The Power Of A Fear-Based Fitness Plan

Have you ever committed to something you weren’t sure you could do, and then found yourself in the best shape of your life the week before that something happened?

Maybe you signed up for a triathlon, a marathon, an ultramarathon, a 24-hour mountain bike race, or you told everyone in your Facebook feed you were going to climb Mt. Rainier, or The Nose, or you got a bunch of friends to come spot you while you attempted the hardest boulder problem of your life, or decided you were going to try to climb 40 pitches for your 40th birthday, or some other foolish thing like that. The Thing.

And then shortly after that, you realized, Holy shit, now I have to do this. I call this Commitment Remorse. It’s like buyer’s remorse, but instead of having less money and something you’re not sure you want, you have to start training. Also, unlike buyer’s remorse, which tends to disappear in a day or two, Commitment Remorse lasts up until the day of The Thing.

Deep down in your heart, you know that you are not ready for whatever The Thing is. You are a little too fat, or a little too weak, or haven’t run or biked or hiked that far in a really long time, or there’s dust on top of your fingerboard. You have sandbagged yourself. Thankfully, you have some time to get ready—or, if you don’t, as my friend Alan says, “People will arrive either rested or ready. And we’ll be rested.”

If you have time to train, it is as if someone has lit that proverbial fire under your ass, isn’t it? Two weeks ago, you didn’t have time to train, and now you make time. You stop binge-watching Netflix and instead drag your ass out to run laps, or get to the climbing gym, or whatever. You dig deep and eat vegetables. You dig even deeper and set your alarm clock for 5 a.m. so you can do the things that you hope will get you ready for The Thing.

Or, you wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the ceiling, wondering if you can do it, The Thing. Maybe you should just call it off, and bail. But people are counting on you. Or you spent a bunch of money on a registration fee, or on the gear to do The Thing. No, no, you can do it. You just need to keep training and eating right. Right? Maybe not. You roll over. Why can’t you sleep? Hell, if you can’t sleep, you might as well get up and do some cardio or pushups or lunges or something. So you do.

A few weeks or days before The Thing, you are looking pretty good, aren’t you? That stuff threatening to turn into a double chin is gone, you can see your hip bones a little bit, and wait—is that an ab? It is! You could not quite scrub laundry on that stomach, but there are signs of ab muscles. Four of them! What a change. How did this happen?

Terror, that’s how. Fear of failure at The Thing. Of sucking, and wasting everyone’s time and your money, and maybe some plane tickets. Why does Mt. Rainier, or your 5.12b project, or the triathlon, or ultra, work so much better than those other objectives like “lose some weight,” “get in shape for bikini season,” or “look good for my wedding”?

Because Mt. Rainier, unlike the disinterested glances of fellow beachgoers, unlike your own “I’ve-lost-a-couple-pounds-haven’t-I” inspections in the bathroom mirror, unlike your non-judgmental wedding guests, will crush you. So will the triathlon, or that boulder problem. These things do not care if you “got busy at work” and didn’t have time to train, or if you “tried to work out more,” and they will not, like your understanding friend, tell you that your half-ass gym attendance looks like it’s kind of paying off. The Thing will call your bullshit, and you know it.

You committed to The Thing because you know all of this is true, and it is the only way to trick yourself into getting fit. Sometime after it, there will be another Thing, and after that, another one. And in between those Things, there will be too much ice cream and/or beer and/or tacos and/or Netflix. Something has to motivate you to commit to the next one, right?


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

27 replies on “The Power Of A Fear-Based Fitness Plan

  • Dustin

    Great article, I just signed up for my “Thing” in March. My first Ultra Marathon of 103 miles spanning the Outer Banks of NC. The best part is I have never ran more than 10 miles in my life….YEWWWWW!!!!!!

    • Mike

      Awesome! I ‘m running a 50 miler in November and I thought I was crazy. Good luck with the training, hope you don’t have too many plans between now and then!

  • Andre

    My “Thing” was/is an endure MTB race. I was training quite well for it. The race unfortunately ended up being cancelled, and I noticed that as soon as it was canceled, I started to slack off and find excuses.

  • Tammy

    I always try to have “The Thing” lurking out there. Not only do you ask yourself the questions Brendan mentions but it’s also a way to push your limits or to find your limits. This year I’ve already pushed myself to a 24-hour road race solo. 209 miles later I finished. I trained like hell for that one. Then on short notice 4 days later I agreed to pick up a spot on a team for a 24 hour MTB race, first one I ever did. It was awesome and I did that thing. Then I committed to my first solo WORS mtb race – 2nd place. Next week I’m committed to mtbing in Crested Butte – never rode at that elevation and we’re tackling riding up to the 401 trail (I’m a flatlander, this should be interesting) and then in February I signed up for the Fatbike Frozen 40 in MN (brrr). There’s always “The Thing” out there – go for it. It’s not necessarily a way to trick yourself into losing weight. But it is a way to push your limits and live on the edge a little bit.

