The Gravity of the Hill

Life is but a series of cycles, symbiotically played out over the course of time. We are born and we die only once, but we experience many different stages throughout our lives. Our childhood, youth, and phases of adulthood can feel like different lifetimes. Weathered by the climbs and descents of life’s peaks and valleys, we grow wiser and more resilient with each hill we summit.

Special attention is often given to one particular hill in life: the hill of getting older. Being over the hill is often associated with being over the age of forty, although that’s just another stereotype. I’ve mused about this topic before, but now that 2020 has arrived, it’s taken on a new significance: this year I turn forty years old.

I recently registered for a bike race, and was shocked to see myself in the Women’s 40-49 year old age bracket, as race age is determined by the last day of the race year, December 31. I’m still in my last year of my thirties, but a new decade has begun, even though my birthday isn’t until October 10. Until then, I’m in the trite position of contemplating my senescence and mortality, like every other person on the cusp of adulthood and middle-age (cue dismissive eye-roll). It must be a rite of passage to ponder your aging body as you approach what society, and some medical research, to be fair, has deemed the top of the hill.

Forty is the notorious hallmark for the gateway to middle-age. As I cling to being thirty-nine years old for ten more months, I question my own hullabaloo about turning the big four-o, as I can see the signs of its arrival already etched into the lines on my face. As a woman, I am also immensely aware of closing the window on the reproductive stage of my life. I feel like I’m sitting near the cusp of my physical peak, getting ready to go down. Clearly, it’s giving me some unpleasant feelings about getting older, especially in regards to athleticism.

This is not a rant about a woman getting older, however. That’s a story as old as time, and my intention is not to be a spoiled brat complaining that she’s getting older; yawn. I am genuinely curious about the psychology of aging. I am particularly interested in how athletes feel about physical aging, since so much of our identity is tied to our bodies. Many professional athletes have described having a hard time letting go of their prowess, of course.

I know I am lucky for every day I get to grow older; it beats the alternative, as they say. It’s an absolute treasure to have lived so long. I’m extremely grateful for the years I’ve been blessed with so far. All of the experiences, relationships, and knowledge I’ve gleaned made me who I am today. I’ve lived most of my life feeling like an eighteen year-old, physically speaking, but my looming birthday carries a weight I cannot ignore, and not simply for the societal emphasis it gets. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve built my life upon daily exercise, based upon a pure love of movement, and getting older presents the possibility of slowing down.

I am not afraid of getting older in and of itself, as I firmly believe people get more interesting as they age. There is something so inspiring about a ninety year old woman sharing stories from The Depression, or a one hundred year old sharing heroic stories from Pearl Harbor. Our elders are our guides in society, and deserve recognition for all of the wisdom they have cultivated in their storied lives. Everyone has a story to tell. I hope I’m fortunate enough to live so long to tell my tales, to be an esteemed sage.

I am especially inspired by our elders who continually break age barriers and expectations, running marathons in their eighties, mountain bike racing in their seventies, and swimming laps into their hundreds. I am equally inspired by my elders writing books, helping charities, and being amazing grandparents – there are plenty of activities besides sports that enrich someone. These are the idols I aspire to be like as time goes on; the ones who prove the old adage (ahem), Age is just a number.

What am I so afraid of then?

My greatest fear is not being able to feel the gravity of the hill – or feeling the gravity of the hill, depending upon how you look at it.

First, there’s the gravity of flowing downhill, and then there’s the gravity of climbing the hill of life, a cliche metaphor for aging. The former stokes a lust for life, while the latter challenges it. Though we all know we’ll age and die someday, it’s not until the footprints of age emerge on our lifepaths do we heed its gravity. I am starting to feel the gravity of the hill of aging; I can’t deny I’m entering a new stage of life. Though I may still feel young physically, knowing what lies ahead is humbling.

What worries me most is losing the gravity of the hill – the good hill, that is; the fun hill, the sweet flow of moving downhill. That scares me, and keeps me up at night as I watch the sands of my hourglass trickle near the half-way mark. I think any athlete feels this way when they evaluate their own mortality. 

When we’re young, we don’t have to think much about aging, although we often do anyway. The gravity of age hasn’t hit us yet, and we are free to live with freedom and abandon, recovering quickly from injuries and setbacks. We progress in our given sports, getting good, and grow proud of our finesse. As we approach older age, and big birthdays that usher in new decades of our older lives, it’s only natural to reflect upon our health, lifestyle, and goals for the future. When you’ve spent your life centered around sports and physical pursuits, the prospect of losing your acumen in those realms is not only humbling, but disconcerting.

I’ve never really struggled with insomnia, but lately I’ve had a few restless nights, caught in the tunnel of aging anxiety. Ron and I only have so many more bikerides together, I fret. Only so many more snowboarding trips, so many more adventures in the mountains… I start panicking about running out of time. I visualize the number of rides left in our lives counting down, shrinking by the day. I think about aging loved ones and family, and all the memories I still long to create with them.

When you think you’re running out of time, any second spent idly is a second wasted, even if it’s the middle of the night. There’s an urgency to seize the day, enjoy it as much as you can, and fill your heart with as many memories as possible. I don’t take life’s blessings for granted, but even when you appreciate every day, time still goes by too fast. My husband Ron and I do a pretty decent job seizing the day, going riding and snowboarding as much as we can, and I still feel like there’s not enough time.

