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Inner Gold 5 : Gratitude

Gratitude is a word that has seeped into everyday language more and more in recent years. It seems that we are waking up to the realization that feeling grateful is a powerful ingredient to transforming our mental wellbeing and our positive experience of life. 

Gratitude journaling and meditations are becoming common practice for some. I believe 2020 will be a big experience in gratitude for all of us. Even though ‘lockdown’ or a deadly virus are not things any of us would choose to experience, there is the potential for us to learn a lot through the process. Can you imagine how much we will appreciate things that we always took for granted after so long without: to walk, run or play outside, to hug our loved ones, to smile at each other face to face or to visit a favourite place again?  Even in lockdown, I am feeling appreciative of certain things like the permission to slow down, the lack of rush, the time for good sleep, the sounds of nature and birdsong that seems louder than before, or just not drowned out by engines and the noise of busy-ness.


Feeling grateful is something that has helped me shift many times, from a state of stress, worry or general lack of ease, to a healthier, happier state.

My greatest personal journey with gratitude…

In 2018 I was the very fortunate winner of the BBC / Royal Geographical Society ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ award, where I cycled the length of The Murray River, a vulnerable Australian river eco-system. I had felt burned out after ten years of almost continuous high-level training for Paralympic handcycling. I had taken my seemingly endless energy for granted, until it was gone. I never sought a medical diagnosis for my feeling of exhaustion and lack lustre, but I felt to be dragging myself through life instead of dancing. I never used the label ‘depressed’, but I had definitely lost my energy and sparkle for life. 

I first came across the story of the Murray River when a friend told me of an Australian woman who had swum its 2000 mile length! The more I learned about the river, the more I was attracted to explore its fascinating story. The river flows from the Snowy Mountains of Australia, into a dry, drought-stricken landscape. Hungry crops like cotton and vines are grown, which seems crazy given it is so dry. Water is diverted from other rivers, and communities and ecosystems are slowly drying up. Environmentalists fight for the balance and health of the river and its catchment area. Algal blooms replace pools once rich in fish. Dams and weirs have messed with the natural flow of water, causing un-seasonally dry riverbeds and intermittent floods. In the Murray River region, water is a commodity that costs more than the wine it is used to produce! The story is not unique, and there are many parts of the world where entire lakes and river systems are drying up due to the demands of population, irrigation and poor water management.

As a Paralympic athlete, I also mis-managed my resources. I took my energy for granted, and assumed my body would keep on giving because it always had. In the process I pushed through when sometimes I was exhausted and kept squeezing myself for more and more. Instead of listening to what my body needed, I over-rode it and forced it to respond to my demands. I wanted to learn from the river and it’s people about ways to manage limited resources more sustainably. Is it possible to maintain flow and still flourish whilst the ‘ecosystem’ – our body or the landscape – remains healthy? You can listen here to the programme ‘From Source to Sea via Me’ here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000pdb  

On the final day of my journey with the Murray River, I rode to the end of a narrow track that led toward the mouth of the river. It seemed the most beautiful day ever, perhaps because I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I felt alive again, I had energy, I was grateful for my shoulders and arms that had pedaled me the length of the river, for the incredible kindness we had received along the way, for the opportunity to be creative and make a radio programme, for friendship, for my experiences as an athlete, for my life, for just about everything! You get the idea – I experienced a power-shower of gratitude. Inside I felt very peaceful.

Gratitude helps you be your best

Feeling grateful is well established as one of the foundations of sustainable happiness. Neuroscience has shown that if we regularly pay attention to things we are grateful for, then levels of our ‘happiness’ hormones become elevated. 

Gratitude is a great natural anti-depressant as it stimulates release of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for enhancing our mood.* 

If we can consciously practice gratitude, we help strengthen these neural pathways in our brain and can create a more permanent state of gratefulness and positivity. I use the word SMILE as an acronym for ideal moments to feel gratitude and raise those levels of happy hormones.

Sleep gratitude

Movement gratitude

Inspiration gratitude

Landscape gratitude

Exchange gratitude

Sleep gratitude

I’ve engrained a habit so that every night when my head hits the pillow, I call to my mind at least three things I am feeling grateful for that day. No matter what happened in your day, there are always things to be grateful for. This pre-sleep stage is an ideal time to lock new connections into your subconscious mind. The extra bonus is that happy, appreciative, blissful thoughts just before sleep usually lead to good quality rest.

Movement gratitude

When you are doing some exercise, it is a great time to feel grateful for the incredible work that your body enables. I often say ‘thanks’ to my shoulders in appreciation of what I ask of them and what they enable me to do. When they grumble or don’t cooperate with my demands as much as I might like, I remember to listen, take care of them and feel thankful for all that they do. It’s surprising with even the smallest injury or pulled muscle how it can impact our ability to do things. Rather than feel frustrated at the part of me that isn’t ‘working’, I try to give it a bit of love, appreciate it, and marvel at what it normally does for me.

Inspiration gratitude

Do you ever get those good, spine-tingling feelings when you witness or experience something special like a performance, a piece of music, or a unique shared moment? It’s as if your body is being filled with inspiration. There are other less ‘tingly’ moments that inspire us too. Look out for them and turn up your grateful feelings.  I think of inspiration as being essential to us, like fuel is for a car. Inspiration gives us energy to keep going through the terrain of life.

Landscape gratitude

Nature is a powerful healer, and also a great provider of resources to feel grateful for. Whether it’s enjoying and appreciating a spectacular sunrise or sunset or listening to the bubble of a stream or the breaking of waves, there are many things to appreciate in the landscapes that surround us. Even in dense urban areas you can appreciate a cityscape or sky-scape. Look up and notice the clouds or the stars, and feel grateful for the rhythms and seasons of the landscapes around you. Take time to leave your desk or indoor space, step outside even if for five or ten minutes, connect with the landscape and appreciate it. 

Exchange gratitude

Using the word ‘exchange’ I refer to acts of kindness: that exchange of energy between two people. Although it sounds easy to appreciate someone’s kindness, we can take many things for granted especially when it is given by someone close to us that we can almost ‘expect’ it from. Try turning up the volume button on your appreciation when someone is kind, and seek a little harder than usual to be kind to others. Being kind helps us as much as those on the receiving end. Studies have proven that our ‘happy’ hormone levels elevate, and our immune response is up to 50% greater when we empathise more with others. If you’re interested, explore the work by Dr David Hamilton and try his TedX lecture** on the benefits of compassion and kindness. 

Make gratitude a practice

As Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”. So if you want to feel more freedom and happiness, why not try starting, or turning up the volume on feeling grateful each day. In my own experience, the benefits to physiology and mental wellness come quickly.

References

* Positive Psychology, The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety and Grief, https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/

** Why Kindness is Good for You: Dr David Hamilton at TEDxHackney . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyX-kTTzM00

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Inner Gold 4 : Freedom


Freedom is a word more pertinent now than perhaps ever in our lifetimes. With the lockdown that Covid-19 has brought to the world, most of us have either limited or no freedom to enjoy being outside. We notice the absence of things we all too often take for granted, as well as appreciating some things that we don’t normally have time to notice. 

