Inside The Mental Process Of Pikes Peak Record Holder Carlin Dunne.
WORDS & IMAGES Chris Nelson ILLUSTRATIONS Adam Fitzgerald
Our friend Carlin Dunne, 36, died yesterday after he lost control of his Ducati V-4 Streetfighter near the finish line of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. After the defending “King of the Mountain” hit a bump in the road less than a quarter-mile from the finish line, he crashed and succumbed to his injuries. We’ve shed our tears for Carlin Dunne, who was one of the people we respected most in this industry. He had recently sold his Ducati dealership in Santa Barbara, California, and was looking forward to chasing bigger, better things for himself; he would’ve been even greater than he was. Carlin was humble, open, respectful, and kind, always, and was one of the most talented motorcyclists in history. We know he died doing the thing he was made to do, but it doesn’t mean it should’ve happened, and it’s a terrible loss and a terrible sadness to feel. We miss you, Carlin, but we’ll see you again.
The following article originally appeared in Issue 024 of Iron & Air Magazine.
The silence has Sonny worried. I watch his ears dip and perk, his eyes dart as he looks for his owner. We’re on top of a 40-foot boulder, looking into a bright morning sun as we try to spot 33-year-old Carlin Dunne, when Dunne jumps his trials motorcycle between two other boulders in the distance. He stops and calls for the 2-year-old, adopted Blue Heeler, who hops from rock to rock, obediently following his owner.
From the top of Lizard’s Mouth Rock in Los Padres National Forest, just north of Dunne’s home in Santa Barbara, I watch the Ducati dealership owner, Baja 500 winner, and Pikes Peak record holder wheelie up rutted trails and endo over berms on his small, stand-up bike, wondering what went through his head this morning. What did he do to be able to ride so extremely, so spectacularly, so cutthroat? What’s his process?
It’s my belief that the process you have before riding influences your riding experience and is as significant as the act of riding itself. Take, for example, a painter’s process of preparing a canvas, setting lighting, and laying out materials. It can be as interesting and as important as the work he or she creates, so much so that it spawned an entire genre called “process art” that celebrates prep, groundwork, and setup instead of the finished product. Our processes affect our physiological and psychological selves and help center us, like NBA player Karl Malone murmuring to himself before every free throw. We should note the existence of our processes, enjoy watching them evolve, and question their importance to our success and contentedness in life.
Dunne finds his success and contentedness in motorcycling. His dad raced bikes in South Africa before moving to America and opening the Ducati dealership where Dunne now works. Dunne had success as a teen racing singles until a nasty 100-mph crash at Daytona shattered his femur, just one year before his best friend, Stuart Stratton, died during a race at the same track. He moved to professional mountain biking for a few years before getting back into motorcycling and taking a then-new Ducati Multistrada 1200 S to Pike’s Peak. In 2011, his first time out, he claimed the all-time course record for motorcycles, and then went back the next year to win on the all-electric Lightning LS-218. Most recently he won the 2016 Baja 500 Pro Ironman Moto Class, riding 477 miles solo across Baja in less than twelve and a half hours, about three hours less than it took the next guy in his class. He’ll be back in Baja this fall to do the grueling 1000 all by himself. Dunne is a cross-disciplined rider who steps into a new niches of motorcycling and almost immediately finds success, which makes me wonder if his process is a constant that helps him be an exemplary motorcyclist.
Dunne whistles for Sonny as he loads his bike into the bed of his Toyota Tacoma, and we all pile into the truck. On the way to breakfast I ask Dunne what attracts him to trials. “It’s like chess,” he says. “It’s small moves, adding all the moves together to make your way up a section. There’s not much room for error, but on the whole it’s fairly relaxed. And it’s small victories, invisible to anyone else.” I ask him to elaborate. “Motorcycling simplifies life, even though the act of what we’re doing is a fairly complicated set of motions. It’s a bit of a blissful moment. And then you take a step back and suddenly there’s all of life’s spinning plates.” He has lots of plates in his life; on top of running the dealership, Dunne trains with a triathlete three times a week, rock-climbs once a week, heads to Zaca Station once a week for two hours of motocross, and does trials and road cycling as often as possible.
“All of a sudden you’re there and focused, and you’re more human than you’ve ever been because you’re forced to fight or take flight.”
I ask if Dunne thinks motorcycling is more a physical or mental challenge. “It’s more mental than it is physical,” he says. “Your survival mechanisms start shutting things down to stop you, so you need that one part of your mind to say, ‘Keep going.’” He begins to tell me about the Baja 500 as we pull into downtown Santa Barbara. He’d raced in Baja before but always on a team, never alone. His story starts triumphant and tinseled with gold but quickly morphs into something black and blue and searing as Dunne talks about the anguish he endured. Not just physical exhaustion but emotional as well. He says racing Baja alone triggers an emotional onslaught that spans a lifetime of experience, taking you from the highest highs to the lowest lows, “stirring up shit from the past you didn’t even know you were carrying with you.” When he talks about the dead guy he came across in the desert, a fatigued racer who fell and never got back up, Dunne gets teary-eyed and takes a few minutes to himself.
