A whole new outlook
By Allen Larsen
It started out like any other day. Three weeks before RAAM I was in the best condition I'd ever achieved. Logistics were in place, crew was ready, all was well. With a 400-mile ride scheduled I was to ride the first 200 miles alone. I'd be accompanied by three crew members for the night miles, getting them some more experience. As I mounted the bike life was great, the first 50 miles flew by and got me past the early morning chill. The next 100 went by easily as well with little more on my mind than winning RAAM a second time and doing my best to set a record. That's pretty much the only thing I thought about any more. I woke up, trained, planned, strategized, worked with sponsors, did whatever work I had to do to survive, and went to bed. I'd been living this pattern for the past three years. RAAM and the thought of winning consumed me, nothing else seemed to matter. The next 50 miles felt different. I started asking myself why I was riding. What was this all for? When I arrived back at the house to meet the crew I had lost all desire to ride another mile, something was wrong, terribly, terribly wrong.
The following weeks were, to date, the most difficult of my life. Filled with doubt, fear, pain and confusion, I became, for lack of better words, a basket case. Being a strong Christian, which I make no secrets about, I'd been seeking answers through prayer. Left with absolutely no desire to do RAAM, or anything else for that matter, I was clueless as to why this hit me now. This feeling was nothing new, depression had plagued me on and off in my years prior to ultra cycling, but not really since. Once I was able to ride again after my car accident in 1988, exercise alleviated the depression symptoms. Riding allowed me to discontinue use of the anti-depressant I'd been on briefly as the bicycle seemed to be all I needed. The more I rode the better I felt, don't question why.
So why was I struggling now? Everything was in my favor; I was ready, more than ready. Slowly and extremely painfully it became apparent that RAAM, or should I say the obsession with winning RAAM, had overtaken everything in my life — my family, my relationship with God, friends, my work — everything. Life revolved around winning RAAM. This realization revealed my self-centered, achievement-based value system, a system flawed at its core. My battle with depression was back and stronger than ever.
Those of you who've struggled in these areas might understand some of what follows. However, chances are that you, like me at that time, didn't understand anything about the causes, only the debilitating effects. Depression leaves its victims without hope, without feeling, without a reason to live, and that's exactly where I was. Suicide seemed the only viable option. I didn't really think of methods, only the desire to cease existing. Most believe that depression is just recurring feelings of sadness. “Just choose to be happy” I'd hear. “Turn that frown upside down,” another would quip. Those answers seemed plausible at the time, why couldn't I just be happy — my gosh I had every reason in the world to be: a great loving wife, two wonderful children, four bikes and everything I needed to do RAAM. What else could a guy want? Depression is not sadness; it's a lack of feeling, a darkness, hopelessness that seems like it will last forever!
The decision came and went; RAAM was not possible in this condition. Finishing RAAM is tough enough even when it's all you desire in life. A stick holding my tattered neck up, severe saddle sores, feet ready to explode, I could do that — with my will. But how could I compete when stopping crying and raising myself from the fetal position seemed impossible. I wanted life to end.
As I came to grips with my self-centered, do it yourself, don't let anyone see what's really inside attitude, the following months were better. I wasn't out of the woods yet since I couldn't stop thinking about RAAM. Would I do it in '05? Would I have won in '04? More questions remained than answers. I knew competing again was an option, but not with the previous attitude that drove me to the edge of insanity.
Still battling some pain, hopelessness and confusion, I decided to start training for RAAM '05. Though I had some growing left to do, I thought I was on the right path and that the Lord would lead me through. Tired of this nagging state of depression and lack of contentment with life, I made the mistake of praying “Lord, if you need to shake my world to get my attention then please do it.” Two weeks later I was dealt an emotional blow that made my previous agony about RAAM seem like a good time.
Without going into details, as far as I was concerned, life was over. My idealistic, self-centered universe had shattered. Everything I thought and believed in—myself, my wife and my life—seemed senseless. I couldn't get through this, no way. The pain I experienced was so intense I couldn't sleep or eat. Losing fifteen pounds and all desire to live, I arrived at suicide level four – I had formed a plan.
Crisis counseling followed and within a day I entered the Meier clinic and was diagnosed with severe depression. The Meier clinic is a counseling program incorporating traditional psychology with biblical truth, addressing any mental condition. Depression, addictions, compulsive behaviors all are covered. Though I am not a psychologist or a counselor, I hope my experience will encourage those of you who have suffered, or are suffering, from clinical depression or any other mental condition.
