Shit That Scares Me

One Man's Quest to Face Down His Goddamned Anxiety


I have now completed the New York Marathon, and I have the medal to show for it. After over 20 years of running, I think I finally feel justified in calling myself a real runner. Hot damn.

The marathon itself was an extraordinary experience, but one that ultimately turned out to involve very little fear. My biggest fear, of course, was that I wouldn’t finish, but I found out that when you’re running the race, quitting doesn’t really occur to you. Not only are you running alongside thousands of other runners, there are also a jaw-dropping number of people on the sidelines cheering you on throughout the entire course. Not to mention my beautiful and incredible wife and my awesome father-in-law (who drove all the way up from Kentucky to see me run) came out to watch and cheer for me at mile 16. With all that going on, you just get pushed along by sheer momentum.

But, ultimately, I think what quashed my fear was a lot of preparation. I trained for this baby for four months. I read books, consulted trainers, and, through trial and error, learned what to do and what not to do, so that by the time race day came around, I was certainly nervous, but I also felt ready.

In case you’re wondering, here, in no particular order, are some of the things I learned while marathon training:

1. Did you know that you shouldn’t drink a bunch of beer the night before you go on a long run? Of course you do, because you have common sense. Apart from the dehydrating aspect, beer has the delightful side effect of making you gassy the next day, and I can now tell you from first hand experience that running with a giant gut full of beer gas feels like you’re dribbling a basketball down there. Unpleasant.

2. I believe I mentioned this in a previous post, but you really, really don’t want to take Alieve or Advil before you run, as they leach the sodium out of your kidneys.  Tylenol, while hard on a beer drinker’s liver, is a better bet, used in moderation. I took two before I started the race, and then popped an extra I thought to bring, around mile 18 when my inner right shin started to throb. (It’s still sore and a little swollen. Note to self: make appointment with sports doctor)

3. When you carry sport gel packets in your runners pouch thingy that’s right next to your abdomen, they heat up to, well, body temperature. And then they taste like warm, runny, vanilla frosting. Which takes a little getting used to.

4. Train on hills. Man, did this help. I wound up doing my long run each week on a very hilly stretch of Route 22 in Putnam County, and it really made the difference on race day. The hills on the marathon course were mild by comparison, and I found myself surprised that I was passing people.

5. Drink sports drinks before, during, and after. If you’re like me, you probably thought that good old water was sufficient and that the whole sports drink thing was a giant sham marketing campaign, but I stand corrected, especially when it comes to the long runs. I felt WAY better using the sports drinks. So, I guess, Be Like Mike.


And then, I of course learned quite a few things while running the actual marathon:

1. They make you get up crazy early. My wave (you get separated into three waves of runners) didn’t start until 10:10 AM, but I had to catch a bus at 6:30 AM that went from the Upper West Side to the staging area in Staten Island.

When I have to wake up early for something important, I tend not to sleep very well the night before. Here’s a brief snapshot:

8:30 PM – Proclaim out loud, “I am going to bed!” Intend to get a full night’s rest, despite the fact that you never fall asleep before midnight. Set and double-check the alarms on your phone and clock radio. Get in bed.

9:30 PM – Wide awake. Double-check the alarms on your phone and clock radio.

10:30 PM – Wide awake. Double-check the alarms on your phone and clock radio.

11:30 PM – Wide awake. Double-check the alarms on your phone and clock radio.

12:30 PM – Finally nod off into a half haze of fitful, nervous sleep.

1:30 AM – Bolt upright, certain that you’ve overslept.

2:30 AM – Bolt upright, certain that you’ve overslept.

3:30 AM – Bolt upright, certain that you’ve overslept.

4:30 AM – Have a fever dream that you’ve overslept. Wake up in a panic.

4:45 AM – Wide awake. Screw it. Get up.

So, anyway. At least I made it to the bus on time.

2. The staging area involves a lot of people milling about nervously. There’s nothing to do but stretch, eat bagels and drink Gatorade. They also serve coffee, which seems odd to me, but, hey, maybe you need to take care of a little business before you head out, lest you wind up like poor Paula Radcliffe (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google “Paula Radcliffe,” “2005 London Marathon” and “bowel movement.” Or don’t. You get the idea.)

