Day 9: Conquering a Mountain of Fear

Bonus: For another perspective, see Glenn’s post.

Dear Rachel,

Remember that time you summited all 12,500 feet of Mt. Mahler, only to tear your MCL on the way down? There was also that Bolder Boulder 10k a few years ago when you unwisely pushed through pain to finish on that twisted ankle. Oh, and just last month, there was that epic spill you took early in a 20-mile-ride as your front bike tire wedged in a grass-obscured slot it discovered as you raced around that fallen tree on Austin Bluffs’ trail. Face-down you hit the ground, your legs and feet curved up behind you from the momentum of the fall. For a fraction of a second you looked like a goofy human scorpion before your legs slammed down onto the upended frame of your bike. The shadows of the resulting bruises were still haunting you today.

Yes. Yes, I remember all that.

So why on earth would you ever choose to ride a ski lift up a mountain and ride down it on a bike for the first time at 50 years old? Didn’t you know your limits?

Of course I did.

Knowing is half the battle.

GI Joe

I started smart. While collecting our full-face helmets, knee, shin, elbow and arm protection I chatted-up the staff, gathering intel about what to expect at my level of experience with steep downhill trails (zero), my type of bike (hardtail – not best), ace techniques (brake, brake, brake) as well as the trails themselves (mercilessly root-riven and rock-riddled).


In spite of being armed with the all the right equipment and tactical plans, the nanny part of my brain quite openly shared how it felt about this new category of potential misadventure. It forced me to study those teenage boys standing ahead of me at the gondola, their full-body armor scraped and dirt-covered, as they loaded their bikes onto the lift to ride up and give the mountain another chance to end them.

Next in line, part of me trying in vain to recall the series of decisions that got me there, I robotically followed the attendant’s instructions and deposited my bike and myself onto the lift and started the slow ride up toward certain doom.

That’s when Nanny-Brain began its screams. As I tried to work up my courage between its piercing shrieks, it would say, “It’s not too late to turn back,” and “No one would blame you if you bailed now.”

“I’m terrified,” I told Glenn as I stared at our feet dangling 30 feet over the passing slope.

When this day was over, would I wish I chose to listen to Nanny-brain or pressed on?

Definitely press on.

If I had listened and bailed, I would have missed out on the joy. That giddy, butterfly-inducing joy you can only experience when you hush your doubting Nanny-Brain and allow the instinctive skills of your body and brain to guide you.

The first green run was filled with that irrational safe-but-terrified feeling you get on a narrow suspension bridge (and I was taking it slow). The second run was less fear-inducing as I became more familiar with the terrain and the ways my bike reacted to it. By the third run, I began to trust in the mechanics of my bike, my body’s natural athleticism, and my brain’s instinctive ability to guide my movements by looking well ahead of me along the trail.

With each run I went faster.

And faster.

Until I was flying by the seat of my pants. And it couldn’t have been more joyous.

My quads burning from the day-long effort, I experimented with the best way stand over the saddle, with only gravity and balance as the glue keeping my weight on the bike. I rode more freely – the impact of roots and rocks minimized as my wheels sped over the tops of them. Catching air the first time over a mogul reignited that suspension bridge terror, yet my confidence grew as I noticed my increasing skill was pushing the bounds of my discomfort out further and further.

Twelve runs later,the frontiers of my discomfort had retreated miles away from where they had started the day. Glenn and I were still exhilarated from the last run, as we walked to return our protective gear. “That was so much fun!” I said.

The experience me appreciate that without pushing (and yes, sometimes bumping, scraping, twisting, crashing, and banging) our limits them from time to time, how can I know and expand the bounds of them?

If I stop pressing my limits, how do I keep them from closing in on me?

Everyday, and especially we age, our bodies and brains can become frail from a lack of trying new things. Framing it that way makes this a necessary defensive effort to battle the constrictive inertia of age. Yes, I’ve had my share of scrapes, but by avoiding them I would have missed out on so much joy.

Don’t be foolish, but take those calculated risks to keep the encroachment of decrepitude at bay.

Press on.

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