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It’s all Shapes and Colours….
Like it or not, but the deepest corners of your head are filled with images and experiences that you don’t like. This is the palette that your subconscious uses to paint its new version of reality; crimson and cobalt – rather than gold and grey. The resulting image will be stark and alarming – it will shock, rather than cosset and leave blood running cold in adrenaline addled veins.
But, oddly, for some of us, this situation is not without allure. In the same way that some prefer the chaos and contrast of a Jackson Pollock over the eerie serenity of a Monet, there are those, whose journey through this mortal coil would seem pointless – without the occasional darkened room and shadowy corner to remind them that they are, indeed, alive!
Although I never thought I would say it, I fear that I may count myself in this number. This realisation dawned on me a few years ago when, as winter drew the days in, my early morning – or late evening run took on on a new dimension as I headed out alone into the dark and spooky trails of our local woodland; just me, a headlamp and the voices in my head.
Following the milky pool of light projecting from my forehead along those dark, dark trails was an unnerving experience; bright discs of animal eyes piercing through the darkness – eerie fluttering from the canopy of branches above as birds took flight, adrenaline coursing through my veins and Freddie Kruger behind every tree. The first time I tried it, I was scared witless – and instantly addicted.
Here be Dragons…..
Fear – however you look at it – is a raw emotion; it is primal, largely beyond our control and deep-rooted. But, as I see it, you can handle it in one of two ways – you can shy away or you can embrace it. Shying away is, of course, the natural (and preferred) option for most. We all gravitate toward safety because…. Well….. it keeps us ….. safe! And, there we stay – safe – never really moving forward!
But for even the most hard-core adrenaline junkie, there are still the odd shadowy corners where Dragons still be. And, as I set out upon my journey from happy Runner and chilled Cyclist to focussed Triathlete, the foreboding depths of my local swimming pool revealed mine - washing away my steely façade and laying bare my soul to a terrifying underworld of doubt, frustration and plain old fear that reached upward from the depths; dragging me mercilessly toward the bottom of the pool every time I let my concentration drift for anything longer than a nanosecond. Although I have never been one to shy away from a challenge, I feared that I had well and truly met my match in the water.
Every time I slipped into the water, I would tell myself – with conviction – that today would be my best swim ever. But in just a few short lengths, I’d find myself clinging – breathlessly – to the poolside like a timid child afraid to leave his mother on the first day of school. But the schoolyard bullies never beat me – so I met the water in the same way; I fought back – as hard as I could. And so it went on – day after day – an ongoing adversarial battle between me and the water; the classic battle of attrition – a fight to the death.
Gradually, the water triumphed until one day, with my resolve finally broken, I stepped in to the pool and said, “OK – You’ve won; do what you want – I’ll not fight you anymore!” Setting out on my first lap, something felt different though! Instead of floundering and gasping huge mouthfuls of bitter Chlorine tinged water down, I was slipping silently along. By my tenth length (a point where normally I would have been on the very limits of my strength, oxygen and existence) I was still moving efficiently from end to end of the pool. Moreover, I was actually enjoying it!
After just over a mile in the water, gone was the timid schoolboy and back was my Triathlon dream. Looking back at the pool as I stepped out I said to the water, “Thanks for that buddy – OK if we do the same again tomorrow?” Of course, there was no reply but I knew that from that day forward my relationship with the water would be different – that day, we became friends – we stopped fighting and learned how to get along.
Like any relationship though, we have good days and bad! Some days the water will simply say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing or just generally do what it can to push me away. And when that happens, I fight back – we quarrel – and I always lose! But, on the whole, the pool and I – we’re still good mates.
An Unwelcome Freedom…..
If only it were all that easy though! Whilst the pool had taught me all that I knew – it had nurtured and (although it did not feel like it) protected me, we both knew that the day would come when I would need to spread my wings (or flippers) and venture beyond the confines of that 20 square metres – into open water. With the first race of the season rapidly approaching and with my wetsuit still on the same hanger in the wardrobe that it had occupied since I purchased it six months previously, a message on the home page of my Tri Club’s website signalled that this day had finally come. It read simply “Open Water Swimming at Basildon is back!” I guess the only part missing from that was, “Water temperature currently about 10 degrees – try not to swallow anything!”
