Relentlessly Uphill

Two days on from my latest sportive and I’m feeling human again. Almost.

Saturday saw the first running of the Twining Pro-Am sportive in Salisbury.  I have to admit that my initial reason for riding this was to give a bit of moral support to @leadout though in recent weeks I have been looking forward to it for sporting reasons. And dare I say it, sat here with the benefit of hindsight I can see the positive effect it has on me both physically and, more importantly as I type, mentally.  In all fairness the Twining event was superbly run: low key but effective start and finish, located next to a leisure centre (for showers!) with ample parking (for the support team!) and a goodie bag the quality of which you rarely see at a mass participation sports event. The weather was kind despite it being a British bank holiday and the drivers were as considerate as they ever seem to be in the South of England.  The organisers deserve the praise for delivering such a high quality yet relaxed experience.

The only snag was the route, though this should not be seen as a criticism on the part of the organisers. Indeed, looking at this objectively, the route was well conceived. For the most part it was on quiet, good quality roads and with the odd exception well signed.  But its main feature was its unrelenting nature, a constantly undulating route replete with unpredictable wind.  I know that for some this was a major negative and my cycling buddy Dr D was firmly in this camp.  For me it was a ride of two halves: the first 30 miles taken easy with Dr D, the last 30 miles spent on my own catching and passing all the hares who’d overtaken us on the way out.  Those first 30 miles seemed pleasantly rolling when taken easier*, but they never gave up on the return leg.  I finished tired but content in equal measure and looking back this was the tonic that I needed this summer.

As more intuitive readers may have already picked up, I’ve been struggling this summer and at times have felt in a similar place psychologically to where I was 2 years ago. I don’t like to dwell there to long and I’m glad that now I can recognise the symptoms before a catastrophic collapse brings them all to the fore. But it means this summer has been hard work.  Whilst watching yesterday’s Vuelta stage I was intrigued to hear Messrs Harmon and Smith discussing the body’s energy use. To simply exist and function physically (not including exercise) the body uses 15% of its energy. The brain alone uses 16% of the body’s energy.  It goes without saying that the more the brain is asked to do the more energy it requires and so the more exhausted one can feel.  And this is how I have been feeling: boredom with my lot, anxious due to the boredom, stressed due to the anxiety, bored with the stress – a vicious spiral which I have kept in a steady state. In part good, but could be a lot better. Is it any wonder I feel so tired.

And so this is why Saturday’s efforts seemed in a way familiar but also an escape. Relentlessly undulating would make a change from relentlessly uphill. Time to get a bit of perspective back, time for a refocus.


*Apologies to Dr D who found Saturday’s ride anything but enjoyable – she did make it though!


The measure of the man

I noticed something strange today – people were talking about happiness. Not just in a casual “how are you” way but the metrics of happiness. That’s right folks, the Government have decided that they can measure our level of happiness. Or so the media would like us to believe. A range of headlines emerged yesterday and today about the level of “happiness” in the UK, from what makes us happy to what can make us less happy. apparently.  Unfortunately it is not as easy as that and the real basis of these reports is the Office for National Statistics attempts to measure National Wellbeing. As a researcher I know that finding out accurate and objective answers to highly qualitative and subjective questions is not easy. In some ways the national statisticians should be applauded for their efforts.

But dig a little deeper and what does this actually mean. Today’s headlines have been generated by a report issued by ONS on its “What Matters to You” national debate. As they state

“ONS held 175 events, involving around 7,250 people. In total the debate generated 34,000 responses, some of which were from organisations and groups representing thousands more.”

That’s quite a lot of feelings to understand (even if I am dubious about the “groups representing thousands”). So how do you do this in an objective way. Here is what ONS had to say:

“The term ‘well-being’ is often taken to mean ‘happiness’. Happiness is one aspect of the well-being of individuals and can be measured by asking them about their feelings – subjective well-being.”

So the “happiness index” isn’t about happiness per se, it’s about well being.  Not the same, in fact something which is increasingly important and potentially more valuable to understand than an easy corruptible term like happiness.  But even so, how do we measure well being. Back to ONS:

“As we define it, well-being includes both subjective and objective measures. It includes feelings of happiness and other aspects of subjective well-being, such as feeling that one’s activities are worthwhile, or being satisfied with family relationships. It also includes aspects of well-being which can be measured by more objective approaches, such as life expectancy and educational achievements.”

So overall the well being measure is a complex metric to construct and accurately measure. Even the “objective” measure are open to subjective and political interpretation.

However, in trying to measure these elements on such a large scale there is a great danger in the detail being lost. And in this case it is the feelings of individuals.  If we are judged to have a collectively high level of well being, where does that leave those who, for a variety of reasons, have a lower level of well being. What about those, to go back to the popular media presentation, who aren’t “happy”?  How do we even know when we are or are not happy?

