Five and a half years ago, I was a very different person to the one I am today. Like many others, I became very conscious of aesthetics as a teenager and, into my twenties, would often prioritise the way my body looked over what it could do. Certainly, I spent more time worrying about stretch marks, pimples and muffin tops than about strength, gut health, stress management.
Then, a few days before my 25th birthday, I was told I had a deadly tumour growing on my chest (also known as a melanoma). After being discharged from the hospital with a chunk of skin and flesh missing, I knew I had a pretty decent scar in the makings. My first reaction? I was horrified about the way it would look. For weeks I would wear high necklines, turtleneck sweaters and scarves… I basically rearranged my whole wardrobe so that I could cover it up. I thought it was hideous. A ‘war wound’, people would call it. “But I didn’t engage it in battle!”, I would think indignantly to myself, “I didn’t choose to have this happen to me!!”.
Soon after, a funeral brought me home and, as I sat and listened to the stories of her life, it dawned on me. No one was talking about the hot body she had. No one was talking about her perfect hair or how well she did her makeup. They were talking about how she lived. What she did. How she made people feel… and suddenly I recalled a saying I had once read: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” And so, with total clarity of purpose, I started wearing whatever the $%&* I wanted, and that day became the first of the rest of my life.
So, what changed?
Rather than exercise to ‘tone up’ (read: look good in a bathing suit), I started to want to test myself. I set myself physical challenges, goals and achievements. I stopped “going for runs”, and started training for adventure marathons. And at the same time, I started thinking about my body differently.
One weekend while training for the Great Wall of China Marathon, I got up early in the morning to train before going away for the weekend. Even though it was cold and still so dark outside that I could barely see, I went out anyway. Moments into the run, I tripped over, hit the deck hard and skinned my hand and my knee. I can still remember how badly it stung, but I carried on training and completed the workout I had to do.
That day, for the first time, instead of looking critically into the mirror at the blemishes, scars and imperfections I saw on my body, I picked the gravel out of the cuts, got undressed to take a shower and smiled at the sting of the hot water.
Dirt, blood, sweat, tears
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the satisfaction of reaching your goals, which are as equally defined by the trials as the tribulations. I didn’t realise how often I saw an end result without truly appreciating the work that went into it… Now I relish in the fact that, while others may share in the joy of your achievement, you must travel the dirt-covered path of blood, sweat and tears alone.
For me, this has never been truer than on the bike. On my very first ride, a bus went past me too close and I veered to the left, hit a curb on a bad angle and flew over the handlebars. A few weeks later, I learned to use clipless pedals and crashed onto my boyfriend’s motorcycle when I couldn’t get my foot out. And that was just on the road… then came mountain biking! I fell off all the time. Literally every time I rode. So often that the first thing my partner would do when I got home from a ride was check my shins and elbows for blood. Five years beforehand, any one of these events would have been enough of a setback to give up, and every single one of them has left me with another scar. But, a few months later, after countless other crashes and ‘traffic light incidents’, I had completed my first triathlon and three 50km mountain biking events. I finally understood where that dirt-covered path of blood, sweat and tears leads.
Shiny white memories
Today, I have a pretty good collection of scars all over my body, and I can honestly say I don’t regret a single one of them. Not the big one on my hip from my first gravity enduro event which reminds me of when I was brave enough to try something new and scary. Not the stretchmarks on my breasts and thighs, momentos of how my body changed over the course of a year in response to the intense training regime I undertook to complete one of the most gruelling physical challenges in the world. Not the ones on my knee and hand from the morning I got up at 3.30am to go running and proved that when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. All of these shiny white memories are part of my story.
These days, when I look at that silvery scar on my chest, it isn’t with shame or disgust. It’s with thanks… because now I’m confident that at the end of my life, whenever that may be, I’ll be perfectly prepared to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”