July 2007. I’m sick to my stomach. It’s five in the morning and I find myself sitting in the back seat of Dean Ryan’s Land Rover being driven down the M4 to my first ever Sportive (a mass participation road bike ‘race’).
I have to ride with two international sportsmen who, despite retirement, seem to thrive on the pain of preparation and the pressure of preforming. Behind me are untold hours of training in the Cotswold Hills whilst ahead of me is the worst thing I can ever have ahead of me: the unknown.
Denis Betts is by my side. He and Dean are in high spirits, which only serves to heighten my overall level of discomfort. I stifle a burp as my stomach lurches. A wan dawn crawling over the London suburbs does little to improve my mood.
In the middle of a long forgotten exchange of banter Denis grabs his rucksack and extracts one of the largest Tupperware bowls I’ve seen. I stare at it appalled. Evidently he’s also feeling unwell as the bowl is more than half full of vomit. He tears off the lid and I ask the obvious question, “What’s that?”
He grins whilst rummaging in his rucksack again and extracts a plastic spoon, “Porridge. Cold porridge and bananas”.
If he notices that I’m gray he’s polite enough not to mention it. I pursue my point,
“Why would you eat cold porridge?”
He pauses and eyes me between mouthfuls, uttering in his unique tone the immortal phrase that my entire family have since adopted,
‘It’s not food, it’s fuel”.
It’s not food, it’s fuel.
Everything becomes clear in that moment. Whilst I’m focusing on all the imagined possibilities; failure, crashing, even winning – Denis is putting fuel in the engine. My flights of fantasy are not only unlikely to ever come to pass (certainly not the possibility of winning) but they are irrelevant. I’m living on the anxiety of an imagined ‘maybe’ whilst he is addressing a very real need in the present. I’m obsessing over an imaginary future whilst he is preparing effectively for that future now.
I’m living on the anxiety of an imagined ‘maybe’ whilst he is addressing a very real need in the present.
I gaze out of the window and manfully force a protein bar into my mouth vowing to try and concentrate on my process of preparation rather than fretting over the result.
Later, much later, when I roll over the finish line Denis and Dean are waiting for me, still bantering with each other. I receive a slap on the back and an instruction to eat something. This time I happily oblige.