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MTB Camp Gets Real

Why’d this Iowa girl up and drive 16 hours to mountain bike camp in Colorado? I didn’t know in any specific way – I just knew. It was easy to trust with all the kismet that blasted me there. Check it:

I just knew that if I didn’t act on that conversation on April Fool’s Day with my bike buddy Dave, I’d be a fool. I just knew that a dude-heavy edition of the camp Dave recommended in May in Des Moines didn’t exactly have my name written all over it. I just knew that the women-only edition of the same camp taking place in Colorado’s McInnis Canyons three weeks away did have my name written all over it. I just knew that the one spot left was mine. I just knew I’d have enough range of motion in my recently repaired broken elbow to ride dirty. I just knew I had to bag on the yoga conference I had scheduled the same weekend, and that I had to tell them the truth when I asked for a refund: “Yeah, so the Universe wants me to go to this mountain bike camp, see…” And they gave me a refund. And, for the final Universe upside-the-head slap, my friend Suzanne, notorious for representin’ when it comes to the Universe, kept telling me that I just knew – what more did I need?

So, I pressed the button. Turns out it was a start button. The start button – the start of not stopping myself.

I made it to Fruita, Colorado, smooth. I checked in to my hotel. Normally I have mega nerves at things like this, and it hits the night before. You know, that big step out of comfortable territory thing. I mean, what even goes on at mountain bike camp? Who even goes to mountain bike camp? And how crazy is this Colorado territory gonna be literally? But my head wasn’t really going there. Instead, I deftly packed up my brand new Camelback as if I had done it a million times. I slept well. At the continental breakfast, I was the only one eating alone, and I persona’d up: Yo, I’m Mystery Lone Mountain Biker Chick. I don’t wear make-up. I eat hard-boiled eggs and black coffee.

I checked the weather. Seemed it would be raining before our camp day was up. And it seemed it would be raining through the entire two following camp days. Nice one, Universe. I loaded up my rain jackets – plural, in case others hadn’t brought one. But I also did this: I chose not to believe a forecast was any kind of real thing. Mystery Lone Mountain Biker Chick says a forecast is just a fucking human guess – how likely is it to be what the mystery Universe actually has in store?

(But there was a part of me that liked the idea of escaping into the comfort of “Dang, it rained, and I didn’t get to pop a gnarly jump off that cliff. But I woulda, you know, if it hadn’t rained.”)

My name written all over it.

I drove in to our first meet-up, past the “McInnis Canyons” sign, into a parking lot at Kokopelli Trails. We circled up by the Better Ride Camp coach’s spiffy white Mercedes van / mobile bike repair station. There were eight of us women. We all repeated each other’s names, mixed each other up, laughed, tried again. Our coach, Chip, announced that camper Kathleen was his wife – and she was there only because someone had to cancel due to a broken elbow. A broken elbow! Surely another sign!

So, who were these eight mystery mountain biker chicks? Well. Kathleen (Colorado) competes on the national swimming circuit. Sasha (Colorado) is an XTerra racer and Ironman. Stacy (Colorado but from the South with a wicked fun accent) races MTB. Tanya (Colorado) does some MTB racing, too, I think. Sharon (Minnesota), Ann (Colorado but formerly Minnesota), and Liz (Colorado), were in it for lower-key reasons. Me? “In the Midwest we have to make our own fun, so we have these kayak-MTB-trail run triathlons that I like to do.” I also told them about breaking my elbow three months ago, and how my physical therapist was not-so-secretly hoping I’d bust through some stubborn adhesions on this trip. (I came to camp with the ability to bend my arm 120 degrees, 40 degrees away from normal. Spoiler: I did not leave camp that way.)

Lesson time! Day one, Chip started us off on a dirt road learning basic riding position for uphill and downhill. Then some obstacle serpentining around a few rocks he tossed out. Then the thing that floored us all: vision. Where to look and why.

“If you’re looking at the obstacle when you get to it, your mind and your body respond to it like it’s an obstacle. They stop you. ‘Oh-no-big-rock-STOP!’” Chip said. He explained some nifty stuff about direct vision and peripheral vision. And he got us seeing the obstacles when we had time to plan for them, so when it came time to execute our plan, what we were seeing was well beyond the obstacle. We came up to the obstacle knowing we already had it handled. And that day, eight women started not stopping.

“You’re all gonna be doing wheelies,” Chip said next. And he was right. After Wheelies 101, we ate lunch, and it was time to hit the trail. The real stuff. And it wasn’t raining.

“We’ll be riding Mary’s Loop today,” Chip said. Yeah. Sign. (Only later we found out it was Rustler’s Loop. Whoopsie, Universe! No one named “Rustler” here!) We practiced our vision. I made a tight turn near an edge by looking at Chip, who was standing around the bend, subtly coaxing me to get out of my habit of stopping myself by bellowing “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” I looked at him. Chip’s testosterone-heavy “Yeeeeeah!” rang though the canyons as each of us came through that curve. We were practicing not stopping.

