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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 05, 2018

What Does Fear Mean to RJ Ripper, the 2018 Adventurer of the Year?

Globally known and admired for his prowess as a mountain biker, Rajesh Magar shares his approach to managing fear and evolving.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

Rajesh Magar, “RJ Ripper” or just “RJ” to his friends, is a name that not only the people of his native Nepal know well, but also the adventure sports community around the world. This was solidified when Rajesh recently became the 2018 Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year. Rajesh is a star mountain biker from Nepal, who built his own bike from scratch, before pushing it to the limits and attracting the globe’s attention.

“One should have fear. It’s a good thing,”

In Joey Schusler documentary entitled RJ Ripper, Mandil Pradhan of H+I Adventures referred to Rajesh as “A kid from Nepal is taking on the world.” That world has grown to not only admire his ability, but for also making the most of the opportunities available to him given the humble context. If you need to give yourself an introduction to Rajesh, RJ Ripper is a powerful and hugely inspiring film that tells his story. It can be found below.

More than anything else, RJ’s attitude has been such an important factor in his success as a mountain biker. The commitment he has demonstrated has been well covered, however The Outdoor Journal wanted to talk about something else. We reached out to him about the role of fear in his story, what kept him going back for more, and how he could push himself so hard, on a bike that he had built himself from scrap metal.

THE EARLY DAYS

RJ’s talent is not confined to the saddle, he’s also a self taught bike builder. Photo: Joey Schusler

In Rajesh’s life, limits have always been evident. From the outside, breaking those limits often required a disregard for fear. However, according to RJ, that is not the case. Throughout his life, fear has always been there, he’s just taken it in his stride. “One should have fear. It’s a good thing.”

When Rajesh’s mother brought home a bicycle, he didn’t know how to ride it. Grateful to receive one, he simply taught himself how to ride. “When I started to try and ride, I would take the bicycle on the main road everyday. I would try, and try again, to stay on my wheels, but fall again, and again. At the time, I wasn’t great at turning, so I fell many times. Of course, there was also an additional risk of cars that could hit me. Therefore, I instead went off road to try and learn how to ride the bicycle,” Rajesh recalls.

With friends, Rajesh would ride around Kathmandu and compete with them. At times they noticed other cyclists performing stunts on the street, so Magar and his friends would visit cyber cafes to pick up tips from online videos. When he wasn’t riding, Rajesh would regularly sit and observe mechanics working at a local cycle shop to figure out how he might customize bicycles for himself. That’s what being a self-starter is all about.

“I thought, ‘If they can do it, we can do it too. Let’s try.’ I learnt how to make a cycle, how to fix a puncture, how to change tyres, and how to install brakes. I then started trying that on my own cycle, by removing and adding parts. When I did that, the cycle started looking smaller, so I’d do things to make it bigger,” RJ explained.

TACKLING FEAR AND INSPIRING OTHERS

Mountain biking in Nepal means spending your time in some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Photo: Joey Schusler

Rajesh wasn’t looking for fame, fame found him. Joey Schusler, an experienced mountain biker and documentary filmmaker, met Rajesh while visiting Kathmandu. The two immediately hit it off during a tour with Mandil Pradhan’s H+I Adventures, and this relationship inspired Schusler to film a documentary aboutRajesh Magar’s story.

When asked about RJ, Schusler immediately jumps to fear, and his admiration for the way in which he faces it. “Magar has his head on pretty straight, and is very aware of his skill-set when riding. He knows the level he is at, and understands that it takes time to slowly progress and move past his fears to each new level. He never seemed too scared when we were riding and filming together.”

“Fear plays a big part in mountain biking. It is what keeps us in check, so we don’t try to progress too fast.”

RJ progressed slowly but very effectively, continually building confidence. When RJ started to compete, the goal was winning, and speed was necessary to win. However, this was a skill that required much patience and repetition to master. Much of his training was pursued alone, repeating routes and timing himself again, and again to improve his speed. Each time he would tinker with his approach by keeping a check on his balance. “I would take it section by section, and once I was comfortable on the tracks, I’d tackle speed. Where I wouldn’t be comfortable, I would go slow and try a few times until gaining speed and then it would work.”

RJ does not disregard fear, as you might expect. In fact he pays a lot of attention to it. “If you just go for it, anything can happen. I made that mistake but I’m still alive, I’ve learnt from experience. Of course, there will always be moments when I think, “wow that was a close call! Thank God, I survived.’ This is always the way in adventure sports, there is always a risk, but good things can happen too,” RJ says, with a smile.

