When life is too much

A heads-up – a lot about suicidality in this post.

I followed the Sport Relief challenge of Zoe Ball recently as I’m sure a fair few of you reading this may have done. The documentary that came out of it was, I thought, a really important piece in terms of highlighting some of the issues around male depression and suicide but also the difficulty of how to support someone going through depression.

I’ve been thinking about how to explain how all the usual logic and reason goes out of the window when you are suicidal. When I’ve been at my lowest I’ve had plenty of thoughts about death. I presume this to be a given – or at least very common – with depression. There’s a whole range of thoughts that can be loosely termed ‘suicidal’ from vague ideas of wanting things to end to actively making plans and being a danger to yourself. Often when severely depressed I’ve had a very disconnected thoughts about not wanting to exist, anything to stop the feelings of misery. These involve no sense or desire to take things further. Usually at this point the accompanying cognitive dysfunction is such that actually making some kind of decision around taking my own life is pretty much impossible. I wonder whether this is an element of brain’s self-defence and self-survival. I can’t do anything but keep dragging myself forward as anything else would involve too much cognitive processing.

I thought Tom Hill’s piece in Singletrack was great. Suicidality and suicidal ideation can be one of the toughest things to talk about. It’s not something that one can casually drop into conversation! I guess the fear of how the listener is going to react is a biiiiig part of it. Tom described heading out on a ride with a pocket full of painkillers. I didn’t *quite* get to that point but it did start stockpiling paracetamol and was considering where and when I might take my own life. This was over twenty years ago and the first time I experienced depression. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t seek help, I didn’t talk specifically to anyone about it – all the frustration, anger, desperation, and everything else was turned inward. I can’t remember every detail any more but the most significant element which allowed me to get through this time was the offer from my oldest friend to come and stay at her house for a couple of months. Being able to put distance between me and the physical centres of my problems made all the difference.

At the time I saw a grim humour when I, in the process of buying painkillers from different shops and unable to buy the same type in all, found myself wondering whether it was a good idea to mix them all. I think it even occured to me to think of whether it would cause issues for paramedics if I was found. Perhaps my anxiety got in the way of actually taking my own life. I remember debating about the site – somewhere where I wouldn’t be disturbed but also where I might not lie undiscovered for days and days. I even thought about who I would like to leave some of my belongings to.

I think became adept at shutting down conversations I didn’t want to have, but simultaneously being desperate for someone to put me on the spot and force the feelings out of me and respond to my silent screaming. I was sure that people must know that something wasn’t right with me but I have also come to realise how accomplished you can become at hiding your feelings. It can take a very aware person to read the signs. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have know where to go for help and I don’t think those around me would have able to suggest anything either. It didn’t even occur to me that what I was going through was depression. Depression happened to other people. During the last twenty years it’s become so much easier to find help, find information, have conversations about mental health.

I’m very aware that it’s a bit easier for me to have these conversations than it is for many other people. It’s become normal since I started working in mental health. It’s still a bit of a step to talk about such extreme states of being though. I’ve only mentioned this to two or three people before and never written about it so I hope this all makes some kind of sense.

I’ve not reached this point since. The next time depression hit, around six years later, I actually went to my GP and had a difficult conversation about needing help. It felt like a breakthrough… and it was. It was a huge relief to verbally communicate the feelings I’d been having. Talking; seems like a most simple thing but is usually the hardest. There have been a few moments over the years that have been a few markers of forward movement such as this in turns of my personal dealings with depression. I dislike the word ‘journey’ in this context, it sounds too trite to me. Talking did and does make all the difference, but I know how hard it can be to get even to that point.

‘Discovering’ cycling in 2003 has changed my life. I wouldn’t ever say that cycling saved my life but it has, since then, been a major part of staving off and coping with low mood. More than this, it has brought me physical and emotional highs I never would have experienced otherwise. It’s given me a focus to my personal life, and an increased social circle, and a sense of comradery with other riders.

I was planning a last paragraph with added gravitas but I think I’ll just leave it there.

