Beating a Burnout while Cycling in Solitude
Christian Chrome, November 2019
Part 1. A Burnout Story
Sh*t started to hit the fan almost exactly three years ago now, when I first forgot how to fall asleep.
For at least a quarter of the year before that I’d only slept a broken 2 to 3 hours per night. Being short on sleep for so long really isn’t a good thing. I was tired all day long, of course, and had already noticed some initial signs of fatigue-related issues at work. Nevertheless, I had no problem to fall asleep at night, but after a restless 2 or 3 hours I would always wake up and could never fall back to sleep again. Still, at this point I just thought, what the heck, it’s only a phase and it’s probably normal.
Then, one Thursday night, I couldn’t fall asleep at all, not even for a single minute. Ok, I thought, tomorrow I’ll take a sleeping pill and catch up on that damned sleep. So the following evening I took that pill, but nothing happened. I was as tired as a dog, but still awake. My mind kept spinning, no matter what I tried. So, after a couple of restless roll-around hours, I gave up. In the middle of the night I went to the kitchen, made a coffee and opened my laptop to answer some work-related emails…
The weekend was approaching and I hoped to be able to catch-up on some sleep then. I was tired to the bone and had the feeling my brain wasn’t working normally. I even had some strange phases during the day where my mind seemed to drift away. After a couple of seconds, probably minutes, I realized that I was just staring at the office wall. On Saturday night, I increased the dose of sleeping pills. But although I couldn’t keep my eyes open, I wasn’t able to fall asleep either. Same again on Sunday night.
On Monday, after 4 days without sleep, I went to my doc and told her what had happened. I could read in her face her worry for me. She told me that we needed to pull the “emergency brake” and that I was in urgent need of rest.
It was November 21, 2016. From that point on, my life changed quite a bit.
Back in the day, I worked in Berlin as a manager for a large Scandinavian smartphone and mobile services company. I was one of the Heads of the maps and navigation service and in some of my years there I had a huge team reporting to me. I had never really learned the job of a manager; I studied Interaction Design and HMI, worked as a UX designer, became a UX Director and finally ended up as a manager of a big team, consisting of software developers, designers, product owners, QA testers, usability testers, etc.
During 2015 to 2016, I had to travel a lot too. On Sundays after lunch I would start to read the presentations I’d be giving that week, would pack my bags for the week, go to bed early, get up at 4am on Monday morning, take a cab to the airport, and from there catch the first flight of the day to Munich. Each working day I spent in a different city, meeting clients and business partners, joining meetings, leading workshops, giving presentations, then returning on Friday to our Berlin office. My working week was easily 60+ hours with many additional hours of travel time on top of that.
At home in Berlin, my wife, daughter and son were living their lives. Each evening I would give them a call from my hotel room or a restaurant. But I never had much to say. I lived the same unchanging routine, met the same people, did the same things, but I wasn’t at all grounded. I tried to listen to my wife and kids, and what had happened at home, at school and at the kindergarten. I tried hard to listen to what they said. But my head would already be spinning about the next meeting or presentation. More than once my wife told me to turn the “office switch” in my head off. That sounded so easy, but it was just impossible for me to find that switch.
However, I did have my sport to turn to: road cycling. Though unfortunately, back in those days I didn’t have much time to practice it. Instead, I used to take my running shoes with me on those business trips. I remember that I knew so well all the running courses around every hotel I stayed at.
As for road cycling, I was something of a weekend warrior. As you know, doing a 100 km road cycling tour (and the preparation for it) can easily take 4 hours. Then, after the tour, you also need to rest a bit, do some bike maintenance, take a shower and so on. All adding up to 5 hours or more.
I tried to squeeze as much as possible into my weekends. Family, sport, and friends if possible. Though usually there wasn’t time for friends anymore, and not really enough time for both family and cycling either. Still, I tried to squeeze all my needs and desires into the weekends, and in the process put myself under yet more pressure again. When my mind and body craved for relaxation, I was taxing them with even more tasks.
Just a few days after the first visit to my doc’s office, she came up with the diagnosis of “depression and burnout”. We tried different psychotropic drugs with the focus on my sleeping problems and, after a while, we did find a medication that helped me to get a little sleep. By then I was no longer working, and I had suddenly found myself with a lot of “leisure time”. However, it was far from a holiday, as you can imagine. When I was down in my depressions, I would just sit in my armchair, stare out of the window and wouldn’t move for hours, for days, for weeks.
During this time it wasn’t at all easy to get on my bike and start to ride. And whenever I did manage to motivate myself to go for a ride, it didn’t feel like it was fun or freeing my mind. It felt more like running away from my fears and demons. At that moment, I faced my toughest opponent: myself. Outside on my bike, or inside on the trainer, I hammered the road in order to ‘kill’ myself. I let it all out – and I screamed, loud, alone in the woods. I don’t know exactly how, but cycling helped me – even then.
Slowly, it became addictive again. I started to ride more often and realized that all my spinning thoughts would start to calm down the more that my legs were spinning round the wheels. I enjoyed being alone with myself. Just me in synchronization with my bike – either outdoors or indoors, exploring the silence of nature or the intense worlds of a virtual training platform. I didn’t seek for company, for I was seeking solitude. The more miles I traveled, the more I felt alive.
