The burning sun and dusty yawns of the landscape are otherworldly, far removed from the early autumn hues and dipping temperatures of my home in northern Scotland. Each year, during the second week of September, a collection of teams comes together in this desert town of Battle Mountain for the World Human Speed Championships.
As you drive the dusty highway into town, a tall sign announces “Battle Mountain: Are you tough enough?,” as if the town slogan has been designed especially for this event. There is nothing for miles but dust and desert scenery, but this week the town is packed to the brim, every motel room full. The iconic arches of McDonald’s loom like a cathedral tower, an emblem of America.
I’m with a team of engineering students from the University of Liverpool. They have spent two years designing and building a special bike. It doesn’t look like a bike though; it more resembles an egg on wheels. I am the female pilot. Each day this week, I will climb into the capsule with the sunrise and the sunset. The lid will go down, and I’ll be taped and sealed in. I will take the pedals in my hands, push hard on the giant gear to get the pod rolling, then have a five-mile strip of tar across a stretch of desert to crank the machine up to speed. There is no window in the egg. I’ll have a game console view of the desert highway, a tiny camera on top of the shell feeding to a screen the size of a mobile phone. The mission? To break the land speed record for an arm-powered vehicle.
For a moment, I feel a mild sense of claustrophobia and wonder why it isn’t worse, given I’m squeezed and sealed into a dark pod, and about to crank up to speeds of 80 kilometers per hour along a desert highway. “How did I come to be doing this?!” I briefly think, before another thought chases it away as quickly: “Because this is your life . . . never a dull moment.”
As a young person, only in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the life I have now. I feel acutely self-conscious when someone casually asks me what I’m up to. “Oh well I’ve just raced a velocipede across the Nevada desert and broken the armpower land speed record, and next week I am off to India to cycle from the source of the River Ganges along to its sacred heart, raising money for the Spinal Injuries Association.” Even in my own head, the answer doesn’t sound real. If I look in on it, it seems more like a crazy dream, like I’m living ten lives in one.
“Blimey, it’s impossible to keep track of you,” my family often says, and I joke that I can’t keep track of myself. But it’s a lie. I have never been more on track with myself. More at peace with myself. More present in each place and moment.
“As long as my ass is moving, I’m happy,” has been my long-term mantra since being in a wheelchair. Many have judged that I am running from myself, from acceptance of being paralyzed in the rock-climbing accident I had at age 21. People seem to think that adventure numbs the pain. But adventuring is not about running away from myself. It does the opposite. At minus 30 in a dark tent in a storm in the middle of the Greenland icecap, dependent on your teammates and your strength of mind for survival, there is no such thing as avoiding oneself. A month into riding across the Himalayas, breathless in thin air and hungry from lack of food, there is no such thing as running. Swinging from a rock face a kilometer above the ground, dizzy with height and salty tears crusting in the wind, it is all about confronting yourself, your choices, and your fears. There is nowhere to run.
I am lucky that my life has been full of adventure and experiences that have acted like a “laboratory” for real life. Intense times, good and bad, help us learn. I discovered, lying in a hospital bed for months on end, staring at polystyrene ceiling tiles, that there are times in life when we can’t change who we are, or our circumstances, but we can always change how we think. We need to focus on what we have, and on what we can do, not on what we lack.
I have spent my life chasing “gold,” first as a geologist, and later as an athlete, finally winning a gold medal in the 2016 Rio Paralympics in handcycling. This was a momentous occasion, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t momentous because of the joy or the glory or winning a gold medal, but because of the process. It broke me almost as much as breaking my spine. It took me a good while to recover my energy and motivation afterward, but it was worth it for the things I learned. I’ll share them here in case they are useful to you…
- You can control your mind; it doesn’t have to control you. Whatever negative or unhelpful things your mind may be telling you, you can take control of your thoughts and choose to change them. Like changing a horror film for a comedy — just reprogram your mind.
- Tell your mind exactly what you want. Be detailed, descriptive, and positive, and bring your vision to life with words and images, either in your mind or on paper.
- Make self-belief so normal that everyone else believes in you too. If this is difficult (and I know it can be!), then “fake it until you make it.” Tell yourself positive things about your ability, even if you don’t believe it to begin with.
- Try, try, and try again. No one achieves their vision without commitment, determination, and daily effort. Make the effort pleasurable, even if it hurts, and never give up.
The real gold is inside of you, not in medals or rocks or any other form. I have learned that whatever adventure I am on, or whatever my vision or goals in life, I should always take very good care of my thoughts. I feed my mind with positive thoughts because they have the power to create reality and generate moment-improving and life-prospering emotions, feelings and actions.
“Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can plant flowers, or you can grow weeds.”
Karen has the philosophy that to have the most impact in life we should challenge our constraints, adopt a positive mindset, and support each other to be the best we can be. Somewhat an expert in overcoming challenges, Karen finds much of her inspiration through outdoor adventure. She was a keen runner and mountaineer before becoming paralyzed in a rock-climbing accident, and has since pursued alternative ways to access the outdoors — canoeing, sit-skiing, and hand-cycling. She has hand-cycled in various corners of the world, including Central Asia and the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the length of the Japanese archipelago. Karen has co-organized expeditions, sea kayaking along the coastlines of British Columbia and Alaska, skiing across the Greenland ice sheet, climbing the kilometer-high vertical rock face of El Capitan, and kayaking through the fjords of Patagonia. As a coach, facilitator, author, and speaker, Karen works regularly with young people, schools, businesses, and other organizations, particularly on the subject of challenge and change. She is currently a full-time athlete with the British Paracycling Team, won a silver medal in the London 2012 Paralympics, was World Paratriathlon Champion in 2012 and silver medallist in 2013, and in 2014 completed an Ironman distance triathlon, the backdrop to the film IMPOSSIBLE. In 2016, Karen was proud to become Paralympic Champion at the Paralympic Games in Rio — a journey of setbacks and a project of belief that highlights the special things that can happen with the coming together of people. Since then she has been selected to represent Scotland at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Paratriathlon. She continues to train with the British Cycling Team while working on her current project, Quest 79, which involves riding the 7 continents and is linked with the Spinal Injuries Association. Karen’s first book If You Fall tells the story of her accident; the second, Boundless, is about her adventures in Greenland and climbing El Capitan. Quest 79: Find Your Inner Gold is a collection of short stories and positive psychology tips. All are available at www.karendarke.com. Karen has an MBE, a PhD in geology, and MAs in Development Training and High Performance Coaching. She has been awarded honorary doctorates from The University of Aberdeen and Leeds, Cumbria, Sheffield Hallam, and Abertay Universities in recognition of her accomplishments and contributions in adventure and sport.
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