Suffering, Self-Love, And Becoming An Athlete Because I Didn’t Know The Difference

By Jessica McWhirt

January 10, 2024–

I held the mic in my hands and leaned toward it. “Hi. I’m Jessica from Littleton, Colorado. I’m feeling really hot and anxious. I’m here because I think I use biking to run away from my mental health issues—from any issue, really. I’m here because I’m forcing myself to slow down, sit with my feelings, and learn how to love myself. I give myself credit for signing up for this, knowing I won’t be able to bike this weekend and get the miles in.”

Jessica McWhirt

It felt like an AA meeting, only it wasn’t anonymous and my only knowledge of how they work is from the movies. Instead of sitting in rows of fold-out chairs with a pot of Folgers and crusty donuts in the back, we all sat cross-legged, shoe-less, on blue square cushions placed on the floor in a semi-circle, facing Blake Bauer, our presenter. He sat on a wooden chair on top of a blue and white patterned carpet. With slicked-back hair, a ring on his right ring finger, and dressed head-to-toe in black, he had a sense of calm the rest of us wanted to embody. 

It was 11 PM. 

I looked around the room to a sea of white, middle-aged, mentally stunned faces. We’d all just finished sharing the real reason we were in that room. Why we drove however many miles to a village in the middle of nowhere? Why we took Blake’s first challenge of getting honest with ourselves in front of 40 strangers. 

The reasons people were there were as unique as every face in that room. What I learned immediately after, hell, even during our introductions, is that every single person carries so much pain inside them. From having a trans family member and not feeling safe in their community to getting sexually, physically, or emotionally abused, to addictions, to medical diagnoses, to me—someone using athletics to prove that I am worthy of love because I hate myself otherwise. We were all there in a desperate attempt to heal. And it started with us being painfully honest.

I’m Looking Through You

My self-worth hung on my mountain bike race results. It clung to the number of miles I rode in a year, in a week, in a day. It held on to PRs and QOMs. It grasped onto how I looked in a cycling kit. I judged and evaluated myself on everything. The truth was: I didn’t love myself—like deeply and truly, unconditionally love myself— no matter what the fuck I accomplished on or off the bike. I had little self-worth.

In the book, “The Brave Athlete” by Simon Marshall and Lesley Patterson, they go over your “Me Tree.” There are four parts of your “Me Tree” that encompass your entire self-judgment system, and each part supports the other parts. At the bottom of this tree, “the deep roots,” is your self-worth. This influences all the other parts: your self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-efficacy. 

They add, “Your self-worth is based on deeply held feelings about your value and worth as a person. It is not about what you do but who you are—your values, morals, passions, and fundamental beliefs about yourself” (pg 60). We develop our self-worth as a kid, so when you have a fucked up childhood—or maybe not even fucked up, but absent parents, divorce, instability, anger, anxiety, –insert your family issues here-, your self-worth is going to develop from what you experienced and what you were taught.

During the Deep Self-Love Retreat at Drala Mountain Center, Blake Bauer also brought up our childhood. “You’re the way you are because of your childhood. We never learned to have a healthy relationship with ourselves in the present.” I was never taught as a child that my self-worth and my self-love, were not tied to what I do. They’re tied to my fundamental beliefs about myself, what I value, my morals, and my passions. I didn’t know this growing up.

Because so many of us never learned this as children and likely, instead, learned that what we do for others and what we accomplish is what makes us worthy of love from ourselves and others. That’s why there were 39 other people at the Deep Self-Love Retreat. We were all still children in adult bodies looking for a way to finally love and accept ourselves for who we are, not for what we do.

I walked back silently to my room. It was simple. There was a bathroom, a bed, a nightstand, a desk, and a chair. It was calm. Quiet. Just what I needed. I looked outside to see a dark sky with spots of stars. I took a deep breath. 

Yellow Submarine

“I want everyone to close their eyes so no one feels judged. Now bend your knees and start bouncing. Keep your feet on the ground and bounce. Keep bouncing. Now I want you to breathe in through your nose and breathe out forcefully through your mouth. Do what feels natural. No one cares. Just let go.”

This was my introduction to Qi Gong. 

I tried to get into it. 

To just let go. 

I was either too guarded or found it too woo-woo for me. As I closed my eyes and bounced and breathed, I was constantly distracted by the others who could get into it (very into it). Their breaths were forceful. And that’s all I could focus on. The breathing. The gaping mouths. The entire room bouncing and moving and breathing and all the spit particles that would eventually touch me. If anything, it helped me get out of my head because I was so focused on the orgasmic exhales and spittle drifting across the room.