I suppose I have two main concerns. The first is the manner is which this tool has been reported.  The media (in part driven by ONS’s use of the word in it’s own press release and report) have picked out a very emotive term, happiness, to mask a multitude of sins. Discussion of these merits more room and words than I have available here and there are useful discussions already taking place through organisations such as the New Economic Foundation. However, to write off ONS’s attempts as a waste of money as some seem to suggest misses the value in understanding the costs and benefits of modern life. If taken seriously it might eventually help identify ways in which we can change to avoid the costs, for example reducing stress and anxiety associated with the pursuit of material gains.  So it is a start but is not and never should be seen as a quick fix mark of how happy or indeed how well-off we are.

Secondly, and very much allied to the first concern, is an unease with measuring something which individuals have difficulty identifying themselves.  It is extremely difficult to measure our own happiness, stress, anxiety or mood. I know, I’ve tried. There are a whole range of books out there which sell themselves on their ability to show you how to measure how happy you are. I tried one recently and gave up, it made me more anxious. There are online tests that you can take to measure how stressed you are: the BBC are running an experimental stress test which is stressful in itself. And there tools out there which help you “monitor your mood”, Moodscope being an example.  Yet for all the value these purport to offer (and which others might find), I have found them stressful to use, limited in the meaning they offer and ultimately counter-productive.

However, to say that trying to identify and gauge one’s own stress and happiness is worthless would be wrong. I merely haven’t found the ways and means which are appropriate and meaningful to me and perhaps in looking for a value I and others are missing the point. Let’s look at it from a different perspective. If you asked me now if I was happy I would say that I am particularly unhappy. Ask me why I am and I can discuss a host of factors from the immediate incidents of the day to longer-term dissatisfactions with my life.  Now ask me to put a measure on it and I am stuck.  And this is perhaps the lesson. Whilst we get fixated on amounts and generalisations, the devil is in the detail.  Addressing my unhappiness is not about reducing it from say a 6 to a 5, rather it is about addressing the factors which cause it. In many ways they can be as hard to identify but ultimately much more worthwhile in addressing.

In sticking it to the man, there is a real measure of the (wo)man. Attention to detail and feeling is the key.

Can you manage?

The issue of mental health in the workplace received some much-needed though well hidden attention at the weekend with an article in the Guardian in which the recognition of mental health problems by employers is discussed. Two issues are highlighted in it: One  is the fear that employees have of admitting to a problem for fear of losing their job, the other is the accommodation of problems by some employers to help the employee cope and remain at work. Thinking about this logically the latter makes sense and the former is arguably protected by law. If only it were that simple.

As I have written about before, my own experience of this has not been good. I work for a “world-class” institution and “failure” is a bar set very high by managers.  It is an environment where support is limited in any formal way other than the groups you happen to work in. Whilst in one sense the hours are flexible, the pressure coming from the top to “succeed” means many people putting in over and above the level of work which is healthy. This is facilitated both by a fuzzy contract which does not clearly stipulate hours of work and by a failure of the employer to ensure that leave is taken. It all comes down to individual managers.  As the Guardian piece illustrates, training is available for managers in many organisations. In my place of work managers emerge, lack training and it is a matter of luck if yours can deal with the pressure of an employee who is suffering.  When I was absent from work there was no contact from my employer to see how I was. My return to work was rushed because my then manager did not fully understand the issues I was facing, the difficulty of returning to an environment I saw as toxic and because he was under the same pressures as everyone else. Equally there was a lack of structure to this return. In the 9 years I have been employed here I have only received 3 appraisals/development reviews. Without knowing how well I am doing and what is expected of me there is a void which has been filled by what I though should be done.  So a major cause of my initial absence was in danger of returning (and has at times returned).  I am now part-time at my insistence but keeping the boundaries in place can be a difficult task.  Far from being accommodating or supportive, my employer has stood its ground and largely ignored what will not fit into normal practice. I have had to fight at each stage. That is not to say that I haven’t had supportive colleagues and managers or that the managers who let me down were doing so out of malice.  Rather, it is the organisation that cannot cope.

Yet it is difficult to see a way around this where I work. As indicated above, managers emerge from the cream of the crop. They are expert in their field of knowledge and so receive promotion to increasingly administrative positions. But they are not expert in management and are competent at best in juggling these responsibilities.  As they rise so their way of doing things becomes engrained and passed down through the organisation.  The culture of poor people management can easily develop.  On the flip side there are unions who arguably should be working to improve this.  Again my experience has been poor. Stress, anxiety and depression are issues which are deeply affected by work and by the pressure of work.  It is widely recognised that relaxation and rest is essential in dealing with this. Yet the union to which I belonged is complicit in underpinning existing working patterns. In the name of freedom they don’t push for a recognised set of working hours, or a set working week or the monitoring of hours and holiday by managers.  Whilst this may be a freedom for some, for many of us this is the root cause of our problems.  Although the union wants us to strike to protect our pay and pensions, it does very little to improve the conditions which would allow us to benefit greatly from both.  Is it any wonder we end up between a rock and a hard place.

