Mountain biking and mental health: my Trans Cambrian story

All photos in this post are courtesy of the very talented Phill Stasiw

Finally, mental health is starting to get discussed more and more openly in the UK. And from the BBC’s much-celebrated Mind Over Marathon documentary, to Look Mum No Hands’ panel discussion on the matter, the benefits of exercise for mental health are being recognised too.

So now it’s time to add my story…

I’ve had trouble with anxiety and associated depression at a number of points in my life. Mostly I’ve managed to keep my head above water and continue as normal, hiding my troubles from the world. However, I recently had a spell of anxiety that really did knock me off course. It stopped me from eating, it stopped me from sleeping and, eventually, it stopped me from working. I have been lucky enough to be treated by a great GP and an even better counsellor to get myself back on track. But that is not the full story of my recovery. The full story includes a massive bike ride, in crazy headwinds, rain, and a whole heap of mud!

Quite a view

Before my anxiety struck, I had booked a birthday treat for myself: a three day mountain biking mission on the Trans Cambrian Trail, riding from the English border at Knighton, through mid Wales to Machynlleth on the coast. I’d booked the trip with Mountain Bike Wales, having met proprietor Phill through Polly on my mountain bike and yoga break earlier in the year.

Phill and Polly are two of the most passionate, supportive people in the mountain biking world. But, even so, when I got ill just a few weeks before the trip I very nearly backed out. It was only due to a brilliant conversation with my counsellor and quick call to Polly that I decided to give it a go. When is a bike ride not a good idea, after all??

The weekend arrived and brought with it Storm Brian and an increase in my anxiety levels. I had barely slept in weeks, I was suffering from multiple panic attacks each day, and I really wasn’t convinced I was capable of facing a challenge that would see me cycling further than I ever had before, let alone in headwinds of over 40 miles an hour! It was with absolute dread that I left the pub we’d stayed in in Knighton to put foot to pedal and get started on day one.

But as my legs started turning, as the blood got pumping and my heart rate rose, I started to forget the heavy stomach and painful doubts that had been my constant companions for the last few weeks. That day I rode up wet, grassy climbs I would never have contemplated before, I took the longer option where I could have taken a short cut, and I rode into Rhayader that evening shocked at what I had achieved. It’s true, I had a little panic attack when we arrived in the town, but it passed quickly and I was able to enjoy a lovely meal with the rest of the group, before retiring to a cosy bed for the night.

Uphill ouch

The next day Storm Brian really did come out to play. The wind howled and the rain rushed horizontally in sheets past the window as we chowed down on a full Welsh breakfast. Phill and Polly had been conferring overnight and agreed that the planned route for the day was going to be too exposed for the conditions, so a new plan had been concocted. We were to ride a more sheltered, but still 50km, route in the Elan Valley. A familiar sense of dread kicked back in as I donned my kit – every piece of wet weather gear I owned and plenty of layers to boot. But again, that fear, that anxiety, that rock in the pit of my stomach left as I began to ride.

The trails looked more like rivers than bridleways, the hail bit our faces and we were buffeted in all directions by enormous gusts of wind. My waterproofs could only withstand so much; I was soaked to the bone by lunchtime. And I had never felt more alive! I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled some more. I battled hard against the wind, I laughed as I rode through water that came up to my knees, and grinned from ear to ear as I felt a painful yet satisfying exhaustion seep through my body as the day came to a close and the light faded. It was the best I had felt in weeks, and that feeling was only improved by the delicious pub meal we consumed that evening.

Riding a river

And so came day three, the final day of our wet and windy adventure. And my goodness, was it wet and windy! We thought we had ridden hard on day two, we thought we had experienced headwinds and mud. But no, day three was where it was at. Day three threw everything at us! We climbed all morning, heading up to Glyndwrs Way, battling a headwind like none I had experienced before. It was a fight, that’s for sure. But somehow, from somewhere, I found energy. I found determination. I found the ability to pedal, to get my head down and just get on with it.