“Everyone, please come to a stop. Now, lift your head back and open your mouth as wide as you can.” I stood there, wondering what we all looked like with our mouths gaping open. 

“Let’s take a seat for a meditation before lunch.” Blake guided us through our first group meditation. “Imagine your thoughts are like clouds in the sky. One cloud can block the whole sun.” He meant this in two ways: while meditating, let your thoughts continue to pass by; and that one cloud can block the whole sun. In other words, one fear can block all your awareness. “Don’t let fears sabotage your life,” he said.

With A Little Help From My Friends 

I wasn’t planning to make friends at the retreat.

Honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to do while I was there. “Do I talk to people?” “Where should I sit?” “Should I just be my regular introvert self?” 

As I ate my tofu curry, I saw one of the other attendees getting himself coffee. He had mentioned being recently diagnosed with a brain tumor in his introduction to the group the night before. He told us all how scared and alone he felt. I knew that feeling. I had a brain tumor when I was 18.

I didn’t know if it was appropriate to tell him he wasn’t alone. That I knew what he was going through. I swallowed a bite of tofu, tried not to overthink how anti-social I was, and walked up to him. “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I know what you’re going through. I had a brain tumor when I was 18 and had it surgically removed. I called it Phredd because it made us all feel better.” We stood in front of the teabags and creamers and talked for a while about brain tumors until I did the polite, Southern thing of, “Well, I’ll let you get back to your lunch.”

I still had time before our next session so I hiked up through the snow and bitter wind to see the Stupa—a special place used for meditation. As I walked around the Stupa to view it from all angles, I saw the man I spoke to earlier at lunch. “Fancy seeing you here,” I said. We walked into the Stupa together but sat in silence, taking it all in.

Within You Without You

Day 2 was more intense. Blake gave us a 41-page workbook with, what felt like, a million and one questions. 

Blake told us to pick a partner. I turned to the man on my left and we agreed to be partners. Blake then told us to find a quiet place in the building and answer the questions on pages 21, 22, and 23. 

My partner asked if I was comfortable getting super vulnerable with a man and someone who also lived in Littleton. I appreciated the thought. “Thanks for asking. I’m fine. Are you okay with talking with a woman?” “Yeah, it’ll give me good practice.” We both laughed.

We left with the majority of the people, searching for a quiet spot in the small building. We made our way upstairs. The rooms and tables were already taken. I saw an empty hallway without lights and asked if he’d be comfortable sitting on the floor. With both our backs against the wall, I said, “Do you want to rock-paper-scissors who answers first?” He laughed. “Sure.”

The point of the questions with a stranger, according to Blake, was being able to answer them honestly with someone you have zero agreements with. My partner could answer, “What are your biggest addictions” without any repercussions. It didn’t impact me at all what he was addicted to. 

Likewise, I was able to look my partner in the eye and truthfully answer, “Who or what do you give your time and attention to that makes you feel unwell, anxious, or sad? Why do you do this?” My partner had no idea who I was talking about and he never would. It was both freeing and terrifying to be that honest with a stranger. Freeing because I could say whatever I wanted without him getting mad at me, leaving me, or ignoring me for several days. It was terrifying that I’d be telling him things I’ve only ever told my therapist, who has to legally keep my shit a secret.

As the sun set below the horizon, we answered every question back and forth until we could no longer see one another. We finally found a more comfortable spot where our butts weren’t going numb. 

“What do you feel is the purpose of life and the purpose of your life?” he asked.

I stared at the black ink on the page. I hummed. I made mouth noises. “Okay, this is going to sound super emo and nihilistic, but I don’t think there is a purpose to life. Is that bad? I seriously have no idea if there really is one.” My partner laughed, understandably. “Maybe you should answer this one first and maybe it’ll inspire me,” I said. He smiled and shifted forward in his seat. “For me, it’s to enjoy life as much as possible. I want to become a man I’d admire.”

“Your answer was way better than mine,” I said half-jokingly. 

Blake knocked on the door to ask us to come back to the main room. We all sat on our blue cushions, facing him. “So, how did it go?”




As the others spoke, all I could think about was how little I knew myself. I couldn’t answer, “If you had to define who you really are, how would you express this? Are you your thoughts? Your body? Your life? Your past?” I didn’t have a fucking clue. “All of the above?” 

Blake told us that if we didn’t finish all the questions with our partner to do that at the dinner break.

My partner and I walked to the dining hall together. We grabbed a fork and plate and scooped food from the trays. The food choices were minimal, but that was okay. You could tell Drala Mountain Center puts a lot of effort into making sure participants are fed well. I never left the table hungry. I wasn’t focused on what was on my plate though. I was there to start healing. To learn how to start to love myself—because I knew the massages and Epsom salt baths and 8 hours of sleep per night weren’t actually doing shit in the name of deep, self-love. That was surface-level love. 

