So, What do you Think About?
The destination - Where the Arizona Trail descends into the Grand Canyon
It was a simple question, really. Strange though, for it nearly exploded my mind. The questioner prodded curiously, only briefly aware of my two day, 214-mile bike-packing trip. My mind felt baffled as a sentence started “ethics, morality, science, religion, faith, and well… nothing really” A quiet moment of thought stirred through the forest. A light panting confirmed he was still behind me, awaiting something more. “Nothing really!” I exclaimed. Nothing seems like the most disappointing answer someone could give. It leaves my intellectual drive empty and the questioner’s curiosity oddly unaddressed. At the same time, it’s vaguely honest and largely dishonest at the same time. Regardless, the question itself was vague, and indeed biased; The questioner was imagining my suffering ~ the full question was “So, what do you think about for 78 miles of riding by yourself; does the pain consume you?”
To truly answer this question, I had to return to the thoughts that consumed me prior to being asked such a mind-wrenching question. One of the most critical components of an event that facilitates endurance adventures is logistics and planning. How many miles? What is the topography? How much water will I carry, where can I get more water? Where will I camp? What will I eat? These questions are the basic questions of survival, exacerbated by the demands of physical exertion. Meals for two days of 10-12 hours on the bike need to be dense to meet the caloric demands of the body. With limited time, the route needs to be understood. With May sun pounding on the northern Arizona highlands, the body needs to be hydrated and efficient.
You have to plan routes, you can't just execute. You have to be intentional and purposeful. Details have to make sense and meet your needs.
Ok – so let’s just break it down.
The route. The Arizona Trail ~ Buffalo Park, Flagstaff AZ to South Kaibab Trailhead, Grand Canyon, AZ. 107 miles. About 7,000 feet of climbing and descending. Mostly single-track. Some 30 miles of dirt road.
Water. I can easily carry 4 liters but will need at least 6 liters. Unfortunately, the route is dry. I made arrangements for someone to stash another 4 liters for me near the midpoint of the route. Special thanks to Ciera Brecto for helping out with this!
Camping ~ Grand Canyon National Park offers walk-in/bike-in camping for individuals traveling with no automobile. Lets hope that works.
Food ~ This is a challenge. My calorie demands are high on rest days and even higher on active days. A stove means a pot and fuel. And that is extra weight and space. I decided to pack dry food only.
3,000 calories worth of HuppyBars. The staple for my ride.
Honey Stingers and Energy Chews
Loaded and ready after refilling water and snacking on a HuppyBar. Have I mentioned how much I love HuppyBars? and they fit so perfectly in my Rouge Panda bag.
Ok – now all these things, plus an overnight bivy, sleeping pad and bag, rain coat, and puffy down jacket get packed into my Rouge Panda bags and we can slowly return to what it is that I think about.
Starting fresh is the easy part—Sort of. It’s just like any other ride: find a rhythm, pedal, breath, climb... The cadence tends to match the speed of my mind. Thoughts slowly merge with pedal strokes. My mind calmly observes ideas as they enter my mind and drift into still morning air – my once busy mind calmly observes each thought in passing rather than continually stirs over each concept. Occasional interruptions focused on my own progress towards my goal remind me to conserve energy. 6 miles in; 101 to go. Still climbing, drop down a gear, take it easy. It’s a big day.
Descents erase everything. My thoughts are silenced by the focus. Rocks, roots, and logs ahead lay a course of action. The brain and body become synchronous as they smoothly navigate over mountainous terrain. The brain becomes saturated with the moment, stepping away to reflect on something unrelated would be a fatal distraction. What is it that I was thinking about? I guess it was everything in a way, but it dissolved into riding my bike.
Ok - Not from this trip at all. Not even me; but, Scott's expression here accurately depicts the full body engagement and focus required on decent.
There comes a point where that initial burst of energy steadily declines and becomes a repetitive and persistent drive. The motions are understood and well refined. Rhythm is natural and consistent. Thirst and hunger are addressed on a need only basis. HuppyBars are the main course, while energy chews serve solely as tasters on the fly. The body becomes so in tune to the moment that its needs are easily recognized and reconciled. The mind has been busy, clambering over challenging thought problems as I climb and pedal mile by mile towards the goal, letting go to process obstacles as distance becomes obsolete and every tree and rock matters more on swift descents. These are the moments that the human condition seems the most natural. It thrives in its element, undistracted, clear and steady. It’s hard to ask myself what it was that I was thinking about. Survival seems like the best word, but that’s not quite right – continuity perhaps?
