Juliana Bicycles

The Sufferfest of 2018


The Sufferfest of 2018

December 26 — 2018 | Whistler, BC

Life, Death and Things Worth Worrying About

Words by: Sarah Leishman
Photos by: Robin O'Neill



  • Start January 15, 2018
  • 6 hours of cardio/week
  • 2-4 strength workouts/week
  • Objective must be in BC, be a circumnavigation, by mountain bike, demand 5-8h/day and take 4-5 days to complete.
  • No social media posts. At any point. All recorded on paper.


This formed the beginning of my exchange with Monika Marx to launch the year. Monika had been my coach through the very short duration of my EWS career. After a year without racing, I had found myself at sea, stripped of so much of what had anchored my sense of self: my identity as an athlete, the focus I got from racing, and the constant affirmation I could tap into any time I needed a like or a boost, from a digital community of mountain bike fans. It was disorienting. I felt invisible. Kind of ordinary. I didn’t quite know how to matter, without a mission. So I conceived one.     


“What if I train as I always have for racing, but just don’t race?” Planning a crazy trip seemed like the perfect way to make the transition from being a professional athlete into adjusting to the life of being a regular human being.

My one caveat with this project was that I wanted to do everything offline.


Monika and I agreed to keep a written journal of our training regimes, rather than posting Instagram stories from stationary trainers or screenshots of our Garmin computers after long days. My journal entries were brief and spoke largely to the effort I put into my workout at the Crossfit in Whistler or the ski tour I did. Most of the pages of my $2.97 notebook from Shopper’s Drug Mart were chicken scratch, largely about how hard the day was, how I felt about the effort, and sometimes touched on frustrations about my new way of life. None of it seemed funny to me as I wrote it, and none of it was written with the intent of anyone reading it besides myself.

At first, it was weird not to post about my goings on all the time. That social-feedback loop of: post - watch engagement tick away - feel better about myself became a thing of distant memory.  I was still trying super hard at the gym and working towards a goal, just like I used to, but as time progressed, I became disconnected from the digital community that helped me build my cycling career. I still watched from afar, though; I paid attention to what other athletes were doing and the personaes they worked to perpetuate. My new policy drove me away from this thing I once imagined myself to be a part of. I was stuck in the middle of just not caring anymore and struggling with the realization that I was, seemingly immediately, no longer a relevant subject of interest to everyone I’d once tried so hard to prove myself to.


The key requirement: misery. It wouldn’t prove anything if it wasn’t a total sufferfest.

I spent February, March and April dedicated to training, and Monika and I kept in touch, albeit less and less as time progressed. I found myself constantly racking my brain for that big, epic trip we needed to do. July would be the time for our mission. The key requirement: misery. It wouldn’t prove anything if it wasn’t a total sufferfest. I had proven to myself that I still had the capacity to endure elite-level effort. I consulted with everyone I knew and hit dead-end after dead-end. All of our options seemed too boring, too easy, too hard, already done. Not exceptional enough.

Come June, I was crushing it. I rode my bike every day, I walked my awesome dog in my beautiful “backyard” of Whistler …things were good. Even with the looming deadline and no specific mission, Sufferfest had kept me focused. Yes, my Instagram following had tapered and started to tank, and my insecurity would rise up now and then to wail, “what did I do to make them leave?” Yes, fewer of my daily interactions were based on me being a “pro rider”. But I was leaning into a new perspective of myself as an in-real-life mountain biker, I got a real job, got engaged to the guy I met when I started on the Juliana SRAM team, and I was starting to live the life that most of us spend our lives working towards.

And then Chuck died.


It didn’t happen all at once. It had been happening for years, but we’d been living in a kind of hopeful delusion that maybe it would never happen at all. We’d even held a living funeral for him.


My dad is the reason I chose to live in the mountains. He taught my sisters and me to love being outside and to appreciate our environment. His impact on me shaped my life to its core. He was diagnosed with a blood disease (“MDS”) that we were told could progress to Leukaemia about 3 years earlier – it must have been during my first or second EWS season with the Juliana SRAM team. For the most part, he was an absolute rockstar about it. He hit the chemo like a champ for two years, and then quit the chemo when it nearly killed him. Last summer, we threw a living funeral for him at his house in Elko, BC, after he had nearly died. It seemed the best way to honour his wishes for the kind of funeral he’d want. “Why don’t we just have a party and you come to it?” A bluegrass band played. The mayor of neighboring Fernie attended, Olympic medallists and friends and family from around Canada showed up. He basked in it. It started to feel like he might never die, which we were all totally good with.


It was my childhood nightmare come to life - something happening to one of my parents. Josh and I were suddenly extras in a Grey’s Anatomy episode, sitting at my dad's bedside...

