When your life is going well and you feel like you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted, depression can be so confusing, and make you feel that much more broken. I have a great husband, two hilarious dogs, a job I enjoy, and a roof over my head. I was always raised with a bootstrap mentality, to be grateful and resilient, and happy with what I have. The thing is, depression doesn’t really care that your finances are finally on track, or that you’re in a solid marriage that looks nothing like the awful first five years of your 20s. Mental health often has nothing to do with your circumstances, though circumstances certainly can make it worse (according to my therapist!) What I’m trying to say is that you’re allowed to not be ok, even if you seem ok on paper. If you’re feeling off, it’s a strong, emotionally intelligent thing to seek out the tools to get back on balance.
Socially, I’m the strong, independent, assertive, powerful friend who can take care of herself. In my journey to figure this out, I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD (my GOSH the things that make sense now….) and depression, with some anxiety in there for good measure. Mental health is something any of us can struggle with.
When I started in endurance sports, I was a runner who grew up swimming, so I naturally transitioned from running to cycling to triathlons, and eventually to Ironman. When that training got too all-consuming and no longer enjoyable, I gave mountain biking a try, and spent several years diving head-first, riding everywhere I could, finding groups of women to ride with, and even racing XC and long-distance endurance events all over the country. The sport made me feel strong, it challenged my mind and got me excited for every skill improvement I saw as I progressed. Things felt great for a while, and then in 2020, I broke my ankle riding at Angel Fire, losing my outlet and my nature connection for months. Coming back from that injury was hard - I was no longer in Cat 1 shape and felt like I lacked all the motivation and drive to push back to where I’d been. I could blame it all on the injury, but the truth is, it was burnout. My high drive for competition and obsessive mind had burned me out, and really, the broken ankle was a wakeup to take inventory and find a better balance.
What caught my attention was that my down days weren’t only noticeable to me anymore. My husband and friends would bring up that I seemed off. I could feel myself disengaging, losing interest in the groups I always rode with and the organizations I supported. On bad days, I’d feel sorrow and not know why - like PMS but scarier. I wouldn’t trade the joy and accomplishment of my racing days for anything, but I realized that sport alone wasn’t enough - I needed to do the work so that sport wasn’t medicine, it was simply what brought me joy.
Getting Help & Finding Joy
After having a complete breakdown during a professional development call with a leadership-focused psychologist, I found a regular therapist. I’d never been scared of therapy, I always just thought of it as something you needed when you were going through something specific (like a horrendous breakup in your early 20s). But having that third-party, unbiased, fully-trained opinion to put my thoughts and struggles to articulate what was going on into perspective made a world of difference.
I started therapy about the same time I started my new obsession with dirt bikes, but this time, it’s been different. I’ve worked through so many things with my therapist - insecurity, attachment styles, fear of rejection that I’ve had since I was a kid, and being assertive with my feelings, knowing they’re as valid as anyone else's. Depression still gets me sometimes, but I’ve got the tools to recognize my feelings and the ability when I need to chill, when I need to reach out to my support network to be heard, and when I may just need a bike ride and a deep breath.
While I’m a big believer that sport is not therapy, only therapy is therapy, I absolutely believe that being active improves my mental health and helps me find joy and harness it. Studies show that time in nature improves human health, and all it takes is an hour on the trails and I can feel it's true. Dirt bikes have helped me put all of these mental tools to practice in very physical ways - a sort of metaphor for life. When I started, it was so scary. I had no idea what I was doing, and going fast was terrifying. But I learned the mechanics, I took advantage of an amazing group of friends who pushed me to try, and I’ve learned when in doubt, just throttle it out. Since 2020 I’ve ridden and raced in 7 different states, but this time, it’s for fun - it’s for joy. I credit the work I’ve done mentally for this - I could easily have fallen into the same cycle, but this time, I was ready to do things differently.
I still put in a lot of work to be the best I can be, but I don’t feel the same pressure I did from my cycling and triathlon days to be elite, to be someone I’m not. I get to be slightly reckless, push myself to make the climb, clean the line, and twist the throttle just a little bit more every time, just to see if I can. I’ve found joy in the right sport for me, but only because I took care of my mental health and put myself in a position to succeed.
Good Can Always Be Better
The point is, in the end, good can always be better. Never get caught up in the idea that your circumstance, brain chemistry, and sadness must be worse than those around you to get help. We always read about not judging others because we don’t know what they’re going through, and that applies to ourselves: Do not judge your journey by what you THINK others are going through and don’t sell yourself short on feeling better. Reach out for help, whether that’s through a therapist, a trained counselor, or at the very least, a trusted friend who has been there and can share their experience. Our sports should be healthy outlets, not lifelines - if you feel you’re using yours for anything other than the pure joy of enjoying the outdoors, sit with that and really examine how things could maybe be better. All the best luck and love to you - you deserve it! See you on the trails - if you don’t hear me coming from the motor, you’ll hear me giggling because I just fell over again. (That bootstrap mentality still comes in handy for some things, after all).
Jenny Burden lives in Austin, TX with her husband and two dogs. She’s competed in endurance sports of all types since 2013, starting with running, then branching to cycling, triathlon, mountain biking, and now motorcycles. She’s completed an Ironman, several 70.3, 100-mile MTB races, and most recently, the inaugural US Hard Enduro Snake Bite - so she knows about “toughing it out” all too well. She works full-time in the nonprofit sector, and volunteers as a mentor for Little Bellas and a ride leader for the Austin Ridge Riders Ride Like a Girl Program. She’s been a Tailwind advocate for years and is grateful to be supported by a brand so invested in the well-being of its athletes at all levels! Follow her journey @_jburd_ on Instagram.
Photo credits: Header image: Christine St. Laurent of St Laurent Photography
Supplemental image: Patsy Davis of Patsy Davis Photography