In her recent book, Wild (an Oprah Book Club favorite, I have come to find out), Cheryl Strayed writes eloquently about fear. As she describes her first few moments hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, and in the wilderness for the first time in her life, after a series of events that pushed her (somewhat surprisingly) to take on the lonely hike from Mexico to Washington state, she describes how she moved through debilitating fear.
She writes, "Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell a different story... I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanguish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid."
I have never hiked a trail across three states on my own, let alone any trail through the woods longer than a mile. I have never taken on the epic journeys most of us only read about in books or blogs, or see in movies. I haven't ever done these things because of all of the regular reasons most of us have: not enough time, no extra money, no equipment, no major desire to be alone in the woods. More importantly, when I experience something like a long hike or camping in the woods, like a bike ride, I want to share it with someone.
But I also fear being alone in the woods. I think the woods are beautiful peaceful places. And I have a huge love affair with trees. But generally speaking, being in the woods alone trades all of the beauty for extreme fear. (It's amazing what one's brain can concoct as dangerous and spooky from the otherwise tame woods.)
Recently, I discovered something new about my fear of being alone in the woods. Quite accidentally. And I've been looking for a way to write about it. So with the help of Cheryl Strayed and a few key friends, I have finally found my way in.
As it turns out, an epic bike race called The Lumberjack 100 would be my ultimate teacher in this case. Lumberjack is a 100-mile mountain bike race that takes place in the winding hills of Northern Michigan. A sandy, twisty, almost dizzying 33 miles per lap, the course challenges riders of all levels, and has been known to take down even the strongest of cyclists.... Here, I'm thinking of a friend, one of the strongest riders I know, who a few years back succumbed to the trail's evil grip, suffering a dangerous case of dehydration which left him shivering in the 90-degree heat and enduring the last lap with hallucinations of strange figures in the woods. Not. Fun. At. All.
So, why did I attempt this race you ask? The short story is that I registered with two friends. That's always a motivator, yes? But two of us registered for one friend in particular who has attempted all three laps for the past two years, but due to a number of momentary health obstacles, hasn't made it to her final lap. Our plan was to ride together and get her, if not all of us, to complete the full 100 mile race. It would have been a first for all of us. Unfortunately, the motivating friend in this scenario broke her arm a month before the race while we were in Fruita, CO, bombing down the sweet singletrack of our favorite trail system.
Needless to say, she couldn't race. And even though I thought for a second about dropping out, I didn't. I had to race. At least I had to show up and do my best. (And I must report that she did bravely take on the pit crew duties that day, pushing aside her understandable heartache to offer her stalwart support to a huge group of us through a very long day.)
For about a month before the race, fear became a more-than-familiar emotion every time I thought about the race. I had no idea what I was getting in to. I had no idea what the course, the terrain, the area, or the scene looked like. The only hope I had was that ignorace could actually be bliss. So yeah, I went with that....
On race day, I kitted up with about a dozen of my favorite riding buddies, and lined up on the road that lead to the course. I had a meager-at-best plan to stay on at least one friend's wheel the whole day. But that plan would be thwarted within the first 30 minutes, as one friend pulled away immediately on the blacktop road, just before the course entered the woods. The other friend faithfully stayed on my wheel, cheering me up the first long climb, until my chain came off as I shifted, and I encouraged him to go around me. (I didn't see him again until 10 hours later when the race was over.) I was glad he raced his race -- which was an impressive story of bravery and fortitude in and of itself as he too was a first time rider, riding for our broken friend, having only purchased and ridden a mountain bike 3 short weeks prior to the race....
A few moments after I saw his jersey disappear behind the corner, I realized I was alone in the unfamiliar woods. Completely alone.
This is where fear came in. And it came in ways I never expected.
As rider after rider passed me, I realized that I was the last one in the line up of some 400 riders. I was the last one in the whole race. I was the last one in the whole big vast woods. (Or so my brain would tell me.)
"You're dead last again. You suck. And guess what? You're alone and hours away from help." This was the story that I would tell myself.
But I would also tell myself that pedaling was better than not pedaling, that moving forward was my only option. There were no shortcuts. No ways to navigate my way back to the safety of our team area except to finish the lap. Pedaling was moving forward. This was the only thing I knew.
And so I pedaled. And I was alone. I was alone with the whirring and crunching of the knobby tires on the dirt path. I was alone with my heart beating in my chest. I was alone with my lungs expanding to never-before-felt dimensions. I was alone with my legs reacting to my mounting panic, wanting to stop with every pedal stroke.