 

Guest Post 4: Dred

Dred has been kind enough to give me the ok to re-post a piece from her own blog. If you’re Bristol-based you may cross paths – she volunteers with Bristol Bike Project in Stokes Croft. I felt her piece about cycling as meditation particularly stuck a chord in terms of much of the solo cycling I did last summer out in Kent. The sharp awareness of the physical self can push all the cognitive static to one side for a while, simplify actions into just those that you need to keep the pedals turning. Within this simplicity… complexity. As Mildred describes, you get very aware of your own body and how it responds – sweat forming, limbs aching, perhaps old injuries reminding you they exist, thirst, hunger, the way you shift your body as you sit up or get out of the saddle.

Thanks to Dred for permission to repost text and images. Hopefully we can cross paths once I get a BikesandBrains evening fixed at the Bristol Bike Project in due course!

 

#MondayMotivation – Cycling as Meditation

My head is a rather chaotic place.

My brain is constantly switched on, analysing, fretting, questioning. When there’s a lot going on in there, I can’t finish speaking a sentence without starting a new one. I can be manic, jittery, and completely incoherent.

I used to manage this with meditation. Every night I dedicated 15 minutes to slowing down, silencing my thoughts and clearing my mind before going to bed. It used to really help, but these days I just can’t do it anymore. Meditation is a real skill that you need to master, and my mental state just isn’t compatible with it anymore.

But cycling helps to tame the chaos.

A friend recently commented that I’ve become obsessed with cycling – it’s all I talk about, all I do. It’s true. I spend every spare moment looking at bikes, riding them, fixing them, and talking about them…

Heck, not that long ago Adam and I were discussing bottom brackets in bed, and realised we really need to reassess our pillow talk.

My response to this friend was simple: cycling is the only thing that’s keeping me sane right now.

My professional life is in flux. I’ve just resigned from a permanent position and am looking to go freelance while working part-time in a bike shop. I’m getting myself involved in lots of different projects, I’m going to have very little money to live on, and I’m taking a huge leap into the darkness.

On top of this, I’ve had some mental health issues to deal with, and have been struggling to overcome some emotional barriers that can sometimes be crippling.

I’m constantly telling myself I’m not good enough, setting myself impossibly high standards and then branding myself a failure for not meeting them. Dwelling on choices I’ve made in the past, forgetting the right ones and punishing myself for the wrong ones. Constantly telling myself that I’m worthless, that I’m going nowhere. Feeling completely and totally lost. It’s a never-ending stream of abuse, directed inward.

But when I ride my bike, everything goes quiet.

Suddenly, the only thing I need to think about is where I’m going. I just need to keep my wheels turning, keep my centre of gravity balanced, and keep my cadence consistent.

My attention turns to my body: my breathing, my hand positioning, and the speed at which I’m turning the pedals. Going up a hill, all I need to think about is the burning in my legs, the dull ache in my lower back, and the drops of sweat forming on my brow. When I’m descending, I’m concentrating on how I’m positioned on the bike. I feel the rush of the wind past my ears and through my hair, the tears forming as I reach eye-watering speed, and the pounding of my heart.

In traffic, the chaos is external. All I need to do is stay alert, predict others’ actions, and position myself in the safest place on the road.

In quiet country lanes, I can afford myself the time to take in the views, feel the sunshine on my face, breathe in the cleaner air, and notice the wildlife around me.

Cycling gives me the space I need to slow down, internally. Everything becomes a circular motion: my feet on the pedals, the spinning of the wheels, and the loop I carve onto the map as I leave the city and return again later.

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So as my life takes a turn in the coming weeks – leaping out of the safety net of permanent full-time employment, into the unknown – cycling will be my therapy. I cannot wait to have more time to spend on my bike, and explore the beauty that our countryside has to offer.

I will have much less money, that’s for sure, but cycling is free, and it’s the kind of happiness you don’t need to buy.

A Trip to Rapha Mancs

So, at the end of February a went up to Manchester for the second of the BikesandBrains (I will end up typing ‘Bikes and Brians’ at some point, no doubt) evenings after an amazing first event at Look Mum No Hands last November.

The Rapha Cycle Club is a very different venue, and has a different vibe, so I was interested to see how the original format would go. My head was thick with cold, so if you listen to the recording and find my chat bumbling off into verbal cul-de-sacs… that’s why.

I was honoured to be joined by Christine Evans, Tom Hill, and my Elite Cycling clubmate Juliet Sprake.