Hey Jude

“How was dinner?” Blake asked. We all nodded with smiles.

“Great. Now, I want you to pick a new partner. You’re going to cover pages 27, 28, and 35.” I scanned the room and made eye contact with my new brain-tumor friend. We also decided to try upstairs and found a table.

As my new partner and I continued our line of questioning, I realized these questions and my subsequent answers were deeper than my “reason” I gave to the group for being at the retreat. 

This was more than “trying to slow down,” and “stop trying to out-bike my mental health issues.” 

These were concepts I never fully considered, and it showed. My new partner kept reminding me I had to take time for myself to figure out what I wanted. Which was true. I thought I had, but sitting down with these strangers showed me I have never actually slowed down enough to think about what it is I needed to feel love for myself. I’d mostly just been going through the motions, doing what I thought I was supposed to do.

This confusion and unknown showed up in my relationships and my inability to express myself and my feelings because I didn’t want to cause trouble or get abandoned. It showed up in my mountain bike racing and always striving to achieve more, to be perfect, to get the top step on the podium.

So, the first question was: Why did I ride and race my bike in the first place? And second, why did I pick this retreat? Drala Mountain Center has gobs of retreats to choose from. Everything from Silent Meditation Intensives to Exploring Death to Lucid Dreaming to something in between. 

But when I saw the Deep Self-Love program six months before signing up for it, I was freshly divorced and realized I lost a lot of myself in that relationship. I stayed in that marriage four and a half years longer than I should have. The night he yelled at me for five hours straight in Mallorca on vacation in his drunken stupor should have been the same night I called it quits. But I didn’t love myself. Hell, I not only didn’t love myself, I didn’t like Me. Or, at least I didn’t think I did.


Losing jobs, friendships, and leadership positions over the years on top of an unhealthy marriage sent my self-worth and self-love crumbling. I grew up being taught that what I did for others is what gave me worth, and that’s how I earned love.

“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“Children should be seen and not heard.”

“Are you bleeding?! Then why are you crying?”

“Look at what you’re doing to your father.”

“He’d still be with me if it wasn’t for you.”

“This is your fault.”

All my life, I sought out external validation because I was never taught that I was inherently worthy of love from myself simply for the fact that I was alive. I mean, no one taught my parents that either. No one teaches you that you are worth your own love (and love from others) just as you are. You don’t have to do shit or be anything other than yourself.

I found people and activities that would prove to me I was worthy of their conditional love because I wasn’t worthy of mine. That I was worthy of being alive—because I met their conditions. It’s why I clung to things and people who were terrible for me because without them, without the attention, without the podiums, without the money, without the accolades, I was worthless.

The Fool On The Hill

I started riding a bike because of a friend. It was the only form of exercise that didn’t feel like I was punishing myself for eating food.

Up to this point in my life, I would never have considered myself to be competitive. I didn’t play sports in school. Instead, I wrote poetry and went to ska shows. As soon as I started biking, I fell in love with it. It was a joy and freedom I had yet to experience. Being able to ride up and down mountains with my body made me feel powerful and not like I had to work off the lunch I ate that day.

But then I wanted to get faster. Not just faster than myself, but faster than others. My competitive side slowly snuck in. Then I found myself in a bike club. Then the bike team. Then I was racing time trials. I came in fifth in my first time trial race, and instead of thinking that was pretty good for a newbie and shrugging it off, I grew obsessed. 

I wanted to be first. 

“If you’re not first, you’re last,” I’d joke with my teammates. Meanwhile, I started to actually believe that. If I was not coming in first place in every race, I was last. I was a fucking loser.

And instead of racing being something fun and something to challenge myself, it became a way to prove my self-worth. “I could only love myself if I came in first place,” was the thought. “I only matter if I’m on the top step,” I believed.

In an interview with Rich Roll, Light Watkins said,

“You’re as happy right now as you’re going to be when you achieve this thing. In other words, achieving the thing is not going to make you happier. It’s just going to put you back in the state that you’re in right now…So if you’re feeling a sense of misery right now and you achieve something amazing, the wave of joy will pass and you’ll be back to being miserable again. But if you’re happy right now, if you feel fulfilled right now, and you cultivate that, then you can achieve things and you’ll still be fulfilled.”

Like being happy in the present, if I wasn’t already deeply in love with myself, if I didn’t already believe I was enough, that I was worthy of love and belonging from others, no first place or miles biked or elevation gained would convince me otherwise.

