Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

So Mental Health Awareness Week is coming to an end and the focus has been on stress. Something we can all understand whether we have other clinically diagnosed issues or not. It’s been a bit close to home for me just at the moment – hence why the blog posts have been a little intermittent of late.

Mind have been focusing on mental health in the workplace – a subject which employers are starting to take on board. Common sense really, even if purely from a financial perspective. Mentally healthy staff will take fewer sick days, be more productive, be less likely to move on quickly and an employer will benefit from a knowledgeable and experienced workforce. I’m generalising of course, but the evidence backs this up.

Here are a few articles if you’re interested in a bit of further reading:

From the Work Foundation

Depression and Finding a Job (Blurt)

Guardian article on cost to the economy

Business in the Community – MH in the workplace

Time to Change – your rights

I was having a few chats with people on Bikes and Brains Twitter about how working in cycling can interplay with using the bike as a de-stress device and a way of trying to mitigate the effects of stress/anxiety/depression/delete as appropriate. Is it possible to divide work-bike from non-work bike? How hard is it (or not) to work on your own bike if you’ve spent all day working on other peoples? Do you have structured ways of approaching it to enable you to compartmentalize the activities? Or is it not an issue? Are you a ride leader? Do you separate your work/personal rides or not, change cycling disciplines?

I did trial bringing the bike into my work life to offer rides to a depression/anxiety group I was facilitating but I had reservations as it was very personal to my own mental health and considered it may have been a Venn Diagram Too Far. In the end the interest at the time was low that I was justified in not pursuing it further. I am however looking at creating ‘Bikes and Brains’ rides – something around 30-40 miles perhaps, at conversational pace (definitely not chewing the bars and breathing out of your arse speed!). The idea would be to have a space to chat about things whilst riding which isn’t as potentially anxiety-inducing as talking face-to-face. You wouldn’t, however, feel that you *need* to talk if you didn’t want to. I’m thinking something once a month.

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If you’d be interested in something of the sort do drop me a line here or on Twitter. It might have to be a London-based thing to begin with but if you’d be willing to host a Bikes and Brains ride where you are give me a shout. I can coordinate things if necessary, even if I can’t zip around the country hosting them in person (not at the moment anyway!).

In terms of pieces on the blog I’d like to invite contributions not only from riders or those for whom riding is the focus but those working within the bike industry. Work in a bike shop? Frame-builder? Cycling media? Your thoughts on the subject are just as valued. Writing can be presented anonymously if you prefer. The only person who would have an email address and name would be me. I will never pass on your details to anyone else or add you to a mailing list. You can ask me to assign a name to the piece if you would like, add social media links if you wish, but equally you can just use a pseudonym, just a first name, or whatever you prefer.

 

 

 

 

Something a bit different

I’ve been considering a bit more about suicidality.

 

Writing the blog post made me think about things for a while and how alien that state of mind is when you feel ok. Also, how all those questions that get asked by others (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) in an attempt to understand can be at odds with the thoughts around the desire to take your own life. I think that if you are at the point where that appears to be the only answer or way out the idea that you are able to think of the impact on those around you simply doesn’t register in many cases. If someone has made a firm decision then perhaps there is a sense of release.

I’ve been send a poem. The contributor worked with someone who took his own life, and did it a way which ensured there was no chance of the attempt not succeeding. The contributor described to me how they thought John was getting better, less depressed. What seems to have happened is that he’d stopped caring and was able to outwardly display an improved state having made up his mind on the course of action. We talked of, rather than ‘weakness’ at no longer feeling able to face life, the strength it might take to make such an irreversible decision such as he did. The poem is a tribute to him.

 

ALTITUDE – for John
Like the cyclist down the descent,
Air Brushing, adrenalin rushing,
Lover of life..
We met at the bottom when you were trying to turn the bend,
recover from the crash,
and finding your feet you climbed back on,
put one foot in front of the other,
pedal stroke after pedal stroke,
rhythmically tapping out your struggle,
never ending road,
ever upward,
Holding on, and hoping, Soul Searching,
You pressed on, on your journey,
Glimpsing the view through the trees,
You met with fellow travellers,
Soul seekers,
and with sunshine burning, exposed and yearning,
you dug deeper,
creeping ever onward..
You kept on climbing and the road became rockier,
rugged, craggy and desolate,
where you were going became shrouded in a mountain mist,
cool on your skin, moistening,
and exhausted from the effort of reaching the summit,
This time, with great courage,
you let go of the bars…
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Spring, ‘countryside appreciation’ riding, overdoing things…

I went out on the summer bike for the first time in 2018 at the weekend.  I almost thought I’d worn too many layers it was so mild. Even a week ago you could sense winter had slipped into spring – you could smell it in the air even before taking in the cherry blossom and the primroses.

