Hard Things – Overcoming in Mountain Bike Racing and Cancer

Jen Hanks racing mountain bikes at an ultra distance event.

Mountain biking has taught me a lot of important life skills, perhaps the most meaningful has been that I can do really hard things.

I started mountain biking in college; I had been a competitive equestrian in high school and needed a sport more appropriate for a college student. At the time, I didn’t have any friends who mountain biked; I was drawn to the solitude of the forests and challenging myself with difficult terrain. When I saw an advertisement for a local race, I jumped in with both feet. The race was really hard. I had never pushed myself so hard from a physical perspective. When I walked away from that race, it was with newfound self-confidence and a passion for a new sport. Later in my cycling career, I had the opportunity to compete at the TransAlp Challenge Stage Race. At the time, I had never raced a distance longer than a 24-hour 4-person relay team race. Suddenly, I was faced with a stage race that traveled from Germany to Austria to Italy over eight days and covered almost 400 miles with 65,000 feet of climbing.

I finished TransAlp strong and rode away from that race with more self-confidence and found a passion for ultra-endurance mountain bike racing. Over the next couple of years, I successfully competed in numerous multi-day stage races and ultra-endurance mountain bike races.

Jen racing her mountain bike with a big smile on her face.
The author riding during a race.

January 2011 was like any other year. I was training in preparation for a season full of challenging and exciting mountain bike races. One day, while doing yoga, I was drawn to a lump in my breast. Most people don’t do breast self-exams while doing yoga, but for whatever reason, on that particular day, I was drawn to the lump. Finding this lump started a cascade of tests that culminated with the news, “You have breast cancer.” Receiving this diagnosis shook me to the core. After all, I was a 35-years young, healthy, “pro” athlete.

My emotions ranged from being convinced there was a mix up with my pathology results – to why me? – to coming to terms with why not me as I quickly learned that cancer does not discriminate.

I was scared I wouldn’t be the athlete I was before. I was even scared for my life. But I was also ready to do a tough thing. I was ready to tackle breast cancer treatment with the goal of not just surviving but thriving.

Over the next year, I underwent chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. Throughout it all, I controlled what I could and took care of my body. I cleaned up my nutrition, participated in yoga, received massages and acupuncture, and continued to mountain bike. I even rode my bike to every single one of my chemo infusions. By the end of the year, I was declared “cancer-free” or more technically correct “in remission.” The following year and I half I spent rebuilding fitness and returned to mountain bike racing. I was stronger than ever and even won a handful of Elite races.

My “cancer-free” status was short-lived. In 2013 cancer returned to lymph nodes in my armpit. I then went through what is arguably the scariest time of my life, the restaging process, where tests determined if cancer had spread to other parts of my body. Luckily for me, it was determined that the disease was contained to 3 lymph nodes. Once again, I was faced with undergoing cancer treatment. This time it was more surgery, more chemotherapy, radiation, and finally since my particular cancer was fueled by estrogen, the removal of my ovaries. It was during this time I used another skill that I had learned from mountain biking racing. Often, during a really hard race, I will repeat a positive mantra to myself. During cancer treatment, whenever I was scared, tired, or just plain sick of being a cancer patient, I would repeat to myself, “I am strong, I am healthy, I am super-duper fast.” This silly mantra brought me confidence and a sense of calm during a terrifying time.

Jen racing with Shannon in a stage race with wet and muddy conditions.
Riding and racing in miserable weather isn't so bad when you really break it down.

Today, I am over six years in remission. I continue to race mountain bikes at an elite level. I have competed in multi-day stage races in Cuba, Chile, and Croatia as well as many single day ultra-endurance events. Next Spring, I will be traveling to South Africa to toe the line at the hardest mountain bike race of my life, The Cape Epic. The Cape Epic is an eight-day stage race that starts in Cape Town and will cover 400+ miles and over 50,000 feet of climbing. It will be hard. But I know I can do hard things both on the bike and in life.

A friend once compared me to a dandelion. You can tear me down, dig me out, spray me with chemicals, and I keep popping back up. I really like this analogy, but in reality, I think I keep “popping back” because mountain biking has shown me how strong I really am.

Keep riding and smiling.
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Jen Hanks is a professional mountain bike racer who has been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer twice. Jen credits her background in cycling with helping her overcome the challenges of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. She is currently six years in remission and continues to compete at the Elite level.

Elite Athlete

2 thoughts on “Hard Things – Overcoming in Mountain Bike Racing and Cancer

  1. Jen – I loved reading this. I had heard it before, but always love hearing stories like yours. The South Africa race sounds really tough, but I know that you can do it. It was so fun meeting you in Boise at Expedition Inspiration. I love following your accomplishments on Facebook.
    Good Luck! Maybe our paths will cross again in the future!

  2. Thanks for the inspiration Jen. I think I know how hard dealing with a cancer diagnosis really is and your exactly right. You have to keep pushing but also realize the importance of a nap to rejuvenate the mind and body. Keep throwing it down girl!!

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