Crying Shame

by 29

I am 38 years old and I am trying not to cry.

I am on an unfamiliar trail on an unfamiliar bike. I’m somewhat under biked for the terrain, but then so is everyone else in the group. Sure, one of them is walking down the biggest rocky drops, but on the whole the rest of the group are on their bikes and waxing lyrical about the sick trails, and generally fist bumping their way to impossibly high levels of stoke. Meanwhile I’ve given up. What’s the point in getting back on for a few metres when round the next bend there’s bound to be something that will have me off and walking again?

Every possible form of self doubt wells up under a layer of anger and frustration at my inability to get my head and body into riding mode. I shouldn’t be here; I am spoiling everyone’s fun; I am dead weight; I am taking up a place that someone else with a modicum of talent would have enjoyed. I thought I had improved my skills, yet I can’t even ride the most basic of features. I have spent more time carrying my bike than riding. Excitement at the prospect of my first big mountain adventure has turned to despondency at being defeated by feature after feature on the trail. I am angry at myself, at my bike, at my trembling hands. I don’t just want to cry, I want to curl up on the ground and howl.

My trail mate’s soothing encouragement is exactly what I need, and I’m so pathetically grateful it makes me want to cry all the more.

Inside I am churning mass of bleak, black emotion, and it’s fighting to get out. My eyes aren’t just prickling, they’re positively stabbing, and I’m desperately willing the tears not to spring from my eyes and roll down my cheeks. I almost manage but one escapes and lodges itself under the nose piece of my glasses. My ears are hot and singing with the pressure inside my head. My bottom lip is quivering and to keep it still I bite it until it hurts. I crush my fingers into fists, though my gloves keep my fingernails from digging into my palms in the way I had hoped would transfer my mental pain into a physical one.

After a few moments of standing quietly at the back of the group while they size up possible photographic opportunities, a fellow rider senses my unhappiness and starts gently, beautifully, telling me I’m doing fine. Not to lose faith, just to settle into it, tackle the bits I can, leave the bits I can’t, accept it, don’t stress. I’m not spoiling anything, the trail is hard, I’m doing great. Keep as relaxed as I can and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. His words are soothing like bedtime milk and honey, only I don’t dare to really let them sink in beyond this defensive wall I’m trying to keep built round me, holding my tears in. I can’t respond, certain that any sound I make will be a whimper that opens the floodgates. I bite my lip harder, avoid eye contact, stare fixedly at a point on the ground, trying to breathe without letting the tears flow. The effort of keeping it all in is giving me a headache. My trail mate’s soothing encouragement is exactly what I need, and I’m so pathetically grateful it makes me want to cry all the more. And then the fact that I want to cry because I am so stupid and helpless and pathetic makes me want to cry more still. I am trapped in vicious circle of abject unhappiness, and in the the blackest most boiling and burning point in the centre of all this emotion is the thought that I am a girl, the only girl on this ride, and I will be damned if I’m going to cry like one.

Sun through the clouds - like support from your friends?
Sun through the clouds – like support from your friends?

It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this need to cry, and I hate it. I hate it while it’s happening, the humiliation of revealing and admitting the depths of my insecurities. I hate the effort it takes to control it and not give in to crumpled sobbing. I hate myself for being weak. For not being like the guys I ride with and just embracing the challenge. I embarrass myself.

So, why tell you of this lowest of low moments? Why not try and pretend it didn’t happen, that I bossed the trail and that everything is awesome, always?

First up, because I suspect I’m not the only person who has these moments of doubt, trail wibble, and lost confidence. Perhaps if we all admitted to them a bit more often it would make having them less difficult. We wouldn’t feel like the only loser on the trail. With a bit of support we might even become better riders and have fewer crises of confidence.

Secondly, I am truly grateful to that trail mate for spotting I was in trouble, talking me down, and keeping on topping up the words of encouragement for the rest of the day. For providing helpful suggestions without being patronising, for hanging back and showing me the lines to follow where things were tricky. As a result, I got through it, recovered some confidence, and had a blast the next day. I even laughed as I slid rear wheel sideways down a rooty downhill track. I whooped as I cleaned a corner everyone else had slipped off. For me, that timely injection of perspective saved the rest of the trip.

