4 Life Lessons Learned While Struggling Uphill

Luke Whitmore

Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! It’s 5:15 a.m. and we are up early in order to beat the +34°C heat of the afternoon. Howie and I (John) clip into our bikes and begin the brutal ascent up one of the many hills and mountains in Oregon. The initial incline felt like 40 kms of straight-up, vertical climbing hell. In reality, it was “only” 11 kms, but it was still a lung-busting, leg-aching ascent. Thankfully our struggle was rewarded with a breath-taking and exhilarating downhill extravaganza with spectacular scenery and exciting speeds.

As you may have already guessed, I took part in an amazing adventure this summer – a 950 km bike tour through Oregon as a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity (thanks to those of you who supported me!). The long days of biking allowed my mind to rest and reflect, and naturally my thoughts often focused on the biking experience. Here are a few of the life lessons I gleaned from the saddle this summer:

Embrace struggle. The long climbs were an intense challenge, but wow! What a sense of accomplishment for a prairie boy to reach the top of a mountain! The struggle upward allowed for the sense of accomplishment to be magnified through the reward of a breath-taking decent. Struggle, rather than something to be avoided or numbed, can teach us about ourselves and promote growth. Yes, my legs and butt were sore for the first few days of the tour, but soon my body acclimatized to the experience and grew stronger. When it’s embraced, struggle has the potential for growth. Reward and struggle can be two sides of the same coin.

Misery and joy love company. Howie and I tackled the most brutal ascent together. As I huffed and puffed upward, Howie began asking questions about my work, which is something I enjoy talking about. Before I knew it, we were through the steepest part of the climb. With good company, challenges become more manageable, doable, and even enjoyable (well, kind of). As we enjoyed the descent, the thrill of speed and the amazing scenery were amplified by sharing the experience. I can also see this in my work as a counsellor – problems grow in isolation and silence, while health grows through connection.

Pace yourself in all you do.
“Keep it at 13 kilometres,” Howie called out and adjusted his speed as the incline steepened and we grew tired – “Slow and steady gets us to the top.” Wise words. As we intentionally paced ourselves and found distraction in conversation, our climb was more doable (admittedly, I can see this more clearly in retrospect). It was interesting to notice how important pacing was during our descents, not just our climbs. It wasn’t uncommon for me to reach speeds of 67 km/hr going downhill before I felt the need to start pacing and tapping on the breaks. At that speed, I was still able to experience the thrill and the beauty of the landscape while maintaining a sense of safety and stability rather than white-knuckling it, hoping to make it down alive. Other riders even felt OK pacing themselves at 70+ kms/hr, and the fastest speed I heard was 88 kms! As I got more comfortable with faster speeds, my comfort level and pace increased. Pacing makes reaching your goals more attainable, not to mention safer!

Slow things down and take time to reflect. Life gets busy – the more I do, the more tired I get, and the less likely I am to reflect on everyday experiences. As a counsellor, one of the things I have learned is that problems love routines, and they thrive on the inattentiveness of “autopilot.” The opposite is also true – health and growth find fertile ground in a slower, more reflective pace that better promotes intentionality. When I take time to reflect on my experiences, I find important learnings in both the extraordinary (a bike tour) and the ordinary (everyday life). There are reflective teaching moments all around us whether they be playing with a child, walking to work, or cycling through Oregon. The trick is to slow down and absorb the life lessons.

Now that I am finished writing/reflecting, I think I’ll go for a bike ride. . .

John Koop Harder, MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.

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