The struggle’s worthwhile: Guy’s battle continues amid huge achievement at Tour of Hungary

FIGHTING ON: It was tough to do, but Orange's Tim Guy says getting through the Tour of Hungary is the most impressive thing he's done on a bike. Photo: CONTRIBUTED
FIGHTING ON: It was tough to do, but Orange's Tim Guy says getting through the Tour of Hungary is the most impressive thing he's done on a bike. Photo: CONTRIBUTED

It’s like accidentally stepping in front of a truck, only to realise its hurtling towards you as it blasts its horn. You’re filled with fear and a desperate desire to escape, but there is no truck and the moment is suspended indefinitely.

For six years anxiety that rested on, and often fell over, the edge of panic was my daily experience. There was nothing in particular I was anxious about – it just hung over me, filled me, consumed me.

It pervaded every area of my life. I left my relationship, I left cycling. I shut every door hoping for relief.

I found none.

I could have sat in the middle of a highway or swung from a hammock under a palm tree and the experience would have been the same.

In 2013, after four years away from the sport, I returned to cycling. Not to be a champion and not because my fear was relieved. Rather, as a last-ditch attempt at finding life.

If I couldn’t escape the fear, maybe facing it could hold enough value to make life worthwhile. I doubted it, but had nowhere left to turn.

My coach Mark Windsor worked with me to create programs that were specific to my situation.

At first, my training was simply to get into my cycling kit and on my bike and ride to the end of the driveway. Once there, I could turn around and go back inside.

With graduated exposure and targeted training, I slowly coped with more and more.

This, along with help from my doctor Ken Hazelton and my psychologost, Dr Susette Sowden, meant that by 2016 I was having stretches of months at a time where I felt my anxiety was under control, that I could manage it.

Cycling became an avenue for challenging myself to manage better and in turn, this became my motivation for life. There is always a new level of stress to face, to try and understand.

In 2018 I signed with Continental Cycling Team Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum, a professional cycling team based in Slovenia.

The experience was always going to be difficult, but team manager Tomaz Poljanec was aware of my situation, had been impressed by my story and performance and provided a supportive environment in which I could challenge myself.

Recently I've been experiencing my most acute panic in a number of years.

For months it’s waited at the foot of my bed, rushing upon me as I wake. It tests my will and tempts me to abandon any belief in my capacity to keep going.

Two weeks ago I arrived at the Tour of Hungary in this state. A six-day professional stage race. I entered with the decaying hope that I'd developed enough strategies to press on but I was beginning to feel as though riding to the end of the driveway was still all I could hope to cope with.

I had a panic attack before the start of the first stage. Using a meditation app after, the lingering anxiety eased slightly. Then the race started and immediately I was thrown back to the verge of panic.

The panic in these moments exacerbates the stress from the physical effort. Making you feel on the limit of your physical capacity before you are. For the four hours and 15 minutes it took to complete the 176km stage, this heightened mental and physical stress didn’t ease for a second. It burned in my chest, it gnawed at my gut, it played havoc with my brain.

I battled with myself every moment just not to quit. To hold on. Trying to believe somewhere beyond the doubt that I could face the anxiety, the panic, the fear. Trying to remember that I’d still feel the same consuming dread even if I pulled out. And somehow, I did survive.

However, after the stage, no respite came. Rather, I had another two panic attacks over dinner. Tears welled in my eyes as I forced down each spoon of rice in preparation for the 206km stage the next day.

I'd never wanted to be this man, I felt weak and afraid. I didn't think I could face five more days of it. I'd already faced weeks on weeks and it had just been getting more and more acute.

If I couldn’t escape the fear, maybe facing it could hold enough value to make life worthwhile. I doubted it, but had nowhere left to turn.

Tim Guy

The sport is hard enough as it is.

Mentally, it’s already a ridiculous challenge without a mental illness on top. I was beyond stressed, beyond anxious, I was living in a panic, and I had precious little control over it.

Holding on in that state for weeks or months is soul crushing, you forget life was ever different. I wanted, without any exaggeration, just to die.

I sent a desperate email Mark, completing the tour seemed an impossibility.

Mark gave me some rough guides to help but we both accepted that in such an acute state of consuming panic, the real goal was just to get through the day, not the race. Just getting to the start line would be a win.

His guides were presented as “rules”.

Rule one: I was not allowed to pull out in the first hour - panic was always going to be crazy at the start, especially with 206km ahead. But, often the start of these races are so hard and fast that you can tick over close to 50km in that first hour, this creates a nice milestone for the head. Although being faced with the remaining 156km is another battle.

Rule two: I had to talk to each of my teammates at least once each hour after the first hour. Sounds simple, but in a bunch of 160 riders moving takes time and you want to preserve energy. You are forced to think carefully about moving through the peloton. You need to wait for the right moments to hitch a ride up the bunch on the wheel of another rider as they move forward.

In reality, I managed only to talk to one teammate, and that was more of a grunt but it gave me something simple to focus on. Anything more elaborate or difficult would just increase the anxiety. The tasks had to be simple but engaging enough to help me survive. This way, I made it through another day, and then, through the tour.

It’s difficult to accept that top achievements are not always obvious to others. Without a doubt this is the most impressive thing I've ever done on a bike.

I've faced that level of panic before, but I did it on a couch and not in the middle of European professional stage race. You dream of your most impressive performances ending on the podium not in encapsulating fear.  

It would be nice to end this story with a note on the personal satisfaction of achievement and experiencing a reduction in anxiety.

But that's not reality.

Reality is I've still been struggling, even the slightest of training is difficult. It's hard not to fall into the trap of begging for the end of the season and home, it's hard to accept that coming home won't eliminate my mental illness.

That it's something I have to live with – that I'll go through good and bad patches in the future. That the achievement is about living despite it not in eliminating it.

It's hard to accept, it's hard to step forward, it's hard to cope. But it's the struggle that makes it worthwhile.

If you’re struggling, you are not alone. I don't have a fix. But I can encourage you to hold on.

For more on my story visit www.headcrack.com.au.

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