It was just like the good old days: Epic Sunday. I realize that right now “epic” means something entirely different than it did five years ago, but I pondered it at length during my time in the woods.

The three of us took our time, allowing the searing suffering to rip through us in long waves.

The morning was crisp and sunny as we started a slow grind up the fire road to Laurel Mountain. All I could think about was saving myself for the steep and technical single track that was to come. No need blowing the wad right off the bat on the boring fire road.

As we turned onto the trail I had to calm the anticipation with deep breaths. “So what if I have to walk my bike?” I asked myself. “What exactly are you nervous about? Perhaps the connector trail that drops away into steep nothingness, lined in spikes of tree stumps and twisted rhododendron trunks?” Perhaps. Probably not.

But really, getting off the bike to walk/push offers a special sense of self-dread. It’s especially difficult when watching the guy up ahead jounce lightly betwixt the rocks, hovering over waterbars with only a slight mist upon his forehead—calf muscles bulging. That’s just when he’s still in sight. If I’m still on the bike, I’m chasing clumsily, smashing pedals into rocks and shifting like a baboon with a new toy.

I find it best to drop back and become one with my own ride. When there’s nobody to chase, it’s the trail that I hone in on. It becomes so much more fun to practice hopping roots and dodging branches, rather than playing chase. The only place I really like playing chase is on the downhill, and even that can be a treacherous game if you’re chasing a panther with the skill of a sloth. But exciting for sure.

A great thing about being in the middle of the pack is that you are not in charge of warning the others of upcoming dangers. On this particular ride we saw a five-foot-long black snake in the middle of the trail, who was not happy to be disturbed. We saw a copperhead, poised for striking, at the edge of the trail, and a rattlesnake napping under a ledge near our picnic on the top of Pilot Rock. We didn’t run into, or even meet, the bear that hikers warned us about.

It was while climbing the steepest section, with my legs ringing with throbbing blood that I realized, it doesn’t matter how far I go, but simply that a good portion of the ride result in this type of pain. It’s this somewhat masochist form of riding that ensures the ride will be remembered. If I don’t wake up the next day feeling achy, sore, and in bad need for a massage and a yoga class, I did not succeed at making myself stronger.