Saturday, May 19, 2012

Accepting risk

Good times: Keith near the summit of Mount Diablo
I'm about to write about something I haven't discussed openly before, but there was a short period of my life when anxiety nearly took control. It was the summer of 2002, and I was 22 years old. I've never been a generally anxious or high-strung person, but I can recall vivid moments of my childhood that were suddenly, and randomly, overcome by rolling clouds of fear and despair. For example, at age 10, while riding in a car through Anaheim during a family vacation, I saw an old blanket on the street and convinced myself it was the body of a missing girl I saw on the news. The darkness I felt still haunts me.

In 2002, strange moments like these returned. One July afternoon a huge thunderstorm rolled over my house as I sat alone in the front room. The blasts of wind and thunder struck me with a fear so deep that I started shivering, even as I failed to understand why I was so scared — after all, I was in my house, under a roof, and I was safe. There was another incident when I was hiking with my friend near Moab and suddenly felt a sense that we were terribly lost. This irrational fear also had no basis in reality, and yet I felt dizzy and hopeless as I looked out across the sandstone plateau we were traversing. Fear started to affect my decisions. I refused an invitation to a rafting trip on the Green River — not because I truly believed it was dangerous, but because I didn't want to subject myself to the fear. I teetered on the verge of a panic attack for hours during a canyoneering trip in Quandary Canyon. Toward the end of the summer, I began to wonder if I had some kind of psychological misfire, possibly even a mild anxiety disorder — which is why I didn't discuss it with anyone, because I didn't want to be labeled as crazy. But fear was always creeping around the periphery of my life that summer, usually for reasons I did not understand.

The summer of 2002 also was, likely not coincidentally, when I started cycling. I purchased a low-end touring bicycle because I was enamored with the idea of bicycle travel, and practiced (not trained, practiced) by leaving my house in The Avenues of Salt Lake City and pedaling up one of the nearby canyons — City Creek, Emigration, Millcreek, and as I grew more confident, Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Some of these were day-long rides, on narrow and winding mountain roads, and I was humorously bad at it (yes I did tip over at a stop sign once, with platform pedals, because I forgot to put my foot down until it was too late.) But the act of riding my bicycle never ignited the same anxiety that just sitting around my house sometimes did. I felt safe on my bicycle, inexplicably so, to the extent that I would sometimes find comfort during a random anxious moment by reminding myself that the next day I got off work early enough for a ride up Emigration.

In September 2002, my then-boyfriend and I embarked on our first tour, a life-changing fourteen days through Southeastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado. There were times on the trip when I was legitimately frightened, because it was snowing hard and we only had summer sleeping bags and skinny tires, or because we were crossing a hundred miles of waterless desolation on a remote and lonely Highway 95. But the act of confronting these very real fears, rather than sitting at home or work washed in ambiguous anxiety, was empowering. The final pedal strokes into Moab filled me with a sense of bullet-proof confidence, because I had done it — I had beaten my fear.

Those were the first 600 miles of a journey I've been on ever since, a journey that has been less about bolstering my strengths and more about confronting my weaknesses. One of my largest weaknesses is the fact that I am, in the hidden corners of my heart, a fearful person. It's true. I've confronted this weakness in places I would have never imagined back in 2002 — the icy desolation of the Iditarod Trail, the explosive storms and crushing fatigue of the Great Divide. There have been moments in nearly all of my larger challenges when I was deeply afraid, but had no choice but to be brave — and that, too, creates an empowering shift of emotions.

My involvement in cycling and endurance sports had a direct correlation to decreasing anxiety in my day-to-day life. For example, I used to be afraid of flying. This anxiety held on consistently until I reached a very distinct turning point — the Penn Air flight I boarded after the 2008 Iditarod Invitational, from McGrath to Anchorage. I remember sitting in the window seat, taking off, feeling the small plane bank hard in early turbulence, and I genuinely did not care. I had just crossed a bewildering swath of frozen Alaska under my own power — what could this plane possibly do to me now? Flying hasn't bothered me since.

