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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

- JRR Tolkien

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 17, 2018

Steph Davis: Flow, Focus, and Feeling in Control

An insight into free solo climber and BASE jumper, Steph Davis’s reasoning behind what she does, and why she does it.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

“How can some someone experience the freedom of flying?”

It’s a question that Steph Davis answers for herself every day.

American free solo climber and BASE jumper, Steph Davis, is a force to be reckoned with. Her accomplishments are on par with some of the greatest athletes of all time. And yet, despite all her successes and achievements, her humble personality allows her to stay grounded and focused.

Photo Credit: Vincent Kleine for She’s Mercedes

While speaking with Davis, we talked about her emotions, her needs, her tragedies, her relationships, her successes, her failures. Amazingly, she appears to be a normal person… a normal person who performs superhuman feats, and doesn’t question them.

Steph’s drive to do what others can not and would not is fueled by her curiosity for the world. Curiosity to see new places. To learn new things. “Just understanding that there was so much knowledge out there and so many amazing places that I had never seen, and would never have the ability to see without these other skills of climbing up mountains and just all the things that it leads you to do. I’m travelling around the world, spending time with people in different cultures, different places, and then, you know, of course learning – how do you actually get up a mountain with a vertical terrain, and then get yourself back down.”  Yes, how DO you do that?

Photo Credit: Vincent Kleine for She’s Mercedes

For Steph, climbing and BASE jumping aren’t just about getting up the mountain and back down again. For her, it is about flow and focus. In order to do what she does (and do it safely and successfully), she must achieve a maximum level of focus. She must be 100% centered on the present moment, so as to avoid any and all mistakes, which, when doing what she does, could be fatal. When Steph is flying through the air on a BASE jump, or high above the ground on a climb without a rope or any sort of safety protection, her brain slows down and enters a flow state. Flow state refers to an experience when one is fully immersed in what they are doing, to the point of forgetting anything and everything else in their life at that moment. All other thoughts, feelings, and emotions leave the body, and the brain is 100% focused on the present moment and present activity. It is common for extreme sports athletes to achieve flow state while performing their sport, especially when their sport relies on it not only for success but for survival.

According to Steph, the easiest way for her to achieve flow state is to escape outside energy. To be alone. “For me, a big factor for reaching focus, or flow, is getting away from outside energy — so free soloing inherently works really well because you are alone.” When Steph goes BASE jumping, the activity is so intense that she has no choice but to enter Flow State. “With BASE jumping and wingsuit BASE, getting there (flow state) is pretty much guaranteed because it seems like there’s no choice but to enter that state of pure focus when leaving the edge — although it’s a pretty short-lived experience because BASE jumping is over very quickly. Still, sometimes it can be challenging because outside energy can still affect my mindset and BASE jumping can turn into a more social experience with people hiking together in bigger groups, so I’ve found I need to limit the group to just one or two other jumpers and forego certain jumps if I know it will be a large group… If I’m with anyone else, I usually jump last so I can be alone for a few seconds or minutes at the top without any outside energy, and that’s when I feel the calmest and focused.

Photo Credit: Vincent Kleine for She’s Mercedes

The thought of feeling “calm” and “focused” before jumping off a cliff with only a parachute as your safety net may seem crazy to the rest of us. For Steph, this is what keeps her coming back. She loves the idea of such an uncontrolled situation. With the training, learning, visualizing, and practising, again and again, so many times, she is able to control the uncontrollable. “Seeking the ability to do something that should be impossible and yet to be doing it in a way that’s actually pretty reasonable.” Steph is only satisfied with her performance if she has done her climb or BASE jump in a controlled, and calm fashion. When she does that, it feels as if she was in the right place at the right time. As if she was meant to do it. As if it was her purpose. “I know for myself that when I’ve had those moments where it kind of just worked out and I almost felt that I got lucky… I’m usually really dissatisfied with that experience. What I prefer is to feel like I’ve entered the situation in a very calculated way. I’ve really prepared. I’ve gone through all the permutations. Plan B, plan C, plan D scenarios. I’ve tried to really think through everything that could ever go wrong and feel like I have a plan for that. And then when it started happening, I feel like I’m very in control of the situation because I chose to get into it feeling like I’m really ready for it. When I either land from a jump or top out a climb, I feel like, ‘wow, you know, I really belonged there and I wasn’t just kind of scrapping through it’.”

