So a guest post – a way to shine light on some talented soul in the blogosphere. This is the first Guest Blogger featured on Cycling The Six. I get loads of request for guest posts, though most go something like:
Dear Mr Fabes, I am offering some content for your health / sport / travel blog. I make home made placenta cakes from genuine human placenta and would like to share the recipe with your online audience. I charge 1000 US dollars, please deposit into my Nigerian bank account before you publish my award winning blog entry.
Bloggers who unwittingly obey all my rules for writing a GREAT travel blog are not welcome here. So I will headhunt my guest bloggers, and the most affecting, inspiring and mirth inducing collection of yarns I have read of late is I Run Things – the fact that the author is a good friend of mine is beside the point. He fulfils that seemingly simple yet rare ideal – he has a story worth telling and he tells it well. It’s about… well, I’ll let Olly Davy explain.
I sit by the edge of the water under a low September sun, squinting into the reflected rays at the swan gliding past between the marker buoys. I reach behind my back to undo my wetsuit and release the tightness of the second skin. Slowly, my breathing returns to normal as my body recovers from the sprint at the end of a 4,000 metre swim. I feel the blood pumping through my veins and the familiar sense of calm descending on my mind. Looking down beyond my dangling feet into the murky pond I see the face of my mother smiling up at me, and my eyes fill with tears.
One year earlier, in August 2011, I was standing at the baggage carousel in Gatwick airport. Fresh from a road trip around the lakes of southern France, I was suntanned and content. The simple pleasures of driving through the mountains, eating great food and camping in the beauty of nature had made for a memorable holiday. My phone rang. It was my sister and I answered in a cheery tone, glad at the chance to share tales of our happy trip.
“Mum has cancer”
Some weeks after the initial shock of that announcement, cancer had become part of our everyday lives. My mother fought bravely against the disease and endured wave after wave of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In the end, the cancer was too advanced and too strong and there was nothing anyone could do. The final reality was clear on the day, in June 2012, when the doctor advised her that now would be a good time to move into the hospice. Everybody knows that hospice is just another word for death. After only a week under the amazing care of the Marie Curie nurses my mother succumbed to the disease and my sister and I held her hand as she died. She was just one of the one hundred people who die each day from lung cancer in the UK.
Not long before my mother’s death I decided to sign up to the London Triathlon 2012. I was feeling powerless in the face of her hellish battle and I wanted to do something, anything, to take back some control. Once she died I threw myself into training with the kind of focus I have never known. Having a goal to work towards stopped me being overwhelmed with sadness. The triathlon became much more than a race. It was symbolic as a declaration of life, a victory for vitality over decay. By setting out to overcome a personal challenge I embarked on a remarkable journey. Here are some things I learnt along the way…
London is a great place to train
I was able to find everything I needed to train successfully for the triathlon within cycling distance of my flat in East London. Three times a week I swam at London Field’s Lido. This facility possesses all the qualities a great swimming pool should. It is outdoor, heated, Olympic size and glorious. In the entrance hall they posted the winning times of the Olympic athletes on a big board, encouraging users of the pool to put their own times too. For longer sessions, and to acclimatise to conditions closer to that of open water, I went to Hampstead Ponds. The pleasure of swimming through natural waters among the ducks and geese more than made up for becoming an embarrassed spectator on the sidelines of North London’s gay cruising scene. To run without fear of being squashed by a truck I headed to Regents Canal where I could fly along by the water all the way to Limehouse Basin and beyond. And when it was time to clip on my helmet and saddle up, I would ride around and around the outer ring of Regents Park, where I learnt the finer points of peleton etiquette from helpful strangers wearing Team GB jerseys. Or, at other times, I watched the deer grazing as I cycled laps of Richmond Park under a setting sun. And, If I felt the need to do some hill training to build the strength in my legs then I would ride up and down the Muswell Hill, and Swain’s Lane in Highgate. Never have I found London more relevant and useful than while I trained for a triathlon during the Olympics.
I love being in control (and need to learn to let go)
The training was a useful distraction from my emotions but I tried not to bottle anything up. Thankfully, the physical training helped me to understand and express what I was feeling better than I would have been able to otherwise. The clear-headedness that a long run afforded allowed me to simply be with my grief. Not to fight it or hide from it, but to accept it and allow it to pass over me, like a wave. As a man, and an English one at that, I am embarrassed by public displays of emotion and so to avoid collapsing into a snot-bubbling mess at the supermarket checkout I chose private times when I could cry alone. I scheduled my grief like a training run. But despite my attempts to stay in control, there is no way to know if you will suddenly burst into tears while speeding down a hill at thirty miles per hour. And that can be dangerous.