I remember being in my mid-thirties and consciously thinking to myself, I’m at my physical peak; I’m the best physical shape I’ll ever be. Appreciate this time. I did appreciate it, and still do. Gratitude doesn’t slow down the hands of time, though. Inevitably, time catches up with you. I appreciate all of the experiences that got me where I am today, the wisdom I have, the peace of mind (except about aging, obviously), but it still doesn’t make aging any gentler.

Aging isn’t easy no matter who you are, but is it emotionally harder on athletes?

Athlete or not, we all need our bodies to live a good life. We are nothing without our health. We all want to live independently, to move comfortably by our own volition. Whether reading a book, knitting a sweater, or running a race, we enjoy the world through our bodies, manifesting our dreams.

As athletes age, though, we face not only physical decline, but losing part of our identity; at least that’s how it feels to me. The threat of losing my ability to be outside doing what I love seems insurmountable. Feeling the gravity of moving downhill is exhilarating, breathing life into our veins. We cherish the feeling of a good day on the mountain or on the water; we chase the rush of flowing through a gnarly section with grace. The inherent challenges of the sports we do provide us not only with a sense of accomplishment, but happiness. Stoke and flow are popular buzzwords for good reason. Meaning of life stuff, as I often remark.

The deep-seated joy we get from doing our sports is like therapy – clarifying our minds, sharpening our skills, and leaving us with a contented sense of calm. The emotional benefits of exercising outdoors are grounding and powerful, but the fun part is what hooks most of us into a sport.

For most athletes I know, physical activity is simply part of who they are; it is more than just a hobby or sport, but part of their existence. They live and breathe their passions through physical movements, honing their craft over years of muscle-memory building experience. They are their sports. They’re often also happy, contented people. One of the main reasons I am so active, aside from feeling like I’m driven by a motor at times, is how amazing, even euphoric, it makes me feel. I’ve always been active, and I love how I feel during and after being physical. There’s also a spiritual aspect to it, as if being in a holy Land.

I love the intensity, rhythm, and focus of mountain biking; it’s my main love. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a dream for riding. I enjoy the feeling of freedom I get from trail running – powerful and independent, relying on my own two feet, no gear or interface between me and the Earth, except my shoes. I feel like I can seriously do anything when I’m in a solid running stride. Rock climbing, yoga, snowboarding, a little surfing and paddling have also been big interests over the years. I’m happy if I can just go for a walk through the forest, though. Being outside in nature is where I belong.

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Living in Santa Cruz, California, there are plenty of active people living in our community; most notably, surfers and mountain-bikers, which makes sense given the waves and terrain. Weekend parking lots are full of trucks with bike and surf racks. West Cliff Drive teems with runners, walkers, bicycles, and sightseers from all walks of life. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people out enjoying the incredible natural habitats we are lucky to live among. There are many towns like Santa Cruz across the world, full of active, outdoorsy people taking advantage of the gorgeous areas they live in. Whether it’s a mountain town, beach town, or valley town, if there’s a strong contingent of athletes living there, you’ll notice pretty quickly. It definitely keeps you inspired, and occasionally, accountable.

Perhaps just as important as the physicality of sports is the camaraderie and community we develop within those realms. It’s deeper than the stereotypical image associated with our sport; more than the clothes and brand names, more than pop-culture references from movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Vertical Limit. We experience bonding adventures, overcoming challenges only other athletes within our sport would understand. We share knowledge, gear advice, and time together doing what we love. There’s a lot of unspoken understanding and communication. If we don’t share our sport with someone directly on the trail or on the water, we most likely share our love for it online through social media or websites dedicated to our passions. I read the Comments section of many forums, and I usually learn something new from them. In this day and age, we are tied in many ways to the sports we love, and develop a sense of belonging from that relationship.

Our sports also become part of our identity, something we can label ourselves as with pride. When athletes are asked to describe themselves, we are quick to identify ourselves as mountain bikers, runners, soccer players. While ego can get involved with sports, and it’s okay to be competitive and proud, most fellow athletes I know are in it for the true love of it.

How can we maintain our connections to the sports we love as we get older? Aside from the established efforts of a healthy diet, exercise, and low stress, one piece of advice emphatically stands out lately:

Keep on moving.

That’s it. Just keep moving, as long as you’re able. I’ve heard this from more elders than I can remember, and succinct as it may be, it rings true.

I thought of this recently when I was snowboarding at Kirkwood, one of my favorite places on the planet. It was a super cold day, maybe 12℉ with wind chill at the top. I’m used to wintry weather, but I was feeling especially tired. I thought about the warm hotel room waiting for me, the hot tub, the comfortable bed to curl up in. It sounded so wonderful, and though lifts were turning for another hour or so, I considered stopping early. I took a short break and got some hot coffee, which always helps improve the situation.

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Looking out on the windy, icy expanse outside, I got a gut-punch feeling to go back, like a push. Get out there. The memory of how fun it is to glide down a snowy mountain face is like nothing else, and powerful enough to motivate. It’s the same thing that happens every time it’s a uniquely cold Winter day. I went back out and got a few more runs, getting one of the best of the day.

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Returning to the hotel room later that evening, and basking in the heavenly embrace of a perfectly heated hot tub, I appreciated it down to my chilly bones. Though not the coldest or hardest day I’ve had by any means, I reflected on how moments like these shape us into more resilient beings. Every time we are uncomfortable, cold, nervous, whining (especially whining), and otherwise reluctant, it is easier to just stay home and give up. It’s easier to find one of the many valid excuses not to subject yourself to freezing winds and blowing snow, and stay cuddled up in the hotel room nice and warm.

