In search of (an) up.

When you start to lose balance and perspective of what is healthy and sensible in pursuing a passion, you need an intervention, something to make you re-assess. That intervention was realised in the glorious isolation of the Alpajurran mountains.

Perfect plans… laid to waste

By the end of January 2019, I was at the lowest I had been for years. Rather than the ‘new year new me’ model start to the year that the fad of New Year Resolutions sell to us, I’d ended January in a much worse place than where I’d started it.

I rode through Autumn and felt to be finding some good form, putting in reasonable numbers in my intervals, seeing progress in the weights room, and clocking up regular long, lonely rides to build my aerobic base. 

Then, come mid-December, it all seemed to start to unravel. A boring and frustrating catalogue of issues around the fit and mechanical function of my winter bike saw me lose training time, and the weight I had gained in the gym started to sit heavily on me, mentally. 

I had gone in to off-season bored of being the whippet with no kick, the diesel engine that could go uphill fast and little else. I resolved to get a bit bigger, build some snap, and be less bully-able in the bunch. A focus on weights, a re-introduction of the previously-forbidden glory of beef burgers into my diet, and the supplementation of creatine, saw the gains come. Only a few kg, but for me, it put me past the dangerously thin category into the mildly dangerously thin category. I was satisfied.

Then the demons returned and I began overthinking. What if I didn’t gain enough power to offset my weight? Was I going to get fat? Would I now be slow on the mountain slopes that make me feel so at home? I very slightly reduced my caloric intake, just by a few hundred calories a day. Then suddenly in the space of a week, one kg was gone. It felt better. A small reduction, but in my head, I was back in acceptable weight territory and I wanted things to stabilise. I didn’t want to pursue the lightest weight I could be. I’ve been there, and though my mind still doesn’t function normally when weight is involved, I’m past that stage.  

Then, in the space of another week, I was down to the lowest I’d been in years, without even trying. I was shocked and disgusted.

Meanwhile, on the bike, the inevitable occurred. I was losing power. In the depths of early January, trying to complete intervals on the bleak, windswept Oxfordshire roads was like beating my head against the wall, and I was sometimes at least 10% off where I should have been. In the very cold, I always struggle to push out good power, but I can only assume that the sudden dip down into a danger zone of body mass was not helping.

As January wore on, the form continued to fall, and I could feel the hard work of autumn unravelling before my eyes. The cold weather continued and I couldn’t face the cold dreary outdoors for the long solo sessions I used to so relish, and the turbo trainer just became a mirror that lay bare my lost form. 

My head had gone out of the game. I wanted to train; I wanted to suffer and hurt myself on the bike, but when I started pedalling, no matter what I tried, all I found was self-doubt and lost confidence. My intervals petered out with a lack of energy or were scuppered before they even begun by that monkey on my back telling me I couldn’t do it.

I became more and more depressed, both about my cycling ‘form’, and about the rest of my life. Work was going well. I felt ok in myself. We’d broken the back of winter. But the anxieties, irrational thoughts and behaviours, destructive patterns and mood swings returned. 

The more worried I became about my weight the more obsessed I became with my diet and eating, weighing myself frequently, both hoping I’d gained weight and dreading that I might be heavier. I took pictures of my food and of my body that I never shared nor looked at again, as if seeking some sort of self-approval yet not bringing myself to actually assess. The screwed up digestive system that comes with an out of balance energy system returned and I’d find myself constipated, bloated and feeling like I was being poisoned from within one day, and then dehydrated, malnourished and suffering endless trips to the toilet the next. Use and abuse of all the over the counter remedies I could find did nothing for me.

Things reached an all-time low in late January when the extent of my irrational behaviours were laid bare to some close friends in a way I did not wish them to be. I was done with everything. I’d spend vast tracts of time gazing out of the window, with a blank face and empty head. I took up mindfulness, and it just about kept me level and in check when my anxiety levels started peaking at random lonely moments in the day, or in the middle of the night as I lay awake wondering what the F- was happening to me.

There was one light at the end of a tunnel however.  

Through late January and early February, I invested an almost unreasonable amount of faith and hope in my return to the sun and mountains of Andalucia. I’d booked in for a block of training in the Alpajurran mountains, an area just south of the Sierra Nevada, and I clung on to the belief that a change of scene, a dose of sun, and the majestic isolation of the area would help me to gather both my thoughts and my form.    

The man with no plan.

I landed in Spain without a plan. I wasn’t going to follow strict intervals, target specific TSS scores or chase targets of training time.

