by Molly Tenebruso
I ran right past my biggest fear. I never saw the snake in his flawless camouflage on the jungle floor and the next thing I knew my friends on the narrow trail behind were cut off from me by the infamous Okinawan Himehabu, a pit viper known for its vicious bite and aggression. We’ve always known this was a possibility, but now we were staring the odds right in the face and they’re ready to strike. Luckily we were running with a friend who is native to Okinawa and knew exactly what to do. We ran out safely and despite our now-realized fears we were back on the same trail by the next morning’s light.
In a world where companies rake in profit from selling pepper spray and cat claws to women runners and where real fears do exist – spiders, snakes, bears, accidental injury, even other humans – how and why do we overcome these fears? The why is easier. We simply love trail running and the feeling of strength and independence it gives us.
So then the task is how to get past what we perceive to be in our way. The truth is I think of that snake encounter almost every time I am out running in the mesmerizing beauty of the sub-tropical jungle here. But fear serves a purpose and in this case the adrenaline response sharpens my senses and makes me more observant – this is a productive result of fear.
The encounter also prompted me to carefully research the flora and fauna of Okinawa and to familiarize myself with its poisonous species. I now know when and where I will most likely come across the jungle’s slithering dwellers and I keep a sharper eye out. I also know what plants I need to avoid. Being new to the area or to running trail makes this an important step to alleviate fears and to prepare yourself for the real possibility of encounters.
There is really no substitute for preparation on the trail. When a fear pops into your head it is indicating a need for action and should not be ignored. It is a good sign that you need to prepare yourself. A first aid kit, a map, a running partner, a plan in place, can be the key to turning a fear into preparation and scary situation into one that can be properly handled. Do you have enough water if you get lost? Did you leave information about your running plan with a friend expecting your return?
Once you have educated yourself and prepared yourself there is only one thing left to do and that is face the fear and head out onto the trail. The more you do it the more comfortable you will become in the environment around you. This is exactly how militaries train all over the world; prepare, train, repeat. Soon you find you feel quite at home and the sights around are familiar.
When welcoming new trail runners to our group I also show them some things that appear frightening are actually quite benign. The prodigious golden orb weaver spider is a lovely example. She keeps to herself and when her web is disturbed she balls up defensively and drops to the ground. When new to the trail here these spiders terrified me as much as the prospect of a mountain lion or rattlesnake did when I ran in California. It was a relief to discover that though the spider looked like a real-life nightmare draped on silk across trail, it posed no real threat.
After all the creepy crawly possibilities are considered, the one sentiment I hear most often from women afraid to try running on trail has nothing to do with jungle creatures, getting lost or a falling injury. They aren’t as afraid of attackers or getting lost in a network of unfamiliar trails as they are of simply failing. They are afraid they just aren’t tough enough or they won’t be able to keep up with a group run. This is the most common fear expressed to me by both friends and strangers who want to take the leap into trail running but haven’t yet. This is the one fear you have permission to completely dismiss, yet I know it can be the toughest to overcome. The insecurity inside and fear of something new can be debilitating. It is staggeringly difficult to get past our fear of failure and it can be much simpler to say that you are afraid of snakes so you don’t want to try. Just let the fear go. You can do unexpected things and surprise yourself. If you have a friends with this fear standing in the way help them right past it because they are in the very real danger of missing out on a beautiful obsession with trails, and that is downright scary.