We all have different ideas of what freedom means…

I am often asked why I participate in long cycle rides or other adventures. Many people assume I am an exercise addict or adrenaline junkie. The real truth is that I love the freedom and feelings that cycling brings: the movement, my blood pumping, to feel healthy, the wind in my hair, the simplicity, the sensations of nature and connection to something far bigger than myself. When I am out exploring with just my bike, a tent and a few friends, there is total freedom to flow with the rhythm of nature, to rise and rest with its beats, and to roll with the uncertainty about where and when the next meal or rest will come. 

We often appreciate things more when we have experienced loss. Following the accident that left me paralysed from the chest down, I spent three months in a hospital bed in traction. I had a metal halo drilled into my skull and weights hanging from it to keep my spine aligned. My only view was of black metal bars that framed my field of vision and dull ceiling tiles above. Whilst I obviously didn’t feel free physically at that time, my journey with paralysis has enabled me to realise that feeling free does not necessarily require the physical ability to go to all of the places that we think we need to. Freedom is very much an internal state.

As part of the Life Cycleseries with BBC Radio Scotland, Lee Craigie interviewed inmates at a women’s prison in Stirling, Scotland. Most of us would think that prison removes freedom. However, many of the women Lee interviewed expressed the opposite. Being removed from their daily lives and the responsibilities and pressures that went with those, they were experiencing liberation. They had time to themselves, to get fit, to learn new skills and were experiencing a new found freedom.

The opposite of freedom might be seen as limitation…

In the autumn of 2017, my Quest 79 ride ‘Express Way’ ride (www.karendarke.com/quest79) took me from Canada to Mexico, down the Pacific Coastal Trail.  Cycling through America involved long days on the road for week after week and I found myself contemplating freedom. In the early stages of the journey, it became clear that one of my companions had an alcohol addiction. He drank cider and spirits from breakfast until sleep. Somehow he still managed to ride and balance a bike with heavy panniers, and bring us wake-up porridge and hot drinks early every morning. Even when he got so drunk that he disappeared, he always re-appeared intact and ready to ride. Whilst not free of his addiction, he was in his element on this journey. He had purpose, daily motivation, companions and an adventure. It seems like the journey gave him for a while some freedom from his inner struggles.

Located at the end of the Pacific Coastal Trail is Friendship Park, a patch of dirt between double fences that extend out into the Pacific Ocean. It was the end of our long cycle. Military guards patrol the fences that separate Mexico from America, the ‘land of the free’. Immersed in the shadows of the fences, head bowed, a young Mexican stood silent, a loved one on the other side of the dense trellis. Perhaps poverty and the search for a better life had led them to be separated and I wondered about the trade-off that had created. What would greater freedom mean to them? 

At the other extreme from poverty, millionaires and educated professionals turn to minimalism. They describe leaving a life of material luxury for simplicity. They have realised that the weight of belongings and the focus on working for material gain has robbed them of their freedom, and often their health and happiness. 

It begs the question, what is freedom?! 

Perhaps true freedom is breaking away from the routine, habits, addictions or beliefs that have the ability to hold us captive. 

I was intrigued to discover a study into participation in extreme sports* which revealed that motivations are not at all about risk taking and adrenaline. It showed that participation in extreme sports is about exploration of freedom to satisfy fundamental human values: freedom from constraints, from the need for control, from feeling separation, for the transformation of fear, for positive health benefits, and freedom as choice and responsibility.

It is not surprising that studies archived by the World Database of Happiness https://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nlshow a link between freedom and happiness. So if freedom is a route to happiness, and happiness is a route to being our best selves, it seems worthwhile considering how we personally find freedom. Doing this will help and encourage those that we love or lead to find more freedom for themselves too. Here are some ways that I have found useful.   

Appreciate what is present, what is now…

When I’m on an adventure my mind is often thinking ahead to where we might sleep or where to find more water. Or my thoughts may wander to the previous day and something that I said or did. Then I’ll suddenly arrive where I am and am able to see the incredible mountain before me, or the beauty of the forest and wildflowers I am passing by. Thinking forward or backward takes us away from the present moment. It takes awareness and work to stay present, but there is often so much beauty in the ‘now’ that its worth working at being there. Notice and catch where your thoughts lie, and always try to bring them back to where you are and who you are with. The book by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, has become famous for these very reasons and as a path to personal and spiritual growth.


Find flow…

Engage in activities that take you into a ‘zone’: that is any activity that you become so immersed in that nothing else seems to matter. You are so involved in the task that time is distorted or transformed and you are unaware of how little or long may have passed. Flow activities tend to be either physical or creative  – for example I have found flow doing things like climbing, dancing, cycling, writing, meditating or a work task that I get totally immersed in. 

Break a habit or addiction…

Most of us have experienced some kind of unhealthy habit or addiction. It could be habits of language that are the product of underlying beliefs, for example “I just can’t do that” or it may be a difficulty with ever saying “no”. It might by any form of food, drink or drug that you struggle to stay away from even though you know its bad. Or perhaps you are addicted to something that on the surface may seem healthy or justifiable like work or exercise or a person. A great way to experience more freedom is to find the motivation and willpower to overcome ourselves, and break a habit that has been controlling us in an unhelpful way. When we can master the habits or additions of our body or our thoughts, we are claiming back some freedom from the chains of lower, negative emotions like guilt, shame and frustration, and allowing space for higher, more empowering feelings. 

Value your freedom 

As we have all learned in 2020, we never know when the freedom we are accustomed to will be no more. Spare moments each day to feel grateful for the freedoms that you enjoy, and radiate that appreciation out into the world. Let go of any fear about the future and focus on what you have and appreciate that now. And know that if any of the ways that you find freedom today should become unavailable in the future, that you will discover something new. The trails through the forest of inner freedom are endless. 

References

*Brymer, E. & Schweitzer, R.D. (2013). The Search for Freedom in Extreme Sports: A Phenomenological Exploration. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 14(6):865-873

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Inner Gold 3 : Vulnerability & Superpowers

In the last blog I looked at how you can change your beliefs to help you. That’s all well and good, but if you’re a regular human like me, then no matter how much you pay attention to your stories, language and words, there are times when you just get into a ‘dip’ that feels hard to shake. A general feeling of anxiety, fear, weakness, of not being good enough, or of not having the capability, washes over like a wave rather then any single identifiable ripple of a thought. This is you at your most vulnerable.

From this vulnerable place it’s often hard to be positive, or proactive, or to use good habits we may normally use to train our brains. However, this place of vulnerability is a perfect time to learn and to adapt or adopt some things to help us develop resilience and come back stronger than before. Here a few simple strategies that may help… 

(1) Watch the storm pass through…

Over the years, many people have asked me how long it took for me to recover from the mental and emotional shock of becoming paralysed. I have no clear answer to that, as it was a grieving process and therefore hard to define an end point. However, my ‘aha’ moment in the process was the day that I learned to observerather than bemy emotions. Instead of getting all wrapped up in the drama of what I was feeling, or re-playing stories or ideas about why, I started to just notice the feelings and emotions I was experiencing. Like watching the spectacle of a storm from a warm, dry place, I observed the bad weather roll in and out, knowing that it would pass and the sun would return. 

Whenever I have a hard time now, I remind myself to watch the storm, and know that it will pass. Amongst the clouds and in the vortex of negative emotions, we can choose not to wallow and fall into helplessness, but instead to accept where we are, and give ourselves some time and patience to positively affect change. 