My bit was not dissimilar to the LMNH event – if you have listened to the Wheelsuckers Podcast and listen to the Rapha Manchester recording you’ll notice this!

Jules talked about various ‘p’ words (pause, pressure, permission) that had come up in relation to her recent cycling experience, particularly associated with track cycling and her training for National Masters Track Champs in Newport and World Masters Track Champs in Manchester during 2016.  She also described having to move on from that and rediscover what cycling meant to her.

Tom talked very openly about a period of severe depression and suicidality. He also touched on something I’ve experienced – a moment of absurdity in the midst of extreme depressive state. He described sitting by a familiar offroad trail, at the point when existence no longer had any appeal – but gathering himself briefly to acknowledge a passing walker. A re-focus, and a ‘what the hell am I doing moment’. He wrote at length in an article for the hard copy of Singletrack which was later published online. Do have a read.

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One of Christine’s designs…

Christine talked about the benefits of finding a group to ride with but also how it can be very difficult when people are at different fitnesses and abilities. She described being competitive and the alarm of finding yourself at the back on hills after injury and being unable to train, and all the accompanying cognitive interference – some of the ‘potholes’ both literal and figurative. She also described her decision to start drawing after rides and kindly brought a couple of sketchbooks for everyone to look at.

I think we all touched on how cycling was a ‘medicine’ for us. A medicine that might not work 100% of the time, or even work in a predictable and consistent way. It does seem, however, to work in a way like little else. I saw a link to this article on sm a few days ago. As fervently as I feel about the benefits of cycling for mental and physical health reasons it made me think once again about the way studies are presented for popular consumption. It also made my think about all those wiry audaxer mile-eaters who’ll probably be cycling until they draw their last breath. 🙂

You can listen to recording of the evening at Rapha Manchester here . I say ‘um’ and ‘er’ a lot.

Thanks to Christine and Tom for travelling to Manchester to contribute to the evening, and especially to Jules who came up from London. Further thanks go to Holly and Dean at Rapha Manchester for hosting the event – I’d love to return in a little while as you suggested! Finally, a nod to my friend James Lyon who started the ball rolling to facilitate the event.

You can find my fellow contributors here:

Christine: twitter / website / instagram

Jules: twitter

Tom: twitter / website / instagram

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Guest Post 3: Emma Cooke

I’ve been in touch with a few people now about their own stories. There are some amazing stories out there on personal blogs. Through links or reblogging I’m trying to gather them all together here as a resource. One of the people who has been kind enough to give me permission to reblog their piece is Emma Cooke. She posted a great piece on her own blog Scone Cycling at the end of December. Do give her a follow. The image here is by Phill Staisw and there are others that give a flavour of what Emma went through up on her site. Many thanks, Emma!

Mountain Biking and Mental Health: My Trans Cambrian Story

Finally, mental health is starting to get discussed more and more openly in the UK. And from the BBC’s much-celebrated Mind Over Marathon documentary, to Look Mum No Hands’ panel discussion on the matter, the benefits of exercise for mental health are being recognised too.

So now it’s time to add my story…

I’ve had trouble with anxiety and associated depression at a number of points in my life. Mostly I’ve managed to keep my head above water and continue as normal, hiding my troubles from the world. However, I recently had a spell of anxiety that really did knock me off course. It stopped me from eating, it stopped me from sleeping and, eventually, it stopped me from working. I have been lucky enough to be treated by a great GP and an even better counsellor to get myself back on track. But that is not the full story of my recovery. The full story includes a massive bike ride, in crazy headwinds, rain, and a whole heap of mud!

Before my anxiety struck, I had booked a birthday treat for myself: a three day mountain biking mission on the Trans Cambrian Trail, riding from the English border at Knighton, through mid Wales to Machynlleth on the coast. I’d booked the trip with Mountain Bike Wales, having met proprietor Phill through Polly on my mountain bike and yoga break earlier in the year.

Phill and Polly are two of the most passionate, supportive people in the mountain biking world. But, even so, when I got ill just a few weeks before the trip I very nearly backed out. It was only due to a brilliant conversation with my counsellor and quick call to Polly that I decided to give it a go. When is a bike ride not a good idea, after all??

