Heavy … is a state of mind

When something challenges us, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by its enormity, or difficulty, or, in the case of deadlift, its weight.

The best we can do is focus on what we can control, try hard and make it happen.

Coming from a family of intellectuals and growing up with a weight problem, I was raised with total confidence in my mind and a distrust — no, a hate — for my body.

Over the years my intellectual capabilities have grown: military school bugler, cadet lieutenant, high school academic decathlon, commencement speaker, college newspaper editor, newspaper artist, art director, Pulitzer prize recipient, software designer, author, teacher … I’ve worked hard, but this stuff has come pretty smoothly.

At the same time, I’ve pursued a powerful compulsion to become an athlete. When I found mountain bikes at 20, something clicked. The wheels carried my weight in a way my feet couldn’t. Riding was hard, but it was fun — and deeply gratifying. So I rode more. It became a lifestyle, a religion. And my body changed. And something powerful revealed itself. I was no longer the brainy fat kid. I was a mountain biker.

First came the fitness. Then, through classic trial and error, came the skills. I dabbled in speed skating, triathlon, cross country and road racing. Somewhere halfway down the Kamikaze Downhill in 1993, something clicked. It was exciting! I was pretty good at it! I was a downhiller.

I raced for all the wrong reasons. You see, while I was enjoying my intellect and fixing my body, my heart was broken in ways I didn’t realize. That insecurity, that need to prove myself, that desperate life-or-death drive to justify my existence, found proof in the results sheet.

Win a race and you’re awesome. Get second and you’re a piece of shit. Yes, it can feel that stark.

I took downhill as far as I cared: to an age group overall national title (funny how important that seemed), and to masters worlds, which was awesome! One small mistake and off the podium, but I rode well and enjoyed the experience.

When I rocked the stars and stripes at masters worlds, I achieved my goal as a racer.

Then came the first edition of the Mastering Mountain Bike Skills book. I’d worked at a daily newspaper and at a dot com, but talk about stress: When you quit your six-figure job to write the definitive how to MTB book — the one you’ve been dreaming and bragging about for years — and your whole identity depends on success, that’s stress. I agonized over every word — and the first draft had 250,000 of them. This project was so huge! And it meant so much! I was a mess. I gave myself shingles.

At the time I was riding every day with Curtis Keene. We had so much fun together: two young men pursuing their dreams (and pinning it!). One day while we were climbing, this thought hit me:

This isn’t the best book you’re ever going to do. It’s your first.

Yes, of course. By that point I’d written hundreds of 1,000-word essays, columns and articles. All I had to do was write 60 of them. From that moment the process was still hard, but it was exciting and maybe even fun. That first edition came out great. (And the second edition was even better. And the third edition will be better yet.)

Then something else clicked, and it was time to teach. I make most of my living teaching people of all levels and styles how to Ride (and Live) better. Teaching uses all of my intellectual, physical and emotional powers, and I love it.

I also enjoy learning. Over the past few months Dane DeLozier at REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance has been managing my shoulder injuries and teaching me to deadlift heavy. The deadlift is the king of exercises. It forces full-body engagement and develops the hip drive that powers most sports — especially mountain biking. (See How do deadlifts apply to MTB?)

As the weights get heavier, imperfections in my form pop up. My big errors: 1) shoulders not locked in place and 2) ribs floating away from my belly. Both of these reduce the integrity of my structure, and they make me weak. So I’ve paid attention in the gym and on the bike, and I’m more consistent (and stronger) than ever. Last week I pulled 300 pounds then rode up the mountain to my house. So bad ass!

Today I walked into REVO tired from yesterday’s garage workout and a night battling demons. I pulled a light weight 10 times easily, then Dane put a lot of weight on the bar. It looked like a lot of weight! It felt like a lot of weight! Wow man, it moved slowly. Six reps, and they were hard.

And it they weren’t perfect: Dane pointed out that the shoulders and ribs were disengaged. Yes, of course. I focused on my inner world: anchor hips to spine, shoulders to spine, ribs to hips. Lock that down, drive the hips forward and push my feet through the floor.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Four more reps — clean — at 270 pounds. 270 was my max just four months ago:

Whew! That felt fantastic. While I chalked my hands and did bodyweight squats, Dane added weight. More? Really?

I stepped inside the bar. How heavy is this? He never tells me until afterward. And it doesn’t matter, does it? I still have to do the same thing: anchor hips to spine, shoulders to spine, ribs to hips. Lock that down, drive the hips forward and push my feet through the floor.

I sunk inside myself, hit all my cues, dipped into the anger box then — BOOM! The bar came up fast, clean and easy.

Dane yelled “Yes! That was 310!”

All systems engaged, dipping into the anger box …

Wow. A new personal record, and it felt easy. Then I walked to the glass repair shop, picked up a door and carried it back to the REVO parking lot. That felt great. Like I’m some kind of bad ass. Like I’m an athlete.

Here I am at age 46. I’m still getting smarter, and I’m still getting stronger. But I must admit the deepest wound — that life-or-death need to earn my place in the world — is still making me miserable.

I’m about to start writing the third edition of Mastering Mountain Bike Skills. I’m nervous about the work ahead, but I know I can do it. Focus on the message. Rely on my skills. Write it one section at a time … then edit it … then illustrate it … Yikes, that is a lot of work! But I can do it.

Today 310 pounds looked so hard, but it felt so easy. It’s a similar process: Focus on what I can control. Apply effort. Make it happen.

That’s all fantastic, but my most important lift can neither be reasoned with nor overpowered. In the secret darkness, my wound has gained strength and controlled my life. It’s hurting me. It’s hurting my family. It must be stopped.

At REVO today, something clicked. Maybe I can find some new cues: be strong here, believe in something there, ask for help over there. Engage that strength, be brave and — finally and forever — remove that weight?

Be well and kick ass,


Know more. Have more fun!

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