The Mind Killer

The Mind Killer

“Fear is the mind killer.”

I just finished reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. Not being much of a sci-fi fan, and having never seen the movie (not yet, but soon!) I just never got around to it. But once a tattered copy found its way into my hands, I really enjoyed it—the intricate detail, the overcome all odds coming of age plot and all of its lessons, though the one above is my favorite.

I kept repeating this to myself while stretching my beginner-to-intermediate mountain biker skills last Sunday. That, and “be like a cat,” sage advice my friend Emily dispensed when she loaned me her bike, mimicking a cat’s posture as you might see when one is picked up, or undulating its way through a jumble of multitiered objects to drop on the kitchen counter—limbs wide and loose.

My pals Gabe and Ann invited me to ride Seattle’s Tiger Mountain with them. A bluebird, rain-free day in November always gets me joking about buying a lottery ticket—because your luck is running high on those days where you can actually see the mountains that trap our notorious rainclouds. This plus very few slippery leaves with just the right amount of moisture in the ground made the trails work just right, at least for a noob.

I hadn’t ridden Tiger since I was a kid and it was legal to ride dirt bikes here—let’s just say it’s been a very long time. A bit nervous with the audience that comes out on beautiful Sundays, it took me a while to feel comfortable once we turned off the fire road and climbed winding singletrack deep into Tiger Mountain State Forest. I rarely think about crashing on my road bike, but the possibility looms large in the dirt.

Fear is the mind-killer.

“Are you talking, Ann?” Gabe would call back periodically. Ann’s trick for tackling challenging technical bits is a good one—she distracts herself from the scary elements by keeping up a steady stream of conversation. It worked for me too, just like learning to drive a stick-shift car in the hills of Seattle. The only way to shift into first from a complete stop on a 12% grade is to not think about it too hard—just do it. So I, too, talked about all kinds of things, whether my friends were within earshot or not. I talked about how Ann’s advice to point my belly button through the switchbacks parallels instruction I once got at a swing dance class. The instructor also said to treat your belly button like a flashlight, and to point it where you want to go.

Gabe and Ann are experienced instructors, and I’m lucky to count them as friends. It’s easier to carry on a conversation on the trail than it is riding on the road alongside car traffic. We rode for hours, with time to gab about our families and jobs—and we even covered haircuts and boys. At one point we stopped in search of a geocache—three grown women scrambling around a ravine in a place that looked like we might be trespassing on a hobbit’s front lawn.

Tiger is a big park, and trails are chosen through conversation with your pack. We stopped for a snack at the entrance to The Legend trail, and we three agreed it would be my first black diamond. The trail is named for Len Francies; if there will ever be a Mt. Rushmore is dedicated to mountain biking in the PNW, his face will surely be carved in that granite. When he wasn’t riding, he was building and taking care of trails. A lifelong friend of his said he’d “like people to know that he was special in so many ways. And if you use trails, you are benefiting from his life. And that would make him happy.”

And so, I tackled the biggest rock drop of my life. Not a huge drop, but one that required a scouting walk around beforehand.

Fear is the mind killer.

My coaches talked me through it start to finish. Look ahead, keep your speed up, keep breathing, keep smiling, you got this! They advised against another drop or two, completely ignored a few little ones only to give me a “nice job” after, recognizing I had those covered. (That stuff is pretty great life advice too.)

The reward? Uninterrupted views of the Cascades, on a clear enough day where we debated whether a snowy peak on the horizon could have been one 200 miles away in British Columbia. With so many friendly riders on the trail each of us ran into someone we knew, making this city of four million feel like a small town again. And some sections of trail described as “nice and flowy” where I achieved that mythical state between comfort zone and panic zone—that completely engaged and present state of getting nice and flowy too.

This roadie is officially hooked. On the dirt and trees and trails and community. On the challenge. On the sweat and effort with fear lurking around the periphery and knowing that although I have coaches and follow in the pedal strokes of legends, ultimately it’s just me and nobody else who lands it.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”—Frank Herbert’s Dune.


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    1. Padraig

      Oh, oops, bad Padraig. I’ve updated the post to reflect that it is by Jennifer Schofield, who has written a few other pieces for us.

  1. Zvi Wolf

    Fear is the mind killer; so true about MTBing and skiing moguls for that matter. I learned to MTB in my mid-50s. I’m at best an advanced beginner. And I agree that you spend your time either in nirvana or in sheer terror.

    Dune is a great book. Glad you enjoyed it. Skip the movie.

    1. Jennifer Schofield

      Zvi, I just recently saw the movie. Although I can see why David Lynch has distanced himself from it, I do think it’s worth seeing…even if only to see a young Sting have a really great time playing a really bad guy.

      And here’s to finding a little more nirvana on the hills!

  2. MattC

    Dune is a great SERIES of books…somebody could really make a killer mini-series of it (the ONLY way to do it right, agree w/ Zvi above, skip the current movies). Nice article Jennifer! And welcome to the dirt side! The risk of crashing is certainly far greater than on the road, but your risk of DEATH from inattentive drivers is history…that’s a good trade in my book!

    1. Jennifer Schofield

      Hi MattC, yes I agree escaling inattentive drivers is pretty dang attractive! And dirt is considerably softer than pavement.

      I continue to hear great things about the entire Dune series – I will add the remaining books to my ever-growing reading list.

      Sounds like you have a great vision for a mini-series. You should pitch it to Netflix…

  3. Pat O'Brien

    When I am riding in the dirt, I always remember what Julie Furtado said, “The secret to mountain biking is pretty simple. The slower you go the more likely it is that you’ll crash.”

    1. Jennifer Schofield

      Pat, this is great advice! I will keep it in mind. When I was a kid riding dirt bikes, our motto was “when in doubt, gas it!”

  4. Steve Courtright

    Good book. I learned this lesson (long ago) first when learning to downhill ski. As soon as I panicked, even a little, what poise and focus I had just disappeared. Crashing was the inevitable consequence.

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