Strength with Grace: Declaration for Joy

By Natalie Utley

I’ve come to realize that joy is a powerful, often underestimated emotion that can be a fierce driving force. Before this understanding, I thought joy was a feeling that evoked thoughts of being soft, meek, subtle and plain.  I found this to be completely wrong after losing the joy I had for road cycling. I treated joy carelessly. I was prideful and headstrong. Which are good qualities to have in particular situations but not when there’s a threat to losing something so precious as joy.

       I was getting really excited about cycling. It was a sport that came natural for me. I had strong endurance muscles. I was sleek and powerful on a bike. I decided to enter a 150 mile gran fondo. It was going to be a bit of push but an attainable goal. I believed in my abilities- mentally and physically. For my benefit, my husband planned out how we’d train for it. Scheduling all our miles and routes working up to the high mileage. None of the plans worked out. We have four kids under 10yrs old.  We needed sitters, needed money to pay those sitters, and open blocks of time, and more.

        By the time race day came we rode only two rides of 50 miles, and a couple other 30-40 milers. There I was – hopping on my bike and riding 150 miles, completely unprepared. I am speaking for myself here, because my husband is an incredibly powerful athlete, he has his own story of the ride.  Again, I was unprepared physically, and naive mentally. 

         We started out strong. Then I fell apart at the 80 mile mark. I kept feeling a snapping sensation in my knee and I compensated with the other leg. Then that knee began snapping too. It was Iliotibial band friction syndrome: ITBS, or IT band. In short, this is when the ligament that runs from your pelvic bone down to your knee and across your shinbone get so tight that it rubs on your thigh bone and outer side of your knee. I tried to ignore the pain and cycled on and on. 

          The pain got worse with every mile as the weather turned from overcast to stormy. We began stopping at every rest stop so I could roll out my IT bands with jars of peanut butter. I remember sobbing and singing the same hymn over and over to the tune of my IT bands snapping with every push and pull. My husband stayed behind me and kept telling me to stop, and that it’s okay to stop. But I couldn’t, I was not going to give up. All my intentions and everything I wanted to do preparing for this ride failed. I wasn’t going to quit now. I was going to finish – “even if I’m the last one in”. 

Crossing the finish line was the saddest accomplishment I have ever experienced. It was lonely and contradictory to an achievement. I pushed myself literally to a breaking point, I painfully pedaled across the finish line with no one there. You’ve seen those great tear-jerker videos of athletes hobbling down the home stretch, people cheering for them and someone runs out from the crowd and helps them cross the line as the athlete is literally dragging their own body. My experience was nothing like that. I coasted past the finish with no one to greet, clap, or yell my name. The place was empty, just the clean up crew. I pulled off to the side of the road, and fell off my bike. Tears welled up in my eyes as I began limping with my bike – completely defeated. I fought myself for 70 miles on that bike, for who or for what?

  Would it have made it better if I had support from crowds or other athletes? To have been acknowledged for my perseverance? Maybe the loneliness played deeper into the defeat than I wished it to because I wasn’t doing it for myself but for the applause of other people. People that didn’t know me or my story. I still struggle to understand or put into words what happened in those moments. 

  That ride destroyed my legs and my joy for cycling. My determination crushed everything that was fun about cycling. Every painful stroke I did on the bike chipped away another piece of joy, by the end of it I didn’t have any left. My focus had changed from enjoying and being confident in cycling to being prideful and attention hungry.

It took me close to 6 months to get my legs working without pain. I couldn’t get on a bike without having a snapping sensation. I couldn’t walk downstairs without  hurting. I couldn’t run or even walk for any distance. I was in rehab mode to put myself back together, physically and mindfully. 

  In all this I learned something. Once I find something that I enjoy, that I feel confident in I will not let pride and hardcore determination wreck it. I won’t allow the approval from others control my heart and attitude. I will always seek to be humble and grounded. I will listen to my body and mind. 

You can too; try to make sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing and that your intentions are good in spirit. My body was not ready for a gran fondo, but I forced it to be ready out of my heart’s sinful desire for spotlight. Treat joy kindly and with respect. Don’t ever underestimate the power of joy and the influence it has for accomplishing your personal goals as well as being uplifting and encouraging for others around you. Protect joy because the day you squander it you’ll be greeted with a mournful celebration.