Through the Meier program I began to understand how my life's experiences had led me to this place. As I listened, the lectures revealed deep damage I was completely unaware of. From early childhood I was driven to achieve, conquer any challenge and anything less than perfection was unacceptable. These same qualities, that seemed so good on the surface, nearly killed me. I'd set up an idealistic world in which anything bad was unacceptable. I could never let myself fail, at anything. What's worse, I placed these expectations on those nearest to me that I loved the most. Yes, perfection was expected from my wife and kids too. When that reality was seriously shattered, so fell my world.
We ALL suffer from psychological problems; in one form or another we are all messed up to varying degrees. “Damage” they said, “we're all damaged, and we all do damage, welcome to humanity.” Dysfunctional, not me! I had a great childhood; my parents loved and encouraged me my whole life! They always said I was good! Whenever I failed they told me I could do better. Whatever my older brother could do, I could do too, maybe even better. Oddly enough, my parents never required or even expected perfection. However, I learned that “the better I was” the more valuable I became. It became apparent that the same patterns, which led to my perfectionism and discontentment, were being passed on to my children.
More information and group sessions allowed me to see the big picture and how this related to my cycling. Nothing was ever good enough. I won Cannonball, not good enough. I won S2S, “If I could just qualify for RAAM that would do it.” I won Race Across Oregon and qualified, not satisfied. I took “Rookie of the Year” in RAAM 2002, not enough. “Winning RAAM, surely that would make me happy” and it did, briefly, in 2003. No! Not good enough ! The second half of that race I slept too much, had a bad attitude, stopped trying to ride fast, gave up on the record — the list went on, I still wasn't happy.
I'm not saying that aspiring to reach goals is bad, not at all. The first two years I approached RAAM with a pure desire to ride and a love for the sport. By the third year, however, I became obsessed. Finding my value in achievement rather than enjoying the talent and opportunities I'd been given. I was riding to be valued, not valuing the ride itself.
I've learned that many, in fact an overly high percentage of us ultra-cyclists, suffer from depression. So we must ask why? There are many reasons; I'm going to share what I've learned and am relatively sure that it applies to many of us.
Are we depressed because we ride or are we riding because we're depressed? Not to be vague, but yes on both counts. I was riding because it felt good, really good. The more I rode the better I felt. Evidence suggests that the physiological side of ultra events may also have causative effects on depression. I believe the answers lie much deeper.
The Meier program teaches that we, as members of the human race, all have needs, four basic ones to be specific. If our needs are not met in a healthy manner as God intended, we will resort to counterfeit means. Our first and most basic need starts at birth, the need to bond. Without it, infants will die. This need remains throughout life. Second we need boundaries, “Who I am, what I believe, my attitudes, my thoughts, feelings, morals, in short, what makes me, me. Third we need to realize and accept that good and bad behaviors and actions are a part of every one of us. Finally, we must learn adult authority for a healthy life: responsibly managing our own boundaries while not overstepping others' boundaries or controlling them.
You might say, as I did, “I have no needs, I'm self sufficient,” Yeah, and I'm depressed too. Although our society teaches us that it's bad to be needy, we each have needs; we are born that way.
I had serious problems, as do most perfectionists, in the areas of bonding and resolving good/bad. My need for intimate relationships that revealed my real self was counterfeited with achievement, cycling and perfectionism. Workaholism, addictions and eating disorders are other counterfeits. I avoided relationship because my “bad” was unacceptable. If I did not perform or wasn't good, I wouldn't be loved and accepted, or so I believed subconsciously. Be honest, we all do it. We hide our bad stuff, we do something we're ashamed of then hide it so no one else will know.
Through this brief look at my experience, I would like to offer hope. These principals have literally changed my family's lives. Though we are still working through the pain of our mistakes, we're now experiencing growth and healing beyond measure. Our whole outlook has changed. Child rearing skills have become healthier and already are yielding results. We've been married 16 years and are experiencing a honeymoon phase again. Years ago I had resigned myself to a life that would never be content and fulfilled. How could it be, nothing was ever good enough. Though I have by no means arrived, I now have hope for true contentment and happiness. It's found in relationships, with God, my wife, kids and close friends to whom I can reveal my vulnerabilities and “bad” stuff to, the real me. When the real you is loved and accepted in relationships, you're well on your way to a better, happier life. This may sound a little too easy, but without room for volumes, it's impossible to cover all I've discovered. I invite any of you out there that may be suffering to give me a call or an e-mail. We need one another to make it in this world, it's why we're here. Yes, cycling is still a big part of my life and I have hopes of doing, and winning, RAAM again. For '05 however, I'm choosing a different role, to serve another cyclist as a crewmember.
I do not want to say that one cannot strive to do their best in life. I will always want to use my talents and abilities to their fullest potential, to do otherwise would be hiding in a whole different way. But, when achievement or success becomes all-consuming and more important than my loved ones, that's when I've crossed the wrong finish line.