Fergus Crawley: The view from zone two

Fergus Crawley is a hybrid athlete, an ambassador for Cervélo and a mental health advocate who survived making an attempt on his own life and learned that emotional awareness, self-discovery and self-awareness are the keys to becoming the best version of yourself

This piece has been made in association with Cervélo. 

Trigger warning: this feature contains reference to suicide

What’s harder than completing  an Ironman triathlon? Completing the Double Brutal – a double Ironman triathlon in which part of the run includes climbing and descending Snowdon? Or completing a sub-12-hour Ironman on the same day as a 1,000lb powerlifting total (a 452lb squat, 267lb bench press and 285lb deadlift if you want to give it a go)? Or doing a 501lb squat then running a sub-five-minute mile and then a marathon in the same day?

Fergus Crawley doesn’t easily fall into any category. He describes himself as a ‘hybrid athlete’, and his sporting journey has taken him from being the sports-mad son of a cricketer father who represented Lancashire and was the English and British Universities captain, into playing rugby, then powerlifting, then, well, a bit  of everything, including cycling. The Ironman events and running/powerlifting achievements are part of a quintessentially modern career portfolio: Crawley also coaches, speaks on corporate wellbeing, raises a lot of money for the Movember charity, hosts the Modern Mind podcast which he set up in early 2021 and posts videos on a YouTube channel where more than 40,000 followers view workouts, reviews and monologues of advice in exercise and in life. He’s also reluctantly dabbled in TikTok.

“Athletically, I fall into the marketing category of ‘hybrid athlete’,” Crawley tells Rouleur. “That’s all it is. There’s no league. There’s no judging what’s x and what’s y. I’ve raised just over 100,000 pounds for Movember through campaigns focused around ultra endurance and strength challenges. Along the way, I found out I was quite competent at maintaining that strength alongside building my aerobic base. I’m not good, any more, at any one thing, but I’m at quite a high level of doing  more than one thing simultaneously, which is something that cyclists struggle to process.

“A sub-five-minute mile, if you’re a runner, isn’t anything mental, and a 500-pound squat, if you’re a powerlifter, isn’t anything mental, but to be able to do them side by side is where the challenge is. It’s essentially me having fun with my training, because I enjoy doing these things. I’m not putting across a philosophy that this is the way that everybody should train, I’m just a big proponent that people should train for what they enjoy, and not let the boxes and subcultures that come with each sport prevent them from trying new things. Social riding might be all you ever need to do; you don’t need to be doing the Etape or going out to Italy to spend whole days climbing.”

Crawley has channelled his experiences as a hybrid athlete into a successful coaching business and raising more than £100,000 for charity. He’s not an elite athlete, but in the 2020s, the old hierarchies of sport count for less. The Tour de France may have been won on a Cervélo bike this year, but Cervélo also supports a network of ambassadors like Crawley, who engage with fans in a different way than winning bike races or Double Ironmans.

Crawley is an advocate of using sport and exercise as a method of establishing equilibrium and taking ownership of achievement. Getting fitter is easily tracked, especially with all the modern metrics at the disposal of the athlete, but beyond that, it’s important to be able to put it in perspective.

“To discover what one is capable of, you need to do the work,” he says. “In the chaos of the modern world, it’s quite a nice black-and-white metric to have. As you put the work in and you’re smart about how you put the work in, you learn and understand as you go. You develop as a person. And then when it comes to the outcome, the event, the testing protocol, you can review and go again, because I think it gives you a black-and-white way of looking at things that’s valuable in and of itself.”  

But though progress is easily measurable and can be addictive, it’s important to understand the nuances between the black and the white. Crawley is an achiever. He’s pretty good at everything when it comes to sport – not many athletes can crack out a 12-second 100m, a five-minute mile and compete in double Ironmans. He also used to play golf off a handicap of “six or seven” and was very ambitious in rugby – which he had to stop after a series of concussions at 17 – and then power- lifting. But achieving, measuring and seeing things in black and white also has to be understood in terms of the bigger picture – the danger is that when achievement tails off, for whatever reason, it feels like a failure. And Crawley understands how deeply this can affect people.  

“The reason I struggled with my mental health in the past is because of my ambition and perception of performance and success,” he says. “My definitions are very different now. I like problem solving, I like being presented with challenges to scale and things to overcome. And while there’s a lot of stress that goes with it, because I’ve taken an awful lot on, squeezing as much out of everything that I can is what makes me tick, to my own detriment sometimes. But I’m now much more aware of how to manage my own mental health and  psychology around all of these challenges, because spinning so many plates at a reasonable level is demanding.”

It wasn’t always this way. In May 2016, Crawley attempted to take his own life.

Initially, sport and exercise got Crawley out of a rut at school. He’d been unengaged and was slacking, but a well-timed school transfer gave him a fresh  start; this coincided with becoming more focused with rugby training, which in turn had effects well outside the sphere of sports: it taught him how to learn. It also taught him to be organised on multiple fronts. From sport, especially once he  got into lifting and fitness training, he discovered that effort in meant results out, and he realised that academic studies followed the same pattern.  

