It has begun, the countdown. With less than six weeks to go before I leave on my next expedition, I’m getting jittery. I’ve written about it before, it’s a natural process that I have to go through in order to recognise my readiness to venture out. A myriad of things have to happen before the day arrives when I get on the bike, with a box of belongings, and pedal away for months.
The list of things to do seems endless, all were created by me, some still wait from when everything was pushed aside, in order to publish my book. I have a wall chart, and it’s looking hectic. I also have a list, you know, the kind that you can easily keep adding too, and never finish. I don’t like lists for the aforementioned reason. I tend to write them in a way that means they do get completed, then there is a break and some kind, and I have a minor celebration at having got to that point.
Three doctors appointments, three with the dentist, after a crown gave up the ghost. Four with the therapist, two public speaking events, one radio show, a twelve-hour Bike-Athon, press releases etc. I also have another trip to Lancing coming up. A long day during which I’ll be fitted to my new bike before bringing it home, ready to roll. All these things have to be done before I can enter the joyous world of picking and packing my equipment, before throwing a leg over the cycle and riding off into the sunset. This is what you invite when you make the decision to ride for a charity and attempt to make a living from pedalling a bicycle.
I actually really enjoy all of it, apart from the dental work, which is just as well, but there’s still a small voice that says “can I do this again”. At least last year I could hide behind ignorance as an excuse. That isn’t the case anymore. I know what to expect, and I’m staring it right in the face, as the clock keeps ticking, seemingly faster and faster as the weeks pass by. There’s more to lose this time, or so it seems, and my mind whirrs away trying it’s best to cope with what I’m asking it to do.
This is the point at which I need to be careful. It’s the point at which I know I’ve been overdoing it, and I have to remember all those coping strategies that have got me here. My doctor asked me straight this week. “Are you overdoing it Graeme?” “Yes I am,” I replied, “but I recognise that, and I’m still doing all the things I need to do to offset the stresses and strains that it brings”. I’m in the same position as anybody who’s trying to set up a small business. There isn’t anybody else to do the things that need doing, so you can easily feel under enormous pressure to complete everything. Learning that stopping usually speeds things up, and not the opposite, is a lesson I’ve taken a while to get to grips with.Since publishing my book, I’ve begun to concentrate on the things I need to do to get to the start. Only the things that are absolutely necessary are on the wall chart. I’m not adding anything else, nothing at all, and any queries, requests and extraneous things will all be met with a firm “sorry, I don’t have the time right now.” That isn’t something I find easy to say, but I must say it, or I’ll overload myself.
This then, is the point at which my world begins to shrink. I begin to create the bubble I will live in during the ride itself, and my own world separates from the world for a while. I will find the time and energy to do some more long rides. They’re important, they clear my head of all this other clutter, allowing me to wade through the list of things to be done. Arriving home from one of these, I’m always tired. Food, shower and a sleep keeps my head, and the rest re-energizes me to carry on. It’s a tight-rope walk, but I’m getting quite good at them now, having spent years falling off, simply because I didn’t listen to what I was being told.
The anxiety I’m feeling will build, right up to the point where I leave. It’s normal, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There isn’t any need to worry about the anxiety, I just accept its par for the course. My mind is working through its own list of what if’s. I’ve talked about this before, and so have many others. What if I crash in the middle of nowhere? What if I get mugged? What if I’m hit by a car? What if I can’t cope and are alone? My mind will search around and find answers from the bag of experience I’ve filled to date. It will tick these things off before I leave, and all will be released the moment I ride away.
Climbers know these feelings well, as do all sporting people. Even going for an interview for a job brings these kind of thought to mind for most of us. In fact, anything that we do, that we feel is important, will bring these kind of thoughts to mind. I’m not sure whether my specialist knowledge of sports psychology is a benefit or a hinderance. I acknowledge the building anxieties within me. The somatic components, interpretation of the butterflies and physiological feelings we get as we approach a big event. The cognitive components, worrying about things like the butterflies in our stomachs, and our readiness to perform.