The 7 on Day 2: Ann, me, Sharon, Kathleen, Stacy, Sasha, Tanya

The 7 on Day 2: Ann, me, Sharon, Kathleen, Stacy, Sasha, Tanya

By day two, one woman had stopped. We found out Liz had left camp the night before, feeling like she was in over her head. Chip had said, on that first day, “The one who gets off their bike and walks is the bravest, smartest one.” Liz had walked through several sections. But she hadn’t felt brave or smart. We women do like that. We are too easily stopped by the obstacle of feeling that where we are isn’t good enough. But where we are is just where we are – we can’t change it, it’s based on what came before. But it’s what comes next that we’re here for. If what came before is stopping us, when will there ever be anything next?

Liz leaving was a bummer, but that day, we took to killing it on our gravity-defying turn leans. Yeeeeeah! In an elementary school parking lot! 🙂 It was in that parking lot where the seven of us got to know each other. Kathleen would pull up alongside someone to point out something they really “got,” or to support someone who didn’t feel like they “got it.” Chip worked a lot with Stacy, who was doing something funky with her butt at first, and when Stacy “got it” and felt the lean, she let out some adorable Southern yelp-like thang. Tanya was quiet and focused, and hilariously dry if you were lucky enough to hear her. Ann, the oldest of our bunch in her early 50’s, was game for anything. And get this – those racer chicks were in their early-to-mid-40’s. And they looked 20’s or 30’s.

It became really clear that day that all of us had a tendency to say, “Sorry!” and “Yeah, but” even when we hit a pretty good lean. Even Sasha the XTerra-racing Ironman. She had a real sweet bent, and “sorry” just came with the territory. (She also had the fittest smiling muscles of the bunch – I realize now that I have no clue what she looks like without a smile.) Chip, though, promptly removed the apology obstacle, and no one was allowed to say “sorry.”

After a downpour the night before, and an 80% chance of rain in the afternoon, we hit the trails ready for a rain-out. But the weather held. On the trail, when I came up on Minnesota Sharon as she was stopped in a good line, I elicited a “Sorry!” from her. It wasn’t her fault. It was the fault of my Inner Awful Bitch that had said, out loud, “Aw!” as I stopped, lamenting the climb in front of Sharon that Inner Awful Bitch thought she could’ve made.

At the end of the ride, I told Sharon I was sorry. Kathleen overheard and said, “No saying ‘sorry!’” “Rule does not apply,” I said, “I am sorry, because I made Sharon feel bad.” Because breaking the apology rule was the more connecting option here. (Real is the New Good is all about discerning the most connecting choice.) “Sorry” isn’t always bad, or good for that matter. There are times when it’s necessary, real, connecting. Use it then.

We circled up after that ride, did some Q&A, and wrapped things up. As soon as we got to our cars and no sooner, it started raining. Yeah. Charmed, this group. Charmed.

Every morning I had fun at continental breakfast being Mystery Lone Mountain Biker Chick, geared up for the silly human forecast of rain.

Okay, so, the final day, I got a new lesson. It was curb day. Getting up shit. And it was almost inevitable that it would rain. I ran 3 miles on the treadmill at the hotel that morning as it poured, sure of a rain-out.

But it cleared. Kathleen, who had never been able to do curbs before, was “stoked!” to learn and apply the technique, curb after curb after curb. She must’ve done a hundred. That’s how it was for some people. And for some people, it was kind of a freak-out. I was having trouble with timing, and shit if I wasn’t shaking. I wanted to cry. Everyone else had gone up a curb or a hundred, and I still hadn’t. I rode up to a couple, and skidded to a stop. A stop.

But this is just where I was. Because of what happened before now, which hadn’t included curbs, or Colorado topography. I was just here. And still, I felt like Liz – our fellow camper who left after the first day. I wanted to quit. I couldn’t believe in moving ahead. “I’m freaking out,” I said to Chip. “I haven’t done a single curb yet.”

“It’s your timing,” he said. “Just go back to wheelie-ing over the painted lines, and get it down. Then come back.” Damn empowering rational thinking coach. That’s the last thing I needed.

But I was still here. I hadn’t quit. Starting where I was hadn’t stopped me yet. If you don’t want to cry, if you don’t want to quit, you haven’t yet blindly banged up against a long-standing curb that you believed was a wall.

I had found a long-standing curb. I had to get past it. And I did. Lines first. Lots of wheelie-ing over yellow paint. And pretty soon, I did a curb. I wheelied-up. And then, I was wheelie-ing up and doing a back-wheel lift onto the little boulevards. You know, until that bad one.

My elbow got pretty wrecked, forced flexion, on one of those wheelie-up back wheel lifts with the timing a little off. My PT would have been proud. But man did it kill. I stepped off. Hugged my arm. Kathleen made sure I was all right, she was ready to ice me. I said, “Nah, this is good for it, it just hurts.” She nodded, did another 100 curbs or something.

