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Fear and Climbing in the Rockies

It is 11:34pm and my body is tight with anxiety. This is not an unusual state of being to find myself in – the sensation is nearly constant for me. But right now, approaching midnight, the sting of it is more acute. I’m laying in bed, I’ve just set my phone on the floor next to me, and I need to be awake again in five hours. Tomorrow I’m riding into the Rocky Mountains alone.

The night-before anxiey, the fear, is a tradition of my mind. I’ve been doing this; long rides, solo sends, for a long time now – if 20 years qualifies as a long time. I started when I was a youngster living in LA, very alone and with very nothing to do. At the time the television was one of my closest companions and I, like many at the time, stumbled into the Eco Challenge reality show which featured groups of four people who were sent on weeklong race adventures through the wildernesses of the world in search of interpersonal conflict, ratings gold, and yes probably also the Adventure word. The wildness of it all seized me and I soon threw myself at the sport in the way that bored white kids with good jobs and disposable income often throw themselves at whatever plucks harp strings of their nerves sufficiently to make them feel alive.

And live I did, during my enfatuation with that sport. I may never again touch the incredible intensity of that era of my life: Hiking through the High Sierras on a razorback ridge in the deepest night, staring up at the unfathomable stars, navigating by UTM coordinates, a compass, and a paper map, not knowing what the future held for me. Those years were for me so real, so impulsive, so rewarding, and so terrifying. Each race I did gave me a greater sense of confidence in what I could acheive, and they also left me with a growing sense of PTSD, and even terror at what the next event might itself contain in terms of discomfort, pain, feeling lost, and not knowing when it was all going to end. I would never trade the half decade I spent adventure racing for anything, but I eventually arrived at a place where the stress of the next event approaching was so intense and so overhwelming that depression and fear set in instead of excitement. Eventually I sold my climbing harnesses, paddle, life jacket, LED headlights, roller blades, (yes roller blades), helmets, and other assorted gear. My cleats were in fact hung up. Only my bike remained because it had been there before endurance sports, and would thus remain after them.

I suppose the cliche would be to say that I missed adventure racing and that eventually the siren’s call of it brought me back. But it didn’t. In my mind I revisted the memories of it often but was supremely content to never have to go for 72 hours without sleep again, or to wonder if I was lost or off course, or to feel the deep hunger that comes with finding nothing that my exhausted stomach can process. Retirement and the peace that comes with it, is good.

But the bike stayed, and in the vacuum left behind by trail running and ropes and kayaks, my love for the bike was able to glow again, like an ember that has survived the dousing of a passing rain storm. I re-engaged moving through the world under my own power on my own terms. At first it was just rides through Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills. Later it was the Santa Monica trails or Angeles Crest Highway. Rides got longer, and I began to endure again. I had never loved anything having to do with endurance before adventure racing, and even though I had moved on from that sport I begun to realize that it had permanently changed me. I had seen wild plaecs with my own eyes that were so beautiful that they were impossible, and I had gotten to those place with my legs, my limbs, and my lungs. Once seen those places can’t be forgotten, and the ache of seeing them never leaves you. You have to go see them again, to find out if they are still there, to find out if your legs, limbs, and lungs can still carry you there.

Now, lying in bed, midnight approaching, my mind would not calm down. Adventure racing left me with something else: fear of the difficulty of enduring. I was tortured by it. I thought of the route I had planned for this ride and the challenges to come and I felt my chest and my gut tighten. But why? Tomorrow’s ride wasn’t about crossing a country, or riding for a week, or starvation, or sleep depravation. Tomorrow’s ride wasn’t my longest, my most difficult, or to a place I had never been. Why the fear then? Why am I so afraid?

Why am I so afraid?

Externally people look at me online and it’s easy to see what they conclude: Stephen is living the dream. He rides bikes a lot, he has mountains outside his door. Stephen has a respectable, interesting bike company. Everything they do seems like fun. Everything is colorful. Everything is creative. Everything is awesome. Even with a marriage and three kids to look after Stephen still balances it all, improbably, and manages an existence that is near worthy of a middlin’ Instagram audience.

But the reality of it is far from that. In reality Stephen is afraid. Stephen is afraid of running a company is, and is afraid that he is bad at it. Stephen is afraid of letting his employees down and leaving everyone jobless. Stephen is afraid of failing customers with unmet expectations and unmet schedules. Stephen is afraid of losing their trust. Stephen is afraid that the day will come when nobody else wants the bikes he sells, and the money will stop rolling in, and the company will go under – because most small businesses do go under. Stephen is afraid that everyone will realize he’s an imposter and has no business being a bicycle merchant in the first place. Stephen is afraid that he spends too much time thinking about work, and that he’s ruining his kids and his marriage because he is utterly spent as he rolls up to his garage, finally home, every day. Stephen is afraid of bills, taxes, workman’s comp audits, and every large envelope that arrives in the mail. Every time the phone rings, every time an employee wants to pull him aside for a talk, every night he sets the alarm at the office, and every time he has a meeting with his suppliers about the status of the bikes that are due.

I am, in fact, always afraid. There is no end to it.