The tenacity that comes with this rhythm of innate continuity is not a constant steady state. The peaks and valleys I traverse on the route transform into a metaphor for peaks and valleys that the mind encounters. The energy exhausted to climb a peak has the potential to dissipate rapidly into a valley. Blistering sun exacerbates fatigue. Miles lengthen as time dissolves into the abstraction of persistence versus exhaustion and hunger. Movement becomes the minute hand, stagnation the second hand, with one contributing more to the hours of the day than the other. The visualization of distance overwhelms the mind with the loftiness of the task at hand. Distant landmarks are only checkpoints along the way to the goal.
Suffering commences when the mind is consumed by the challenge. The hot sun, exhaustion, and looming distance ahead exacerbates the already enormous difficulty. What does it mean to stop? Why should I keep pushing? Because it’s a goal. It’s a target. It’s not an end all, but it is the difference between success and failure. Or is it? Why the dichotomous split? Perhaps it stems from life and death – another false division. It seems easy to divide things into twos. Yes or no? Tall or short? Did you do it, or not? These lows remind me that in the end it hardly matters. The distance I achieve, the life I live, is just an unobservable speck in the greater scheme of the world. Even if I leave now, I still transcend the boundary between success and failure, life and death. This reinforces my mindset because I will both succeed and fail today; no achievement is observable without the perturbations and numerous disasters encountered along the way – the continuum between the two becomes clouded as I sink into my fatigue. In these moments I think about the pain, and I settle into my demons as I prepare to rise with them. Its dark in the shelter of my cave, where my demons sing. Are you prepared to hear what I think about?
These concepts are not unique to cycling. They seem to be common themes in endurance activities. From climbing to running. From starting a small business to running a non-profit or winning a political election. Grit, dedication, struggle, perseverance - they yield success, even when the going is tough.
The last obstacle rises above me in the most literal sense—an ancient stratovolcano provides relief from the surrounding desert. Its steep rocky slopes create a challenging climb, yet its elevation forces you to rise into cool air where pine trees and aspens provide quenching relief from the blistering sun. Climbing the steep slopes of lava flows has led me to the shoulder of this monumental symbol. The air cools as open lava slopes transition to tree covered mountains. On the shoulder of the peak, aspens tremor in the wind. My body aches, yet This landmark is the high point for my day; it’s all downhill from here.
The San Francisco peaks rise above rocky trail, my destination - home - just on the far side of such a visible physical obstacle.
The reward of perseverance is immaculate. Struggling through the last 35 miles of climbing got me to such great heights, as the trail slants downward for the first time, the cool breeze rushing past my ears has all but erased my struggle. I can’t help but smile at my current state of affairs – not because I love descending, but because I feel like I confronted my weaknesses and strengthened my mind. I feel amazing. These trails are a short ride or drive from Flagstaff. Yet, never before has this decent felt this fun. The aches in pains of my suffering is dissipated by the gentle breeze. Its easy to be happy when I reflect on the pain. The pain carries me here, it inspires me, it moves me, it helps me find what makes me happy. Endurance is that grit, that hard-earned triumph. Its a battle in the mind and body. I can’t help but think about how I would not be happy if it was not for the pain. I guess that is what I think about.
The right question
Being asked what it is that I think about during a ride of such long and demanding proportions was the right question to ask. My questioner bestowed onto me a curiosity that remains unanswered and indeed unanswerable. My mind stirs with thoughts, yet also becomes quiet to process complex information inputs in the moment. My thoughts shift towards innate constructs that address my biological drive to survive. In weakness, my mind battles challenges to persist and embraces the insignificance, and significance of life – of me. In victory, I reflect on the challenge that got me here and I find myself humbled by my failures. What is it that I think about? Certainly not nothing; definitely not everything. Even my summation answer does not really provide an answer; rather, it provides a framework for how I might answer given a certain context. You know you are asked the right question when you have to think about it, even if you are the only person that may know the answer. I can almost guarantee you won’t be able to answer the right question without a dubious interpretation of the truth while also revealing minute details that so powerfully shape you. So, what do you think about?embodiment of achievement.
The reward of grit is the light at the end of the tunnel. The horizon of success transitioning into thrill and of knowing that suffering is inevitable, but happiness trumps it all.