Waking up Sunday morning, my muscles are sore and achy, but in a good way. Scrape on my right elbow and another on my right, lower leg. Good scrapes. I pull myself out of bed and do some yoga for mountain biking–Rag Doll, Cat/Cow, Child’s Pose, Upward Dog–while I think about Saturday. Thomas Merton’s birthday, coincidentally. But also…
The Headwaters Challenge.
I opted for the 20-mile half challenge instead of the full 40-miles. All joking aside, these are not to be confused as the wuss or the bad-ass routes. As my friend David Blaisus put it, “There’s no 1/2 challenge or full challenge – there’s long, longer and longest.”
This was my first mountain bike event. How Kuff started organizing a Headwaters Challenge long before the Ozarks Off-Road Cyclists (OORC) adopted it as one of their sponsored events a decade ago. This is an event my friends look forward to and enjoy, and so even though I’m a novice mountain biker, I was in!
At 9:30 am Saturday after OORC President Chuck Maxwell and event organizer Mike “Lewie” Lewis addressed over 200 people arrivals, participants circled the ball field at the Headwaters Community School and started up Madison County Road 3605 and Cave Mountain Road. The steepness stretched out everyone’s stamina right away. As I paused to enjoy the fanfare of my own family at the Buffalo Creek Trail Head, I was amazed so many were still coming. I’d thought I was near last. I was starting to feel better about my capability as a biker.
But it’s not a race. It’s a challenge.
In experiential and outdoor education there’s a principle called “Challenge by Choice.” It states the challenge is made available, but no one is forced to accept it. This principle is balanced in tandem with the second principle, “Full Value Contract,” which adds that you only get out what you put in. As I tell people, if you take one step further than you were comfortable or thought yourself able, you met the challenge.
I was recently reminded of how Mark Belson said you come to a challenge either as a prisoner, vacationer or leader. If you come as a prisoner, forced into this challenge, try to become a vacationer and enjoy the experience. If you come as a vacationer, try to become a leader and facilitate others’ success.
I’d chosen this experience myself, but I partly felt like I had to. It was my community, I’m trying to be a mountain biker, and all my friends were excited. As I joined others screaming down that first 2 1/2 miles of the Buffalo Creek Trail, though, I became a vacationer. I was having a blast.
Even the next section on the Twisted Hickory–named, in my estimation, after the twisted person who called this rocky, knobby 1/2 track a trail–didn’t take my wind. There’s camaraderie in seeing others stopped still by a boulder, getting off their bikes, and pushing the rest of the way up the hill. I thought only I had to do that.
I was trucking along fairly good until somewhere between Upper Zeester and Cross Road. I saw the 6-inch root across the path, went to hop it, but my tire hit and stuck fast. I flew over the handlebars. Another first for me. Happened so quickly I had just enough time to tuck my head. I landed on all fours, pile driving my left forearm. Immediately after looking around to make sure no one else saw that, I shook it off.
“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” right?
I had ridden the next 7 miles on Azalea Falls and the South Bench Trails before. They’re some of the most enjoyable in Upper Buffalo Mountain Bike Trail complex. But after stopping to enjoy the falls and some friendly faces, my quads were spent. I’d now pedaled further than I’d ever mountain biked before. So I pulled back to pace myself for the remaining 5 miles of the challenge.
All participants were now spread out to their own capabilities. Alone on the South Bench, I could still hear others on other tracks whooping enthusiasm and shouting encouragement to others. And this reinforced the sense of community most of us felt and enjoyed during this event. Whenever I accordioned up to others going a similar pace, or they with me, or whenever the lead pack began to lap us, each person made sure the other was “Okay?” Leadership. Facilitate the experience for others.
Trail of the Ancients and Skyline Trail kicked my ass. Quads were on fire. But seeing the backside of my friends on the mountain horizon was …something of an encouragement. I was going to do this. …maybe by tomorrow morning.
The most technical was the Wildcat Trail. Black Diamond. Dropping something like 500 feet in half a mile. In Arkansas, that’s as good as 3000 feet. Tree root, boulder, scree and mud punctuated a skinny track along a sheer drop. It was late in the day. Accidents could happen, and I was exhausted. So I came off the bike several times to navigate the most difficult technicals.
Then I was back on Buffalo Creek toward Red Star, up and out. Back on familiar terrain. There were other riders whose directions were confused or were starting to cramp. I found myself in a position to show them the way, or find others with salt tablets. I even rolled up on one surprised person who quickly pulled up their pants, looking to piss. “Um, over there might be a better option,” I said with a smile. Shit. I got to be a leader.
At the end of the day, bikers, friends, and families celebrated over pork that had been smoked since the previous night and beer in the Headwaters School. I relaxed against the wall, beside my friends, all of us congratulating each other. I’d finished the 20-mile half-challenge. From those of us who went a few miles to those who nailed 40 and returned by 11 am, we’d all met the challenge. By choice.
Happy birthday, Thomas Merton.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
― Thomas Merton