Search
  • Jennifer Vollmann

Fear, the Human Experience and Bikes

I am sitting on the airplane headed home full of such joy and energy after an incredible five days riding bikes in Costa Rica. I meant to write a review of the five days, but my thoughts keep leading back to fear, the human experience and cycling. Competitive sports are a powerful conduit for our evolution in life and here I find myself basking in the glow of yet another trip where my growth is in the forefront. I’ll even go as far to say it was a soul altering experience.


I have to laugh a little when people ask what I used to do (lead an education non-profit) and what I do now (triathlon + life coaching and run the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge). To many, the first served a purpose for the greater good, they could wrap their heads around it. But now, I am a woo woo fitness coach that likes to ride bikes. Which is totally true. I gladly put on my crystals after I change out of my cycling kit and talk of personal power and change all day long.


However, I also walk the walk (or ride the bike maybe?). It is hard to describe the power sports has had on my life and on my athletes, clients and fellow Pura Vida Cycling crew. Perhaps exploring the connection between fear, the human experience and bikes will help.


If you want to read more about my first hand experience on each stage of the Challenge, check out my past post (blog post).


Pura Vida Cycling Challenge


Pura Vida Cycling Challenge is 5 days (stages) of road cycling in the incredible central mountain range in the Costa Rican rainforest. Over 5 days, we rode 300 miles and over climbed 34,000ft. But the numbers do not tell the whole story. These are not your average 6-10% grades like in the United States, these routes are miles and miles of 15%++ grades that just kick in the mouth all day long. I quickly learned Costa Ricans hate switchback and 9% grade is “Costa Rican flat”. The tagline (created by a marketing genius :) Where Grit meets Paradise, fits perfectly. It takes pure grit to complete each stage of the Challenge.



Stage Four of the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge known as “The Queen Stage” is the epic climb of Sacramento Peak just outside the city of San Jose, Costa Rica. I struggle to find ways of describing this climb as a business owner/marketer. Based purely on data it is an HC+, sustained sections at 25%+ and one of the hardest climbs any cyclist has ever seen (pros included). Add in usually wet and torn up roads at some points and it is just a monster. I have yet to meet a cyclist that didn't say that was the hardest climb of their life after they reached the top. It challenges every cyclist and the summit is never a given.


For me, Sacramento is special. Each time I climb it, a new very deep level is unlocked inside me. Not just physically, I am talking about some powerful mind and soul levels! I have been thinking about why this happens all week. It doesn’t matter what state my mind is in when I start the climb, what else is happening in my life. When I set out for the Queen, I always come back different. So why? How can one ride, one nine mile climb in the lush tropics of Costa Rica have such a profound impact on my life?


Because Sacramento is my opportunity to embrace fear and let go of any outcome.


Fear


Fear is a primal feeling to keep up safe. Our brain is programmed to keep us safe for survival. It does a fantastic job of just that. It keeps us safe from actual threats to our existence (lions, tigers and bears oh my!), but it also protects us from other parts of life - new jobs, new places, new… fill in the blank. Unknowns are scary. The brain feels safe when it can predict the outcome. If it cannot, it looks at the unknown as a threat. Fear says “No! Don’t do that!” “Stay here, stay home, stay safe.” If every time you run from fear, from things that scare you, you will be very safe. But are you living? Running from threats, protected but never really experiencing. If you never open yourself to experiencing what is on the other side of that fear, how can you evolve past the primitive brain? I think evolving is the reason for human existence, it is why I am here. We have a choice, we can stay on the sidelines, protected and hidden or we can get fully into life, run right into fear and see what is on the other side. That is the human experience.


Sports and Fear


Sports are opportunity after opportunity to run into fear. Fear of failure, physical discomfort, unknown outcomes, a whole series of not so awesome feelings when things go wrong and sometimes, even when they go right. When you line up on the starting line, you have no idea what the outcome will be, if you have what it takes, if you can handle the physical and mental discomfort to meet your goal. It’s why I believe sports and especially endurance sports are such a powerful opportunity for personal development. Sign for your first Ironman and notice how fast that queasy, icky feeling in your stomach sets in as you press the register button. It is a new level of fear of the unknown, outcomes, physical discomfort and you will have to face all these fears you want to even get to the starting line.


For me, triathlon was a starting point to embrace and move through these fears. But, training and completing Ironmans alone do not quite tap into the deep primal fear. In a race, I can dig deep to pull out the best performance possible. That takes guts and determination and I have to embrace the fear of pain and discomfort. But if I fail, the outcome is slower time, a lost place, embarrassment, maybe disappointment. Letting go of the outcome in a race is a powerful way to change and it has changed me at my core. But it does not quite hit the level to bring out the deeper, primal fear. The Pura Vida Cycling Challenge is different and takes me to that level. Climbing Sacramento is the opportunity to experience that primal fear.


Start of the Sacramento Climb


Fear on the Queen Stage


When I look up at the final pitch on Sacramento, after 8 miles of steep AF grades after 3 days of riding, on the road that is too narrow to serpentine, pitches near 30%, wet with the clouds rolling over it, I genuinely don’t know if I can get up. Every time, I don’t know if I can do it. Every part of me is saying “No! Don’t do it!” My mind fires up and quickly offers 1000 outs “It’s too hard”, “you are too tired”, “this is absurd”, “you don’t really want to do it”, “what if you fail?” “what if you fall?” “you could break your arm” “do it next time.” My brain is working on overdrive to protect me from the unknown. I am at the crux of the human experience, my choice is clear, forward or stop? Embrace the fear, accept I do not know the outcome and feel all the waves of fear or back down and feel none of it. It is SO easy to back down from the fear. The racing heart, sweaty palms, queasy and flushed face would stop and I wouldn't have to sit in the discomfort. It is a split second choice as I quickly approach the pitch. Forward or stop? Embrace or run?


