How to Accomplish a Goal That Scares You

Several years ago I was in poor physical shape, built like a sack of flour, flabby and low energy. Inspired by Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France, I took up bike riding, got a bike, did some local rides, bought some magazines, did some ‘group’ rides, and then I heard about it— ‘The Death Ride’.

The Death Ride?!? What was that all about? It’s a one-day ride, 129 miles in the California alps—the Sierra Nevadas—crossing 5 mountain passes, 16,000 feet of altitude gain. Their mascot insignia is a skeleton on a bike. What a ludicrous challenge…intriguing. It attracted me. I wanted to do it, but it scared the crap out of me, and became something of an obsession.

This was around April. The annual ride was scheduled for July. I committed to do it the following year—15 months to get ready.

My neighbor Tony noticed me riding, asked what I was doing, told him about the Death Ride. “That sounds sick,” he said, “I wanna do it.” Right there, no research, no thinking about it, he committed, and I had a riding partner.

I had massive respect for the challenge, and I did not want to fail. I needed a coach. After two false starts, I found my guy: Andy Lapkass, athlete, skier, cyclist, a phenomenal coach, former mountaineer/guide who had summited Mt Everest three times.

I asked him, ‘Andy, can you guarantee if I do what you tell me to do, I will be strong enough to finish the ride?’ Yes, he said, guaranteed.

For the next year, my coach Andy told me what to do, and I did it.

I rode in the heat, rode in the cold, trained in the rain. Everything Andy told me to do, I did it. Why? I was scared crazy. Fear drove me.

Finally, the big event. Tony & I arrived a day early and drove the course in our car. 5 mountain passes. We were told at the top of each pass an official would give each cyclist a sticker to verify we had rode the course. The goal: 5 stickers.

We started the next day at 5:20am, cold, dark, scary. I felt miserable. No zip in my legs, just sluggish fatigue. The first climb was agony—i just couldn’t get a groove. Long, painful ascent, and slow descent.

Second climb, still felt horrible, with a little voice in my head saying ‘Bail, today’s not your day.’ The second climb was fearful, glum, sullen, and determined. Pedal by pedal, stroke by stroke. No looking up to the top, that would be way too depressing—just stroke by stroke, pedal by pedal. I can do pedal, pedal, pedal, one stroke at a time. i didn’t know if I could do the whole ride, but I knew I could do the next pedal.

The top of climb two, phew! A mood shift…felt better now, suddenly feeling good. On the ride down I told Tony we’d regroup at the bottom, and I took off on a screaming descent, going over 50 miles per hour. It was exhilarating!

Third climb, we hit our groove. Tony & I killed it! We felt so good we were laughing. We felt strong, powerful, in the zone, passing people like they were crawling, our legs were pistons powering up the windy alpine ascent. We were flying!

Just as we approached the summit, in an instant, everything changed—I felt a ping in my back, pinched a nerve, shooting pain, and fear froze my emotions—i’m doomed. Just moments after this happened, before I told Tony, there was a photographer, he took our picture—Tony flashing an ‘OK’ sign, showing powerful joy, emotions that 30 seconds earlier I had shared—he confident, but me in pain, I was now terrified.

We pulled over. “Tony, I’m screwed, I pinged my back, hurts bad and it’s getting worse”. He calmed me down and talked me off the ledge. “We’re ok, we’re in no hurry, we’ll do this together. You’re good, you’re strong, let’s go slow & easy, I won’t leave you.” Over the next 14 minutes I took 8 ibuprofen (!!) and tried to stay loose. Back on the bike, we resumed riding.

Up the fourth climb slowly, stroke by stroke, Tony coaxed me along, slow steady encouraging words, everything is fine, take it easy, you’re good. Slow, gradual, methodically, we made it up the mountain, down the other side to the base of the fifth climb. My back relaxed, pain subsided, and my confidence rose.

The fifth ascent was a long, long climb —and wouldn’t you know it, our roles reversed: Tony ran out of energy. He bonked. Overwhelmed, exhausted, his face drew tight, a gray pallor, and fear filled his eyes. “I’m done”, he said.  “Tony, no you’re not, you’re good—no hurry, no worry, eat some food, drink some water, we’ll set a nice, slow sustainable pace, I’m with you, we’re good. We’ll do this, one step at a time.

Climbing the fifth hill was like doing a torturous death march. Even as slow as we were going, we were passing guys. It was a snail train.  One guy was crying and muttering to himself, ‘You go thru hell and all you get is a crappy STICKER!’ He spit out the word ‘sticker’, teary-eyed, swollen red, glowering anger. I had no words for him, we just stared for a moment and slowly passed him by.

I told Tony ‘Here comes our fifth sticker—it will probably be Ms. Nevada giving it to us—a photo op with a sticker and a kiss! We pressed on. Finally, finally, we reached the top…and there, handing out stickers was not Ms Nevada, but a chubby little 12 year old boy with a jam smeared t-shirt. ‘Gimme that sticker, you little—‘

Long descent, and it was over. We made it! We made it! Celebration, dinner, exhaustion, and sleep.

Lessons Learned:

When you find something that attracts and motivates you:

  • Get a great coach—someone who’s done what you want to do
  • Get some great friends—ones who will share the adventure and encourage you
  • Work hard and enjoy the journey—because the joy is in the journey, not the sticker.
Dirk Mullenger

Raised in NY, college at University of Iowa, year abroad in Paris. Tight with my wife and 4 children. Business, writer, guitarist, skier, drives a convertible. One person’s hindsight is another person’s foresight.

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