Not long after, on the trails that day, rain holding off, I was really hurting. Elbow screaming at the simplest of things. Add to it my knack for not getting clipped in to my pedals in time for some looming feature (I’d only left flat pedals a few weeks before), and I was not feeling prime at all. I wondered, should I go on? Could I turn back? Would the rain show up and save me? I asked around about ibuprofen. Sasha was equipped. I popped 800 mg.

Then, Ann got hurt. A fall on a downhill rock step. And I got to see Kathleen, firefighter and EMT (did I not mention that?), in action. Totally pro rescuer mode, and 100% trustworthy caregiver. She did some real pro-looking sign language to Chip (also a firefighter and EMT – what?!?) that seemed to mean broken collar bone. And Chip – well, he made a bike tube into a sling. Wow. Kathleen and Sharon gathered up Ann’s bike to walk Ann back. Chip asked if the rest of us we were too shaken up to go on. There were four of us left. And I thought, “This is my out.” And then, a new thought – a stronger one, that I could feel in my heart, my gut: “But I want to ride.” So, I had an out, and I didn’t want it. I saw what was out ahead. And I liked what I saw better than what I’d see if I stopped: a goddamn proverbial curb I’d be looking at forever.

Tanya spoke up. “I’m kinda shaken, but I think riding will help.”

“It will,” Chip said. And we four – Tanya, Stacy, Sasha, and I – got our badass MTB chickness on.

The 4 on Day 3: Stacy about to wheelie-up like a pro with Chip out front; Tanya, me, and Sasha ready. (photo: Dan Wyszynski)

The 4 on Day 3: Stacy about to wheelie-up like a pro with Chip out front, Tanya, me, and Sasha ready. (photo: Dan Wyszynski)

This day was different. We weren’t allowed to just plow through things inefficiently. We had to apply what we learned. And Chip was all about the do-over (or do-it-right-over.) We tried climbs with wheelie-up after wheelie-up. After three tries on one tough section and a buckling elbow, Chip told me, “Three tries. That’s good. Call it.”

I got up SOME shit.

I got up SOME shit. (photo: Dan Wyszynski)

I plodded up to where Stacy, victor of said climb, was, and wondered out loud why I kept referring to my reaction to the challenging stuff as “freaking out.” I knew better. If we treat stress like it’s harming us, it will. It will stop us. I remembered something PhD psychologist yogi Kelly McGonigal had said about stress, and shared it with Stacy.

“When we feel the stress response, all we have to do is say, ‘this is my body rising to the occasion,’” I told her. “Way better than, ‘I’m freaking out.'”

“I am so taking that with me,” Stacy said. She needed it. She’d been surprised by the stress of her recent move from Arkansas to Denver. And then, enough talk, we had to look back. Because XTerra-racing Ironman Sasha was on her fourth try.

Sasha wasn’t going to stop. The three tries rule? Nope. She was doing the more connected thing – for her. She was the picture of perseverance. And she was strong. And she was so much more than an XTerra-racing Ironman. She wanted this because she believed in what was ahead of her. She was already past it. And on her fifth try, she made it.

And quiet, dry-humored, flat-pedaled Tanya kept at it until she was just teetering at the last wheelie-up and Chip reached over and gave her a final boost. “Yeeeeeah!”

That day, the four of us each did some pretty remarkable things. We looked past things that used to stop us. We stopped stopping. Kathleen caught up with us after getting Ann medical care. Turned out nothing was broken. And Kathleen joined right in with the wheelie-up climbs, stoked.

We circled up. We said goodbye. There were hugs.

And I hit the road. I started an audio book as I set out on the 16-hour drive back, the rain just setting in, you know, since the charmed mountain biker chicks were done and all. I turned up the volume over the rain, and this hit me:

The scar stories, not the sword stories, are what empower us and others. Tell your scar stories.

(I’m paraphrasing from Paulo Coelho’s Manuscript Found in Accra.)

So, I struggled, people. I wasn’t a sword-wielding victor. But Paulo Coelho talks about how victory is only possible if we have faced stopping, and gotten past it.

“There are people who have never been defeated. They are the ones who never fought. Such people can say with pride, ‘I never lost a battle.’ On the other hand, they will never be able to say, ‘I won a battle.’” – Paulo Coelho

On day 1 and day 2 of camp, I hadn’t really lost a battle. On day 3, I did. Many. So since getting back, I’ve been fighting more damn yellow painted lines and logs and roots the size of logs. I sometimes lose and my elbow gets a PT-approved beating, but hey, I’ve got, like, 8 degrees more flexion now. I’ve literally moved past a stop in my elbow.

Sometimes, a log defeats me, sure. But I am going to keep working until I can see the obstacle, prepare, and trust enough that I’ve got it handled as I move my vision to what’s beyond. And then, I’m gonna ride on, solid in the knowing that I’ve already won. Moving beyond where I am, no matter where I am.

We start from here.

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