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Insights from Unintentionally Mountain Biking at Night

I'm not sure if you can tell from this picture or not, but behind the tinted goggles (to protect from the bright sun in the desert where I live) are fear-filled eyes.

My single-track intermediate mountain biking group ride started off as planned at 6:30 pm. If you ride any earlier, you feel like you are melting to death here in the desert of southern New Mexico in the middle of summer.

Group rides are nice because they allow you to learn from more experienced riders, especially out here in the mountains, where trails are not marked! The other advantage of the group ride is that no one is ever left matter what. We were on an intermediate trail I had never ridden before and I was excited because I had heard about all of the technical elements on this particular trail. We headed out (mostly uphill for the first 45 minutes) with the usual pattern of faster riders going ahead and then waiting for slower riders at particular points on the trail. Then after several flat tires and repairs, someone who took a wrong turn and had to be rescued, and waiting for a few slower riders, dusk had come and gone, the sun dropped behind the mountains, and it was suddenly dark.

I took up mountain biking as a new sport in March when the quarantine began, so you can probably guess that I am far from being an expert even when I can actually see the trail in daylight, but now, in the dark, I was as novice as they come. I don't see well in the dark and I avoid driving at night if I can, so this was not ideal. I had a small bike light on my bike (just in case-but hoping to never have to use it) and realized it was not going to cut it for trails comprised of loose rock, gravel, sand, and cactus plants with ups, downs, turns, and twists all on narrow single track paths. And we fairly far from where we had parked our cars.

This is when I started to panic inside my head. New trail. Technical parts I couldn't strategize through because I couldn't see them clearly enough. A loss of control. The inability to anticipate what was up ahead. A completely different reality than what I had expected. There were times I would just get off the bike and push it (which is terribly tiring). Other times I would be on the trail and then....boom...I would be in a thorny desert bush. The riders in front of me got further ahead to where I couldn't see them. There were others behind me, but we were all in the same struggle. We had no choice but to keep moving forward. Single track riding is tough because the trail is narrow and if you ride too close to someone it is easy to crash into them on turns and twists. Even when we got to the part of the trail I had ridden before, I didn't recognize it. Everything looks different in the dark. Everything looks different when you panic.

My mind was getting the best of me. I started talking to myself (out loud): You got this. You can do it. Just keep riding (with the Ellen Degeneres Dory voice). But the real voice in my head (the silent but deadly one) was telling me that I couldn't do this and that I wasn't going to make it. My confidence was gone. Even my basic riding skills disappeared. Everything that I teach in mental toughness training disappeared with the sun and all of the terrible consequences I warn athletes about took over. I felt scared, angry (mostly at myself), annoyed at the situation, vulnerable, frustrated (with myself), sorry for myself, impatient, and likely several other emotions that I can't even recall now.

I finally made it back to the car at nearly 10 pm and luckily the only thing that got hurt was my pride. I am typically adventurous, positive, hopeful, resilient, persistent, and make the best of things, but not that night. That night brought out emotions, thoughts, and actions that aligned with fear and survival and it wasn't pretty. Other riders had enjoyed the ride and were pumped about the experience and it was hard for me to understand that perspective at the time.

Now, more than one day later, I realize that my reaction was human and aligned with what I teach in my courses on neuroscience of behavior and resilience. Our brains are sensitive to triggers that could be seen as a perceived threat to our way of living: a loss of control, not having a predictable future, sudden change, uncertainty, surprise, too much happening at once, negative thinking, feeling unprepared, lacking necessary resources, lacking critical skills or capabilities, and even more. And I realize that my response is similar to what I have heard clients say happened to them over the last several months as we have faced the situations associated with COVID-19, quarantine, social injustice, systemic racism, protests, protests of protests, political polarization, and so much more. It explains what they have reported to me: eating poorly, drinking alcohol, skipping exercise, procrastinating, being lazy, not making the most of being at home, going through the motions, and more.

The impact of processing these situations as a perceived threat changes your chemistry. Maybe it doesn't change who you are, but certainly how you are and what you do! Trigger perceived threats repeatedly and it will eventually change who you are too. We trigger survival mode to survive and that's good. Looking back on my ride, I think survival mode was fairly appropriate considering the situation. It dampens certain aspects of performance, but summons other behaviors that can help us do what it takes to survive. However, I would prefer not to trigger that mode if possible and will take steps to avoid biking at night (and have ordered better lights....just in case) until I feel that I am ready to do so. We aren't meant to operate in survival mode on a regular basis and doing so can really take a toll on our health and well-being. When you can prevent or minimize survival mode without compromising what matters to you in life, do it. If I needed to bike at night to fulfill my purpose or because it was a necessary part of my life, then I would practice doing it so that it would no longer be a perceived threat to me.

Neuroscience tells us that we all process experiences differently, depending on many factors. I was in survival mode while others were on a fun adventure because of how my brain processed the situation. This reminds me that each of us is on a unique journey. We can choose our path, we can practice managing emotions and thoughts, and we can work on aligning our actions with our purpose, but we can't control everything. Over time, we learn more about ourselves and how our own brain processes and responds to the world around us and that gives us power and choice to decide what we do with it.

I am grateful to do the work I do because it gives me an opportunity to constantly reflect and understand myself more as well as continue to learn from others as I engage them in conversations about stress, change, pressure, difficulty, purpose, mindset, and the stories of their lives.

Questions for Reflection:

*Can you think of a situation in which you responded in survival mode while others were fine? Can you think of a situation in which others around you responded in survival mode, but you were cool, calm, and collected? Can you identify what could have led to these different responses?

*Can you think of a situation that frequently causes you to go into survival mode each time? Is survival mode the best response for that situation? Can you do something to avoid or prevent the situation? If survival mode is not ideal, what can you do to cultivate a different response?

*Can you identify some of the factors and triggers that are more likely to send you into survival mode? Are there some factors that you could change or change your perspective about so that they don't trigger survival mode?

If you made it to the end of this, thank you for indulging me and reading this all the way through! -Raquel

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