The weekend arrived and brought with it Storm Brian and an increase in my anxiety levels. I had barely slept in weeks, I was suffering from multiple panic attacks each day, and I really wasn’t convinced I was capable of facing a challenge that would see me cycling further than I ever had before, let alone in headwinds of over 40 miles an hour! It was with absolute dread that I left the pub we’d stayed in in Knighton to put foot to pedal and get started on day one.

But as my legs started turning, as the blood got pumping and my heart rate rose, I started to forget the heavy stomach and painful doubts that had been my constant companions for the last few weeks. That day I rode up wet, grassy climbs I would never have contemplated before, I took the longer option where I could have taken a short cut, and I rode into Rhayader that evening shocked at what I had achieved. It’s true, I had a little panic attack when we arrived in the town, but it passed quickly and I was able to enjoy a lovely meal with the rest of the group, before retiring to a cosy bed for the night.

The next day Storm Brian really did come out to play. The wind howled and the rain rushed horizontally in sheets past the window as we chowed down on a full Welsh breakfast. Phill and Polly had been conferring overnight and agreed that the planned route for the day was going to be too exposed for the conditions, so a new plan had been concocted. We were to ride a more sheltered, but still 50km, route in the Elan Valley. A familiar sense of dread kicked back in as I donned my kit – every piece of wet weather gear I owned and plenty of layers to boot. But again, that fear, that anxiety, that rock in the pit of my stomach left as I began to ride.

The trails looked more like rivers than bridleways, the hail bit our faces and we were buffeted in all directions by enormous gusts of wind. My waterproofs could only withstand so much; I was soaked to the bone by lunchtime. And I had never felt more alive! I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled some more. I battled hard against the wind, I laughed as I rode through water that came up to my knees, and grinned from ear to ear as I felt a painful yet satisfying exhaustion seep through my body as the day came to a close and the light faded. It was the best I had felt in weeks, and that feeling was only improved by the delicious pub meal we consumed that evening.

And so came day three, the final day of our wet and windy adventure. And my goodness, was it wet and windy! We thought we had ridden hard on day two, we thought we had experienced headwinds and mud. But no, day three was where it was at. Day three threw everything at us! We climbed all morning, heading up to Glyndwrs Way, battling a headwind like none I had experienced before. It was a fight, that’s for sure. But somehow, from somewhere, I found energy. I found determination. I found the ability to pedal, to get my head down and just get on with it.

Lunchtime saw us hiding behind a tin fence, trying hard to shelter from the wind and the rain that just kept hammering us. I’ll be honest: it was grim and I felt miserable. But the fire inside me just wouldn’t be extinguished. Something somehow kept that flame burning, kept me wanting more. And so we entered the final leg – a leg with a fabulous descent that I will always remember. The rain kept pouring, the wind kept blowing, but this was the last push and there was no way I was going to let the elements beat me.

Riding the Trans Cambrian marked a turning point in my recent illness. It showed me that I am stronger than I think I am. It showed me that determination can enable great things, that I can do more than I ever thought possible. It showed me what I am made of. And I took these lessons and knew that I would get better, that anxiety wouldn’t beat me. And you know what? It was true: anxiety couldn’t beat me. I am better now and I am stronger than I ever was before.

Riding the Trans Cambrian at my point of crisis was the best decision I have ever made. Mountain biking should be prescribed by the NHS!

Postscript: I have to say a enormous thank you to Phill Stasiw and Polly Clark, who guided us on this amazing adventure. They are some of life’s proper good’ns and I could not have done it without them.

You can check out the trips that Polly and Phill are running next year on their respective websites: mountainyogabreaks.co.uk | mtb.wales

 

Sport Relief and the Cycling Community

Some of you will have seen on sm that Zoe Ball is undertaking a bike ride as part of Sport Relief (March 17th – 23rd). You may have even have caught the interviews with her on BBC Breakfast and The One Show (17 mins in) a few days ago. It’s great that Sport Relief is focusing on mental health this time around. There’s the cycling challenge (as yet unquantified) but she will also be visiting various projects across the country working to improve things for those people dealing with a range of MH issues.

