09/24/2014 01:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The F-Words

by guest blogger Selene Yeager, health, fitness and cycling expert and the author of Get Fast: A Complete Guide to Gaining Speed Wherever You Ride

It's a Sunday in early August 1997. I'm 28 years old and I've just woken up the morning of my very first road bike race. And I'm cowering under the covers, miserable and afraid, desperately trying to will time to slow down so I don't have to pull on my cycling clothes and face the day. Why did I think this was a good idea? I could be doing something fun. In my mind's eye, all I saw was disaster. I'd suffer, get dropped, and royally suck in front of an audience. What was I thinking?

After a few minor debacles (who knew you couldn't wear a tank top in a road race? Not me. It had been fine in mountain bike races. Wearing my giant goodie-bag T-shirt under my tank top was a great look, thank you very much.), I was off. I actually end up winning...sort default, because I was the only woman who showed up. But you know, a win is a win, and I took my award home with pride.

Fast-forward 17 years. It's February 23, 2014, the morning of my first race of the season. And guess what? I'm cowering under the covers, miserable and afraid, desperately trying to will time to slow down so I don't have to pull on my cycling clothes and face the day. I'm far more prepared this time. I know what to wear and how to eat. I've got all the right gear and training under my belt. And I go on to win that race, too (this time plenty of women showed up). But the nerves are as exposed and raw as the first time I stood on a line waiting for someone to say "Go!"

And they always are. In the nearly two decades between those events, I've raced my bike around the country and the globe, over jagged endless mountains in Brazil, through the sand and searing heat of South Africa, down death-defying descents in British Columbia, into the thin air two miles high in Leadville, Colorado, and dozens of places in between. I've finished first. I've finished close to DFL (dead effing last in race speak) and everywhere in between. After all these years, I can count how many races I've lined up for without a headful of self-doubt and a bellyful of butterflies on one hand and have fingers to spare.

Sometimes people ask why I do it. Hell, I often ask why do I do it. But the answer emerges in stark relief each time the gun goes off and there's nothing but me and my bike and the race around me. Every time I race, whether I win or lose--maybe especially if I lose--I learn something about myself. I get stronger and braver because I'm forced to confront my fears for the ambush of paper tigers that they are.

Don't get me wrong. I have a healthy respect for fear in general. Forget that crap about nothing to fear but fear itself. As a woman, I know that's not true. There's plenty to fear. Dark alleys. Strangers' cars. Desolate parking garages. It's pretty clear that in many cases a little fear just might keep me alive. What's become even clearer to me over the years, however, is that too much of the f-word can keep you from fully living. It's on the fringes of fear, where you're riding the frayed edges of your comfort zone, that you feel most alive.

Because really, what am I afraid of? Failing? Sucking? Crashing? Getting my ass handed to me in front of my peers? Yep. All that and a bag of chips. And guess what? All of it has happened to me...multiple times. I've broken ribs and fingers and teeth. I've gone off course. I've come undone. I've cracked three-quarters of the way through a 100-mile day and essentially crawled and clawed my way to the finish. And then a funny thing happens. My friends and family are still there at the finish line. Cheering for me! The beer still flows. There are still great stories to tell. The sun comes up the next day, and life goes on.

Then there are those days when I do well. When all that training I've put in and the lessons I've learned come together in one sweet amalgamation of awesome, it feels like the bike has no chain and my legs could just churn forever. I can tell you beyond the sharpest shadow of even the blackest doubt that the feeling of accomplishment when all the hard work pays off and you sail across that finish line first is nearly beyond words.

But there are words that come easily for the feeling of overcoming the fear of even lining up in the first place and pushing aside the fear of failure to get yourself to begin: freedom and fun. And when you're free and having fun, there's really not much to be afraid of, is there?

Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a certified personal trainer, USA Cycling-certified coach, elite mountain bike racer with Rare Disease Cycling, and All-American Ironman triathlete. She has authored, coauthored, and contributed to more than two-dozen book titles, and dishes out training advice monthly as Bicycling Magazine's "Fit Chick." Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Details; O, the Oprah Magazine; Fitness; Men's Health; Marie Claire; Runner's World; Cooking Light; and Cosmopolitan. Yeager was nominated for a 2007 National Magazine Award for excellence in service journalism for her work in Bicycling Magazine.

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