I may have mentioned this before but as I’ve got older I found myself being more affected by the changes in seasons; the change of clocks in October brings a need to steel myself for the few months ahead. By the time the clocks go forward in March the daffodils are showing, snowdrops have been out, and the return of colour to the landscape brings the promise of warmer days.

As previously written, this winter I’ve done more non-bike exercise and been more sociable – these things seemed to have made the shorter days more bearable. This is particularly true of those occasions when I’ve not had enough motivation or energy to get out on the bike. I’m more guided by weather that I was years ago and see no reason to go out riding around Kent for hours in the pissing rain. I’m a bit more cautious about freezing weather too – I’m more careful on the icy days. I guess I have in mind that, generally speaking, it takes longer to recover from injury as you get older. I try not to let it completely dictate my riding though. I went out during that recent cold snap in the snow. Rather paid for it though.

I have a tendency to keep riding when I’m under the weather with coughs and colds – to the point where it slows my recovery. I find myself getting annoyed by the break in routine. Which makes me wonder if I now rely on the cycling just a little too much. I’ve ended up getting with chest infections in the past. As with many people, I’m great at giving advice about this sort of thing to others but not so great at taking it myself. Occasionally a clubmate will give me a stern look and that helps.

Many people who experience depression have a tendency towards unrealistically high standards, and pushing themselves too far. I am certainly guilty of this. I keep going and going until my body and mind force me to stop – this has meant depression, or physical illness, or exhaustion. I see depression as the mind’s way of restraining you, limiting you, so you can only do the basics. Usually at this point you are physically run down too. Then you have no motivation, little or no ability to get out on the bike. Which makes you feel more guilty/desperate/frustrated/unfit/isolated/underachieving.*

*delete as appropriate

Depression (and anxiety and so on) isn’t all in the mind – if you experience it you’ll know how it massive the physical impact is. In past personal episodes I’ve noticed not just the lack of energy but also how my body closes off to the world around me. My shoulders have rounded, I’ve looked downwards much more, I’ve had lots of tension headaches from holding my shoulders up around my ears. I think there’s evidence (must find it) regarding our perception of colour during depression. Many people experience life ‘greying out’ along with lack of highs and lows in emotion

Anyhow, I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Back to motivation.

I went to the Look Mum No Hands ‘Letting Ourselves Go’ evening hosted by Adele Mitchell a couple of days back and was really impressed at the range of riders in the audience – from those touring countries to those using the bike as daily transport. I was also really impressed at several of the women who brought up the subject of mental health in front of a large audience. It’s fab when people feel able to do that. The more this happens the more we can normalise the discussion of mh. A Good Thing.

But I’ve gone on another tangent. So much stuff to say!

To bring things back to where I started… today’s ride. I went out a bit later than I normally would but not because I was procrastinating. I just did something different. I’d replaced the chainrings, cassette, and chain on the summer bike and planned a short ride to make sure everything was as it should be. Partly it was the mild weather, some sun here and there, but it was also the switch from a heavy winter bike with mudguards, pannier rack (my winter bike is also my commuter atm) onto a super light, stiff and responsive race bike that meant I ended up being out for over 3 hrs. I was a bit concerned that the chainrings I’d put on would mean that my legs would complain greatly on the hills but, to my surprise, this was not the case. The joy of Storck gets me at this time every year – I’ve had it for about 12 years now and it’s just a lovely ride. I picked up a puncture but the temperature was such that there was no danger of cooling down significantly as I replaced the inner. And a local cat wandered over to have a brief chat and that pleased me.

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Lack of motivation can be a bastard. Many of us will be set in riding routines and ‘lost’ ride can weigh heavily – miles not ridden, calories not burned, training for an event not going to plan, etc. etc. It’s very easy to slip into a very narrow vista of your time on the bike and it’s worthwhile to step back and see that in the grander scheme of things not getting out on the bike sometimes isn’t a huge deal if you ride regularly – even if it rankles like crazy. Sometimes you can push yourself and get a positive result, but there will be other times when it just isn’t going to happen. And that’s ok actually. If you really, REALLY don’t want to go out riding, then maybe just don’t. Try it another day when you find it easier.

I find that if I can push myself out that in the majority of cases I’ll be so glad I did. Very occasionally I’ll get back having dragged myself around the countryside for 2-3 hours wondering why the hell I bothered and my head will be as busy as before. If you feel that too try to remember that *you got out on the bike*. You got outside and did it, and that’s worth noting.

