This week I supported Dean Stott in a significant physical challenge. Dean is training to break the Guinness World Record for riding a bike across the Pan American Highway stretching across 2 continents, in 110 days. He is doing this to raise £1m for Heads Together who are working hard to tackle the stigma of mental ill-health.
As part of his training, and to raise awareness of his challenge, Dean was doing a 10 hour ride on a stationary bike in The Altitude Centre. I had agreed to ride for 5 hours to support him and also get a few friends and work colleagues down to fill the bikes. The Altitude Centre’s chamber simulates 2,700m of altitude by sucking out about 25% of the Oxygen that you would breathe at sea level. Therefore, exercise is much much more difficult. The longest time that I had spent on a stationary bike in the chamber previously was 90 minutes. 5 hours was going to be hard.
Dark times when training for my challenge
I knew that I had to build up my time on the bike in The Altitude Centre alongside all of the rest of the endurance training that I do at this time of year. I therefore progressed to 2 hours, then 2.5 hours and in the week before the challenge I did 3 hours. The photo below shows my near the end of my 3 hour stint. I am still smiling but it was SO HARD.
For the second 90 mins of the 3 hour ride I was on my own in the chamber. My legs felt like they were on fire. My arse was numb. My shoulders hurt. I was hungry yet felt sick.
I just wanted it to be over!
Physically, I could turn the pedals but the real challenge was in my mind.
The Mental Challenge
I was listening to my music during this training ride which helped. A bit. However, the monotony of riding indoors with no change of scenery was difficult. I tried to employ some mindfulness techniques of focussing on breathing, then focussing on each rotation of the pedals and then focussing on each beat of the music I was listening to. All of this helped but I was still feeling very alone. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to quit. I wanted a way out.
I knew that I could not really quit as if I could not ride for 3 hours, how would I be able to support Dean and ride for 5. I had raised sponsorship, talked up the challenge and invited people to come and ride with us. I focussed on turning the pedals and got it done but it was one of the harder training sessions I have ever completed, even though the physical intensity was easily enough to deal with.
The Parallels with Mental ill-health
I later realised that the big issue with this session was that I was alone and I had no-one to talk to. This is very similar to what it feels like when one is experiencing a period of depression. I am bipolar, so I can talk about this from lived experience. Your perspective is skewed. It feels like the walls are closing in. Everything feels futile. Simple tasks feel monumentally difficult. You are Lost. All is dark.
Brighter times on the day
Compare the photos below with the first pic. On the day itself I was riding next to Dean (far right) and the other bikes were populated throughout the day with people coming in to do a 45 minute slot to support us. There was a great atmosphere in the chamber with plenty of conversation, banter and stories. Some of them were even moderately amusing! This was despite the fact that the lack of oxygen made it hard work to talk for everyone except Dean!
People came in, did their efforts, had a chat and then were replaced by a different set of supporters in a tag-team fashion. This was AMAZING. Both Dean and I could not believe how quickly the time was going.
I was even surprised by my amazing wife, Mary, and my little boy turning up during the challenge.
This was a great moment and gave me a big boost to my reserves.
At various points it became tough physically but the funny thing was that it felt significantly easier than the 3 hour training ride.
So, a 5 hour ride with support from friends and family felt much much easier than a 3 hour solo ride.
Talking helps. It helps hard things seem easier. It gives us perspective. It makes the burden lighter and easier to handle. This is true for many aspects of life, not just a physical challenge or a period of mental ill-health. A tricky work problem. A relationship issue. Trying to be a good parent. Talking helps with all of these things.
The reason we need to smash the stigma is so that talking about mental ill-health becomes easier for people to do and eventually becomes as normal as explaining why your leg is in plaster after a break.
I found the day that I spent with Dean to be very inspirational. He is an amazing athlete and very inspirational guy doing an extremely worthy thing. You can sponsor him him at: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MavenPartners
Heads Together are also doing incredible work in helping smash the stigma.
The big thing that I took away from the day is that talking is so powerful. It made a tough physical challenge easier to handle. It can also have a similar profound and positive effect on someone who is experiencing tough times in their mind.
Talking helps. So keep talking.