Of course, nothing I write about here is an rational assessment of risk. I'm writing about emotional responses, and how deeply they can affect the way I approach my life. And I write about it now because of the recent motorcycle collision involving my friend Keith. He's been so upbeat and optimistic through the ordeal, and I joked that I've been more traumatized by the whole thing than he was. But in a way, it's not a joke. While we were still at the hospital in Sonora, Keith went into the bathroom and the emergency room doctor pulled me aside. She was concerned about nerve damage and Keith was showing somewhat alarming signs that this was possible. Nerve damage could lead to longer term, more disabling injury. Although I didn't understand all the details, I think the doctor simply wanted to convey the gravity of the situation and why they were transporting him to another hospital when both Keith and I expressed a desire to just let me take him home.

Keith went by ambulance to a hospital in Modesto and I drove there in a daze. I got a hotel room across the street and sat on the bed awake until after 2 a.m., mowing through an entire box of Lucky Charms (yeah, I can be a bit of a binge eater when I am stressed.) I was trying to wrap my head around the possibility of disabling injury to my vibrant, active friend, and how I felt to be a part of it, and how I'd feel if it happened to me. Keith for his part was never nearly concerned as I was. Maybe because he understood better what was going on with his own body, or maybe because he never saw the same look in the doctor's eyes that I saw when she talked to me. But for both of us, it was a bad night, and I admit it has opened up a new trickle of anxiety.

Beat and I have had discussions about this over the past few days, about risk versus reward in road cycling specifically. One of his good friends was killed in a collision with a drunk driver several years ago, and he knows others who have been injured in bicycle-vehicle collisions. He questions, on a rational level, whether the risks are worth it. I'm still working through my own emotional response, which is to both acknowledge and confront the fear. I recognize that the highway where Keith and I were riding was perhaps more risky than others, but the fact remains that risk is always there, haunting the periphery. How we accept that risk is really the only thing we can control.

The most important thing I learned about myself in the summer of 2002 is that I didn't want to let fear control my life. Death isn't nearly as frightening as the prospect of soft-pedaling through life without really living. Still, life occasionally comes along and doles out harsh realities, no matter how many irrational fears I've defeated.


  1. I know I don't add any sense to the post, because I fear collisions so much, I never even got on a bicycle. I belong to those who prefer to have control (at least somewhat) of falls and have nobody to blame. That's why to me you guys, who ride, are crazy hero's, stuff I am not overcoming. May you be safe, along with everybody around.

  2. Cheers. Well said.

  3. I can accept the risks from cycling, those that I are in my control. What happens on the road is not always an accident because I've experienced people driving while stupid. The source of the stupid is not always from an outside source but innate, they have a 'right to be there, you don't mentality'. I typed a short list that was way too long...(deleted due to lenght) that I've experinced in 50+ years of cycling. Unfortunately what was once a week occurrence is now almost daily.
    Keith has the right attitude, I wish (because that is all I can do) a speedy recovery and many cycling miles ahead.

  4. Fear that controls actions is bad. Fear that influences actions is good.

  5. My husband is a fan of your blog and showed me this post. It speaks to some stuff I am experiencing now, and your words helped me today.Thank you.

  6. Death isn't nearly as frightening as the prospect of soft-pedaling through life without really living.

    Very well put, Jill - in many ways in life, not just in sport. Thank you for reflecting so openly about this and best wishes to Keith for a speedy and full recovery.

  7. as an ex trauma nurse I know that the biggest risk any of us face is not truly living while we have the time. if you don't ever experience fear or anxiety than you don't have a life worth leaving behind. Keep living large Jill!

  8. And many of us also know people killed in their cars. I wonder what the comparative risks are?

    I am sorry this is stressing you out. :(.

  9. I live my life to the tune of "when it's my time, it's my time". How it occurs is beyond me...I just know that I can't live if I'm hiding from all risk. As Dani said...getting in my car is a risk.

    Every single day there's a gazillion turning-points where something 'could' have happened (or did?). Standing on a ladder reaching too far...getting in/out of the tub...freak accidents happen all the time in and around the home.

    I think all you can do is minimize the risk to a point where you are comfortable with the event. Life is absolutely unpredictable, and things will happen that are beyond your control.

    I still road-ride, but there are roads I will NOT ride (due to said risk). However, I've no crystal seems that the road is only part of it...a lot rides with the drivers.

    I Mt bike ALONE nearly all the minimize that risk I bought a SPOT unit (after following your Tour Divide race in fact, realizing how utterly cool that is). I have found the peace of having that little satellite 911 transmitter is a HUGE relief, and now that I'm no longer riding NOT to crash, I don't (so far).