What struck me, looking through some of the comments to her on sm after the broadcasts was the genuine kindness and willingness to share advice that was coming from the cycling community. It’s something like that which I experienced when I started to become involved in cycling in 2003. Also the bit about doing an undignified, slow-motion 90-deg *flump* onto the tarmac during the period when you first embark on cleat usage. Mine was near Turnpike Lane in North London. At traffic lights. With four lanes of stationary traffic behind me.

 

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In 2010 a number of well-known faces tag-teamed JOGLE (John O’Groats to Land’s End) during one of the bitterest and longest winters I remember in a long time. By April even those non-SAD sufferers were going spare at the lack of sunshine. I remember being impressed at those celebs who were cycling newbies and, again, it brought me back to my earlier experiences. The cleats, first time using cycling shorts, learning about chamois cream (or minty arse lard, if you will). Then feeling a bit frisky moving onto the bib-shorts stage… even a skinsuit. I love a bib-short, me… but I digress. I remember eagerly accepting top tips from those who had lots of cycling knowledge to share. John Mullineaux some of you will know from racing in London, the South-East, and beyond. His cobble-riding tips got me through my Paris-Roubaix Randonnee a decade ago (raised bars, cross tops). Gary MacGowan of Dulwich Paragon CC had lots of great pointers re long-distance riding when I first did Dunwich Dynamo (cut your toenails beforehand!).

I found there to be a particular warmth and encouragement to be had from other cyclists. Also sharing of information, comparing of experiences. I think Zoe Ball will get all the advice she needs (and probably much, much more!).

I confess I have an ulterior motive for writing a bit about Sport Relief. In early December I followed up a tweet from Anxiety UK to get in contact with a production company who were looking to interview people anxiety for a Beeb Sport Relief documentary. I, media whore that I am, offered my services. About 15 or so of us were asked the same questions – I think they’ll intercut our responses throughout the programme, around the footage of a celeb and her personal experience of anxiety. Not sure how much air time will be yours truly but look out for the one with the red glasses.

I’ve probably done the same amount of hours on a turbo trainer in the last month or so than I have on the bike. There have been a couple of weekends that didn’t feature a ride at all. I did push myself to go to the gym, partly in order to not feel guilty about not doing anything at all but didn’t use the bikes there either. Thought I’d do something about my tiny cyclist T-Rex arms. Mat work, weights, and treadmill basically. I’ve been attempting running, after not having run since my schooldays (I was crap at running then) and I’ve managed to get to a point where a Park Run *might* be feasible. What I’ve also discovered is that if you go to the gym and do a HIIT turbo session on the same day your HR gets very, very high and it’s possible to feel a rather queasy at the end. Seeing Zoe Ball out training in the wind and rain did make me feel a bit of a weed for skipping what would have been a very wet, cold ride recently for me in Kent recently. Only a bit, though.

Next blog post coming up shortly – A Bikes&Brains evening at Rapha Manchester coming up on 22nd February! Plans a-foot for another one in London and one in Bristol too in the near future…

 

A Dose of the Januarys

I’d be surprised if there is anyone out there who returns to work in the New Year with a bounce in their step, and beaming from ear to ear. If you do… take it elsewhere yer massive weirdo.

As I’ve got older I’ve noticed that the change in seasons affect me more. The darker evenings from late October and then the darker mornings. Up to the end of the year it isn’t so bad – various high days and holidays to look forward to that break things up a bit to or distract from winter grey. Unless socialising and Xmas isn’t your thing. January and February can be particularly tough, sometimes March too but then some colour does start to return to the landscape and the hushed whisperings of the oncoming spring can detected.

I presume that the Time to Talk day was set for the beginning of February very deliberately – this year it falls on Feb 1st. World Mental Health Day in October, Time to Talk Day in February, and Mental Health Awareness Week in May bridge what can be a challenging time for many. Having said that, they haven’t been events that I have engaged with much on a personal level as I’m usually involved on a professional level. When the relevance of these initiatives isn’t easily compartmentalised… therein lies a bit of an issue (but that is a blog post of its own!).