Exercise helps with sadness
I became a bore
“Oh, you like collecting ironing boards too? Brilliant!”
It’s all about the journey
That may sound a little dramatic but the triathlon came at a significant period in my life and as I looked for an answer to the ultimate question, ‘Life, what does it all mean?’ I found myself in a group meditation workshop that took place over twelve nights in a living room in North West London. Guided by an experienced leader, twenty of us went on a reflective journey and bonded through the sharing of personal stories, breathing exercises and meditative visualisation. It was difficult to adjust each evening after work to this new environment but I was rewarded with an experience that was at times deeply moving. There were also moments that stretched my open-mindedness to it’s limits, such as when one member of the group, a gay Irishman, was invited to share messages from the other side and duly began to ‘channel’ an ancient Chinese warrior. I struggled to absorb his useful tips on negotiating the challenges of life because I was preoccupied by the strange accent he was talking in. I did not know what was more amazing, that he was communicating from beyond the grave, or that a Chinese warrior had learnt to speak English in the afterlife.
I need a challenge to feel alive
To maintain my sanity, sometimes I need to shrug off the silly concerns of an urban existence and enjoy a raw elemental experience. It reminds me that I am alive. I find that I am most content when I react to my basic impulses. How fast can I cycle? How far can I swim? Can I run to the top of this mountain without passing out? Spending time outside of my usual metropolitan habitat in a challenging environment is restorative. When I am concerned with finding and cooking food, or sheltering from the elements, things like how many Twitter followers I have matter much less. Of course, I am straight back on the infernal thing when I get home. But I do not have to break a sweat to enjoy being outside. Just to stand on the edge of a mountain, or on the beach, or even in a park, is enough to make me smile. So next time you spot a beaming simpleton gawping at the squirrels, spare a thought; he’s replenishing his soul.
You can’t ignore your injuries
Unfortunately, my body is not built like Haruki Murakami, the long distance running novelist who has run most days for thirty years and never been injured, or the 101 year old man who began running marathons aged 89 and will be competing for the last time this Sunday. If I want to continue enjoying sport for many years to come then I have to listen to my body and strengthen the weak bits. So, I dutifully perform one-arm rows, wall-squats, and inverted rescindicator crunches (I made that one up) in a bid to get myself ready for whatever the next challenge might be.
Death is an opportunity
Losing my mother to cancer made me realise how precious, and brief, life is. It was a galvanising experience. It made me think about how many things there are that I want to do while I am still walking around on this spinning ball of dust. That does not mean that there are not days when I feel like hell and do not want to leave the house and would rather alleviate the sadness with the temporary respite afforded by alcohol, or ice cream. There is no escaping the finality of death; my life changed irreversibly when my mother died but what she left me in passing was an insatiable desire to go on and enjoy the world. If you will forgive me for adopting the tone of a bible-wielding evangelist who has turned up on your doorstep at an inconvenient time on a Tuesday evening, it is as if she has been born again through me.
Human beings are inspiring
While training for the triathlon, sharing the experience through my blog became more important than I ever realised it would. It was an opportunity to let people know what I was doing and feeling at a time when I did not want to speak to many people about what I was doing and feeling. The process of writing and posting online encouraged reciprocation from people and I learnt all kinds of interesting and inspiring things from their messages to me. One day, a complete stranger messaged me on Facebook. She had read an article that a local London newspaper had printed about me signing up to the triathlon as way to cope with grief. This is what she wrote:
“I lost my dad suddenly last month and have been finding it extremely difficult to carry on with day to day life and not expect the world to fall down at my feet but I picked up the Ham & High today and read the article about you dealing with your grief by throwing yourself into something that doesn’t give you time to stop and feel sorry for yourself. I just wanted to say thank you for inspiring me to do something I’ve always wanted to do but have been too unmotivated. Today I started my own fashion consultancy business.”
I was very moved by that message. I had previously thought I could only draw inspiration and I did not realise I could engender it in others. So, whatever it is you love doing, keep doing it, because it might just get someone through.
If you enjoyed this post please leave a comment and check out I Run Things, Oli’s excellent blog.