I do not like to be a person who allows herself to be controlled by her fears. However, I often am controlled by my fears. And I have a great many fears. For one, I hate thunderstorms. I fear them so bad that I can’t even stand to listen to thunder or see lightning when I’m safe within the confines of my own house. That is because I don’t ever feel like I truly am safe from Mother Nature’s wrath. I’ve had a fear of a tornado wiping out my house for as long as I can remember. Storms are, needless to say, extremely unsettling to me.
I’m also afraid of heights. Yet, I’ve jumped out of what most people would describe as “perfectly good airplanes.” However, I’ve tried repelling and rock climbing and I can’t stand it. It’s not to say I’ll never try again–that’s a fear I have yet to conquer–but I’m definitely deathly afraid.
Even in my favorite activities–skiing and cycling–I’ve got a great deal of fear. With skiing, it’s always been doing a really challenging run (particularly the “black diamond” runs). With cycling, I’ve got a fear of reaching speeds above 40mph and, oddly enough, of trying to climb really tough hills. I hate this about myself–this fear–when doing an activity I absolutely love.
Over the last year, I’ve been working on conquering some of my fears as relating to skiing and cycling. I’ve been taking myself out of my comfort zone of mediocrity and pushing myself to do the things I fear the most. With skiing, this has involved going down a lot of slopes I had previously avoided. I have grown tired of accepting my self-imposed limitations. You don’t become a better skier or cyclist by allowing your fears to rule you. Recently I’ve decided that I want–really want–to be better at these sports. And I’ve not wanted to let my fears ruin my fun.
Last summer, I faced many new challenges in cycling: I rode across the entire state of Ohio–in pain on the second to last day, even; I completed the Fredericksburg Library Roll and, most importantly, the Fall N Leaf rides without walking a single hill; I climbed previously untried hills in the Cuyahoga Valley, mainly Hines Hill and Martin. I was really hitting new highs. As I started to successfully meet more challenges, I started to get braver. At the end of last year, I decided that sometime this year, I would climb the notorious–and, for me, most feared–hill in the valley: Oak Hill.
Today, I set out for a ride into the valley with my primary goal to making an attempt on Oak Hill. I didn’t tell anyone this; I didn’t post it on Facebook or even utter the idea to a friend. I didn’t want the pressure of others knowing that I was going to attempt it so that if I wimped out, no one would have to know. I guess I could have taken the reverse strategy, telling everyone, so that I would feel pressure to do it to save face. (I am extremely susceptible to peer pressure, I freely admit it.) I wanted to face Oak Hill on my own terms. The only downside is that I had no witnesses.
For those of you who don’t live in the area, and don’t understand the mass that is Oak Hill, this road is notorious as the absolutely toughest hill in the Cuyahoga Valley. Many great cyclists gape at the mere suggestion of going up it and most have one or two stories about failed or successful attempts of it. I’ve cowered in fear of it ever since I’ve started riding the Valley, despite my growing love of hill climbing.
Oak Hill is approximately 11% grade over .3 miles with an elevation gain of 180′ feet. The climb begins right where the road itself begins off of Everett Road. I once had the misguided idea that I could assess the difficulty of this hill by going down it from the top. Unfamiliar with the valley back then–and only knowing of Oak Hill by reputation–I didn’t realize the road ends abruptly at Everett with a stop sign. Needless to say, Oak Hill is the only hill I’ve ever walked down in my entire cycling career. (Riding the brakes scared my cycling shorts right off of me–I had visions of burning out my brakes and speeding down the hill to crash into a car passing on Everett below.)
The photo below does not do Oak Hill justice. It doesn’t look as bad as it truly looks when you stand at the bottom of it.