And soon I realized that I, alone, had to re-write my story (though of course I didn't think about it in these terms then). I had to tell myself that I was safe, that in the very least, the pro cyclists would lap me soon, and if I was in real trouble, I could get help within the hour.
All this talking and writing and pedaling and panicking and re-writing and panting and pedaling and hyperventalating and near-crying would consume me in the first 30 minutes of what would be a 9.5 hour day in the saddle.
At the top of the second hour, just as I was starting to get it that I was just alone and there was nothing I could do about it, just as sunlight peeked through the otherwise ominous grey sky of my fear.....
I was down.
Rolling down a hill.
Inexplicably ejected from my bike and thrown, tumbling down the side of a sandy, weedy, tree-covered (and no doubt tick-infested) hill. When the tumbling finally stopped, I was about 15 feet from the trail, and looked up to find my bike, upside down, wedged against a tree.
I found a way to my feet, stood up, brushed myself off, and yelled as loud as I could into the woods.....
The lump in my throat turned to tears streaming down my face as I trudged up to my bike, which was surprisingly in perfect working order. I threw my leg over it, grumbled to myself, and started to move forward down the trail. With the heat of my tears now filling my face, I took three or four more pedal strokes, and....
BAM! It happened again. Me. Alone. Tumbling down the hill again.
BAM! It happened again. Me. Alone. Tumbling down the hill again.
No injuries, no scrapes, no ticks.... just me and the big woods surrounding me. Just me. Alone. Tumbling. Again.
This time when I got up, I yelled, "F-CK!" up into the trees, this time with intention, not as the reflex it felt like before. The trees were seemingly not listening. I trudged back up to my bike, tears mounting, settling in my gut, moving into my throat, and out of my mouth.... "F-CK!!!!" I yelled again as I wrangled my bike back to an upright position, threw my leg over once again, and headed down the trail, somehow remembering my mantra: keep pedaling.
In moments, my fear turned into anger. Anger into determination.
And I realized.... I was lucky to be out in the woods alone. It was an immeasurably good thing that I was alone. That no one was there to witness not one, but two crashes that seemed to have no rhyme or reason. I was lucky that no one was there to witness the vast range of emotions that must have washed across my entire body in the 10 minutes surrounding the crashes. I was lucky that I could be there to just be me. No embarrassment. No judgement (except my own). No one to try to help. No one to feel sorry for me. No one but the towering Northern Michigan trees and the sun-dappled understory tumbling mat were there to witness my fear.
The woods, like a loyal lifelong friend, didn't budge. The woods didn't say a word. The woods didn't think my fear was a problem to solve. And the woods didn't try. And that... that came as a surprising relief.
And huh... the fear subsided.
I pedaled on to the Aid Station, just 20 minutes from where I crashed, and continued on to finish the first lap in one piece. A ragged, dirt-coated piece; but one piece nonetheless. And after a long break in the pit area, after talking with the very friend I was there for, I went out for another lap. At this point, I had no chance to make the cut off time to do a third lap. The second lap would be the last of my day, which meant I could take it at whatever pace I wanted. And though I knew that it would take me at least 4 hours to complete, I headed out again, determined not to let down my friend, not to mention the rest of my team.
Though I left the pit area exhausted and nervous, I realized that the fear was gone. Completely and totally gone. Once I made it onto the silent single-track section, I realized that I was actually feeling kind of good. I realized that I could do another whole lap (and complete 66 miles total for my day) and actually had a lot of fun being in the woods alone.
20 minutes went by, and no fear. An hour went by, and no fear. Two hours went by and no fear.
I suddenly had control over every movement of my bike, of my breathing, of my nutrition, of my technical skills on the now-rutty downhill sections. The long sandy sections were no problem, and the long climbs, though I had to walk a few, didn't seem so daunting. Despite the hour dedicated to walking my bike in the rain carrying my broken chain around my neck (yeah), I loved the second lap. I rolled into the finish 9 hours and 30-some minutes later. A pitiful time. But I was upright. Without injury or illness. Exhausted. Elated. Prideful. Relieved. Happy.
It turns out that Cheryl Strayed is right. Fear is a story we tell ourselves. Just a story. And like it or not, sometimes we have no control over when we will come face-to-face with it. And if we're lucky, we have the friendship of a huge quiet woods (but preferably some human friends) to help us with the revision.