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Ride Two Wheels, and Call Me in the Morning

Riding to Battle Depression

Words by Matthew Lee. Photos by Kaz Yamamura.
July 2nd, 2014

Is that a hotdog or a carrot? When I first arrived in B.C. I found myself in a funk. Food had lost its taste and it was a struggle some days to see through simple tasks like laundry. Life itself seemed to take on a sort of vagueness, as if I was looking through lenses coated in a thin film of Vasoline: there, but indistinct from what I thought I knew.

How do you tell someone you’re suffering from depression? It’s not like a broken arm, or a bruise; something you can show off and tell an epic yarn about. Depression for the most part is invisible and for me it involved telling the people who cared about me the most that I was having trouble leaving the house, or even my bed.

It’s estimated that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, a figure that is lower than US stats but higher than most European countries. That illness can be caused by a wide range of factors from genetic disposition to living through a traumatic event, and can manifest itself in an even bigger range of ways.

What does this have to do with mountain biking? Just as there are many causes of depression, there are many treatment options. While mountain biking may not be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I can say that riding trails was the best therapy for me.

A trifecta of changes in my life left me with symptoms that looked a lot like classic depression. When depression results from shifts in your life’s usual order it’s identified as Adjustment Disorder. It’s entirely treatable and will usually fade on its own, but with certain methods sunny skies can return more quickly.

My triple whammy consisted of graduating with no clear direction, relocating across the country to a big city where I only knew a handful of people, and ending a significant long-term relationship all in the span of a few weeks. It left me feeling extremely isolated, disheartened with my long-term goals, and above all else, hopeless.

Luckily mountain biking rather than Prozac became my drug of choice. Riding helped me through that point in my life in three distinct ways: Keeping the pedals turning to generate endorphins, challenging myself and eventually overcoming difficult sections of trail, and becoming part of the dirt riding community in North Vancouver all played a part in my recovery.

On the road back to recovery...

On the (fire)road to recovery…

The Burn that Heals
The link between exercise and endorphin production is well established.  When you exercise your body releases endorphins, a feel-good chemical. It’s a great way to get a natural high, and known side effects of mountain biking include yahooing in the woods, a dramatic increase in high-fives, and general stokeage. Unlike a dude you have to go see in a back alley, biking simply combines a strong cardio workout with physically demanding movements to deliver your hit. The high you feel at the end of a descent is thanks to a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline. I’ve yet to encounter a synthetic substitute that comes close to that feeling, nor do I want to venture down that chemical path. Mountain biking is plenty expensive already.

Another big boost to biking over say, running on the treadmill at the gym is the space where we ride. I mean, if sweating in a concrete box while being forced to watch the person in too-short shorts on the elliptical machine in front of you is your jam, by all means have at it. I personally would rather be slicing down a ribbon of singletrack like Expresso or muscling through a switchback on Big Nimby in Pemberton surrounded by trees and awash in the sounds of nature.

DSC_4042

Ooh nature, you so fine. You so fine you blow my mind… Photo: Matthew Lee

It’s also interesting to note that researchers have found some correlations between being outside and improved factors in mental health, though there still needs to be further analysis into the topic. Also worth looking into is an experiment that Guardian writer Steven Morris participated in. He spent alternating weeks at a gym and training outdoors, and compared the results at the end of a month. Overall, he burned more energy on the days that he trained outdoors versus the days spent at the gym. There may be some science behind the good woods vibes after all.

Failure
Another reason why mountain biking is a great tool in fighting depression is the opportunity to screw up in a safe environment. When I say safe, I’m not necessarily referring to the activity itself (as anyone who’s had a big crash can attest to), but something along the lines of “hey you dabbed during that climb, it’s not the end of the world”.

Crashing

Pictured: Failure. No staff members were harmed in the making of this photo.

It took me the longest time to screw up enough courage to ride all the woodwork on Floppy Bunny, a trail on Vancouver’s North Shore. It sports several steep and narrow features to get caught up on (in my defense, I grew up riding in SW Ontario, where both woodwork and mountains are a foreign concept). I would roll up, look at it, back up, look at it some more, and then mutter something along the lines of “maybe next time” before walking around. The first time I managed to bumble my way across everything resulted in a full-on happy dance at the bottom: I had conquered my fear of skinnies.