3. Right before the start, they tell you a bunch of stuff that sort of goes in one ear and out the other. Except this: They tell you not to pee off the bridges. The have an actual announcement about this. I am totally serious. I guess it was necessary, because I saw people watering just about everything else over the course of the run.

4. They make a big deal about how the marathon goes through each borough of NYC, and that’s cool and all (I had never, to the best of my recollection, set foot on Staten Island), but if you’re like me, what you wind up seeing most of the time is the stretch of pavement about three feet in front of you. This is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is:

5. At the water and Gatorade stations, there are about a billion empty cups on the ground, which you can easily trip over. I saw more than one person take a spill. Naturally, you stop and help your fellow runner up. Otherwise, you’re…

6. That Guy. Don’t be that guy. I’m talking about the guy who shoves and cuts through the crowd. You would think that a bunch of people running a marathon would not have enough breath to curse someone out. You would be wrong.

7. Don’t wear a goofy costume if you can’t run the entire race. There was a guy right in front of me wearing a pink gorilla costume, proclaiming he was going to run a “sub-4,” meaning he was going to finish under four hours. I passed him, hanging his pink gorilla head and walking, around mile 23. Speaking of which…

8. Mile 23. The last three miles TAKE FOREVER. Great holy Jeebus. The first 23 miles seemed to flash by in some sort of a dream state. I managed to find my pace within the first couple of miles and stuck with it. But when I hit mile 23, everything started to go in slow motion. Perhaps it was The Wall I hear other runners talking about, but it seemed to me that everyone was feeling how I was feeling. You’re just tired of running. And because, as a runner, you’ve run 3.1 miles (5K) a million times, you figure, “Hey, just 5K to go!” It was the longest 5K of my life.

9. There are people who are WAY braver than I’ll ever be. I saw blind people, people with prosthetic limbs, people in wheelchairs going the course. It put things in perspective.

The last thing I learned was that after running all that way, they don’t let you leave. They give you a medal and a mylar blanket and a bag with water and trail mix and stuff in it, but they make you walk. And walk. And walk. Seriously, it had to be at least a mile of trudging along with a million other cold, tired runners, each of us wearing our mylar superhero capes. I really just wanted to leave and cut across the park and go home for a hot shower, but try as I might, they would not let me. My father-in-law speculated that they do this so they can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re okay, and won’t sue, etc.

Finally, they let you out way up on the Upper West Side and then you have to hope and pray to get a cab. Which, miraculously, I did. The guy was off duty, but he saw I was exhausted and cold, to he took me home. I will always love that guy.

So that was it. It was an incredible experience all the way around. Thanks to all of your for your verbal and mental support. It’s meant everything. So much that, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I think I’m going to do it again. My father-in-law caught the marathon bug, and we agreed to find a marathon to do together next year. Sweet, right?

Oh, and my time was 4:02:37. I had secretly hoped to break four hours, but maybe next time. I’m incredibly happy with the entire experience. I’m giving myself an unreserved A.


One Down

Well, I went and did it. I completed one of the items on my Shit That Scares Me list. Last Saturday, I performed a 25-minute improv “grad show” with my group from the Upright Citizens Brigade, the place where I’ve been taking classes for the last eight weeks. And how did it go? It went… fine. Did I burn up the world with my improvisational comedic genius? I did not. Did I have some relatively funny moments? I think so, yes. I guess you’d have to ask someone who was there, and since I didn’t invite anyone I know to the show (on purpose!), I can’t say for sure. But I did get some unsolicited “great job”s afterwards from people who were in the audience, so there’s that.

Because improv is a group effort, one of your tasks as an improviser, as we learned in class, is to make your fellow improvisers look good. This actually works to the advantage of someone like me, since it helps take the focus off of myself (Note: Most fearful people are total narcissists. You can quote me on that). Therefore I can say that if the show was a success, it was in large part due to having classmates who were funny, talented, and a joy to perform with.

