Open Letter to Triathlon Plus

A copy of a letter I sent to Triathlon Plus magazine with reference to Depression and Triathlon.

Open letter to Triathlon Plus Magazine

Hello,

Triathletes and injuries go hand in hand. Competing at whatever level you attain is often compromised at some point by a niggle, a pull, a strain and if you are really unlucky a break. How many triathletes would admit to a ‘mental’ injury however? Depression.

In my experience the usual answer to feeling low, exhausted and going badly on the bike/pool/tarmac is to train harder…..”I’m riding like a bag of spanners so I should ride harder, faster and longer.”……see Rule #5 of the ‘Velominati’ rules of the road. (www.velominati.com/the-rules)

There are numerous studies and reports looking into high level athletes suffering from post race/post career depression, unable to relive the highs and success in normal life. Depression in normal life? So that would be just depression for us ‘normal’ folk.
What if you are not trying to re-create that winning feeling or the buzz of competing in front of a live TV audience, what if you are just trying to get out of bed to complete a 5k training run or even just get out of bed.

2012 should have been a fantastic year. In the previous September myself and my girlfriend got engaged and had planned a fantastic ‘Winter’ wedding for 22nd December 2012 in God’s country; yes that’s right, North Yorkshire. Although I had not competed in any triathlons that year, I had been doing my fair share of Road Racing, getting my BCF 2nd Cat license and placing well in local club Time Trials. My plan was to have a big year on my bike, keep ticking over my swimming and running, good off-season of training and then in 2013 sign up for an Ironman distance triathlon. I have always been drawn to Ironman, ever since I saw Mark Allen and Dave Scott’s epic battle in the ‘Iron War’ in 1989 and Julie Moss’s amazing fortitude and will to finish.

I am not new to long distance triathlon, in my younger I enjoyed a decent finishing position in the Half Ironman in Llanberis, 2001 and also I represented Great Britain at Age Group level at the Long Course World Championships in both Nice, 2002 and Ibiza, 2003. However the lure of the full Ironman distance has always captivated me. So I figured on the back of a big year on the bike and a solid winter of running and swimming what better way to set me up for an Ironman.

In May of 2012 my Nana passed away after a stroke which left me numb. As a physiotherapist in the hospital she died in I was the point of contact between my family and the hospital staff; looking back I did not mourn. I was merely a medical professional, not a grieving grandson, dealing with the death of a sweet old lady. As the matriarch of my family the loss hit us all hard. So what did I do? I just buried my head into work and training and followed Rule #5.

Work that year was up and down, I was a respected team member in my department and had a great relationship with my bosses and colleagues but had failed at a couple of interviews to secure a promotion. Again the only answer was to do more. If any of you have planned a wedding you will know that it is just a little bit stressful with everyone and their aunt wanting to give you helpful advice on how to create the perfect day; like some crazed ‘Transcendental Meditation’ teacher explaining the levels to true enlightenment. One such meeting with my father and step-mother resulted in a massive argument over our choice to have a double-barreled surname. This argument then spiraled out of control and resulted in both my father, step-mother and all that side of the family – except my brother-in-law & his wife – deciding they would not be coming to our wedding……head in sand, see Rule #5.

In October a chest infection and recurrent colds forced me to cut my training right back, I was trying to complete minimum 12hr training weeks! 12hr training weeks on top of a 37.5hr working week on top of a wedding to plan; October isn’t that the the off-season!?! Looking back the signs were all there. One Wednesday I can vaguely remember a 3hr steady bike ride with some friends and completely struggling to keep up even on the flat. Sat in the cafe I had a strong coffee and contemplated my form, I felt slightly on edge and anxious as I recall but just put that down to the caffeine. I got back home, put my bike away, sat on the couch and began to cry. I think I cried and slept until my fiancee came in from work then the tears started again. On the following Monday I was presenting on an important course in hospital for newly qualified staff. I had been feeling unwell on the morning before I arrived, slightly nauseous and dizzy but again I just carried on. Halfway through the training I had an overwhelming urge to get out of the room, I was hot, sweaty and not thinking straight, the lights in the room became intensely bright and my vision became very disorientated. I made my excuses to the staff and asked a bewildered colleague to cover for me, went down to see my manager in her office and completely broke down.

My fiancee, who fortunately worked in the same hospital, came over to take me home and look after me for a couple of days. I’d be fine in a couple of days, I mean come on what was the matter with me, crying all the time and being soft – it’s not like I just had a nervous breakdown or anything. Days turned into weeks, herbal medicines turned into prescribed medicines and training evaporated into just getting out of bed. In those dark days I began to see a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist who was brilliant; she made me break down those negative thoughts and feelings into understandable less threatening messages.

Slowly I started to get back into a routine and I began yoga. I have never been the most flexible individual; never been able to touch my toes and certainly would not stretch out post race….collapse in a heap yes, stretch no! Please do not be under any illusion, yoga is hard. These little old ladies and skinny gym bunnies make it look effortless but it is hard work. I enjoyed it, especially the part at the end where you could fall asleep for 15mins but it was too passive for someone used to endurance events. I began to run again, very slowly at first but regularly. Whereas before I could knock out 1hr runs without thinking, 25mins around the park was my limit. My bike was banished to the garage and swimming was not even on the agenda.Slowly I increased my running distance and added some gym sessions, gym classes and very steady 20 mile bike rides.

Our wedding day was magnificent even if it was very emotional. Our honeymoon in New Hampshire, USA was fantastic and we skied, something I had not done for some 15 years. When we got back fate intervened with a new job and a new start, both very positive and just what I needed. My injury continues to improve and slowly I am returning to my old self. The injury still flares up now and then as would a hamstring or achilles strain after a hard interval set. I go through the same doubt and anxiety as my ‘black dog’ comes to stay for a few days. I feel honoured sometimes to be in the same company as Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan and Stephen Fry fellow injured but not defeated personages. It is hard to cope but knowing that these feelings will pass and they are not real helps me get through. The other thing that helps me get through is the unwavering support of my now wife who is there for me no matter what has happened or how bad I get. She is without doubt my rock to cling too without which I would have fallen long ago.

As I finish writing this letter it is 1st September 2013 and I have picked up a copy of Triathlon Plus. I have just had a really bad day of anxiety and upset however I have just entered the Outlaw ‘Half’ Triathlon and it is exactly 9 months until I will cross the start line. I will finish that race and I will go on to complete my Ironman dream no matter what injuries I have, physical or mental. If I need to race with my ‘black dog’ beside me then I will and he’ll just have to try to keep up and if not he better see rule #5.

If I have learned anything and can pass on any advice it would be not to be embarrassed to admit you are injured mentally. As athletes we can understand and quantify physical injuries as easily as a child understands that 2 + 2 = 4. Mental injuries are a lot harder to comprehend. Simply going at it harder is not the answer and sometimes we need timeout to make sense of what in our lives is affecting not only a sporting form but our way of living. Listen to your body and mind we need both to be in top form to live life and compete in our chosen disciplines.

My name is Ben Carlson-Oakes, a husband, a triathlete and I suffer from depression.

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