(2) Seek other ways to induce a change…

Instead of feeling victim, I seek ways to change. But how? Earlier in the series I mentioned noticing your stories, thoughts and words so that you can change them to more positive versions: doing this changes the chemicals and hormones released into our body, thus improving our feelings and emotions. However, there are some practical physical things we can do to help shift our state and take us from vulnerability quicker than we might otherwise. These are an accumulation of my own experiences, and ideas of Paul Chek*, a leader in personal success and of Dr Chaterjee’s four pillars of wellbeing**.

  •  ‘Dr Quiet’: Perhaps you have overdone things in some way, or your body is in a state of stress. Managing our energy is important so that our body can repair. If this is the case, seek to say no to things, take time out, and create ways to get more relaxation and self-time.
  • ‘Dr Diet’: You may have been eating badly, not enough, or too much! Food and drink dramatically affect our energy levels and biochemical reality, which in turn affects how we feel. This can tip us to a more vulnerable place. No matter what, a healthy, wholesome, moderate diet in quantities that are right for you, along with drinking plenty of water can help make us feel a whole lot better, faster. 
  • ‘Dr Movement’: Do something different with your body: If you feel lethargic or heavy for no good reason i.e. you haven’t excessively exercised or had another form of significant stress in the last short while, then movement can really help get nutrients around the body, enhance life-force and shift your state. Take some exercise that suits you: walk, run, cycle, do some breathing exercises (try the Wim Hof*** method, yoga or other breathing techniques), lift a few weights, do some stretching, put on some music and dance… It is surprising how fast the shift in energy can make you can feel better.
  • ‘Dr Happiness’: On a deeper level, maybe its time to check in with whether there are any facets of our life that feel like a burden, or doesn’t fit with our core values. If core aspects of our life misfit with what makes us truly happy, then we are likely to be experiencing fight or flight stress symptoms. It could be time to change something. 
  • ‘Dr Connection’: Feeling part of community and supporting each other through the highs and lows of life is a vital thread of life. Always when things have been toughest for me, the support of other lovely humans has enabled me to see light again. Even if you like your own space and peace a lot, few of us really thrive without giving and receiving love in at least some of its many forms.  
  • ‘Dr Meaning’: If we start each day without meaning and purpose, it can be hard to find motivation to get out of bed. Having purpose, goals and contributing to other people or society are the essence of our life-force. I always try to seek meaning, no matter how small or insignificant things may sometimes feel. Meaning and purpose is the fire that fuels our life.

Remember The Power of Vulnerability…

Whilst it’s never nice to fall from feeling invincible to feeling weak and bleak, our greatest learning and gifts often emerge from this state of vulnerability.  I was recently talking to a group of young scouts who had biked and kayaked 79 miles through the Great Glen of Scotland (Fort William to Inverness). I asked two of the teenage girls ‘What was the worst bit?’ and they immediately replied “The giant hill! It was so steep we couldn’t ride up it, and we were so tired we thought we were never going to make it. It was horrible.” When I asked them what the best part was, they looked at each other, paused for a moment, then burst out laughing. “The hill!” they said “It was the best part too! We didn’t think we could do it, but then we discovered we could. We were stronger than we thought.” That little story sums it up. Through the tough stuff, we learn about the grit, the potential and the strengths that we have inside us. We develop resilience, which can serve us well in many other areas and stages of life. 

Whilst experiencing vulnerability may not feel nice at the time, it can help us develop ‘superpowers’. You may be familiar with the TedX talk by Brené Brown**** on shame and vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend taking the time to watch it. She sums it up well when she says “I have a vulnerability issue, and I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness. But it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, love …”

Ask for help if you need it…
I felt burnt out following my drive to win gold in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, and my shoulder was so injured I was struggling with daily tasks. I could barely move around in my wheelchair. Despite these challenges, the friends with whom I had planned a trip to cycle through the wilderness of Patagonia were still keen that we go together. I was grateful for their encouragement, but I felt very wary to put myself into a challenging situation with the condition of my shoulder. I had a date booked for shoulder surgery, and was on the brink of cancelling my part in the adventure to South America.

However, I have a belief in the healing power of nature, and somehow felt I should give my best effort to make the trip, remembering a favourite motto ‘If we haven’t failed we haven’t tried hard enough’. We were a diverse team of friends: Steve in the process of losing his eyesight, Jaco with a carbon prosthetic having lost an arm in Afgahanistan, and Caroline with no previous experience of cycle touring. They were towing bike trailers full of kit and my wheelchair. I had tried hard to find a handbike suitable for the off-road terrain as well as asphalt, but the solution was poor and my front wheel span on the gravel any time the gradient was more than just a few percent. Whilst I pedalled as hard as I could, my friends did a relay push up every gravel hill the length of Patagonia: an astounding feat. There were so few accessible places to camp that to find grass or a flat area, they often had to post me through the slats in wooden gates. I felt like the weakest link but it led to incredible teamwork and brought out the best in us – strength, determination, a solution-focus, creativity, resilience and an absolute never-give-up attitude. We embraced our vulnerabilities together and somehow managed to complete our month-long wilderness journey. I could never have done it without them, and it felt like the demanding environment had brought out our superpowers. At the end, my shoulder was healed, and I cancelled the surgery.

We can aspire to be strong and self-reliant enough to weather the storm on our own, but part of being vulnerable is having the courage to tell someone how we feel, or to ask a friend or stranger for help or support. Having a support network is vital, and it really helps you navigate vulnerabilities and be your best. 

Value your vulnerability 

You have a choice, to let your vulnerability take you down, or to seek solutions to overcome it and get back in the saddle of life. Just like there is blue sky above every blanket of cloud, there is learning and light to be found on the other side of the dark days of life. Rather than becoming immersed in your negative emotions and projecting them into the future, I recommend noticing and acknowledging how you feel and then to adopt a mindset of finding the learning and gifts in your vulnerability. Use the experience to help you discover your points of strength…your superpowers…and to emerge on the other side, stronger than before.

References

* Four Doctors by Paul Chek http://www.ppssuccess.com/Portals/0/docs/Last4DoctorsChapter.pdf

** Dr Chaterjee’s four pillars of wellbeing
https://drchatterjee.com/book/

*** Wim Hof breathing technique video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzCaZQqAs9I

**** Brene Brown TedX talk on vulnerability https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en

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Inner Gold 2 : WIBA’s & Beliefs

There are times in life when we face a goal or a challenge that seems daunting. Like the world right now with Covid-19. It may feel beyond our capabilities in its magnitude or difficulty for us to manage. Whilst it may not seem like it at the time, a challenge, whether we choose it or whether it ‘appears’ in our lives, brings us huge opportunity to learn and change. It pushes us out of comfort zones, stretches our abilities, helps us develop resilience physically, mentally and emotionally, and gives us a focus to challenge our energy towards. 

In any situation, I find it helpful to frame the challenge in a positive way, by defining more clearly what is my ‘WIBA’. This stands for ‘Wouldn’t It Be Amazing’. For example, on becoming paralysed my first WIBA was “Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the sky again” after spending three months in a hospital bed. My WIBA during Covid-19 lockdown is “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this totally changes how I / we behave and interact with our planet.”Creating a positive WIBA can generate incredible focus, momentum, action and learning, and given it’s something you are inspired toward, motivation will rarely be lacking.