I could give you a blow-by-blow recap of the performance, which included a scene in which I solicited a nun for sex, and another in which I voluntarily had my foot amputated, but that’s not the purpose of this exercise. The purpose was to face my fear, and I did. I looked my fear right in the eye, and to the best of my ability, I stared that motherf*cker down, yo. Because, lemme tell you, over the course of the last eight weeks, I had to fight the urge at least once per class to bolt out the door and never come back. You do some embarrassing shit in improv class, and you just have to go with it. So I stuck it out. And then I performed. I went and got up onstage with no script, for 25 minutes, and I didn’t die. Yay, me.

I promised a grade for each of the STSM activities I complete, so: For the performance itself, I’d give myself a solid B. But for sheer perseverance, I’m gonna go ahead and give myself an A.

If you’re keeping score at home, the next item on the list is the marathon, which is only a couple weeks out. So if you’ll excuse me, I have to go for a run.

Back on the Proverbial Horse

So yesterday, ten days after my wipeout, I completed an 18-mile run as part of my marathon training, and I felt… pretty good. The good news is, my shoulder and my shin held up fine. In fact, I dare say my shoulder felt better after the run, which leads me to think that maybe if I hadn’t done the run and instead just babied it, it would have frozen up, and then I’d be one of those old guys with frozen shoulder, which is a thing—look it up. The bad news is, and it’s not really bad news, doing the longest run of your life after not running for ten days is no fun. Your body is simply not ready for that kind of sudden punishment. During my downtime, I did the stationary bike and the elliptical, and I walked a ton, but none of it was an adequate substitute for running, and my legs and joints and lungs and metabolism were happy to let me know about it.

Because I was nervous about having not run for a while and was also concerned that my shoulder would be a problem, before the run, I popped four Alieve.  That’s right, four. And also, don’t do that. Lori freaked out a little when I told her. She went and got the bottle and showed me where it explicitly said not to take more than three in any 24-hour period. I assured her that my mom’s orthopedic surgeon said that he doesn’t have a problem with taking lots of Alieve; in fact, he thinks they should put it in toothpaste. I thought about this as I spent the evening clutching my stomach and groaning in pain. Lori, to her credit, did not say “I told you so,” but simply poured out shots of milk of magnesia. And also, can I mention again that I have the world’s greatest running buddy? Lori was once again there every three miles during the run, doling out Gatorade, water and gel packs. What the hell am I going to do on race day without her?

As I predicted in my last post, I was unable to do the mud run I signed up for. It sucks, too, because I was hoping to complete at least one of the sixteen items on my STSM list. Also, I’m told the mud courses feature military-style obstacles, and I was looking forward to seeing if they also had an R. Lee Ermey-type drill sergeant who chases you through it, screaming insults about steers and queers and the temperature of Eskimo hoo-hahs. Now I guess I’ll never know. (Actually, I’m looking to sign up for the next one in the tri-State area. If anyone has a lead, let me know.)

Also, I’m only three weeks away from my improv class performance, which is set to happen at a date, place, and time I will not be disclosing. Look, this one is tough. Lori and I have both discussed this, and improv, for whatever reason, takes us WAY outside our comfort zones. Perhaps it’s because we both like to have a little bit of time to process our funny. As I’m sitting here writing this out for you, I’m taking breaths and breaks in between, considering how best to convey precisely what I’m thinking. It works out better for me this way. But in improv, you have to make a choice (no matter how ill conceived), you have to stick with that choice for at least a 90 second scene (which, if you count it out to yourself, you will realize is an eternity) and you have to make that choice RIGHT F*CKING NOW. Say a scene partner grabs you and says she needs you to run to the store and get three Milky Ways, some Skittles, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby and a Butterfinger right this second. As her scene partner, you realize, okay, she’s supposed to be your wife, she’s pregnant, she’s having cravings, and it’s probably the middle of the night. A million thoughts go through your head about how to respond, but all that comes out is: “Mmmmmlllaaaaaah.” So now you’re her retarded husband. But that won’t fly, because you’re supposed to play “at the top of your intelligence” as everyone in improv is fond of saying, and surely no one would intelligently choose to play a retarded husband because that makes no sense, but you choose it anyway and then OH MY GOD does the instructor rake you over the coals and you feel like a total asshole and why did you sign up to take this class in the first place when you could be at home reading a nice book or checking out the latest art shows in Chelsea or taking a stroll through Central Park, but NO, you just had to go and start some blog about doing things that scare you and now you’re committed to finishing the class and doing the performance, which requires you to get up in front of actual people who have paid actual money, and now you have to remember to play at the top of your intelligence but not ask any questions, only make statements, and don’t start any arguments because they’re boring, but always agree with your scene partner and don’t forget to make your scene partner look good and also establish your environment and your who/where/what in the first three lines and make sure you yes-and in every scene and meanwhile, don’t get caught up in your head and think too much and JESUS H. CHRIST WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?

