Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fear, and a Tree

I had sort of hit a wall with mountain biking. It was frustrating. When I first started I was terrified - couldn't go down steep grades, got butterflies when the track ducked between two posts - big chicken. Then, as I think I mentioned before, I learned The Lesson - the Big Lesson of Mountain Biking (well one of them, another is stick your butt behind you really far when you're going down a tough grade, but that one doesn't sound as good when used metaphysically) look where you want to go, not where you don't.

Thing is I had been staring fixedly at whatever scared me - the major drop to the right, the large stump right off the trail etc - and like magic the bike would steer right for it. I would get terribly tense and the adrenaline would steam through and I would talk firmly to the bicycle about what I wanted it to do, still staring at that obstacle, and driving merrily right for it. But when I learned The Lesson, learned to pick out a good line and watch it everything became easy. No problem, if I can do that, I can do anything! Fear was gone; I was invincible.

But something happened well into our time in Virginia. We went out biking practically every week, and one of our favorite places was a three-trail series called [censored]. I'd tell you where it is, but it's such a delicious ride and I'd hate for it to get all chewed up and over-crowded. The three trails were supposed to be beginner, intermediate, and expert, but we all agreed that the intermediate was by far the most technical, almost irritating, and the expert was the most fun. Eventually only Kirk and sometimes one Child or Another would take the middle run while the rest of us played in the creek and waited. We had run those trails dozens of times, so I don't know why the fear came back.

I wasn't going to give in to it of course. I still went out every week and ran those trails. But it wasn't much fun any more when I was holding on like grim death and forcing myself to keep the pace up. There was some satisfaction in finishing in good time, in not giving up, but it wasn't getting any better. And I was too stubborn to even talk about it with Kirk.

And then it happened. I was about halfway through the expert trail, well behind Kirk who kept up a blistering pace; I came fast around a bend, hit a tree root polished slick with tire wear and covered with some fallen autumn leaves and everything went to pieces. I ended up smashing into a tree - the bike was somewhere in the other direction. When you hit that hard, when you've been going that fast, there's a moment of complete disorientation before everything falls into place again. 'hmmmm...' I thought, 'I suppose it finally happened. And boy is it going to hurt.' I was right.

I did stagger on foot for a while, but got impatient with that and managed to ride the rest of the way out. No broken bones, no spurting blood, no sucking chest wounds - everything must be fine. Well, a dinner-plate sized bruise on one leg, and some magnificent scrapes and bumps, but no permanent damage.

Kirk's face fell pretty far when he saw me coming out.

'I came off,' I said, probably unecessarily. 'Pretty hard.'

'Oh...' he said. 'I guess that's it then.'

And he was trying hard to be okay with that. Biking was a huge part of our lives by then, something we did as a couple and a family - something extremely important to him in particular. But he wasn't going to argue at this point. He knew I had been struggling. I had tried, I had failed, that was it.

Except it wasn't. Because that's the thing with fear - it's when you aren't quite sure what you're afraid of that it's bad; it's the endless possibilties. Once I crashed it wasn't an unknown any more. I'd done that, it wasn't that bad. The fear had borders, and so it retreated.

I'm not invincible any more. But I've learned my lessons. Keep your eyes on where you want to go. And sometimes, falling isn't the worst thing you can do.

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