On Saturday 18th April I climbed Mt Everest. I didn’t have to use oxygen. Or crampons. And I didn’t even wear gloves. I did it on my bike, by cycling up and down a single 1.1km hill, 137 times. In total I covered 315km with 9,117m of vertical ascent in 18 hours. “Everesting” has become the ultimate endurance challenge in the cycling community. The simplicity, monotony and brutality of it alluring around 3,000 people to have now joined the club around the world. For me, it was something I’d pondered on doing for a while but without too much purpose. It took a fairly major event to push me finally to load up the sherpa and make the ascent. The tragic story of a friend from University, Pete Crocombe.
Pete suddenly and tragically lost his Dad, Paul, when he took his own life in February. Nothing could prepare you for the utter devastation this would cause. Pete had been planning to run a colossal 100km the following week. Paul was a sports fanatic and was going to be there to support him along the way. Most people would stop, bury themselves in grief, in solitude, dive deep within themselves and shut the world out before they were ready to try and face a very different new reality of living without Dad. Pete didn’t. Pete still ran 100km. Pete raised over £30,000 for Sport in Mind, a mental health charity that supports those suffering from mental health illnesses through the power of sport. Pete was in the darkest moment of his life and he lit a bonfire. He spread positivity and vowed to help others who might be going through the same thing that Paul was going through.
Mental health. There’s little doubt that our awareness of it is greater than ever. Sadly this is because there are more and more stories like Paul’s. The current statistics are utterly terrifying. On average one person dies every 40 seconds from suicide. To put things in perspective, so far COVID-19 has killed c.166,000 people since December 2019. In the same period there have been approximately 330,000 suicides. The death toll of a global pandemic is dwarfed by a silent, deadly yet completely preventable illness. Perhaps even scarier than this, the World Health Organisation has stated that by 2030, depression will be the number one global health issue and suicide the most likely cause of death. But how can we prevent this horrible disease? Sadly I’m far from being a mental health specialist and I don’t have all the answers. However, I do have my own experiences that I can use and talk about with others that might at least help some people who are struggling against this invisible enemy.
My first observation is simple. Mental illness does not discriminate. You can have it all, a great job, a happy family life, money, hobbies and enough loo roll to last a life time, but it doesn’t mean your immune from feeling like getting through the day is like cycling up Everest. Equally you can be going through an immense battle and still feel ready to fight the fight every day. I can be the first person to attest to this. I am, without doubt, extremely lucky. Yet some days I just feel flat. My head feels cluttered and like I’ve got a million things to do. Then when I write down my to do list I realise there’s barely enough to fill a page. Yet still a fog hangs over me. I used to search for the answer as to why this was, I’m an inherent ‘fixer’ and wanted the answer. My biggest learning has been that I actually feel better if I just accept it. It’s ok to feel rubbish some days, just take a deep breath, pause and reset.
“Staying positive doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time. It means that even on the hard days you know that there are better ones coming.”
Through triathlon I’ve been lucky enough to find a sport that has given me a channel to help my mental ups and downs. Yet even this has not always been simple. It goes a little like this… You think a triathlon sounds quite fun. You do one. You love it and do a bit better than you thought you would. You do a few more. You really get the bug. You take it to the next level and fully commit. You train harder. You get a coach. Your life starts to revolve around race dates and training schedules because all you want is that next PB, that podium, that Kona slot. It’s obsessive and whilst you love the sport your mental health deteriorates. It feels like there’s so much pressure. People expect more of you now. Every session is a must and if you miss one you feel like a failure.
For me it took a serious injury to step out of this cycle. I realised that aspiring to achieve something is pointless unless you enjoy the journey. It might be stating the obvious but so often in life we get trapped in our quest for nirvana. I now approach things with a different mindset aided by my recent discovery of a book called The Resilience Project by Hugh Van Cuylenburg. It revolves around gratitude. By acknowledging what we’re grateful for we can dramatically improve our mental wellbeing. So now every training session I try my best to be grateful. Grateful to have the bike to ride, the physical capability to ride it, the roads to go and explore, the friends to ride with and the fiancée to come home to. Of course I still think about the upcoming races and I still want to be the best I can be on race day. But I’m going to make sure I’m grateful for every session I can do on my way to the next start line.
So I’m now a member of the fairly eclectic group of Everesters and will soon have a jersey to prove it. Sure that makes me happy and proud. But not as happy as I was on Saturday, when through 137 reps of a single hill I cycled with 17 different people and was cheered on by many more. And I like to think they were there more for the cause than the challenge. Everyone is battling something, however big or small it may be it can feel like your looking up Everest. But trust me that’s OK, just get through another rep and if you need someone to chat to along the way give me a shout.
I’ve never felt more passionately about a cause and I’m not planning on stopping spreading awareness any time soon. As a result I’ll be launching Lung Club as a dedicated channel to host discussion around mental health and suicide prevention. So watch this space and please reach out if you’d like to contribute to the conversation.
With special thanks to everyone out there on Saturday, both physically and in spirit, and to everyone who has donated to Sport in Mind.