To help change the perception and normalise talking about mental health, we are sharing stories of people who use exercise and the outdoors to help their mental health problems. This is Rich’s story.
09 October 2018
I met Rich on a flight from Bristol to Geneva. I was on my way to Mont Blanc for Mind Over Mountain’s first expedition. I was giddy to get into the mountains. As I settled into the window seat, I was joined by two older gents. Both were wearing shorts with tell-tale signs of cyclist – enlarged muscles on the inside of the leg, just above the knee. I was beside Rich. As we chatted, I could see that childlike excitement in Rich’s eyes about his trip. Rich was really easy to talk to because, as Rich would say himself, he’s a social chap. I heard he and his buddy Paul, who had had a pint to settle his nerves, and kept his head phones on for the whole flight, were on their way to duo Pass Port De Soleil, a 6,000 metre downhill mountain bike event in the Alps. This would only be a small part of Rich’s story, which unfolded ironically at approx 34,000 feet, the height that the Mind Over Mount record attempt will take place in September 2019.
After the flight, as we collected our bike bags, Rich and I exchanged details and agreed that Rich would show me his local, Welsh trails. I’d go over Rich’s story throughout our ten-day expedition. I was in awe of this humble man. His strength and optimism I’d not encountered before. When I got home, I emailed Rich and asked if he’d be so brave as to write a blog post for Mind Over Mountain.. To my delight, Rich agreed saying “I ride my bike to remember my wife Denise. She always encouraged me to ride. If my story can help anyone else, then yes, of course I’ll do it.” Rich was more comfortable with me transcribing his story. I hope I’ve done Rich’s story justice.
I interviewed Rich the day before the anniversary of his wife Denise’s death, later he’d post on Facebook, “the last 24 hours have been a rollercoaster of mixed emotions. Yesterday was the anniversary of my wonderful wife Denise’s death, and my eldest daughter Rachel’s master’s Graduation at Bristol University. Today my youngest daughter Natasha safely delivered Ida Pearl Collins my third grandchild. It’s been a difficult year for us all, but we are positive for the future.”
I don’t know Rich, but from my short interactions with him, this was what inspired me most. No matter how bad things got, and they got bad, he seemed to want to find that silver lining, whether on the bike, with friends and family or just being outside. It was the way Rich described the importance of cycling and the outdoors that made his story so important to Mind Over Mountain. “When times are bad, I pull myself together and get those wheels out, it’s a release for me. I get positive thoughts on the bike. Denise was happy for me to do it – ‘stop moping around she’d say’ – she would have approved of what I’m doing. Denise would have pushed me to do Finale Ligure MTB in Italy.
On the call, I immediately sensed that the anniversary was a tough time. Rich was open about how tough it had been and how he has coped, “I find I need to talk. If I don’t I’ll bottle it up. Talking passes time on the hard days and it’s nice to talk to people. See, I’m interested in people, I’ll chat. I’m social anyway” Rich went on to describe the past year since Denise passed away, “I’ve had bad times, especially alone in the evenings. In Winter it’s easier, I can sleep and that passes time”. At this point, my plan for how I’d interview Rich went out the window. I just listened and tried to hold myself together. On my Mind Over Mountain journey so far, the biggest learning for Jon and I has been the power of simply listening.
Rich’s story began in Jan 2014 when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. This condition was kept under control with medication, mainly corticosteroids (prednisolone), which would get him into remission. As the disease progressed, remission periods would be become shorter. In Sept 2015, Rich was next diagnosed with prostate cancer. Rich bravely chose to have his prostate removed, which happened a month later. Rich was recovering well, but was unable to bike for obvious reasons. Rich then started to have panic attacks and breakdowns. His tinnitus of 30 years started to rage, “I was in a right state for a few weeks. I was clutching at straws to try to resolve the tinnitus, which is incurable (but controllable). Rich had cranial sacral therapy, which he said was nice but didn’t help it. Rich resolved to just live with it. There was a silver lining for Rich, even at this time and it was the bike. After a visit to his GP in late January 2016, Rich got the all clear to go riding again. Almost immediately, he began to feel more relaxed, “I started very slowly, just building up gradually, with the support of Denise my lovely wife and best friend. Things were ticking along ok now we were happy, I was happy – riding again!” Rich’s resilience would soon be tested again. In October 2016 disaster struck in the Forest of Dean, Wales. He took a nasty tumble and broke his back and collar bone – yet again there were more months of recovery and anxiety for Rich as he couldn’t get out on the bike, “I made a quite speedy recovery with the encouragement of Denise and my girls, and was back in the saddle late January, on the long build up journey again.”
Rich and Denise booked a trip to Barcelona for a few days, “it turned out to be our last holiday together”. On Rich’s return he found his garage had been broken into and his three mountain bikes stolen, “the problems it caused getting a claim on insurance and all the problems associated with a break in, was a nightmare for me”. Keen to keep cycling, Rich managed to order a new bike straight away. Rich did one ride on it, then was admitted to hospital on good Friday 2017 with a suspected colitis flare up, which turned out to be campylobacter (food poisoning). Rich was given antibiotics to clear up and he was sent home. “I was ticking along ok for a week or so then things kicked off again, I was re admitted to hospital”. Rich would have his colon removed and now has a colostomy bag, “there wasn’t really another option, as my colon was in a bad away. I thought I was going to die in that hospital!” Listening to Rich, I was surprised by what came next. Whilst he was in hospital on the second occasion, Rich had an email from a friend and signed up to a trip to Finale Ligure (https://www.mtbbeds.com/resorts/finale-ligure-mountain-biking) in Italy in Nov 2017, “of course having this surgery made me think I’m not going. I was down in the dumps, but Denise was always positive, ‘you’ll be going’ she would always say, she helped me big time to think positive.” Six weeks after Rich came out of hospital on July 17th Denise passed away, “She was next to me, and had died unexpectedly in her sleep”.
Rich described the utter devastation for him and his family that followed, which included bereavement counselling. “I’d cry a lot at the thought of never holding her again. There’s no shame in that. It’s emotion, you need to get it out.” Rich also described how he regularly thought of Denise’s words, ‘you’ll be going to Finale’, so he got on his bike at the end of August and completed it for her! For Rich the bike was therapy, and even now, at his lowest, it would come to his rescue, “I used the mountain biking as a positive way of not falling into that trap of withdrawing and giving up on things”.
“I taped her image to my bike for the Italy trip as it was her who was so positive for me to go! One of the lads came out one morning and taped some flowers to the pic. Wonderful gesture!” Rich would complete Finale Ligure for Denise.
Today, Rich has his next adventure already planned for RoC D’hour trails in France in October, “It’s the therapy of seeing spectacular things and being on my bike. Biking has saved me from, I’m sure some very dark journeys. For me it’s mental therapy at its best!” He is locked to the past and to Denise of course, but is looking forward to his cycling adventures and his family, “I’ve had dark thoughts, but remembered I have a responsibility to my children and grandchildren to be there for them, as their mother (nana) is not.” Rich hopes that, by telling his story someone would say, ‘I’d like to do that, if he has done it, maybe I can’. Rich’s advice to anyone reading is simply, “it’s never too late to start – maybe someone would go for a walk or a cycle and get hooked on it, like I did after reading this. Ups and downs come, but the bike has stayed”.
I’m looking forward to going for a ride with Rich in Wales and learning more about this extraordinary man. As I hear more people’s stories, there are themes emerging in how people cope with mental health issues. Exercise and the outdoors has helped some people, but talking and taking the time to listen, which seems so simple, is truly powerful for everyone.