So that’s how improv is going.

It’ll all be over soon, both the improv and the marathon. And then it’s on to the next challenge. But you know what? It’s all good. Really. As a 43-year old guy*, I’m happy to be still learning and still doing and still growing. The unexamined life, and all that. And, of course, this philosophy is all well and good until I stare out of the open, yawning door of a plane some 10,000 feet up, with a parachute strapped to my back and urine running slowly down my pantleg.

*I’m a guy. I will always be a guy. I was an infant until one year, a toddler for a couple after that, and then I was a boy. I was a kid for a while, then I graduated to guy around 17 or 18, and I don’t think that status is going to change. Yes, technically, I’m a man. Like, if I were arrested, for whatever reason, the headlines would say “Manhattan Man Charged in…” blah blah blah, but otherwise, I’m a guy. I think this is the same for most of my male friends. I don’t think Gen X (or any subsequent generation) has any “men,” save for the ones fighting overseas. Those guys are men. The rest of us are guys.


So picture this: You’ve been training hardcore for the New York marathon, which is only a month and change away. You’ve just completed most of your 8 mile Wednesday run, which takes you around the loop in Central Park. You’re feeling good, kicking ass, and then for some reason, you decide to sprint the rest of the way home. At 5 PM. In New York. When the sidewalks are almost hilariously crowded. But you’re doing it. You’re managing to dodge pedestrian after pedestrian, going full tilt. And then…

You see where this is going.

I’m heading down East 39th street, almost home, and I go to pass this woman on the sidewalk. For whatever reason, at the last second, she cuts in front of me. So I attempt to jump over a large stack of boxes to her left, but my foot gets caught. And… you know that moment when you realize that you’re going down but you can’t do a damn thing to stop it? Yep. I’m just about horizontal in the air when I slam my left shoulder square into a tree. Hard. Like, if this had been a cartoon and the tree had apples in it, they would have all fallen on me. Also, I jammed my shin onto the wrought iron trellis they surround trees with in the city to keep the dogs from crapping on them.

Now, I’m not saying this was this woman’s fault. She couldn’t have seen me coming. But right next to her, in full view, I just had a spectacular wipeout. But, in true New York fashion, she just kept walking. Didn’t stop to see if I had, say, punctured my spleen or anything. Viva NYC!

Anyway, I made it home, took a handful of Alieve, strapped some ice bags on, and decided to wait and see. Most of us have had broken bones, so we know what it feels like, ie, that sharp, shooting pain, tender to the touch, etc. But after a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep (did you know you use your shoulder for WAY more than you thought? Like getting in and out of bed? I sure didn’t), I’m up and around today, and I think I’m fracture free. I’m also feeling really, really fortunate that I didn’t hit either my knee or, god forbid, my head.

When I went to bed last night, I was really bummed, because I thought for sure that this whole incident would sideline me from my training, maybe for a month or more, which would make running the marathon in November ill-advised. And maybe it’s the Alieve talking, but I feel relatively confident I’ll be back up and around in a week or so. I’ll keep you posted. Oh, and if you’re curious, I’m also taking photos every day of what are sure to a couple of dazzlingly colorful bruises, so I can chart the progress.

Oh, and I won’t be doing the mud run next weekend. Damn. Was hoping to get one of these items off my list. Oh, well. There’ll be others. It’s not like they’re gonna stop making mud, right?