A sports psychologist once asked me what percentage of achievement I might assign to mental attitude versus physical form. “80% physical, 20% mental” I mused, pondering the correct answer. Apparently, Ranulph Fiennes attributes his success in climbing Mount Everest at age 65 to being 90% positive mental attitude and 10% physical ability. There is, of course, no right answer – it must be different for each of us and will vary from day to day. There is no doubt, though, that if we go into any situation thinking we’re going to fail, we probably will do just that. Maintaining a positive mental attitude at all times is a vital ingredient of success. As Henry Ford is famed for saying “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

When pursuing a WIBA we come up against all manner of hurdles. These are an opportunity to dig deeper and examine the beliefs we hold that are perhaps limiting us. Our beliefs are based on our past experiences, and contribute to our perception of the world, and a different set of beliefs could really change that. To enhance your abilities and possibilities, it is useful to check out what beliefs you might want to change. WIBA’s also bring opportunities to examine the skills and systems that we have in our personal or working lives, and an opportunity to upgrade, add or change those. 

Here are a few approaches that have helped me change unhelpful beliefs…

(1) Check out your stories…

I was never a confident cyclist. In fact, when I decided to try and become a Paralympic handcyclist, I had only ever done two races, and come last in both of them. The story I told myself back then was “I just cycle for fun and I’m good at riding slow for a long time”. In my first year of training for the London 2012 Paralympics, that was the story I told myself.  I rode more than ever, thought I was training hard, and was certainly investing a lot of time…but a year later, I was no faster, and still coming last in races!

I had a story running in my head that went something like “I’m not an athlete”, and I decided to work on changing that belief. I tried a more positive belief out: “If I train hard, maybe I can become good enough to get to a Paralympic Games”. It worked out, and I made it to London, and to my shock, won a silver medal. For the next four years, I worked on changing a belief of “I never win” to “I can win”. I didn’t suddenly burst with confidence, but by changing my story surprising things happened. In 2016 I won the gold medal in the Rio Paralympic Games. Where we put our thoughts and attention, our energy goes. The simple act of changing a collection of thoughts can change our beliefs and hence our life.  

The stories we tell ourselves are just narratives we have invented. It is important to notice what our stories are, because they can hold us in place and keep us stuck. They are just programs we are running about ourselves that are often unhelpful, and we can work on replacing the underlying beliefs with new ones. Just like you can change a scary movie to a comedy, we can change the movie we are playing inside our own head. With the emergence Covid-19, it is an ideal time to check out our beliefs. What has driven our past behaviour and how can we potentially change?

(2) Check out your thoughts and words…

The stories we tell ourselves are a collection of words. Their power is immense, but what might surprise you more is the power that even one word can have on changing your reality.

About two or three times a week, I have a really intense training session. I used to call it my ‘killer’ session. Now imagine waking up in a morning with the prospect of something killing you. Just that one word is enough to destroy our motivation. I used to delay my training for hours, postponing the inevitable.  A friend suggested that I call them my ‘gold’ sessions instead of ‘killer’…and the result was surprising! I suddenly felt ready to engage with the hard work, knowing it was only the intense sessions that would ever get me fitter and improve my chances of making Paralympic dreams a reality.

(3) The power of negative thinking…

There is a book about confidence by Dr. Rob Yeung, and I’d like to share one of his ideas before explaining what I mean by the power of negative thinking. He refers to ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. If our head is full of negative thoughts, this affects how we feel, which in turn affects how we behave, which then affects who and what we attract in our life. If we’re allowing our doubts to run riot, this cycle often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of a negative outcome.

The opposite are CATs – Capability Affirming Thoughts.You may have heard people call them positive affirmations or helpful self-talk. CATs help you think constructively, encourage your confidence and lead towards a more successful outcome. 

Whilst I support a positive mental attitude, it can also be very helpful to embrace our negative thoughts.  In facing challenges I often have more ANTs than CATs. Rather than dismissing the ANT’s, I find it useful to pay attention to them. I list them all. Then I think about how to turn each ANT around. I ask What can I do to alleviate that concern, doubt, or insecurity…?That way the ANTs seem to become an extremely helpful way of mitigating risk and helping to counter problems before they arise. 

For example, when we were preparing to ski across the Greenland icecap, I had plenty of ANT’s. Being paraplegic, many of these related to the management of my personal care such as, How can I prevent frostbite? How am I going to go to the toilet without getting a frostbitten bottom?Collectively these ANTs could have stopped me from attempting the month-long unsupported journey. But the solutions that arose kept me safer than ever: such as monitoring the temperature of my feet and legs with a fish-tank thermometer as it has multiple gauges, and to the invention of the worlds first ever carbon-fibre, titanium-legged potty with snow-feet. 

To address any current challenges, try making a list of any ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts, or words) you have. What is one thing you can do about each of your ANTs to help you gain confidence to progress forwards? Also, list the CATs (Capability Affirming Thoughts, or words) to remind yourself of the skills and positivity you have. Try paying attention to the words you are using, and whether they are helping or hindering you.

(4) Check out your resistance…

Succeeding with a challenge or a goal inevitably means some hard work, and that very likely means you will find some resistance. You may avoid practical things. Are you finding it easier to watch the news or Netflix in lockdown instead of getting immersed in that task you’ve been putting of?Or you may have questions popping up like What if I can’t do this? You might allow yourself to being scared off by these thoughts, or thrown off course by your avoidance, BUT this resistance is actually great. Weightlifters are wasting their time if the weights they lift cause no resistance. Just like you only grow muscle fibres and get stronger when there is resistance in a gym, the same applies to anything. When we feel resistance, your first urge may be to give up, but in the resistance lies the chance for growth. Just like molecules need a minimum amount of energy – activation energy – to undergo transformation, so do we. The only way you’ll get your rocket out into orbit is if you bust through that resistance. So, next time you feel it, embrace it, because it offers you a path to change and empowering surprises.

Nobody said it was easy!

So of course, it might be nice if we could achieve all of this belief and change by reading a short article. However, you’ll have to decide how much you want to accomplish your challenge or the change you seek, and how much you’re willing to commit to getting from your current scenario towards your WIBA. We are reminded of in the spread of Covid-19 that progress is exponential: it’s often slow to see impact at first, but things soon compound and big shifts can happen relatively quickly.  It’s our choice: give up on early, or commit to change? 

So practice noticing your stories and changing the underlying beliefs to positive ones; change your words and thoughts to more helpful ones, use your negative thinking to help you be better prepared, and embrace the resistance. Surprising things will unfold!

Thanks for listening or reading this second article. Over the coming weeks I will share one a week, each with a theme that I hope will be useful for you. Each theme has been a gift that I have learned from each of the Quest 79 journeys, so if you stay tuned, I will be taking you on a virtual travel experience, exploring both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Next week the topic is vulnerability, something I learned about during the ‘Wild Way’, a journey along the Carretera Austral through the wilderness of Patagonia. 

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Inner Gold 1: To Be An Explorer…

Before the reality of Covid-19 had hit, I wrote a blog about exploration. I never got around to posting it, but now it seems more pertinent than ever. Here I share an updated version.