Interpretation is the key here. The trick is to try to see our anxieties as positive: ” I know these feelings and thoughts, and they all tell me I’m ready to go out there and do this.” I try to use positive imagery, or visualisation as it’s known today. I don’t envisage myself crashing into boulders or fighting the wind in some god forsaken place where I’ve run out of food. I see myself pedalling effortlessly, rolling through beautiful countryside, or sitting outside my tent, talking to strangers, with the gentle breeze cooling me off as I sit in the sunshine after a hard days riding.Going back to the more immediate lists, I try to apply this type of thinking here as well. I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping and resting recently. I’ve still managed to up my weekly mileage and quality of riding on the bike. I’ve also managed to tick boxes off the preparation list. Each evening I sit and think about what I have done, and not what I haven’t done. I hear it so many times from people. “I’ve not really done anything today.” What have you done? Can you celebrate that? It’s not easy when all you have managed is to feed yourself and take a shower, but you did that when you feel terrible, and it’s worthy of note.
I keep my recent things to do lists. Why? I can look at them all and think, “wow, look at what I’ve actually done this month.” It helps on days when I feel I’m useless, nothing will ever get finished, and why do I bother, and there are still plenty of those. It’s a better focus than looking at what you haven’t done, which is never going to be a great motivator to keeping on going.
So what have I done this week then? Let’s start with the cycling. I rode to Okehampton and back twice. Each trip is around 20 miles and one of them involved dragging a huge bag of shopping home. I always wait and see how I’m feeling before I undertake any kind of workout, but I managed some strength, power and technical workouts, as well as some high-end spinning and aerobic work during these rides. On Good Friday I woke feeling ragged and tearful. Being mindful of this, I decided to ride the Tarka Trail with half an eye to going to Barnstaple and back if I felt up to it. Nothing is set in stone, and I even took the car to the trailhead in order to avoid the hills on the way, that I would have had to ride if I’d simply opened the door and pedaled off.
It was just what I needed and I found myself cruising along without using much effort at all. I stopped in two cafe’s, drank and talked to people, and when I got going again I found myself feeling ready to work harder. I worked for long periods, close to my aerobic limit, falling back to a high cadence cruise in between. I returned home, after 53 miles, bright and smiling, to restful sleep, lots of food, and general relaxation.
The weekdays had been quite different. Two emergency dental appointments, and a doctor’s appointment, had taken a big chunk of time, and emotional energy. I don’t know why, but people I know who are suffering mental distress, all seem to find the dentists difficult, especially scaling and polishing, which I had to have done in preparation for the new crown. I managed to sneak into the hardware store whilst there, to purchase a soldering iron, which meant I could solder the connections for the Reecharger that will provide me with power whilst on the road this year. One small tick, but an important one.
At home, my mind has switched to fundraising. It’s never easy, and I was looking for a way to kick-start it. Having spoken to a friend, I decided to approach several major supermarkets to try to get them to agree to letting me do a Bike-Athon. Twelve hours on rollers whilst sat in one of their foyers. This would draw attention to the ride, Mind themselves, and hopefully give me some cash to put in the justgiving account. I wrote several letters and then decided to pick the phone up and call direct. My early attempts were met with the usual corporate stuff about writing letters, so I did. On Thursday, and for goodness knows what reason, I called a major supermarket near Exeter. The lady who answered was really supportive of what I was doing, and has the power to make it happen. I’m now waiting to hear from her after Easter. Fingers crossed please. This could be a major step forwards if it comes off.
Last week I’d sent an exploratory letter to BBC Radio Devon. On Wednesday I took a call from them saying they would love me to do a 30 minute slot in the afternoon and would I send a book to the DJ so he could read it prior to meeting. By the time we’d finished I had a date. Friday, April 20th at 2pm. I’ve done two shows previously, and this is a real bonus. A chance to speak out again about mental health, my riding, and my book.
Just after putting the phone down, it rang again. A producer from Channel Four is making a documentary about people who are working and living with poor mental health. Apparently I ticked all the boxes, right up to the point where he said they were filming in June, and I told him I’d be somewhere in a bog in Ireland. Never mind, I know where I’d rather be, and it never hurts to make contacts.
There’s an odd feeling to my life at this moment in time. It’s a feeling of gradually cutting the umbilical cord to the place I live, and the people I know. A gradual withdrawal from this life to the next one, where everything is simple, and there’s nothing to do but ride and absorb whatever comes my way. So it goes on. A pedal here and there, a tick in a box here and there, a sleep here and there, a tear here and there. All the time the clock ticks, inexorably onwards towards the day, now less than six weeks away, when I’m free again.
Please consider donating to Mind at www.justgiving.com/Riding2Recovery