Breathe

In, out, in, out, in, out—get out food, food to mouth, breathe in, out, mouth op—OW! My breathing rhythm during the second Varsity NorCal mountain biking race of the season was abruptly shattered by my cry of excruciating pain and fear. Gingerly, I tried to open my mouth again and quickly shut it with a moan. If I opened my jaw further than about a centimeter, an intense pain stabbed through the left joint of my jaw: it was locked almost completely shut. All-encompassing terror rose through me like so much floodwater, relentlessly filling me from head to toe until it felt like I couldn’t breathe. With this unfamiliarly overwhelming panic inundating my mind and blocking out every single rational thought, I felt myself slipping under into the realm of mentally being unable to finish the race.
No. That feeling of slipping jolted and horrified me, shocking me back into my regular breathing rhythm—in, out, in, out… Ever so slowly, I relaxed my jaw enough to drink a small amount of water and laboriously chew and swallow two energy shot blocks.

Picking up my cadence to match the pace I had been cycling before, I headed into the third and final lap of the race, determined to finish what I had set out to do regardless of the level of my discomfort.
During those last miles, however, I found my determination wavering. Every time the pain seemed to reach a new high and the fear would start to swell once again, the letters “DNF” (short for “did not finish”) flashed through my mind. I knew that despite the loss of points it would cause, my team wouldn’t blame me for bailing from the race; I was going through spasms of pain and panic every few minutes as my jaw alternated between being completely locked, and being unlocked but still tight. However, I also knew that I needed to finish what I had set out to do while I was still physically and mentally capable of doing so. Thusly, whenever the thought of not finishing the race entered into my mind, I quickly swept it away, recognizing my physical ability to race my bike to end as being largely unhindered, and refusing to let any mental weakness prevent me from crossing the finish line.
And suddenly, seven grueling miles later, I was rounding the final turn of the course. I stood up on my bike and threw my whole body and mind into that last stretch, surging across the finish line as the third rider in my category before exiting the course and collapsing with exhaustion. Crossing that finish line gave me something far better than earning a place on the podium; it proved that I am able to avoid succumbing to fear, pain, doubt, or any other mental or physical limits. These limits have instead pushed me to improve in many areas of life, such as speaking at the SCTA Fall Leadership Conference this year as the co-president of my school’s GSA instead of buckling under societal pressures and hate. Rather than give in, I will continue to use these limits in order to learn, to grow, to accomplish—to cross the line of what I believed to be possible.

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