Later on, this effect would continue even after the ride itself was done. I started to perceive my almost forgotten body again. The thing is, my body wasn’t sick, it wanted to work and exercise. As I learned to flex my muscles again, my mind wanted to act too. The faster my heart beat, the more my mind calmed down. My brain started to work again. Thoughts were sorted and shadows were fought, and plans and strategies developed. All while cycling, while pushing the pedals and while fighting the strong headwinds. Of course, this all took time and patience, but it was effort well spent and rewarded.
Today I consider myself cured. Over the past two years I have learnt a lot about myself. This phase of my life led to many experiences – not all have been good, but all have made me stronger, I think. I started to understand the importance of emotions, and learned how to listen to my body again. I
know now what makes me sick and what I don’t want to do anymore. I know also what’s good for me and what I’m going to do in the future. Perhaps not precisely, but now I’m opened minded and looking forward without fear.
Part 2. SSCC Solitude Seekers Cycling Club
“Strava has 42 million users and adds 1 million more each month” (Inc.com, Jul 17, 2019). I was an early adopter of Strava – I’ve been using it since 2012 and my member number has only 6 digits. When I first heard about Strava I really liked the idea of getting an activity diary by simply uploading
my rides to this service.
At that time I wasn’t on Instagram very much, but as Facebook grew get less important to me, Instagram slowly took over the social media role that Facebook once served. I also really enjoyed mobile phone photography, and would constantly take it to the extreme. I even built my own lenses and attached them to my phones, modified phone covers in order to mount macro or telephoto lenses on them, and developed my own smartphone tripods. Now the market for smartphone photography accessories has exploded, but in those days it wasn’t easy to find any useful equipment at all, so I’d have to make it all myself.
One day Strava announced the auto-sync of Instagram shots taken during a ride. That was something I’d been really waited for. Now my Strava activity diary became much livelier. Whenever I uploaded a new tour to Strava, my Instagram tour shots were also uploaded and placed on my tour route, right
at the location where the photo was taken. Now I was able to see how the weather had been, what kit I’d worn and what components I’d equipped my bike with.
My entire Instagram profile became road cycling oriented. I followed other cyclists and other cyclists followed me. Still today my Instagram feed is almost exclusively populated with cycling photos. However, around a year ago Strava sent out an email to its users, saying “Instagram is discontinuing the ability to sync photos from Instagram to your Strava activities…” Bad news for me, but by then I was already addicted to Instagram and continued to upload my photos there – and then manually to Strava.
During my burnout, I continued to upload cycling shots to Instagram. Some of them became quite grim, showing skulls or demons overlaid on the photo itself. The captions also grew a little dark. Looking at some followers, comments and hashtags I also started to notice that I’m not the only one out there who’s passing through a difficult phase in life. There appeared to be quite a noticeable number of cyclists who were trying to overcome their mental issues with cycling.
I also realized that many cyclists preferred solo rides, just as I did. There is a certain road cycling community on Instagram that seems quite addicted to this. A solo ride is your very own experience; it is about your motivation, your decisions, your responsibility, your directions, your risk, and, finally, your wattage!
In March 2019, I became aware of the Allblack Cycling Club. I noticed that some of the cyclists I followed on Instagram were members of this somewhat ominous sounding club. So I followed the club and sent them a message, asking if I could become a member. I guess it was Paco who replied. He told me to write a short bio about myself and send it together with a cycling photo. And, so I did. While I waited for most of the day for my Allblack profile to go online (and it really felt like ages J ), I had the first thought of founding my own cycling club.
I remembered how on Instagram I’d seen a number of cyclists in difficult life phases, probably fighting some mental issues. I remembered the community of solo riders there too. The more I thought about the two things, the more they became one. I wanted to found a club that would serve as a platform for cyclists with mental issues or who were in difficult life phases, to create a place where they could share their experiences. Further, it would be a club for non-clubbers, for solo riders who enjoy nature and who like to get their heads free while riding.
The idea of Solitude Seekers Cycling Club was born. The SSCC went online during the end of May and beginning of June. In the beginning it took a looong time for people to start to notice it. My first members were my wife and a friend. Then I received an email from András, “The Zwift Bull”, asking if he can join. I had one real member!! After another few weeks, Valérie joined, and then Rodrigo, both well established in the Allblack community. Rodrigo was even an influencer with more than 8.000 followers.
Both are giving outstanding support in spreading the word of the SSCC. As does András, who recently developed a Discord server for our direct club communication. Currently, as I write this article, we welcome a new member every couple of days. So, thanks a lot, guys! The club would be nothing without you and your support. Another huge thank you goes to Paco, who also lends great support to the SSCC, such as through the publishing of this article. Without Paco and the Allblack community, the SSCC would still be invisible.
I’m not really sure where this cycling club journey will take us, but I hope that the channels we provide (via our website, Discord server, Instagram group, Strava club, etc.) will be used by the SSCC members to share their experiences and to support people in need. Mental health issues are a growing problem and nobody is immune against them.
Cyclists, please help to spread the word and take care.
Thanks to Valérie, Sveta, Gela and András for reading and advising.
Thanks to Jason for correcting my English.
All pictures taken by Christian Chrome