Why do we seek out tough climbs? Many people always ask me; why put yourself through pain and suffering on your bike or why attempt climbing those hard steep sections of road? The standard answer that I’ve always given was, “because I can”. In truth though the answer is not that simple. A good old friend of mine and fitness role model Ron Michaud of the Ski Shop in Van Buren once issued me a challenge. “Hey Mark, I know of a hill on the east side of Long Lake near Baie Creuse that is very steep, like 27%”. “If you can make it up to the top on your bike I will give you a bottle of wine.” My response to Ron was, “If I don’t make it up there I will GIVE YOU a bottle of wine”. So off I went to tackle this tough climb. I returned with my tail between my legs, defeated by that hill and owing Ron a bottle of wine. In fact, I failed 4 more times and on October 11, 2012 on my 50th birthday I figured that I would conquer “Cold Mountain road”! Half way up the climb with Matt Michaud 3/4 of the way up, the suffering was too great with my brain overriding my body’s ability to take the pain, (I didn’t want to die on the day I was born, besides 50 years old is too young to die) I quit. . . FAILED again!!
Surely I could conquer Cold Mountain, I’d made it up Beech Mountain in North Carolina, Lincoln Gap road in Vermont, Mount Kearsarge in New Hampshire and even the famed Alpe D’Huez in the French Alps. My mind began to wander; “maybe I’m too old, I’m not in good enough shape, why suffer anyway”? I remembered the voices of encouragement of many riders on many different rides I’d done; “… you’re just purging the devil, courage, we all suffer, keep going you’ll make it”. And so the battle waged on, not a physical fight but a psychological tug of war that continually questioned my resolve, my character, my courage, my ability to overcome obstacles and difficulties. “If Matt and Dave can make it up, why not me?” Good reasoning I thought, but flawed none the less. I can’t go on. I must go on. I will go on.
But if something hurts so much, how can it be enjoyable? Suffering up a climb is a shared experience, much like an enjoyable descent with your comrades. The pleasure and satisfaction comes from the realization of what’s going on inside your head and that giving up is never an option. It’s about the effort! Conquering the fear. The fear of suffering and the fear of failure. That’s where the pleasure begins. In self knowledge. I know that I CAN make it up Cold Mountain road, now I must prove it . . . to myself. And then, as if though miraculously you learn the lesson of persistence and of being in the moment fully engaged and focused, even in failure.
Almost a year and a half after my first attempt up Cold Mountain, I awoke one morning rousing Kjetil out of bed to accompany me and witness the successful climb up that dreaded hill. As I faced the steepest pitch I exclaimed; “Kjetil, get your iPhone camera ready because today I’m making it up Cold Mountain”. “on this road, in this duress, this suffering, you can only live in the moment, in this intensity and the fullness of this entire short experience”. Do you know of a better definition of exhilaration? Up at the top of the climb with my heart beating as fast as it could, I got off my bike looked at Kjetil who was running up the last section of road with camera still in hand, and shouted with all my might; … there!! The battle was won. It’s not the hill that I conquered that day, nor the 2 other guys that made it up as well, but that inner voice of . . . I can’t do it”!!