I take a big breath and I choose to embrace the fear. I choose to run into it with the knowledge that I might fail. I might fall off my bike and slide down the road. I let go of what I want to happen and decide to live in that moment, in the unknown. That moment, that single moment is life changing.



Dig Deep


The road is so steep that to make it up, every part of my mind and body must work in unison together. Suddenly, my mind is blank and all energy and effort is focused on one singular purpose - turn over the cranks. All breathing, muscles, and energy are channeled to getting up the mountain. I am in complete and total presence of that moment. My mind, for that moment, is silent. And it is magical. I have only reached this state of a silent mind a few times and each one of them has dramatically changed at my core. Imagine complete and full consciousness in that moment. In the moment of deep physical pain I am experiencing a level of peace and joy it is hard to describe. There is nothing but me, my bike and the road. It feels like an eternity… and then I am launched out of it and I feel my muscles about to cramp, my heart rate skyrockets, I throw my body forward as my front wheel begins to come off the road. I breathe, push, pull and move forward. I can feel I am losing it, my bike slips... “No.” I dig deep into all my fitness and I fight to keep going, I move forward inch by inch. And then, I am there, at the top of this monster climb. I did it! As I reach the top something opens inside. It is pride, excitement and intense levels of joy. And it is something so much deeper.




Choosing Fear


Looking at that fear and choosing to embrace it changes you on a deeper and cellular level. How we do something is how we do everything. It is not just the fact that I was able to make it to the top, it was that I chose to try. I chose to step out of the protection, I chose to step into the unknown, I chose to embrace an opportunity to see what I could do when faced with primal fear. That was the first moment of evolution. The second was when I was forced to dig deeper than ever before to make it up. My brain was not wrong, I did almost fail, I did almost fall. But in the end, I had what it took, I had more than my brain thought I had. I proved it wrong. If I decided to stop I would never have known what I could do. I would never have the memory of the pain, joy and presence I felt on the road. I would be different than I am now with a different set of experiences telling my brain it was right to keep me safe. Instead, I embraced my fear and I flew up into the clouds.


"How we do something is how we do everything"


Best sign ever! This is right before the last super steep 1km (photo taken on our way down, hence all the smiles :)

The Shared Experience


What I love most about the Pura Vida Cycling Challenge is that 3 times a year I get to share these climbs, especially Sacramento, with my local Pura Vida Cycling crew and new riders willing to take this opportunity to embrace their fears. As I summited the top, six of our riders were cheered me on. I started to cry. In the hardest, deepest moments I felt alone, yet when I looked up, I was supported the whole time. That is the power of community, not to protect, but to hold you as you evolve. I rode up a little and turned around to watch Jess make the summit, never a doubt in my mind that she wasn't right behind me.


Jess has been my teacher for years, even before she knew me. I have listened to YogiTriathlete Podcast since I first started triathlons and she has helped me unlock so much inside. I shared all my experiences on Sacramento with Jess and she welcomed the opportunity to climb it. Watching her have her own powerful and beautiful experience was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. And when she cried with understanding that she did it, I cried too. For her accomplishment and mine. For the incredible mountain road that gave us this opportunity. For the beauty that is the experience of being a human and the full range of feelings we are able to feel.


We climbed the last .5 miles together to join the rest of the crew (plus the cutest dogs), recorded some super life energy filled videos and waited for the final riders to finish. Toby, one of American Pura Vida riders, was making his way up the final climb. He is a very experienced cyclist and loves a good challenge in all areas of life, especially cycling. When he got to the top the look of pure joy of accomplishment was on his face. Just by looking at him, I could tell the choice he made when faced with the basic and singular questions “forward or stop?” He was different after this 9 mile climb, I was different, we all were. More connected to each other, our fears and ourselves.


We made it!

How we do Something is how we do Everything


So what now? What happens after an experience like Sacramento? On a basic level, I know I can physically and mentally dig way deeper than I thought possible. I have seen the impact on my previous Sacramento experiences in my racing. I once thought I had 5 levels to dig, I know now I have 10. Each time I am able to embrace my fear like this, I show my brain I can keep on going, that I didn't die. I reset my threshold for fear. I now how more levels to dig before that fear kicks in again.


It is not just racing that these experiences impact. It's all of life. How we do something is how we do everything. This year I expanded my coaching business to life coaching. It took a long time for me to even tell anyone what I was doing because of fear. I was terrified of negative reaction. Pretty hard to build a life coaching business if no one knows you are a life coach. That same primal fear held me back. “Dont step out of the group norm,” “Dont put yourself out there.” “Who do you think you are?” “People will laugh, roll their eyes, just stay safe.” At its core, it is the same question I faced on Sacramento. Forward or stop? Stay protected or evolve. When you keep answering that question with "forward," your life begins to change, evolve, move. You move to create a life you want, a life of more. Instead of choosing things that keep me safe, I purposely look for things that scare me. I purposely put myself in a position where I have to embrace my fear whether that be with racing crazy races, climbing mountains or building business. I want to do what scares me and I cannot wait to see where that leads.