Feel the fear and then… err…

Feel the fear and do it anyway. Or, feel the fear, think you’re ok, feel some more fear, and then change your mind entirely. There is a reason I’m not a writer of pithy book titles and there is a reason my inspirational writings are not flying off virtual shelves in virtual stores.

I have always worried what others think of me. This fear is not debilitating, and so I’d not class it as social anxiety disorder, but on many occasions my anticipation of criticism has prevented me from doing things I otherwise might. Getting older has helped, because the older I get the less I care, but unless I am Methuselah incarnate I won’t grow old enough to fully eliminate the worry. 

In this day and age, where more people are judging and being judged, when the outrage bus has standing room only, and where there are entire business models placing the judgement of others at their core, it’s probably something I just need to ‘get over’. Some days I am bewildered by the level of judgement in the world, even though I am a judger myself.

Bombarded by blogs, videos, and images of people whose self-confidence seems stratospheric, I don’t always see the talent to support those levels of enthusiasm. In truth I am captivated by anyone who just ‘goes for it’. I am in awe of them. Their seemingly self-sustaining confidence is a thing of beauty, and it should be cherished. 

These are the people who go to Karaoke, not worrying about finding a song to match their voice, not caring if they end up following someone who sings like Adele or Freddie Mercury. These passionate creatures are bloated with life, bleedingly honest, and I derive energy from having them in this world. 

It was with in a quest for this energy that I posted an unassuming musical video of myself on Youtube. Youtube gave me the coward’s option of privacy, allowed me to sanitize the end product, and happened to be free. Result!

In the video, I played the guitar and sang. Even if I do say so myself, my performance was somewhere between tragic and abysmal, but in my defense I sanitized nothing – that would have been cheating. Through the publication of that raw video I felt noble for pushing past my self-imposed limits. I had taken the advice of Susan Jeffers to heart by ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’. I celebrated my success by promptly logging back in, switching off the comments, hiding the link, and pretty much burying the post so deeply that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find it again. However, I didn’t delete it – for several days – and so I still allowed myself to feel worthy, at least for that brief time that it was technically ‘available’ to the pubic. I am my own worst critic, and I had found myself wanting.

The same fear of judgement has also shaped my writing. On the one hand my ego wants the attention, and wants to be told that I am a wordsmith descended from Homer and Shakespeare. On the other hand I really don’t want the attention, because I do not have that lineage at all, and I also worry about wasting the time of others. The inner monologue goes something like this:

“Why bother writing it? No one will read it.”

“Yes they will. They might give it a clap.”

“In another context the clap is not a good thing.”

“Don’t be a jerk! Someone might like it.”

 “That sounds a bit desperate… ‘SOMEone’… my last piece got no comments on my blog, and only one ‘like’ on Facebook.”

“Facebook is just an exercise in ego massage and vicarious living for crying out loud. You LIKE writing.”

“But I’m always editing it down so as to head off misunderstanding and minimize the risk of offending. And I don’t like it when people point out spelling errors, factual misstatements, or a lack of creativity. It makes me want to delete the post.”

“Some of the things you’ve done are really cool. People want to hear about that. Nobody is looking for perfection these days. They just want you to be real.”

“I don’t write briefly enough for the short attention spans everyone seems to have these days.”

“You don’t need to be brief. Twitter and Facebook might have brief posts but by the time a person has lost two hours of their lives drowning in a sea of breadcrumb trails, click-bait, and in the forlorn hope that the next item might give them the chemical kick they’re craving, they’d have KILLED for a savior vessel of some quality.” 

“But others have already written something like my stuff… and they’ve probably done a better job?”

That last rebuttal is probably the one that has held me back most frequently. We are bombarded by inspirational people who have overcome great adversity, or shown blinding creativity, or demonstrated acts of such selfless courage that we are truly humbled. Occasionally I’ve been a bit brave, come up with the odd cool idea, and been a bit charitable. I like to think of myself as a selfless, courageous artist but I’m not on the same level as those who inspire me. Why should I bother telling my story when those others have lived and shared more dramatically? It is only recently that I have settled on a response to this question.

Back in 2000 I was having a low moment, as we sometimes do, and was reading one of Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff books. (I was in the middle of self-help book addiction). On this particular day I was reading a message, a life lesson that struck me so deeply I can still remember my emotions and the entirety of my surroundings with perfect clarity nearly 20 years later. 

The message explained that much of what we fear is based on what we imagine will happen and not what actually happens. If we save our energy for dealing what is rather than what we fear we’ll find fewer of our fears come to be realized, and we’ll also have more energy to face them if they do eventually transpire. 