A feeling of belonging is what Steph is looking for. She looks like she has found it. “I’m 46 now and I’ve been climbing since I was 18, so my entire adult life I’ve been doing these sports in various form… I am hoping to keep doing my sports for the rest of my life. It is honestly really hard for me to imagine not being out in the mountains and being out in the desert and just doing these things that I love doing.”

READ NEXT: Steph Davis: Dreaming of Flying

 

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Athletes & Explorers

Aug 06, 2019

In Defense of the Struggle.

Mountain bike racer Alicia Leggett reflects on how the obstacles she's faced have made her a better competitor and a stronger person.

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WRITTEN BY

Alicia Leggett

Like many ambitious people, I hate being bad at things.

Here’s my problem: It’s hard to become good at anything worthwhile without sucking for a while.

I’m a pro mountain bike racer, and last summer was my first season of world-level international racing. I raced in six countries as part of the Enduro World Series and traveled to races outside of North America for the first time. And although this was the season I’d been dreaming of for years, it was the hardest and most frustrating season of my life. More importantly, it took a lot of work to get there, and it will take much more work to keep progressing.

My 2018 season kicked off in March with races in Chile and Columbia, countries I’d never visited but had researched obsessively since I first looked at the season calendar. Living in Missoula, MT, I had spent most of the winter off the bike. I also received my bike for this year the week before I left for South America, so although I was beyond excited and itching to escape the snow, I wasn’t exactly prepared to compete with the world’s best.

“I remember crying in the shower”

I had done what I could. Moving to somewhere warm and dry wasn’t an option for me last winter, so I made the most of things and embraced the mental break from riding. I skied more days than I didn’t ski, I learned to enjoy running in the snow (and started borrowing my favorite dog, who became a great running buddy) and I started lifting heavier and more consistently than I ever have. Still, when I showed up to the start line at 11,000 feet in the Chilean Andes, I struggled.

The two-day race was brutal. I remember crying in the shower after the first day, dreading the morning when I’d have to wake up and do it again. But somehow, those two days are imprinted in my mind as two of the best days of my life. The Chilean sky is beautiful. The mountains are rugged. The terrain made me feel like I was riding on another planet. A week later, I raced in the Colombian jungle, in a mess of tire-sucking mud and suffocating humidity. I reveled in the misery.

“I’m not here to write about the times things went well”

All things considered, those two South American races went all right, and I collected a couple of race results I can be proud of, but I returned to the U.S. battered, exhausted and demoralized. But things improved from there. I put one foot in front of the other, took one pedal stroke at a time, and kept moving. I spent time riding my favorite trails, taking bike park laps and racing at the regional level for the next few months. I started running women’s clinics in my area, continued coaching teenagers and generally had a great time riding my bike. I won four regional races in a row, which was exciting proof of my growth as a rider. But I’m not here to write about the times’ things went well. This is a defence of the struggle.

After racing the Enduro World Series round in Whistler, I returned home and focused on preparing for the season’s final races in Spain and Italy.

The first day of racing in Spain was one of my best race days ever. I climbed about 6,000 feet and raced four tricky stages to land myself in 19th of 41 of the world’s best racers heading into the next day. I was so excited I could hardly sleep – I loved the course, and being in the top half of the EWS field felt great. I just needed to keep my riding smooth through the next day and I’d land myself in the top 20.

On the first stage of the next day, things fell apart. My dropper lever got stuck engaged and my seat kept popping up, which was not helpful in steep, rocky terrain. I crashed. Hard. I finished the stage, much slower than I wanted to, then admitted to myself that I might not finish the race. I looked like I had an extra elbow in the center of my chest and it hurt to breathe. I watched a volunteer wheel my bike away and felt my high hopes disappear.

