This isn’t the first time that misspent hours of my youth – often hysterically shared with my older brother and characterised by constant snacking on McCoy’s crisps (or worse, prawn-cocktail flavoured Skips), drinking instant coffee and maintaining a largely horizontal position somewhere in the vicinity of the telly and the VCR – have proven years later to be of enormous benefit to me in facing major life challenges.
Who’d have thought the slightly overweight, unfit (never run a step) pre-teen or early-teen me was steadily consuming latent wisdom along with his trans fats, quietly stowing it away for use at some later date, far in the future?
For the uninitiated, the title of this piece comes from the epic science-fiction drama Dune, brought to us by the interesting mind of one David Lynch (yes, the same David Lynch that in other works fetishised gas masks, mythologised cherry pie and made Nicolas Cage look talented, among other feats). Lynch can’t take credit for the content, which comes from a must-read book by Frank Herbert, though this is one of the few times I saw a film before reading the book. I won’t go into details, but in the world of Dune the spiritual and somewhat dark magical cult of the Bene Gesserits quote their ‘Litany of Fear’, which is used as a powerful mantra by the film’s hero, played by Kyle McLachlan:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing…only I will remain.
Now, I’m not intimate with the biography of Frank Herbert, but something tells me these words have come from someone who has experienced, faced into, and dealt with real fear; someone who has managed to transcend it by transcending the self. You don’t just make up a litany like that as a convenient bagatelle to build plot tension and character development.
Up until today, I have not experienced fear in relation to this latest, upcoming challenge – the GNW 100 Mile ultramarathon, this coming Saturday. I have philosophically accepted the odds overwhelmingly favouring failure, with the usual lackadaisical attitude quite common amongst mediocre ultra-runners. An event I had originally taken very seriously and trained for very seriously, has in the last couple of months become an exercise in bloody-mindedness, testing base fitness, luck, and simply taking the opportunity of a paid up and accepted race entry to get out into the bush for a weekend and see what happens.
But this morning was different. This morning I realised my knee, which has been fully rested for four weeks, and mostly rested for the six weeks before that, had pulled up stiff and irritated from a gentle five km run yesterday (literally my first run in three weeks). Now, going into a 174km foot race without having really trained for ten weeks is far from ideal, but when there’s some doubt as to whether there’s been any progress at all in the main point of weakness is quite disheartening.
This chink in my fatalistic armour then led me to review the facts of my situation, overlaid with a bit of internet wisdom I happened to stumble across while drinking my morning coffee, which in summary reiterates what I already knew: you can’t hope to succeed in a 100 mile race if you haven’t done the kilometres (and the vertical kilometres) in training. While this is tempered by the fact that ‘success’ is very different for me now than what it had been – a sub-27 hour time will now gladly be replaced with getting to the finish line within cut-off (36 hours) without causing permanent damage to my body – it’s still fair to say that I have much cause for fear.
But that’s why I’m going ahead with it. I have been there before. I have faced fear and emerged stronger. I have faced pain and learned not to acknowledge it (for a complementary litany on pain, and dealing with pain, see the more recent work by Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master’s Son, another must-read). I have broken myself down into a thousand tiny pieces and put myself back together, and this is an opportunity to do this again, more severely, on a larger scale. The things I might learn from that, and the experiences I might have, are things I’d rather not regret missing out on, when I look back on my time.
In no way will this experience count as valuable physical training for any future endeavour, indeed the opposite is probably true – it may well take months to rectify my knee issues and rebuild fitness after this. But the mental training, both for future races and the general challenges of life, is something you could never put a price on.
I must not fear.
Postscript, for my brother Dan Lewis, friend Ian Ransom (neither of whom will read this) and any other Dune fans: “And how can this be? For he IS the Kwisatz Haderach!”