Navigating the rollercoaster of daily life has distracted me of late: bladder surgery to remove two large stones after a stint of infections; re-arranging my diary as work plans are gradually being cancelled due to Covid-19; trying to stay focused on training with the doubtful possibility that the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics may still go ahead: the ‘stuff’ of life. 

It is this stuff that de-rails us as all too often from peace and space, as we try our best to be our best and keep up with our over-busy, ever-faster world. 

When not de-railed, I find peace in exploring: outside and in, to adventure toward ‘boundaries’; after-all where on earth do they lie? We know but a fraction of how the universe works; how we as humans interact with this vast unknown; the workings, abilities and potential of our own minds, bodies and spirits. 

I sometimes describe myself as an ‘Explorer’. It’s a word that conjures images of someone venturing into unknown territory, perhaps by sail, foot or skis: someone discovering new lands. ‘Explorer’ is a job that never showed up in our schools career service list of suggested jobs. I matched with ‘Fireman’ or ‘Photographer’. 

In 1904, the ‘Explorer’s Club’ was founded in New York to bring together eminent explorers and scientists. Feeling dismissed because it was an all-male organisation, a group of intrepid women set up the Society of Women Geographers in 1920. To celebrate this a decade later, AFAR travel magazine have reinvented an all-female travel society, https://www.afar.com/magazine/women-to-watch-2020where I am surprised to be included (and a little ashamed to be listed with Greta Thurnberg given the level of travel I have participated in). From Arctic and Antarctic exploration, air and space travel, to campaigning for protection of land and climate, the last century of exploration has been about looking out at our external world. 

However, the crises we face in the 2020’s are rather different than those of the 1920’s. In most of the world we are not fighting for women to vote or venture beyond the domestic sphere. We are beyond figuring out what continents lie where or whether the earth is flat or round. We are instead struggling to make sense of the climatic, political, consumption-focused chaos of our densely populated world, and now with a virus strain that threatens our very existence. Perhaps it is time for a different type of exploration.

In these times, the explorer in me has a foot in two camps: to explore the ‘traditional’ way, to discover other lands and cultures and the external world; but I also love to explore the internal world. Life has taught me to look within, and largely thanks to the trauma of spinal cord injury and the challenges it brings at times, I can find as much adventure and discovery during weeks spent largely alone in a small room as I can cycling across a continent. It will prove very useful in these weeks of lockdown.

In 2020, the ‘old’ explorer in me has been planning the last of the ‘Quest 79’ journeys (www.karendarke.com/quest79) , a series of cycle rides across the 7 continents. The last journey remains, to Antarctica to create the ‘Pole of Possibility’. The vision is to inspire many on what is collectively possible when people, passion and purpose come together. I have learned through these journeys and my companions on them, most of them entering totally new terrain for themselves, that stepping into new territory and being brave enough to change ourselves impacts the people around us, the communities we are part of, and in turn that can change the world: heart by heart, step by step.

Simultaneously, the ‘new’ explorer in me is focused on journeying within. I am discovering more deeply than ever how each of us can rewire our brain and recondition our body, and change our world from the inside out. I am fascinated with exploring our ability to heal, to ignite the potential within us for abilities and possibilities we may barely be able to imagine. I believe we can change our energy, transmute dis-ease and create wellness for ourselves if we pursue practical ways of reducing stress and pay careful attention to the thoughts we have and the emotions that we attach to them. This is so relevant now that our medical systems can barely cope: systems that under normal conditions are incredible at managing medical trauma, but that lack solutions for chronic conditions. 

If exploration of the 1920’s and since has been externally-focused, towards new horizons and outer space, perhaps exploration of the 2020’s and forwards calls to combine our ‘outward’ knowledge with exploring inwards, towards understanding how we can change and influence our reality and our world from within. 

Today with Covid-19 we are suddenly all explorers, pushing into new territory. We may experience pain and trauma – in the ‘old explorer’ world it could be analogous with long days trekking in extreme cold with little food across a frozen unknown continent, not knowing what will happen from one hour to the next. But we will also experience moments of clarity, peace and maybe an unfathomable appreciation of what is unfolding – like an explorer in the depths of uncertainty pausing to take in a new horizon or a soul-moving sunset. In unknown territory, the degree to which we resist the reality of our new world and wish for things to be different will influence our degree of suffering.

With social distancing, we have an opportunity. There is time, permission and space to recover, reflect, re-connect, re-set and re-emerge in a new way. We can recognize patterns in ourselves and our society that need to change (busy-ness, stress, separation, limitation….?), let down old ways of thinking, break old habits and ways of being and open up to new possibilities for ourselves and the world we live in. Perhaps this is an opportunity to discover how we can change ourselves inside to change our world outside. 

An explorer needs to be prepared for the unexpected, to be resilient, adaptable, to live in the moment and let go of fear about the future. 

An explorer finds freedom and peace in the fact that things are changing and unfolding, letting go of futile worry about what will happen tomorrow. 

An explorer needs to trust and rely on team-mates, a “we are in this together and we will get through this together” approach. 

An explorer always needs to pack some vital ingredients, and its usually not toilet roll or baked beans. Here is my favourite packing list… 

  • COURAGE: We have to be bold and brave in facing new horizons, and willing to embrace the unknown, to face what feels like disaster or trauma but trust that ultimately we will arrive in a better place.
  • INSPIRATION: We can be inspired by the experience of others – in the case of Covid-19 that may be the Chinese, the Italians, the medics, those on the frontline…but also by anyone you know who has lived through trauma or difficult times or has experience in resilience.
  • SWEAT: We have to work hard. Take a break for a short while, but there is work to do here too, to stay mentally, physically, emotionally and economically sane and healthy. Or to stand for what we believe in or feel passionate about, where we may previously have put it off.
  • LOVE: Despite the isolation, we can connect now more than ever, on a different, deeper, heart-felt level with other amazing humans, supporting each other through this challenge, pulling together with the tools that technology allows us to, and expecting that surprising things will be possible… 

Thanks for listening or reading this first blog. Over the coming weeks I will share one a week, each with a theme that I hope will be useful for you in your life at this time. Each theme has been a gift that I have learned from each of the Quest 79 journeys, so if you stay tuned, I will be taking you on a virtual travel experience, exploring both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Next week, the ‘Golden Way’ which was my journey to the Rio Paralympic Games…and the topic of beliefs. 

Future topics will include:

The Golden Way : Beliefs
The Wild Way : Vulnerability
The Express Way : Freedom
The Water Way : Gratitude
The Sacred Way : Love
The Hot Way : Joy
The Continental Way : Transformation
The Cold Way : Possibility

Audio version of this blog at https://soundcloud.com/karen-darke-110198085/inner-gold-to-be-an-explorer-episode-1 

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The Continental Way: Our Camino Part 2

“Sube, sube, sube” Paco kept reminding me. To reach Spain, the road led up, up, up, for about thirty kilometres across the first mountain pass, then into an undulating collection of colls that roll you towards Pamplona. Despite the grind of climbing long hills, I always enjoy it more than flat riding. The twists and turns hold intrigue and surprises, the tops reveal dramatic panoramas, the descents whisk away the old and blow in fresh inspiration.

