cycling · Guest Post · training

The Headspace Challenge (Guest post)


Just five days to go now: on Saturday, 6 July, the 250 of us signed up for London to Paris 24 will leave Blackheath, in southeast London, and “dash” to Dover, then get on a ferry, then get off in Calais and slog through the night toward the Eiffel Tower. It’s 272 miles in total, much of that in the darkness between 6 and 7 July. Jarret (my husband) and I know we’re physically ready: we did a reconnaissance ride to Dover yesterday (our last full training ride) using the official race route, and easily made the 90 miles through Kent in 5 hours 50 minutes – that’s within the official “24 hour” pace the team riders will set for us. Now the only question is: how the hell are we going to motivate ourselves to get off the boat and back onto our bikes after the 3-hour channel crossing, keeping up the pace as the light fades in France and all we really want to do is collapse into sleep?

The week ahead is rest and recovery time; as pro riders will tell you, resting is the most important preparation in the lead up to a big event. So on Tuesday it’ll be a swim at my favourite outdoor pool, on Thursday I’ll do some yoga, and on Friday I’ll cycle gently up to my favourite coffee spot for delicious pastries and drinks before doing some grocery shopping and sorting out last-minute details.

I’ll also be working throughout the week on the intense mental challenge ahead, preparing myself emotionally to face the extraordinary endurance requirements of this rally without any panic.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the mental labour L2P24 requires since we returned from our Alpine training in France last week (if you missed it, check out my last guest post here). I noticed, on race day in Morzine, that I was really anxious; my stomach was churning at the start line, and I frankly thought I was going to have to abandon my bike for the toilet moments before we were ushered off. I had that same feeling yesterday, as we prepared to leave Blackheath on our recon ride – and that was only the two of us! This gut-wrenching performance anxiety is familiar to me from another aspect of my life – my job as a university professor. When I teach now, I usually feel mild butterflies, but when I first started teaching I used to panic before class. The fear I’d do poorly – because I didn’t have a lot of experience at that point of managing my teaching stress, surviving problem situations, or, indeed, having fun with my classes – overwhelmed me. I used to panic, too, when preparing papers and articles – again, this was back before I had the experience of managing that stress successfully, by breaking up the job of writing and teaching preparation into manageable chunks I could face without panic or fear. Now, getting ready for class, or working through an argument on paper, is second nature to me, and these are tasks I actually look forward to.

How, I wonder, can I harness what I know from my teaching-research life to prepare myself psycho-physically for the London to Paris ride?

Manageable chunks: I think this is the key.

When I was a young student, I would often procrastinate strenuously before blitzing my essays the night before they were due. I knew I’d likely get an A, and though I also knew I’d more likely get an A+ if I would just give myself more time, I didn’t want to prolong the anxiety that always built up around essay writing. What I learned in time (in fact, what I learned while writing a 300-page PhD dissertation, no surprise!) is that the more time you give yourself for difficult tasks, and the more sensibly you break those tasks into manageable chunks, the quicker performance anxiety dissipates, letting your body normalize the (in this case, writing and researching) experience. Athletes know this; it’s why they train so hard for so long! And as a researcher I know this too, because I now approach my job as one of constant learning – complete with snags and missteps. I wrote my first book in just 8 months or so, partly because I told myself that I actually had plenty of time, and that if I ran into a snag there would be time just to let the work sit, and to let my brain adjust to and synthesise whatever intellectual problems I’d run into. Once I’d given myself permission to take the time I needed to complete the next task – the next chapter, say, or section of a chapter – the easier it became to motor along sensibly, feeling good about the writing. (Tracy has a very similar strategy – read her thoughts on “doing less” here.)

London to Paris is divided into a number of stages – three on the England side and six on the France side. Each stage is about 35 miles long, and each finishes with a food and rest stop where riders can take a short break, refuel, and – if they are riding as part of a relay team – trade off from bike to bus. For those of us aiming for a solo finish (Jarret and I are riding as a team, but we’re not in a relay; we aim to both ride the whole route together), each rest stop also marks a point where riders who feel ill or simply too fatigued can get on the bus for a stage and rest. I’ve decided to use these stages as mental dividing points: the ride, for me, will not be 272 miles, but 35 miles at a time. Each time we set off, I know that we need only go 35 more miles; if I can make that, I can decide at the end of the stage how I feel, and make a prudent decision about food, about rest, and take stock of how I’m feeling generally. I’ve given myself permission in advance to get on the bus twice; if I can do 200 of the total miles on my bike, that will be in itself a major achievement. I don’t need to be a hero and cycle through pain or massive fatigue; that’s not the point. The point is to achieve an extreme endurance personal best, and that comes in many forms over the course of 272 miles.

My suspicion is that, dividing the ride into chunks like this and telling myself that, at the end of each stage, I have choices, I’ll be much more likely to make the entire ride under my own steam than if I insisted to myself at the starting line that failure is not an option. I’m actually a big fan of failure – I think failing can tell us a lot about who we are, and about what we can achieve, if we just sit with it a little bit and absorb it as a teaching rather than a terror. So I’m not afraid to “fail” next weekend; momentary failures during the ride will only be instructive. And I already know what I’ve achieved in the last six months of training: a mind/body that is more endurance-ready than ever before, and that has learned so much about what is possible for me as a feminist athlete, teacher, student, and human being.