Top 5 Most Valuable Life Lessons learned from the Sport of Cycling
I have said it before and I will say it again; I have possibly learned more about myself in the last 2 ¾ years since taking up the sport of cycling, than in the rest of my 37 years. Crazy, right?
I bought my first road bike October 2013, not even knowing if I would enjoy road cycling (I literally just took a chance on it); I had no idea what was lying ahead of me! A rollercoaster inclusive of sweat, blood, tears, highs, lows, victories, accidents, doubts, loneliness, travel, frustrations, connecting with people across the world, the suffering… in fact, the list goes on.
Just to make it clear, the lessons have not been learnt from riding leisurely from A to B, from the weekly cookie ride or from doing any pedalling within my comfort zone! In fact, everything I have learnt, the self-discoveries, the mental and physical growth has happened OUTSIDE MY COMFORT ZONE.
It all happened quite quickly. My first ever ride happened to be the 65K Spinneys92 Build-Up ride (seeding for UAE’s largest cycling challenge); I placed 10th (of ca. 60 women). After one month, I took part in the 98K final Build-Up ride (which felt like the longest ride ever); and crossed the line as the first woman. After two months, I took to the start line with the UAE based elite women at the 2013 Spinneys92 Cycling Challenge; and placed 9th.
My head was spinning. My body urging for more. My inner workout warrior curious.
I wondered… If I can achieve this with almost no training and zero experience, then how far might I be able to go if throw my all into it? Would I have what it takes to be an athlete?
There, at 35 years old, I made a conscious decision to make cycling ‘a competitive sport’.
My first goal, get on a podium!
And that’s where the journey really began….
I consciously chose my cycling journey to be built on self-discipline, focus, structure, planning, dedication and pain; withdrawal from the social cycling community for most of the time; and traveling to learn, explore and push boundaries. I consciously decided to give it my best shot. I knew it was going to be hard. But I never knew how hard, how many times I was going to fall hard (literally speaking) nor the valuable life lessons I was about to learn. Amongst the many things I have learnt, many of them obvious, I will share with you some of the most important lessons transferable to other aspects of life:
#1 Managing Expectations
I used to set my expectations in line with my efforts and the work that had gone into my training. As many of you know, the conditions of a cycle race can change in a flash; one small mistake, by oneself, another rider or an external factor, and everything can be lost or won. Setting expectations led to many disappointments.
I have now learned to practise ‘belief’ rather than ‘setting expectations’. On the basis of knowing I have done my very best to prepare for my challenges, I have to ‘believe in myself’; believe what I am doing is of my best ability. What happens, happens. Sometimes things work out – and sometimes they don’t. ‘Believing’ leads to a sense of calm, control and confidence. ‘Expecting’ often leads to disappointments.
#2 The Art of Letting Go
I used to quietly cry all day and all night when I had worked hard and it didn’t go my way, particularly when caused by external factors. It’s not worth it. Let it go! External factors are often unforeseen and sometimes they have a direct cause and effect on one’s personal situation. It cannot be controlled and it cannot be changed. It is what it is. The only thing that can be controlled is how I choose to handle it, from within. Emotions are allowed, in fact emotions are important. Feeling them. Acknowledging them. Then dealing with them. Hanging on to them may result in anger, blaming, accusation, jealousy and disappointment. It’s not healthy. It doesn’t lead to anything positive. The sooner I can let go, the sooner I will feel ‘free’. Free to quickly move away and move on. Focus on my own journey and my next challenge.
#3 Rising After Falling
Physically and mentally. Oh boy, I have stopped counting the amount of times I have hit the tarmac; hard, very hard. One phase of ‘rising after falling’ from a bike is physical and immediate. Right there and then. On the ground. The body is in a state of shock. Breathe! One moment. Breathe! Don’t touch me. Breathe! Now check arms and legs can move. Now check I can rise. Now get back on the bike! In race situations, things might happen with a sense of urgency. Get back as quick as possible and reap the benefits of feeling ‘numb’ from the shock. Open wounds, blood pouring and bruising. No problem. Rise and ride. Get on with the race. There may still be a chance of success. I won’t know unless I try.
Another phase I am relating to is perhaps more metaphorical; or at least psychological. I have had a habit of using ‘competitive cycling’ as a mean of ‘jumping into the deep end’. Taking on challenges beyond my capabilities. Taking opportunities that scared me. Taking chances where the success to failure ratio equalled 1:100; but where at the time I thought to myself ‘but if there is a chance, I will not miss this opportunity’. For example:
• 9 month into my cycling journey, I took off alone to the Amateur World Championships in Slovenia. Everything went wrong. I came last. Like very last. I had almost no experience. I had no luggage. I had no support in any way.