Every time we get outside, despite our complaints and minor discomforts, we persevere as more confident, and disciplined, athletes. We also streamline our habits and get the best gear possible to stay as comfortable as possible; we evolve, ideally, to become more efficient at withstanding any kind of weather. Think back to when you were a kid and first went skiing; you likely complained that it was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. If you kept at it, though, you soon got over those inconveniences and accepted them as part of the fun; you probably also found what clothing worked best to keep you warm.

As we get older, it may seem easier to just stay home and skip the discomfort, which is why that sage advice becomes more important: keep on moving. Especially when it’s cold, especially when it seems tempting to just stay in, keep on moving. Keep going outside. It’s always easier to stay comfortable, but we grow stronger when we make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable, and then push through it. I’ve learned this lesson before in more challenging situations, but as I reflect on aging, it carries a lot more weight.
There’s another piece of advice I live by, that came to me years ago when I was being hard on myself and comparing myself to other athletes:

It’s not what; it’s that.

It’s not what you’re doing, it’s that you’re doing it at all.

It’s not what trail you’re riding; it’s that you’re riding.

It’s not about what boulder problem level you’re sessioning at the climbing gym, it’s that you’re climbing at all, that you came into the gym in the first place. You could have stayed home, but no, you chose to challenge yourself and move. You kept moving. You showed up to the trail, gear and all. It’s about honoring our efforts to show up and participate, which is often the hardest part.

It doesn’t really matter what level you’re at; it just matters that you’re doing something you love. While it’s wonderful to be talented at something, we can always find someone better than us, or someone we think we’re better than. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, especially as an athlete. The mantra that, not what keeps things somewhat in perspective for me. Moreover, keep on moving.

May I be so blessed to live long into elderhood, for life is so unpredictable. Life is more than just peaks and valleys, stages and phases; it’s a vibrant, emanating force that drives us all to feel the gravity of the hill, to love deeply, to live courageously, to examine our short little lives for all they’re worth.

I don’t know if aging is any harder for athletes to cope with, but I do know life is sacred, and warrants our full attention. More importantly, it calls for reverence – for those who have lived before us, and for all of the experiences we have had in our own lives. The collective experience of humanity bonds us all, from zygote to ashes. Someday when I die, these words will evaporate into the universe. Until then, everyday is an opportunity to appreciate life, and that includes the gravity of a sweet downhill.

When I’m eighty years old, I don’t expect to be charging down the same trails I ride now, but if I can ride my bike even just a little bit, I think it would bring a smile to my face. When I’m ninety, I may not be snowboarding like I do now, but if I can get on a pair of skis and hit the hill, I’m going to do it. When I’m one hundred, I may not be running up and down hills through the forest, but if I can stroll through the Old-Growth Redwood Loop at Henry Cowell, I know that’d satisfy my soul.

When I’m old, I may not be winning mountain bike races anymore, but if I’m riding a bike at all, I’ll be stoked. If I can’t ride? Then by all means, put me on two wheels somehow and tow me around so I can feel the wind in my face. The gravity of the hill is what I need.

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Team KatRon

 

Humble Pie With A Side of Compassion, Please

Every generation has its challenges to face, from Generation Z to the Greatest Generation. Anyone alive today, regardless of age, shares a common challenge: how to live in a world that is increasingly dependent upon the Internet of Things, while maintaining our Humanity in our interactions with each other, especially in the Wild West of social media.

The year 2020, just over a month away, marks the end of The Teens. It also marks over ten years since billions of people around the world have embraced some form of social media in their daily lives. It is the largest psychological and sociological experiment done on humans. We’ve either been born into, or grown into, a life of staring down at our phones; of constantly being plugged in, logged in, checked in. We live in a strange new platform for relationships and human interactions, with ramifications unknown. Over ten years in to this complex dynamo of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and the way in which we relate to one another has changed dramatically.

Our collective challenge today is to be more humble and compassionate; qualities which are fading from today’s public discourse. I’m no expert on sociological research; I’m just an Elder Millennial woman who has lived through the advent of the Internet, Y2K, and the birth of social media. I am also a middle-school Math and Science teacher for the last fifteen years, giving me a unique perspective into today’s upcoming Generation Z. I’ve seen enough changes over these years to grow concerned about what Internet use is doing to us as a society, especially today’s youth, the Digital Natives.

I’ve watched their learning styles change over this time, including using computers in the classroom. My seventh graders are on their phones up until the minute the first bell of the day rings, and on them the minute the last bell rings. They sit in the hallways before school in small groups, heads down to their phones, hanging out only in parallel, not directly. They are savvy at finding information quickly online, but they view computers as an entertainment device. Despite the flux of online resources available today in the classroom, I have found myself going back to pencil and paper for many assignments merely because the temptation to go off-screen, like playing a computer game, is far too strong for many of my seventh graders. Self-control is not a known strength at this age anyway, but when you throw in the world of exciting online browsing, some kids cannot help themselves.

In spite of this temptation to play online, you can learn an endless amount of information by spending time on the Internet; this is where most people gather their information today, myself included. Learning online is like an infinite set of staircases. Every which way you look, somewhere new to ascend, aspire to. We are endlessly learning as we grow older, exploring a fascinating network of paths, interwoven and intricate, going places in our minds that only through the acquisition of new understanding can we achieve. It has its place in the classroom, but with a balanced approach that works for the teacher. Every teacher’s philosophy on computer use may vary slightly, but I know we wish we didn’t have to use Web Nanny services to monitor our students’ use.

