To Build a Fire – Part 4

others travel the tangible world with no thought for their bodies, barely aware of its vigors: Fear walks the world of the words which pertain to our bodies – there is fear” – Pablo Neruda, Ritual of my Legs

Once my clothes thawed enough so that I could remove them I spent the next two hours in the cabin rehydrating myself and having my slightly frostbitten fingers slowly rewarmed. One of the volunteers working the checkpoint came by to check on me occasionally as I sat near the woodstove. My fingers were a little purple and swollen, but not blistered so that was a good sign.

Her advice: “it’s up to you. If you head out now and freeze them again…” Her sentence trailed off. I retreated to a quiet corner of the cabin to think.

Sitting on the floor with my back against the wall, the cold pressed in on me. The temperature was dropping quickly back into the minus 20’s outside as the night progressed. I have lived in cold climates before but I have never seen temperatures plummet as quickly as those I’ve encountered in Minnesota. The cold crept inexorably through every crack in the floorboards and walls. This was not just a bike race any longer; it had become something else entirely. It was a battle against myself and the elements, and I was losing. My will began to soften like marshmallows in a microwave.

To add insult to my mental injuries, the door opened as EMT’s who had arrived via snowmobile brought a rider into the cabin in an advanced state of hypothermia. He had been plucked off the side of the trail 15 miles back as he lay shivering in his sleeping bag. An army of cold air swept across the room toward me as it battled with the meager heat from the woodstove in a multipronged attack of conduction, convection and radiation. The cold had become my enemy and I was intimidated by it. It held its sword over my head and I wondered how I would fare if I set off into the darkness. Other stragglers arrived during the night like dead at the pearly gates. I thought to myself how this was going to be a long night for many. In addition, the selfish man that huddles in a dank corner of my brain reminded me: “it’s going to be a long night for you too”.

The next checkpoint was over 50 miles away and the terrain along that stretch allegedly contained some of the hardest climbing of the entire race. I prayed an invisible rosary while trying to work some sense of feeling back into my hands. I began to fear the unknown trail that lay between me and the next checkpoint. I feared losing my fingers.  I was beaten. I surrendered to my fears and began to shiver as my motivation waned in the deepening darkness of night. In my head I began to retreat like an old man to a comfortable space on the couch of resignation where I had no need to confront such questions. Sitting upright against the cold wall I tried to doze off for a few hours.

I’ve come to realize over the years that fear, like balance, is not innate but painfully learned. But just as fear is learned it can also be unlearned and controlled, rationalized away and understood for what it is: a response to a stimulus. The trick is to use self control and sample fear. Examine the important things you need or want to react with and forget about the rest. Some people are better at doing this than others, but we all do it to some extent. For example, it is helpful to have fear constantly on the lookout in your mind as you pick your way down a line on a difficult trail, checking for each possible horrible ending over every stone and turn. But some fears along that trail are miniscule or imagined and they should never even enter into the thought process as you bomb down the trail. Still, one needs to avoid the big rocks.

The applecart that is Fear keeps us honest. Though too much can paralyze and lock up our world, fear is generally a positive mechanism. If you consider it closely, one must operate continuously in a controlled state of fear otherwise full potential is never attained. Where you draw that line is entirely up to you, but it requires a keen knowledge of one’s own abilities. I doubted my abilities that night and surrendered to fear as my carefully balanced applecart spilled its burdens upon the cold floor. Rats of doubt chewed each to their core during the night. Sated, the rats and I slept for a few minutes at a time with our backs against the wall. Overwhelmed by it all, I decided to quit in the morning. My race was over.

Dawn arrived and I started asking around about how to get back to the start. One of the riders that I had been occasionally going back and forth with during the previous day overheard me as he was getting ready to get started again. Out of 4 previous attempts he had completed but one Arrowhead. He implored me:

“Don’t give up, you’ll regret it forever or just find yourself sitting here next year, trying again. We’ve all done it before. The first climb you hit leaving the cabin is the worst of the race. Just ride it to the top and see how you feel. If you feel like crap you can always just roll back to the cabin. Besides, you were riding strong yesterday… you can finish”.

That is exactly what I did. His words of encouragement filled me with power as if a switch had been thrown in my head. Fear was banished to dark recesses in my mind. I packed the glove that covered my frostbitten hand with chemical warmers to keep it nice and toasty, then went out and rode the first hill in the chill of dawn with newfound motivation and renewed fascination for the terrain. A weak sun was slowly rising through the silhouettes of the thin tree cover as I reached the base of the hill. I downshifted as the grade increased, then stood to climb in homage to my singlespeeding roots. It felt nice to be out of my head climbing a tangible mountain again.

The climb was long for Minnesota and the snow powdery and soft in spots, yet i powered up while sawing at the bars. Each exhale was met by a shield of smoke in the cold morning air, then the bite of the inhale through my balaclava. Exhale, inhale, pedal down, pedal up… the rhythm of cycling slowly returned as I dispersed my fears from the previous night into the clean air of the new day. I didn’t even hesitate at the top of the hill, I just kept going. I was no longer engaged in some epic, cerebral battle between my ears – I was just riding my bike again. It felt right, so I went forward.

The next 50 miles were a continuous rollercoaster of sharp defiles in a frozen land. I walked many hills, but kept moving. The tube of my Camelback froze solid at one point but I didn’t panic… I gnawed at it like a beaver at a tree for a while until the ice broke up and I continued onward. I dealt with issues as they came, and dispensed each of them rationally without fear. The day passed and it began to snow as night fell, which brings us back to where i started…. just a big grinning kid riding his bike, pissing in the dark, thinking about Jack London and choices while laughing aloud in a frozen swamp. My balance of fear had been restored to its proper proportionality. Pedaling my trusty Pugsley, I considered my mistakes as I rode the final 15 miles through the Minnesota night in blissful, frozen peace. Though I had made equipment and preparation errors, my biggest error had been letting fear and doubt begin to rule my world.

Sure, I still can’t feel the tips of a few fingers to this day, but at least I have a souvenir.

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