• In 2015 I competed in the Elite Danish National Championships. I got disqualified in the individual time trial; I hadn’t prepared. And I didn’t finish the road race; I had run myself to the ground.
• Only 3 months ago, spring 2016, I had a shot at American Pro cycling. I wasn’t good enough to even complete the races within the time limit.
That’s falling hard, psychologically. Very hard. The pain of failure goes deep.
So why do I keep doing it?
Because I freaking learn so much about myself! Because it’s right there when times get tough and pain goes deep, that personal growth happens. I have discovered that the falling and the failures of cycling have helped me understand myself better. All those uncomfortable situations have helped me to stop, reflect and negotiate with myself:
• How would I like to feel about this situation?
• How do I choose to handle this situation to ensure a positive outcome?
• How can this be turned into a strength?
• What can I do right now to rise with honesty, acceptance and respect, to myself at least?
• How can this situation build foundations of knowledge and experience, for my cycling journey going forward, but also for treating and overcoming obstacles in other aspects of life?
I have learned to rise after falling. In many ways.
The more I fall, the more I practise ways of rising after falling; and ultimately the more resilience I build. Resilience in the sport of cycling. But also resilience to help me cope with life’s headwinds. Life is a roller coaster. It is not possible to protect oneself from the smaller or the bigger storms of life. Health issues, injures, tragedies, redundancies, change and so forth; some situations are totally out of our control. And the only thing we can control is how we deal with these situations; how we come out of these situations healthily, our ability to cope and move on. I whole heartedly believe that the experiences and challenges I have had through my journey of competitive cycling has helped me build resilience. Resilience that will help me cope better with life going forward.
#5 The Importance of Support
It’s no secret I have spent a lot of time on my own through my life. Twice I have relocated to a new country or continent on my own, completely of own choice. No doubt it has made me strong. Very strong. I have had to be strong. I have also ventured out solo on travels countless of times. Moved countries, backpacked and gone off on personal challenges, with no close support. I fully believe in the benefits of going solo. Owning decisions. Choosing one’s own path. Learning to become self-sufficient. However, from this I have also learned that without support, it is hard to hit one’s full potential. Without support, it may take longer to rise after falling. I come from the most supporting family I could ever wish for, but they live in a different continent. I have had longer term relationships, love was plentiful, but I am now on my own.
How did I suddenly learn this through my cycling journey?
Because this roller coaster has had some steep curves and loops. There have been many ups and many downs; many personal failures, but also many personal successes along the way. I guess I never before really took the same risks as I do now. And I guess with taking risks, you can fall deeper and equally you can rise higher. At times of doubt, support can make the world of a difference. And what is success worth if you have no one to share it with?
What I have learned is that it doesn’t matter who it is and from where they come. As an expat, it may not always be the immediate family or the old friends who knows you inside out, who will be the obvious support. Building a support network with people of similar mind set and lifestyle, with people who genuinely celebrate your successes and offer tools and support to lift you even higher and with people who understands the pathway you are taking and who offers to stand by your side when you fall, is one of the essential elements to enjoying the journey of highs and lows. But also significantly important; fun happens around other people. Smiles, laughter and silliness is created between people. The building of my support network continues.
It is not necessarily ‘cycling’ that has taught me these valuable life lessons. It is the fact that I have chosen to immerse myself fully into the cycling, push physical limits, set goals, take risks, travel, always believing I can do more, do better…. And staying on the path no matter which obstacle brings me down… Always rise again… And always continue the fighting.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are in your life, no matter how big or how small your challenge is, no matter where you set your goals – doing something that scares you, of your own choice – is your opportunity to learn, to grow and to become better at handling LIFE!
Learn how to deal with uncomfortable situations by choice, rather than waiting to be taken by surprise.
I am ready for the next challenge. I am ready to write the next chapter of my LIFE story!
I only decided, spontaneously, in the same week to give it a go, to hook onto someone else’s Everesting attempt. The timing wasn’t super great; I had family visiting and for personal reasons, at the same time, I felt rather emotionally drained. The night before, I confirmed my attendance and organized my bottles, fuel, clothing, lights and chargers to last me most of 20-24 hours. Honestly, I wasn’t much up for it and that was also why I didn’t tell a single soul that I was heading out to potentially complete one of cycling’s toughest challenges. I wanted a ‘bail’ option. I didn’t want any pressure. I gave myself permission to quit at any time.