It takes time to get used to failure and come to grips with it. Being able to fail in that controlled environment was key; there wasn’t any pressure being put on me by others, it all came from inside. I had to want it badly enough to do it. Moreover if I did fail, my house wasn’t going to burn down, nor would I be forever be banned from the sport. I’d just have to brush myself off and burn some extra calories going up the hill to try it again.

Being able to overcome something scary comes in handy when the mental clouds roll in. Getting up, dressed and out into the world is a lot like taking on those structures; they get broken down into little segments, and all of a sudden everything seems far more manageable.

Community
The final piece in the biking mental puzzle is the community that surrounds the sport. There are a tonne of people here in North Vancouver that I take inspiration from; to list them all here would probably require another article, and even then I’d probably have the Oscar “wrap up your speech” music play over the end of it. So to keep it short: to everyone that’s ever taken the time to show me the right way to mount a tire, dig for gold, edit a review, or just given a high-five at the end of a ride, thanks a million. You all make it worthwhile.

The last shovel on Expresso. Also, a ton of amazing volunteers. Thanks everyone!

The last shovel on Expresso. Also, a ton of amazing volunteers. Thanks everyone!

Case in point, my first trail day with NSMB.com (Not just an online mag – also adopters of Expresso Trail on Mt. Fromme). I had a vague idea of who Morgan and Cam were, having e-mailed back and forth a bit about an internship and submitting my first article, but other than that, I didn’t know a soul. By the end of the day I was covered in dirt, and swapping tales with the rest of the dig crew as if we had known each other forever.

This camaraderie extends to events outside the trailhead as well. Movie premieres, races, and massive events like Crankworx give us all the opportunity to reconnect with friends who have departed for far-flung locales, and share our passion for biking. There’s nothing better than catching up with an old riding buddy over a pint and some biking movies.

Having this group of people outside my immediate support network was the biggest boost in breaking through my depressive state. Knowing that other people are looking forward to seeing me somewhere created a mental obligation, which in turn pushed me to go and do things that I may otherwise have passed on. After going out I’d feel a whole lot better, and more reassured that although things didn’t go exactly to plan, they’re still turning out pretty well.

A year has passed since my bout with Adjustment Disorder, and I’m doing a whole lot better these days. Food has returned to its usual tastiness and I sleep soundly at night. While I’m not set 100% career-wise I’ve come to terms with it, and am putting in the time to build a strong foundation. The pedals are still turning and I’m still putting down the miles, but now there are a few more smiles along the way.


Talking about yourself isn’t easy, but sometimes it needs to be done. Thanks to everyone for their love and support.

  • Morecowbell

    Great article! I’m sure many others can relate – including myself! I didn’t realize that I used MTBing to treat myself while going through divorce and a tough custody battle until years later. Now I’m stuck with an addiction that’s not so bad to have:) Glad you found your way and are able to share it with a large audience. Courageously well done!

  • barefootmeshback

    Great article. Mountain biking and exercise in general definitely play a big part in my mental health!

  • J.

    I have been going through something similar and mountain biking has been a huge part of what keeps me going. There is nothing like getting on your bike and leaving anxiety and pain behind. Thanks for the great article.

  • http://www.obeezyphoto.wordpress.com/ James Oborne

    Nice article Matt.
    I got fired from my job today and the first thing I did was go for a ride. Many more to come with the free time I’ll have this summer :)

  • http://www.jackrabbitt.net Dan Jesse

    Great article. I can imagine not an easy one to put out there, but it was certainly well received. Keep up the good work :)

  • Gabriela

    Depression can be such a hard topic to talk about, so thank you so much for sharing this story! It is extremely, almost eerily similar to mine own this past year. Although i am still lost career wise, I am working at it, step by step also just like im slowing learning more and more mtn biking skills from some amazing new friends ive made. Goodluck with everything!! And perhaps ill run into you on the trails in mt fromme; espresso is one of my favorites! :)

  • Cable

    Congrats on the progress. Thanks much for sharing as I’m sure there are many that can grow and learn from your story.

  • http://www.chromagbikes.com Cookie

    Matt I remember when you were that kid I had to tell that the owner of the shop didn’t order your Fox gloves that you very politely came in to check on the status of every few days. I worried about the mechanics of the $300 Norco you were street bmx-ing. I’m glad to still be in touch and I hope somewhat of a positive influence in your old and new life.

  • Slam

    Great article – it reminds me of how many times riding a bike has pulled me through the tough times. Thanks for sharing!