Maybe as riders we should be better at supporting those when they need it. To take the time not just to mouth an empty platitude, but to really check in on our fellow riders and find ways to help them through the rough patch. And perhaps we all need to be a bit better at ‘fessing up to when we’re struggling, to all be more honest about the days where we’re not feeling it. When our nerve has gone, or we just can’t get into the flow.

I am 38 years old, and sometimes I will cry.

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Comments (29)

  1. Wow – great writing Hannah.

    That brilliantly articulates how I have felt on more than one occasion. I can confess to shedding the odd silent tear, half out of despair, half out of rage at my own incompetence, cowardice, lack of strength or whatever else has transformed my day from euphoric plans to abject misery. Not just on the bike, either – I’ve felt the same surfing and kayaking.

    On the bright side, as I’ve got older I’ve become more willing to accept that some days my mojo gets misplaced and I’m actually a perfectly average rider having an off day.

    I’m 50, and I have (and will) cry

  2. I think you’ve just nailed it with this piece of writing. Thanks.

  3. You get by with, a little help from your friends.

  4. You’ve hit the nail on the head there.

    I used to feel that I was slowing the group down at times. I had my “Road to Damascus” moment on Stoodley Pike a couple of years back (you may even have been on the ride Hannah) when the rest had dropped easily down some ridiculous looking chute and I only went because they had, knowing full well that I was going to have a wreck. 30 seconds later I’m on the deck with a broken bone in my hand.

    Now if I just do it at my own pace. If I don’t fancy it I don’t do it. If I think I’m slowing people down I don’t care.

    Looking round the group though I suspect that quite a few feel the same way at times.

    I’m going to forward this to a mate who was beating himself up about not being able to get up a climb last night. He did alright. There were 10 of us on the ride and roughly 63,000,000 in the country who were not. That puts him somewhere near the top of the leader board.

    I don’t cry BTW, but I do swear. A lot.

  5. Really enjoying your contributions at the mo Hannah, it’s great to hear a different perspective.

  6. Great read; applies throughout life it just happened to be on a bike this time. #lookafteryourmates

  7. Very good read and very true for all of us at times.

  8. Had a similar experience on cut gate a few years back. I was riding on my own but fluffing every single trail obstacle. Felt like throwing the bike down cranberry clough.

    Went back a month later and loved it. Some days you’ve got it others you don’t.

  9. Oh I so know this feeling. In particular at 12hr race a few years ago I did a sighting lap the day before with some friends. These friends were all a lot fitter than me and cruised along having a lovely time whilst I red-lined it trying to keep up.

    The feeling of despondency as they kept chatting away as they pulled away leaving me behind just made me feel excluded from the group. This is turn led to that downward spiral into the tight throat, closed lungs feeling of not wanting to cry. I returned to the start arena and went straight to the massage tent where I got my legs (and head) sorted out. I calmed down enough to return to the group but that feeling never left me.

    We weren’t out racing, it wouldn’t have hurt to slow down and include all of us. To this day I always look to the slowest or least confident in the group, if it’s not me, and do everything I can to boost their confidence. It’s just the right thing to do.

  10. Top writing. Valuable honesty. Thank you.
    Terrible what we can do to ourselves at times.

  11. Everyone – thanks for the really lovely comments. I was in two minds about publishing this for fear of baring a bit too much soul. Your comments have made me glad I risked it. Next time I have a trailside wibble I’ll know I’m not alone. Cheers.

  12. While working as a guide I was always aware of the people at the back. The people at the front are the ones you are drawn to focus on as they’re the ones taking risks, the ones where the banter is the loudest and the ones that are egging everyone on. However, if the folk at the back aren’t enjoying the ride that I figured I’d failed at my job.

    The other thing was that the confident riders usually didn’t need any sort of persuasion: no ‘you can do it!’ or ‘You can do it, but I wouldn’t try today.’ But that person at the back, the first time they cleaned *that* corner or dropped down *that* section, *that* smile made the whole job worthwhile.