A cup of tea and a chat can get things started. Time to Talk has a simplicity to it, an accessibility. I like that. For the same reasons I think that Blackdog CC is a great idea. Those of you who attended the Look Mum No Hands evening or listened to the Wheelsuckers podcast will recall Roann Ghosh talking about the club. It starts with a sticker (and who doesn’t like stickers, right?!). A subtle yet clear signifier that it’s ok to talk to someone about depression. Also, as Roann mentioned, it can be easier to talk when side by side rather than face to face. You’re less exposed. I think many people can find talking about difficult subjects when you have another task to hand, be it riding or mechanic-ing.

Anxiety can get in the way of even these seemingly simple beginnings. Things is, about anxiety, the Fear of the What-If is almost always way worse than the action or activity itself. And then you realise how much cognitive wherewithal you’ve used up worrying about the possible outcomes of a decision. It can be exhausting. Being able to identify and catch yourself when you’re doing this is one thing, modifying your thinking is quite another.

It’s at this point I come to the conclusion that if I was talking to you I would have got stuck in a bit of a verbal cul-de-sac. I’m not sure I meant to write about this but here I am.

Anyway, as mentioned before, I use turbo sessions to keep my fitness and energy levels up during the cold, grey weeks. The last three years I’ve been on a club training camp at the beginning of February for a week. It’s really helped to break up the post-Xmas/Long Time ‘Til Easter period. This year, for a change, I’ve plumped for a camp a bit later on. I have been a bit concerned about whether I made the right decision though I am looking forward to the more settled weather in the Costa Blanca in April. There are some good climbs to be had inland from Calpe, orange groves a-plenty, and a promise of the spa in the basement of the hotel we’ll stay in. Women riders – if you fancy joining me 14-21 April then take a look at the details here: Elite Cycling Training Camps . I booked my flights today in a fit of commitment and it feels good to have the week to look forward to. Particularly given the talking to I had to give myself this morning to get out of bed and ride. There’ll be several group rides in Spain so whether you want hard miles for race prep, or just want to get a few miles in the legs in warm climes you will be catered for. I’m not planning to be chewing the bars all round south-east Spain – the group I usually ride in even has a coffee stop. That’s how I roll.

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Guest Post 2: Lesley Pinder

Another guest contribution. This time from a clubmate and friend of mine, Lesley Pinder. You can find her on Twitter under the handle @Skipinder and there are more thoughts on stepping back from racing, and injuries, on her blog here. Here she ponders ways to deal with stress, and has a few thoughts re work and life after reading Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, Rest. SS

 

Racing and Deep Play

I’ve written a couple of blog posts already about giving up racing my bicycle and so in some senses, this is Part 3 of a journey. When I wrote those posts I was gradually coming to terms with giving up racing and generally felt a sense of relief. The pressure I put on myself, the high (and unrealistic) expectations and disappointments led me to decide that the net impact of racing was a negative one. 2017, my first year in six not spent racing, was instead spent exploring new sports, enjoying cycling as a hobby and coaching. On paper I felt better, less stressed out about how fast (or not) I rode my bike and even a bit more holistically healthy but…. I am starting to wonder if it is not actually all that simple. While I was less stressed on the bike, during the summer of 2017 I became considerably more stressed at work. As a result of it, I have spent a lot of time pondering my mental habits and also trying out new strategies for work and for self care. Along with lots of yoga and meditation I’ve been reading more about healthy work patterns which led me to an excellent book called Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Rest explores the relationship between work and rest and argues that the two are not mutually inclusive. With the right sort of rest, it argues, you will work better. It is an antidote to the modern obsession with busyness and the increasingly blurry lines between work and home life. I honestly can’t recommend it enough. The book journeys through different concepts including working less but in a more focussed way (four hours a day is optimal by all accounts), the power of sleep and naps (preaching to the converted here) and also the importance of taking regular time off and how you can make the very most of that time. But it is the chapter of Deep Play that made me think anew about my cycling, and specifically racing.

Deep Play happens when you are so wholly engrossed in an activity that it takes up your entire thinking brain. It is mentally absorbing, allows you to use skills you also use at work (like strategic thinking or creativity), provides a more immediate satisfaction than you may get from work and is also, in some way, linked to your past and things you did as a child.

Activities that can involve Deep Play include playing a musical instrument to a very high level, writing a novel, painting or sports that are intense both physically and mentally. The author talks a great deal in this chapter about sailing and rock climbing which are two sports disproportionately popular with people with demanding jobs that involve high levels of problem solving (scientists, designers or lawyers for example). Both sports involve physical exertion but beyond that they also involve intense mental concentration, problem solving and creativity. Physical exercise is great for both physical and mental health but often still allows space for mind wandering while Deep Play, although it may involve some of the same skills you use at work, provides a more profound break from it.