What is Everesting?
It’s a simple concept, but a fiendishly difficult challenge to complete. Pick any climb, anywhere in the world and ride repeat after grinding repeat until you have notched up 8,848 elevation meters; the height of Mount Everest, in one activity. It is open to anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is not necessarily an organized event. All you need is a bike, a hill, a tracking device and a huge amount of determination.
The rules: One hill / One activity / No sleep / No time limit
Full Everesting rules here https://everesting.cc/
Weather forecast: RAIN
This is the Middle East, the likelihood of rain, is minimal. Although the UAE is made up from mainly desert, we are very fortunate to have some pretty epic mountain climbs too. The chosen climb for this Everesting challenge, was Jebel Jais, hosting the highest point in the UAE, at 1,934m above sea level, with the challenge segment at ca. 24km of 5.4% average gradient. To reach the height of Mount Everest, Jebel Jais had to be climbed just over 7 times.
6am start, right at dawn. It was miserable from the first ascent, wind pushing hard against the bike on certain sections. Followed by an even worse first descent, with rain hammering down; it felt like hail hitting face and skin, riding straight into the raindrops at high-ish speed. As I naively hadn’t respected the weather forecast, I arrived at the bottom of the first descent, in a thin soaked windbreaker and frozen fingers. Although not planned already, I had no choice but to make my first stop at my ‘base camp’. I was cold to the bone, soaked and shivering.
My planned ‘base camp’, was basically my car parked a few hundred meters before the start of the segment. It was my shelter and my fuel station. I changed to a rain jacket, then continued up on ascent number two, still with numb fingers and soaked shoes.The pure misery continued, although of course, as I started climbing again, I got warm and peeled off my layers. The final 4km to the top of the section and top of the mountain, is very exposed hence very windy. It takes a bit of courage and some decent bike handling skills to control the bike both up and down, but nothing more than I couldn’t handle. On the second descent, the roads were wet, but as we have good road conditions in the UAE, I didn’t want to lose time on the descents and it was so cold, I wanted to get down FAST. I nearly swallowed my heart! In one bend, three cars appeared fast on the road in front of me, with the one car coming straight towards me in the wrong lane. He was overtaking on a prohibited overtaking section. I had nowhere to go and no choice but to hit my breaks hard. My back end of the bike skidded left, right, left, right….. I envisaged: either losing control and crashing on the road in front of the car, or taking a hard right turn into the gravel and crashing into the mountain side, to avoid getting hit by the car. Miraculously, I managed to keep the bike upright and narrowly missed the car and the selfish, impatient, irresponsible driver. Breathe!
To bail or to continue?
Heading back to the car, I seriously considered bailing, it was just too miserable and clearly dangerous. It didn’t help by the fact that other riders on the mountain disappeared one by one. I got it! Why ride in miserable conditions, when most days are gorgeous and warm? But then I get stubborn! This is not a valid reason for quitting. A bit of rain shall not stop me. Holding on to the thought I would warm up when making my way up for the 3rd time, I headed back to the car to stuff more cheese sandwiches and snickers in my pockets. The weather must change. It must.
2,000m, 3,000m, 4,000m…. 5,000m. This was my crucial point. Final decision; go home or go all the way. Anything between 5,000m and 8,848m and it is not acceptable to quit; not in my head anyway, then it just turns into wasted effort.
No turning back
I am healthy, my bike is working and I still have more hydration and fuel in my car. I am pretty organized. Do I even have a valid reason for not completing? The answer is NO. I have no valid reason for not going through with it. Quitting would mean I would have to go back and do this to myself again. No thanks. I am doing it now. Now is now. And I am doing it! I know I can do it. I never doubted it. Of course I can climb until the target is reached. Yes, it’s miserable. Yes, it’s lonely. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s a mental struggle every time I need to start a new ascent. Yes, it’s hard on the legs, very hard. It’s A LOT of climbing, it’s beyond what I have ever done before. But ultimately, I believe in myself. I came to do it. I am not going home without it. One more factor to push me in the right direction; no woman has ever completed the Everesting Challenge in the Middle East (probably no one ever tried). I will be the first. Determination switch on. No turning back.
