In endurance sports there is often an unspoken but powerful aversion to vulnerability. Becoming vulnerable means feeling the pain to which you subject yourself; witnessing your own fallibility, lack of preparedness, or even (most terrifying of all) your own power. Athletes often bristle when I talk with them about beginning a dialogue with the parts of them that suffer on long runs or climbs.
And still: becoming soft is vital to realizing your strength. I'll give you an example.
In training for the Wonderland Trail in 2012 I ran a solo fifty miler on the Northside Loop starting at sundown to preview the work in store for me on the real run. It was hot: 85F all night even at 7000' and I sweated quickly through my shirt. Even though I was used to running alone in the dark five mornings a week, the immensity and gravitas of the committing route I'd chosen resonated inside me as fear and with each snap of a twig underfoot I tightened. An owl alighted from a fir bough nearly causing me to throw up in surprise at the dark unknown unpopulated with other humans and stretching into blackness for miles in each direction. At some point, though, I relaxed into the sensation of being followed and yet alone, hooting every minute or so and finding my feathered companion trailed me for a good hour.
Then, around 3am, a porcupine launched out of an impossibly-small triangular space between cobbles in the trail and its stumpy legs propelled it along close on my heels and all I could think was: "WHAT THE FUCK: AGAIN?" <aside: I was first chased by a porcupine while lost in a swamp at the base of Mount Stuart in 2009.> After this brief sprint, which occurred around mile thirty-seven, I was pretty discouraged mentally and physically feeling spent. Mara assaulted me and I dropped to the dusty trail. Metabolic waste products ached in my legs making them feel like concrete piers dipped in acid, my stomach churned, my mind spoke nonsense to me that I just happened to be tired enough to believe: "You're not a runner or even an athlete, what the hell are you doing out here? You're not good enough to belly up to a goal like the Wonderland alone or at all for that matter. Who the hell do you think you are to be so audacious? You're an amateur, you're broken, you're too tired to finish. You might as well give up now and not even try to run the hundred since fifty was clearly too much for you."
This might sound like giving up but it wasn't because of one key aspect of the experience. I let the thoughts spool out, I let my legs ache to hell and back, I let myself lie there in mud created by my own piss on the dust for a long time then, because I'd given myself no escape hatch, I stood, dusted myself off, ate something, and started moving down the trail.
The rest of the run took on a softer quality. I found myself crying before sunrise (that darkest dark, you know?) in a meadow about which I'd dreamed (which consequently bore the name "Mystic") months prior. Though I was in the kind of immense pain that comes for me around mile forty of every long run, the kind that makes my skin feel too tight and inspires me to peel it off for relief, I perceived pleasure in a cool breeze issuing from the mouth of the base of Thermogenesis a few thousand feet up and to my right. A family of goats joined me as I crested the final hill into Sunrise at sunrise, kids skating shale shards off its crest which slashed my legs as I they ticked uphill like a metronome. In the final drop down to White River Campground where my car sat loaded with blueberries, kombucha, and the remainders of yesterday's burger my shoulders drooped and I felt the relief of having released my goal.
Immediately upon sitting with the spoils of my snacks, shirtless sweaty back leaned up against my truck tire, I looked at the time: it was only 6:45am, a rather short ten hours since I'd left my car the night before. Huh, I wasn't as slow as I thought I'd be. Then, scanning through my body that had been so focused on the importance of its own productive pain, I realized I wasn't injured or even particularly physically spent. What I had convinced myself was impossible overnight, my goal of running the Wonderland solo and unsupported, began to feel possible again as I realized that I'd completed what I set out to achieve on what was likely to be my hardest training run.
I was only able to transform into the mind-body tool capable of containing this mountain gnosis because of my willingness to engage self-doubt, pain, and fear as they arose. If I had maintained distance from my experience, ANS fired up all night in a false sense of protection and reactive control, I would have bonked for real, sending me into what would have been a dangerous situation alone on the trail at night a two day walk from wherever a ranger might depart to rescue me. Instead of resisting the negative emotions, the many Maras of my silly existence, I related with them - however ungracefully it happened.
When giving up becomes an option, the only way to continue to commit to the growth contained in the experience is to give in. Making yourself vulnerable in the face of creation, universe, or god is necessary to go as far as you can go. To give yourself over fully to the depth of the experience is the only way to access your true power - and let me tell you it runs a lot deeper than bluster, bravado, and happiness.