Aside from being a gateway to entertainment, it is an amazingly convenient and powerful tool with which our society has developed a symbiotic relationship. This relationship is mutualistic to the extent that goods, ideas, and monies are exchanged via the World Wide Web through its multitude of platforms, from the Khan Academy math program I use in my classroom, to the small-business jewelry designer who sells a necklace on Ebay, to the World Wildlife Fund’s website, which not only educates, but invites donations, which add up to tangible preservation efforts for endangered species around the world. It’s also nice to share family photos with Grandma across the country. The ease of communication across thousands of miles is certainly a benefit to billions of people worldwide.

There is a parasitic, insidious side to the Internet and our relationship with it, though, and it is eroding our humility and kindness. Our cultural norms and accepted behaviors are evolving alongside today’s technology, and it’s reaching a tipping point.

First and foremost, it lies with the amount of time we spend online everyday, from the laptops, desktops, and mobile devices we check thousands of times, to the pictures we post on social media. The simple ergonomics of looking down, across, and up at screens of varying heights wreaks havoc on our necks, eyes, and bodies overall. It’s far too easy to spend an hour watching YouTube videos on autoplay, especially when all of that content may be educational or instructional. You can learn so many interesting things online – teach yourself a new skill, learn a new language, get a college degree. The depth and breadth of available knowledge – often in free format – is incredible, and is not to be underscored, but the toll it takes on our bodies is significant. Neck, wrist, and back problems are bred from bad ergonomics with our devices.

The next parasitic side of the Internet is the Instant Gratification Effect. We’ve grown so accustomed to everything being fast, automated, and tailored to our needs. When we want to know the answer to something, we Google It. Many of my students will look up the simplest answers online, despite having the answer within text on a worksheet or textbook in the classroom. They want the answer now, and aren’t so concerned about learning the process, or practicing by rote the “old-fashioned” way. They want the answer now, and they don’t want to work hard for it.

Their perseverance is suffering; they are prone to give up on a Math problem, or difficult Science question, without seeking guidance from the Internet, or myself. I believe I am not just teaching them content, but teaching them how to help teach themselves, ultimately. When they think they find an answer online, or on their calculator, or some other technological device that they deem more trustworthy than hand-calculated, “old-fashioned” Math, they are 110% certain they are right. Their confidence is high when it’s sourced from a website that looks official. They aren’t the only ones who fall into this trap, however. Adults of all ages do this too; we research a topic, cling to a few somewhat-vetted facts and figures we glean from websites that may or may not be reputable, and then we decide they’re fact.

We want the instant gratification of understanding something, and though well-intentioned, can rush to judgment on issues that may extend beyond a day’s research. We consult Dr. Google, and diagnose ourselves with medical issues (at least I know I do). We comb through forums and comments from people far and wide for information, all the while subconsciously gravitating toward that which we already agree with.

Confirmation bias is the essence of the Internet today. We operate within our own echochambers, sending out and receiving messages that confirm our beliefs, morals, and identities, at the expense of living within our own cyberspheres. The scary part is the misinformation that circulates online – the kind that undermines political elections (ahem, 2016), and breeds hate and racism.

This is where more humility is needed: people of all ages in today’s day and age need to be discerning of the information we come across online, especially on our social media feeds, and hesitate to commit to a stance on a topic we may not know a lot about. Coming from a place of always learning, and not having it all figured out, would be a welcome presence both online and in face-to-face interactions.

I’ll never forget being a Senior in High School, and I was on a pretty confident high – spouting off random facts from History class, correcting others’ grammar, basically being your typical teenage know-it-all. My awesome older sister, whom to this day is one of my best friends, said to me in some form or another: “I don’t care how smart you ever get. People don’t like being condescended on and talked down to”. She meant it in that loving yet firm older sister way that I took to heart and am grateful for to this day, from a place that only someone who knew me well could say. I was already a nice person with a good heart, but in my friendships and interactions with people from there on out, I was more thoughtful about how I spoke to others, and instead of acting like I knew everything on a topic, tried to shut up a little and listen more to what others had to say instead of waiting for my turn to speak. I also grew up, which usually cures all teenagers of their overconfidence. You quickly realize when you go to college that the world does not revolve around you and your adolescent dreams. Your humility deepens, too, as you experience the highs and lows of life; that we are all equal as humans, and no one is “better” than anyone else.

I am constantly learning, reading, pondering; I love working in education, especially teaching Math and Science, which I have no problem talking at length about, no shortage of interest and passion. I try to talk to my students as young adults, keenly aware of how much I disliked being talked down to like a child when I was a student. It’s a balance of leadership and getting out of the way. I also love it when I don’t know the answer to something. I like showing my students that there is always more to learn in life; that we are never done growing and evolving, and that we shall always nurture the sense of wonder and curiosity which serves as a catalyst for learning. I learn a lot from my students when they share their knowledge and experience, too. Staying humble to the vastness of the world keeps you open to learning new things, and it’s exciting that we always have something interesting to dive into. Every educator wants to nurture this innate love of learning. Using digital resources to effectively foster such learning, without watering down the depth of knowledge, is a twenty-first century challenge for all educators.

The third, and perhaps most influential impact on our emotional well-being, is the effect social media is having on our lives. We’re living in a brand new world, dominated by an incessant rush of images of people we barely know having more fun, looking prettier, happier, richer, better than us. The Internet, and social media in particular, is the essence of comparison; it is nearly impossible not to compare yourself to others, no matter how secure you are. Like we comparison shop online, we compare ourselves.