Enter the Darkness
By 5,000m of elevation, and riding 100km uphill and 100km downhill, dusk is upon me, just after 18:30. Here comes the darkness, it will be a long, dark and lonely night. The rain stopped a long time ago, the temperatures a bit milder and the wind on the mountain side much less aggressive. I can do this.
By 21:10pm coming down from the top again, I just missed the last food truck, at the 20km viewing point and plateau. It was open on the way up, but closed on the way down. Damn. I had calculated, that to get me through the night, I would need more ‘real food’. I was running out of home made sandwiches. One last truck was in the process of closing, he had only tea, small bags of crisps and cup noodles. Argh, give me all. I sought shelter from the cold wind, warmed up a bit from the boiling water. But that was it. There was no nutrition in that food. Too bad. I have to manage on my own fuel. I will.
By around midnight, going up, again, Jani Brajkovic, former pro rider, came down the mountain side, for the last time. Mission complete. As the only other lonely soul out there, Jani had completed the challenge in around 19 hrs. Now there was only myself left. I still had another 2 ascents to complete.
The loneliness of Ultra
It was a very long and lonely night. I was also going slower and slower, and my fuel stops became more inefficient and more time consuming, as I was fumbling around in the back of my car in the darkness, warming up and organizing my re-fuel. As I was ascending for the last time past 3am, all lights on the mountain got turned off. All. And there was no one around. No one. On the way up thunder and lightning started to roar and flash in the distance. Oh no. Please don’t come closer. As I reached the open area, 4 km from the top, the flashes were cutting sharp and came too close. I stopped. The wind pulling me while standing still. I had clocked up ca. 8,600m. I was so close. But not done. I doubted my safety. I pulled out my phone and googled: How likely is it to get hit by a lightning on the top of a mountain? Apparently in the Rocky Mountains it happens a lot. I decided I HAD to complete my challenge. Admittedly, I was frightened. I turned my lights off, swerved to the wrong side of the road and crept up along the mountain wall to blend in with mountain. I couldn’t get to the top (and down again) fast enough. I as reached the top, I had logged 8,818m. Argh, I am still not done. An unexpected loud roaring thunder appeared right above me. Then the rain came. Pouring. It rained hard. I couldn’t see much on the descent. I had also lost my gloves at some point in the night (probably while pulling out a survival snickers), I couldn’t feel my fingers either. I had to check and check again during the descent that my fingers were actually wrapped around the breaks. At the same time I knew I would be able to finish the challenge in under 24 hours, if I got down fast. With the rain came dawn, coming close to 6am. I turned around quick at the segment start, and started my 8th ascent. I needed only 30m elevation more to reach the target of 8,848m. That would be done quick and it was now light. I climbed 1km, 2km, 3km, 4km… The ‘total ascent’ figure on my Garmin didn’t change, it was stuck at 8,818m. No no no no no no! My Garmin 520 Edge took A LOT of water from the downpour and roads splashing on the final descent. It must have frozen. I had no choice but to continue climbing and praying the meters would start to tick. I HAD to reach the Everesting target, otherwise this misery would have been for nothing. Time was moving past 24 hours. Okay what to do. 5km, 6km… elevation meters started to increase again. My target was 9,000m elevation (just to be 100% I had officially covered 8,848m on the actual segment). I reached my target 1/3 of the way up the mountain, after climbing just under 8km up again, for less than 200m extra elevation. Okay, but it’s done! MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
We couldn’t have chosen a worse day. It was pure misery, with unusual winds, rain and just freezing cold on the descents. I continuously kept motivated by reminding myself, that the challenge was made harder by the miserable conditions, and that I would grow stronger from staying with this battle till the end. There was no need to complete a grueling cycling challenge like this, in worse conditions than standard. We could choose any other day. But now was now. I was there. I had started it. And I completed it.
Why do an Everesting?
Honestly, I don’t really know. I just decided to do it. And I saw it through. I get stubborn. When I have it in my head and when I set out to do it, I don’t stop till it’s done. Even my self-approved bail out option didn’t work and the weather misery couldn’t stop me. I think the key is that I believe in myself and my abilities. I know I am physically healthy and I trust that I am strong. The ability to overcome or remove fear contributes too. And so does the sheer determination to complete the mission. The way I looked at it: after all, it is nothing more than to keep going up and down the very same road until the height of Mount Everest has been reached. It is achievable.
Power to the women
Only 175 women world wide have officially completed the Everesting challenge. That accounts for 5% all completions. You can check the Everesting Hall of Fame, to see who completed in your area.