“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda
“You just gotta ride the ride you’re given,” said my hero Dave Wiens, his hand on my shoulder, mere moments after I’d lost my lunch but a few feet away from where we stood, both of us trying to extract more oxygen molecules from high-altitude air that felt like it was being doled out through a flattened straw.
We were resting at about 12,600 feet along the side of the Columbine mine mountain bike trail near Leadville, Colo., and Wiens – who once had been beaten by and also another time soundly beaten Lance Armstrong on this very trail – was trying to encourage me as I did a course run-through for my first Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, in 2012.
I have been applying for or racing to qualify to get into the LT100 race every year since 2002. Bikers can get in only through a lottery – in an average year, more than 10,000 enter for less than 2,000 slots – by competing in time trials, or by paying a huge amount of money to try to keep up with Wiens and other professionals in a coaching camp, and needless to say, it’s tough no matter what. The year I initially made it through I was stymied by my first battle with breast cancer, in 2006. Then I trained to enter again in 2009, but was done in when a truck ran a light as I walked across the street one morning; my shoulder and knee were shattered. After that multi-year recovery, I got in again for 2012, even though I knew full well that my cancer was back.
With my doctor’s ok, I raced anyway, but I didn’t get the coveted buckle, which only goes to those who cross the finish line after doing all 100 miles in less than 12 hours. So in 2013, after surviving cancer the second time, I trained for another bid, only to fall while careening down Columbine, shattering my knee again and courting a bone infection. In 2014, I didn’t make the lottery. This year, though, I’m in again and training harder than ever. This is my year, lucky try No. 13.
The thing is, there is nothing about me that says “mountain bike racer.” I’m short and squat and have a body shaped like a potato with toothpicks for limbs. Oh, and did I mention that a childhood bone tumor ate away my tibia, and it’s mostly made out of titanium? Which makes that leg way shorter than the other, and also means I’m not a good candidate for clipless pedals, by most accounts a must-have for serious racing.
None of this should make you feel sorry for me – because if you do, I will laugh very hard and tell you that I have the best life on the planet. I’m still here! Plenty of people who have had cancer or been hit by cars are not. So I’ve never spent a second of my amazing life feeling sorry for myself.
The reason I’m sharing this is that when freelance writers sidle up to me at workshops or email to complain that it’s “impossible” to break into travel writing or they’re having a hard time getting motivated, I want to say, “Really? Let me tell you what it’s like to race against professional mountain bikers up the side of a mountain in freezing rain to nearly 13,000 feet for 100 miles while you’re actively battling cancer.”
Here’s what it’s like: It’s awesome! No, I’m serious! Why? Because when I’m doing it, I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing at that moment.
Don’t think I’m not sympathetic to the difficulties of the travel-writing business, though – I know it can be tough. But if I can be a mountain bike racer, then you can be a travel writer. The question is: How do you get there from here?
You have to want it.
By “want it,” I mean enough to work for it. I don’t mean the kind of wanting it where you tell your friends it’s what you do, but really you just travel a lot and then wish somehow a byline would magically happen. When I chat with Great Escape Publishing success stories, it always comes down to the fact that they wanted it. And then they did what it took to make it happen.
Break your goals down into manageable chunks.
Mountain bike racers don’t just start out one day pedaling to the top of a 13,000-foot-high mountain. Ha. Each season, I don’t even start out being able to get to the top of some of the tiny roads barely longer than a driveway near my house. Every year, I slowly, painfully make my way around town, first doing a few easy, slow rides on the paved loops, and then I work my way over to the trails. I follow a training plan that lines out what I need to do each day to achieve my long-term goal of finishing that race in the right amount of time.
In fact, to help you figure out a smart way to break down the steps to getting published, I’m about to offer a Spring Travel Writing Internship through Great Escape Publishing that will help you do exactly what I’m talking about: work through manageable chunks with templates and assignments that pinpoint the necessary steps to achieve your goals.
Say you will do it, and then do it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into freelancers who tell me how much they want to become a travel writer. They really, really, really want to become a travel writer. It’s their dream. So I ask them, “How many queries have you sent out this year?”
“Well,” they’ll say, – and already they’re looking around behind me for an escape route – “I just don’t know where to send this story; it’s really unusual.” Or, “I’m hoping to get it out soon.” Or, “I want to go on a few more trips first, and then I’ll get on it.”
I call baloney.
Sure, I might have a day when I’m sore, or I look outside and it’s rainy and darn it, I just don’t feel like biking or running to train. So I might let myself not train that day. But two days in a row, and then I’m not really training for the LT100 anymore, am I?
It happens that fast.
So every day that you let go by when you don’t send out queries or you don’t write, you are another day closer to not being a travel writer anymore. So get moving!
That’s right: I’m here today to remind you of all the clichés – because I know all too well what they mean. Life is short. This is not a dress rehearsal. And while it’s true that you gotta ride the ride you’re given, there’s nothing saying you can’t choose which trails you go down.
So choose the ones that lead to making your dreams come true!