There is no effort without dust, sweat, blood and tenacity
Words by Jessica McWhirt
These anxieties hold me back. I take fewer chances because of them
I’m learning to embrace fear to become more tenacious. Mountain biking scares me. The kind of scared you feel in your stomach just as the rollercoaster is about to plummet along the track. It makes me feel both alive and fearful of what could happen if something should go wrong. My fears and worries are rooted in my mind. I think of what could happen during my mountain bike ride. I’m afraid I’ll break my neck. I worry I’ll look stupid or slow others down. I fear failing in races (and that means coming in anything other than first place). These anxieties hold me back. I take fewer chances because of them. I hesitate when it’d be easier to just go. I grip too tightly. My body is more rigid than the bike frame it sits on. It causes me to wreck, which reinforces my fears. One day I went out on a mountain bike ride as a slight drizzle soaked the ground. It was light enough to not soak my clothes and felt refreshing as I pedaled the six miles of dirt road to the singletrack. Up until this seemingly insignificant day, I had never mountain biked in the rain. As I hit the single track, the drizzle turned to drops and the rocks ahead of me shined like the rain was polishing them. I knew the rocks would be slippery. My worry got the best of me. Every slimy boulder I encountered propelled me back and forth, side to side. My tire slipped out from under me. The front tire had a mind of its own. I lost confidence in my bike handling as I swore out loud to myself. One of the first rules of mountain biking is looking where you want to go. You don’t look where you want to avoid. The rationale behind that is your body follows where your eyes look. There was a small section of rocks I normally have no issues pedaling over. This time was different. This time I stared at the slippery, shiny rock. This time I looked at the ledge I didn’t want to go over. This time I let my fear get the best of me. My eyes darted between the drop-off and the shiny rock as I pedaled over the feature. And because my body followed my eyes, my front wheel darted toward the ledge. As my wheel launched down the slope, I had to stop the freefall somehow. With my feet still attached to my pedals, I buried my right knee into the dirt and pinecones and dead leaves to stop from rolling downhill. Something tore in my right knee as the left side of my body kept trying to fall downhill. I slowed to a stop a few feet down from the trail, wrapped around my bike, covered in dirt. My sunglasses fogged up from being smushed against my hot cheeks. A warm, dull ache began in my right knee. There was a little blood oozing from my right knee. The longer I stared and inspected my knee, the dull ache became a sharp pain. I stood up and inspected my bike. My body took most of the fall, it seemed. No scratches or dents on the bike frame — only dirt smudged on my clothes and weeds wrapped in my shoes. I considered turning around, calling it quits for the day. I don’t know if I’m stubborn or tenacious, but I wiped off my body and pedaled to the top of the trail. Having tenacity means being able to see these falls, not as failures, but as stepping stones to becoming a stronger mountain biker. It’s having the ability to look past obstacles, literally, and keeping my eye on my goal. Being tenacious is withstanding disappointments and failures and growing from it. All the falling and failures and sucking and looking stupid lay the groundwork to becoming a confident and fast mountain biker. I just had to keep going. I had to refuse to submit to the idea I may never be good enough. There was another time I crashed, trying something new. Same trail, different crash. I crash on most rides, actually. It’s become more of an expectation than a surprise. I practiced letting the bike move beneath me instead of strangling it with my body. As I descended the single track, I felt good. I felt confident. I was rolling over rocks and loose sand. I was looking ahead, gliding over features. And then I didn’t.
That secret is embracing fear. The code to tenacity, to never giving up in the face of challenges and setbacks, is owning your fears.
The front wheel hit a boulder and I over-corrected. I still wanted the control. I tried steering another direction. I needed to know the bike couldn’t buck me off the saddle. I flew over the handlebars, and the left side of my body slammed against the ground. I scratched my elbow to smithereens. My left hip and thigh ached. The crash alert on my Garmin beeped. And you’re never oriented enough to figure out how to turn it off immediately. I fumbled with my device until I turned off the blaring tone. I lost a band that secured my Garmin to the handlebar. I raked through the dirt in a hopeless attempt to find it as blood gushed from my left elbow, staining my clothes. My saddle faced away from the frame like it had an attitude problem. I gave it two hard hits to straighten it out again. The rest of the bike seemed unscathed. I stood there for a moment, processing what happened. How did I let that happen? What did I do wrong this time? Again, I dusted off the bike and myself and got back on. I held on a little tighter than normal. I slowed down. My body shook in pain. I continued to make silly mistakes descending the singletrack. That night I bought knee pads. By the following week, I signed up for a full-day mountain bike clinic, hoping to learn the secret to better mountain biking. That secret is embracing fear. The code to tenacity, to never giving up in the face of challenges and setbacks, is owning your fears. I continue to mountain bike even though it scares me. How do we learn to be less afraid of things? Especially what can send us to the hospital like mountain biking down a staircase? I’ve stayed curious. Staying curious quells fear. I’m always wondering the who, what, when, where, why, and how: Who can help me become a better mountain biker? What can I do to learn new skills? When is the best time (mentally/physically) for me to practice? Where do I struggle the most? Why am I scared? How can I overcome these obstacles (both physical and mental)? Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Although he was referring to The Great Depression, fear is an emotion and emotions aren’t real. When we realize fear is in our mind, we can accept failures and setbacks because we stay curious about them. We question our fears instead of allowing them to control us. Instead of being fearful of hurting myself, I learn how to better control my bike. I take lessons and attend clinics to adopt better bike handling skills. I practice. I teeter on the edge outside of my comfort zone and do a little more each time. When I feel comfortable, I take another step outside my comfort zone. Rinse and repeat. Instead of being fearful of sucking, I study more techniques. I practice again and adjust my methods. When I cannot overtake an obstacle, I try again. I learn from my mistakes. Instead of being fearful of failing in races, I look at it as a lesson. Failing is a teaching opportunity. It’s a chance to become faster. I take what I learn and use that data to try something new, to keep improving. Teddy Roosevelt delivered an address to the French citizens and politicians in 1910. He directed this passage toward the cynics, the people who ridiculed those trying to make the world a better place: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strived valiantly; who errs, who comes again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. I know my mountain biking isn’t changing the world, but the sentiment behind this passage means I can’t let my own cynicism and fears stop me. I know embracing fear and becoming more tenacious is like working a muscle. It gets stronger the more you work it. Like squats to strengthen my legs, embracing fear and doing what scares me, will make me more tenacious. I won’t be pulled apart easily. Even if I suffer setbacks and failures and injuries, I stare fear down and give it my best shot.
Jessica is based in Denver, Colorado, which is the perfect place to ride a bike. She races her bikes on the road, mountain, gravel, and Zwift and still holds out hope that one day she may get paid for it. If she’s not riding a bike, she’s writing about it on her blog at jessicamcwhirt.com.
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