Last summer, I raced the Breck Epic. A six-day mountain bike stage race in Breckenridge, Colorado, covering 211 miles and climbing 35,734 feet uphill. It’s considered one of the hardest mountain bike stage races in the United States. I trained for eight months straight for it. I overcame chronic pain, chronic fatigue, Migraine Disease, TBIs, anxiety, depression, medication side effects, and injuries to show up at the starting line. 

During the race, I conquered as many obstacles that conquered me. I ran over a nail and my C02 tank didn’t thread into the nozzle, pushing my time back 15 minutes. Several days I woke up with severe nausea and forced myself to race for 5 hours. I fell more times than I could count. Two, in particular, left me with bruises, hematomas, gashes, stitches, and ripped cycling kits. 

It was the hardest physical activity I have ever done in my life. But that’s what we do as athletes, right? We test to see how much we can really suffer. The whole idea of competition and winning is whoever can suffer the longest.

While Blake’s book, “You Were Not Born To Suffer” focuses mainly on emotional and mental suffering, you could argue that we’re not born to physically suffer either.

So why do we do that as athletes? Why do we put ourselves through ripped muscles, broken bones, saddle sores, asthma attacks, chronic pain, dehydration, lactate acid build-up, and pushing ourselves to the edge of severely hurting ourselves? So we can get a prize? So we can take the top step on the podium that everyone will forget about next weekend? Is it because we’re addicted to the feeling of being at our absolute limit when we finally cross the finish line?

I literally put my body—and life—at risk to prove I’m worthy and loveable.

After six brutal days of racing the Breck Epic, I came in second place. 

It mentally destroyed me. 

I might as well have been in last place. I didn’t think I was worthy of love before and I sure as shit wasn’t worthy of it after. I convinced myself that I would understand if I disappointed my family because I wasn’t on the top step. Frankly, I was embarrassed by my second place as my friends, family, and partner sat at the dining table waiting for my category to be called on stage for our awards.

It wasn’t until after Breck Epic that I realized I had an extremely unhealthy relationship with racing my bike and with myself. Luckily, I at least liked myself enough to know I needed some kind of guidance. I needed to learn to turn this ship around because I was treading some unhealthy fucking water. And then I stumbled upon Drala’s Deep Self-Love retreat.

I knew it wasn’t going to be the end-all-be-all. That I’d leave the retreat completely in love with myself, taking no shit from nobody, glowing in self-worth. Nah. I’m way too much of a pessimist to believe that. Instead, I decided I’d go into it with an open mind and start learning how to like myself more than eating fruits and vegetables and getting eight hours of sleep a night. 

Carry That Weight 

Sunday morning, I met up with my brain-tumor buddy to finish the questions we didn’t get to the night before. We sat down at the dining table furthest away from everyone. As I piled cinnamon oatmeal into my mouth, he asked me, “What did you need as a child but never received?”

“Damn, we’re just getting straight to it before my first sip of coffee, huh?”

He laughed. “I guess feeling prioritized,” I told him. Then it dawned on me—I was still desperately seeking that, even as an adult. I took another bite of my oatmeal, my chest warming up from having started my morning with vulnerability.

There was more blind bouncing and fire breathing in the Sacred Studies Hall before dropping into another meditation. The idea of Qi Gong is to shift your energy. I thought the only thing shifting for me was my body weight, but as we meditated, Blake asked us to do three things: “First, think about who and what you’re grateful for. Next, think about your goal for today and your goal for the future. Finally, I want you to send blessings to people in your life.”

I did it just fine the day before, but for some reason (we all know why), I started to gently cry. I thought about the people in my life I was grateful for and they were the same people I sent good thoughts to. I let the tears fall. I forced myself to stay still in the meditation although I had a strong urge to wipe them away before anyone saw.

Blake then asked us to lie down for another kind of meditation. One that’d open us up more. This time, we were talking to ourselves. “Say your name and then ‘I love you.’”

“Jessica, I love you,” I said to myself. I swallowed the knot in my throat.

“Jessica, I’m sorry for letting you down.” More tears.

Maybe it was the morning meditations. Maybe it was baring my soul to these strangers. Or maybe it was the fucking Qi Gong, but something cracked me open.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

We had one final session of Question and Answers and this time I wanted a woman’s presence. I turned around and found a sweet older woman who just as quickly made eye contact with me. “Want to be my partner?” I asked her. “Yes, I would,” she smiled.

I turned to page 30, and she asked me, “Have you hurt someone or acted in a way that you still feel guilty or ashamed about? Describe these situations” As I answered, I felt the knot in my throat swell, my chest constricted and warmed, and my eyes welled up with tears. I struggled to get out a full sentence, pausing every couple of words to sniff up the snot and wipe my eyes. 

