This is the first part of my story.
My story will take place during a solitary day, but also the period of a few months, documenting a journey I’ve just started. I want to capture both a day in the life and the way that a wider situation evolves. As such, it has to span a series of blogs, written over a space of time.
Stick with it.
PART 1: 20.04.19
The alarm buzzes, leaving just the gentle chorus of birdsong.
I lay there, the ache in my legs and deep fatigue that can set in with a block of training totally absent. That ache and background heaviness that makes you feel strong and gives you a sense of purpose and progression. Seven days off the bike makes you feel very different, physically and mentally.
For five minutes or so I try not to think, and I allow the calming sound of birds wash over me. I eventually cave in to carrying out a lap of the internet on my phone. The usual rotation – emails, Twitter, Instagram. I try to ignore all the cycling-related content that I’m bombarded with, and swipe away the update from my podcasts app telling me the latest episode of a cycling training podcast has downloaded and is ready to listen. I can feel my anxiety rising with every cycling-related post from my friends. FOMO. I definitely don’t click on the Strava app. Seeing all the rides that my friends and ‘adversaries’ have been posting over a balmy bank holiday weekend will crush me, and it’s too early in the day for that. I just thank my lucky stars that I can distance the riding culture and pro reporting that is my career from that of the passion that controls the rest of my life.
Rather than that total systematic fatigue of heavy bike training that I so loved and hated, that satisfying feeling of building form and achievement, I feel the soreness of another strength session in the gym. Muscles pushed to exhaustion in a different way, with the aim of building them to make me stronger, bigger, more powerful. Big compound moves that work your entire system at once – squats and deadlifts are the go to. I’d been doing this stuff on and off for years to complement the bike, but now, robbed of the bike, it’s my only adrenaline buzz. Walking is relaxing, yoga is rewarding, but they’re not the same. While lifting used to be a complementary activity, it’s now my path back to the bike, and my way of feeling the sense of fulfilment that training provides that work tasks do not.
As to how effective these gym sessions will be depends on what’s on my plate as much as the plates on the bars that I pointlessly lift up and down, heavy metal pummelling into my ears. To build strength, you need to fuel the muscles. I’ve always known that. Do i do it? Not always. For a few days, I will try my best to shake off the neurosis, desperate to be out of this mess. But old habits die hard.
I also feel the weight of a poorly digested meal, eaten too late in the night, sitting in my belly. The pub burger I ate last night at a family get-together sits in my stomach, more food than I’m used to, eaten at the barbaric time of 8pm. For many, this is a typical dinner time, but I’ve grown used to a light early meal over a number of years, the precursor to a night of aimlessly grazing after my resolve of a day of restrictive eating has snapped, and the realisation that once again I’d failed to appropriately fuel my body. In the day, I restrict to feel the control, to feel it somehow helping me, then in the evening, still a bit hungry, and remembering that my plummeting form on the bike, i panic snack.
Burgers and pizza are the foods that I crave and restrict, but do allow myself to eat occasionally, in contrast to the things that have somehow become totally off-limits – the things I know I love but cannot justify to myself – croissants, cakes, and on the other end of the scale, distinctly British savouries like pork pies and sausage rolls. My half-drunk sister, who suffered terrible Anorexia as a teenager and who is well aware of my current situation, cried with pride and relief when she watched me eat that burger. Having felt so cut off from support and empathy for months, it left me a bit stunned.
I muster my brain into life, still in bed. My first thoughts would once have turned to the day’s training, the hours and route, the intervals required, the amount of porridge and energy bars it would allow me to eat. Now, my seventh day of what may be an endless spell off the bike, confronts me. Without that structure, without something to focus me and to give that training buzz, i feel empty
I remind myself why I’m doing it. I’m off the bike for a reason. It’s only temporary, to help me come back stronger and be a normal, healthy all-round person again.
In previous difficult spells in my life, I’d turned to meditation to help me, and I’ve been practicing it again for the last six months. I can feel the sense of self-awareness it instills overcoming me.
Forget about the sun and the bike, think about why you’re not doing it and why.