I’d made it through the whole season without any serious crashes or mechanical problems. Why did the problems have to show up at one of the races I cared about the most?

At least I had one race left. After a round of chest x-rays (verdict: nothing broken) and a few days of rest, I was ready to ride again. I drove to Italy, fixed my bike and studied the course. Practice day arrived, and it was the first day I could move around without chest pain, so I considered that a good sign, until I caught my front wheel in a corner and body-slammed the ground. Once practice was over, I started to feel everything.

My chest still hurt and I had a massive bruise on my quad left from the previous crash. On top of that, I’d landed on a big rock just inside my hipbone and my bloody arm had started to swell.

“I crossed an ocean for this,” I kept thinking.

I showed up to the start line battered but determined to make the best of things. I just had four race stages left in my season. I would show up and ride my best.

I hadn’t quite learned the lesson the previous week: Sometimes, things just fall apart. We can’t control all of it. And if we could control it, where would the adventure be?

I controlled the variables I could, but in that final race, my luck had run out.

I bent my derailleur on a rock on the first stage. I also broke my chain guide on the first stage. My chain broke on the second stage as I tried to sprint up a hill with my limited gear range. I rode a clean but conservative third stage before lining up at the top of the fourth stage.

My entire season had built up to that moment. I left the U.S. riding better than ever before, and I’d made sure everything on my bike was dialed. I’d take all the steps I could to set myself up for success, and things still hadn’t gone my way. Regardless, I had to keep giving my all. The last stage that day was my favorite, and I went in for redemption.

I knew I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. After a few minutes of riding fast, skipping through technical rock sections and pedaling hard whenever I had the chance, I felt my chain drop off my chainring and all I could do was try to keep my momentum. So much for having a good stage. I dropped into one of the most iconic sections in all of enduro racing, a rocky corridor lined with thousands of cheering spectators that feels like it goes directly down the ridge to the Mediterranean. It was incredible. After a brutal day, when it felt like everything went wrong, I crossed the line ecstatic.

An article I read once explained that gamblers experience a bigger rush when they almost win than when they actually win. That’s part of what keeps them coming back. I think I’m the same way. For the entire trip, I had great race stages interrupted by the most frustrating moments of my season. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling awful over and over, in just a few seconds each time. Those races showed me that I could be on-pace with where I wanted to be, racing with the best of them, but reminded me to never take a good result for granted.

“Learn to love struggling”

If I’d finished the season the way I wanted to, I would probably be content, and maybe I wouldn’t train as hard through the off-season. I can use my unfinished business with the EWS as motivation to come back stronger. I learned much more from the Europe races than I ever learned from races that went well, and I will focus on everything I can carry forward with me into future races. I learned about on-the-go bike fixes and gained practice staying calm when things felt disastrous, which, as it turns out, is important.

I’m now in the middle of my 2019 race season, and haven’t forgotten last year’s lessons. I’ve had a few explosive, unprecedented results so far this year, so I know I’ve internalized at least some of what I learned. Each setback has poured a bit more fuel on the fire, and I’m back, mentally and physically tougher than ever.

I’ve heard so many times that we can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react. I’m choosing to learn whenever I can.

Years of riding bikes has shown me the value in doing things that are difficult. The most fun trails are usually the ones I’m good at riding, so I make myself ride the ones I don’t enjoy. I look for technical climbs, off-camber corners and tight switchbacks, which I would love to avoid. And these days, I can think of a few trails I used to hate that I now find satisfying.

Riding bikes is hard. Crashing out of a race sucks. Mechanical problems also suck. Both at once… well, you get the idea, but that’s mountain biking sometimes, and life. We are all doing the best we can with what we know.

So, my advice to anyone reading: Learn to love struggling. Do the things that are hard, especially when you don’t want to. If a ride or race falls apart, find the lesson and keep moving. You’ll prove to yourself, over and over, that you can survive.

 

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