Lunchtime saw us hiding behind a tin fence, trying hard to shelter from the wind and the rain that just kept hammering us. I’ll be honest: it was grim and I felt miserable. But the fire inside me just wouldn’t be extinguished. Something somehow kept that flame burning, kept me wanting more. And so we entered the final leg – a leg with a fabulous descent that I will always remember. The rain kept pouring, the wind kept blowing, but this was the last push and there was no way I was going to let the elements beat me.

Lunchtime

Riding the Trans Cambrian marked a turning point in my recent illness. It showed me that I am stronger than I think I am. It showed me that determination can enable great things, that I can do more than I ever thought possible. It showed me what I am made of. And I took these lessons and knew that I would get better, that anxiety wouldn’t beat me. And you know what? It was true: anxiety couldn’t beat me. I am better now and I am stronger than I ever was before.

Riding the Trans Cambrian at my point of crisis was the best decision I have ever made. Mountain biking should be prescribed by the NHS!

Postscript: I have to say a enormous thank you to Phill Stasiw and Polly Clark, who guided us on this amazing adventure. They are some of life’s proper good’ns and I could not have done it without them.

You can check out the trips that Polly and Phill are running next year on their respective websites: mountainyogabreaks.co.uk | mtb.wales

 

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14 thoughts on “Mountain biking and mental health: my Trans Cambrian story

  1. runninggirlsam says:

    What a fantastic & inspiring blog. You are very brave to have taken that on in the state you must have been in & what an accomplishment to finish in spite of everything the Welsh weather could throw at you. So many of us are stronger than we know & it is only when we push ourselves that we find out just how strong. Hopefully you can cling on to those positive memories & feelings if mental health issues challenge you again. I hope you continue your journey to recovery in 2018. (Oh and I totally agree – Polly & Phil are fab).

    • sconecycling says:

      I’m so happy you found this post inspiring – thank you! I certainly never believed I could achieve something like this, but it’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to something. I hope you have some excellent adventures coming in 2018 too 🙂

  2. Darren Halford says:

    Nice write up Emma. Likewise, I rode the TCW in 2017, as much for my mental health as well as the trip itself. Totally agree with cycling being prescribed by the NHS! Also agree Phill & Polly are great hosts. Keep riding & blogging – I like what you write 🙂 Cheers,.

  3. Tess @ FitBits says:

    I remember seeing your photos when you did the trip – it’s deffo on my list for 2018! Well done for getting out there and facing your anxiety too, I hope next year is a more peaceful one for you in that respect! x

  4. Stories BY Alexis says:

    Amazing journey. Thank you for sharing … I can relate on so many levels but find my zest in running or basking in hot yoga … #Awesomeness :o)

  5. Music398 says:

    Goodness me that sounded like a tough ride! Thanks for being an inspiration to me… I’ll be contacting Polly and Phil to see what they have available later in the year…

  6. rebelgirlrides says:

    I had such a grin on my face by the time I finished reading. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of this – it’s amazing how much more capable we are than we anticipate.

    I too did an Elan Valley trip with Polly a few years back (I’m going to and read about yours now!) and while it didn’t give me the best start into MTB (I bit off more than I could chew and had a nasty crash) I’ve only just started getting into it again and I’m amazed at how much good it’s doing for my mental state.

    In a way it’s probably the most mindful type of cycling there is, because you don’t have time to zone out or let your thoughts wander. You have to be 100% present and aware, and constantly checking in with your posture. It’s such a great way to focus on yourself. Plus… with mountain biking comes the great outdoors! I’m definitely at my happiest when I’m in the woods, surrounded by trees and wish mud splashing over my shins.

    I completely relate to this post, and you’ve made me want to sign up for another weekend in Wales!

    • sconecycling says:

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed this post. It was a toughie to write, but it seems to have inspired a few people. You should definitely get back to Wales – there are some brilliant adventures to be had!

  7. GlacierLife says:

    Nice read! There’s a lot of studies out there surround both exercise benefits and benefits from being out in nature, so you got the whole “two birds one stone” down pat! On top of that, you looked SUPER happy to be out there on the bike! Very inspiring!

  8. Sam says:

    Just read your post and related in many ways. Well done you and even more, thanks for writing about it. All the best. S

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