Issue: Three

Mark

Life and Death || Death and Life

WORDS & PHOTOS X Paul Kelly

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Pass the applesauce please

After 1300 feet of unbroken climbing and 30 minutes of continuous effort my riding buddy has pulled over at the peak and stepped off his bike. Drunk with exertion, he has collapsed to the ground in a semi-conscious heap. His left foot twitching as he fades in and out, I let him know I’m paying attention.

“Hey man, you alive?”

Muted grunting sounds and a slurred reply of “applesauce” are all I get in response. I crouch down, drips of sweat falling on him from my own face, dig through his pack for a minute and pull out the requested snack. I grab him by the forearm and help him upright. I rip open the top of the package containing the pulverized fruit and help guide it to his mouth. In a matter of minutes he is Mark again.

“Dude that f***in’ sucked…”

We sit and enjoy the view at the top of the Guadalasca Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains of Malibu, California, our de facto riding spot when we have limited ride time and can’t venture too far from the responsibilities of “real life”.

Casualty of war

It’s no small feat that Mark is now standing on a peak with me, there under his own power. You would never know his history from looking at him, or know how hard he has had to work just to get back on a bike when you ride with him – partly because he would never tell anyone to brag or coax sympathy, but mostly because the guy can ride. People are always amazed when the guy who legally parks in the handicapped spot at the trailhead smokes them on the descent, hitting every feature possible on the way down with whips and style to boot.

Mark is a former Marine Corps Aircrew Member who suffered catastrophic injuries during an operational mishap. With multiple rounds of surgeries in military hospitals overseas followed up by multiple rounds of disappointing results, it began to settle in that he would never ride a bike again – never mind walking. This was practically a death sentence for this former downhill racer and competitor. After an endless cycle of surgeries, doctors, hospitals and paperwork, Mark found himself in a very dark place. Growing up as an athlete skateboarding, snowboarding and mountain biking, he now found himself unable to participate in any of these sports and alienated from the lifestyles he loved so much. His anger consumed him. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he later lost custody of his kids. It seemed everything else in his life had crashed and burned too.

What do you do when you’ve hit the bottom?

The way a person answers this speaks volumes about their character. Some who go down never get back up, succumbing to addiction or other negative outlets. People look for a way out – anything to ease the pain, anything to bring closure, or just distract them from the present. More often than not people seem to dig the hole deeper. While there are infinite philosophies and examples on the subject, the wisdom you find on the trail is always the best medicine: Downshift, and pedal your ass off.

Move forward, and always keep riding

For Mark, mountain biking is much more than just something to do, or a cool hobby. It is his healing, his therapy. It is the challenge that drives him. Rather than focus on what he has been told he “can’t do,” Mark is pushing to find out what he can do every single day. Even a near-death experience and a surprise diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes last year has only solidified his resolve, and intensified his riding. Fitness is now literally a life-or-death game for him. It seems that there is no end to the major difficulties that come his way.

However, much like a good trail the obstacles we encounter in life can add character to the ride if you have the patience to learn the skills to navigate them, and the grit to take the knocks. On the trail, the constant mix of flow and features keeps you keenly focused on the moment, on the here and now. These skills spill over into “normal life” if we let them. Sure, we’ve all met those obstacles that have served to keep our pride in check (and the doctor paid), but it’s not about perfection, it’s about persistence and self-efficacy. Mountain biking gives us the chance to practice that active perseverance without the stress and weight of “real life”. Because we’re riding for enjoyment, and because we choose to be there, it also gives us the chance to unplug and just enjoy the moment. For Mark, and for many others, it is a form of meditation, and a great tool for healing. It’s a chance to unplug the brain and learn to go with the flow. Plus, it’s wicked fun.

But mostly, it’s just about being out there – whether alone or with a pack of buddies. Suffering, sweating, the stoke, the dirt, finding the flow in a section that previously made you question your decision to take off those training wheels so many years ago, the stories, all of it. For Mark, as it is for many of us who love to ride just for the sake of riding, it’s about enjoying it. Good, bad, difficult, easy; you have to take it all together. You just have to learn to roll with it.

Changed Perspective 

There are those days that you need to ride like you need to breathe, as if every stroke of the pedals and every drop of sweat expelled is proportional to the anger, frustration and drama that you burn and leave in the dust. Trails have a special mind-clearing ability, unique to our sport.

Mountain biking may not change your difficulties or erase your problems, but it can change your perspective – just as it has for Mark.

THE END

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