Seven years ago, I was bike packing from North Vancouver to Canmore when I crashed and was found unconscious on the highway. I was lucky to be found by some quick-thinking motorists who saved my life, and after three days in the hospital, I was released. My brain bleed was healing itself and my broken bones would do the same. But instead of reveling in the small fact that I was still alive, I could only think about finishing the ride.
I have always been taught that you get back on the horse as soon as possible to avoid developing a lifelong fear of whatever it may be that has traumatized you - or simply undermined your goals. This was literally the case when I was seventeen and in Mexico. My friend Kelli's horse stumbled on some eroding sand, panicked, and bucked her off. Kelli's foot was jammed in the stirrup and the horse dragged her down the beach and through the waves before it could be caught. Our guide made Kelli get back in the saddle and continue riding - something that seemed barbaric to me at the time but has probably saved Kelli years of horse-related therapy.
Any time I've had a decent crash on my bike, I've immediately registered the feature, the section, or the whole trail as something to be overcome. This mindset is what first drew me into mountain biking; finding satisfaction and pleasure in overcoming obstacles. For many years, this was how I progressed as a rider; I simply chased the release of the self-congratulatory serotonin that accompanies these kinds of accomplishments. And it was effective.
In the year following my highway accident, I made two attempts to complete the ride to Canmore. One was foiled by weather, the other by logistics. Each time I was heavily disappointed. Even though my original motivation for the trip had long since disappeared, this new drive to prove something (to myself or maybe to others) was ever stronger. When people expressed their happiness that I was still counted amongst the living, all I wanted to talk about were my plans to succeed. It was important to me that they knew I wasn't going to let it be. I would complete the ride. But other life priorities continued to put the trip on hold and more time passed.
As it would turn out, the further I got from it, the more perspective I gained. I could see the bigger picture and how the accident - and not the completion of the ride - had become an important part of who I am. I couldn't quite decide anymore what defined success in this case; was it completing the mountain pass where I had crashed or the whole ride? If I made it from North Vancouver to Canmore on a different route, would it even count? With the confusion, the idea began to lose its emotional pull. Somewhere along the line, I realized that getting back on the horse may be the right approach for some situations, but in my case failing to accomplish this goal may have more to offer.
My brush with death had caused me to place a much higher value on everything in my life, from the good in complete strangers to the ability to shower with two working arms. It also forced me to slow down - you aren't going anywhere quickly when sudden bouts of dizziness drop you like a drunk teenager. In the moment, these changes were profound. Like anything else, over time they have become more diluted, but the essence of these lesson has forever changed my outlook. When I mountain bike now, I'm less attached to the ideas of gaining and succeeding. My desire to be a more capable rider now comes from a passion for enjoying my ride, and not a need to prove anything - not from my ego.
The idea of completing the ride still pops up in my daydreams from time to time, however I now realize that pedalling through that section of highway again, picking my way through discarded bottles of urine, praying that the transport truck drivers see me, and crossing my fingers every time the shoulder ends, won't bring any more value to my life than it already has. In this case - as in many - the accomplishment would be a hollow victory; the failure was the true reward.
There will always be a need to get back on the horse to stop fear from creeping in. But we won't know which obstacles we can fail at and which we need to overcome until we try.