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!
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.
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.
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.
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.