In The Absence Of Fear

I haven’t been sleeping much lately. This hasn’t been from lack of need or desire, rather that life circumstances have pushed physical activity to the day’s periphery.

At 4:30 a.m., I make a strong cup of coffee and sip it on my porch while Dog sniffs around the yard. For some strange reason, I enjoy the micro-aggression to my palette of the acidic beverage providing an instant awakening of the senses. The warm weather allows me to leave the house in just my shorts and running shoes. Everything is quiet as I trot down main street on the half-mile of dirt road to the trail.

After about 15 minutes of running, I turn a bend and encounter a large male bear. I recognize him as he’s been the talk of the town, popping up in neighbors’ photos in their yards, even laying on their porches.

I’ve bumped into him a few times, but have not yet had the opportunity to be this close. He stands about 20 to 30 feet ahead of me. Thankfully, he isn’t startled, but stares at me while audibly grunting and groaning. I reciprocate while catching my breath. In that moment, I think of how we are not so dissimilar. We both had berries for breakfast and are out for our morning stroll. Who knows, he might even have a little coffee in his system from the neighbor’s compost. The whole exchange lasts a few seconds. He turns and bolts straight down the hill, in a cacophony of broken twigs and branches echoing down the canyon.

I used to be kind of nervous of this type of encounter. A long, agonizing stalking experience from a mountain lion on the Wonderland Trail on Mount Rainier made me subsequently pretty jumpy around wildlife. Over time, that feeling has worn off, though, and I’ve come to a place of acceptance of our shared space rather than fear of what could happen.

One aspect that always stayed with me after that encounter was that my fear was born from my preconceived notion of what the animal could do, rather than any demonstrative aggression. I’m not saying that it’s not a dangerous animal, but simply that I create fear in my head out of perception of what I know rather than from a direct threat.

This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Chris Kalous for a podcast interview. We were discussing Alex Honnold’s feat of free soloing (climbing without ropes) Yosemite’s El Capitan. Chris brought up that the million-dollar question that everyone wants to know about Alex is, how does he not feel fear?

In a similar vein and in relation to running, he was curious as to what keeps us going, mile after mile, after mile. What is it that motivates you to keep putting one foot in front of the other at mile 70 in a 100-mile race?

At first, I did not see the correlation between the two questions. In Alex’s situation, the consequences of falling are final, while in running you can simply tap out and sit on the side of the trail until the desire to move again occurs. But, what Chris was getting at in his comparison pertained more to the state of mind of being able to make abstraction of a certain type of feeling, whether it be fear of falling or pain induced by miles on our feet.

I think the reason that this type of question comes up time and time again is because everyone wants to know how to tap into that state of mind and the answer is often unsatisfactory: a trite “it is what it is” or something along the lines of “you just kinda’ keep going.”

To me, practice dispels fear of the unknown. In the case of the mountain lion, my fear stemmed from perception of what I knew rather than any real experience with this kind of encounter.

With familiarity comes a certain level of ease that helps manage fear. That isn’t to say that I lack awareness of what could happen, but rather that I find comfort in knowing that I do not need to invite fear in because I am assessing the situation for what it is rather than what it could be. Similarly, when you have taken those few steps past mile 70 and realize that they are no different than the ones you took before that, the fear of the unknown dissipates, allowing you to keep going as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. This demystification process allows us to operate with clarity, being in acceptance of what is, rather than in fear of what could be.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What situations, actions, or people do you fear perhaps because you don’t know about them rather than because you do?
  • Have you experienced a similar devolution of fear as what Joe describes, where learning about something dissipated your discomfort with it?

Joe Grant - In The Absence Of Fear 1

Joe Grant - In The Absence Of Fear 2

Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 10 comments

  1. Dom

    Great article. What I’ve taken from this article is that fear (*sometimes) is all but a false construct of the brain.

    Thanks for the post Joe.

  2. Joe Von Bokern

    Great article!

    I, like probably a lot of folks who visit, used to believe that running 50 or 100 miles was a terrifying prospect reserved for superhuman athletes. If anyone brought up the idea, which very few folks ever did, I would laugh and dismiss it entirely. Even after I got to know my first ultrarunner, the idea simply seemed too far-fetched. Like you with the bear, my fear stemmed from perception of what I knew rather than my experience.

    But the more articles I read on this website, URP podcasts I listened to, and videos I watched on Youtube, the more I began to understand ultrarunning and what draws people to the sport. I became more familiar with technique, training, nutrition, hydration, and race day strategy. Solid information began to turn fear into curiosity, and I ultimately signed up for and completed my first 50k in May of this year. With my first 50 miler on the books for October, I’m going to ride that curiosity as long as I can and….well, and just kinda keep going. :)

  3. Tim Tollefson

    Well written, Joe. Similarly in my practice, as you write, with nearly 200 bear encounters running in Mammoth, fear has been dispelled as the unknown has been replaced with familiarity. Yes, they are wild, unpredictable creatures, who deserve constant respect, but, with the exception of one case, in which I provoked a mom and her cubs, there has never been a reason to fear the magnificent animal.