Like many cyclists I’m looking forward to more riding wearing fewer layers and being able to sense the sun’s warmth on me. I’m also going to try and do a few more rides that are ‘I’ll see how I get on’ rides, rather than having a set goal. Countryside Appreciation rides. Who knows, I might even stop for a pub lunch one day. I have a pub already in mind, tbh…

 

 

Now/then – ageing and comparisons of fitness

I’m fitter than have been for a long time – recent flu aside – but I find it difficult to not to look back at times when I was fitter and stronger still. A couple of achievements which I have particularly rated within my humble personal palmares have been on my mind recently. Ten years ago I did Paris-Roubaix (the VC Roubaix one in June). At that point it was one of the two hardest rides I’d ever done and I was still new to distance cycling. I was too tired on the day to fully appreciate sweeping around the banking after being shaken to shit over a total of nearly 50km of cobbles but the cobble that was my prize is one of my most treasured and well-earned trophies. Five years ago I participated in the Good Friday Meeting at a bitterly cold Herne Hill Velodrome and though I didn’t finish anywhere notable in the Scratch Race I managed a brief, doomed, solo breakaway for a couple of laps. I remember the split second decision to bolt round on the inside when the rest of the field was watching each other up on the banking. There have been very few occasions when things seemed to click and I took advantage of a moment like that.

I was out riding in Kent with a couple of clubmates a few days back. Struggling a bit up a climb I commented on how I some years back I would have done the same ride on a singlespeed. I remember the pleasure of feeling that strong. Like many who experience depression I have a habit of being backward-looking, a tendency to mourn times past. Anxiety is often characterised by a few of the future. It’s a bugger when you experience both. Riding the same lanes on a regular basis I find engagement in taking in the change and lack of change. The daffodils are out, the snow drops have gone. The teapot is still in the hedge on Skid Hill Road. A Very British Flytipping.

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Over the past year or so I’ve thought a great deal about what I want from cycling. I wondered whether I might enter a crit race again but I find that racing does not sit well with me now. I’m happy pitching myself against myself rather than others. As I get older I find that endurance suits me both physically and mentally. I had my first experience of touring last year – it was a quiet revelation. I find that even 2-3 hours out in Kent on a Saturday can feel like being away from the house for much longer than that, such is the effect being geographically distant from sources of stress and anxiety. With touring it was so much more. There were moments of joy, extreme tiredness, sharp emotion, hungry, contentment, pleasure, and more. The sheer headspace to digest the experience was almost a luxury. When I returned to work the following week I was bouncing off the walls for days. Shortly after I did my last track event at Herne Hill – in fact, I think I only stayed in for one complete race, pulling myself out of the others a few laps in. It felt like a whole host of smaller dilemmas that had been at the back of my mind galvanised into a decision.

Never say never, but I don’t think I have the time or sense of commitment to race again. There are too many other things I want to do. During the summer I spend Tuesday evenings thrashing around Peckham BMX track. The coach was encouraging us to race. I admit I was tempted but I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do it for fun, as a different type of riding, as a social thing.

I started doing sportives and audaxes quite soon after I started regular club riding around 2006-7 and they were events I used to challenge myself as I got stronger. Then there was knee surgery after being knocked off by a car when riding to work, after that a shattered collarbone. I’ve begun to understand why people bang on about physical ailments as this get older; they can start to dictate so much. I think I imagined that I was going to get back to my earlier fitness after all this but I’ve been reluctantly and slowly accepting that I’m not going to be able to do quite what I could when I was in my early thirties.

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I think I’m actually starting to look forward a bit more or, at the very least, starting to put fewer unrealistic expectations on myself. Tricky when you’ve been doing it most of your life though. Despite illness and stress at work I’ve found this winter easier to get through that many of late. I think it’s a combination of gym visits and being way more social. Stress leaves me physical tired but I’ve managed to keep up the exercise (the comfort of routine) but also the social side of life. Aside from the bike, nothing improves my mood like a few hours with a good friend. There have been many events (small and large) that I’ve looked forward to, and more to come. I think I’ve managed to disrupt the cycle of stress, tiredness, and solitude that can so often become self-perpetuating.

I’ll be doing a ride with the couple of friends at the end of the month, I’m one of the marshals on Tweed Run in May, and off for more cycle touring in June. Before all that I’m looking forward to Letting Ourselves Go at Look Mum No Hands. I’m hoping there might be some other women whose experiences in regards to cycling and ageing might be similar to my own. It’s not all about feeling loss of youth though! I’ve never stopped thinking or saying, “WEEEEEEEEEE!” as I belt downhill so fast my vision blurs from my eyes watering. If there’s anyone out there who wants to offer a guest blog entry on risk-taking…

 

Featured image by Aodan Higgins.

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…

 

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