Many years ago and recently paralysed, I joined a section of the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees as part of a relay team. I have memories of being squashed up in a racing wheelchair, my head thrust down toward the tarmac, struggling up hills with no gears and arm muscles not yet adapted to a life of wheels. The journey across the mountains was a far better experience this time, the laid-back position of handcycling allowing views of the peaks, of lovely raw rock, of trees stretching tall to expansive blue sky. From the popular Camino starting point of St Jean Pied de Port, it isn’t far to the Spanish border, and on crossing it, my companions changed dramatically. Underlying anxiety and frowns were transformed to smiles and talk of Tapas trails. Paco and Solís were ecstatic to be on home turf, in warmer temperatures and familiar culture.

The Camino wanders between pretty villages with old stone churches and shuttered houses with colourful window boxes, alive with invitations to ‘Peregrinos’ – the Pilgrims – to sample the menu of the day or take a bed in a hostel. The Peregrinos are guided by the iconic symbol of the ‘Way’, a painted yellow Concha (shell) shining bright on blue, with a bold yellow arrow beneath indicating which way to go. Everyone walks with purpose in their stride, the ‘Way’ beckoning to move onward and forward. The path is often at the roadside or crosses it as it twists across fields, and as we pedaled by we exchanged calls of “Buen Camino”. I wondered about each person’s journey: Why are they there? What is their story? Why do they walk?

Whilst walking or riding, there is little interaction. The repetition of putting one foot in front of the other or the rhythmic circles of propelling a bike seem to lull each person into a quiet inner space. There is a feeling of peace and introspection, a moving meditation. But there is contrast too. On arriving in Pamplona, the city felt a shock after weeks on the road and any peaceful contemplation must be purged from any Peregrino: it’s narrow old streets ooze with life, it’s heartbeat pulsates strong. Crowds and tapas are pumped around cobbled alleys famed for the running of bulls. Paco is fast. He beats at the pace of Pamplona, his energy constantly buzzing. Without moment to object, he dragged us into the back of a shop and lifted me up some rickety stairs, insisting we pose for photos amongst a mock-up bull run. Rigged out in white t-shirts and red neckerchiefs, the guy working there enthusiastically arranged us amongst the plastic bulls, handing out props and encouraging dramatic body poses. The picture looked so ridiculous I didn’t think anyone would think it real. Posted with innocence and not a supporter of bull sport myself, I hadn’t thought it would be my most popular instagram post ever, or of the objections it would raise. Needless to say, we never saw a real bull except grazing in a distant field as we cycled by.

Back on the trail, the temperatures cooled and the weather turned a little bleak. We traded chilly camping and self-catering for hostels and menu of the day. We shared dinner with other way-goers, and at last learned a little of their motivation. “I’m on a career break and want to strengthen my connection with God again”, Susan from Texas tells me. “This is my third time” says Michael from Germany “I wasn’t planning to do it all the way to Santiago again, but it somehow just draws you along”. Some seem led by religion or a spiritual quest, others just by the route and the feeling it creates, or by a desire for change or to do something differently. Perhaps some that walk have been motivated by the Camino’s inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list, or by a spiritual path to journey to the remains of the apostle St James said to be buried beneath the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Certainly there is something special to be sensed. On the surface, the Camino is simply a way-marked path, but beneath it lies a story and richness that generates a journey: a shared experience whilst being alone, a daily purpose, a goal, an adventure into the unknown. It offers the ingredients that I perceive are vital to keeping lifeblood flowing, things so easily lost in the chaos of modern day living where many operate in survival mode. It is no surprise that so many people from all corners of the world are drawn to follow the Camino’s dusty trails across northern Spain and into the ancient mystical city of Santiago.

Our companion Stephen had to leave soon after Pamplona but in final week we were joined by my nephew Archie and a school teacher, Sean, from years ago. Sean is a chemistry teacher: the perfect fit for a Quest 79 project given it’s all about alchemy: encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and discover something new, transforming ‘muddy’ bits into some ‘inner gold’: doubt into confidence, hesitance into boldness, fear into bravery, lethargy into action…

Fifteen and a rugby player not a cyclist, I was worried that Archie would suffer with a sore bum or aches from body parts not often used. Instead it looked effortless for him and he seemed to free-wheel uphill. He embraced the biting cold and wet of Galicia with barely a flinch, and on the final day riding into Santiago, the views non-existent through the mist of heavy rain and water jumping off the roads, he optimistically stated “we’ll be stronger for it when we get there”. His comment lifted me from the dread of five hours of wet riding – a handbike in the heavy rain effectively simulates a power-shower – and made me embrace the final leg of the Camino.

Following Paco’s backside up the road had become a familiar view and in the final kilometres of doing so, I reflected on the month gone by. Paco had taken control of everything. He had been our leader, the boss, a machine, a motivator and passionate dictator. I had let go and gone with his flow. The journey had not been a retreat or escape, I’m not religious and I hadn’t been in search of God. I hadn’t consciously thought about it, but I’d been riding through a life transition…but I find the most profound changes are those not over-thought or ruminated. I am moving away from a life I have known toward something new and I sense the excitement and expansion inside me. I feel healthy and whole, ready for new beginnings.

There is no finer way to take a journey than to share it with others and be welcomed by loved ones at the end. Waiting at the paving stone that marks kilometre zero, in the centre of the indescribably beautiful plaza beneath the cathedral of Santiago, we were greeted with hugs and dry clothes.

SPECIAL THANKS to Paco, Solís, Stephen, Sean and Archie, and to all of those who supported and encouraged us along the way, and our fundraising for Spinal Injuries and other good causes.

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The Continental Way: Our Camino Part 1

It took me a week to arrive. Until I watched the sun sink and burst amber across the foaming surf, until I collapsed with five hundred kilometres of arm- ache into the cosy cocoon of my tent in the woods of La Crabasse L’Eau, my soul had been missing: lost somewhere in the tide that has swept me from racing to journeying, from athlete to adventurer. The tide that I have swirled in for a decade.

We began our journey in the tiny Breton village of Hopital-Camfrout, once home to a leprosy hospital and the beginning of others’ Caminos. In theory we are pilgrims, though I’m not sure what we seek beyond a quiet place to rest our bodies, clean water and food. Maybe that’s part of the mystery, not knowing what we’re looking for until we find it.

This is my penultimate quest, the penultimate continent. My eyes close to the lull of breaking sea, and I see a mosaic of places and faces of the last three years. I’ve been handbiking a rollercoaster around the world. Every lump and bump is recorded in my arms. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t raced fast. Every smile and kindness is entrained in my heart. Perhaps that’s why the heavy clouds that weighed on me after Paralympic success and all that it took have finally cleared.

As I lay shivering in the European autumn, I think of the last remaining continent, Antarctica. I wonder if it’s cold hostility is beyond me, beyond the physiology of my paralysed body, beyond my skills of survival. But deep down I know I will rise to it. It will just mean good planning, detailed thinking, lots of training, and a sponsor who aligns with the ethos of our expedition. I feel the familiar flicker of excitement and uncertainty, the unknown always more appealing than certainty and routine. I like not knowing, like the surprises of our Camino: we never know how the day will go, what we will experience, where we will sleep.

