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How Learning to Mountain Bike Pushed Me to Make a Major Life Change

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mountain-biking-fb.jpgPhoto: JP Gendron /Mars Ramp Photography

A few years ago, I read a study that found people are more likely to seek meaning in life and make big changes when their age ends in a "9" (i.e., 29, 39, 49). The researchers based their data on the ages of people signing up for a marathon—and an extramarital affairs website.

Today, I'm a few months out from the big 3-0. No, I didn't run 26.2 miles or cheat on a significant other, but the final year of my 20s has certainly been full of introspection, self-reflection, and major life changes.

I moved from New York City to Atlanta. I quit my full-time job and became a self-employed freelance writer. I went through a breakup (or two). I lost touch with former friends. And I realized my career and my personal life, which included lots of Netflix and Halo Top, weren't at all what I'd hoped they be at age 29.

So I started doing some soul-searching. Who was I, really? Why wasn't I fulfilled? What kind of life did I truly want? Despite plenty of meditation and long talks with friends and family, the answers weren't readily appearing. As my lease neared its conclusion, I knew I wanted to leave the city I'd moved to (I realized the Deep South wasn't for me), but I wasn't sure exactly where I wanted to be.

All of a sudden, inspiration came from a very unlikely place: Utah. I knew nothing about the state when I was invited to Park City, a ski town just outside Salt Lake City, for a mountain biking trip with a few other health journalists.

Let's be clear: I'm an East Coaster who lived in New York City for six years. I love yoga, running, playing tennis, going to the beach. Sure, I'm active, but I'm not exactly an outdoors adrenaline junkie. And mountain biking, as I quickly learned, was much harder than you'd think. (Related: Try a New Adventure Sport Even If It Scares the Crap Out of You

Yet a funny thing happened over my four days in Park City. Despite feeling totally out of my East Coast element, I started to feel more like myself than I'd felt in... well, years.

As I gradually built up my confidence on the trails, I also built up the confidence to do what I needed to do—make another move to a new place that felt more like "me" than Atlanta ever did.

The skills I learned while mountain biking, I realized, weren't just important to remember for riding, but also for life in general. On the bike, you have to strike the delicate balance between being in control and letting the bike do its thing. After all, these bikes are specifically designed with high-tech suspension systems built for barreling over rocks, roots, and other obstacles. You just have to trust that the bike can handle the terrain. I had been trying so hard to make things work in Atlanta, and I hadn't been listening to my gut or letting my instincts lead me. (Related: 5 Life Lessons Learned from Mountain Biking

Mountain biking also taught me to face my fears head-on—and why you have to be confident, even when you're terrified of all the roots, rocks, and turns in your way. Because as with most fears in life, you'll surprise yourself with how well you can actually handle the things you're terrified of. And if you hesitate too much, well, you're probably going to run right into one of those rocks.

Finally, on the last day of the Park City trip, we went on a downhill ride that was probably a little more advanced than my current level. We barreled down switchbacks and through aspen groves, I felt shaky and nervous the entire time, but I did it. Despite a run-in with a tree (the tree won), I shook it off and completed the entire 9 miles of uphill climbing and downhill riding with nothing more than a couple scrapes. Like in life, you have to let go of your mistakes or falls on the bike—or you'll never get back up again. 

locke-hughes-mountain-biking-2.jpgPhoto: Locke Hughes

Afterward, looking up at the massive mountain I'd just ridden up and down, I felt adventurous, courageous, and strong. And I realized I didn't want to let go of feeling that way when the trip was over. (Related: The Surprising Way Boxing Can Change Your Life)

On the way home, it hit me: If I can successfully ride down a single-track trail on a mountain bike, why can't I move across the country to a brand-new town I don't know much about?

I sure as hell didn't want to spend the last bit of my 20s coming home to Netflix and Halo Top every night after work. I wanted to spend it exploring the outdoors, meeting like-minded people, and simply living life to the fullest.

The following week, I found a long-term rental apartment in Park City, arranged to put all my belongings into storage, and booked a one-way flight. I even got a tattoo to remind me of my inner strength in any other moments when I might question it. (All the signs of a not-quite-midlife crisis? Check, check, check!)

So for now, I'm living in Park City. I'm not sure if I'll stay here for a month, for a year, or forever. But it doesn't really matter. This experience proved that I do have the strength to navigate any other transitions and decisions in the future. It taught me to believe in myself and my abilities. Most of all, it gave me the confidence to take life by the handlebars and direct it in a way I want it to go, while also letting it run the course it's meant to take.

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