“The fastest mountain biker in Asia”. Photo: Joey Schusler

Only a few know how to actually handle fear that way.

Whilst shooting the documentary, Schusler was aware of RJ’s measured and intelligent approach. “He’s such a natural on the bike. You can tell that he is just at home and full of comfort when riding it. His focus is so good, and he’s so dedicated to his craft,” Schusler told The Outdoor Journal. “Fear plays a big part in mountain biking. It is what keeps us in check, so we don’t try to progress too fast,” he added.

Perhaps this is the thing that really sets RJ apart from the rest, the know-how to manage fear. RJ makes a conscious choice. The good thing is that it can be taught and it’s infectious, when others see this approach, they often adopt it for themselves. RJ is in a position to spark change within an entire community.

“Some would watch me and think, ‘wow that’s amazing, he did it.’ Some would be discouraging, but I wouldn’t pay attention. My purpose is to demonstrate that  you can do anything if you’re prepared to offer complete dedication. Once inspired, people can do great things and further inspire each other.”

LIFE AS THE ADVENTURER OF THE YEAR

RJ would repeat the same routes, again and again in an effort to increase his speed. Always paying attention to his balance and how it could be improved. Photo: Joey Schusler

All these years of learning how to handle fear in a productive way has added a huge amount of value to RJ’s life. The world now knows about his talent, and he feels humbled by that unexpected fame. More than anything else, RJ is happy to just be.

“As of now, everything is good. I’ve got work, friends, family, and everyone is happy. My family and friends are happy because of what I’ve become, and I’m just happy with that. I haven’t yet thought about anything else apart from this. I never expected any of this,” RJ says.

For five years now, since his meeting with Mandil Pradhan, RJ has been leading tours and is the head mechanics at H+I Adventures. It’s via this role that RJ met the founder of AT Cycles, who was inspired by his story and made the offer of brand ambassador.

Since RJ now represents Nepal, he is no longer mountain biking just for fun. It’s a huge responsibility that he takes very seriously, but we’re pretty sure that he’s still having fun too.

RJ is very proud of his Nepalese heritage. Photo: Joey Schusler

“People have different expectations. I often hear things like, “You will have to win, bro”, meanwhile others will still just say “Hey, go have fun!” he laughs. “More than anything else it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve done something for others, and perhaps made them see that they can do it too.”

RJ is grateful to all the people who supported him in his endeavour of mountain biking. Whether it was with their words or by offering the materials that he needed to pursue his passion. The future? RJ plans to cycle until the day his body stops allowing him to do so, but more than anything else, simply wishes to do something meaningful with his life. For the next five years, he plans on participating in racing championships, but that’s not a life-long goal.

“I want to race with the fastest mountain bikers in the world. I just want to see where I stand among the fastest riders. But as far as cycling goes, I’ll never leave that and keep it with me for as long as I have life inside of me,” he says.

RJ’s fear led to innovation, personal development, strength, and success. His inspiring story shows that the right attitude goes a long way, and we shouldn’t disregard fear.

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Athletes & Explorers

Feb 15, 2019

Flow State: The Reason Why Alex Honnold and Steph Davis are not Adrenaline Junkies.

“When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Recently, while watching Alex Honnold’s film, Free Solo, I began questioning the motives behind why he does what he does. I imagine that like me, you asked yourself, what is the driving force behind his compulsive need to risk his life? Why does he have such a passion for free soloing difficult routes, while the rest of us sit paralyzed in fear, simply watching in awe?

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of the film (which has recently won a BAFTA and has been nominated for an Oscar), touched on Alex’s reasoning a little. For Alex, it is when he is climbing without a rope and is closest to death, that he actually feels most alive.

As an extreme sports athlete myself, with a background in whitewater kayaking, I can relate to this feeling. When I am kayaking a difficult and consequential rapid, my brain is 100% focused on the present moment. In the book, “The Rise of Superman” (if you haven’t read it, do so now), Steven Kotler discusses Flow State. Kotler describes it as being “so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.” Dr. Ilona Boniwell, a European leader in positive psychology, says, “The State of Flow happens under very specific conditions – when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge. So both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.” Flow State is very difficult to achieve. The perfect balance between challenge and skill must be met, and the result is a very elusive zone, which is tricky to replicate. In Kotler’s book, he describes action and adventure sports as the only way to consistently trigger this flow state. Flow state is often triggered by a sense of being close to death, which, in return, triggers the maximum sensation of being alive. Kotler describes it simply, “When you’re pushing the limits of ultimate human performance, the choice is stark: it’s flow or die.”

