“Ah, man this sucks!” “That sucks!” “You know what sucks?” Even among adults whose vocabularies contain countless words, “sucks” tends to be the term of choice to describe a myriad of situations that do not meet expectations. Didn’t make the traffic light? That sucks. Line longer than usual at Starbucks and you have to decide on bailing vs. being 5 minutes late to work? Ah, man that sucks. They sold out of that awesome stout before you could fill your growler? Whoa, that sucks!
Does it? Does it really “SUCK”?
On a recent ride, my brand new, shop-installed chain broke in less than an hour of riding. My first reaction? “This sucks!” After 6 miles or so of cruising around the trails at Laurel Hill, my wife (Laura) and I had just plotted out a fun route that looked to be about 30 minutes more of excellent ride time. She was riding clipped-in on singletrack for the first time in years after an accident in which she broke her wrist. The vibe was good, the stoke high. My chain had been popping around from the start of the ride, making involuntary jumps between the two front rings in situations fast and slow, climbing and flat. I played around with the derailleur and adjusted the clutch setting on the Shimano XRT. Not wanting to disrupt my wife’s flow and success with her SPDs, I figured I could last through the ride and head back to the shop when done. We had this route sorted that would take us from Apple Orchard trail, down to Power Station, through the Dairy Barn loop, over to the rollers, up a fire road and curl back to the horse ring. I was leading, just minutes into it, rounded a corner, started to climb and then I lost all tension beneath my feet and heard the chain bounce off my frame and slide through the spokes on the way to the ground.
The plan for the morning had been for an hour/hour-and-a-half ride on non-technical terrain. With a brand new chain, taking it easy so Laura could focus on riding clipped-in, I didn’t bring any repair gear. All I had with me was a multi-tool to adjust her pedals and cleats if needed. A quick link? Ha! Chain broken, ride over. This sucks! Laura rounded the corner and I stood there with my chain dangling in my hand like a snake. (There is a ‘Brake for Snakes’ sign at the head of the trail so encountering one is not implausible). She offered to end her ride and hike-a-bike with me, but I convinced her to ride on, complete the route, and I’d take the quickest way back to the car. Eventually, she agreed and rode on. As I pushed the bike up the hill it dawned on me that I was not as far along the trail as I had estimated. In fact there was a pretty decent climb of around a mile yet to go. 20+ minutes of pushing a bike uphill in 90-degree temps with no shade in sight. This sucks! And then “embrace the suck” entered my head.
Embrace the suck. I don’t know where I first heard the phrase. I’m pretty sure it was in the context of running. It is even more likely that I heard it in the context of doing speed work: hill repeats, intervals, and track work. When pushing beyond a certain comfort level, at the effort needed to achieve the desired training results, running starts to suck. (Ok, I know some of you riders out there immediately think, “running always sucks” but this is my story so I am, uh, running with it if you will). And if memory serves, which right now it doesn’t exactly, I believe I heard or read a coach say, “You have to embrace the suck.”
I did some research on the topic and learned that credit for the phrase typically goes to the US military. It appears to have first surfaced during the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom). In his book, Embrace the Suck: A Pocket Guide to Milspeak, Austin Bay, a retired colonel in the Army Reserve and a veteran of the Iraq War, defines “Embrace the Suck” as “The situation is bad, but deal with it.”
Someone dug deeper and found that Shakespeare had a line in Henry VI that bends awfully close to “embrace the suck.”
I have to pause here for a moment to ask, “Henry VI?” If you read any Henry’s it is usually Henry V, and maybe if you are an English major you dip into Henry II. But VI? Who reads Henry VI? Fans of the Henry series I suppose. Ok, back to the suck thing.
For those who do read or see Henry VI, they find that when the namesake leader is lamenting his situation in life, he says, ““Let thee embrace me, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.” I read that and think two things: 1) Henry is calling on the adversity to embrace him, not the other way around and, 2) I could go for a beer right now. Let me embrace thee sour farmhouse ale!
I’m going to go with the Iraq War origin of embrace the suck for now.
In mountain biking there are plenty of chances for things to suck. Tires go flat, derailleurs bend, brakes get noisy, GPS devices fail, climbs are long and steep, trails aren’t marked, rides get rained out, chains break. Yeah, sure, all that sucks. But as I pushed my bike up the hill and sweat evacuated every pore as if some internal system had ordered all my previous efforts at hydration to be reversed, I started to get really good and focused on the tragedy of my situation: “How does a brand new chain break?!”, “I am going to march into that shop and tell them how they wrecked my day!”, “Unacceptable!”, “I only got to ride 6 miles!”, “I’ve got to push this bike up this hill and then out to and across the road and back to the parking lot!”, “This sucks!” “Embrace the suck!”
Embrace the suck? Where did you come from? What do you mean? Oh right. How lucky am I that I got to ride for 6 miles? How good is it that I am on a trail 15 minutes drive from home and now just a little over a mile from the car? How sweet is it that Laura has overcome her fears and made a return to riding clipped-in? The shop will fix the chain and I will be riding again in no time. John McCain learned he has an aggressive, cancerous brain tumor this week. Now, THAT sucks! And thoughts like that pinged about in my head as I trudged ahead. Yeah, the mind goes to weird places in the direct sunlight sometimes.
We all have different interpretations and tolerances for the suck. What sucks for me, might be a delight to you, and what sucks for you might be met with indifference by me. The suck is our own; we all experience it differently. The question is, when you think things are starting to suck, what are you going to do: wallow in it, or deal with it? “Embrace the suck” hit me like a splash of cold water, bringing me to my senses. It centered me, putting me in my place as a lucky guy who gets to ride a bike for fun; a guy whose fun may have ended prematurely but will ride again. Not injured. No major damage to the bike. Less than 25 minutes back to the car. This. Is. Not. A. Tragedy.
Further up the hill I met a couple hiking the opposite direction with two dogs. They looked at me with that look you give someone who is pushing their bike up a hill rather than riding it, that look of “Oh, that must suck.” Instead of confirming their assumption, I smiled at them and said, “I don’t have a dog so I decided to take my bike out for a walk.” They gave me that look you give someone who you hope will continue on their way because you aren’t sure if they are mildly humorous, or considerably deranged and you really just want to walk your dogs and not settle which adjective is actually the better fit. I continued on up the hill. Suck embraced.