We roll to the beat of my friend Paco’s drum. He is Spanish, direct, fast. It is his tenth Camino over twenty-five years. He doesn’t like France so we are fast-tracking to the border to his call of “Vamos!” and promises of “comida y precios mejores” – better food and prices. We are four days ahead of schedule after only a week, and as we follow Paco’s ass up the road, he never seems to tire. “He’s a machine” Stephen comments, but I think Stephen is of the same mechanically strong ilk given he’s leapt from office chair to 100km plus a day without problem or complaint, and that he has never toured by bike before. We are a rare mix of characters, an unusual bunch. As with most of the Quests, we had never all met before we began. Not everyone can take weeks or a month away from jobs and commitments, and I muse that I am a tart to adventure, willing to journey with anyone who has time and thirst. This time we are two Spaniards and two Brits cycling through France; three men and more swear words than I ever knew, my head bursting as I flick between ‘Coffee Break French’ podcasts and Spanish or Spanglish obscenities.

The Spanish border has got closer and the sun has appeared at last. I have been layered up for the chill of France, but with blue sky finally blazing, I sweated yesterday in boil-in-the-bag style waterproof trousers. Tired beyond sleep, it seemed too much effort to stop and strip, and so I limped up the final hill into St Jean Pied de Port, thankful for the promise of a day to rest.

We’ve barely left the pilgrim’s hostel, cosy with mattress and unlimited coffee, luxurious after cold canvas and campsites. We have briefly ventured out into the rain. It drizzles onto excited pilgrims exploring the cobbled streets of the old walled town. The long queue from the old wooden door into the ‘Pilgrim’s office’ suggest many are here to begin their Camino, though some like us look too tired to be just starting out. We think back over our journey so far. The days have rolled into weeks, a conveyer belt of forest, lakes, waves and campsites merged into a movie. We try to take it apart. Which place had that cracking sunset? Where were we on that really windy night? Which was the campsite with barking dogs and what day did you get that massive bee sting?

I didn’t need to ask myself when the phonecall had been. It had been day one, a missed call, a bizarre twist to the start of my Camino. It was the British Paracycling team manager. I knew he was calling to tell me I was dropped, that fifth in the world wasn’t good enough. Paralympic handbike training has been the constant, the pillar of my life for over a decade. It’s hard to let go of something you love, especially when someone else deems it time for you to move on. And so for now I will keep riding, thousands of kilometres, towards unknown horizons. Whilst I have no religion, I have faith, and know that before the spires of Santiago, I will have find signs to indicate which path beckons next.

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The Sacred Way – Part 4

We cycle down a three lane highway, a toll road actually, except bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians and horses seem to go free of charge. Actually it’s a no-lane highway but in Europe it would have three. Under-taking is the least of our concerns as trucks come head on towards us, hurtling contra flow, horns blasting, traffic weaving and dodging… but incredibly there are no collisions. It’s a living version of some kind of chaos theory, a self organising system that is a sea of chaotic unpredictability. We’d never consider cycling a motorway at home, but the tarmac is black gold, and we eat up the kilometres much quicker than we have been. It means we can, if all goes well, find a bed beneath a fan and rest up for the afternoon in relative cool.

Planning this journey involved random plotting of a route that followed the course of the Ganges. The roads could have been dirt trails, bumpy tracks or full-on highway. The place names could have been sleepy villages or sprawling cities for all we knew. We have for sure encountered it all in this final part of our journey and two days out from the end we slowed to a crawl. We trundled through villages, the dust dampened with hose pipes, wiggling through potholes and puddles. We longed for smooth road again, Christine’s spine sore with the shaking, Kevin sapped of strength tugging a rattling trailer, me grounding and grinding my low ride handbike over lumps.

“It could have been like this all the way” I remind us, feeling so grateful that on the whole, India’s tarmac has been better than that of Scotland.

‘The Sleeping Bike’ is what the locals call it here in our Varanasi neighbourhood. Within two days of being here we feel a small part of the community. Rocky from the clothes shop, Panda-gi the rickshaw-walla whose house is a den of cardboard, corrugated metal and cloth in front of our hotel with the cows, Shammy the henna hands lady who has painted Christine in intricate detail, the handicraft ladies on the ghat… but of course, in their entrepreneurial, resourceful way, everyone is wanting our rupees.

Within our small team of three, we have bonded stronger than we could have imagined. When the nozzle of your colonic irrigation gadget falls down the loo and your friend goes fishing it out of the pan whilst you’re sat there but can’t reach it, you know your friendship has moved to a level it has never known before. When you are showing your besties partner a picture of a bathroom whilst she is inspecting saddle rash on his ass at the same time, you know you have entered the realms of ‘extreme friendship’.

In these few days of rest and packing, we reflect on the journey. After many bike tours, it is the special views and the wind in your hair that leave their imprint. This journey has been different. There have been no striking views since the first few days with Himalayan backdrop. Glimpses of the river have been few and far between. The skies have been clouded with smog. Our views of the sugar cane and wheat fields have been obscured by a paparazzi of motor bikes. It may not sound ideal, but we are imprinted with other kinds of memories. The way people shake our hand then touch their heart. The way they kiss the notes and thank the gods for the rupees we give them. “How you like India?” they ask us, eager to know our country, our names, and what we are doing. “You are guest, you is god” they tell us, and selfie after selfie they snap, so chuffed to have a photo with us, the subtle sideways nod of the head an indication they are pleased with the picture. People here are proud of India, proud to have us, excited to see us. Small shrines and temples from miniature to grand have decorated our experience. Candles, orange flowers, red dye on the forehead, colourful flags, big eyes and inquisitive faces have lined our way. Emotion, heart and spirit have replaced the views, skies and breezes of a more ‘regular’ cycle tour.

Varanasi has been a more intense and psychedelic conclusion than we could ever have imagined, but oh, so India. We float in a rickety rowing boat on the Ganges and absorb the activities that unfold along its banks. The billows of smoke from fires of burning bodies, the celebratory rituals, the fusion of life and death. We feel sad to leave this colourful world, but grateful to have it coming home with us, infused in our hearts.

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The Sacred Way – Part 3

Cycle touring usually means a sore ass, aching leg muscles or in my case, shoulders. We never expected that the sorest part of our bodies cycling through India would be our lungs. Our chests burn, a deep sting inside, like all the alveoli are raw and inflamed. Christine has almost lost her voice, and Kevin sounds like he smokes sixty a day. We are all coughing but nothing comes up. We want to dust the sky, polish the brown hue away, breathe in deep, fresh, clean air. Luckily for us we have the Scottish Highlands to return to and we’ll soon recover, but the people we wave to as we whizz by on our daily travelator will stay, breathing this thick polluted gunk.

Where we get off the travelator is a daily surprise. Our worst was a roadside dhaba (transport cafe), shoved in a dingy room that mosts prisons would quarantine, with rats scurrying over us and mosquitoes feasting on our blood, sleeping on two tables amongst giant truck batteries on charge and air so thick with dust it’s surprising we didn’t asphyxiate in the night. We got to recover in a nice hotel before another rough night in a “men’s hostel” where Christine elected to pee in a bucket rather than risk entering the toilet.

“Have a good holiday in India!” people said before we left home, but this is no holiday. This is an adventure into the wild north of India, the band of land – the state of Utter Pradesh – sandwiched between the Himalaya and the golden triangle, where tourists do not venture.