I remember the first time I experienced Flow. I was running Itunda Falls on the Nile River. Itunda is known for being one of the biggest rapids on the Victoria White Nile stretch of whitewater and is a rapid that, if not executed correctly, could be fatal. I recall Flow State kicking in as soon as I entered the rapid. My mind went completely blank, and I experienced a hyper-focused state in which every paddle stroke I took, every drop of water that hit my face, every little bit of it was a slow-motion, full experience. I felt nervous before entering the rapid, but as soon as I dropped in, my nerves faded, and I relaxed into a calm state of execution. While in that Flow State, I was able to do exactly what I wanted to do, perfectly. I made zero mistakes and had a perfect line through the rapid. It was the first time in my life that I felt I had 100% fully experienced something – not only in a physical sense but also in a mental and emotional sense as well.

“My favourite state of being.”

In a collaboration between The Outdoor Journal and Mercedez-Benz, I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of their sponsored athletes – free solo climber and BASE jumper, Steph Davis. When asked about Flow, Davis described it as, “the feeling of taking a deep breath, letting it out and feeling totally good and at ease with nothing else in my mind and truly in the moment.”

When performing high-risk activities, like BASE jumping, Davis says her brain has no choice but to enter a hyper-focused Flow State. “With BASE jumping and wingsuit BASE, getting there 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.”

Read Next: Steph Davis: Flow, Focus, and Feeling in Control

The film, Free Solo, suggests Alex’s ability to achieve Flow State. When I spoke with Alex Honnold about the topic (also in a collaboration courtesy of his sponsor, Rivian), he shared a similar sentiment towards free solo climbing. “I think that has always been a big part of the pleasure in free soloing is that it forces you into that state more than other kinds of climbing do.” Alex says that he can tap into the Flow State while climbing with ropes as well, but it is rare and doesn’t come as easily.

For Davis, Flow State while free solo climbing isn’t as much a result of being close to death, but rather a result of getting away from external influences. “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.” No matter how she achieves Flow State, Davis can’t seem to get enough of it. “It’s my favorite state of being.”

The Science

According to Kotler’s book, Flow State originates in the brain. The release of five mood-boosting chemicals – dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, and anandamide – creates a high that athletes, just like Davis, “can’t seem to get enough of”. It’s a wonderful experience – Flow State. So wonderful, in fact, that when you achieve it, it can become addictive. Dr. Ilona Boniwell describes the addiction to Flow State well. “Even activities that are morally good or neutral, like mountain climbing, chess or Playstation, can become addictive, so much that life without them can feel static, boring and meaningless. A simple non-gambling game on your computer, like solitaire, which many people use to ‘switch off’ for a few minutes, can take over your life. This happens when, instead of being a choice, a Flow-inducing activity becomes a necessity.”

Searching for Perfection

This addiction to Flow is different from an addiction to adrenaline. An athlete addicted to Flow is not an ‘adrenaline junkie’. They are not searching for that adrenaline rush that comes when you do something risky – like bungee jumping or skydiving. They are searching for perfection in what they are doing. Honnold says he is searching for the feeling of effortlessness. “When climbing feels good, when it feels effortless, when it feels flowy. That’s Flow State. And that is the appeal of climbing in a lot of ways is to get into that state. To feel like you’re doing something well and that you’re performing well.”

“I really belonged there and I wasn’t just scraping through it”

Davis says when she has had experiences BASE jumping in which something almost went wrong and she “got lucky” – which may be a situation where an adrenaline rush could be triggered – she is usually unhappy with that experience. “For me, it’s not really seeking an adrenaline burst. It’s more seeking the ability to do something that maybe should be impossible, and yet doing it in a way that’s actually pretty reasonable… When I’ve had those moments where it just barely worked out, and I almost felt that I got lucky, I’m usually really dissatisfied with that experience. I prefer to feel like I’ve entered the situation in a very calculated way. I’ve really prepared. I’ve gone through 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 starts 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. To me, those are always the most satisfying outcomes. When I either land from a jump or top out a climb and I feel like, ‘wow, you know, I really belonged there and I wasn’t just scrapping through it’.” A perfect balance of challenge and skill.

But for Steph, addiction to Flow is not the main reason she continues pursuing these high-risk activities. For her, it is simply a way of life. “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 forms… it is honestly really hard for me to imagine not being out in the mountains and the desert and just doing these things that I love doing.”

Thanks to Rivian and Mercedes for the interviews.

Cover photo: Vincent Kleine for She’s Mercedes.

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