I simpy wanted to ride, and see where the legs lay. I rode solo most of the time, eschewing the company of the group I was with so that I could bathe myself in the splendid isolation and zen of the roads around Orgiva and Motril, dodge the escape route of wheels to sit on, and ride uninterrupted without the ‘need’ for café stops and lengthy pauses.  I wanted clear roads and space to think in order to clear my mind and test my legs. 

Through the 25 hours of riding, I spent over 15 of these in the meditative zen of the solo long ride. I needed time to forget the things that had been happening at home. The downward spiral of negativity that I had fallen into, that perfect storm of so many negative behaviours, bad choices, and mental inbalances needed to be re-set, and I somehow felt that the lucidity and focus that comes on a solo ride was what I needed.

The Alpajurra is an area of low-lying mountains to the South of Sierra Nevada and I explored them to the fullest. 

The sea-level to 1280m climb to Haza de Lino, a 16km, 7% ribbon of tarmac laid only two years ago, was my first Hors Categorie climb of the year. Rather than kicking my head in chasing a wattage number on my Garmin as I climbed, thrashing my head with music my parents hoped I’d move on from when I left school, I ignored the numbers and emptied my head. In 70 minutes of climbing I encountered three cars and one other cyclist. There was no sound, and the voices chattering in my head were silent. 

I didn’t chase the pain and pursue power, I let the suffering come to me and whatever the number was at the end of that climb was what I could do, pure and simple. Like most athletes, I can’t help but compare myself to when I was on my best form, and I couldn’t fall into this trap, another negative behaviour contributing to my mental malaise.  Anyone that knows me will know that I am NEVER happy with my performance, and chasing perfection was doing me no good.

As I pushed on and on through the Haza de Lino climb, with the sea behind me and the sun on my back, I didn’t fade in the way I expected to. That average power screen on my Garmin read higher than I expected. Nothing spectacular, but better than the target I had assumed was all I could muster. I drank in the maze of switchbacks as I approached the top and revelled in the sense of burn and achievement in those mentally and physically torturing final kilometres. For me, just completing it was an achievement. I didn’t throw in the towel when not hitting a number, or blow myself up chasing a number from the past. The pure sense of achievement of riding from the beach to a secluded road junction in the middle of the Spanish mountains, through huge valleys, forgotten villages, and open meadows, was enough. My mind was clear.

A few days later I rode back to one of my all-time favourite climbs, another HC beauty known as ‘The Mines’, a road leading from the small village of Tovizcon up into the immense lonely splendour of the southern Sierra Nevada. I loathe that I never take photos when in the heat of ‘training’ as this climb is just incredible. 

A mirror-clean road winding through more switchbacks than you can imagine, taking you from the lower slopes set in red arid rocks and cacti with the cliff-like mountain teetering over your head on one side and the sweeping vistas of the huge basin-like valley you’ve climbed from on the other, up to the epically desolate disused Iron mines at the top, with planes of grey rock stretching around you, huge incongruous rock towers looming over head. 

I rode with a plan, but not formalising it into numbers, times and metrics. I kept it simple, riding at just below my limit and ‘attacking’ for a few minutes every second kilometer. It wasn’t scientific, but it felt natural. I didn’t chase numbers or seek targets, I let the road dictate the pace and allowed my mind to be submerged in the sensation of the climb. Again, my head had cleared as I climbed. I thought about nothing and everything. I didn’t wait for the efforts to hurt, or think myself into the suffering. I waited and let it come to me. The mentality I’d sunk into of expecting to fail, expecting to disappoint myself, was gone. I just did what I could do.

Re-setting my head was one of the key ambitions for my trip to Spain, and those two climbs were my therapy, a type of cleansing and re-configuring of my mind. I had sunk into a mess of my own making at the turn of the year and I needed to think myself out of it. 

I crossed paths with a lone shepherdess on one ride, guiding her flock of sheep across the road in front of me. Seeing fellow mountain mutton made me feel strangely content and peaceful. Life could be so simple if you let it be. Stop overthinking things and let your mind bathe in quiet peace.

I would roll back from my solo rides to the local bakery and sit out in the square, drinking in the peace of the sleepy town square, bathed in sunlight and silence. I’d started practicing mindfulness recently and as I chewed down freshly made pasties and re-awoke my head with black coffee, I could feel those techniques of self-awareness take hold.

The very fact that I was allowing myself post-ride cake, not doing it out of a sense of social duty, but just because my head wanted one and my body needed one, felt like a symbol in itself. I had to change my attitude to food, to training, and to living. A return to the mountains and to mental and physical peace may well have been a first step. Just like on one of my rides, I felt like I’d risen through a blanket of clouds, into the sparkling blue light above.

With winter drawing to a close, and a few changes that I’ve decided to make in my life, let’s hope the mind stays in the blue sky. 

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