Ironically the same time as my friend Mel sent me the link to the Guardian article, a questionnaire about work-related stress landed on my desk. It is part of a study by a student. How timely. I think it’s time to complete it.

We are the Robots – a postscript

The discussion about radios and doping goes on unending, though hitherto they have been unlinked in most discussions (particularly the communiques of the main protaganists).  After posing the previous piece about the robotocs of the professional peloton I picked up the latest issue of Procycling, complete with an article on Dr Eufemiano Fuentes. The cycling readers will be only too familiar with this name which leaves a lingering bad taste in the mouth. For those unaware of him you can read a potted history here, but in brief he is alleged to have assisted in the doping of numerous top pro-cyclists.  It is an interesting if brief article but there is one stand out quote which connects straight to the argument I made in my previous post:

“A cyclist suffers more than any other athlete. He becomes quite easy to manipulate. He has a character that can be dominated before even he has gained domination over himself.”

Who gains control over this week and malleable mind is seemingly at the heart of the doping war. Who wins is unclear. But we cannot rule out scenes reminiscent of those for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars where a rider is torn between the good and the bad, the light and the dark sides of cycling culture.

Not that this ends here.  Another interesting snippet I picked up was Greg LeMond’s lecture at the Play the Game conference at Coventry University in 2009.  This is available from both iTunes and Coventry University’s website  and is worth listen to in its entirety. I have to admit, LeMond is a rider I didn’t warm to at first when as a young kid I first started watching cycling. Yet as the years have progressed I have found him increasingly engaging, particularly in relation to the subject of doping.  There are many interesting points in the lecture but the main points in relation to this post are these: first LeMond is adamant that riders do not trust the systems in place but that second, the riders are lab rats (27 mins in), a disposable resource to be played with, used and thrown away.  When we look at a rider like Riccardo Ricco and the reports about his early snare by the dopers it is easy to see how this can happen, especially amongst the less educated or worldly-wise group of riders, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds.  The fact that he mentions increased suicide rates is extremely disturbing, another way in which cycling mirrors life but where it need not and where the systems need to better protect them.  The fixation of some riders in their twilight years and retirement to social and non-performance enhancing drugs should not some as much surprise. Understanding the reason why they start in the first place and breaking that cycle is a fundamental element of any attempt to prevent doping.

However, there come moments when we realise that even though we might think the riders are robots, that we the viewer consume what we are given without care, something happens to break that and shake us back into reality. If the suicide of riders isn’t enough, the death of a rider in competition is a true shock.  On Monday afternoon whilst seeking some joy on my birthday I turned to the Giro d’Italia only to see the unfolding news of Wouter Weylandt’s death.  It is at times like this that we recognise we are human, we all have feelings and we ultimately exist without complete control of anyone else but ourselves.  Of all the opinions, tweets, reports and blog pieces I have seen on this news, Flammecast’s still remains the one that conveys this the most:

There’s not much can be said that hasn’t been already said about this terrible tragedy, I just want to express my condolences and extend my heartfelt sympathy to Wouter’s family, friends and colleagues. The Riders in Giro have the unnerving task of doing today, what brought Wouter’s life to a premature end yesterday. Racing their Bikes.

I know  in my mind I’m still somewhat childish and I still think that Vaughters is only a good winters training away from giving me the call to go ‘Pro’, I feel at times when I ride that I am the same as Wouter, I am breaking away from the Peloton, I am attacking into that final section of Pavé. This is sometimes forgotten, that these men and women of the pro peloton give us this beautiful feeling of freedom of release, of enjoyment, the excitement of riding our bikes. We are connected to one another by these feelings.

Yesterday that connection was filled with sorrow, and we will carry that with us as we ride.  Rest in Peace Wouter.

Paul Robinson & Depression

You read that correctly and I admit I never thought that I would find myself putting those words together.  But following on from my blog post yesterday I received many tweets, all supportive and some from others saying how they had been there too. Whilst it is easy to think you are alone, as one correspondent said to me “[I] Often wonder how close any of us are to suffering”. Its a strange world when you stop and think about it. But one of the responses that struck me the most came from BookishBrunnette who tweeted the following link to a piece she wrote on her blog.  The reference to Paul Robinson comes from that and whilst I might use cycling metaphors and analogies, BB’s cultural reference points help make some very good points about depression, stress and anxiety and about living and dealing with their effects.  I’d urge you all to go and have a read.

Bookish Brunette howls at the moon

Stress and depression are horrible things. They can sneak up on you out of nowhere or gradually grind you down day by day. Either way, they end up causing you to curl up in a ball sobbing and wanting a hole to open in the ground and swallow you up. My earliest memory of depression came from an episode of ‘Neighb … Read More