As I read that message back to myself now I am smacking my head in faux drama because the lesson is already known to me. It’s no longer an epiphany, and it seems a waste of time re-sharing it. Of course knowing the words doesn’t mean I can always follow their advice, otherwise I’d be singing more karaoke, but I do have what I need from them. However, that point about smacking my head, about my reaction to something I already know, gave rise to a second lesson I’m only just beginning to digest.

If Richard Carlson had not written that book, even though what he was saying may have been said by others, if I had not been reading it on that day, and even though I may have already heard the message before, I would not have absorbed what I needed. There is a saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears. 

This second lesson is one of the biggest catalysts to me writing now. I strongly suspect that other articles have addressed the point of anxiety in relation to putting yourself out there. They have, with more energy, encouraged you to share your story, find your voice, be ok with being you and damn what anyone else thinks. But maybe there was too much vernacular, or too little in them with which you could identify. Maybe you didn’t read their post when you were ready.

I am writing to say that your voice is important. As you begin, you might find yourself worried by what others think and you might, in the early days, choose to round the sharp edges and smooth the rough surfaces of your writing. Over time you will learn that people crave texture but it’s ok to take your time as you work up to revealing that to the world. Like any new sculptor in search of the art within the stone, you will inadvertently hit the marble at the wrong point and end up with something limbless or headless, but we still want to see that authentically crafted torso. Maybe torsos will become your thing, and that’s ok too.

And so as you ease your tender are cheeks into the hot bath of public opinion, you may may feel the heat upon contact with the water. It’s ok to swiftly lift your buttocks lest they be irreparably burned. It’s ok to take time to build up your courage again. And it’s ok to repeat the process of lowering and raising, all while letting out weird wheezing and whooping noises, until you have acclimatized your unmentionables. 

As I leave you with far too many mixed and disturbing metaphors, presumably of someone performing a noisy up-thrusting routine above a  torso and buttock soup, please know that you do not need to write for everyone, you only need to write for someone. That ‘someone’ might be you but it might also be someone else who needs to hear your voice. Maybe you are the one who has the right words for them. Maybe it’s your message that will be delivered to them at the right time. Or maybe they just love passionate karaoke, authentic torsos, or hot buns.

Cool books:

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How to prevent a runner’s side stitch… maybe

I still remember my worst stitch. I was 12 years old. Our school class had trooped off to a local park late in the autumn term to do one of those British weather-inflicted cross-country runs that teachers think are fun, and that kids think are stupid. We were deployed like mini Marines on manoeuvres and on this day the overused paths were peppered with deep puddles and cloying mud from frequent rain; our activity was more of an obstacle course than an afternoon jog.

I quickly worked out the secret sauce for success in these activities; the technical name is called being bothered. At 12 years old most kids couldn’t be. If you were in the ‘Not Bothered Brigade’ you had two tactics for keeping for your feet dry: hug any tree holding the high ground either side of the obstacle and then jump when necessary, or carefully pick your way through brambles. The NBBs would invariably return from their exertions with chests covered in verdant moss, and with tiny red rivulets on their arms and legs. Apparently, the possibility of blood was better than the inevitability of mud.

I was looking forward to getting back to the showers early and was squelching along, feet caked in mud, minding my own business, when an invisible knife pierced my side just below the ribs. My phantom running buddy pushed the blade in further, and then twisted it. I like to think I didn’t scream, or at least yelp. I probably did. I paused for a time and recall looking back; the blood warriors were still out of sight and I was on my own. I eventually began walking again, ever more briskly, but the stitch remained. In fact it didn’t even get better until some time after the end of the run, and as is the case for many things in life I simply learned to live with it for as long as I had no choice.

The next time it happened I had a teasing warning, as though my hidden tormentor was playing with me. I tensed in anticipation, waiting, waiting, until the blade finally made its way through the side door and just sat there, inside me, like the dodgy relative who turns up on your doorstep unannounced, eats all the best cookies, and who can’t take a hint that it’s time to leave… not realising it was never even time to arrive. 

Looking for a cure

A stitch is what I always called it but the name doesn’t really matter. Others might call it the runner’s stitch, side stitch, side cramp, ‘ETAP’ (exercise-related transient abdominal pain), etc. We could call it Fluffy Bunnykins and it wouldn’t make it any less annoying or painful. It can happen when I am running fast, and even when I’m running slowly and it feels like a knife or a needle, although I understand others can experience it differently, perhaps a dull ache. It was of no relief to eventually learn it had affected Olympians and marathon greats like Haile Gebrselassie and Deena Kastor.

From time to time I’d research causes and solutions. I tried all of the preventative measures, with varying levels of enthusiasm:

  • don’t eat too close to a run
  • don’t drink orange juice before a run
  • don’t eat too much before or during a run
  • don’t eat spicy food the night before or on the day of a run
  • don’t have too much sugary food before or during a run
  • build up your tolerance to sugary drinks (woo hoo!)
  • develop your core strength
  • develop your flexibility
  • warm up properly
  • become fitter
  • get older

All of these are good advice anyway, apart from avoiding sugary drinks bullet point. (It’s hard to do a long run with no carbohydrate.) The getting old thing is also to be avoided where possible, unless you’re as ageless as Audrey Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn has nothing to with stitches or running, at least as far as I know, but any blog post is going to seem a little classier with a light sprinkling of Audrey. She’s awesome! Just saying. 