    Btw long did it take for EMS to arrive after you pushed the 'SOS' button? Just curious. I hope I never need to use mine...but it's on my back every ride.

    Hope you find your peace with this. Best wishes to Keith..he is a cornerstone of good attitude!

  10. I actually do know more people that have gotten hurt in bicycle accidents than car accidents (also driving isn't really optional without some extremely massive life changes). Cars these days are quite safe, and it takes quite a lot of bad luck to get badly hurt. My gut feel is that percentage wise cycling is many times more dangerous. Unfortunately it's hard to really tell by numbers if cautious cyclists (as I think we are usually) really have much more risk, it would be worth trying to find out - if anyone knows some stats, tell us about it.
    Overall I am mostly in the camp of Olga in a way. To me, there are many activities that are just not worth the risks, because I have other activities that provide a full life. For example, I don't Ski, because (especially since I didn't ski when I was little) an injury that would hurt me in a way that would seriously impact running is quite possible. Personally it just doesn't make sense to me, so I am not tempted (though I might look into backcountry skiing since it's the only reasonable way to cross larger distances off-trail in the winter).
    Road cycling has definite appeal to me - it allows me to cover large distances in a human-powered fashion most effectively, and it can be a great experience. Its fun (though neither Jill nor I are adrenaline junkies and while fast descending can be exhilarating mostly it stresses me out - I really prefer climbing) and a great cross-training opportunity for runners for example. But - you can have a lot of the same biking on trails.
    There are definitely aggressive malicious drivers out there (there's a particular a-hole that frequents Montebello road, for example, who thinks it's his personal racetrack endangering other drivers and cyclists) though I think the hapless bad drivers seem to be the real danger (someone who's racing at least LOOKS at the road). I'd have no problems floating on a broken ice plate in the Iditarod into the sea to my demise (ok that's extremely unlikely) - but hell if I have some dumbass kill me with a car. Am I basically giving up to those people - yes. But cycling isn't the way to fight them. Political activism is ... and that's what it will take to really move the needle on this. I think we should look up some activist groups and support them ...
    To me, in the end, it's not about fear (I have no acute anxiety or fear of road cycling). It's just about risk. Obviously risk has nothing to do with individual accidents, but it's easy to be in denial and such events can make you re-evaluate if you really thought about this - especially since one rarely really thinks through how the consequences look. Maybe I should look up stats and figure it out once and for all. I don't think I really thought it through yet. Jill is always free to do what she wants, of course, this is just my personal stance. I would be very sad if she got hurt so needlessly (and I am sad Keith did get hurt). But she needs to do whatever makes her happy.

  11. Lots to chew on here. It's something that I overlook way to often. When commuting I am usually thinking more about the time or stuff I need to do rather than safety. Jill thanks for being so open with all of us. Your words today bring another dimension to some of your other writings. It makes me look at what really motivates me to make some of the decisions in my life.

  12. Jill- per usual your words move me, your pain is more evident here than on your write ups of your amazing epic adventures.

    I cycle commute daily and road ride for fun. Sometimes I worry about being hit because of an inattentive driver other times I am concentrating on not forgetting the grocery list in my head. Mtn biking does is not the same as road riding, I just don't get the same feeling/release of emotions. I think I ride through my problems when I road ride and just ignore them while mtn biking as I am concentrating on not crashing.

    I deal with the risk of road riding by giving of my time to help others through a co-op and education program so that other learn how to ride safely.

    Beat talks of finding a group to help lead a groundswell of change here in the US... cyclesavvy is a group that takes the best of the league of american cyclist materials and adds in the appropriate dose of reality to their training.

  13. For two decades I was a very active skydiver. In the beginning I had lots of fear and self-doubt to overcome before skydiving became an enjoyable and even relaxing sport. I would often comfort myself with statistics and I would tell myself that every weekend thousands of skydivers make millions of jumps and only a very few come to harm. I would also comfort myself with a strict adherence to safety and precaution. Occasionally and very rarely, over the span of twenty years, I would lose a friend. Those times were the hardest to comfort myself with rational thought. It’s easy to overcome emotional based fear with rational thoughts when you’re not witnessing the pain of negative outcomes. But always within a few months of the incident, my emotions would calm themselves and my love for the sport would return.

