Ian Walker talks to Ella Rhodes as he gears up for a World Record attempt.
'With sport, you know how good you are'
Environmental psychologist Dr Ian Walker is to set out on an incredible 4,000-mile bicycle ride from the top to the bottom of continental Europe through 10 countries. Cycling from the northernmost tip of Norway to the southernmost tip of Spain, Walker is hoping to beat the world record for this journey of 21 days, 14 hours and 23 minutes.
Walker (University of Bath) was formerly an ultradistance runner but became interested in ultradistance cycling in 2016. Two years later he had won the 4,300 km North Cape race (cycling through 11 countries in under two weeks from Lake Garda in Italy to Norway’s North Cape), the Trans Wales bike trial and completed the 2017 Transcontinental Race.
‘When I came across the Transcontinental Race there was something about the sheer scale of it that grabbed me. I'd done running events which last, at the most, for two and a half days. When I saw this cycle race would last for as much as two weeks I thought I'd like to do something that was all-encompassing but that stretched on for so much longer.’
Walker told me he draws on his psychological knowledge to help him through, for example thinking of his routes in terms of small chunks. However, of course, no one is immune from nerves before an event like this. ‘The thought of being at the start line with this much ahead of me is daunting especially some bits… I don't think people realise just how big Finland is! I’m quite nervous about riding through Russia because that's quite a jump into the unknown.
‘The way I tend to ride long rides now, which is something I've discovered quite recently, is I tend to think of it as 100 kilometre rides. One hundred kilometres takes around four hours – that's not too bad. It's actually just 63 of those and all I need to do at any given point is just do the next 100 kilometres. You absolutely cannot think about the whole thing because that does become overwhelming.’
Acceptance is another important lesson Walker has learned from both health psychology and competing in ultradistance events. ‘In chronic pain research, if something's not physically going to be fixed, the only healthy solution to that is to accept it. When you're spending a week in pain that acceptance does help. I have come across quite a few non-psychologist riders who have reached the same conclusion through trial and error and who say the same thing without coming at it with a health psychology background.’
One occasion where acceptance certainly came into play was during the Transcontinental Race when Walker found himself, at three o’clock in the morning, wandering accidentally into a muddy Serbian motorway construction site. ‘My tyre punctured, I couldn't get any inner tubes to stay together and it was just this incredibly low moment. Everything feels bad at three in the morning anyway! In that instance it was just telling myself "there's literally no alternative, I can't just stop here”. The only possible thing that can be done is to keep moving. Sometimes just facing yourself with the reality like that is quite important.’
When the lead-up to such a ride is so daunting, and the potential for misery so high, I asked Walker why he is drawn to these monumental challenges in the first place. ‘If you want to know how well something works you've got to test it. We'd all quite like to know “am I the sort of person who can manage to do something really hard?” This is a way of finding that out. It's also about learning to cope. You can practice how you become resilient by putting yourself in difficult situations at a time of your own choosing – in a way that people often have forced upon them.
‘I think in a way sport scratches an itch for people like me because unlike everyday life, unlike being a psychologist, you can tell how good you are at it. The nature of modern work means we never know how good we are at what we do; with sport, you know how good you are.’
Another side effect Walker has found since challenging his body and mind in this way is an appreciation of the simple pleasures of life. ‘Finding somewhere quiet to sleep, finding food, being back to the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, you really do appreciate the basics of life when you put yourself in situations like that. It brings a sense of calm.’
If you would like to follow Walker’s trip from Monday 24 June see his website for live journey tracking. Walker is also hoping to raise £1,250 for Roadpeace, a charity for victims of road crashes, and you can make a donation.
Photo credit: Fergus Coyle
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