It’s easy to feel like we are always missing out on something, and we are, to an extent. The images we see remind us that we cannot do everything humanly possible in life; we can’t live both Jetsetter life and have a simple farm life, be an Antarctic researcher and be a tulip grower in The Netherlands. We can’t live the nomadic life of a Bedouin on the Arabian sands, and that of a rich actor in Hollywood. Yes, we can do many things in life of many varying degrees, but we just can’t do it all, and though we know this on a superficial level, it’s easy to forget in practice. We are reminded of this often in our online worlds, and the cumulative effect over time can dull our own confidence and pride. If we focus on being humble for the life we do have, and more compassionate with ourselves, we might compare less and appreciate more.

Amid this compare-and-contrast platform that social media provides, there is a genuine desire to connect with strangers and family alike on social media, sharing our life highlights to paint a carefully crafted avatar of ourselves. It’s only natural to want to be seen as your best self, and present yourself in the best light. We all take selfies, and we all tend to gloss over the hard parts in our lives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whether we choose to share our deepest or shallowest selves, our online interactions can foster authentic connections that otherwise may not happen everyday. There are positive interactions. There are mutually beneficial aspects to the Internet, but it’s not all good.

We are directly affected by the feedback we get from our social media communities, and though we ache for connection with others, our messages can get lost in translation. We can be misunderstood, or misread someone’s comment. Our self-esteem can be lifted or lowered based upon the number of Likes or comments we receive on our posts. Whether affirming or rejecting, the endorphins we get from these online interactions can become addictive, keeping us coming back for more.

This is where our relationship can become parasitic, where we’re the host and our social media feeds are the parasites. We can spend hours online, when we could be doing something cool ourselves. Or, inevitably, there comes a time when our posts go unnoticed or unliked, and that can leave us feeling rejected or inadequate; was I not good enough? We can feel overlooked. Share something too deep, too long, or too awkward on your social feed, and people will probably just ignore it, where your post will sit there like a stinking turd for digital eternity, unless, of course, you delete it out of shame. We can’t help but take pride in our online identities, whether we like to admit it or not. The bottom line is we’re still human, and we want to be liked; the desire for group acceptance is only natural.

Aside from fluctuating self-esteem levels based upon our social media, we can fall victim to being GoogleIt armchair experts, spouting off the top three statistics from a quick search, acting like we know everything on a topic. We dig our heels in and double-down on our positions, and soon after the name-calling and vitriolic back-and-forth begins. We’re so afraid to be wrong, we put the blinders on and declare battle with our opponents.

It gets ugly. The comments section online is a dark, mean place – Humanity’s underbelly on full, grotesque display. People start condescending on one another, placating with comments that convey a pious, holier-than-thou message. We talk about others’ lives and choices, judging them as if they’re fools, so pitiful to not see things from our point of view. People write some atrocious things that make me shudder. I am disturbed by the recent youth fads of bashing older generations in the Cybersphere, with various hashtags and memes that demean the wisdom, honor, and value of their elders. The blatant disrespect is unsettling, and shows a lack of compassion that is representative of our time.

Divisive is the word the moment, and nowhere is that more apparent than the comments section online. Our political climate is frothing with staunch left, right, and everything in between warring with each other on a myriad of websites and social media platforms. We live in one of the most divided societies the United States of America has ever seen. Our current President embodies all that is wrong with social media today: the cultivation of insults, misinformation, and lies designed to further separate our country into Us versus Them. The clash among the divide of those who support him and those who don’t is palpable right now, but most would agree that his behavior on Twitter is negative and demeaning to others.

It’s no wonder the world takes notice and follows suit, including today’s youth. We live in an age where anyone can attack our character online, make up mocking memes about us, and free speech protects much of it. Cyberbullying is a real, terribly powerful problem not just for today’s youth, but adults as well. People can be viciously cruel to each other. I had an eye-opening introduction to cyberbullying a couple of years ago which showed me what a big problem this is today. I am genuinely concerned for today’s youth, growing up in a world that values making fun of others online so much. This is the generation that has grown up watching others for entertainment – whether watching wipeouts and “epic fails” on YouTube, making up memes, or just laughing at someone’s Instagram post, there is always a laugh to be had at another’s expense.

We ought to be more humble with each other; we ought to focus on being the best versions of ourselves in our real lives, not just in the facade we manicure in the cybersphere. We ought to be more compassionate – get off our high horses, and stop throwing shade at the expense of others’ happiness, judging other people for being different than us. We’re not better than anyone, just different.

Though we will not agree with everyone in life, we can keep our decorum civil. I always loved the old adage, trite as it may be: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. It really is that simple. I am so moved by kindness activists like Wendy Sullivan and the #imkinderthanthat movement she began to spread more kindness around the world! We need all the compassionate leadership we can get. It would be awesome to see people be kinder in their online interactions.

Undoubtedly, the most important way in which we need to be more humble and compassionate is in our interactions with our Planet Earth. We are overharvesting, overmining, overpolluting – overeverything – our ecosystems to the point of permanent damage, as in species extinction. With nearly eight billion of us, it may seem like we are the most important species on the planet. The Human Race is not the center of the world, no matter our celebrated technological advancements and innovations. We share this planet with thousands of other species, all with an inherently equal right to co-exist; after all, we are one of the most recent species to emerge in the tree of life. They were here first.

