How do you ‘grow a pair….?’

Meet Marshall… powerful, driven, force of nature who tears up the trail in front of me. Keeping up and staying on is way harder than it looks. I need the skill of a top class mountain biker, the power of a track sprinter and kahoonas the size of church bells!!

Without a doubt Marshall is the most awesome half of our partnership. He runs because he loves it, I only have to pick up his harness and he’s at the door crying to go. He doesn’t seem to hold it against me that I’m not THAT great on a bike and he sure doesn’t care if we win or lose, for him the sheer thrill of running is enough.

That doesn’t stop me trying to get better for him. Having only started biking again in the last few years, it’s been a steep learning curve. We can get up to speeds in excess of 30mph and average around 20mph, so handling a bike like a pro would be really helpful. Sadly I’m no Rachel Atherton, but I ride at least 4 times a week and on the toughest stuff I can find.

It’s hard to recreate the force of a dog pulling you out of a corner and I have an impressive collection of bruise art pics. I am lucky enough to have some natural protection from falls, but padding is a sensible investment and has certainly helped me from serious injury.

Then there was clip ins to master!! I had my fair share of timber moments, usually on a hill when I couldn’t get my feet out quickly enough, but now wouldn’t ride without them. The combined speed and bumps often mean your feet can slip and a missed pedal stroke could be enough to lose.

It is that close at the top, the best split by mere hundredths. I won bronze at the Worlds in 2018 by one hundredth of a second, that’s not even the blink of an eye. Not only does your dog need to be perfect on turns and physically at their peak, but the rider needs to be an athlete too.

It was hard to think of myself as an athlete and I still giggle sometimes now, but to help focus and train it’s what I needed to believe I could become.

I follow a fitness programme with strength training and ride several times a week. I train in blocks and the emphasis changes according to time of year, competitions, etc. I will go into much more detail about my programme another time, but would like to thank Matt Branton and team at CrossFit Navalia for all their help and support.

Skill and fitness can be worked on, but the real question is how do you ‘grow a pair?’

How do you control those feelings of fear?

Prof Steve Peters (the man credited with turning Victoria Pendleton into a winning machine), a consultant psychiatrist and specialist in the functions of the human mind and author of ‘the Chimp Paradox (highly recommend), says ‘whenever we have feelings, thoughts and behaviours that you do not want, you are being hijacked by your chimp’.

Prof Peters goes on to elaborate that we all have this powerful entity within us, or chimp, who acts quickly without thinking. The chimps job is survival, which causes a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Your chimp is prone to emotional outbursts, is illogical and attacks you with negative head talk. In real life terms when I reach a steep drop off, my chimp goes into flight mode, has a meltdown and does everything it can to put me off even trying.

It all boils down to managing your inner chimp. This is mine. He’s sweet and super cute when happy, but gets easily scared and will attack when the shit hits the fan. I am still learning to calm him down, sometimes I agree and cycle away to return another day, other times I reason that we can do it.

I have to draw on facts or previous experience to calm my chimp down, essentially meaning practise, practise and more practise. Victoria Pendleton said that if she could stand on the start line and think ‘there is nothing more I could have done,’ then your chimp will understand and let you race your best. That does work for me for those start line nerves.

I also hated mud, I would tense up as soon as I saw it, my chimp yelling at me to slow down. I fell so many times it became my nemesis. The only solution was to ride it as much as I could, forcing my chimp to face this fear and now my chimp simply says ‘oh shit’ as we sail through.

I do sing to my chimp on the trail as well, to keep him happy, when I feel he’s getting nervous. I sing ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and it does seem to keep him calm and allow me to keep riding. It’s all still a work in progress. Some people’s chimps will be more crazy than mine, allowing them to do more and others will be more scared than mine, it’s the way were hard wired…..but it doesn’t have to define us, we can change.

So in answer ‘how do we grow a pair?’ It really does come back to that old adage of practise makes perfect. Apparently it takes 10,000 hours to become and expert or roughly 10 years of deliberate practise. If you’ve experienced and learnt to handle the majority of what a trail or race can throw at you, then your chimp will believe it’s an expert and then you’ll really be in that sweet spot when you ride.

I’ve felt that sweet spot several times when racing, so much so that it’s actually made me smile. As I’m not thinking about smiling on the way round, it’s gotta be my chimp loving the ride too.

If you want to banish those fears then just ride… really is that simple!

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