Asthma, Anxiety and Altitude on the 401
September 7, 2016:
Yesterday I began a nearly-vertical ascent on my mountain bike toward the famous 401 Trail outside Crested Butte. We parked the 4X4 at 8,500 feet; from there, the road climbed ever higher. Within minutes I was gasping, and at every turn of the track there was only more incline ahead. Jeeps and ATVs blew by us, kicking up dust to be sucked into my struggling lungs. I was already in my lowest possible gears, barely staying upright. The bone-dry air quickly evaporated my sweat and spit, while the altitude and my asthma conspired to leave me fighting for breath.
Less than a quarter-mile from the start, and with five miles of strenuous climbing ahead of me, I was lightheaded, dry-mouthed and oxygen-deprived.
Here's the thing: I’d expected this. It was normal. I’ve had asthma since I was a kid and knew the tightness would pass. I have been at extreme altitudes before and, based on experience, trusted that my body would
Anxiety is a ruthless liar.
Here's the thing: I’d expected this. It was normal. I’ve had asthma since I was a kid and knew the tightness would pass. I have been at extreme altitudes before and, based on experience, trusted that my body would adjust. Having ridden bikes for years, I’ve found that the “warm up” is often the hardest part and that there’s a price to pay for attempting something this awesome.
But even though I knew all this, the adrenaline rush was flooding my body and anxiety was poised to pounce. It was waiting to shout, "You are so STUPID for trying this!"
"You are way too old!"
"You’re going to suffocate, and you’re not going to make it!"
"You are going to hold everyone back and ruin their trip!"
Then after the shouting, it would sweetly whisper, "Quit now, and it will all be better. You can still enjoy the mountains without being on the bike."
I knew the things anxiety would say, the things anxiety always says. It never tells me I can succeed, or that whatever I’m attempting is worth the pain and struggle, or that God loves me no matter what and is right there with me.
It never says these things because anxiety is a ruthless liar.
So I stayed with it. One pedal in front of the other. Paying attention, yes, to the asthma, anxiety and altitude, but paying more attention to what I knew to be objectively true about the situation; keeping my mind calm amidst the flooding adrenaline, politely ignoring the withering lies.
And then I got to the top.
And it was glorious.
The scenery was beautiful in a way that could only be appreciated and enjoyed by those who have struggled to get to the top. The ride down made me feel high. I was weightless, my lungs filled with joy. The struggle left me flying back down the hundreds of feet I had struggled to climb, the asthma calming down, the altitude enhancing my descent and the accusations of anxiety banished, leaving nothing but exhilaration.
John Ray is a missionary, spiritual director and the elder responsible for teaching at Grace Church of NWA. John and his wife Jane spend way too much time packing and unpacking, vacuuming dog hair and chasing raccoons off their porch. They much prefer sharing good food and good coffee with friends, reading and trying to keep up with their daughters.