As the alarm sounded at five AM the following Saturday, there was still a nagging voice in my head drawing me back. Packing my sports bag with warm, dry clothing and a flask of streaming hot coffee for
afterwards, there was still something telling me that I didn’t need to do this, “Go to the pool”, it whispered, “No one will know”, it added, “You’ll be safe in the pool”, it concluded. I listened! I wanted to believe – I wanted to do as it bid – but I knew that if I capitulated then the personal shame would be worse than anything the voices in my head could throw at me. Furthermore, I knew that my first open water experience would then be on race day – which had ‘Disaster’ written all over it.
To be honest, even as I stood on the deck, by the lakeside, easing my wetsuit over Bodyglided ankles and wrists, I still hadn’t fully accepted that this was happening. But then, the moment came as the coach shouted, “OK – let’s get into the water”. Suddenly
the banter among the gathered masses stopped and, somehow, I found myself at the front of the queue! My fear was palpable! The water looked cold! Actually, it didn’t just look it – it was cold!! It looked murky, too – a world away from the pristine topaz ripples that had become my friend over the last few months.
The ‘Green’ Mile…..
Like a condemned man taking his last few steps up to the gallows, I accepted my fate and made my way to the edge of the dock – the crowd massed behind me and the fear now so intense that everything had become a blur.
Easing myself gently into the water, the coldness was stark –but, oddly, not as bad as I had feared it would be. Nevertheless, I was soon aware of reeds clinging to my feet and arms but, as we began the first 300 metre warm-up, the first few mouthfuls of the Festwake Lake actually didn’t taste as toxic as I had imagined they would.
A little under an hour later, I was clambering back up the ladder to the starting dock. Once again, the assembled crowd was buzzing – the banter again in full
flow. Pulling the wetsuit from me, I was not just glad to still be alive – I was actually feeling more alive than I have in years. With the wetsuit removed and many, many layers of warm dry clothing now covering my shivering body, I cast a glance back at the lake and said, “See you next week, buddy!” And I meant it! On that day, I moved on – I went from being just a swimmer to being an Open Water Swimmer. Stepping back into the car afterwards, I felt fully prepared to take on that first race in open water, too.
Let go of the Shore…
Fear of the unknown is an evil beast! Not only does it make the world we haven’t experienced a terrifying place, but it also prevents the vast majority of us from experiencing things that we may well come to love. For me, fear of the water has been a personal demon and never more so than when that water is a wide, freezing, murky lake in early spring. But this experience has taught me that the more you fight your fears, the worse they become. And what’s more – the more they hold you back. In my case, the day that I stopped fighting the water was a revelation; on that day the demons became puppy dogs! And the day that I found myself first in line to jump into the icy depths of a local lake, I suddenly found the demons ranged behind me like a valiant army – not ranged before me like a dreaded foe.
Fear – it’s both my enemy and my friend. But now I know that it only holds me back when I let it do that. Embrace your fears – because until you do that, you’ll never really let go of the shore and discover those new horizons.
Fear of the unknown – it’s an evil beast. The human mind needs references – it needs both familiarity and the big picture; shapes, sounds, smells and colours. It needs to know what it knows at all times. And the moment you take that away, it works hard to fill in the blanks.
Stepping into an unlit room, your mind believes that there must be something lurking in the darkest corner. You can’t see it – but that doesn’t stop your mind knowing that it (whatever ‘it’ amounts to) is there.
In the absence of any hard visual, auditory or olfactory stimulus that couple of pounds of grey matter between your ears handily fills in the blanks for you.
Even worse – in the absence of just one, or two of those inputs, it adds what it does know to what it doesn’t know and – like a Search Engine translating Shakespeare into Mandarin – converts elegant fiction into horrific nonsense.