Boy, I was embarrassed. I got through every other question with the two men in the previous days and now this poor lady asks me one question and I become lachrymose.

I finally gathered myself, finished my answer, and asked her the same question. She was poised and quiet. I leaned in closer to hear her answer.

She asked me the next question: “Is there anyone you’d now like to apologize to, or make amends with? Who and why?” And again, my throat began to close. My entire body felt like it was next to a fireplace, and I started to cry. I felt like the Grinch trying, but failing, to hold back his feelings. 

This time, I didn’t feel free and scared by sharing my truth with a stranger. I felt shame.

After we finished our questions, we ended it with a hug.

Blake brought us back together one final time. 

“Everyone, please turn to page 12 in your workbook. We spend too much time focused on what we don’t want. Instead, I want you to think about what you want to create, achieve, feel, and experience, both personally and professionally. Take the next few minutes and write down your goals, dreams, desires, and needs.”

I stared at the blank page. “Fuck it,” I thought. I started writing whatever came to mind.

To be pain-free. To feel like a priority to my partner. To be able to afford a house that feels like mine. To get paid to write about what I want to write about. To get paid to ride my bike. To not have anxiety or depression. I want to have healthy friendships. I want to experience what happiness actually feels like. I want to feel secure in my relationship with my partner. I want to feel confident being alone/single. I want to make more money. I want to feel important to people around me. I want my family to give a shit about me. I want to feel peace in my heart and mind. I don’t want to tie my worth to my bike results.

As we started placing our pens down, Blake looked around the room and said, “You have to think new thoughts, feel new feelings, and create new habits to get to where you want to be.”

The end of the program approached, and we turned to page 36 with “The Pillars of Practical No B.S. Healing & Self Love,” typed at the top. “Alright, everyone. I want you to write these pillars down. This is how you actually learn to deeply love yourself.”

I popped the cap off my pen and wrote, determined not to miss anything he said.

The Pillars of Practical No B.S. Healing & Self Love by Blake Bauer

1. Express myself honestly and kindly.

2. Act in alignment/integrity with number one (a.k.a. Follow my heart).

3. Take time and space for myself regularly.

4. Take care of my mind.

5. Value my time and my energy. 

6. Take care of my body.

7. Give what I can, when I can, how I can.

“I want you to print this off. Laminate it. Tape it everywhere in your house. On the microwave. The fridge. The bathroom mirror. Next to your clock. Share it with everyone you know. Your self-doubt will come on strong after this weekend. It’s going to roar. But you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing. Every time you do these seven pillars, you’re going to learn to trust yourself more. And now you can never say you don’t know how to love yourself ever again.”

I closed my notebook and looked around. I made eye contact with all my different question-and-answer partners. We smiled at each other. The weekend was over. 

Love Is All You Need

We do all this shit in our lives to prove to others that we matter, that we are worthy of their love, of our own love. We believe we aren’t inherently worthy of love without all the accomplishments and accolades and the medals and podium finishes. If we’re not accomplishing something big, we’re nothing. But Bill Murray once yelled in Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter!” 

If deep self-love is knowing that I am enough with or without the race results, with or without the medals and podium finishes, with or without the accolades and accomplishments, with or without giving my parents and partner something to gloat about to their friends; then the results, the miles ridden, the elevation gained, the hours trained just doesn’t matter.

The problem was that I was looking at these big, epic races to fill this void, this self-love void. I assumed if I could not only complete the race, but came in first, I was not just worthy of my own love, but everyone else’s. 

The real bitch of the situation goes back to what Blake told us during the retreat, “If you keep chasing the carrot of ‘I’ll love myself when…’ you’ll never love yourself.” 

He told us that we’re taught our “Life Purpose” is supposed to be major. “What if that has a shadow side? The unhealed side of this is feeling like you have to do something to prove you’re enough.” He took a breath. “Can being You just be enough? To become a healthy, functional human is a huge achievement in our world. Just being a good person is big.”

He told us that doing something big in the world was just the icing on the cake. That we do ourselves a big disservice by focusing on something big instead of just filling ourselves with as much love as possible and sharing that.

As I drove home alone that night, the Menzingers blasting over the speakers, I wondered if focusing on what I love to do, what makes me feel joy, and what causes the least amount of suffering is how I start to love myself. By cultivating love for myself now and knowing I’m inherently worthy of love and belonging, it won’t matter what I achieve on and off the bike, because I’ll feel fulfilled, regardless. And that’s become my mission.

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