Saturday, March 9, 2013

Millicent's Fear

A couple of weeks ago I went for a ride with a woman who had designated this day, this ride in Rwanda to be taken out on her “Overcome a Fear” list.  We all have those lists, bucket lists, things we want to do, mean to do, doing things which challenge us, cause us angst, wake us up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat things.  Or maybe not all of us, maybe just a few.

Millicent emailed me and said she wanted to go for a ride.  She had challenged her students to do something they feared every day while she was in Rwanda.  She knew if she threw down the gauntlet, she too would have to do the same.  She chose, go for a bicycle ride in Rwanda.  I thought to myself, as an avid cyclist, “Ok…whatever, maybe she’s afraid of the roads, the people, the errant goats, cows, sheep and crazy matatu drivers.  That’s understandable.  There are days I’ve shot my wad of adrenalin 50 meters out the door when yet another person crosses in front of my path without bothering to look both ways.  It’s a significant issue in Rwanda.  Got it!  So, we’ll go for a ride.” 

I knew the ride was going to be slower than the pace I’m used to.  They all are if I’m riding with anyone besides the team.  But, that was fine, I just wanted to get out and ride with Millicent and catch up.

She came by the house on a Monday morning bright and early.  I put her on a road bike and off we went.  Later she told me she had never ridden a road bike.  She could have fooled me from the start.  She got out, started pedaling, albeit slowly, but we were on our way.  I explained to her the obstacles and to assume EVERY human being on the road that morning was going to jump in front of her bicycle.  We were about two miles out on the road to Gisenyi.  This road is primarily one long climb with a few breather plateaus for 18.9 miles.  Yes, I know every inch of this road.  The road dips for about 300 meters, a brief respite before the real climbing begins.  This is when I understood her fear.  It wasn’t the bicycle it was speed.  Speed was her demon.  She kept pumping the brakes and then as we picked up speed (14-15mph) she started to death grip the brakes.  I told her to let go as we were going to start climbing and we needed the inertia to work in our favor.  Really, I’ll take anything I can get on these hills!

At the end of the dip, she started to release the brakes and start pedaling.  The gradient slowly rises and then pops to 6-8% quickly.  She handled it well.  I looked over and saw the fear, the sweat beads forming on her face.  It wasn’t sweat produced from physical exertion it was anxiety forming sweat.  About 4 miles out of town we turned around and started the trek back to Musanze.  Yeah, baby all down hill, my favorite.  Millicent looked like a deer in the headlights.  As she screeched her way down the hill, knuckles turning white, hands cramping holding the brakes I simply looked over and said, “You know Millicent, if you don’t let go of the brakes you’re going to blow up the wheel.”  Ok…they weren’t carbon wheels so probably not, but, if those brake pads were low, they were going to be finished in the next mile and a half.  She eased up, but continued to pump the brakes.  I told her to embrace her inner eight year old girl. 

By the time we made it down the steep part of the hill, she was exhausted.  We started talking about her fear.  I have never been so impressed with anyone really tackling something they knew was going to cause them incredible anxiety and fear.  I told her I too had fears on this hill.  The week before I had ridden with the team returning from a training ride and as we started the hills about 10 miles out I told myself I was not going to get dropped.  Four years ago I NEVER could have gone down these hills with them.  I too death gripped the brakes watching Jock and Max pull away from me on the descent.  But I kept at it and kept at it and when the opportunity presented itself to show the team I had the chops to descend with them I was not going to let any fear get in the way.  I made it all the way to the bottom of the last set of hills on their wheels.  They all looked back to see if Mukeciro was still there.  Top speed that day….46.8mph. 

“Was I scared?” Millicent asked.

“Actually, not really, I was more scared the first year when I was learning how to stay on their wheel.  That day, not so much,”  I replied hoping not to sound flippant.

“You’re not afraid of anything.”

There it is….the biggest misconception about me from most people.

I have been wanting to change the name of my blog and nothing seemed to jump out at me.  As we road back to the house and I told her about my fears I found the new name, A Life of Living Fearlessly.

As I type this blog I am in seat 8D on Rwanda from Kigali to Johannesburg.  Over the last four years I have flown close to 200,000 miles and my biggest fear, FLYING.

I really don’t enjoy anything about flying.  Besides the moronic TSA issues in America, the aggressive passengers in Africa, the mind numbing hours of traveling and layovers, it basically comes down to the actual hours in the plane.  Has flying 200,000 miles improved my condition?  Not really.  I still death grip the seat or the human next to me in turbulence.  I think every little noise on the plane is the engine falling off.  Of course it’s irrational.  I know the safety records of planes vs. cars…however, not sure if those aviation figures factor in African planes, might be closer to equal.  I have a significant fear of flying. 