I would also point out that some of the other hills I’ve done have higher grades. Boston Mills West, for example, is 20% at its hardest. It has a 192 ft climb over .42 miles which technically makes it more challenging (and it’s often viewed as the hardest climb in the valley). Hines Hill is approximately 15% grade over .11 miles at its hardest. So I totally should not have been so intimidated by Oak Hill. Except for the fact that people I know who have done Hines Hill and Boston Mills West both have often hesitated at Oak Hill. Maybe it’s because you can see all of the hill from the bottom so you know what you’re getting yourself into, whereas on the other hills you’re already committed to the climb before you get to the hardest part?
Either way, I knew I had to slay this dragon. It had oppressed my growth as a cyclist long enough. So I decided today was the day. Except that I did everything in my power to avoid the damn hill. The first time I came upon it, I passed it up to continue up Everett–a climb I’ve done numerous times before and of which I have no fear. I told myself I was just making sure my legs were in climbing condition today. Yeah, right. It was downright avoidance.
When I came back down into the valley via Wheatley, I knew it was do or die. So when I came up to Oak Hill, I stood in front of it, across the street on Everett, and just stared at it. Other cyclists passed me by, watching me watch the hill, but saying nothing, probably understanding my need to balk. Motorcycles and vehicles went up Oak Hill, some came down, and I continued to stare the hill down. For over a half hour, I tried to talk myself into making the climb. I almost bailed and continued on down Everett back home in defeat. But I knew I’d just be pissed off with myself later.
So I gathered myself. I crossed the street and started a climb up. I panicked a little. I stopped again at the very foot of the hill, feeling already its steepness and acknowledging that I would have to start the climb immediately in my lowest gear with no gear to “rescue me” as the steepness increased. I reminded myself that it wasn’t that long to the top. If it got bad, my last resort was to stand in the pedals and just push, like I had had to do on Hines Hill last year.
I sighted a vertical reflector mounted on the side of the road about halfway up the hill. I told myself that if I could make it to that reflector, I was committed in the climb and could not–for any reason–remove my foot from the pedals and give up once I got there because I’d be nearly to the top. I did, however, leave room for myself to bail before the reflector.
I put my foot back in the pedals and started climbing again. My eyes were focused on the reflector–getting to it. My legs felt as if weights were being added to the sides, slowly, as I continued the climb. Though it felt difficult, and I surely wished I had one lower gear, I didn’t feel I was going so slow that I’d lose balance. I realized I could tough this one out without standing. I was actually kind of afraid to stand because once your butt is out of the seat on a hill, you can’t go back into the seat while the grade remains the same because the force of a standing push is stronger than that of a seated one; it would make it harder to push once seated again. (At least, that’s how it works for me.)
I made it to the reflector. I was starting to hurt now, but I was almost up the hardest part now so I couldn’t stop (and, seriously, I don’t think I’d want to be standing off-bike on that hill anyway). Slowly but surely, I continued to grind. My feet were still moving at roughly the same cadence as they had since I started the climb. I felt relieved as I realized I was totally stable. I was going to make it!
After I got up the main part of the hill, it seemed to ease a little, then there was that last little bump before turning the corner onto the “flat” part of the road (which was still a slight climb mostly to Major Road). To be honest, I was surprised with how… um, “easy” is not the word… less difficult the hill was than I’d anticipated. The reputation of Oak Hill was more intimidating than the actual climb. Not to understate the difficulty of this hill–it was hard and not for the faint of heart–but I think I’ve had the most difficulty climbing Hines Hill (which is also the hill that made me panic the most).
Anyway, I feel really relieved that I no longer have to fear Oak Hill. One more fear down in my laundry list of fears. Now I feel like more of a real cyclist since most of my cycling friends from ABC have done Oak Hill at least once. There are still a few hills in the valley that I’ve not yet climbed but I’m working on getting to them. Which should all feel a lot less daunting now that I’ve slayed the feared dragon. And, really, acknowledging to myself that I’ve done the three hills widely regarded as the toughest–Hines Hill, Boston Mills West, and Oak Hill–gives me a lot more confidence because I can use them as examples in my mind when I’m telling myself that I can do a tough climb.