THE BLOG
08/20/2012 08:46 am ET | Updated Oct 20, 2012

My Fearless Challenge: Mountain Biking!

My mountain bike and I have been getting more closely acquainted lately, and I think I can say that we are becoming friends in a way we never were before. This morning, as my bike slipped sideways in some sand on a steep-ish downhill, I thought to myself, My bike really wants to stay upright; I just have to get out of the way of my bike's heart-desire. Oh yes, a mountain bike deserves anthropomorphization. I'm not 100 percent sure where my Rocky Mountain Oxygen's heart is, but I know it's there, even when I'm crashing sideways, adding to the color-burst of bruises across my bum.

My renewed interest was partly fueled by knowing I was headed to Leadville, Colo., to support my brother in the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race this past Saturday, and by riding with him in the week leading up to the race. I suppose I should clarify that me riding with my brother is really more me straggling some great distance behind, sometimes on my bike and sometimes off my bike, while he gets lovely rests to enjoy the scenery, the dense mountains, the high-altitude meadows and, most special to the area we were riding, the Aspen forests, the trees' brilliant white trunks, so straight and narrow, creating a dappled, dream-world maze. Oh the places we can go....

Let me pause here for a short shout-out to one of the women of Run Like a Girl -- Rebecca Rusch -- who rode phenomenally well in the Leadville race and flew over the finish line in a course-record time for women (beating her own course record by more than four minutes). I snapped the picture of her as she was making final preparations for the race start.

Watching Rebecca and my brother -- oh, and also Skirt Sports founder Nicole DeBoom's husband Tim, and all the other superb riders -- was inspiration, but not, it turns out, quite enough to quell my fear. The day following the race I woke up early, revved up by my spectation of the day before (I know -- neologism, because it's just the right word). I decided to ride some trails I'd already ridden on our Colorado sojourn, eager to see how I would do the second time out on them. Well.... The up was all well and good, but on the second part of the down, all my newfound enthusiasm went on strike. A trail I had ridden without much trouble two days earlier loomed up ahead of me in the most terrifying manner. What had seemed straightforward 48 hours before became squirrely and scary.

Now, I knew, knew, knew that I could ride the trail much better than I was. Yet I could not. I knew, knew, knew that the fear was in my head and if I could just let it dissipate, then all would be well. Easier said than done. In the end, I settled on being fascinated by the power of my mind to obstruct. Back here in Truckee, Calif., on the more familiar trails I ride, I've been noticing more sharply where I'm letting things get easier and where I'm still blocking myself. Because it is amazing how one day, two big fat rocks seem too close together to ride between, and the next day the gap has widened to a comfortable slip-through space.

Isn't that just the way of all things in life? The biggest obstruction to anything I want to do (you want to do) is fear.

Which brings me around to the Spartan Race, one of the premier obstacle-course race series. (It's similar to the Tough Mudder, which I wrote about a few months ago.) I recently spoke to a couple of organizers involved with the race and three of the top women participants in the race series. The race tag line, "You'll know at the finish line," succinctly captures the spirit of a race that presents different challenges every time. Obstacles are kept secret from racers until they are in the midst of the course, so although veterans can guess at what they may face, the precise blend of obstacles and order will never be certain. The race aims to make the racers better people when they cross the finish line -- by facing their fears and overcoming the obstacles thrown at them -- which brings the Spartan race goal back around to my earlier observations about mountain biking as life.

The Spartan has a special focus on increasing women's participation -- hurrah! They call it the "Spartan Chicked" program, and it includes a closed network on Facebook with more than 5,000 women. The program is working. Whereas a typical road race might have as many as 60 percent women, in 2011 the Spartan racers were only 25 percent women, according to the race organizer I interviewed. In 2012, thanks to their concerted effort to encourage women to give it a go, the race has closer to 35 percent women now. And true to their goal, Spartan's women are changing. Here's what I learned from three of the top-placing women.

Margaret Schlachter has always had sports in her life, but for her the Spartan experience "helps unlock an extra piece of ourselves." In her case that's meant that a month before her 29th birthday, she quit her day job working in admissions and college placement and coaching at Killington Mountain School. She is now devoting herself full-time to the risky proposition of depending on race sponsors, writing her blog Dirt in Your Skirt, and helping other women get active through her coaching programs.

For Andi Jory Hardy, the Spartan race tipped the scales at a turning point in her life. Summer 2011, her marriage was in trouble, the private school she had started was struggling financially -- as were so many new ventures -- and she had to close her dream down. Sixteen knee surgeries had scared her into a sedentary lifestyle. But enough was enough for Andi: She decided it was time to eat healthier and get some exercise, and after doing a triathlon in October, she signed up for a "little" mud run. Famous last words. She hasn't looked back. So far her knees are holding up, but as Andi says, she never knows when her racing days could be over. In the meantime, she's in the best shape of her life at 43; she's inspiring women of all ages at the races she participates in, and the racing has given her renewed energy for her teaching job with special needs children. The kids love learning about her training and applying the same principles in their own goals of conquering reading and other scary subjects. That feeling of being up against wall in her life is gone. Andi is happy.

Ella Kociuba aspires to be "the "face of Spartan racing." Although only 18 years old, she's had way more than her share of obstacles, and that's before she got hooked on Spartans. When she was 13 years old, a horseback riding accident resulted in a broken back -- an injury that was aggravated significantly by a birth defect in which Ella's spine was not connected to her sacrum. Four metal rods and screws and a year and a half later, she was back on her feet and running, even if it was painful (okay, very painful). For someone with every reason to blame the physical for any setbacks, Ella still firmly believes that the first thing to break down is the mind, and for her the racing is an opportunity to touch her limits, something she finds "very intriguing," fostering a toughness that will no doubt come in handy as life unfolds.

Whether it's mountain biking, or the Spartan, or something else that tweaks your fear factor, take a moment to notice the way your mind can seize up, cramped with fear, or alternatively open up the space between two rocks, so that you have just enough room to pass through on the way to your future.

For more by Mina Samuels, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.