Keep An Eye On Yourself

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I’m a mountain biker. I’ve been a mountain biker for as long as I can remember and have lived and breathed bikes for years. I’m also one of the lucky few who get to call themselves a professional mountain biker. I get paid to take other people out on their bikes, guiding them, coaching them and taking them on adventures and expeditions. Living the dream huh?

As I write this I’m half way through a 10 day course taking a great group of guys riding on some world class trails around Scotland.

As the week has rolled by rather than the usually surge of enthusiasm for riding great trails again or exploring new ones I’ve felt bored by it (and yes, I appreciate how galling that will sound to everyone stuck behind a desk dreaming of the weekend so they can go riding so please bear with me). I look forward to these jobs, I get excited by them and I spend weeks before each one pouring over maps and investigating incredible new trails to take my clients on next time I’m ‘up North’, so what’s different this week?

There have been a few mechanicals, one rider who has a penchant for ignoring coaching tips and using trees as brakes and more driving than I care for, but that’s not enough to rob me of the fire in my belly and my annoying level of enthusiasm for sweet singletrack.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of my own fluctuating mental health. Life hasn’t been easy for me (which I have written in more depth about elsewhere so won’t repeat here) and there have been some incredibly dark days as well as the joyous ones, but biking has always been one of those things that lifts me from a sombre funk and re ignites the fire, so getting paid to ride should be a double whammy right?

Finally today I came to realise that despite my great job and some awesome plans ahead of me for the next few months, my black dog had woken up and decided to follow me to work. I can’t explain it and it sure as hell doesn’t make any sense why when I’m being paid to ride my bike I should be ‘down’, but that’s just it with the old black dog, that little bugger doesn’t make sense!

mental health mtb mountain biking singletrack
The Black Dog can sneak up on you and kill any motivation to ride.

One of the other problems with mental health is you don’t always realise yourself that you’re ‘ill’ until it’s got really bad. Much like having a cold that you didn’t realise was there until you start bubbling snot at every breath and people take two steps backwards when they greet you. Another problem is that if you don’t realise you black dog is awake and out to play you can’t really do anything about it, so learning to reflect on yourself and see in yourself when you are struggling is vital.

I’ve gone through enough dark days to know what some of my ‘warning signs’ are by now (although it’s still taken 5 days to recognise them this time). I’m irritable, unreasonably grumpy at minor infractions, I’m lethargic and loose motivation, I eat too much and then feel like I’m putting on weight uncontrollably (those who know me will scoff at this as I’m generally a bit of a lanky git, but I still see myself as getting fat), I start to swear more frequently and I am constantly tired and feeling deflated. A few years ago while doing a Mental Health First Aid course I got introduced to the WRAP process (Wellness Recovery Action Plan – more on this below – Ed), and it finally gave me a framework within which I could identify my ‘triggers’ or ‘warning signs’ as well as much more. You don’t need to feel at risk of a major mental health collapse, breakdown or episode to gain benefit from WRAP. I use it to identify my Daily Maintenance plan, Triggers and Early Warning Signs. Mine includes simple things like eating healthy food, drinking plenty of water and having opportunities to be social – they all sound like minor changes but they really can help me to make the difference between living with the black dog and feeling pinned down by him.

So now I’ve realised that my black dog is making me a grumpy git this week I can put steps in place to minimise his impact and welcome him along for the ride. I bite my lip a little longer when something upsets or annoys me, I go to bed a little earlier and I make sure I eat as much fresh fruit and veg as I can manage. Then I let myself off and stop giving myself a hard time over not loving my dream job this week. I know I’m lucky to do the work I do, exceptionally lucky, but I’m still learning how to be the best professional mountain bike guide with a black (trail) dog for company.

More about the ‘black dog’ in this video, and more on WRAP here. Tom Johnstone runs Carbon Monkey, who do skills courses and guiding.

mental health mtb mountain biking singletrack
One bike and a black trail dog.

David Hayward

Singletrack Contributor

David started mountain biking in the 90’s, by which he means “Ineptly jumping a Saracen Kili Racer off anything available in a nearby industrial estate”. After growing up and living in some extremely flat places, David moved to Yorkshire specifically for the mountain biking. This felt like a horrible mistake at first, because the hills are so steep, but you get used to them pretty quickly.

Previously, David trifled with road and BMX, but mountain bikes always won. He’s most at peace battering down a rough trail, quietly fixing everything that does to a bike, or trying to figure out if that one click of compression damping has made things marginally better or worse. The inept jumping continues to this day.

Comments (7)

    I can identify with you here. Thanks for writing. I’ll check out that WRAP ting.

    A great piece that explains it so perfectly. This mirrors my own experiences with the furry buzz-killer to the letter (aside from the professional MTB job and actually owning a black dog). Thanks for sharing your experience and the WRAP link.

    I can completely identify with this. I too work in cycling and love my job but suffer from bouts of darkness. It took me a long while to realise what was actually going on but once I’d identified the problem I found many resources that helped me develop methods for dealing with my periods of ‘funk’.

    oh the irony… the link to WRAP / mentalhealthrecovery takes you to a page that says “down for maintenance”.

    good article though, btw.

    That photo of mine is on a footpath.

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