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Strong Women: 'Cycling was an escape from grief – it brought me back to life'

For many women, the label of ‘strong’ is problematic – the stigma and negative connotations can put women off from being active altogether.

A huge study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgement puts them off being active. And 40% of women over the age of 16 aren’t meeting the recommended levels of weekly fitness.

So it is more important than ever for women to reclaim the definition of strength and find ways to embrace being physically active.

All too often, the media only presents us with a singular image of what a ‘strong woman’ looks like – a certain size, race, age – but the reality is that any woman can find their strength, love their body and be physically fit – regardless of outward appearance.

Strong Women aims to challenge the idea that a woman has to look a certain way in order to be fit, strong and love her body.

Juliana Buhring is an ultra-endurance cyclist. She has ridden across the entire globe – but at age 30 she had never cycled. The death of a loved one set her on a new path.

How did grief shape your relationship with fitness?

At the time, I used cycling as an escape from grief. The physical pain and exhaustion distracted me from the deep sadness and anger I felt.

I started out on my journey around the world not caring if I made it back or not, but by the time I rode into the finish, I had rediscovered a passion for life and new adventures and experiences.

Cycling brought me back to life and set me on a journey towards self discovery that I am still on today.

I think as women we often undervalue ourselves and our abilities. When it comes to exploring our potential, we are our own worst enemies.

Someone once told me, “if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

If you fear failure, then you’ll probably fail. Whether or not you make a dream a reality, or whether you fail or succeed in anything, starts first in the mind.

In fitness and in sport, I’d say what you are able to do and how far you are able to push yourself is 75% in the mind and that’s huge. So I tend to approach all my endeavours and challenges with – I wonder.

I wonder how I’ll hold up under 45 °C heat. I wonder whether I can average 400 km a day instead of 300. I wonder what new surprise will come at me this time that I haven’t prepared for.

Approaching a challenge with curiosity and a sense of adventure reduces the stress of expectation, because then it is less about whether I win or lose, succeed or fail, but rather it becomes one more valuable life experience, regardless of the ultimate outcome. I always learn something more about myself, about who I am, outside of my comfort zone.

The fitness part of it is just a side product of the ultimate life training and self discovery it brings me. For me, it is less about the end game, or about winning. It is all about the ride.

What obstacles have you faced?

My biggest obstacles have usually come down to me getting in my own way, or pushing myself too hard, ignoring the warning signs my body was giving me and paying the consequences of that.

Once you discover that you are able to do so much more than you thought, it can become addicting to find out how much more you are capable of, and how much further you can push yourself.

This is great in achieving milestones or taking yourself to the next level, but it can also be dangerous if you don’t know when to stop.

For example, I destroyed my knees on the Trans Am Bike Race, when my seat post broke and I cycled half of the 7,200 km with the bike seat way down low and my knees way up high. I blocked it out with painkillers, but it did more damage than I had thought.

I learned a lot about mind-over-matter and how I could keep cycling through pain and push past the point when most athletes would probably have stopped. I arrived in the first female position and 4th place overall, but that came at a high cost.

It took a couple years of recovery and I have permanently damaged my patella discs because of it. Also, because of the overdose of ibuprofen, I developed an intolerance which grew into a full on allergic reaction to all anti-inflammatory medication. This means that now if I take anything in that group of medicine, I can suffer heart attack and liver failure.

This was vividly brought home to me in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race across Australia when I suffered a severe reaction to an anti-inflammatory. I was in the middle of the Nullarbor desert, 1,000 km from civilisation and no one around to help.

I managed to get myself to the nearest roadhouse where they called the bush doctor who advised them what to give me from the emergency medical kit. It was scary, and since then I have never touched any kind of medication.

I have learned that caring for my body is the most important thing I can do. It is the machine that will keep me moving through life and if I destroy it early on, I’m going to suffer later when it starts to break down.

Why do you think of yourself as a strong woman?

The strongest metals are forged in the hottest fires.

I have faced a pretty large share of suffering and challenges throughout life, starting from a very young age. At the time, those experiences were extremely painful, but today I am thankful for all of them, because not only have they given me a certain mental toughness and resiliency, but also empathy for others’ suffering.

Every struggle I have passed through and overcome has made me stronger. The more you overcome, the more you know you are capable of overcoming. When you come out the other side knowing you lived through it, you survived, you’re still here, then you have the confidence that you can take everything and anything life throws at you.

At this point, I’m pretty much unbreakable.

I think there is still a perception of a strong woman being somehow ‘bitchy’ or ‘scary’, and intimidating. I often hear myself referred to as ‘badass’. When I meet people for the first time, I’m told, ‘Oh, you’re actually really nice in person.’ I don’t get why there would be an assumption that I’m not nice – apart from being considered a strong female ultra cyclist who regularly challenges a predominantly male field.

I think that women who challenge traditional conceptions of what a woman can and can’t do, or should and shouldn’t be able to do, makes them somehow scary or threatening at a subconscious level.

It could be that we need to change the perception of what being a strong woman means. To me, strong does not mean hard or bitchy.

It takes more strength to be kind to someone who has been cruel to you. It takes strength to stand up for what’s right even if it costs you something, especially when it costs you something.

A strong woman uses her strength to lift others up. A strong woman knows how to say no. A strong woman doesn’t compromise her values in order to achieve her goals. A strong woman knows being weak is part of the process of becoming strong. A strong woman cares for her mind as much as she cares for her body.

These are the kinds of images of strong women I wish we saw more of.

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