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.
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.