While elbow deep in my frame pack, I envision the scene from Mary Poppins where she magically pulls hatstands and potted plants out of her small carpet handbag. And much like the Banks children stand astonished as Mary Poppins unpacks her bag, the onlooking race staff are watching me, wide-eyed, as I pull item after item out of my pack.
Candy wrappers, a deflated Coke bottle, wet garments, food bits, a loose arm warmer without its pair, power cords, and dead batteries are strewn out across the patio in untidied clusters. Freeze dried coffee packets have split open all over my spare tubes, emitting a strange aroma of mildewed Arabica beans and rubber. I’m happy to be warm in the sunshine as I dig through my bottomless pit of disarray.
Hair disheveled and face covered in Kyrgyz dirt, I’m a far cry from being “practically perfect in every way.” It’s around 9am, and we’ve just arrived to Checkpoint 3 in Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan. We’re six days in to the Silk Road Mountain Race, and my husband Ernie and I have survived a rough, scary night in a nasty blizzard at 4000m. Checkpoint 3 is a complete oasis — an opportunity to start fresh. And that’s exactly what we agreed to do before moving on: to slow down, unpack, fix this mess, and repack it in a way that better moved us forward.
Before kicking off this adventure, we thought we had everything dialed. We’d gone on overnighters and put our packing system to the test, but all within the comfort of sunny California. We had never experienced being under the pressure of high mountain weather systems. Our inexperience with rain, sleet, snow, and changing weather patterns was now showing itself on the patio of Checkpoint 3, our bags a depiction of how we felt on the inside.
For days, we’d been frustrated with our inability to reorganize ourselves when it came to having what we needed, when we needed it. The fact that we constantly had a sense of urgency about us didn’t help the situation, and being faced with new situations we’d never experienced kept that urgency level high. We weren’t fixing our lack of organization — in an effort to “save time”, we were instead rushing to put things away, often stashing things where we hadn’t found them. Then we’d lose time trying to excavate misplaced items that had become buried under other items. We finally learned after six days in the rough terrain of Kyrgyzstan, sometimes you have to slow down to go fast. At Checkpoint 3, we agreed we must stop now to compose ourselves for saving future time.
While racing the Silk Road, every experience was intense and my knowledge so green. I had geared up for a challenging bike race, but the truth is, it felt nothing like a bike race. It felt like a personal challenge, a trial of mental and physical strength. My energy levels were constantly amped, my senses stayed on high alert, and my stress levels remained high throughout the race. With every sensation so new, these small snippets in time, like the unpacking at Checkpoint 3, got shoved into the back of my brain as the onset of new experiences continued to hit hour by hour. I was mentally overloaded with the intensity of each moment, and these singular instances like Checkpoint 3 washed over me with the rapidity and regularity of ocean waves, crashing and receding only to be followed by another swell.
But now, I’m sitting at my computer weeks later, and things are calm. I am putting order to the memories and realizing the process of unpacking is a beautiful analogy to observe human struggle. In life, we carry with us the things we think we need — in the order we think we need them. Then life throws a curve ball that violates our sense of “normal”. So many moments throughout my life have felt this way, unpredictable and uncertain, much like the terrain of Kyrgyzstan. But in reflection, I can see how getting repeatedly smacked in the face — whether by life or an actual blizzard on the side of a mountain — is sometimes what we need as humans to grow.
A strange thing happened in Kyrgyzstan. I become completely enmeshed with this foreign environment, and within the context of a race where literally only time matters — I lost sense of time. I lost track of myself and the limits I thought I had, and at some points became only aware of preserving my physical body. All goals became centered around moving forward, and I completely forgot myself for a while. Even though I’d trained and prepared for this event, I encountered something outside of myself temporarily, and it helped me unpack the way my brain normally maps and expects things.
Reaching that point, whether in life or in a race, can be scary, because it requires a strange combination of simultaneous strength and surrender. To unpack and “un-comprehend” expectations and lifelong beliefs we hold — that is a true challenge, because in reaching to be our best self, it also requires us to see our weaknesses very clearly.
I came out of this almost transient race experience more porous and unguarded, and that is I think what people refer to as having a breakthrough. The event was so significant that it is reframing my everyday life. But being confronted with my own inefficiency was required to break through — and most people, including me, sometimes hesitate to go there. It’s where capability and humility collide.
Within the context of post-race reflection, I have re-engaged with the person I was before the event and am comparing her with the person I am after the fact. I can look back and see there was some rearranging I needed to do within myself — areas of personal doubts, fears, and insecurities needing to be unloaded and reconstructed. The figurative “unpacking” of the Silk Road Mountain Race has not only helped me understand my personal growth, but has helped me create a tangible story I can translate to others. It’s helped me assess the order of the bags I carry into my “real life”, and how I can reorganize them in a way that moves me forward with exactly what I need for this moment. Nothing more, and nothing less.