This really resonated with me. I struggle to switch off. As my partner will confirm, I rarely sit still and I am always doing twelve things at once. When I am out on a bike ride in the lovely Kent lanes I can really only do that one thing otherwise I’d crash but my mind will still wander and I’ll still ruminate over work challenges and while I can come up with some great ideas or solutions it doesn’t really switch me off. On the other hand, I used to always say that racing or race training behind a derny pacer was the most mindful thing I did. That was when I completely and utterly focused on the activity at hand. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that it wasn’t just the race itself that constituted Deep Play, it was also all the surrounding thinking, planning and preparation. Climbing, sailing and cycling are united by the need to think deeply not only while you are doing the thing but also when you are planning for the thing. On race day, and sometimes even the night before, my mind would be entirely engrossed in the event ahead… What kit and shoes will I wear? What gearing do I need on my bike? Which wheels? What will the weather be like? What food and drink will I need? Who is racing? What do I know about them? Track cycling, like sailing and climbing, can be complicated and hard to grasp but once you’re in it, the complexity deepens the level of engagement. My mind is very active at work so it makes sense that sometimes (but not always) in order to switch off from work it needs to be very active doing a different thing.

And so I wonder… while in many ways racing my bicycle had become a stressful thing no longer enjoyable in itself, did the Deep Play nature of it actually reduce stress in another part of my life? If I could approach bike racing with the patience, acceptance and self compassion I’ve been trying to nurture through meditation and yoga, could I benefit again from the complete immersion that the act of racing brings? Could I be content with being ‘okay’ at racing in return for the benefits that the act of racing can bring? Or do I need to find a new Deep Play hobby? When I was younger I found immersion in Amateur Dramatic Musicals! Maybe it’s time to get my tap shoes and jazz hands out again…

 

 

Guest Post 1: Jo McRae

I am happy to present the first guest blog post, written by the lovely Jo McRae (Twitter – @JoMcRae1) who is an exercise professional of many years. What do you do when you simply can’t ride? When injury or illness prevent you from even getting on the bike? Here Jo shares her personal experience punctuated with professional observations. SS

 

Taking the Piss.

Having missed the much talked about gig at Look Mum, I’m keen to keep the ball rolling in sharing some of my own brain and bike experiences via this blog. Only problem is, though this ball may be rolling, the wheels on my own bicycle are not going round and round at all. I’ve been grounded by one of the worst things a cyclist can have to deal with – an actual physical reason for not being able to ride the bike.

Like many mentalists with a therapeutic love-hate relationship with the bike, I’ve sometimes not wanted to ride the damn thing at all, the biggest hiatus being a five year divorce. Sometimes, the hurdles have been insurmountable, the pressure I put on myself too great, or the general lethargy or depression too much to swing my leg over the cross-bar. Frustratingly many of these aspects of my own mental health are rather well in check just now, so the Universe has sent me a different kind of challenge just to check I’ve really GOT IT.  Due to an ongoing bladder infection and subsequent complications, I’ve been off the bike completely for about six months now.

A chronic bladder infection sounds like nothing much I know, but this is a bona fide, albeit not too common problem that really can become pretty serious if untreated. In practice, it means daily and even hourly changes in bladder problems, pelvic and urethral pain, dysfunction and all manner of awfulness that I won’t go into here. The main symptom for me has been bladder pain, something I didn’t know you could even have, let alone would have to learn to manage for more than a year.

Helpfully the centre for anxiety in the brain is right next door to the one receiving feedback from the bladder, so needless to say, the anxiety I have been experiencing has at times been pretty much off the scale. I’ve experienced crippling anxiety before, but usually associated with no REAL cause, or rather one magnified and exacerbated by thought processes themselves. This whole experience takes moment to moment management to a whole new level, and several of my usual coping measures are currently off the table. Riding my bike would be one, and lifting heavy weights would be another. Both are, for the moment, off limits. Almost uniquely amongst the exercise options available, these two favourite things are most like to make pain and physical symptoms worse. This feels like a particularly cruel blow.