“We never saw white people here” a local student tells us. “It is a first in history. No tourist come.” Crowds follow us relentlessly until we lock ourselves into an overnight room. On the road, paparazzi gangs on motorbikes film us and snap selfies, sometimes driving us off the road until we stop. Off the bike, hoards of locals swarm and swamp us as we go in search of food and water. In our overnight accommodation, young men rush to help Christine and I with bags or stairs, but their true motivation is to sneak a set of selfies with us, away from the disapproving eyes of their manager. But meanwhile, the manager is getting selfies with Kevin out of view of his staff. We hadn’t appreciated until now our pure novelty, the strangeness of our white skin and fair hair.

To say we are following a river, we have seen little of her. For the first time in a week, we crossed the Ganga, excited to be united again. But the turquoise water of upstream is now grey and lifeless. We paused on the bridge to look down. A car stopped and a group of beautiful well-dressed women in colourful saris emerged, a traffic jam forming where they had blocked the road. They gathered by the railing above the water and reached into bags, we thought to throw flowers or some kind of offering to Ma Ganga. They turned their bags upside down and as they shook, we were taken aback to watch plastic and rubbish tumble out. Ma Ganga, the revered sacred water, is both loved and badly abused.

We have found a rhythm that helps us through the smothering of heat, humidity and people. There is a window between 7 and 9.30 am that is cooler and relatively peaceful, when for a brief time we can breathe, when our skin doesn’t pour with sweat, when we are dry enough for the dirt not to stick. By 10 we are swarmed, and our mentality switches to survival mode. We ride in formation, efficiently rotating to set the pace, cruising up to roadside stalls to top up water and bananas (and a few for the days “selfie” count), and swerving around cows, pigs and speed bumps like pro dodgem pilots. By 11am the heat it is up to max – 36 degrees the last few days – and our progress gradually slows from 30km/ hr to 25 then 20, and then we limp towards a room with a fan, drenched as if we’ve just showered except there is nothing clean about us. As we pedal for our lives in the heat and chaos of the wide-awake day, I think of a saying sent to us by our Indian friend Sanjay. “It is not an adverse situation that disturbs us, but our inability to handle such a situation”. I feel grateful to be with Christine and Kevin. We are a solid team, nothing is throwing us off. We are in it, on it, and enjoying it for all the colour, texture and intensity of the experience. I know many wouldn’t, and with the wrong team, neither would I.  But this is a ride of love and friendship, and a reminder that with those bonds, everything is fun and surmountable.

How fitting it was then to take our first day off to visit the worlds most famous icon of love and one of the new 7 wonders of the world. After days on the road it was tempting to lie in air conditioning and rest instead of take a 500km round trip to the Taj Mahal and it’s daily flock of visitors. But as we walked beneath the gate to see the floating domes and towers of marble, we were glad we had. The good things in life never come without effort.

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The Sacred Way – Part 2

In May this year, a bunch of Scottish Scouts took on their own Quest 79 challenge, crossing Scotland via the Great Glen Way. The cycled and canoed 79 miles over four days through sun, rain and midges. “What was the hardest bit?” I asked.
“The big hill! It went on and on and it was so steep.”
“And the best bit?”
“Errrr. It’s weird but maybe the best bit was going uphill too” they declared. “Because we didn’t think we could do it, and then we discovered we were stronger than we thought.”

The Himalayan hills are behind us now, but whilst they were hard, we are missing them as we cycle on the plains of the Ganges. A piece of our hearts is left in the drama of the scenery we have passed through, in the unexpected terrain, with the turquoise Ganga tumbling beside us, with the resilient spirits and gentle smiles of mountain people.

Our challenges are different now. We cycle by monkeys and road signs for elephants. We are grateful for the sacred cows that bimble all over the roads, slowing the onslaught of traffic to a safer pace. We dodge between rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tuktuks, battered old cars, trucks and buses, mules and donkeys, carts, dogs, cows, pigs, monkeys, people, puddles, potholes, bumps and lumps.

“One Selfie!” all the motorbikes call to us, anything from one to five passengers squeezed on a single seat, hands full of mobile phones pointing at us whilst shouting “What your country?!”

When we pause for a break, crowds gather within seconds, motorbikes abandoned in the middle of the road for videos and selfies with us, overladen buses veering around, sometimes with a small crowd sat on top or someone on the roof-rack playing a drum.

In this land of motorbikes and selfies, noise is relentless. After a few days we manage to zone out from the blaring horns, rumbling engines, squeals of monkeys and calls to prayer. The heat is oppressive, thirst impossible to quench. We seek sanctuary in our overnight abodes, a screen of concrete and glass between us and the chaos, a waft of cool from a fan that looks ready to propel itself from a misfitting hole in a crumbling ceiling. Kevin dreamt last night of a fan spinning from the ceiling into the giant bed and mincing us all up. Maybe he is wanting a get-out from the sticky hard work or the incessant overload on the senses.

Christine is a changed woman. “We’ll get another day out of these cycling jerseys” she suggests on day four of ten hours on the road. It is a polar opposite to her usual habit of putting every last scrap of clothing in a washing machine after a half-hour cycle that raises no sweat. I am a changed woman too, saturated with grime and years of dirty adventures, eager to rinse our jerseys in a bucket.

“I love all these bruises and scrapes on my legs. Some of them are spectacular!” Christine adds, “I’m a real adventurer now”. Meanwhile, the seasoned adventurer in me is scrubbing myself clean, cleaning my feet with tea tree and seeking the moisturiser. There has been an exchange between us somewhere along the way. Christine has downed her standards (even happy to eat some day-old pizza crawling with ants), and I have upped mine.

We are exhausted with ‘our public’ but appreciative of Christine bringing up the rear and acting as our relationship manager with the motorbikes chasing us down from behind. They have heard we are on the road and are out to investigate. “Namaste! Gangotri to Varanasi” she calls out like a broken record, and intermittently we hear “Very well thank you!” In desperation to escape a growing crowd and a gang of bikes in the town of Bijnor, we flee.

10km out of town, our newly acquired Indian SIM card not working, I briefly turn my data roaming on to check we are on the right road. We are going totally the wrong direction. Back on track and my phone full of texts from Three informing me that the 90 seconds online has cost me more than £1 a second (seriously Three?!), we decide to cut our day short and find a riverside Ashram. We are hoping for some peace and a spiritual experience on our “Sacred Way”.

We leave the tarmac and follow a dusty lane towards the Ganges, temporarily lost amongst donkey poo and inquisitive villagers. Kevin’s data roaming, at a much more reasonable rate, navigates us to the Ashram gates. A friendly crowd starts to gather and lifts us and our bikes up the flight of steps, and through a gateway that has an air of temple about it. Before entering inside, we are spoiled with hot chai, snacks and a bunch more selfies. Ready for some rest and maybe a lesson in meditation, we begin heading inside, asking where there is a room we can lie down. Instead we are guided outside again, back down the steps, up the dusty street and toward the ‘the old house’. I imagine an ancient temple, maybe a bit dilapidated, excited for our first Ashram.
We are shown to a room, Kevin reporting that an old man had been fast asleep on the bed until a few seconds before.
“This old Ashram?” I ask Kum Kum in my new Indian English. She seems to be in charge.
“Old home,” she says, “I manager”.

A few hours later, tucking into daal and chapatis with a bunch of old men in their 90’s, we realise that the Ashram is actually an old people’s home, and we are booked in for the night.
Never a dull moment in India.