    Thank you so much for sharing your adventures, even the scary stuff. Best wishes to your friend for a speedy recovery. Jack

  14. Jill, I wish your friend Keith a fast and full recovery. I read your post about the accident last week, and it brought to mind the bike-and-car accidents that have happened during rides in which I've participated. They're petrifying and make so many thoughts run through my head.

    As cyclists, we are so exposed out there on the roads, yet I love road riding and randonneuring so much that I accept the risk. I take all the precautions I can, try to make good route choices, and pray that safe and considerate drivers are the only ones we encounter on our adventures.

  15. Pick your roads (or the time of day you ride on certain roads) very carefully......

  16. Thanks for being real Jill. I can relate to your post, I've dealt with anxiety my entire life and have consciously/unconsciously chosen being active as a way to deal with it. I've participated in many risky activities over my life time that I've loved and love such as climbing and mountain biking and trail running out in the beyond by myself as a women. And all of these things have helped me to be a stronger and less anxious person. I mountain bike mainly, I'm a technical and gravity oriented rider at heart and I'm skilled at it and don't really think of the risk too often. However this past fall I took a bad fall pushing my level of skill and ended up in the emergency room with a wound in my head to the skull, I'm okay but it set me down a path of contemplating if the risk is worth the pay off and at this point I have to say it's not. I still ride technical trail but I won't be dropping myself off 6' ledges anymore, it's just not worth it, I want to live to ride another day and I'm okay with that but that accident brought anxiety into a place/activity where it never was before and I'm dealing with that. If something random happens that's okay but I can make decisions to protect myself as well. This is a ramble but I practice always choosing life over fear and that has made me a stronger person as it seems to do for you.
    Also,on a side note but possibly related. Anxiety can motivate you to keep going even when you're too tired, keep you riding, running, pushing yourself until you burn out because it feels better to be out there moving then not and this can be a sticky thing too.
    Thanks for the post Jill!

  17. After an accident, it's normal to go inside, plumb our neuroses (we all have them) and re-evaluate our individual risk profile. But, we also need to look outward at the social context. We do need to consider the psychology of motorists, particularly the bad drivers. We also need to consider the shape and design of the cars, roads, and public policy and law.

    It may be understandable for cyclists to withdraw from dangerous roads, but it is also sad and self-defeating in the long run. The fewer bicyclists, the less safe those roads will become, the less enforcement and designers will consider bicycle safety as an issue. After all "no one" bikes on those roads, so why plan for them? It's a downward spiral.

    Some risks can't be decreased by changing one's own behavior or attitudes. Some, however, can be decreased--or increased--by changes in public policy.

    Since the accident occurred in a National Park, I'd point out that on other Park roads where bicycle safety is an issue, NPS has made cycling illegal. For example, Going-to-the-Sun during many of the best hours of the best cycling days of the year. It's particularly sad to think that low-impact bicycles are forced to give way to high-impact motorized vehicles, in a park of all places.

    Conversely, laws have helped keep RV's off a few roads, increasing safety for everyone, but especially cyclists. If you have ever been passed by an RV on a narrow mountain road, you know what I mean. Those restrictions include Going-to-the-Sun (under 21 feet). Laws (or the absence of laws) can increase or decrease risk, and make biking possible or impossible, legal or illegal. I'd personally like a CDL be a requirement for RV drivers, since semis are usually less of a hazard despite their greater length.

    Yosemite CA 120 is restricted to vehicles under 45 feet, but that allows most RVs. The RV folks aren't afraid to be politically active and don't spend much time assessing their personal risk profiles. They also have huge corporate support in legal fights, something bicycle companies should at least try to counter-act.

    Even motorcycles, which are usually considerate road companions to bicyclists (in my experience), may need further regulation or enforcement. Speed, noise, and road-hogging ride formations can be particular issues for cyclists.

    I don't take it as a given that vehicles must always get larger and faster, or motorized traffic must always increase, or that the only way to achieve (or in some places return to) lower levels of risk is to give up road cycling, or make it illegal, or that nothing can be done beyond helmet laws.

    Great post, though. May we all die with the grace and context of Micah True on the trail, and not end up crushed beneath the wheels of an RV.

  18. Best wishes to you and Keith for full recoveries (mental and physical).

    We have one life to live and have to make our choices. Mine is to bike more and drive less. I've seen where I live in the past 6-7 years that more bikes on the road makes things safer and feel lucky to live in this time where the risks are coming down.

