Mental Health Awareness: How Mountain Biking Saved My Life

Mental Health Awareness: How Mountain Biking Saved My Life

Authored by Kaden Ambassador, Meg Oliver

Life has a funny way of throwing curveballs and my life is no different. Everyone has times in their life when they struggle either physically or emotionally. For much of my life, I have always had a tug-o-war with depression and anxiety starting as early as age 10. 

I grew up in a middle class family in a predominantly white, upper-middle class town just outside of Boston. Although there were times where my family struggled financially, I was always shielded from any pressure my parents felt to make ends meet. For the most part, I had an idyllic childhood. Ripping around on my bike until dark with the neighborhood kids, catching painter turtles in the brook down the street or spending my summers in the upper valley in New Hampshire at my camp.

In my younger years I was a very bubbly girl whose mind was always racing 100 miles per minute. I suppose, not much has changed. Starting around the age of 10 or 11, I would often have trouble falling asleep as my brain wouldn’t “turn off.” It was around this time when I started to experience “down” moods for days or weeks at a time. Not knowing what depression was, I just assumed it was normal. It took many years to realize that these “down” times were the beginning of something that would be a part of me for the rest of my life.

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In my late teens and early 20s, I began to notice something was “off.” I couldn’t seem to keep that same positive outlook I once had as a kid and I felt like everything was a struggle. It wasn’t until my junior year of college when I met a friend who asked me, how long have you been depressed? I recoiled at her assumption that something was wrong with me and I said, “Oh, I am not depressed, I’m totally fine,” in an almost defensive tone. She, like me, had many of the same struggles and could see what I thought I was hiding so brilliantly.

For much of my 30s I battled major depression. Most people had no clue what I was experiencing other than my close friends, immediate family, and my therapist. This multi-year episode or as I like to call it my “down time” was triggered by a lifelong desire to get married and start a family. I had some medical challenges in my 20s which put added pressure on me to find my Mr. Right and settle down quickly. I can recall telling one of my good friends on a trip to San Francisco when I was 31 that if I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids by the time I was 40 I didn’t want to be here anymore. I was hurting and I didn’t know how I would ever move beyond the possibility of not having my dream become a reality. I spent all of my waking hours obsessing about this for almost 8 years. It was eating me alive.

People would often not believe me when I would tell them about having depression and anxiety as they always saw a bubbly, positive, outgoing, caring person. They would say, “oh you aren’t really depressed; I know people who are depressed.” This is not to say that I was not being myself but I figured out ways of keeping it at bay when around other people. However, behind closed doors, I was really struggling when the “veil” would unfurl over my face. When it did come down, it made it hard to make eye contact with others and had my brain seeing everything in a negative light. There were many days where I struggled to get out of bed.

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For many years I found that the summer months were a trigger for my depression. Snowboarding was my everything and when that ended in April each year, I found myself with a lot of idle time until the following season. In 2006 that all changed. My friend Jesse who grew up racing downhill for Iron Horse told me he could get me a mountain bike for $800, which I thought was an insane amount of money for a bike. Little did I know how much I would end up spending on bikes now. I can recall him building the bike (a 36-pound hardtail) in my living room in Winooski and me telling him, “I will never love mountain biking the way I love snowboarding.” Little did I know that that bike would change my life forever both physically and mentally. In fact, that bike and all the bikes after that saved my life.

I have always been a person who thrived on pushing myself and have excelled in sports which require balance, grace, and speed. Growing up dancing, swimming, and figure skating I was able to develop an understanding of how the body moved. In turn, I was able to easily pick up balance-oriented sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding and mountain biking. What I loved most about mountain biking was that it got me into nature like snowboarding had, however, it was much more accessible and not as weather dependent. It was also appealing as it was both an individual yet social sport and depending upon my mood and the day, I could choose what type of ride I wanted to do.

I found my Zen.

Mountain biking saved me. It helped me to focus on the task in front of me and balanced me in a way very few things in my life could. It helped me to work through my pain when I felt hopeless. On June 1st, 2020, my dad passed away after an 8-year battle with Pulmonary Fibrosis. I have turned to riding to save me yet again. It also allows me to talk to my dad. I feel closer to him when I ride as he too loved the solitude of nature. When I am off mentally and haven’t been on my bike, my anxiety rears its ugly head. But just one crank of those pedals, and I feel free and at ease. Exercise has been proven to help people with depression and anxiety, which for many, go hand in hand. My life experience has shown me that I need to ride to feel calm, balanced, and focused both in my personal and work life. I typically enjoy riding solo so that I can recenter my thoughts.

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Over the years, I have become acutely more aware of self-talk and how it affects us. I often hear my own self talk saying, you suck, you should ride more or lose weight and you’ll be faster, etc. Often that negative self-talk leads us to say things like, “I’m sorry, I am so slow” or “sorry, I am not feeling that jump or tech section today,” if we are riding with friends. It pains me to hear things like this because I know I used to do it myself. In fact, I still catch myself wanting to say sorry or make an excuse when I am not feeling my best. We should never have to apologize for not wanting to do something or for having a day when our brains and bodies are not connecting with one another.

In my first few years of mountain biking, my fitness level was not on par with my friends which made it hard to keep up on the climbs. Oftentimes I allowed my anxiety to take over which led to panic attacks on the trail. What I was not recognizing was that my friends didn’t care how fast I was, they just wanted to ride with me. I was also not taking into account that my friends had been riding for most of their lives and many had been training for racing. I was holding myself to the same standard which was unkind and unfair. This negative self-talk ultimately fed my depression and anxiety and I avoided riding with certain friends because I didn’t want to “hold them back.”
Fast forward to 2020, where the tables have turned. I have many more years of riding under my belt now and I am a stronger rider than I was when I first started. I will ask friends who are new to the sport to ride with me and they will say, well you are faster or better than me and I will just hold you back. Nothing could be further from the truth. It breaks my heart to know that people feel that way or think that I will care if they aren’t as fast or as proficient technically. It led to an “Ah-ha” moment where I thought this was how my friends likely felt when they used to ask me to ride. They just wanted to spend time together and have fun. We need to be kind to ourselves and thank our thoughts for sharing and do our best to put them aside. I know, it’s easier said than done. Through many years of working with my therapist, I have learned how to acknowledge these negative thoughts, thank them for sharing and continue riding forward.

Through mountain biking I have met countless women and men who have also lived with depression and anxiety who also find solace in connecting with nature on two-wheels. Many of the people I have met through riding, more specifically women, have shared their own struggles with mental health and how mountain biking has also been a vehicle to help them work through their challenges.

Mountain biking comes in a variety of forms and we can’t be amazing at all of them. You can still be an excellent rider if you are a slow climber, or if you don’t do drops, or if you don’t go as fast on the downs, or perhaps you don’t corner as well as someone else. I am all about progression but progression for someone else is not going to do you any favors mentally. Do what is right for you and what you feel comfortable with. That will allow you to find your Zen with this amazing sport.

My friends, Wes Wolter and Kyla Suarez, run the Milldale Farm Center for Wellness in Fairlee, VT. Their focus on mental health and wellness through yoga, mindfulness and mountain biking is pretty awesome. They have a wonderful Instagram profile called @ridersofthestormmtb which focuses on mental health and wellness through mountain biking. I would urge people to check it out. Being kind to yourself and showing yourself compassion will help you enjoy all that mountain biking has to offer.

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