk puddles and road spray from cars, I took a detour to the high school track near my house. There was no one there, because who would be there on a cold and rainy winter Sunday? I started laughing. Really hard. I didn’t realize until that moment how utterly serious I was taking all of this. Which is what I always did. Crawled inside my head and made things matter to an impossible degree.

I remembered an editor for a website I used to write for and how I’d call her all stressed about how to organize the pages and what information to include. Sometimes she’d laugh and say, “Oh Judi, it’s just content.

Oh Judi, it’s just running. Neither your children’s futures nor the health of our democracy hinges on these footsteps of yours. It’s just running around a totally abandoned track on a stupid afternoon. So go!

Maybe it was because a track is a good, safe surface for running. Or maybe it was because I remembered that, although I’d battled fear as a gymnast, it was mostly really fun to let go and move. I ran around that track and laughed and got thoroughly soaked. And for the first time in a long while, my feet were just along for the ride.

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