    Talk is often given to the notion, “not afraid to fail”, as an admirable trait. I would agree, greatness can happen in the absence of fear. Is there, however, a point that this absence of fear actually becomes paralyzing to progress? Is a healthy respect for the unknown not also required to prevent crippling forward momentum? Even Alex Honnold turned back on his first attempt to free solo El Capitan last November because, “conditions did not feel right”.

    1. Patrick

      Tim: with that many encounters under your belt — have you employed any particular strategies to move thru those situations successfully?

  4. Claire Robinson-White

    Well written article. For me, at least fear has become an old friend. Rather than viewing or treating the “idea” of fear as something unpredictable, self-exposed, unknown or intangible; I’ve gradually learned to unlearn/relearn fear. Just like each mile on the trails – you take it apart, unfold the experience and relearn the conditions.

    I got into ultra running after having brain surgery three years ago. Eleven weeks after surgery I ran my first ultra. I’ve been running since. You dig deep, climb those hills and bring your old friend “fear” with you.

  5. Brad

    Insightful and well-written as always Joe. I live and run in LA, and my wildlife encounters include packs of coyotes, bobcats and the occasional mountain lion. I’ve never really felt fearful regarding wildlife because I’ve never experienced being stalked or threatened. Fear for me has stemmed from the act itself of physically pushing myself and the percieved risk of a cardiac event. I”ve been running, cycling, swimming and otherwise getting my heart pumping for as long as I can remember and never thought about whether I was putting my heart at risk. My first experience with PVCs follwing a snowshoe race and a diagnosis of high blood pressure, along with a slew of “cronic cardio will kill you” (thanks internet) kicked my fear into gear. It’s something I still struggle with even though I am truly drawn to these pursuits out in the wild.

  6. courtney

    I really appreciate how you were really able to express this and capture the way fear can be managed or really to have a different mindset about it.. Love this: “With familiarity comes a certain level of ease that helps manage fear. That isn’t to say that I lack awareness of what could happen, but rather that I find comfort in knowing that I do not need to invite fear in because I am assessing the situation for what it is rather than what it could be.”

    It can be applied in any realm of fear, really. Certain mindsets lend to fear of the unknown but if someone changes their perception – the world around them changes, too.


  7. Jackie

    I feel like I’ve been told my whole life to not go running by myself. Hearing that message over and over built up a pretty good amount of fear to run alone but, that is exactly what I crave. It was frustrating to see guys out running or hiking by themselves and I’m betting they didn’t think twice about it being unsafe if they were alone. I have overcome my fear and now regularly go on running adventures by myself. It’s an amazing feeling to overcome that fear. I take all reasonable precautions but I feel like I have to live my life and running by myself is one way I do this. Seeing female (in groups and solo), PCT thru-hikers is inspirational to me.

    One thing I do 3-4 times a week that I feel is quite dangerous but I am completely fearless about is driving to work. The freeways in Southern Ca. are way more dangerous than any trail!

  8. Luke

    A lot of the value of trail/ultra running is challenging artificial limits, doing things that ‘society’ tells us are crazy: running on trails, running by yourself, running in the dark in the woods by yourself, running more than 3 miles, etc. And after working many summers in Yosemite I can relate to gaining a familiarity with bears and having a response that is very different from people who haven’t had those same encounters. But risk normalization, or rebaselining, is not always a good thing. People are killed by bears, even without doing something wrong. The response to a society that tells us to be afraid of nature should not to be completely unafraid of nature. Be realistic and informed, and act appropriately, whether this means reacting with more or less caution.

  9. Brittany Myers

    Nicely written, thought-provoking piece. Thanks, Joe! For me, the state of mind that keeps me pushing past whatever might hold me back (fear, pain etc.) is curiosity. And I guess, in a lot of ways, my curiosity has taken the place of fear. It’s why I almost never study or run a race course before the race itself. I am motivated by the grand adventure of covering new land under my own human power, of seeing a place for the first time in that moment. Granted, this might also be the reason I’m not a more competitive runner, but I’m come to understand that the curiosity, both of a new place and the journey inward (how each experience on the trail, each new challenge, pushes new personal boundaries), is truly what drives be onwards. While PRing feels great in any race, the ultimate reward for me has been what each journey teaches me about myself.

    I also agree that when it comes to fear of the unknown, the ‘one step in front of the other’ philosophy is very powerful. Reminding yourself that the next step (and the one after that) will be just the same as the last. It’s a technique I’ve used climbing a big wall and running ultras and I think it can be applied to any scenario where you experience irrational fear.

    Thanks again for the chance to reflect on all of this!

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