In the Mind of a World Record Holder - Ben Rockett

Given its a new year I thought I would try to do a series of inspiring interviews with various people to kick start the year. I have purposefully kept the discussion as complete to the original as possible to show the ups and downs of a journey from cycling to and from school to cranking it up to 1000 miles a week (50+ hours) on a bike. He has also recently written a book which you can check out on the link below:

Have you always been a keen cyclist or have you been involved in other sports?

I was very much a jack-of-all-trades in the sporting sense. I enjoyed sports greatly, but I never seemed to excel at any one in particular, rather I was ‘reasonable’ at several different ones. In hindsight, the two sports that I loved the most, I never really had any involvement with. Gymnastics and rock climbing were those sports. Both of them appealed hugely, but I stuck with more mainstream pursuits (I don’t know why).

Cycling itself was more a transport method than a sport. I used to commute to school with a real cyclist, who wore lycra, worked in a bike shop and even wore a helmet! That wasn’t me – I only ever cycled to school, and the nearest I came to being a cyclist was on the final sprint to the school gates.

Have you Changed as a Cyclist?

On my 16th Birthday I was given a racing bike! I then used my bike to go further from home and enjoyed riding around the county and riding much faster than I had before. Over the next two years I commuted to school (much more quickly) and enjoyed riding my bike whenever I could.

At the end of my sixth form education I was asked by a friend of mine to ride the length of Britain – JOGLE. It seemed like an epic journey and with my baggy jumpers, badminton court shoes and reluctance to pull on a pair of lycra shorts, we agreed to the 1000 mile journey.

At the end of that journey there was a change in my attitude toward cycling, which I now understand on the basis of a ‘cycling-type’. I enjoyed cycling long distances, but I didn’t care one hoot about my heart rate, the speed I averaged, how ‘aero’ my frame and kit were, the calories I’d burned or the force of the headwind.

I cycled long distances because I loved exploring and seeing new places.

This made me a touring cyclist! I then knew what ‘sort’ I was. The panniers that I’d fashioned onto the back of my road bike should have been the give-away. I wasn’t a road cyclist; I was a touring cyclist. And for many people, particularly the road cyclists, there is a large and definite distinction.

It was through cycling for triathlons that I first ‘raced’ my bike. I recall having my pannier rack still attached on that first race that I competed in (I did unclip the bags though!). The weight saving and aerodynamics hadn’t become an issue for me at that point. Neither had cleats and shaved legs. I liked it a lot and I was actually pretty good at going fast.

I loved the wind in my hair and the ‘pain’ that I could feel from cycling really hard.

I soon became a roadie! Having sworn that I would never shave my legs and ensure that my bike and clothing matched, I was soon transformed into a colour co-ordinated, smooth legged rider who wore lycra, observed my average speeds and always talked about how hard the hills were that I’d climbed on my 100 miles that morning! I had changed!!

Since then (2007) I have continued my affair with my bike(s) in what has become a rather extended story of romance, despair, addiction and joy. I have used cycling as a way to understand myself, to meet other people, to enter social circles and now, I would say, to form my major identity. I think most people now assign ‘cyclist’ to my name, whereas a few years back that label would have been something quite different.

How did you first get into endurance sports?

Running was my entry to the endurance scene. I was a pretty handy 800m runner (1:56) until I went to Bath University where I met a running coach who talked me into training for and running marathons. It wasn’t something that appealed to me – not at all, but after a couple of weeks, Eric Anderson had managed to make the idea of running 52x my usual race distance seem attractive.

I trained hard and enjoyed the long runs where I would bound through the countryside for hours on end. It was a struggle for me to run 90 minutes at first, but very soon I was heading out for 4, 5 or six hours at a time and covering huge (relatively) distances on foot. It was incredible and the freedom of endurance activity was something I found unbelievably rewarding. It was an escape from the rest of the world.

These long runs taught me that endurance was merely a case of getting to know my body, and my mind, and to be happy with the simplest of environments for a long period of time. I cherished the peace that I found from running long hours and would spend day after day, effortlessly running through the countryside.

I was running well and although I would never become a world class marathon runner, I was achieving the target improvements that I was setting. I ran a PB of 2.41:56 for the marathon distance and loved every second (mostly in retrospect) of the agony, control and persistence involved in setting that time. I had my eyes glued on a 2.30.00 marathon, but only for personal enjoyment. Running for me was always about the feelings and emotions I derived from the activity. It is still, without doubt, my favourite past time – more so than cycling!

What was the turning Point to Cycling?