But….it doesn’t stop me and it won’t.  I used to drink mass quantities of alcohol prior to flying but TSA and age has taken the fun out of that.  Now, I say a prayer, actually I pretty much pray non stop, get on the plane and go.  What are my options?  Not live the life I have traveling the world?  I think I’ll manage the fear.

Many years ago I read a book, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.”  It is actually a bit of a hokey self help book I read to get over my fear of sales, which at the time was my new career.  I don’t remember much about the book other than, simply embrace the fear and do whatever you need to do anyway.  You don’t have to try to wipe out a fear, just acknowledge, focus on the larger picture and manage it. 

I manage flying.  Some trips better than others!  At the end of January I flew from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Mek’ele, a town in northern Ethiopia.  There were several flights a day, some on a Boeing 737-800 the others on a plane with propellers.  For me, my fear prefers jets.  As we were making our approach into Mek’ele I noticed more and more fog as we got closer to the town.  I could see the airport was on a plateau above the town.  I remember seeing cars, houses, donkey carts and then we entered the fog.  Fear management was in overdrive.  I knew we were getting closer to the ground but had no idea where the ground lay.  And then it happened, full throttle straight up, thrown back in my seat.

I looked over at Jock, “What the hell was that?”

“Aborted landing,” he says like it was the coolest plane maneuver he’d seen in a while.

“Probably couldn’t see the ground,” he added.

Really, no shit?  WTF… and a string of other expletives racing through my brain.

The pilot comes on the intercom to let us know we’ll be landing in Axum, a town about 15 minutes from Mek’ele by air.  Nice, we get to try this again.

We eventually did land in Mek’ele safely but still amongst fog even hours later.  Several hours later as Jock and I were having lunch we met an expat and we were talking about the fog and he mentioned how the airport doesn’t run on radar so essentially the pilot was trying to land a Boeing 737-800 on VFR (visually) with no help from the tower and the ceiling was less than 100 meters.  Okie Dokie….very happy to know that now for the next time!  Some things are NOT worth knowing to manage fear.  That landing never would have been attempted in the US.  Again, didn’t need to know that.

I may be spending more time this year in Mek’ele…..lots of fear management on tap.

I fear something every day of my life.  I may not show it to the rest of the world but it is always with me.  Perhaps my lack of vocal admonition about my fear helps me plow through it.  I am not quite sure.  I do things most won’t.  What I do believe is if you keep a bigger picture mentality, the fears are simply minor obstacles to navigate but nothing which would stop you from living the big picture.

I have zero fear when it comes to protection, injustice or anyone coming between the ones I love and me.  If you are abusing a dog or child and will not open the door of the compound gate as I pound on it trying to get you to stop, I will scale the wall and make you stop.  If you endanger one of the riders or myself with your idiotic, asinine moto taxi driving in the National Championship race in Kigali, I will peg you in the head with a Cytomax bottle from 30 feet out, cause you to lose balance and go down so my posse can take you out.  I do not care if there are 25 of your moto taxi buddies running up behind me.  I have zero fear.  

If you take "you" out of the equation it is so much easier to be fearless.  

I still fear rain and mud on the back of a motorbike after my crash in Tanzania resulting in a broken collar bone three years ago.  I have a twinge of nausea and anxiousness every time I'm on the bike and it begins to rain....but I still ride.  The best thing after my accident was being put on the back of the tandem, still wearing my collarbone brace, and screaming down the hills near home at close to 50mph.  Jock knew I was fearful of falling again and simply rode it right out of me over a two week period of tandem riding.  Feel the fear....and do it anyway.

I don't fear death, I cannot living where I do.  You must be okay with knowing a simple car/bike/motorbike accident, a sudden illness, an outbreak of rebel fighting can contribute to your demise in a nano second.  The way I look at it, I will at least die doing what I love which is way more than most people are privileged to live.  

We all have fears, it's simply whether you chose to let the fear (false evidence appearing real) control your life.  I choose to live fearlessly.  

Millicent as you probably have guessed, is not her real name, but it should be....Millicent means "brave strength".  Bravo Millicent for reminding us all how to live outside our fears.


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  2. Millicent is someone I'd like to know. Cheers to you, Kim, and Team Rwanda for living your dreams.