    You still have to be choosy about routes and times and how you behave on the roads but I have always found that wherever I live, I can still find safe routes for me to get around (not always so for my kids, but that is a looong story).

    Regarding national parks, I try to only go to Rainier and Olympic and North Cascades on weekdays (count Fridays as a weekend day due to getaway traffic) for reasons cited by others regarding RV traffic. I've driven that road in Yosemite and as gorgeous as it was, found it lacking for bike safety. I'd recommend the Bishop area for the tons of long, high, steep cul de sac climbs up into the Sierra from the Owens Valley.

  19. If I'm mountain biking I can watch the sky for thunderstorms. If I'm paddling and the wind picks up I can go ashore. If I'm skiing I can choose my route wisely to avoid avalanches. If I get hurt cause of pilot error, so be it. But in road riding, I could die or get maimed and not even know it. So I don't road ride. Too much to do in the woods, and lifes short enough as is.

  20. Jill, thanks for writing this. I wrote my own thoughts on such things a while back here:

    Live the best life for you in this amazing world.

  21. Many of the same thoughts have crossed my mind lately. I am embarrassed to admit I have really curtailed commuting to work by bicycle as a result, driving to ride my MTB on singletrack 4-5 times per week instead. I often ride solo and still feel safer doing that than riding my bike on the road these days. Just two weeks ago, on the first day of bike to work week, three seperate cyclists were hit and seriously injured in a 45 minute window between 8 and 9 am. Two drivers charged with unsafe turns (right hooks, $110 fine) but likely 3 more people who will give up cycling to work and simply driver. It saddens me deeply

  22. You write about something that we all think about when we go out an participate in sport; it doesn't even have to be sport, it is every day life. If you approach something and you don't have anexity then that is the time to pause and question your rationale. Your post is pure, real and you share a side of you that is valuable to everyone, it shows us that we are not alone in our feelings. Too often we suffer in silence, you have shown us, that it ok to feel something....

  23. Jill,

    Your current and past posts raise some difficult questions directly or indirectly. I think most of us have thought about these on some level based on the number of comments you routinely get. I've found many truths surrounding these grey questions, and keep reading your posts and comments as they color in details of the issues raised:

    Why not just go to the gym or pool where conceptually its safer to exercise?

    Why ride on some streets but not other streets that might not be safe, conceptually we have rights too?

    Extending the above question, why select to ride on paved roads where there's cars? vs. dirt roads with less risk from cars but require more physical effort per mile? vs. technical trails where risk of cars is gone but risk from difficult terrain is high?

    How long does a ride have to be to gain satisfaction? 30 min? 2 hours? 8 hours? 4 days with minimal sleep?

    How much do we define ourselves through sport?

    What extremes are human bodies capable of, and what drives us to overcome them?

    Why not sit on the couch and enjoy the ease with which life can now be lived compared to 100 years ago?

    While its somehow hard to justify our answers to these questions, the great thing is we all somehow arrive at the right answer for ourselves, yet the answer for everyone is different.

    Keep up the thought provoking writing Jill, you have great talent!

  24. 22 was my anxiety year too. Remember that awful summer? It was also the year I packed up my 1998 Ford Escort and drove out to California without friends and without a job. And essentially changed my whole life. I credit that anxiety to forcing me into making a change. Fortunately, I can't really remember that summer very well anymore or the pain, but I wake up everyday now and see the results of that change. And boy am I grateful! Thanks for your inspiring words sister.

  25. What a wonderful post - and on a subject that doesn't get talked about very often.

    I'm a fearful person too. It annoys me - I'd really rather be some sort of daring superhero. People tell me I'm brave because of the things I do. They don't see the preparation, practice or work that goes on before the Brave Thing. They also don't see that rumbly feeling deep inside before I take the leap.

    I don't think of myself as brave. I think of myself as a scaredy cat who wants to do things anyway, so she over-prepares.

    One of my oldest friends is dying of breast cancer. A few months ago, it looked like I might have it too. It's funny how something like that makes you look at life and risk differently. I still don't like being afraid. But I'm strangely proud that I've chosen to Do Stuff despite being afraid. Maybe I don't have to be ashamed of that fear after all. If you feel it, if others feel it, maybe that's just part of life.


Feedback is always appreciated!