Luckily as an exercise professional myself I’m not short of movement vocabulary, so I’ve been embracing ‘BEING IN THE NOW’, and doing whatever I can on any given day to keep moving and keep healthy in both body and mind. One day that might mean having a swim. Another it might mean a light gym circuit. And one mental health technique that I’ve used in the past is really coming into its own. ‘Goal chain-ing’ is when you don’t look too far ahead, but instead prepare for an activity step by manageable step, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the size of the challenge or floored by the disappointment of failure. You might focus on putting your exercise kit on before you decide what you’re going to do, or ride the first 15 minutes out of town before deciding if you want to go any further.

Fortunately for me I have access to several gyms, so I’m able to chop and change my activity at the drop of a hat and still get something useful done. I’ve been trying to keep my hand in a little by including short half hour/40 minute sessions on a watt bike. At least by cycling indoors I’m not in the arse end of Kent with a sudden onset of pain and no way of getting home in a hurry. I don’t want to induce pain, but some days I don’t have any problems at all so having no set goal in this instance is helpful and important, but it is hard to swallow. I like to have structure to my work-outs. Training is my business after all, but for now I just want to use exercise to stay sane. Surely that’s achievable with goal-chaining and a flexible mind set. After all, who cares if I get on a watt bike for 15 minutes only to get off and have a super comfortable row with a lubricated padded chamois.

So I’m doing my best and I’m managing, and there have even been some unexpected perks, for example I have improved my running. But what I’ve remembered the most is that I like to ride my bike. Just for the pleasure in that. And I’m looking forward to a time when I can get the wheels turning again, at whatever speed.

The Winter Meh – pt. 2

Ok, so this one is more about the cycling and less of the political ranting (it will happen from time to time). I managed to save the saucepan by the way. Phew.

The end of year can throw up lots of conflicting emotions. I have a tendency to be backward-looking and it’s all too easy for me to fall into the habit of seeing the change of year as a loss, a leaving behind of all those great times I’ve had over the last 12 months and them being submerged into my personal history. There’s part of me that would like to bottle up those joyful moments like a perfume, or a single malt, to be intermittently savoured. I know there is a ridiculousness to this. I know that there will be plenty of forthcoming awesome times. Very generally-speaking, anxiety is future-fear – all those ‘what-ifs’ which can become overwhelming.

Anxiety can infiltrate every aspect of your life, prevent you from making big, long-term plans (some many variables!) to the minutia (so many variables!) and I find even going out on a short bike ride will involve plenty of pre-pedal analysis. What is the weather going to be like? What combination of kit shall I wear? How much food and liquid? Which thickness of gloves? How long shall I go out for? Where shall I go? What do I need to do when I get home and will I have the energy to do it? Do I have time? Can I be bothered?

Thing is, all this takes up a lot of energy and time as it is and it becomes alarmingly easy to talk yourself out of doing anything at all. The key, I’ve found, is awareness of your own situation. It doesn’t come easy, it’s quite a learning curve. Identifying when you are sliding into over-analysis is one thing, doing something about it is another. I try and pull myself up short and just go. Sometimes I counter the what-ifs by actively positive thoughts… if I go there I will see that bit of countryside I love, if I do that route I’ll get that fab downhill run that makes me feel like I’m flying…

It’s different now I’m now I’m not training for racing though I still find myself setting targets in terms of distance or hours. When this seems too much I refocus and try a more mindful approach – taking in the countryside, observing changes in the flora, delighting in random views along the way. I turn the bike ride from a means to an end to an end itself.

The weather plays a bigger part the older I get, the seasons too. Grey, cloudy blargh I find difficult, I’ll take a freezing cold day over mild temps and low cloud any day. I’m learning not to always dash around feeling that I need to be super-active any time the sun comes out, but getting out of the house is definitely worthwhile – even just sitting on the terrace outside a local café in Crystal Palace basking in the winter sun has its merits.

There’s always something to observe, how ever long or short the ride, whether in the countryside or town. Drink it in. Observe and delight in your surroundings. React to them. Stop for that coffee if you want to. Allow yourself a little leeway.

 

Wishing you a fab 2018, everyone. 🙂

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