In 2014 I completed my first Berg & Bush stage race. Alone. It was a bitter sweet experience. Sweet because it was the best stage race I’d done; bitter because I was meant to do it with my wife, Joanne, who had been training for months for it. It would have been her first stage race. We were so looking forward to experiencing it together.
Sadly, on her final training ride, just four days before the event, her handlebar clipped the side of a wooden bridge and she crashed hard, breaking her wrist. She required surgery to add a plate and screws and when she should have been starting Stage 1, she was starting what became a tough three-year journey to recovery.
Three years to recover from a broken wrist? Not quite. About a year to get the wrist back to almost normal (it’s still not 100%) and another two years of daily battles with anxiety and depression, made worse by having to deal with daily life with her broken wrist.
Only when you live with someone that suffers from anxiety and depression do you sort of understand what a debilitating illness it is. I say sort of because it’s a mental illness that’s hard to relate to unless you also suffer from it. According to the World Health Organisation’s 2017 report, more than 300 million people struggle with depression and 260 million suffer from anxiety disorders.
Joanne’s struggle with her wrist and the anxiety and depression saw her go from being fit, strong and three-day stage-race ready to gaining weight, losing interest in regular exercise and at some very low points, losing the will to live.
I gave her as much love and support as I could, knowing that she needed that, even if she didn’t ask for it. She tried a few times to regain some exercise routine and trim weight, but something would always derail her progress and she’d slip a little behind. Sometimes a lot behind. It was so demoralising for her, which obviously aggravated her anxiety and depression. A vicious cycle that must have seemed like a life sentence.
Riding her mountain bike helped. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Her rides weren’t fast, but they were like medication. On days she rode, she seemed to cope better. Obviously, I encouraged her to ride more. But you can only encourage someone to ride more, you can’t force them. They have to WANT to ride more for themselves, not for anyone else.
Joanne was a competitive swimmer when she lived in England as a kid. She remained reasonably competitive through high school in South Africa. And at various stages as an adult, between four pregnancies (she lost two of those) she achieved fairly high levels of fitness and strength and health. So I knew she could be motivated, but I knew that motivation had to come from within.
The Green family, who founded and organise the Berg and Bush are good humans. Empathy comes naturally to them and an entry was always available for Joanne to complete what she never quite started in 2014. Two years passed by and we spoke about returning one day. Then, in June 2017, I asked again if she was keen to give it go.
“Yes, I’m ready. I need something to train for,” she said. This was good to hear. But I’d watched her commit and struggle and then falter a few times since breaking her wrist. Self-discipline was hard for her to maintain consistently. She headed overseas later that month to visit friends and family and returned a few weeks later ready to begin her Berg and Bush preparation.
I knew it would be tough. She was probably heavier than she’d ever been. She’d struggled with plantar fasciitis in recent months, most likely because of being overweight. Watching her struggle to simply walk left me feeling helpless and so sorry for her. Fortunately, pedalling was possible without much pain.
I knew that she needed a plan and someone that could guide her. Someone she’d have to ‘report’ to. So I enlisted the coaching services of Mark Carroll, the same guy that helped get me get super conditioned for the 2015 Absa Cape Epic. And in July 2017, Joanne began to take charge of her destiny.
The pressure of completing 100km on Stage 1 of the Berg and Bush in mid-October was undoubtedly something that motivated Joanne to remain focussed. We’d committed to do the event and started training for it, but decided to wait a while before going through the entry process to make it official. In late August I contacted the Greens asking if we could take them up on their offer of a team entry. They were thrilled and we were officially committed. No turning back now…
In addition to following Mark’s weekly coaching plan, Joanne also focussed on losing weight through managing her daily calorie deficit via a nifty app called Lose It. In a show of support I also began to use Lose It so that we were on this journey together. It worked and Joanne began to shed weight. Not fast, but steadily. I also trimmed some extra weight and together, we tackled each week driven by mostly fear of the suffering that would come from tackling almost 100km on a mountain bike underprepared. But also because there was some unfinished business at Berg and Bush.
During one of our longer training rides, I realised that if that Stage 1 didn’t go well, the whole experience would be spoiled. And I didn’t want that. I wanted our first Berg and Bush together to be a happy memory, one that would help erase the severe disappointment of a broken wrist and many months of panic attacks and dark periods of depression.
So I took up an offer from Zandile Meneses, Race Director of the BUCO Dr Evil Classic, for Joanne and I to do her three-day stage race in Plett. It was three weeks before Berg and Bush and the stages were shorter. The perfect tester for Joanne and a chance to experience what is easily the most beautiful stage race in South Africa.
By finishing fairly strongly each day, Joanne’s confidence levels were boosted and her motivation for the last three weeks was super high. Perfect. Driving to Berg and Bush we spoke excitedly about the event that had become such a prominent one in our lives. Although she never got the start in 2014, Joanne was physically and mentally prepared for it. Three years and many, many tough moments later we were about to complete the circle. Just starting the race was almost as significant as finishing it would be.
As we neared the start venue we got caught in a severe rain storm with sheets of hail making it hard to see more than 50 metres ahead of us. Ha! We weren’t worried. We had packed rain jackets and were mentally prepared to ride in any conditions. As is always the case, the storm passed, only be followed by more storms the following morning, which delayed the start of the race by two hours. But these storms also passed and finally Joanne and I rolled across the start line.
It was a significant moment because it was the start of what was a fantastic three days. And since then, Joanne has continued to train with even greater commitment, trim even more weight and manage her anxiety and depression better. It’s like she weathered a severe three-year long storm, the end of which was marked by the successful achievement of our goal.
There will be more storms for sure, hopefully not as severe. But I have never seen such resolve in the 32 years I’ve known Joanne. And although she will always have to deal with anxiety and depression, she seems more able to manage it. I feel that she’s ready to handle any storm now…
Joanne: Five reasons I loved the 2017 Grindrod Bank Berg and Bush:
- The welcome at the finish line each day by the Event Team with ice cold beverages
- The on-route support at the water-points and by the Marshalls/Rescue team – everyone seemed to genuinely care about you.
- The Chill Zone on the banks of the river – just other worldly
- The convenience of the event. It’s so accessible to people from KZN and Gauteng and logistically uncomplicated
- The catering and menu. There was always a nice variety of dishes to choose from, and being a fussy eater, I really appreciated this.
Entries for the 2018 Grindrod Bank Berg & Bush have opened. There are three separate events to cater for everyone. If you hurry, you should be able to still get an entry, here: https://www.bergandbush.co.za