*(the mountain biking park, that is)
The text from Lank said, simply: “MTB back on. You game? Say yes!”
Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Dakota County appears to be a huge and multifaceted recreational destination – however, we were focused on the Mountain Bike Trails, maintained by the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists. The mountain biking area is extensive, comprised of a skills park as well as beginner, intermediate, and expert trails.
We began and ended our day in the skills park. We began there to both warm-up and to learn the basics of the kinds of challenges we might encounter on the trail. As a beginner, or “noob”, I was slightly intimidated – but also eager to hit the trail. I can’t say how this park and its trail system compares with others (not having mountain-biked elsewhere), but at Lebanon Hills I found the trail map a little confusing. The markers were easy to follow once on the trails themselves, though, which allowed me to relax – I did not need to fear accidentally following the expert trail!
My companions on this adventure, Lank and Cap (their mtb nicknames, not their real names; my mtb name is Cheeks), aren’t experts though they have more experience than me. All three of us set off on the beginner trail, me bringing up the rear. The guys thoughtfully stopped and waited for me at several points along the way, each time greeting me with expectant grins: they knew what I was only just discovering. Namely, how easily a person can become hooked on this experience!
The first time through, I only had room in my head for one thought – “Don’t fall”. And I didn’t. However, I felt like I was careening through the woods at breakneck pace with no control (in reality, I was taking it pretty slow and cautiously). The second round, I began to notice that there were many small choices to make that would affect the quality of the ride – go around or over obstructions in the path? brake or not heading into a banked turn? Still, on the first two passes, all of my attention was directed toward the ground in front of my wheel.
Midway through the course is a downhill section with side-by-side tabletop jumps for each skill level. The first and second time through, I missed the beginner path and took the narrow dirt trail which was actually a return path for those who wanted to go back to the start of the jumps section and take them again. The second time I nearly ran down Cap, who was on his way back to the top of the hill! Needless to say, I took the return and tried the ACTUAL downhill for beginners. Easy-peasy!
On our third, and final, pass I was no longer concerned about losing my way and I felt confident in my knowledge of what was ahead of me on the trail. This allowed me to enjoy being in the woods, essentially alone. I found myself laughing as I took banked turns and barreled up and down snaking hills. Like a gift, a memory came to me from my childhood – I was on my brother Jeff’s little red bike riding through the wooded ravine across the street from our house. The bike was small, and the seat stripped to its metal base (which pinched my butt in its springs every time I hit a bump). I had forgotten how much I loved racing that little bike over tree roots and along the path clinging to the high end of the ravine (I still bear scars on my leg from misjudging once and sliding, entangled in the bike, through the brush and down to the creek at the bottom).
This last time, I took the tabletops intended for the intermediate rider. While Cap achieved good air on these, I attempted no such thing. I did stand going over the jumps, though – imagining a day when I might try for a moment of air-born zen.
The Skills Park
The skills park is to mountain biking what a putting green is to golf – except you practice multiple skills, not just one, and it is actually fun and exciting. (Apologies to my golfing buddies-you know who you are).
The beginner skills seemed pretty tame, although the obstacle you were supposed to practice getting over was jarring – three logs nailed together in a triangular form. Ride over them, jump them – just get over them. No problem. In fact, I moved on to the intermediate practice trail pretty quickly, taking it easy and slow. I managed most of it, but the Lex Luthor to my day, the enemy of my composure, was a plank.
The intent is for bikers to ride up onto the plank and cross it, descending to the ground on the other side. The plank was likely 8 inches wide or so (maybe more) and appeared to be barely even an obstacle. The first time through, I panicked at the last minute and fearfully reduced my speed to almost nothing. Consequently, I tipped over, falling to the grass. As I fell, I heard Lank yell, “And she’s down!”, which made me laugh at myself even harder than I already had been. I had been going so slow, there was no possibility of actual injury.
On subsequent attempts, I successfully completed the plank exactly once. There were several last-minute launch cancellations (I swerved and rode past) or intentional side-ditches. These were most perplexing – I was already on the plank but for some reason, decided partway across that I wouldn’t make it and I drove right off the side.
After a little over four hours, we were tired and hungry (ravenous, actually). Still, even after deciding to leave, we had a difficult time loading up the bikes and heading out. So we tried riding each others’ bikes – ok, neither Cap nor Lank tried my unsexy ladies hybrid – and continued talking over the top of each other about the day’s fun. Nearly forty minutes after deciding to call it quits and find some victuals, we left Lebanon Hills.
Finally, the Lessons
I have often needed reminders to keep trying new things, even things that are scary. Mountain biking has both attracted and frightened me for a while now – so Sunday served as an important lesson to move toward the things that call me, even if it means moving through fear. Other lessons from a day at the mountain biking park:
- Stop thinking you need to be an expert at everything in order to do it. I had no thought that I would show up on the singletrack and astound everyone with my expertise. And for once, that was ok with me. In actuality, others rarely expect expertise right out of the starting gate. I often expect it of myself, though. And if I can’t meet that unrealistic expectation, I have a tendency to avoid the starting gate altogether. How sad is that – to shut out new experiences beforehand to preemptively save face?
- You get better with practice. Those who have had the discipline to become artists, musicians, great athletes or chemists have all had the experience of practicing what they do until they do it well. In keeping with the unrealistic idea that I need to be an expert BEFORE I try a new thing, I’ve often given up on accomplishments which required practice and discipline. So maybe this isn’t a subtle lesson – but in riding the same trail over and over, there was an immediacy to seeing improvement through practice. Each time, I was better at one or more of the skills I needed to successfully navigate the trail.
- Success is as much in your head as in your skills. I can ride across the plank. I know this, and I did this. But only once. All of my other attempts were failures. Not because I couldn’t, and not because I didn’t want to. I failed on the other attempts because I told myself to fail. In other words, I psyched myself out. I choked. I clutched. This is a tendency of mine in so many areas/instances of my life. For example, I was up for a dream job this past spring – I could not believe my good fortune at making it to the final round of interviews, even though I truly believed that that job in that organization was meant to be mine. In prepping for the big day, which included a presentation and a simulation of a planning meeting with specific objectives – I drew a blank. I became paralyzed – it was worse than writer’s block. I had a complete “coherent thought block” for the entire week leading up to the final interview. The day itself proved to be energizing and exciting – exactly my scene. But I knew as I stood to present, and as I participated in the meeting simulation, that I hadn’t brought my A-game. It doesn’t really matter why THEY think they didn’t hire me. I know they didn’t hire me because I choked.
So here’s the big lesson in all that: it hurts worse when you psych yourself out than it does when you fall down giving it your all.
I could go on. I’ve thought of other lessons and parallels I can draw between Sunday’s experience and life in general. But I think I’ll end here because, like mountain biking itself, there’s still so much to discover – and the best, really the only, way to truly take it in is to experience it for yourself! So here’s my challenge to you: get out there and put your butt on the line in some way. Move toward what calls you, even if it also scares you. What you’ll learn – especially about yourself – is totally worth it.