I am not going to sugar coat it, or make it seem that things were any different to how it actually was, quite simply, it has been tough. So I shall get into it and explain how. And of course give some more details of the surprises along the way.
The past few weeks have been a bit tougher than usual, mainly with the build up to the London to Amsterdam ride. So imagine my delight when I woke up feeling fresh for the trip, and headed out early to get some pre ride miles in. By the time I arrived in Sydenham my mood had already slipped, and it was starting to fill me with dread again. So many people milling around, not sure what I should be doing, trying to put on a brave face.
An hour passed, anxiety building more, trying to gravitate towards those who I have had positive experiences with, and less towards those which oozed negativity. Big group, busy road, not sure what I was meant to be doing, I ended up just plodding along, and trying to get from A to B. By half way in to the first day, I was cramping badly, which was really having a negative impact on my mood, I was now riding solo, although that was probably a good thing (which I will come back to later), and mentally I was drained.
A bit of delay and drama at the first main stop of the day, lunch, was enough to really get the mood cascading full flow. Time to go and get out of it all. Riding away, my brain spinning like crazy, I found myself some space, and just plodded for a bit. Drizzle and wind really helped the mood, especially when reaching the hills.
At one point I called my other half, Ann. Just looking to hear a friendly voice, vent a bit and try and get my head in the game. Walking up a hill, as my quads were cramping too much to ride, we spoke about each others day, and cleared my mind a bit. Back on the bike, head in the game, I got there.
Arriving at the meeting point, once again, so many people, mood was a solitary one for me, so I rode away for a while to have my own space, and returned when it was time to move to the terminal. For the rest of the day I pretty much kept myself to myself, eating alone, and avoiding having to put on a smile for the sake of it. Rolling in to Calais, all I wanted was a shower and my bed. Thankfully it was a single room for Day 1, so I was able to escape.
After a poor nights sleep, I woke with a bit more enthusiasm for Day 2, and although I ate alone for breakfast, I tried to be a bit more integrated with the others. Breakfast isn't something I usually do before rides, so within 20 mins of setting off, I was feeling a bit rough. Add to that the headwinds we would be riding into all day, and it was a recipe for a mood bomb for sure. Within the first 5-10 miles, I was done. Mentally, there was no way I was getting through the day. The worst part is, the more you tell yourself that, the truer it becomes. By the first water stop I was torturing myself non stop, and 10 miles after there, I was already running the conversation scenarios through my head for what I would say if I saw the van. "I can't do it!" featured in most scenarios.
As the miles went on, I would run the conversations in my head, but each time I saw a van or another rider, the fake smile would appear and I would say nothing, opting to plod on instead. By lunch, which I almost rode straight past due to being deep in thought, I was managing my thoughts a bit better, but just wanted to eat and go, and get the day done with. This was NOT going to be the case. Lunch was a terrible experience, with it's only redeeming feature being conversation believe it or not.
While we waited to eat, I found the conversation with the group I had aligned myself with to be easy and natural. It was a long wait, but a blessing in disguise I guess, as once we got to talking about the ride that day, it was obvious to see that almost everyone was in fact struggling, at least physically.
A quick chat with a couple of the other riders before we set off, and something started to be come apparent. I was not alone! There were others, men, struggling a bit mentally. And we all seemed to be sharing a single characteristic behaviour, isolation. Not completely, but just when things were at their toughest. Like me, there were a group of us who seemed to find solace in our own company when trying to push on. Not afraid of being included if the mood was right, but completely happy, and probably more in our zone to just be left alone. Not to have to follow any set pace or timetable. Happy to plod, stop, take photos and enjoy what was around us. Maybe allowing ourselves to absorb the surroundings was a good distraction from the non stop thoughts, or maybe just a nice break for the body.
By the end of Day 2, it was startling obvious that a number of men was of the same mindset as me. Much to the confusion of some around us, who were (understandably) worried about us excluding ourselves from certain aspects of the ride, mainly the "group" thing.
By Day 3, the weather had taken a turn for the better, the going was a bit easier, and the scenery was stunning. Everything the mind of an overthinker needs to keep it in check. A much more enjoyable day for sure, and something I saw reflected in the moods and actions of my like minded mini group.
From this point on, it became a bit easier to chat to one another, expressing how we felt about being among the groups which had formed, both socially and on the road. And what a relief that was. Almost like being in an anxiety group, sharing feelings, and understanding you are not irrational or strange, but simply not the same as everyone else, and that is OK.
By the end of the trip I felt I had found a few kindred spirits, people who could ride together, yet alone. Not isolated, just separated by a common desire. I cannot express how good that made me feel!
I should point out that one of the main reasons of doing this challenge was to challenge myself, mentally, and I can say without doubt that I achieved that. Pushing my comfort zones to new limits, seeing how I would cope in these groups of people. Getting to know complete strangers, and trying not to pre-judge how things would work out.
I have to say that my early judgements of some were terribly wrong, failing to see that some of the personas were simply social facades, masks, worn to please others. Discovering the people behind the masks were nothing like the person who masqueraded whilst wearing it, was rewarding and a bit of a wake up call. It is something I have done for years myself, put on a face to make others think I was someone else, but completely failed to see (until now) others doing it.
I have learned I can make new friends, without the need to be the fake me, my genuine and laid bare persona is acceptable to others, and there are far more people out there, going through similar struggles and dilemmas than I first realised. I just hope they are all aware of their situations, and in control of what is going on around them.
Men fighting with mental demons is real, VERY real, and if you take a moment to look carefully, the signs are right there to see....
How are YOU today?