Headwinds and Headspace: Cycling across America

I’m riding through the middle of Wyoming.

Tarmac and tumbleweed, some tinnitus too, thanks to the uncompromising wind. I’ve cursed it, too many times to count. Exhausted all expletives. But it persists and it is loud, occupying each atom of my headspace, reverberating through every fibre of my aching limbs. I’ve been cycling for eight hours. I did not imagine it would be this hard. I am pedalling with all my effort, downhill and yet I still feel stationary. Tears begin to roll down my cheeks. Tonight, I’ll sleep in an old mining town, now a ghost town. Population: fifty-six. All optimism evades me, then I remember ​that ​song.

Exercise cannot meet the needs of every individual, but it is such an obvious antidote to the modern lifestyle

The road to Wyoming did not begin in Washington D.C where this trip started. It began in luminescent lecture theatres and dingy seminar rooms, where awkward silences were absorbed by drab wallpaper. It was in my final year at university that I recognised how important exercise was for me. In fact, essential. I discovered that no matter how unfulfilled I felt, or how miserably meaningless everything seemed, I could fix the day with a small window of physical exertion.

Headwinds and Headspace

I began to run. Almost every day. When I felt tense with stress. When I felt fragile with worry. Or, always the worst, when I felt a numbness engulf me: an inability to desire, or do anything. On these occasions, it often felt like a form of self-punishment, a means to reduce myself to nothing, replacing the negative thoughts with the suffering of heavy legs and strained lungs. In this state, it becomes hard to think beyond the discomfort you are experiencing at that very moment. In a strange way, a type of tranquility, blocking everything out. A period of peace within the pain.

No matter how unfulfilled I felt, I could fix the day with a small window of physical exertion

Often, I found that the compromising thoughts would flood back as soon as I finished. But, exhausted from exercise, I was simply too tired to care. The numbness, that inability to desire or do anything, was exchanged for an emptiness. An empty contentment: void of any strength to be stressed, to be worried, to be frustrated. Someone could slap me in the face and I wouldn’t find the energy to react. This discovery was reassuring, I suddenly had a solution.

That ​song in Wyoming, Kate Tempest – ​Hold Your Own​.

She sings “Every pain, every grievance, every stab of shame, every day spent with a demon in your brain giving chase. Hold it.” That, for me, in a perfectly poetic line, captures the link between the psychological and the physical. Each little moment of mental strain had been stored, accumulated for a later date. Ready to be released. Those were not tears of sadness, or fear, or pain. They were cathartic: the unravelling of two years motivation to get to that point, to the 38th day of the trip, almost 4,000 kilometres across America.

It’s difficult to be too evangelical about these things. There is no gospel truth. Everyone is different. I recognise that. For some, it is the escapism of a novel. For others, it is the stimulation of an exhibition. Exercise cannot meet the needs of every individual. But it is such an obvious antidote to the modern lifestyle we have created for ourselves, and therefore hard to dismiss.

By most measures, we are: sitting, sedentary, sanitised and clean, comfortable and cautious, little battery humans, caged in front of screens by desk spaces, dozing through our days, tethered to communal coffee machines and wearied by artificial lighting. Instead, we could have: movement, warm sweat trickling down our foreheads and cold mud staining our calves, messy and imperfect, active and alert, total agency over every step, released to explore uncharted areas – both physical and psychological.

The cycle was a pipe dream.

A fairly unique one, which won’t be repeated regularly. The reasons why need not be listed here – everyone is familiar with them. But I’m slowly learning to scratch the itch in other ways, closer to home. Yes, it’s unlike the plains of Montana, or the Bluegrass fields of Kentucky, but for now a Brockwell ​ParkRun​ will do.

Crossing the Finish Line