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Finding balance on a long distance bike ride

Four Doctors journey from Lands End to John O Groats (alternative route to Derriford Neck and Spinal Unit) and then home…

Three GPs) David, Karim and Naz and Mike (A Doctor of Nursing) planned an adventure. I guess the four of us had something of a great dream that we would, together cycle from the bottom of the United Kingdom to the top of Scotland. With all that knowledge and expertise what could go wrong?

The journey started over a year ago with the four of us signing up to what we recognised was going to be a significant adventure however one with clear intended direction; to cycle 980 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats across the Cairngorms. The first challenge was getting bodies in shape, other than Naz this meant significant weight loss, secondly some serious training (mostly not so serious and quite enjoyable through the Northamptonshire countryside), lastly getting equipment including camping for nine days (midge nets necessary- happily no photos with us wearing these exist).

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The start
A smooth journey aided by Mikes daughter Harriet driving us door to tent we arrived at Lands End to some glorious sunshine and news that at least the first day looked dry so good news. Some surprise at the close proximity of tents and the hum of generator for security light for bikes recognising that with two known snorers we were not likely to get much sleep (which proved the case for David throughout the trip)

At the heart of our endeavour was a continued, life long quest for happiness. This account of the nine days of cycling is framed, serendipitously within the science of happiness AKA the GREAT DREAM.

Everyone’s path to happiness is different, but the research suggests if we take personal action to choose from this menu and apply these ten factors consistently it will have a positive impact on our overall happiness and well-being. The first five relate to how we interact with the outside world and the second half come more from inside us and relate to our attitude to life and response to events.

Given the nature of our challenge this framework fits very well with our shared aims and encapsulates many of our outcomes.

Not everything goes to plan (Mikes GREAT DREAM)
Unfortunately, my experience was cut short. Picture this. A corner, an inexperienced cyclist, gravel on the road, followed by a short flight and a very solid wall.
Now picture this. A hospital bed in Plymouth Accident and Emergency (A+E) Department, some wonderful NHS professionals, a fractured neck, back, ribs and sternum and some very gratefully received pain killers.

Despite my fall and lucky landing, I too however have arrived at a place of happiness and contentment. I would like to share with others just one of my strategies that has enable be to continue experiencing that happiness that the GREAT DREAM relates to.
I believe strongly that all those years ago Victor Emil Frankl (1905 – 1997), Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor had it right when he postulated that
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”

As I lay on my bed at home, in a neck brace, no longer cycling with my friends, I realised that I had choices. On good days I have been able to embrace most of the tenets of the GREAT DREAM particularly the need to focus on resilience and awareness. However, on some days I needed to re-acquaint myself with the need to firstly make space and respond differently to the negative emotions threatening to hijack my mood.

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David’s Journey
It was a really hard first day to remember Mikes groan as he fell, his stoicism in cycling 15 further miles with what we later found out were significant fractures. Connecting back as a team of now three and refocussing on the blue direction arrows telling us the way ahead helped, the awareness of the “Broom Waggon” behind us motivated some speed. There was a lot of concern for Mike shared by other riders and I noticed a rule of the ride that anyone by the wayside would be asked “is everything all right”, people would slow and check and often help with punctures especially the chaperone riders who volunteer for the ride. Kevin Hines suicide prevention campaigner suggests we could all do this in daily life if we notice someone looks in trouble, he says if he had been asked on the day he jumped from a bridge it would have stopped him.

We rapidly got into a daily rhythm 530 breakfast, pack up contents tent, cycle-pitstop, cycle- pitstop, cycle-sort out tent- shower – dinner – briefing meeting – bed hopefully by 9 and fitful sleep with cacophony of noise.

Long distance cycling I have found clears the mind and helps me develop more awareness, just being present with the countryside, my bike and my breath ( and some significant physical pains). There were some very long ( e.g. 8 miles on Shap Fell) hills and we had to dig deep into our resilience and find positive emotions to overcome the physical pain.

I found on one very steep Scottish hill that I was just cycling to the next drain, then the next etc. so breaking down the journey into small chunks helped my thinking and endurance. We also found singing, often humorously changing words in pop songs cheered us up and occasionally other riders.

We do have a beautiful country, Scotland in particular was stunning and also the most physically demanding. We were quite exuberant on the last day cycling together and aided by a 20 mph tail wind we were literally sailing along- days with rain and wind against us had been forgotten, our final destination in site ( but aware we were missing an important member of our team).

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Verbal Aikido ( The Mike Scanlan way)
Essentially, this approach requires us to stop and mindfully make space. We then find our sense of curiosity and question whether we have been hooked by a difficult emotion that often feels so charged that we find ourselves reacting rather than skilfully responding.

We then take the opportunity to move into our observing self to gently and without judgement peruse how we have been reacting to the presence of this emotional hook and crucially we then choose to visualise and fully connect with how the human being we want to be would be seen responding to the presence of this hook.

The process finally culminates with recognising that it is in our new response that our potential freedom and happiness lies. We then re-immerse ourselves in a reminder of the people and the domains of our lives that really matter, our values and sense of meaning!
For a more detailed understanding of this process and how it links to our quest for meaning and happiness perhaps look at reading this great book.

The ACT Matrix: A New Approach to Building Psychological Flexibility Across Settings and Populations. Edited by Kevin L. Polk and Benjamin Schoendorff.

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GREAT DREAM for Northampton
With a group of other volunteers David and Mike have been trying to promote the GREAT DREAM in Northampton and can happily say we have had some recent success:

Funding raised by the ride (over half way now) https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/drdavidsmart further donation to this cause gratefully received

The national action for happiness website that has lots of resources and courses available including the opportunity to take the Action for Happiness Pledge http://www.actionforhappiness.org/take-action/take-the-action-for-happiness-pledge

Northampton Borough Council is going to be signing the mental health prevention concordat on 17th November with the agreement to promote Giving, Relating, Exercise , Awareness and Trying something new to the whole population and a targeted approach of promoting the GREAT DREAM to those people with low wellbeing. Mike and I both agree the DREAM aspect can get you through some tough times.

The Mental Health Northants Collaborative https://www.mhnc.uk/ a collection of mental health charities across Northamptonshire are also supporting this. They are always looking for more volunteers and funding.

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