Friday, July 10, 2015

Graeme Obree


When you're depressed, everything becomes distorted.
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I have worked through the years with a great number of parishioners who have suffered or continue to suffer from various forms of what is described, too broadly and pejoratively, as "mental illness".  This has included, but has not been limited to, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression.  I have seen others deal with beloved family members who suffer from such.  The toll it takes is tremendous, of course, and no less so when the suffering is with someone for whom we care.

There are transient forms of these illnesses, too, that can afflict us.  I find that even I, after a six month period when I experienced the sudden and unexpected death of my father and the very gradual, painful, and debilitating death of my mother; as well as the death of a beloved roue of an uncle and of my two most important mentors, found the grim hand of depression taking hold of my soul.

My exercise and nutrition routine, which I need to follow in order to keep pace with parish and school responsibilities, fell apart.  [I may feel no older than 36, but my rational mind reminds me that I am well over a generation beyond that birthday.]  My sleep became intermittent and inadequate; my interest in work and in life in general became stale.  The fact that this state came gradually and quietly into all aspects of my life with a terrible deliberation was perhaps its most frightening aspect.  Certainly, it has increased my empathy towards those who find themselves victims of what would have once been called a form of possession.

There were two things that drove out this particular demon, or series of demons, however.  While faith was and is always present, simple and sometimes silly games with my granddaughter helped considerably, as did the ability to once again plunge deeply into ocean water and feel the exercise of the familiar muscle memory along with the sights, sounds, and smell of the surf.

There are many people who have used physical activity to pull themselves away from depression, as well as trauma and other afflictions that are often left to the cruel passivity of pharmaceuticals to address.  [If interested in this subject, I would recommend this article from the Harvard Medical School.]  Perhaps the poster person for such would be our Friday subject, who suffered not just from depression, but bipolar disorder and a chronic desire for self-slaughter.

Graeme Obree, nicknamed "The Flying Scotsman", is a legend in the world of bicycle racing, known particularly for his attempts on the world speed record twenty years ago.  He is also the inventor of one of the most unique bicycles in his sport, particularly since it was built using, among other things, parts from a washing machine.

As often happens with those vexed with mental issues, Obree's teenage and young adult years were beset by multiple failures, drug use, and at least two suicide attempts.  He failed as the owner of a bicycle shop, was alienated from his family, and purposeless until he fixed upon a Quixotic goal.  For nearly a decade, the record for the fastest speed set on a bicycle was just short of 32 miles an hour.  As such tests of speed are generally performed in a velodrome with no other riders present and the cyclist competing only against a clock, remarkable concentration is permitted.  Anyone familiar with combating mental disorder will immediately see the advantages of this circumstance.

However, breaking the 32 mph barrier would require more than a trained and focused rider.  Both Obree's technique and his medium would have to be adjusted.  Obree had taken note of the physical stance of downhill skiers who tuck their elbows close to their bodies in order to encourage a more efficient aerodynamic profile and he wished too do the same on a bicycle, something that required a redesign of the handlebars.  Rather than the standard "inverted U" style common in racing and touring bikes, Obree fabricated a straight, and very short bar across the top of the frame.  The frame was adjusted so that his knees would not come in contact with it; the chain shortened to allow the most torque.  In one particularly inspired moment, Obree noted how well the bearings in a washing machine were manufactured and had them included in the bike's design.


At a high enough speed, [I could] tuck in my arms. And, above all, get in a very forward suposition on the bike, on the peak of the saddle. The Obree position isn't advantageous simply aerodynamically, it also allows, by pushing the point of pedalling towards the rear, to benefit from greater pressure while remaining in the saddle. You soon get an impression of speed, all the greater because you've got practically nothing [deux fois rien] between your hands. Two other things I noticed after a few hundred metres: I certainly didn't have the impression of turning 53 × 13, and the Obree position is no obstruction to breathing. But I wasn't pedalling at 55kmh, 100 turns of the pedals a minute, yet my arms already hurt.
With the bike, designed in his kitchen, built in a friend's workshop and now named "Old Faithful", Obree rented a velodrome in Norway for 24 hours.  His first attempt at the record was a failure.  Cramped and unsettled, Obree returned to his hotel room for a brief night of fitful sleep, and returned to the velodrome early the next morning, so early his support teammate overslept.  While it was unlikely, given his exhaustion and lack of sufficient recovery time, on July 16, 1993, he broke through the 32 mph barrier.

Obree earned the record, lost it to another cyclist shortly thereafter, and then regained it the next year.  When tedious international cycling bureaucrats, disturbed by innovation [What bureaucrat isn't?], banned Old Faithful for the usual nonsensical reasons, he designed another bike.  When that wasn't enough, they banned his riding position; he designed another.  Then they overreached by banning his already established records.  This was enough for the cycling community to begin to push back, eventually getting Obree's records restored and allowing for innovation to permit progress in the sport.


Obree would compete in a variety of bicycle competitions, winning an equal variety of medals, trophies, and championships.  He avoided the Tour de France, however, as it was understood that he would have to, like other competitors, dope himself.  [Don't be shocked; everyone knows this is done.]  Given his history, that would have been a poor choice.

His worst moment came the year after his initial victory over the speed record when his brother was killed in an automobile accident, initiating a depression spiral that resulted in his third suicide attempt.  While in the midst of hanging himself in his horse's stable, he was discovered at the very last minute by the local farmer's daughter who was happening by.

Again, he returned to the sheer physical pleasure of speed cycling, spinning his way to more records and victories and, ultimately, to his status as Scotland's champion of sport and mental health awareness.  As he noted in an interview a decade ago,

"It's all in the past....Carry on regardless. Carry on through thick and thin. Carry on until you're good enough to win." 

Marvelous advice, even if one's victory is simply over transient depression.