We have so overpopulated the planet, exacerbating climate change and a multitude of human rights issues with everyday that we grow more ubiquitous. Part of the reason I don’t have kids of my own yet is my ambivalence about adding another human into the world. There are simply too many humans on our planet, and the last thing we need is more of us making things worse.

Humility is missing from the arrogant, domineering swagger of humans. We think we can outsmart the domino-effects already set in motion from decades of worsening inaction, and though we can invent our way out of many issues, there are natural systems in place that we cannot control.

We cannot outsmart the power of Mother Nature when she unleashes a hurricane like we’ve never seen, or a multi-year drought that leads to infernal blazes in my home-state of California. We’re only starting to see the catastrophic effects of climate change, with the endangerment and extinction of species, shifting agricultural zones, rising sea-levels, and the hottest years on Earth all occurring within the last decade – to name a few. There are many unknowns that we have yet to see unfold over the coming years.

We’re seeing the effects of our pollution in our bodies. We’ll be living with the yet to be understood effects of all the toxins, additives, synthetics, hydrophobics, antimicrobials, you-name-it chemicals that we’ve polluted our bodies with over the years. We’re in the midst of a huge experiment, one among many, happening on the human race. We are the test subjects of a nascent industry of chemical engineering that has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, from the toothpaste we use, to the waterproof GoreTex jackets we depend on in the snow, to the laundry list of pesticides and chemicals we ingest from our food and water. We are suffocating in our own carcinogenic haze, like a fish in warm water, slowly inuring to the conditions. Even if one ate a perfectly organic diet, the odds of being exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals is high simply from the air we breathe and the water we drink. Microplastics are in our air and water, our clothes, and increasingly, the seafood we eat. The pervasive plight of plastic will be our age’s bugaboo, but so will our bioaccumulating, persistent compounds like PFOA’s, and DDT, which has been banned in the US for decades, but stubbornly remains, a testament to its toxicity.

The story may vary from place to place, but the theme is the same: human manipulation of nature, with dire consequences on the environment. We need to be humble with each other, but more urgently, with the Earth. Our choices and voices matter; we need to do something, because everyday species are threatened with extinction, the environment gets more polluted, and the climate just keeps on changing with all the greenhouse gases we keep pumping into the atmosphere. I am deeply affected by the pain and suffering we are causing today, especially on animals.

When I see images of poached, slaughtered elephants, or desperate sea turtles getting run over by cars on artificially lit beachside roads, I want to cry. When I see footage of commercial livestock facilities, or read yet another study showing how bad things are getting with the environment, I am crestfallen. I am not worried about humans going extinct, or us destroying the planet to a wasteland apocalypse. What I am worried about is what we are doing right now, and have been doing for years – ravaging our planet’s resources with little regard for its inhabitants.

When I read about the last Western black rhinoceros dying off several years ago, I felt like a piece of garbage, so guilty for mankind’s wrongs. What kind of species causes so much pain and needless destruction to so many others? What is wrong with us that we allow this to happen? Regardless of how complex the issues are, the simple fact that we are in the sixth mass extinction right now should grab everyone’s attention and command action. The first five major extinctions were caused by natural causes, while this event is anthropogenic, and happening at a faster rate than previous events. I recommend reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which elucidates the severity of our current situation, or check out my book report on it for a quick synopsis.

I know I’m not alone, that there are millions of others who feel the same, but it doesn’t help to commiserate when the injustices continue on a daily basis. I try to do my part by being a Science teacher, and living in ecofriendly ways; I was an Environmental Studies major, and am always learning more to deepen my understanding of ecology and the climate crisis. Being informed is important, but there’s so much more I could do; there’s so much more all of us could do. I am tepidly hopeful for the future, inspired by activists like Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda who, among many others, are protesting for our elected leaders and corporate executives take responsibility, and more action on the myriad of climate issues that press everyone alive today. No matter our age, if we’re living today, we ought to care about the issues we face. From teenagers to our esteemed elders, we all have a stake in how we treat our planet.

Sometimes we need to get out of our own way to see what’s truly in front of us. We need to set our egos down in order to actually hear the message so clear. We need to act as though we don’t have it all figured out, and act as though that is an exciting, and valuable, place to approach life from. We ought to listen more and talk less. It is only through teamwork and the exchange of ideas that solutions to some of our world’s problems will be found.

It would help if we all had a big slice of Humble Pie, with a generous side of Compassion, when it comes to dealing with each other, and our Earth; when I say we, I mean me, too. We all have growth to do. It’d be nice to see more humility and kindness in our real-time and virtual human interaction all around. Let’s put down our phones a little more and practice being good humans with other actual humans, in person. Let’s drop out of the social media contest that we can’t win, and instead celebrate our potential to help the world be a better place, from the environment, to our relationships with others. Let’s be comfortable with not being the center of the world, with understanding our small place in the grand scale of the Universe.

Now, we don’t need to quit using the Internet and social media altogether, but it would behoove us to reflect upon our relationship with it. I realize we are so interdependent upon our online connections that you may not be reading these words if not for social media. People have their own boundaries and balance to find with their online use; I encourage everyone to be humble and kind no matter what they do online. We don’t need to go back to living in caves, either, but we ought to take responsibility for our immense impact on the environment.

Let The Humble Twenties begin. May it be a decade of humility, compassion, and action to improve our climate crisis. May we all embrace a future less divided, and focus on the ways in which we are united – on working together for a sustainable future.