I lay in bed thinking about tomorrow’s ride and the 14,000 feet of climbing that lay in store for me. I think about the spot where my route deviates from roads I’ve ridden and turns towards a blank spot in my mental map just where it begins ascending towards wilderness. What will I find when I get there? I’ll be alone. If the going is bad I could be left pushing my bike through rock gardens and forgotten roads all day long. Maybe my route passes private property and I’ll be assulted by a hillbilly gold miner. Maybe my route is so remote that I’ll be stalked by a cougar. What does it feel like to be mauled by a cougar? Will there be water on my route? Will I have enough food? What if the weather turns bad quickly and I’m caught in a tempest? How long will I be gone? Will I be out after dark? If so are my lights sufficient? What if something breaks? What if I break? Why am I going on this ride at all? I should be at work! What if something happens when I’m gone? What if the crew at the office needs me? What do they think of me riding on a workday? Do I look like I don’t care about this company enough? Am I an idiot boss? Do they snicker at me behind my back?

I can’t sleep. My mind is just winding up. The onslaught has begun and I don’t know how to stop it. How did I get like this? Why am I like this? Why am I doing this?

Maybe I should shut it all down. Maybe we should move to a simpler place and I should get a simpler job, and I should find a simpler sport.

Building model airplanes is fun. There is no stress in it. Nobody gets hurt if one crashes.

On my rides to work I see people in their cars at the stoplights, drinking Starbucks, listening to talk radio, heaters on, faces blank; maybe those people have it right. Maybe the point of this is to stay safe, to stay comfortable, and to stay insulated from risk. I wonder if these people are ever afraid.

A few years back I was on a ride with my friend Nick. We found ourselves walking our bikes high on an exposed mountain pass late in the day, we were caught in a thunderstorm that was also a blizzard, and we were lost. Lightning flared all around. Any bolt of it could be the end of us. I looked into Nick’s eyes and I saw something I had never seen in him before: not just fear but terror. As he looked back into my eyes I’m sure he saw the same thing in me. We were in so much danger. We were so afraid. We didn’t know if we were going to make it out of that situation alive. In that moment I regretted eveything that brought me to that place and time. For sure this was all a mistake. For sure this was all avoidable. For sure this was all foolishness. Never do this again Stephen. There is no reason to put yourself through this again. From here on out I needed to stay safe, stay comfortable, stay insulated.

Nick and I went back and repeated that ride later in the year. We managed to not die both times.

The clock drifted towards 1am. My wife slept next to me. Down the hall I could hear the snores of my six year old. Do they know that I am afraid? Should they know? Is it my job to hide my fear so that everyone else feels safe, or should I share it so that they see that I’m merely a person, not an impenetrable wall of protection?

At this point it was feeling irresponsible to ride at all. The rational thing to do would be to adjust my alarm, sleep an extra two hours, and roll into the office right on time. I would pound out emails for eight hours. The air conditioner would insulate me from the heat outside.

I could ride another time, on a day that I felt less fearful.

I think about that day and wonder if it will ever come. Will there ever be a time without fear?

What if fear is the necessary ingredient? What if fear plucks the strings of the harp?

Without it all would be deathly quiet.

Four hours later my alarm sounded and I sprung out of bed and into action in the way that slow motions of a 43 year old could be called springy. I had a place that I needed to go, high up in the Rocky Mountains. I needed to see it with my own eyes, just to make sure that it was still there. I needed to get there under my own power, just to know that I still can.

I pulled on my shorts, I zipped up my jersey, I buckled my helmet, and I swung my leg over my bicycle. Today I would ride all day long, through the fear, and into the unknown.

Hopefully fear gets the hint soon. I can’t make it go away, but neither can it make me stop. Maybe we’re made for each other. We’re inseparable traveling companions, and have been for more than 20 years.

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  1. Thanks for this, and a salute to you for getting past the fear to share the human side of a “respectable, interesting bike company” owner. It seems as if the fear you talk about is specific to the fear of the unknown, the fear of events beyond your control. I wonder if running through mental exercises of possible situations that could arise and what your reaction and plan would be for each, would have any effect on easing the fear. Obviously, we can’t prepare for situations that are unknown to us, which will always leave traces of fear. I honestly don’t think ridding ourselves of it is possible, especially in situations where facing the unknown is likely to occur. Fear is natural, and as you mentioned, a necessary ingredient. For me, riding bmx, fear is essential. It allows me to focus on my fear, gauge it and decide if it’s rational or irrational. Sometimes I trace it, find the source and see if I can look at things differently to reduce it. And most of the times I can’t. It’s there, in my stomach and it’s not going anywhere. Acknowledging the uncomfortableness, and moving ahead anyway is a special skill, which it looks like you have proved you have. An interesting book that deals with a related subject, how being uncomfortable is not only natural but a precursor to our happiness, is The Comfort Crisis, by Michael Easter, if you have any interest. Thanks again for the thought provoking and human story.

    • Thanks for the feedback and the book reference Paul! I’ll check it out The Comfort crisis for sure. Maybe a good audio book for my rides to work. Onward!

  2. Wowzers, great words, thoughts 💭!

  3. “I think about that day and wonder if it will ever come. Will there ever be a time without fear?
    What if fear is the necessary ingredient? What if fear plucks the strings of the harp?
    Without it all would be deathly quiet.”

    Keep making music, sir! Appreciated your vulnerability and willingness to share your very human thoughts this morning. Thats the sign of a great leader in my book.

  4. The two words that stuck out to me “fear” and “need”, I believe to our kind of people, Need will always be bigger than fear. Whenever I am struggling before or during a ride, I think “man, I need this!”, and when it’s over, even if I’ve really hurt, I think “I would do that again in a second, “I NEED that / this!”. it”s what keeps us sane :-) Glad you do what you do!

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