by Karen Darke
“Yu, Yu!” they scream, giggling and running alongside us, chasing faster as we pedal harder. Their excited eyes and toothy smiles exude energy, reminding me of my own when I first discovered the joys of handcycling after becoming paralysed.
We are riding the roof of Africa, through the Semien Mountains, Ethiopia. The distant sight of our bikes stirs them to run, a genetically wired impulse, their lithe frames sprinting across horizons, carrying them away from their route to school or work in the fields, towards us. They are wide-eyed at the sight of my recumbent handbike, a supine stranger cranking through their familiar lands.
With their dyed braids or shaved funky patterns of hair, they look catalogue-cool for kids that live so many miles from shops and cities. They have attitude, perhaps born of the resilience that living here demands. Where we are gnawed from only a few days of pedaling in 47C heat at oxygen-deprived altitude, scorched despite luxuries of suncream, umbrella shade, and bottled water, these children are exuberant – hard-core survivors.
Thanks to FINDRA I am speaking at the Peebles Outdoor Film Festival about the incredible cycle adventures I’ve been lucky to experience across the world’s continents, since winning Gold in the Rio 2016 Paralympics. As the above extract hints, medals and globe-trotting is absolutely not what cycling is all about for me…
The glistening black ribbon of road that beckoned us through the Ethiopian landscape is a wonderful metaphor for life…the contusions that we are forced to navigate through the unexpected events and escarpments of living. Perhaps we are all just like those children that ran beside us…eager for movement, for adventure, for the gifts and balance that being outside brings us.
Paralysed at a young age in a rock climbing accident, it is these elements that have healed me – mentally and physically. When things get tough in my head, I turn to my bike. When things get tough in my body, I also turn to my bike.
Just prior to the Rio 2016 Paralympics I injured my shoulder, raced in tape and a state of survival, and was signed up for shoulder surgery after the Games. Somehow I managed enough mobility to keep riding, though getting in and out of the handbike was impossible alone at first.
I didn’t want to cancel the planned ‘Wild Way’ adventure cycling the Carretera Austral, and thanks to my team-mates help, we took the month-long journey through the incredible landscape of Patagonia. Immersed in the rainforest, high mountain and coastal scenery, camping wild and living simple, my shoulder injury miraculously dissipated. I returned home and cancelled the surgery. The shoulder has hardly bothered me since…
There is mounting evidence in the field of environmental psychology, that the patterns and colours that occur in nature have the ability to heal. Hospitals that paint rooms natural colours, with pictures of nature and access to air and outdoor space show quicker rates of recovery in patients. When I was paralysed and horizontal in a hospital bed for three months, things looked pretty gloomy to me. The day my bed was wheeled outside and I traded a view of polystyrene ceiling tiles for sky, trees, leaves and stars, I was transformed. A simple afternoon and evening laying outside gifted me with inspiration, possibility and a zest for what life still promised.
As a wellbeing and mindset coach, I know how helpful it is to change our environment and our physiology to change our thoughts and emotions, and hence our personal reality. The combination of movement and nature that cycling brings has certainly been the ‘doctor’ of my life. From injury to wellness, from stressed to feeling free, from lonely to sharing deep experiences and connections, it never fails. Cycling is the ‘everyday adventure’ that enables me to get from surviving to thriving.