Enduro World Series Northstar 2019

#gnarstarNorthstar California – sure lived up to its reputation at this year’s Enduro World Series of mountain biking, which dominated the mountain resort August 23-25, 2019. The fastest, most adept riders in the world came here to prove their own gnar factor on some of the dustiest, loosest, and rockiest trails. With end of Summer moisture at an all time low, it was akin to dirt surfing or powder skiing, with some television-sized boulders thrown in for good measure. This was one of the toughest races on the EWS circuit, and amateur racers like myself had the chance to join in on the fun by riding the EWS80 (80% of the course – 4/6 trails), or EWS100 (100% of the course; exactly what the pros ride). This was the penultimate round of the EWS, and Round #4 of the California Enduro Series.

Fun? That may not be the first word that comes to mind when racers think of Northstar. Crazy. Scary. Survive! These were some of the buzz words I heard throughout the weekend. For riders who weren’t familiar with its moonscape silt, it was a bit unsettling. You can’t trust it. I could see the timidity in many riders; there was an “on your toes” edge to many of the racers, from amateur to pro.

Northstar is the closest thing to a local race for me, aside from Toro Park in Salinas. I’ve done a lot of racing over the last few years, but this was just my third race this season. I’m a self-proclaimed soul-rider, riding for the pure bliss of it, and I’ve all but given up on racing. I love to ride fast, but not under pressure, even if it is completely self-induced. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to race the EWS80 when Northstar came on the EWS schedule this year, though, and registered early. This would be an awesome weekend!

When it came to practice day on Friday, I arrived to a parking lot full of half-open cars, bikes in various states of repair or tuning, and eager riders setting out to the gondola. The energy was abuzz with the prospect of seeing a pro rider at any turn; those were the Gehrig twins! I caught myself giggling. From the start of the weekend, I knew the real highlight was seeing the pros – from the California Enduro Series, to elite Enduro World Series riders. I found myself feeling like a gawking fan among celebrities.

I rode two of the four stages at Friday’s practice: Stages 1 and 3. I’ve ridden here several times this Summer, and raced Boondocks (Stage 4) at the downhill race in July, placing first for Cat 2 Women. My first week of teaching had just begun, and I was certainly tired from the long week, even with Friday off for practice. I had a good dinner, and slept hard at my hotel in Tahoe City on Lake Tahoe. Though it would have been prudent to ride the other two stages, I knew I needed an early night in to be ready for the next day.

On raceday morning, I was excited about the format. We were given a roll-out time, but were to complete the remaining stages, in order, at our own pace without set start-times; we’d have three hours and eight minutes to finish the race, lest get a time penalty.

The best part? All stages were lift-assist! I was ecstatic about the new format, as I often felt a lot of hurry up and wait at past Enduro races, which could take hours on end. One of the things I struggle with at races is nutrition; eating solid food is all but impossible for me. You can get some calories out of powdered mixes, juices, and other fortified liquids, but I always felt myself bonking toward the end of the longer races. After about hour four I was done. Seeing the schedule for this race was encouraging; I knew right away this format would work better for me.

Every rider got their own introduction off the main stage by the race announcer; it made us all feel somewhat special, no matter how cool we may have tried to act. It certainly felt exciting to drop in to a little crowd after being introduced!

Stage 1 was the new River Styx trail, a good flow trail with just enough loose dirt to wake up your senses. This was a fast run, and had a good technical section through KT.

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Stage 2 was mostly down Karpiel, with a turn off for us EWS80 riders to skip the infamously difficult lower section that the EWS100 and pro riders would tackle on their second day of riding. I caught myself lagging a bit on this run, noticeably enough that I told myself to pick up the pace about halfway down the trail. You are racing, after all! I got passed by another rider, and that added to my feeling of being behind. Racing is such a mental game above all else, granted you have the physical fitness, skills, and experience part down. If you’re not fully present, or doubting yourself, it can cost you precious time. Staying focused is an understatement. You definitely have to balance riding clean and safe with charging fast. At the end of the day, it’s always better to go home in one piece than in no peace, as in hurt or injured. But I have a competitive side, and I do love to ride fast.

Stage 3 was the Queen Stage, the longest stage. We had a short climb from the top of Vista chair to the Tahoe Trail. This had a new trail called the Tahoe Cut, which was basically a steep dirt chute with about a foot of talcum-powder like dirt menacing all those who dared ride down it. Before I’d even ridden it on practice day, I’d heard the stories of people falling, sliding downhill, over the bars tales to tell.

When I rode it in practice, there was a line of people waiting their turn to try it because not because it was so intimidating, but because the dust was so thick you couldn’t see until some seconds had passed in between riders. As I stood in line behind a few male riders, a young man approached and sidled in front of me.

You don’t mind if I go ahead, do you? he asked nonchalantly.

I probably don’t have to elucidate the frustration a woman feels after years of doing male-dominated sports when questions or comments like this are directed at us. Though subtle, it’s a dis. After so many experiences like this, I just want to say, Just do you…I got this.

Or be humble, per the Ferda girls. Preach!

Yeah sure; go right ahead, I curtly replied, moving my bike out of his way. I’ve just been waiting my turn here like every one else in line.

He caught my drift, and readied his bike back down the line.

Or not, he quipped.

It’s okay; I’m a girl. I’m used to it. Sorry if I’m short, but it gets eggy after awhile when guys do stuff like this, I explained. Why was I apologizing again anyway? I hate this stereotypical quality that women are often known for, and I wear it to a tee.