  • Freddy

    This is so appropriate! I signed up for the LOTOJA lottery in like March or April thinking “I’ve always wanted to try this, but I probably wont get in this year. At least I tried”. Well, as luck (or something) would have it, I got in. The Terror washed over me realizing that now I had to do it. Over twice the distance I had ever done on a bike. Last weekend, I am proud to say Goal Accomplished! I conquered “The Thing”! Now on to the next…

  • Scott

    This is exactly me. My last Thing was summer 2014. A couple months to recovery from an injury, coupled with a lack of another Thing, I now find myself completely unready for anything. I need a Thing.

    It is easy to commit to exercise when there is something I know I will fail if I don’t.

  • Randi Young

    I took years off, after being Thing-driven for a long time. It’s very comfortable, having no Thing in the closet. So comfortable that you start wearing looser, larger clothing and sort of forget what you used to weigh in high school. Staying “active” is easy when you live in the mountains, but being haunted and stalked by the Thing is a totally different thing.

    Since being “reborn” almost 4 years ago, the Thing has been resurrected. I am much older and IT is bigger than ever. Our battles have been epic. Some have been won, some have been negotiated draws. The Thing has yet to totally win a round. I am better for the challenges and find myself giddy with terror – most afraid that the scariest Thing is Time.

  • Erik

    Thanks for the great writeup. I was relieved that my ski touring version of the birthday rock pitches thing (30k vert for 30) was stormed out. However I turn 32 next May, and lapping Mt St Helens sounds like a good idea again…gotta do it soon before it gets insane!!

  • Gilles

    I will run my first 21Km trail race this sunday. Reading this post helped me understand what’s going on in my brain right now. I’ll arrive at the race rested and with my mind at peace. Thank you !

  • Jenna

    I’m getting ready for my, “Thing” right now (a boulder comp)- and man, everything you said here is totally on point. Loved it!

  • Vince

    I am on my way to a 30k trail run to support my brother first ultra. I signed up for the race last january. A glorious Rocky style comeback after cancer. Here I am less than 24 hours before the race. Without proper tranning and tired. So tired. No glorious comeback after all … I will be at the starting line tomorrow with a smile on my face. Last week I got great news the cancer his gone. Time to have fun.

    Type 3 fun here I come !!!!

  • Ryan Good

    Awesome post, and so true! I’ve had a number of Things, and they always force me to get off my ass and make it happen. Nothing like a deadline! Right now, my Thing is my first ultramarathon, in December. And- as long as I don’t get an overuse injury between now and then- The Thing and I have a date in December, and I’m looking forward to it. But I also very much enjoy the sense of purpose that The Thing gives me, the preparation- the journey, as they say- is the best part, and it’s The Thing that makes that so.

  • Ian

    My most recent Thing was an Ironman 70.3 triathlon in June that my little brother encouraged I join him on. So I did. Had 4 months to train. And I beat that thing. No record time yet. But I felt awesome for finishing. My next Thing is coming up on September 26. Doing another triathlon. And then headed to work afterwards. This time it’s to show my coworkers how insane and gripping having a Thing is. Next year I hope to get friends and coworkers signed up for some Thing. Regardless of the distance I’ll do it with them as encouragement.

  • Velosopher

    “The Ventoux has no in-itself. It’s the greatest revelation of your-self. It simply feeds back your fatigue and fear. It has total knowledge of the shape you’re in, your capacity for cycling happiness, and for happiness in general. It’s yourself you’re climbing. If you don’t want to know, stay at the bottom.”
    ~ Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike


    THE THING definitely WILL call your bullshit. Cyclocross season is starting fellas, get up the guts to play in the ruts.

  • Skye

    This was awesome, and reminds me of Rollins on iron and my friend Ben on the mile:

    I approach track workouts in a very similar way that Henry Rollins does weightlifting. His essay on weightlifting, The Iron, is justifiably classic. A choice morsel: “The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”

    And 400 meters is always 400 meters. Sometimes 68 seconds is easy. Sometimes 75 seconds is hard. It’s you who is weaker, not some change in the length of the track. Yes, in an interval workout, seconds matter. There are many good places for the Naked Wrist. But the track workout is the one place it doesn’t really belong.

  • Jennifer Rooks

    Well how true. I am committed myself to walk 500klms in Ireland in June/July 2016 but before I go I have promised to raise $5000 for Cancer Queensland – nearly there. I have started the serious training and managed my first 25klms last weekend – must admit it nearly killed me but my head has made the decision and now the feet and toes must fall into line. I keep asking the question – am I completely crazy but guess only time will tell

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