I am about to head out to Costa Rica for another Pura Vida Cycling Challenge. This is my second time this year absolutely killing myself riding on jungle mountain roads in an unfamiliar country where I do not speak the language. I have no idea what crazy grade is around the next corner to climb and “light” experience descending mountains going 40mph in a peloton. Why? Because I fucking love it! That is the obvious response. Why do something this ridiculous if you don't love it? Maybe the less obvious answer - I want the transformation. I want to connect with who I am. Not the who I am that everyone can see, I want the who I am that even I can't see.
Pura Vida Cycling Challenge is a 5 day cycling trip with of grand tour style riding in the heart of Costa Rica. It started as many great things do, on a ride with friends. My friend Dan lived and rode in Costa Rica for 10 years. During a ride up South Mountain in Phoenix, he shared his dream of taking cyclists and sharing the incredible beauty, insane climbs and encouraging cycling community he loves so much. It only took a few stories of crazy climbs, fresh coconut fuel stops, and roadside waterfalls to convince me that I had to be a part of it!
I am not new to traveling. I studied in Vienna, lived in Nairobi, Kenya and traveled across Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia. I LOVE traveling. I feel ALIVE when I travel. And I feel ALIVE when I am riding my bike. Combine exploring a new country AND cycling, how could it possibly get any better?
Turns out, it can’t.
Pura Vida means “Pure Life” and is exactly what I experienced during my first trip in January. I experienced all the “feel good” parts of life - the beauty of the rainforest, the simple joy of pedaling a bike, the fun of meeting new people and experiencing a new culture. But to experience pure life, you have to experience discomfort and pain. Life is both. It is the discomfort and actual physical pain of riding way above my abilities on the steepest roads I have ever seen. It was the fear of descending unknown winding roads going 40mph. It was the doubts on whether or not I can finish the day. Life is all of these things, the joy and the pain, the “light” and the “dark.” When we are able to experience it all and not block the parts we don't want or are afraid to feel, that is where the magic happens and we can dig deeper into who we are. I don’t pretend to know the meaning of life, but for me, a meaningful life is one of growth and expansion and it is only possible when I am able to experience some of the “darkest” parts of life, confront who I am, and let that part transform the rest of me.
Sport and Transformation
The thing about transformation is that when you are transformed, you are transformed system wide. It is not a singular experience that affects just your body, or your mind or your heart. Transformation occurs in a person's very soul. Yes, I am going there (as a Religious Studies major, I am always going there). Transformation is never easy and there will always be just as much joy as there is pain. Welcome to the human experience.
Someone once told me it was so interesting because that my "joy comes from pain.” As if to point out I uniquely experience joy. Which, yes, ok I can argue that cyclists and triathletes tend to be on the masochistic side, but I just don't think you can experience a deep level of transformation without it. And that is why sport is so powerful. It is a vehicle to quickly experience a deep level of physical discomfort and even pain that can lead to joy and happiness. I have found that in that deep physical discomfort, I can turn off the thoughts that blur my vision of who I am, the thoughts that say “don’t”, “I can’t”, “I am not good enough” and I am better able to see my authentic self. When I can see and embrace my authentic self, and live from that place, that is joy.
So Many Thoughts
Humans think about 60,000 thoughts a day. 5 cappuccinos and it's at least 100,000 (not scientifically proven). Some thoughts are true, some not, some stories we tell ourselves about others, some about ourselves. The brain is judging, categorizing, trying to not be eaten by a bear. It can be difficult to quiet it down, to “hear” yourself over the chatter. But put yourself on a bike, then add in rainforests… things start to quiet. Ok, now add in the steepest roads you have ever seen for 90 miles. Suddenly there is less space and way less energy for 60,000 thoughts. Your brain, your body have to be connected for sheer survival. Thoughts quiet and become focused on one thing, getting up the fucking mountain. “Pedal, drink, pedal, stand, shift gear, sit down, pedal, weight back, drop in hoods, right leg up on turn, shit shift shift, omg that is steep, pedal harder, harder, dammit Jennifer pedal harder!” Thoughts are focused, your mind is focused and literally every fiber in your being is focused on one goal and a goal you have no idea you can achieve until you are in it. You have no idea who you are until you are forced to find something different than who you think you are.
I think about the Sacramento Climb often. Whenever Dan described riding in Costa Rica, he talked about the climb. It is a 13km climb made mostly of 15-22% grades. But it was the final kilometer that I came to Costa Rica for - 37% on totally wrecked legs. The group of local cyclists we spent the week riding with had never heard of a woman making it up on a road bike. I said “It is was going to be me!” But in my head I thought “I have only been riding a bike for 4 years, I ride mostly tri bikes, I have never climbed something so steep, I am exhausted from 6 days of riding, I just don't know if that is something I can do, why do I think I can do it if others can’t…” so many thoughts of doubt. Deep down, I doubted that I could do it. But no matter, I was definitely going to try.
I climbed well and rode as smart as I could knowing that this was going to be the hardest climb of my life. And the first 11km were definitely the hardest climbing I have ever done. We were about 2km to the top and Dan said “Ok, just make sure you have fresh legs at the dairy farm.” “Um what? Fresh legs, what the fuck are talking about?” We turned at the dairy farm and there it was, a giant wall of asphalt. You cannot stop because there is no way to get back on the bike. All you can do is pedal. Right there was the moment. The moment I learn if my doubts about me are true or just thoughts blocking me from a stronger, bigger part of me. Do I really doubt I can do this? Hell no, I am doing this! “Go, just pedal and go.” If I didn't find more strength in my legs and resilience in my mind, I was going to fall. I found it. In that moment I unlocked a deep level of grit and I made it up that damn road. In that moment I experienced that my doubt was just thoughts, just fear of the suffering it was going to take for me to make it up the climb. Thoughts of staying small, of backing down. They were not an indication of what I was actually capable of, of who I was, they were just thoughts. When my mind and body were faced with one singular task and the physical discomfort was so great the only thoughts I had left were from the real, authentic part of me, and they said “lets fucking go!” That was me. There, in that extreme moment, that was me.
As I write this, I am laughing thinking of all the ways one might find themselves, mediation certainly sounds much more peaceful… but we all have our path. What I learned in that moment had a system wide impact on my life. I wasn't transformed as an athlete. I was transformed as a person. I was a person that knew how to get to that deeper level, pull that extra gear, look at a wall and say I am going to get to the top. Athletic achievements are not in a silo. They cannot be, they take every part of your body, mind and soul to achieve.
I walked away from that trip a different person and more connected to me. I could better see through the thoughts of doubt, or playing it safe and staying small. They are my thoughts, but they are not me. That is why I am coming back and sharing this experience with others. Transformation brings expansion and growth, it brings joy, but it does not happen without the dark. That is exactly what Pura Vida is all about to me - joy and pain, light and dark and the opportunity for a transformative experience. If you are open to it, sport is not just sport. Cycling is not just cycling and life is so much more than what you think it is.