Online Feature: Riding the Alps to Beat Depression

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April 7, 2016

By Gary Walder

I was not in a good place at the beginning of the year. I had recently been diagnosed with depression, was officially obese, very middle-aged and looked ludicrous in Lycra.

At the end of August, I rode my mountain bike over the Alps from Germany to Lake Garda, Italy, riding on average 44 miles (70km) with a vertical ascent of 5,000 feet (1,500m) each day, for six days. That’s nearly 30,000 feet of ascent—not bad for someone who could hardly climb out of bed at the beginning of the year.

So how did I do this? Or more to the point, why? There were three factors that combined to steer me on this journey. First, after denying for too long that there was anything wrong, I reluctantly gave in to my wife’s pleading and saw a doctor, begrudgingly accepted the diagnosis of depression and hesitantly agreed to see a therapist. And that’s when things started to change.

Then I saw an advert for the Mental Health Foundation in a mountain biking magazine. The gist of the message was that physical exercise is a good form of therapy. Combine these with the fact that I live south of Munich, within sight of the Alps and I realised what I needed to do to help get me out of the very deep rut I was in.

I had to mountain bike over the Alps.

I’ve been mountain biking on and off for the past 15 years, but this journey, which started in January, introduced me to new types of riding and pushed me physically and mentally to levels that I could not have imagined at the beginning of the year.

To make maximum use of time, I bought spiked tyres so I could train throughout Bavaria’s long, icy winter and invested in some powerful bike lights so I could ride at night. Both were new cycling experiences. Riding in snow and ice at night is not for the faint hearted, but it can be a thrilling adventure.

I invested in a turbo trainer so I could introduce structured endurance sessions into my training and, once the weather warmed up and the snow started to clear from the mountains, I tried to use my weekends to do some serious hill climbing.

This all sounds very gung-ho, and to begin with, it was. I trained hard and regularly; I dropped weight, built muscle and my fitness level was on the up and up.

But there were times when I found it really hard to keep up the training, especially because I was training alone. It was easy to find excuses not to get out on the bike and the lure of the sofa, a DVD and a bottle of wine sometimes got the better of me. Somehow though I always bounced back, slipped into the Lycra shorts once more and hit the trails again. Keeping up the therapy I was undergoing helped and in the end, it all paid off. My ride across the Alps is right up there among the best experiences of my life.

The weather for the entire six days was outstanding and we were treated to views of the mountains at their glorious, stunning best. I didn’t know any of the people I rode with before the trip, but by the end of it the camaraderie and team spirit was amazing and without question this helped to keep me going.

The trails were like nothing I’ve ever ridden before, and with each one, I was into new territory. There were narrow trails traversing the mountainside that would not normally be too difficult to ride, but throw in a sheer drop of several hundred metres and you begin to ride with a little more caution than usual.

Then there were the trails that were rocky, rooty, loose and very, very steep. There was one trail in particular where I had to stop to let my brakes cool down—they were literally glowing and the riders coming down the trail behind me said they could smell burning!

Each day I woke up feeling I couldn’t handle the ride, or more specifically, the climbs ahead but each day I managed it. Ironically, on the last day we covered 94km with 1,800m of climbing but it was my strongest day. As we reached Lake Garda I didn’t want the journey to end!

I can reflect on this adventure with immense satisfaction. I now look significantly less ludicrous in cycling shorts than I did in January and the apathy that characterised my depression has gone, along with the love handles – or they are at least on their way out!

Through the blog I wrote, I helped raise awareness of depression and raised some money for the Mental Health Foundation as well. Regular physical exercise, a therapy session once a week and being open about my depression, all combined to give me the ride of a lifetime and get my life back on track. The journey is far from over, but at least I will be ending the year in a much better state than I started it.

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