Josh and I were out walking the dog when my sister called. It was June 25. She said Chuck, our dad, had had a scary episode overnight – he couldn’t breathe, and mom had had to call 911. He was transferred to a bigger hospital outside of Fernie and he had consented to being intubated after they couldn’t get his breathing under control. My dad had a DNR order, so shit got really real, really fast – he had to have been hurting to choose a breathing tube after he’d been so clear about his wishes for the past few years. He was flown to St. Paul’s hospital the next day and Josh and I rallied from Whistler to meet him in the ICU in Vancouver. It was my childhood nightmare come to life - something happening to one of my parents. Josh and I were suddenly extras in a Grey’s Anatomy episode, sitting at my dad’s bedside, running around downtown Vancouver to get him cheeseburgers, weed candy and *sometimes* a milkshake, and negotiating with our public healthcare system (bless it) to fly him back to Fernie so he could die at home in peace.


A week later, he did.

July evaporated in a whirlwind of disbelief, and the busywork of writing an obituary and arranging a funeral with my mom and my sisters. My passive interest in social media became rooted in an effort to distract myself from how sad I felt; my dream of doing something “big” with Monika exited my mind as autopilot set in and I soldiered through the monotony of everyday life. I kept riding, mostly alone, and I made some time to go to the gym. On big, intense climbs in the mountains, grief took hold, and I would out-loud sternly to myself: “keep it together.” I was not okay, but I accepted the idea that getting to live to my age with both of my parents alive was a gift. My dad’s grace and patience in his final days taught me how lucky I am to have this life and to live it outside, where he and I both have always been the happiest.


August brought motivation to do something meaningful in light of my efforts over the year and to cope with the acute grief I had. This trip had suddenly become bigger than proving to myself that I still had pro-level athlete worthiness somewhere in me - it was an attempt to cope with gut-wrenching grief that I had no idea how to manage and couldn’t keep ignoring. I needed this mission more than I ever had before. I scrambled to pull something together at the absolute last minute, which made it a struggle to find someone to join me on a trip that was intended to be miserable. Tough sell. Alex Pavon was in Whistler with the Juliana Free Agents for Crankworx, so I talked her into joining Robin O’Neill and me to do what I considered a miniature version of the “big” trip. In our abbreviated moments to plan, Robin and I had considered helicopters and big expeditions to visit winter cabins built in people’s memories…but what stuck was a relatively unknown route in the Chilcotins that friends of ours had quietly cleared earlier in the season. It was rugged, unmarked and difficult to navigate, and almost totally unknown to most riders who ride in the region… perfect for us.

Smoke season in British Columbia has become a real bitch. We convoyed over the Hurley Pass to our campsite, away from the noise of Crankworx into the stillness of too-high Air Quality Index ratings. As we examined our route for the next day, a straight download of verbal beta of our friends, we committed to the ride no matter the conditions, smoke or clear skies. We woke from our tents in the morning with cotton candy in our lungs and silence in the air. With no data signal to be found, we headed off for the day, a little late and a lot reluctant to grind away in an atmospheric fireplace.


 ...our day felt overwhelmingly sad and like a strange science fiction scene. 7 hours in, we missed a turn.

Besides the hot, dry misery that sat in my throat on the 1200m approach to our targeted ridgeline, the stillness in the air felt like actual death. I could not help but think of my dad. We stopped often to consult our map and compass. There were no signs of anything alive - just massive horseflies and obscured mountaintops; our day felt overwhelmingly sad and like a strange science fiction scene. 7 hours in, we missed a turn. Alex yelled out and her “helloooo?” was met with an odd, immediate echo. She yelled again… it was a person yelling back at us.

Had we not encountered the couple with horses camping for the night just over a bump in the topography, we would have descended the wrong way into being completely lost and committed to a long, cold, smoky night outside in the backcountry. Suddenly we remembered all of the things we had chosen not to bring in our packs that day. Our water and food stores were low. “You ready to put your big boy pants on?” I whispered to Alex, as we realized we still had 1000m of descending ahead of us, with only traversing showing up on our map. She nodded yes, and we quietly navigated our way away from the horse camp and across several ridgelines, in constant retention of our elevation.


It was late-summer dusk by the time we finally hit the forest service road that coasted us back to camp. Without any food or water left and no way to get easy help if something went wrong, (although we did have a Spot device with us for a serious emergency), our near-dark arrival back to safety was a stark warning for the next time we planned a trip too close to the sun.


We had made it through.

I’m not the same person I was when Monika and I dreamed up our journals-only adventure for former “elite” athletes. I tried to force an idea without anticipating the reality that life is full of things outside of my control. 2018 has been a cataclysmic combination of some of the biggest personal rites of passage one gets. My iPhone and the digital community didn’t guide me through any of these real-life problems. It was a paperweight in the backcountry, it couldn’t save my father’s life and it doesn’t help our planet in the face of climate change and forest fires, not one single bit. We are all strangely connected and disconnected from each other more and more as we evolve with technology, while the world around us suffers from our focus on all of the wrong things. This is not a “them” issue. I’ve realized that the problem of disconnection and the decay of the earth belongs to all of us, including mountain bikers. We need to look up from our devices.


Real life is out there, and we need to show up for it before it’s gone. Family. Friends.  Real interactions. This earth. These are the things that matter. This is where our focus is needed now.


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