"We're mountain biking in Colorado during vacation," they said. "It'll be fun; we'll go easy," they said. Deep down, I knew I couldn't trust them—and by "them" I mean my family. Turns out, I was right.
Fast-forward to last week: My face, shoulder, and knees are dug into the dusty ground of a tight, left-hand switchback. My bike is two feet to my right, and there is definitely dirt and... yup, blood...in my mouth. The trail, NPR, is named less for its journalist-friendly nature and more for the fact that there's "No Pedaling Required." Translation: steep, fast, and full of tabletop jumps and hairpin turns sure to get any adrenaline junkie high. (And then there's this woman who mountain biked Mt. Kilimanjaro. #Goals.)
I wish I could say I wasn't expecting to wipe out but, TBH, no amount of positive thinking or "you've got this!" self-affirmations were going to keep me out of the dirt that day.
My family is pretty active. But even more than being the living embodiment of a #FitFam, they (not including me) are like a little suburban biker gang. My parents have been avid road bikers for a few years now, and my mother recently "graduated" from a single-track mountain biking course. My sister is a competitive triathlete living in Boulder with her fiancé, who's also triathlete, a professional one, and they both train up and down mountains like it ain't no thang. My 18-year-old brother—who has a history of dirt biking and snowboarding, and who recently started mountain biking—doesn't quite know the word "fear." Then there's me: the Manhattanite who's hopped on a bike maybe four times in the past year—three of which were Citi Bike outings, where the only steering I had to do was around cabs, and my top speed hit a whopping 5 mph. (Don't get me wrong, any type of biking is seriously badass.)
I knew I wasn't qualified to tackle a "real" mountain biking course (and especially not with that crew). I was hella nervous, but that wasn't going to stop me: 1) I wanted to be a good sport, 2) I'm always down to try something new and challenging—especially when it comes to fitness and 3) any excuse to feel badass and get dirty? Count me in. So I strapped on a helmet, hopped on a matte black rental mountain bike (so New York), and made plenty of City Slicker jokes. (Come on, dodging trees will be so much easier than dodging tourists.)
My nowhere-near-adequate biking skills floated me through the morning unscathed; I navigated the one green (read: newb) trail, an exhausting climb called Lupine, and a few twists and turns in Larry's, where I finally thought to myself "Hey, mountain biking is kind of awesome. I think I'm getting the hang of this." Even the altitude (about 7K feet) wasn't stopping me: I turned the low-oxygen, labored breathing into a kind of moving meditation. Keeping my breath slow and steady helped calm my trigger-happy brake fingers and keep my pedal strokes consistent and even—no matter what kind of terrain was headed my way.
Then my family decided to head down NPR to go into the town for lunch. Suddenly, my safety blanket of breathe-pedal-breathe didn't mean a thing. The route was a mess of brake, steer, hold your breath, hop out of the saddle, brake more, skid, close your eyes, and hope for the best.
And that's how I ended up facedown in the dirt. I hopped to my feet with an "ow," and "I'm fine," and I knew nothing was seriously wrong (thank goodness). But my lips felt fat from the impact, my knees radiated with pain, my shoulder stung, and I could feel the dirt falling from my face as I moved my mouth to talk. I hopped back on and finished that section of the trail (although terrified for the next five minutes), and the scooted over to take the "easy" way down the rest of the mountain.
During every fitness challenge (and, really, life challenges in general), there are moments when you could either play it safe, or push yourself out of your comfort zone. You know, like when you're given the option of either regular push-ups or plyo push-ups, running with the 10-minute-mile pace group or the 9:30-minute-mile pace group, or hiking the steep route to the top of the mountain or taking the flat valley trail. Life is constantly giving you "out" options—opportunities to take the easy road. But how often do you come away from the safe road feeling like a total boss? The answer: never. When's the last time you came away from trying a new (and difficult) skill and didn't feel like an all-around better human for it? Never. Progress comes from pushing your limits—and I wasn't going to let a bruised body (and ego) stop me from making the most of my mountain bike 101 experience. (Check out five more mountain biking lessons you learn as a beginner biker.)
We had four hours left with the rental bikes, and I sure as hell wasn't going to get a second chance at this back in Manhattan. So I slapped a giant-ass band-aid on my bloody knee, DIY-ed an ACE bandage wrap to keep it on, and set off for the mountain—solo. I explored some new trails, reclaimed ownership over ones that had gotten the best of me the first time around, and almost wiped out again a time or two. By the end of the day, I was the last one from my family biker gang who was still on the mountain. I might have wiped out the hardest, but I also worked the hardest—and that's a title that made every physical ache worth it.
So go ahead—do something that scares you. You'll probably suck at it at first, and being a beginner at anything is hard AF. But the rush of learning a new skill (and even effing it up big-time) is always going to feel better than not trying it at all. At the very least, you get a great story out of it—and learn how to ACE bandage a knee.