He pulled a good set of GCSEs out of the bag, and his A-Levels were looking good for him to at least make an application to Oxford University to study theology, though he ended up at Durham instead.

However, the trouble was that the organisational instinct and interest in self-improvement started becoming all-encompassing, erring on control freakery. Crawley has said in the past that this manifested itself partly as orthorexia  nervosa, an eating disorder which involves obsessing about healthy food. Of course, eating healthily is a positive thing, but becoming dogmatic, obsessive and regimented about it is less so. This was mirrored in his academic life, where Crawley ticked boxes and followed a pathway which he perceived as being ‘successful’ – Durham is one of the highest-ranked universities in the country –  without actually asking himself what he actually wanted to do to make himself happy and fulfilled.

His university experience wasn’t positive. Theology wasn’t the right subject, he didn’t find the right friendship group and became increasingly isolated. He moved  to Newcastle to live with some old friends and commuted to Durham, but that only increased the sense of loneliness and dissociation. Over time he became chronically depressed, his head buzzing with white noise, yet his self-perception was that he was – or rather should be – a sociable, successful individual.

That cognitive dissonance made him question why he felt so anxious; because of his self-perception, he was unable to even process that he was suffering from depression, which he saw at the time as weakness. Physically he started to deteriorate, losing his lifting form and sleeping for 20 hours at a time. He realised that he would be going for days at a time without speaking to anybody beyond interactions in shops.

He tried to kill himself in May 2016. Luckily he failed.

“I suffered from depression from 2014 to 2016,” Crawley says. “I kept completely quiet and silent about it as a result of my perception of masculinity and who I was as a person, to the point where I was paralysed with fear of being exposed as feeling the way that I did. I’ve come around and have a much more refined perspective of my mental health and that perception of masculinity and who I am as a person.

“I very much view exercise as a coping mechanism, but not a replacement for the work that needs to be done to understand the thing you’re trying to cope with in the first place. A phrase that I want to actively discourage is that the gym is my therapy; cycling is my therapy; running is my therapy. No. Running is the way of getting through the week to provide you with the opportunity to access therapy, if that’s needed.

“The irony is, I think my powerlifting focus at the time I was suffering with depression allowed me to suffer with depression for longer than I otherwise would have done. It made me suffer for longer; then again, it was the one thing in my life that I had as a constant. Where I really started to suffer and where the spiral to a suicide attempt came from was when my physical health started being so affected by my mental health that I couldn’t lift properly.”  

In the meantime, Crawley has found something different in exercise, helping him establish rhythm and routine.

‘What I’ve since discovered is zone-two training and how much reflection and opportunity comes from making Saturday my low-intensity, steady-state day, like, non-negotiable. My logic is that there is enough of a motor pattern demand psychologically for your brain to be focusing on executing that motor pattern that you can’t devote enough energy to thinking about the things that we overthink or stress about, get anxious about, when we’re left to our own thoughts without the motor pattern. We find ourselves in this middle ground of actually thinking about the thoughts that are a bit more meaningful, a bit more what we need to confront. My best thoughts, what I am appreciative for, what’s important to me, come from the zone-two Saturdays. It’s opened me up to a whole new world of mental health management that lifting and hard-effort running didn’t necessarily give me; it puts me in a reflective state of meditation. It’s a long time to be in my own thoughts, and most of the time I’m doing these on my own. That time is very valuable because it allows me to reset and gives me a way to manage my mental health. It allows me to take ownership of the things I can control that affect my mental health, rather than just using exercise as a way to distract from the things that are affecting my mental health.”

This is not to say that cycling is easy for Fergus Crawley. He’s lean, fit and strong,  but the muscle he’s put on with lifting works against him. It’s a valuable lesson, therefore, in defining what success and failure are. Not being the fastest climber is not a failure if your targets are different.

“The way I train and the way I’m built means that as a road cyclist, I’m not good  on hills. My FTP would have to be about 400 to keep up with somebody with a regular road cycling bodyweight. It’s something I’ve been frustrated with, but now learned to accept, because on the flat I can move competently. Hills are just something that as a result of my weight I can’t cope with, and my FTP sits at 290 most of the year,” he says. “But there’s so much data for cycling – you look at watts, you look at wind, you look at elevation, you look at distance, you look at time, you look at Strava segments. But it’s also where the switch can flick from performance-driven training to enjoying cycling for the sake of cycling. Whenever I go out for a ride for the sake of a ride, I love it. There’s nothing I enjoy more than going out of my front door and heading along the coast to Berwick on a day where it’s still and you’re not getting blasted in the face with wind.”

Crawley is currently between challenges. Running a sub-three-hour marathon is on the bucket list, and he’s building towards the Norseman triathlon in 2023, an Ironman-distance event on mountainous terrain in Norway, and a possible crack at covering the 154km West Highland Way in one go. And more importantly, he’ll keep advocating for tackling mental health issues and reminding people to redefine what success actually is.  

“The body and mind are inextricably linked, but I think people only view the short-term link,” he says. “They ignore the longer-term patterns, habits, attitudes and community elements that can be built. Sport instilled me with the understanding of how to apply those learnings to day-to-day life.”

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