He comes back, smiling his frustratingly handsome smile, and blurts out that he’s not sure if he has a process, that there’s no “two taps of the helmet” thing he does. I’m a bit worried, seeing how that’s the whole point of this, but eventually Dunne steers the conversation toward flow — a sort of spiritual rhythm he feels when he’s out riding, becoming better aligned and more in tune with his surroundings. Flow is a concept Croatian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has dedicated his studies to, describing flow as a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities. In flow moments, he says, “identity disappears from consciousness” and in its place comes a concentrated sense of order, intrinsic motivation, and inner clarity. “All of a sudden you’re there and focused, and you’re more human than you’ve ever been because you’re forced to fight or take flight,” says Dunne. “It intensifies your whole sensory palette to where you’re just so spot-on that you can smell everything and feel every vibration and you’re eating it up and you’re hungry for it.”
Our senses have strange interrelationships that blur the line between mental and physical stimulation. “Whatever is psychological is also physiological,” says Jeff Huber, PhD, professor of practice in Indiana University’s department of psychological and brain studies, pointing to the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure buried in the center of our brains that gathers stimuli from our senses and our bodies to construct appropriate emotional and physical reactions. Huber says our psychological and physiological parts “are more often in synch rather than at odds,” and calls those times when the mental perfectly meshes with the physical your “peak moments." Or call it "ecstasy" or "moment of enlightenment" or whatever suits you best — or use Dunne and Csikszentmihalyi’s logic and call it "achieving flow."
I ask Dunne what his flow feels like when he lines up for a race like Pike’s Peak. “It’s uncomfortable. It’s not a great feeling. You’re worried. You know it’s going to be hard. You know you’re going to do battle. You know there’s a lot at risk. You know a lot of people are watching. You know you could get hurt, or even worse. It’s this weird discomfort, but you find a way to power through it. You shut it down and say, ‘OK, this is happening right now, in three, two … this is happening.’ I have to know that when I’m lining up, I put in the time and worked to get to this moment. You don’t want to start with doubt, you’ve done everything you can ...”
“The process dictates the end result. The better the process, the better the result. The specifics of the process have evolved and changed, but the purpose of the process has remained the same. It’s self-preparation.”
I stop Dunne and ask if maybe he has a process he hasn’t yet recognized, one that helps catalyze his flow. He falls quiet for a few minutes before nodding. “The process dictates the end result,” he says. “The better the process, the better the result. The specifics of the process have evolved and changed, but the purpose of the process has remained the same. It’s self-preparation.” I challenge him to remember his process when he was teenager lined up at Daytona, blissfully unaware he’d soon have a shattered femur. “At 16, I would set my zippers in a certain way and work down my kit, making sure all my stuff was there. Then do a self-assessment, then do a mental assessment, not nearly at the same depth as I do today; I was piss and vinegar, ready to go. I was a ball of emotion without context or life experience to organize my emotions or assess them. I wasn’t quite worried about the loss of life. I couldn’t look at the scar and know that life is a valuable thing.”
Curious to know how that process has evolved over the past 17 years, I ask him to tell me what he did before racing the Baja 500, understanding that months of physical training were obviously part of his process. “I did a meditation exercise,” he says. “It’s kind of a silly thing but I closed my eyes, pictured black, and envisioned an orange spinning in space. Then I stopped the orange and controlled it, left to right, and then I examined the pores. I kept it suspended in space but wouldn’t let it spin and looked at all the pores on it. Just looked at all the pores, and then let it spin again. I don’t even know where that came from, but I used it and have been using it since.” I’m dumbfounded, because Dunne seems dumbfounded. It’s like he’s always had a process, one that’s taken on different forms as he’s grown, but it’s like he’s only now aware of its omnipresence.
It’s murky, this process thing, because there are no defined boundaries, it has no beginning or end. Physical preparation leads to mental confidence, which leads to physical readiness that inspires mental clarity, so on and so forth, forever. While our processes can originate in our physical selves, they seem to ultimately serve our needier, more volatile psychological selves. “It’s always been about acquiring that mental state,” says Dunne. “It may not be completely apparent, but it’s finding the right state of mind.”
Process is the unseen keystone of the riding experience. It can seem as simple as a physical quirk — a neck crack, a shallow breath, a throttle blip — but be infinitely more complex beneath the surface, an emotional iceberg that silently holds sway over you. A process can help prepare you for something unimaginably challenging, like climbing Pike’s Peak or racing off-road across Baja, or be the Kodachrome that helps draw color out of even the least exciting ride.
As I pull on my helmet and get back on my bike to head home to LA, I focus on my own process, closing my eyes and telling myself, "Picture peacefulness.” I don’t see an orange spinning in space, but I see the boulders and succulents and bright sun in Los Padres. No wonder Dunne and Sonny play there so often.
This article was originally featured in Issue #024 of Iron & Air Magazine