Mountain bikes don’t come with training wheels

Remember the first time you rode a bike without training wheels when you were a kid? What a glorious and giddy feeling that was? Just you, your two wheels and your feet in a frenzy on the pedals, face to the wind about as happy as a puppy with her head hanging out the car window? Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it?

Somewhere between riding the bike to elementary school and paying a mortgage riding a bike became Exercise. Cardio. Ugh. I avoided it, except for renting bikes in foreign cities to get around faster than walking. Even with a super cute hipster vintage bike complete with basket and bell collecting dust in my garage I never biked, or wanted to.

Then I got on a mountain bike. And full of enthusiasm for my newest sport, the one I’m learning in preparation for the Adventure TEAM Challenge this September, I pedaled onto the trail at nearby Waverly Park. Grinning under my helmet, I couldn’t wait to check this out. The next thing I knew I was on my back under a bush, my bike wheel spinning crazily above me, a string of profanities flooding the air as I laughed and cried in equal measures. My husband stood above me, fear and concern turning to exasperation when he saw I was more or less ok. I could still see the road where I’d entered the trail. I wasn’t off to the best start.

We rode for as long as we could that first day, stopping ever more frequently as my ragged breath couldn’t keep up with my lungs’ demands. It didn’t take long to realize that cavemen didn’t have bicycles and my usual high protein paleo-ish diet wasn’t going to cut it. Shaking, I made a gas station run for a sugary sports drink and a carb-laden energy bar.

Fast forward just over a week and we were on our third trail run last night (after a few road rides to work on that pesky cardio). A couple minutes into the Cherokee Park trail and I was already walking my bike, too scared to attempt a steep drop wrapped in roots and edged with big rocks on the right, a fat tree on the left with a gnarly climb out the opposite side. I walked the bike in several more spots, growing more dejected each time. I was scared. Flat scared that I’ll fall off, or hit a tree, or knock out a tooth or break a leg or somehow end up back in the hospital. My husband raced ahead of me, For that matter every other biker we saw (nearly all male) took the drops and climbs and scary bits with flair.

It was a gorgeous night but I couldn’t enjoy it as fear and my annoyance with the fear warred, all while I tried to just stay upright on the bike. We made it as far on the trail as we thought we could manage and turned back. Approaching that super scary section going back, it didn’t look as bad in this direction so I decided to just gun it and rammed my way up the root-laden hill, roaring as I made it almost all the way before my horsepower failed to keep up with the steep incline. I ran my bike off the path, managing to keep from falling as a guy rode by grinning at my exuberance at having made it as far as I did.

A guy and girl rode by a couple moments later and we chatted for a minute about this stretch of trail. The girl was a beginner too, and said she’d walked this part four or five times before getting the nerve to attempt it. Now she made it look easy. I didn’t want to leave without trying, but was terrified. I don’t know anything about grades, if there even are, on trails to tell you what it was. All I can say is it was a precipitous drop and I could all too easily see myself being flung headfirst over the handlebars onto the rocks near the bottom.

Before I could talk myself out of it I backed my bike up the trail and aimed for the drop, my stomach feeling like it does when you’re creaking those last few inches toward the top of a roller coaster. I didn’t want to be a chicken, and I didn’t even want that negative talk in my head so I gave myself a little pep talk. Taking a cue from Muhammad Ali’s words

It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.

I muttered a few times as I maneuvered my bike, “You’re brave, you’re strong, you can do this.”

Then (purposely) with no time for second thoughts I started pedaling, remembering my motorcycle-riding dad’s admonition that you go where you look. I looked hard at the narrow strip of trail where I needed to stay, and flew down the hill and rocketed up the other side, bumping to a stop by my husband with a grin surely like the one I wore when I took that first training wheels free ride 30 years ago.

Feeling pretty proud and pleased with myself, I thought we were done. But he had other ideas. We rode it over and over until my hands weren’t trembling quite so violently with nerves. I even hit a big rock once at the bottom of the drop but stayed upright and managed to still come up the other side. And after we rode out the rest of the trail I couldn’t resist the urge to turn back and go do it one more time.

It’s still scary. I’m still afraid I’ll get hurt. There will never be training wheels or an easy, safe way to train. I just have to get out on the trails and be brave and be strong. But oh, now that I know how good it feels to take on the scary bits and come out smiling, I think I’m hooked.

(I did finally make it after a couple more tries)

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Gearing up

It’s time for a new challenge.  And a new adventure. Goals with numbers land me in the hospital. How many plates can I put on the barbell and still lift it=spinal surgery. How many pull-ups can I do=rhabdo. And any goal related to a number on the scale is the last thing I want. (Hi, I’m Dana and I haven’t stepped on a scale in 7 months since the great and horrible six-pack experiment.)

So I’m gearing up to join a team with my husband and race through the high desert of Colorado on a multi-sport adventure. The Adventure TEAM Challenge this September will put me to a whole new kind of test as I climb, raft, mountain bike and hike at a mile elevation, part of a five-person team that will include two people with disabilities — one in a wheelchair.

If anything will knock me on the head and make me stop feeling sorry for myself for all the things I can’t do because of my assorted and sundry injuries it will be this race.

World TEAM Sports provides opportunities for people with disabilities to compete in sporting events. Not only does this chance help the competing athletes overcome challenges they can feel amazing about, it inspires spectators. I know, because I watched their documentary Vietnam, Long Time Coming, last year and cried repeatedly watching veterans overcome huge physical and emotional challenges to bike from Hanoi to Saigon. And I know if they can accomplish such a mammoth undertaking, then this utterly non cardio-conditioned wanna-be racer can get ready for a two-day challenge.

I’ve experienced personally how much competitive sport has transformed my life, and injuries notwithstanding, the confidence I’ve gained has made a whole new world possible for me. If I have a soapbox it’s that more people — especially women, and especially people who may not think they have what it takes — experience this change.

So I’m going to raise money – lots of it, more on that later – to join this race, and I’m going to train for two days of high-altitude sports that I am a complete beginner in now.  With maybe a dozen climbs under my belt, a few days of rafting, and a brand new mountain bike I broke in with an immediate crash, I’m gearing up for a summer of training for this blissfully number-free goal: to complete the race and not let my teammates down.

It takes some creativity: I can’t run or do lunges because of a janky toe. I can’t load my lumbar spine. And with newly re-knit muscles in my biceps, shoulders and lats (they ripped away from the tendons just a few months ago) I can’t lift to failure. My new friend is the TRX in my garage gym.  With the bad foot in the strap I can do lunges that are even harder than the garden variety. I can do hamstring curls that will strengthen my underdeveloped hamstrings. And since I’m still feeling sketchy about pull-up I can do rows on the TRX to work my upper back. I’m also loving push-ups with my feet elevated in the straps.

But mostly I’ll be on my new bike, planning climbing getaways in Red River Gorge, and hopefully finding somewhere to raft. I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer than gearing up.