Like any pilot who’s about to fly an aircraft, a smooth take-off is key to success . You don’t want any curved balls thrown at this point of proceedings. Life isn’t like that though and getting ready to take-off on another adventure has proven to be anything but a smooth runway.
I’ve spoken about anxiety in the past. Dealing with all those strange feelings that grow as the leaving date approaches is a major part of the journey itself. Our bodies react with physiological symptoms that we all know. Butterflies, raised heart rate, and a myriad of crazy thoughts being the most common. They are simple and primitive responses to a perceived threat. Our bodies are warning us of the potential dangers of our imminent departure.
Our minds interpret these sensations and we call it somatic anxiety. For some it tells of a readiness to perform, for others it spells impending doom. Somatic anxiety has a tendency to build slowly and peak a few days prior to leaving. The daddy of all these built-in warning systems is cognitive anxiety, or worry as we tend to call it. This builds and builds towards the moment when we perform and can, in combination with the others elements, have a crippling effect if we take one step too far.
My old tutors at Bangor University were experts in this field. In 1987 they introduced a concept called Catastrophe Theory. Try to visualise a three-dimensional wave seen side-on, peaking at its nearest point to you. If you can manage to sit on the crest of this wave you may well maximise your performance and manage your anxieties. We all know that anxiety and performance are related. They live together hand in hand. All performers go through similar physiological states, but we all interpret them differently.
Those of us who perceive these sensations as threatening may well back out or become overwhelmed with what is about to happen. Some of us ride the crest of the wave displaying ultimate performance in doing so. Most of us manage as best we can using a variety of strategies help us cope before we set off with some trepidation.
We should all be careful around these moments in our lives. If we push too far the results can be catastrophic , hence the name of the theory. One step too far and we plummet from the crest of the wave, a free fall of a ride into performance oblivion. You have seen this happen at various Olympic games where athletes who are expected to excel seem to crumble disastrously. Unchecked this can lead to a situation where recovery is impossible, even in the long-term.
Classic examples of the extremes of catastrophe in action can be seen in athletic history. When Mary Decker(USA) tripped, later blaming Zola Bud for the incident, she was finished, crossing the line a sad and beaten figure. When the same thing happened to Lasse Viren in the 5000 metres he got up and chased the group down to win the race. So consumed was Ms Decker by this incident that it effectively finished her athletics career.
For us mere mortals the same rules apply. We all feel anxiety and threat at things that we perceive as outside our comfort zone, but it’s in these places that we can often find the most reward. Plodding along may suit some people, but for many of us the draw to test ourselves is a big pull.
My body often responds to stress, distress, and anxiety by shutting down and displaying physical symptoms. My emotions don’t cope well with higher levels of any of these anxieties. It leaves me exhausted and unable to perform, often needing to sleep in order to gain back the energy I have lost through not being able to release these sensations and move on from them.
Last year I suffered a back spasm just two weeks from leaving on my ride. At the time I knew and wrote about why this had occurred. This year, just one week from leaving, the same thing has happened again. It would appear that the build up of stresses and strains, worries and insecurities, is too much for my mind and my body relates those stresses to me by starting to malfunction. There is a huge increase in workload as I approach these events. Much organisation is needed in order to get to the start. I have finished fundraising, writing, publishing my book, gathering information, plotting routes, and many other things by the time I get to this point. It would seem that in doing that I bring my mind close to its absolute ability to cope.
History suggests that once I begin the ride everything will settle down and this is one of the strategies that performers use in order to manage their own anxieties as they approach big events and competitions. It’s also why so many fall short at the Olympic games. The Olympics only come around every four years so performers don’t have much of a window to build Olympic experience before their career is over. The Olympics also bring a huge pressure for those taking part because they are not an annual event. If you don’t succeed this year you have to wait for four more long years for another attempt. It’s what makes the Olympics special and may go some way to explaining why the English football team seems so unable to perform in the big arena of the World Cup.
Going to France on a bicycle is not in the same league as that, but for me it’s huge. Four years ago I was hardly able to leave my house, let alone set off on this kind of journey. Each step I have taken has been carefully calculated to build on the last. It’s what’s known as playing the long game. Had I pushed too hard too early the whole process could easily have collapsed, leaving me in more emotional distress than prior to starting. I know people who have experienced this and the trauma it has created for them has taken a long time to overcome as they fall off the catastrophic wave and clamber to keep their heads above water.
