Elation. The feeling you have when you achieve a goal you’ve been working so hard towards. You're on a high, but the weeks that follow come as a surprise. Low mood, boredom, a sense of being lost often creeps in, and you're left questioning whether this is normal. Everyone tells you about the months it takes to prepare, the countless hours of planning, the endless amounts of discussions about it, and what to expect from the day itself, but no one tells you about what happens after.
Jack Thompson, otherwise known as Jack Ultra Cyclist, is no stranger to the post-challenge blues and now factors this in to his preparation – whether that includes taking time off the bike, doing things he has missed, or simply talking about how he's feeling.
“My first foray into challenges was the Taiwan KoM challenge,” Thompson told Rouleur. “When I finished the challenge I was so excited. I had a goal straight away to do another one. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I wanted to do more.
“As I started doing more training, setting more ambitious goals and completing them, that's when I started to notice that I was experiencing this blues feeling. You have such a big build up to any kind of challenge and there is so much excitement around the preparation and the goal itself, and then suddenly it’s all over. I was experiencing a lost feeling as I lost the structure of riding that was needed to complete the challenges.
“For me that is what I suffer with the most, the lack of structure and focus. I have realised now that this is the cause for me.”
Thompson challenged himself to ride one million metres of elevation in 2022 (Image by Nik Howe)
His most recent challenge lasted 12 months, seeing him climb a monumental one million metres of elevation and completing an Everesting a week. Having been wrapped up for the past year in this mammoth challenge, how does he go from being like a hamster on a wheel to not even touching the bike?
“I have three tactics I use now to ward off the blues. First and most importantly is just accepting that you know the goal is finished.
“Secondly, I put some time aside to enjoy what I have achieved. In the past, I’ve achieved things and I’m already moving on to the next goal straight away, but over time I have learnt that taking time off is really important. You work so hard towards something for so long, you deserve some time to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go so well and what you enjoyed.
“Throughout my challenges – in both the preparation and the event itself – I make a list of the things I am missing. And these may be silly things like I’d just love to go to the movies on a Tuesday night and not worry about what time I go or whether I have some sort of training planned. Or that I’d just love two days off the bike in a row as opposed to one day off.
“Then when I am struggling with that time off after because I don’t have any structure or training to do, I look at the list I made and make a real effort to actually go and do them.”
Thompson on his final Everesting challenge – making it his 52nd Everest of the year (Image by Nik Howe)
Sports psychologist Dr Karen Howells specialises in post-Olympic blues, researching how athletes feel when they land back home after competing. While her research looks at Olympians specifically, she said that this feeling of feeling low after a challenge is almost universal, whether you’ve achieved a goal or not.
“If an athlete goes to a large event and they fail to meet their goals, or they get beaten or disqualified, then you’d expect them to maybe come back feeling a bit demotivated and negative – it wouldn’t be a surprise anyway,” Howells said.
“What I found surprising from my research was that those athletes who had achieved their personal best also come back unhappy. And even more surprisingly, people who had won gold medals still experienced the same negative slump.”
Howells emphasises the importance of having a multi-layered life. In other words having other hobbies, passions and things you enjoy, that you can do when you're not focussing on one event. She picked Olympic diver Tom Daley as an example, who can be seen knitting in the stands at the side of the swimming pool when he's not competing.
“Everyone laughed at him for sitting in the stands knitting, but it’s so distinct and separate from diving that this will enable him to switch off and reset from any negative thoughts.”
Thompson has made a career out of being an ultra-cyclist and to his 31,000 Instagram followers, that's what he's known for. He now makes a conscious effort to pursue his other hobbies so his whole identity isn’t just one dimensional.
“It’s weird really because this journey for me started out as a hobby and morphed into a career,” he said. “So I’ve had to look outside the box at the things I enjoy and find new hobbies. I was born in Australia and love surfing, so I finished my one million metres challenge in Perth where my family live so I could surf. This really helped as it took my mind off not having to ride a bike and gave my brain another focus.
“I think that having another hobby or way to escape is really important. It can be so one dimensional if you just live and breathe that one thing. You never know what might happen and if that thing disappears or you're injured, I think you open yourself up to being in a really dark place.”
Thomson said he felt like a hamster on a wheel at times (Image by Cyril Chermin)
Having a goal, often your life (and, sometimes, your friends and family) can revolve around this single focus. Whether that's your training routine, the conversations you have with people, how and what you eat, or having to miss out on social events to stick to your plan. But once it’s all over, when those involved return to every day normality, you can be left with this gap in your life. Howells emphasises the importance of talking to somebody if you're experiencing these negative feelings, explaining that even gold medal Olympians felt lost and lonely when they had returned home from the Olympic games. Howells critiqued the sports industry as a whole, saying that “we're leave athletes when they need support the most.”
Chris Hall is another man who has put his body through some gruelling challenges and has to be even more aware of his mental health after suffering from depression since he was young. Because of this, after completing some of his challenges he has chosen to speak to a counsellor.
“I don’t think there is any shame in talking to a counsellor,” Hall said. “I am a really big believer in how good talking to somebody is, and I think there is a stigma about it being a sign of weakness, but in all honesty, I think it’s a real sign of strength to be able to acknowledge that that’s the right thing to do.”
Hall notes his 7Everests challenge as one of the hardest rides he has ever done, and one of the most difficult to get over in the weeks that followed. Feelings of utter exhaustion, both physically and mentally, consumed him. He had to remove himself from social media and his normal routine to get over the seven-day challenge.
Hall during the 7Everests challenge in 2022 (Image by Jack Hague)
“People always see the high and celebrations of completing something,” Hall added. “I think for everyone there will always be some kind of fallout after, whether that be minor or an absolute plummet. I think this is because you’ve spent so much of your physical and mental time focussing on this one thing, be it your first 100 mile ride, time trial, road race, or ultra-challenge. It needs to be made more aware that this feeling is normal.”
Thompson agreed with the importance of normalising this feeling and added that people shouldn’t let feelings of guilt creep in for resting or taking time away from the bike. “I haven’t touched the bike for two and a half weeks since I finished my challenge in December," he said. "I don’t feel guilty about it either because I know come February I will be craving getting back on my bike, and I want to feel that. I don’t want to think the next time I get back on my bike that I wished I had one more week because I didn’t take the time to rest.”
Whether you’ve ridden 100 miles or 10,000 miles, taken on a challenge for the day or for a whole year, it can be common to feel a little low when you’ve achieved a goal – even people whose careers centre around these challenges or events feel the same. The key is to expect you may feel like this after any achievement, so take it easy on yourself and talk to someone who can support you.