I peel myself from the bed and go straight to the kitchen table. I sit and work for an hour with my aeropressed coffee, waiting for my body to start moving. My guts are in a mess. They have been for about five years. With low energy availability and screwed hormones comes digestive problems; the body slows, clinging on to everything inside it possible. Sometimes I overdose on laxatives, sometimes I don’t. The result can be dehydration and stomach pain, but it’s better than the feeling of being poisoned from the inside by half-digested food and the lethardy and drowsiness that comes with it.
The first decision of the day, what to eat and how much. I find it tiring. Previously, I knew how much I’d need – or allow myself – after years of carefully tracking and considering it, weighing up my body’s need for the day based on the training to be performed and the calories that workout would consume. A certain amount of oats, various items from a buffet of options of nut butters, seeds, berries, granolas on top.
Turns out the body’s need for the day was nearly always the loser in the fight for balance between ‘training fuel’ and ‘daily DIY and maintenance fuel’. I always had a feeling it was, but for years of being reasonably strong on the bike, I didn’t care. It made me feel powerful. Marginally under-fuelling myself was a struggle at times, but I was getting (most of) the sessions completed just fine, and the consequences on my day-to-day – the bouts of poor concentration, fatigue, light-headedness, poor digestion, poor thermoregulation, and the way it just exacerbates my depression – were just an inevitable consequence.
Now, I’m tasked with overfuelling. Restore my energy availability, restore some weight, let the body come back around. The idea of eating more whilst also not training exhausts my mind so much. I could possibly justify eating more and training the same amount, or eating the same as I used to but reducing the training, but carrying out these polar ends of the spectrum simultaneously blows my brain.
Again, I remind myself why I’m doing it. I think back through the years of when I’d eat the smallest of breakfasts before an interval session on the trainer, which I’d inevitably fail half way, my legs grinding to a halt, empty of power and energy. The rest of those days were spent in self-hatred and conflicted thoughts. Feeling morose and recognising the cause, I’d want to eat more to fuel the next session. Feeling anxious that training was going to shit, I’d restore a sense of control and keep those calories locked down.
I weigh out my oats. This is where I always go wrong. Though I love breakfast more than any other meal, I never eat enough of it, leaving me short on calories and panic-grazing in the evening. I get a number of grams of the flakes that need to be in my bowl, and it’s probably always about 20% less than it perhaps should be. My sense of control at its utmost, if one gram too many falls into that bowl, I put it back in the storage jar. Balance is restored.
I relish my porridge. I love food, I enjoy eating. But I’ve made it a torture. Forbidden fruits always taste best.
Digested and finally free of last night’s meal, I go upstairs and find my scales. I brought them from home to my parent’s house – where I’m staying a few nights for the easter holiday. especially. If I go too long not knowing my weight, according to the scales I’ve been using for the past 5 years, I get anxious. I know I shouldn’t be weighing myself so frequently – probably around 4-5 times a week, but I can’t help it.
I stand on the sensors and dread what they’re going to tell me. If I’m 0.5kg heavier, I should rejoice. Food is fuel, and it makes me strong.
I remind myself before I step on the sensors that I need to be strong, not skinny. But skinny is what I do. It’s become part of me for over five years, providing me a semblance of control and power. Why do I need those things? Some guy in a hospital is supposed to be telling me that, if I ever get an appointment.
I know that if those scales do tell me I’m putting on weight, I’ll hate myself. Even if I look the same, and I know it’s doing me good, it will still make me feel uneasy and out of control. I’m neither riding and I’m no longer lightweight, so what am I achieving? Nothing.
But then on the other side of the coin, if I’ve lost weight, I’ll sink into a state of despair, feeling there’s no end in sight to my layoff, that I’m making no progress, and just entrenching myself further into my own mind and self-loathing. I stand and wait for the scales to complete their reading.
I’m desperate to know what the scales say, but can barely dare to look at that all-important number.
The full results of blood tests – not just the pithy scraps of information i’ve been given – come soon, as does an appointment at the clinic. I need them to force me into changing my mindset.
More to come.