So I’m Running the NY Marathon…

Hey, STSM-ers! First off, let me thank you for being a part of what is, let’s face it, a pretty ridiculous journey I’m embarking on. I mean, I’m choosing to do this, to actually take myself way outside of my comfort zone, on purpose. But a big reason I feel the courage to do the things I’m setting out to do is because I know that even if I flop flat on my face, I can come here and tell you all about it. That means a lot. So again, thanks.

Okay, so, progress: Thus far, I’ve taken the plunge on a couple of the items on my list, namely the marathon and improv. I’ve been training for a couple months now for the New York Marathon, which is on November 6th, and yesterday, I completed a 16-mile run as part of the training. I’m hoping to hit a specific time for the actual race, and so far, so good (I don’t want to list the actual time for a couple reasons: first, if it seems fast to you, then that’s bragging. And if it seems slow to you, then I’m a lame-wad. Also, if I don’t hit that time on race day, I can keep it to myself. That said, if you’re curious, email me and I’ll tell you).

Let me also say that I have, without question, the World’s Greatest Running Buddy. Seriously. My lovely and incredible wife, Lori Culwell, has taken it upon herself to be not only my nutrition coach, but also (and this is way above and beyond), on my long runs, she drives ahead three to four miles to meet me there with Gatorade, gel packets, water and the like. Then, when I’m done, she makes a list of everything I consumed so we know what works. Pretty amaze-balls, right? I couldn’t do this without her. Big ups!

On separate note, I’ll be taking my third improv class at UCB tonight, and I think I’m doing okay. For the most part. I mean, I have my moments where I get it, and moments where I totally suck. But what’s nice about my instructor, Ari Voukidis, is that he creates an environment in which it’s okay to suck, which is naturally what everyone does when they first learn improv. So it’s par for the course. Side note: I tried improv once before, about nine years ago, and my instructor (who you would know and is on TV) was such a total non-supportive dick-hole that it put me off improv until now. You can also email me about that and I’ll tell you who it is.

Also, I’m sure I’m the oldest guy in the class. In fact, I’d bet I’m the oldest guy in ALL the classes. But you know what? Screw it. No one seems to care, so I’m not going to sweat it. I looked over Ari’s shoulder during the first class as he was making notes about each student so he could remember his or her names, and next to my name, he wrote “Hat. Chin beard. Clean cut.” I’m still parsing out what “clean cut” means next to “chin beard,” but ultimately I’m just happy he didn’t write “bald” or “old.”

So there we go. Oh, and I scheduled a mud run for October. More on that later…

Why Am I Doing Shit That Scares Me? An Introduction:

If there’s one emotion that has informed and shaped my life, it’s fear. I have done battle with anxiety for as long as I can remember. I’ve done therapy, taken meds, all the usual stuff. And it’s helped, some of it. But the fear is still there. I wake up to fear and go to sleep with it. And at the heart of my fear is loss of control. Being out of control makes me feel like I’m going to lose my mind. And yes, yes, Buddhists, I know, control is an illusion, we’re not control of anything on this plane, etc., etc. But my brain has somehow tricked me into thinking that if I can just maintain control over a given situation, everything will be fine and then I can calm down and stop freaking out about how I have no control over anything.

I recently turned 43, and when I did, I came upon a few realizations. The first is that (spoiler alert!) I’m not going to live forever. Another is that there are a number of things I have been either consciously or unconsciously putting off doing in my life, thinking that someday, when I’ve conquered my fear, become more successful, etc., I’ll get to them. I also discovered that when you get into your 40s, life can become routine. You get up, you do the things you usually do throughout your day, you go to bed, lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m not saying I don’t enjoy my life; In fact, as someone who makes his living doing voiceover, as someone who has a wonderful marriage, perfect health, and loving friends and family, I recognize very clearly that I have one of the greatest lives one can have on this planet. But I also recognized that there are things that I have always wanted to do, and I have avoided them almost solely out of fear. And I have determined that the prospect of doing these things, of facing my fear, could possibly bring a freshness, a sense of accomplishment, and an added dimension to what is already a great life.

So, I’ve made a list, a list of Stuff That Scares Me. It’s sort of somewhere between a list of dares and a bucket list. Over the course of the next year or so (I’m giving myself until the end of 2012), I’m going to attempt to do each one of the items on my list.