I am now older, fitter, stronger, less spicy, and after all my sugary runnning I’m also a damn sight sweeter. The stitches are coming less frequently than they used to but Fluffy Bunnykins still keeps turning up unannounced, expecting a cup of tea and wanting to eat my Chocolate HobNobs and Jammie Dodgers. (The UK has some of the best names for cookies and biscuits.)

If prevention wasn’t working, could a cure be the solution? I have tried those too:

  • Carrying on running while pushing my fingers into the side that hurts (Which sadist…!?)
  • Carrying on running and timing my breathing so I breathe out when my foot on the side of the stitch hits the ground (before, presumably, deducting my date of birth and dividing by the number I first thought of)
  • Slowing down my run, or walking
  • Stopping the run to fold myself over at the waist and breathe slowly and deeply
  • etc.

The only things that have worked for me are slowing or stopping.

I think I found the problem

In his book, Born to Run, Christopher McDougall notes that unlike most animals the breathing of humans is disconnected from our running pattern. Contrast this with a cheetah, whose leg motion acts like a bellows for its lungs. I.e. its lung activity is directly connected to its leg activity. A cheetah is fast, but it cannot last long. Homo sapiens, however, can take long deep breaths or short sharp breaths, mixing up the pattern as and when needed, regardless of our pace or the motion of our legs. We can’t outrun a cheetah over short distances, but we can outlast a cheetah over long ones. This flexibility in the way we breathe, which should be an asset, was also my problem. Periodically I would do it all backwards, sometimes when I was running quickly, sometimes when I was running slowly.

Yoga practitioners and freedivers will be familiar with the three part breath, which emphasizes the importance of breathing not just into the top of your chest, but also into your belly. When I was running, I was doing two things wrong:

  1. I wasn’t breathing deeply enough into my belly, and so I was reducing the amount of oxygen taken in with each inhalation and
  2. When I did breathe into my belly, I was squeezing in my tummy just as I was trying to fill it with air, and pushing it out when I was trying to exhale.

That second point is really important… and it makes no logical sense. I was putting my internal organs under strain by asking them to make the space inside my abdomen smaller just as I was trying to fill it, and to make the space bigger just as I was trying to empty it. The Far Side’s “Middle School for the Gifted” sprang to mind.


Somehow, over the years of being more bothered than most 12 year old kids, I had developed this totally incorrect habit. Audrey would be horrified.  

Learning how to breathe

My solution for addressing my stitches, other than becoming older, wiser, more sweet, less spicy, etc. is now to focus on my breathing, and to incorporate breathing into a mental checklist that I go through every mile or so on my run:

  • am  I relaxed?
  • how is my nutrition and hydration?
  • how is my cadence?
  • am I landing mid-foot?
  • am leaning?
  • am I belly breathing?
  • am I pushing out my belly as I breathe in /squeezing in my belly in as I breathe out?


Credit for the above image to: https://yurielkaim.com/belly-breathing/

I still catch myself breathing incorrectly but at least I’m aware, and I hope that if I keeping checking in with myself the new habit will eventually become engrained.

A final word

The latest word on stitches is that the issue is not Fluffy Bunnykins at all but rather the parietal peritoneum. (If only I had known this earlier in the article.) The connection between the parietal peritoneum, a membrane around your abdomen, is… going into too much detail. Instead I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to stitches, lots of things can bring it on and the trigger can vary from person to person because we’re all individuals.

Endurance runners know there is no one size fits all solution. In much the same way that one form of nutrition is great for one person and by hated by another, we all need to find our own path when we suffer discomfort. I’d advocate addressing whatever will bring most benefit quickly. If poor eating just prior to a run is your kryptonite, then that’s what I’d focus on first. However, if you walk around stiff as a board all day then I’d focus on your flexibility. If you’re not sure then you might need to hit a few tactics all at once.

This article says breathing is the solution. Well, it’s my solution. I think I had slowly eliminated the larger risks until I reached the point where breathing was simply the next big thing to address. Even now, as I reflect, it may not address the issue for the reasons I believe. Maybe going through that breathing check just reminds me to address poor form. Maybe the focus on breath distracts and relaxes me – a breathing, running meditation of sorts. Maybe it’s not down to breathing at all but rather because I just got even older. Maybe I don’t need to understand why it works at all; right now I only care that it seems to be doing the job.

Cool books:

Disclosure: the links to the two books below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

Other online references: