About a week ago Joe and I were on a “training ride” near my apartment in Portland, Maine. We’d cycled about 3 miles on paved roads until we turned into a neighborhood. Now it was time to start the single track. I pedaled a few feet forward on wood chips and looked down. A long, steep incline, bending slightly to the right. I gulped and squeezed my brakes.
“It’s alright, you can do this. Nice and slow,” Joe said, watching my expression.
I watched him sail down and felt it coming. It was The Fear rising in my stomach. Straddling my bike with one foot firmly on the ground and the other on my pedal, I tried to work up my courage. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. You can do this Jackie. Just get on the saddle and ease up the breaks.
My internal monologue kept going for another minute, but it wasn’t enough. The Fear won. I slid my left leg over the frame and walked the bike down the hill, still holding the brakes so the bike wouldn’t run away from me.
My whole life seems to be this way, a constant battle against The Fear. Growing up I had this exact feeling every time I went skiing with my family. On many of the trails I was comfortable, but inevitably we’d come to one that was too steep and too icy for me. The Fear stops me where I am, and then I spend an eternity looking down trying to build my courage as my throat gets tighter and my stomach twists into knots. It’s embarrassing and terrifying and on more than one occasion has lead to tears.
It’s like an anxiety about heights plus an anxiety about speed plus a lack of confidence. I know I’m not the only one who suffers from this, but when The Fear hits, it feels like I’m the only one who’s ever been in that situation. The people around me all seem to be more capable and brave than I am.
Despite The Fear, I keep putting myself in these situations. Knowing what awaits me at the top, I get on the chairlift anyway. I volunteer to jump off bridges and tall branches into the water. I stand up to speak in front of crowds. And now I’m training for a multi-month bikepacking trip that will include quite a lot of downhill single track.
We did the same trail a second time and I did just as poorly as the first. That wood chip incline defeated me again. I had to walk my bike down several (many) other rooted and twisting hills. Joe is always kind about it, always encouraging me and trying to teach me, but each time The Fear wins, my moral and confidence get lower and lower.
Finally yesterday I conquered that hill. It was terrifying, but I made it all the way down on my bike, no walking at all. I used both my brakes and rode super super slow, but I did it. And that little victory gave me some more confidence. I got down quite a lot of hills on that ride that The Fear had stopped me from riding before.
It’s tempting to write here that conquering this one hill has given me the confidence I need to tackle all the other challenges in my life. But that’s not really true. The Fear is still with me all the time, I’m still insecure about a lot of things. Despite that, I keep putting myself in positions where I know The Fear will threaten to overwhelm me, because I know that I need it to make me grow. If I get down the same tough hill enough times, eventually it isn’t so scary anymore.