It all came to a head riding across the Yorkshire Dales in some of the best weather I have ever experienced. Conditions were truly perfect for a few days of bikepacking up in the hills. In fact for April, the weather was unseasonably good. And yet, by the end of Day 1, I rolled into the city of York and into the nearest hotel I could find, called my wife and told her I was abandoning the race. The next day I followed the main roads back to the car and drove home. The ride has become a transactional exercise. I was riding without any enthusiasm or passion. There was no buzz from the beautiful descents or epic climbs. The rocky steps were things to get over rather than interesting riding challenges the equivalent of thinking through the moves on a chess board. I sat in the hotel and just wanted to cry. I felt a complete fraud. Here I was, supposedly an elite endurance athlete with a cycling record to my name and podium finishes on my palmares and I couldn’t even finish a short race in the countryside I knew well. Something was wrong.
Since 1998 when I did my very first triathlon, ‘The Longest Day’, an Ironman distance event my training hours and racing distance has inexorably increased. In the early days a solid week of training was close to 8 hours. When I abandoned the race, it was on the back of several years of training during which I rode more than 20,000 miles a year. I was superfit, very strong, experienced and capable. Fitness was not the issue. Equally, things at home were stable, I have a fantastic loving and supportive wife without whom I would never have achieved what I have done. She was just as supportive when I decided to give up as she has always been. Whilst work was not as busy as I would have liked (I’m self employed) it was good enough. In short, there was nothing in my home, work or sporting life that could account for my complete lack of enjoyment.
With no real understanding other than the fire had gone out of me, I backed off the training. The 30 hours a week I had done for several years seemed impossible to comprehend how I had done it. I struggled through 12 to 15 hours a week, often failing at sessions. The release of time from not training as much did help. I caught up on lots of small stuff. But there were other issues. My sleep was appalling. No matter how tired I felt, I rarely managed more than 5 hours a night and often less. I bought a sleep tracker which depressed me further as it presented me with the hard evidence of what I already knew. I was not getting enough sleep. I still could not find the words for what I was feeling although in hindsight, it was clear to me I was experiencing depression. You see, the previous year I completed the Tour Divide. I had lived and dreamed this race for the preceding 18 months. I had watched every YouTube video, read every book, pored over all the forums hunting out as much information as I could find. I was obsessed by it. Every waking moment not spent directly on work was focused on the race. It’s 2750 miles of off-road riding from (in my case) the US side of the Mexican border to Banff in Canada following the line of the continental divide. It’s an epic ride following the line of the Rockies. Very high, very remote and at times very very beautiful. It was an extraordinarily hard race that called on all my reserves. So many things went wrong from my bike failing to losing two teeth to multiple bear encounters. But I survived and managed to beat all the other Northbound riders. But by the end I had run out of emotion, was very physically tired and hugely sleep deprived. I was absolutely shattered. I had given it my all. I remember being sat in Banff in the few days after the race slowly coming too, unable to take in the enormity of the experience, feeling nothing at all. No elation, no frustration, no anger, no happiness – nothing.
In the following months, I wrote about the race and gave a few talks. I was struck by the incredulity of the audience over what I had put myself through. People simply could not relate to what I was describing. I could not find ways of helping people inside the world of those 19 days. I felt like an alien. It was easier not to talk about it that to describe it. There were always a few things people focused on, such as encounters with bears, or what I ate. But the things that had driven me to the very depths of despair and called upon every bit of inner drive I had, were inaccessible to them. I felt very much the outsider.
There were too many unresolved issues in my head. I kept the training going but it was without purpose and without joy. I abandoned several more races. I didn;t even turn up for one. I was in a bit of a funk. The turning point came when I decided to do a multi day ride with a friend, not a race, just two buddies heading out onto the trail for a bit of an adventure. There was a plan, a route and a schedule. Half way through Day 1, it was clear that the route was not quite what we hoped and we decided to go a different way. At first I felt anxious as we were no longer following the plan – something every race hinges around. But this one single decision was enormously liberating. We really could go the way we wanted and do exactly what suited us. I began to relax more and more. Coffee stops were taken, hitherto avoided like the plague because they wasted valuable training or racing time. We stopped for photographs. Our bivvy sites were chosen whilst there was enough daylight to see rather than racing on until the early hours before grabbing a brief kip and heading off before dawn. We gossiped as we rode along. We ate ice cream, admired amazing views and when the mood took us, cruised and at other times pushed on. Those two and a half days riding the length of Wales off-road were restorative. I realised what I had lost was a sense of perspective. I had lost the ability to calibrate what ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable’ were. I had forgotten to cut myself some slack from time to time. I had gotten out of balance the focus on the outcome, and the experience of the activity itself. Just as important, I am sure that the constant strain of riding for so many days pretty much non-stop in the Tour Divide had induced levels of dopamine, cortisol and no doubt many other hormones that were off the charts compared to what would be normal and these imbalances were in part driving my emotional state.
What I have learned from this year is the value in admitting to others around me that I am struggling. Having an amazingly supportive wife has been the cornerstone of that. I have often felt unable to say what’s going on in my head, but when I have, the love and support has always made the sharing worthwhile.
Secondly, don’t rush into the next event. Give yourself time to properly get over the last one. The longer and harder it was the more time is required. Make sure you are not entering another event just to try and compensate for the previous one being over. Enter the race for all the right reasons.
Thirdly, recognise that really hard events take their toll on you emotionally as well as physically. It will take time for this to work its way through the system. This will mean some low points as well as the good days when the memories are rich and plentiful.
Fourthly, leave the social media alone. It drags you back into the world where you were and not where you want to be. Get in touch with real things, real people and positive experiences.
Finally, be kind to yourself. You’re allowed to not be always on top form at the height of your game. Cut yourself some slack. Just the fact you’ve chosen to have a go is cause for celebration, any more is just a bonus.
I’m going back to the Tour Divide next year, but with a whole different mindset. Yes the focus is on going fast, but I’m planning the return to normality as much as I am the race itself. I’m thinking about how to make my rehabilitation a success such that I can enjoy the memories of the race and retain my love of this glorious sport.