Mountain Biking to Mend: The Clarity of Outdoor Therapy for Vets at a 24 Hour Race

After two decades of war, military veterans look to the outdoors as they search for healing beyond the pharmacy.
The author taking on 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. Photo courtesy of Ben Davis

The 24 Hours of Old Pueblo experience came with more sleep than I’d anticipated. As our team of four alternated between 16-mile race laps and a couple hours of sleep, the bigger surprise was the day-to-night temperature swing of the Arizona desert. Pulling myself out of a sleeping bag, still in chamois bibs, I tried to avoid waking riders who were asleep on ground pads and in truck beds.

At 2:45 AM, our camp was a sea of fold-up chairs, coolers, and bike pumps. A total of 16 competitors were camped at our site, most of whom I’d known less than a day, and all of whom had been involved in the Global War on Terror (GWOT); Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and various other austere locations.

Soft pedaling to the check-in tent to start my lap, I determined my choice of jacket to be overkill. Silhouetted against a half-mile of Christmas lights, racers were returning from the course in short sleeves, some with vests, but none in jackets.

I entered the tent where outbound riders await their inbound teammates. I wished my partner Ian, an Iraq Vet, would pick up the pace, however, the warmth of the space heaters and the comfort of my white plastic chair made the wait bearable.

Eventually, in a black Voler windshell, he arrived with little to say other than a comment on temperature and a complaint about his dropper seat-post.

Riding a single lap at 24 Hours of Old Pueblo isn’t particularly difficult. The course is fast, with 1,500ft of punchy climbing and a “whiskey tree” halfway through for those who wish to partake.

The lap is as fast or as slow as you’re willing to pedal. On our team, there seemed to be an unspoken expectation of going fast that put the whole experience in the ‘hard’ category.

I’ve long thought riding single-track at night offers unique clarity. With light from the handlebars only touching the path ahead, there’s no chance for peripheral distractions. This singular focus makes the miles seem productive; thoughts become clearer and solutions to problems present more easily.

Seeing only the dirt and rocks ahead of my tire, my mind found its way to the question of why so many GWOT Vets had gathered around riding bikes.

Navigating Traumatic Brain Injury in the Outdoors

For two decades, our military members came and went overseas. They were husbands, wives, sons and daughters, parents, and colleagues. They went, they came back; tried to keep their home lives intact, and went again. Some went for as long as 18 months, and some went and never came back.

The Global War on Terror was complicated and still is to this day.

Now, two years after a largely criticized pullout of Afghanistan, costing the lives of 13 Americans and 183 Afghans, GWOT Vets are unpacking and processing the experiences that took place overseas.

According to the Department of Defense, 200,000 military members will leave active duty in 2023, and with many of them will be the consequences of IED exposure, post-traumatic stress (PTS), tested relationships, and every combination of physical injury imaginable.

Many will seek a replacement for the intensity of war, and others will do everything they can to distance themselves from it.

Kenneth Stone, an Army vet who I spent time with that day, told me, “When I got out, I got a job in construction. I was having trouble with cognition, memory, and various impacts from a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) I’d had. A doctor asked me what I did in my free time, and I told him I’d grown up riding bikes. He encouraged me to try getting back into it as a way to mitigate some of the issues I was having. Six months later, my mental clarity and outlook had improved tenfold. I thought, if this works for me, I’m sure it can work for other vets.”

These days, Kenny runs a non-profit called Soldiers on Single Track. The non-profit has chapters all over the country, bringing together local Vets to ride, race, and find community around bikes.

The Desire for Options Outside the Pharmacy

Making my way through a fast gravel section and through a steep left turn, branches from White Carob trees connected above the trail and made what felt like a tunnel, I thought about using the outdoors as a way of healing. 

I relied heavily on the outdoors in my own transition from the military. There was never a moment of revelation on how exactly it all worked, but I know that it did.

Earlier in the day, I had raised the topic with Ian Crumley, who volunteers with the Veteran’s Outdoor Advocacy Group (VOAG).

“I think it’s a handful of things,” he told me. “The whole idea of mountain biking creates a shared mission; it’s you, your group of friends, and a mission to finish something, be it a race or just a ride. There’s also risk involved, which I think many vets find cathartic. You get out and get a 9-5 job; I think you start to miss that feeling of risk in your life. And there’s a physical element to it all as well. Getting out in the mountains, pushing your body, your mind; it makes you feel alive. That’s a lot of what people did in the military.”

VOAG is a 501C3 and 501C4 that advocates for the use of outdoor recreation therapy as an adjunct treatment in veteran mental health. “We’re looking to make a systemic change.” Ian went on. “What we’ve been doing, the heavy reliance on pharmaceuticals, it isn’t enough. Vets deserve options.”

The organization currently sits on a congressionally mandated task force charged with reporting on the therapeutic benefits of outdoor recreation and identifying barriers between vets and our nation’s public lands.

“We’d like to see change within the VA system” Ian later told me. “There are thousands of nonprofits doing incredible work to help vets access the outdoors. Fly fishing, paddle boarding, hunting and fishing, you name it, it exists. Almost all of it is backed by donors and various people who believe in the impact. We’re pushing for adoption from the healthcare systems, the VA and anywhere vet’s receive care.” 

Where Research Meets Testimony

Eventually, I made the road which marks the halfway point and the start of the only real climb on the 24 HOP loop. A half dozen race supporters sat under tents, asleep in camping chairs and wrapped in blankets.

Realizing my lap was near its end, I tried to arrive at something conclusive with was drawing so many veterans into outdoor sport. What role does it play in the post-GWOT experience?

Often, conversations on the topic of outdoor recreation and its impact on mental health arrive at the question of what research exists on the idea.

Research and literature on the physiological response to outdoor exposure have long been studied and are somewhat commonplace, as are studies focused on understanding the connection between brain injuries and psychological disorders. However, in recent years, we’ve seen more research focused on correlating the two and how one might influence the other.

A recent study out of the U.K. stated that following a randomized controlled trial, “Veterans participating in outdoor recreation activities obtained a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms.” Simultaneously, we’re seeing a sharp increase in resources dedicated to understanding TBI through institutions like the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), a direct result of the injuries sustained over the last two decades of war.

Seeing is believing

Climbing into the saddle that wraps “24 Hour Town”, I found my way through a technical section that precedes the memorable and commonly photographed “rock drop.” I was surprised by the number of supporters, beer enthusiasts, and hecklers still engaged in what was now the early morning hours.

For 23 years, friends, families, and in our case a community of veterans gather in the Sonoran Desert on the third weekend in February to participate in the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo. Each are motivated by different factors, and with varying expectations around what they hope to get out of riding laps through the night.

What I realized is we likely have much to learn about the intricacies and unique circumstances that continue to bring veterans outdoors.      

However, I’ve seen what I needed to see to believe in the benefits. I’ve heard enough testimony and experienced enough healing in my own life to know that whether it’s riding bikes or the outdoors in general, this is worth advocating for.

Author’s note: Special thanks to the AZ Trail Vets Association and the hard work they do to connect those who have served our country with fellow service members and the Arizona National Scenic Trail.