At the moment I’m straddling that fine line. I know that I can’t ask any more than I am or it will spell disaster. Having the knowledge of sports psychology that I do has helped me to manage and understand the processes. In order to organise and prepare for these journeys I have to back away from the cycling to some degree. I then rely on my experience to know that my body will perform and that the aches and pains of preparation will dissolve once I’m on the road.
I’m not surprised that my back is complaining. It’s a warning sign of how close to the edge I am and I already knew that. I’ve spoken at length to Michele about needing a clear runway to the start and that extraneous things are having to be put aside in order to prepare and leave on this trip. In myself I feel better prepared than last year and stronger mentally as well. This is endorsed by my doctor and therapist who note the changes through our regular meetings and feed it back to me.
Things often seem to work out for the best regardless of what we do. Fundraising for this years ride was extremely stressful as I didn’t want to give up on a pre-conceived idea of where I was going to ride. Once it became clear that I had far less money that I would need to ride the 100 Cols tour, and I was forced into a rethink. As soon as I did this all of that distress fell away. I will be riding for around five weeks and that is long enough after a tough winter with many depressive episodes and a long struggle to manage whilst creating a new book.
Being realistic is perhaps the most important thing you can be in your own life, regardless of whether you have any health problems. For those people with health problems this variable is a constant source of dismay. On days when depression rears its ugly head, being realistic can mean making sure I clean my teeth and eat some proper food. On another day it may see me riding 60-70 miles. Why make a list of fifteen things to do when you only manage to complete ten at the most? It leads you towards nothing but disappointment.
For example: I learned that by sleeping in the day I could re-energize and do more throughout the day overall. It helped me to gain a more balanced week, regardless of being a different pattern from everybody elses. As time has progressed I have slept for less time during the day. It has never stopped me sleeping at night because initially I couldn’t sleep then anyway. When I go out for a ride it’s a given that on my return I will sleep for at least an hour. During times like the present when I’m nursing an injury I sleep for longer. My nighttime has a routine of going to bed at the same time each day and resting, regardless of whether I sleep. If I get too agitated I get up for a short while and then return to bed and try again, rather than flailing around for hours and getting more and more frustrated at my lack of sleep. I still get annoyed at having to get up, but it’s a strategy that seems to work for me.
In my opinion managing mental distress is all about learning. Learning to listen. Learning when to go out or stay in. Learning to be flexible with all your plans. Learning when to stop. Learning that another good day will come along. Learning to enjoy exercise rather than feel you have to perform each time you go out. Learning a routine that helps you move forward and learning to accept that you are ill and it has consequences.
It isn’t about being constantly positive or pushing yourself to do things when you are unable. It’s about learning that it’s okay to give in, stop, rest, be angry at your situation, and allow your battered mind and body time to rest a little. Once you do that there’s more chance of recovery and you begin to open doors and makes steps forward.
The adult in me knows and understands these things, but the child that screams and kicks its way to the fore doesn’t. My therapist believes that during periods building up to a ride, and on many other occasions, it’s the child’s anxieties that I feel. My responses are historical in that the sensations I feel are amplified many times by my childhood experiences of not being emotionally supported or allowed to develop and explore my emotional self. It all sounds rather Freudian, but makes complete sense to me.
As I wait to leave on this adventure the games in my head are as important as those preparations that the adult makes. They are complicated by my past in a way that could see me freeze, unable to move or perform at all if the child takes over. By acknowledging my feelings and sensations without acting on them I allow the adult and child to co-exist and that creates as smooth a runway to leaving as I currently are able to.
When I leave next Tuesday, the child will breathe a sigh of relief and settle down allowing the adult to take over and guide it through the coming weeks. Like all frightened children it needs reassuring that all will be okay. Once that realisation hits home calm will be restored until another perceived threat comes along. At that point the process gets repeated with the child and the adult learning from each episode.
As I ride, the joy of being there will over-ride everything else. The simplicity of a touring cyclists needs will become my main thoughts and the adult and child will marvel at the view, the people, the culture, and the joy of propelling myself through another country at a slow pace with eyes wide open. It’s just the waiting that hurts.
My next post will be from somewhere in France. I will try and post to Facebook and this blog as I travel. Please do stay in touch. Contact with other people is paramount to my success and a message received on the road always brings a big grin.
You can donate to Sustrans by following the link: http://www.justgiving.com/Graeme-Willgress1