  13. That felt very familiar to me too. Thanks for sharing.

  14. I think Hannah has identified something here its not just “the Fear” but another layer of beating yourself up?

    10 years ago I had a big off coming down Jacobs Ladder no broken bones but lots of cuts & bruises including biting through part of my tongue.
    The stupid bit is I didn’t want to go on the ride as I had had a OTB the week before but had only gone as I had promised my mate a lift and didn’t want to let him down.
    Between winces on the way back to the car he said he hadn’t wanted to come but felt obliged as I had offered him a lift.
    From that day onwards we promised to be honest if we wanted to sack off on a ride.
    I used to get into a right lather the night before some rides playing the possible failures I would have over in my head.
    Now I’m in my 50’s I don’t care if I can’t clear something as it was never the type of riding I enjoyed in the first place, I just like being out in the fresh air looking at the view.

  15. My username says it all now in my 50’s I’m aware of my limitations and try hard not to exceed them, I’d rather ride again tomorrow. Great article

  16. Weirdly, my moment like this happened near Jacob’s ladder too, although it was the climb up to it rather than the descent.

    It had been a tough ride up to this point, but I’d ridden everything, just slower on the descents than the rest of the group. The first part of the climb up had been fine, just steep, but it then turns into horrible, rutted, boggy singletrack. Due to tiredness, I plowing into every bump and getting my pedals caught on every rut. Out of sheer frustrating I ended up booting a rut and shouted “F**k off” at it, before I had a sit down to compose myself.

    By the time I got to the top of the climb I’d had enough and wanted to go home, so didn’t really enjoy one of the best descents in the country. I looked back at the times I got on Strava and I’d done fairly well, the group I was with were just particularly fast, which made me feel a bit better about it afterwards.

  17. Don’t cry like a girl, cry like a human! It’s what makes us, us…… 😉

  18. Hmm – well I had a day like that just the other friday with the Singletrack team and some other ‘lifers’ on your local trails. A physically bad day became a mentally bad day as well and in the end I wasn’t sure I could even ride a bike. So I cut it short and headed back with some staffers at half time, which was a good but hard to live with decision. Chipps was really great and I very much appreciate his kindness on the day. The coda is that I did the Exmoor Scott Mtb marathon last weekend. it was brutal (everyone said that) but I got round and had a total blast. I’m always surprised by how quickly a physical problem becomes a mental problem in our demanding sport and the consequences rapidly escalate. So we all need someone to ask us if we’re ok and in return we need to be honest if we’re not ok and say so.

  19. Never contributed anything to the site or forum before but just wanted to say great piece of writing Hannah. I think we’ve all felt like that at some point but you expressed it eloquently and with great courage.

  20. soulful stuff Hannah, keep doing what your doing, always a good read. on a lighter note just watched the mtb rage on you tube as suggested by joe g . dear me ha ha ha !!! let it all out mate let it all out!

  21. It’s the soul that makes STW different and inspiring. Keep it coming!

  22. Great article. I just came here to recount how I felt many of these emotions this weekend while riding the Exmoor marathon (fist bump to @nxgater for completing it too). I was under-fit and unprepared for the unrelenting pounding from the terrain. It was only my riding buddies that got me round that day – in 7 hours – as I was physically and mentally destroyed before I even reached the feed station.

  23. Great piece of writing. Really enjoyed that. Definitely resonated with me too. I’ve been at the front of the pack and at the back. (Different groups of course). Giving some encouraging words as well as permission to walk a bit or even go back early is invaluable.
    Also – giving yourself permission to have a “bad day” is good too. Some days you’re just not “on”. 🙂

  24. Thank you for writing this. I’m always the one at the back, the one struggling, the one watching everyone pull effortlessly away from them. I had a total meltdown just the other day, defeated by absolutely everything ‘fun’ that the trail had to offer, and out came the tears, really big, sniffy, loud sobbing! But for all those days, there’s a pal with an encouraging word, there to celebrate the small triumphs and to commiserate when courage or skill deserts me – it helps to know I’m not alone. Keep up the good work!

  25. Thank you for this, I cried on Sunday, the mud was making me so angry, I’d crashed, damaged my rear mech hanger and everything was too much effort. Husband shoved jelly babies into my mouth and I carried on riding, smiling again by the end…

  26. Well said, and well done for saying it.

    Like everybody here, I’ve been there, on the bike, out for a run, hiking or even just trying to get around Tesco’s.

    We are more than flesh and bones, and we go down as well as up.Always look out for your group, give them the support they need, whether its a pick me up, hold my hand or take the piss moment, use your judgment and everybody will have a better time. With the right reassurance everybody can be awesome.

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