Hey dude, that’s not cool; don’t do that, a fellow rider down the line chimed in supportively. You don’t go up and just cut the line like that, let alone to a girl, he added.

A few others added in to the gentle scolding, which made me feel good. It reminded me that most riders are cool. Manners matter; respect is important. I’ll always stand up and say something when this kind of stuff happens.

My turn was up, and with all that build up, I was fired up to send this scary dirt chute. Part of me wanted to prove myself to that guy; to show him what riding like a girl looks like.

This chute was gnarly, though. It was nearly impossible to find traction as I started fishtailing down the trail, carefully, and barely, correcting myself until a small slideout at the bottom, which I pushed out of and kept going. Though not yet graceful, I’d made it.

On raceday, I had the confidence I could send it smoothly. I charged into the chute and managed a controlled slide down it, balancing carefully to not slide out, and finishing with a quick turn. I was so stoked I’d sent it, especially because it was one of the toughest sections of the race. Even cooler was photographer Aaron Lesieur catching my descent in this sequence; these pictures are the best I’ve ever had of me on a bike.

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Stage 3 Dirt Chute
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Dirt Surfing

I came across another rider soon after this turn, and though we were riding at somewhat similar paces, it took a quick minute to pass him. I announced I wanted to pass, but there wasn’t a good spot. I should’ve been more aggressive about passing earlier on; that’s my ridiculous tendency to see a male and assume he’s faster than I. Once I passed him, I tried to fire up the engines and make up for time. I finished this stage two seconds off the Stage Win, and take it as another lesson to be more forthright about passing in the future. You always learn something new in every race.

Stage 4 was Boondocks, probably the easiest trail of the race, though still double-black. We had our longest climb of the race from the bottom of Stage 3 up to Vista, and then rode Crossover up to Boondocks. Though most people liked the new racing format, by this point we were all commenting on how we felt a bit pressed for time.

I only have fifteen minutes to finish, one rider noted en route to the stage start. I had twenty-five minutes by the time I reached the start of stage 4, and had I come across any mechanical issues like last year, I probably wouldn’t have finished in time. We weren’t dilly-dallying; it was just a tight ship they were running.

I cruised down that final stage of Boondocks with the excitement of being done in a little under six minutes. One of my favorite parts of the entire race is going through the final gate, hearing the beeps, and knowing it is officially DONE! I love this feeling. After all of the planning, preparation, anticipation, nerves, energy management, focus, feeling like you have to be on, it is so nice to let go of the rope and be done with it all. Racing isn’t easy, especially at challenging venues like Gnarstar. It’s one of the reasons I don’t really do it anymore; I just want to ride on my own schedule, for the simple joy it brings. Every now and then my ego fires up and I want to prove myself in a race, but I don’t know how much longer that will keep up.

I went through the final gate, and gave the course marshal my timechips. I went straight to my car and drove to my hotel in Lake Tahoe, where I immediately went for a heavenly swim in the lake. I was so happy to have ridden the course clean with no falls; I’d even enjoyed the experience and had fun. Sure, I could’ve picked up the pace in some sections, but I felt strong.

When I checked my results, I was quite happy to get third place in the Masters 35+ category. The first and second place girls were experienced, local racers who know the terrain well and have a lot of experience. I felt good with my finish, and I made the podium. I returned in the afternoon for the awards ceremony, and felt really content about the whole day.

The next day, I went for a swim in Lake Tahoe; it was already hot by mid morning. I made my way back to Northstar for Day 2 of EWS racing; the EWS100 and pro riders were to ride stages 3-6 today, which included Dog Bone, and the newly built trail, Tell No Tales. This was the main event, why I decided to come here in the first place.

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I watched some of the pros rollout off the main stage, and checked out the plethora of vendor booths.

I then hiked up to watch them down Stages 3, the Queen Stage, and Stage 5, Dog Bone. The flow and grace they ride with is humbling and inspiring. If you want a good laugh, check out my videos of Karpiel and Dog Bone; that lower part is crazy hard!

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Unknown EWS100 Rider off the Diving Board

The waterfall rock garden on Dog Bone was the apex of the event, with the best riders even showing some struggle down the relentless, rocky drop this section was. A boisterous crowd of cheerleaders lined the sides of the course, with a bullhorn and siren to boot, making it feel more like a party than a race. I was simply awestruck by the riders charging this section! It’s one thing to watch their videos online, which I do all the time, but to see them up close in person was mind blowing.

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Pedro Burns Contreras

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There were dedicated cheer sections on every stage, and from what I hear, the riders appreciate it. Aside from a spastic barking dog at a quiet moment, the cacophony of screaming fans makes a unique harmony in the key of positivity – lots of encouragement, admiration, and reverence for these men and women!

Check out the Pinkbike EWS Full Highlights video for a good summary of the weekend; I even appear in it at 13:48, standing next to a tree on Dog Bone – my claim to fame! Totally kidding, of course.

I also made a video of raw racing footage; it was so much fun to capture their dust!

Full results can be found on the EWS Northstar page. Isabeau Courdurier took first for Women’s Pro, and Richie Rude secured victory by .8 seconds! It was a stacked field of riders in every category, and was especially tight.

Experiences like this are once in a lifetime, and this weekend was one of the best I’ve had in a long time. I always love the collective pulse of being around a bunch of other mountain bikers, especially in a remarkable landscape with thrilling trails. There are so many cool people in this community. I look forward to more EWS events in the future, hopefully again at Northstar!