Dizzying Dirt Roads

I wrote the following piece back in April. We were a handful of weeks in to our trip, riding in Santa Rosa, California. While the recount of the day’s ride is a bit dated, the theme is something that is recurring. As I type this intro it’s following a fun ride around Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in Canada. It was primarily a road ride, but we did some off road exploring on a fairly technical trail and it was windy ! The wind was a steady 30 mph, there was rutted out trail under my tires and a wild ocean full of white caps in periphery. It was this highly disorienting combination that made me realize I had never done anything with this piece from April. So…here it is: Dizzying Dirt Roads.

The battle with my comfort zone on gravel roads continues. Dirt roads, like the ones cars drive on, no problem. Technical single track, like the ones mountain bikes go on, problem and I know to avoid them. But then there was today’s route. Terrain described as “fire road” by our local friend/guide, more on him later, but it pushed my comfort level given the rocky technical part. Huh? Was not expecting that.

Here’s the thing, I am not good at balance, but I have an excuse. I’ve said before that mountain biking is type 3 fun for me. To me, mountain biking is fun you keep on trying to have but, despite the suffering during the event, you never look back with fondness (that would be type 2 fun). And for 90% of my history with mountain biking, I haven’t loved it. On the rare occasion that I have hit the sweet spot on a trail with my mountain bike, in the 10% of my mountain biking history, it’s magic. Skills meets fitness meets ability level meets expectation, but 10% wasn’t enough for me to enjoy the sport. Then came this idea of gravel roads on my road bike, sign me up! Dirt, fewer cars, a little challenge with varying terrain but largely predictable in order for the sweet skill/fitness/ability/expectations balance to be reached.

But now that I know that dirt/gravel roads are a super comfy place, I’ve been testing my limits on terrain that is somewhere between a dirt road and a mountain bike trail. One quarter* of todays ride through the gravel fire roads of Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, CA was just that. Technical fire road, i.e. not my happy place. Given my personal fitness and ability level, I would have much preferred to ride the difficult part of the ride on a full suspension mountain bike rather than my Specialized Diverge. The bike and SRAM 1x drive train components are, without a doubt, perfect for the conditions, but the motor, i.e. me, was not. I’m okay with pushing my limits, but I don’t like to suffer. I have suffered in the past. I don’t feel the need to suffer on purpose. I like getting stronger and fitter, but I do not have illusions of crushing technical terrain with grace. It’s not a goal,. Heck, it’s not even an interest and I think I know why.

I’m mentioned this before but it’s a recurring theme for me: Endolympatic Hydrops. Google it. While I am a health care practitioner via the world of physical therapy, I’ll spare you the anatomy and physiology of ‘hydrops’ and tell you in simple turns. I have a dysfunctional left inner ear in that fluid management is difficult. It predisposes me to bouts of vertigo, which is the top 5 worst feelings in the world, and makes me a little dizzy/off balance at baseline. I’ve only recently been clinically diagnosed, but I think I’ve had this for quite a while. It certainly explains my poor balance. I don’t fall out of nowhere, but I’m the first one to get low and use all four paws when scrambling up or down uneven terrain. Hydrops also makes certain head, neck and eye movements uncomfortable or disorienting. And windy days? Forget it. I feel like I’m in a washing machine. A few nights ago we were staying in Bodega Bay during a 24-hour gale force windstorm. Simply sitting in the van watching the trees swirl was so dizzying to me that I literally had to close my eyes and visualize stable structures. I didn’t have vertigo but I was dizzy and it’s an extremely unpleasant and downright bizarre feeling. Anyway, now take a sort of dizzy person and put them on a mountain bike with their head bobbing up and down and add changing light and shadows with eyes that are just a bit slow to adjust to fast moving terrain. No wonder I don’t like it. It’s hard for this brain to process all of that. Lots of things in my life make sense now with this knowledge of a funky vestibular system. It’s not an excuse but it’s an explanation.   Sure, I could vow to myself to practice those challenging conditions all the time because adaptation does happen and does help, but back to my lack of desire to suffer.

Back to Annadel State Park, our friend/local tour guide, Patrick Brady, did a great job of managing expectations once he realized I kept popping off my bike. He gave me some words of encouragement about the terrain. After I explained my dislike of mountain biking, to which he responded with a surprised look, he said, “Hey, keep practicing, you’ll get better”. I said, point blank and without hesitation, “I don’t want to get better. I like where I am.” And there you have it: A confidence that I have found somewhere in my thirties to know what I enjoy and know what I don’t, end of story. Again, fitness will always be something I strive for, but comfort on my definition of technical terrain is not a goal of mine. I’m lucky I get to ride and run and play as hard as I want. I worry about the future with this dizzy unbalanced ear/brain/head of mine so I’ll take what I can get right now. I fear that I’ll be an older adult who is limited by my balance, despite being ahead of the curve because I’m a physical therapist and I know quite a bit about adaptation and habituation. So if I find some terrain I don’t’ like, thanks for all the encouragement, but I’ll get through it and likely never return. I have other goals that are related more to finding the sweet spot among skill, fitness, ability and expectations. Finding the grove is harder when we are riding new terrain almost every day during our travels, but doing my due diligence with research and letting local folks providing beta know my expectations, really owning what I want to experience rather than what I have to endure is no ones responsibility but my own.

*Side note: the ¾ of the ride that were swoopy dirt of rather simple terrain in and out of trees and across green rolling hills and field with view of Sanoma county were positively delicious and my most idyllic conditions, but the lesson /message lies in the ¼ to which I am referring.

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