So without dwelling on my running past (and hopefully future) this is how I came into endurance cycling: I was commuting home from a volleyball training session on a cold and dank night in Southern Bath, when I was hit from the side by a car entering the roundabout at excessive speed. A very long story short – I lost the fight between my body and the underside of the car. Over the following months I had to hope that my legs would heal and that I would be able to do away with the chair that I had been confined to. In not too long, and with the help of Ian Andrews at the Team Bath clinic I was able to move my leg. Over the winter months I was advised to start ‘using the leg whenever I could’ which I took as ‘use the leg as per normal’. While this wasn’t possible, of course, I was told that if I could cycle it would help the muscles strengthen having re-attached near my knee. “The more you cycle, the stronger it will become” were the words I was told. So I didn’t look back – I cycled and cycled and sure enough, my legs grew stronger and stronger.

Once I was back on my own two feet and unsupported by chair, crutches or friends, I embarked on a long journey to cycling fitness. I missed my running and I was desperate to be back in the fields, running for hours and hours. But I had a new interest – and that was cycling. I could get a similar feeling as per running, only this time I could go much further.

What do you consider your first challenge?

My first challenge?! I have no idea. Probably JOGLE, but I didn’t see that as a challenge, more as an adventure. In 2007 I climbed Kilimanjaro as a way of proving that my leg was back in working order after the crash, so perhaps I would suggest that was my first challenge.

Although I can distinctly remember walking a 5 mile charity walk on the Quantocks when I was in the Cub-Scouts. I remember it because I found it amazingly difficult. I thought that I was going to collapse and that the end would never arrive. That was the first significant challenge that I can recall…

What is your greatest achievement and why?

At the moment when I complete something I set out to do, I feel a strong sense of pride, of achievement, and utmost joy. Particularly if it was difficult. Interestingly, in addition to these feelings, I most often experience a feeling of disappointment that the challenge is over. I readily downplay past achievements and fail to embrace the significance of the things I have done. I lack a satisfaction with the things I have done. It would perhaps be too deep a conversation for us to have now, and is perhaps something that I don’t even know the answer to just yet.

I feel compelled to undertake these challenges, to push my body and, more so, my mind in order to learn about myself. I feel somewhere in the depths of the most gruelling challenge I get an insight to the very core of who I am and what’s important to me as an individual. It is a worrying, intimidating moment and yet an equally peaceful, accepting, and warming experience to have. I have only managed to experience it three times (that I can remember), and all of them have been after the point where I feel deserted, empty and as though my body can no longer operate. Nasty places to be, perhaps, but rewarding in a very strange and bare way.

I am aware I still haven’t answered your question! Perhaps the blurb I just expressed is an indication of how difficult I find this question. I would say that one of my greatest achievements was learning to like Olives. Probably not what you were expecting, right? I say this because I know I am a stubborn individual and I had created a complete barrier to liking Olives. I refused on numerous occasions to try olives, but without really considering why. One day I managed to swallow my pride and eat an olive – and now I am a very big olive consumer. The reason I see this as a great achievement is that it taught me the lesson to be open to re-think my existing thoughts and emotions; to consider that things (including me!) change. I have used that lesson greatly for understanding the experiences I have and the people I get to meet through this ‘crazy’ world of ultra-endurance.

What did your training involve in the build up to achieving the LEJOGLE world record?

Training for the LEJOGLE ride was very much about changing my lifestyle, which in hindsight had a far greater impact than I had ever imagined. Within a matter of months I was all consumed by training, to the point where I would now describe myself as addicted to cycling. This might sound rather extreme, but I feel I developed a dependency, perhaps borne of anxiety over the demands of the attempt, that would only be calmed if I were on a bike.

I knew from the outset that training would need to be enjoyable; and indeed that is something I would like to encourage other people to always remember. It was something that I quickly forgot as I allowed the impending pressure of the ride to consume all my thought processes. It made training difficult, but I was determined to prepare both my mind and my body through what some call the ‘feel factor’; I wanted to learn about my body and respond to its developments and changes rather than by following a rigid and strict programme. I’m not one to easily follow the orders of what someone else tells me without heavy questions, so it was perhaps the best for everyone (a coach would have become highly frustrated with me!).

I will try to keep this relatively light hearted and discuss the daily routines of training. It might sound as though I now contradict myself, but the main goal was not to have a definite ‘routine’. I wanted to ‘keep my body guessing’ so that it was better prepared to deal with the demands of a task as and when it was necessary.

Bearing in mind a challenge on this scale was completely new to me, I was eager to understand what my body and mind would do, how they would operate, and how I would react when everything about me was truly exhausted. I did things which would drive a coach / nutritionist / physiotherapist to the point of locking me up! I increased my training miles, but would skip sleep for three nights so would gain an appreciation for how my body would work when I was incredibly tired. I would skip meals and see if my body could still cycle through the worst of all ‘bonks’. I tried to abuse my body in the way the event would harm my body, and then understand from the thick of the problems, how I might be able to prepare for, or indeed, prepare to avoid such problems.

In a bizarre way, I found it very reassuring to experience these troubles before undertaking the event itself. I am sure if I had felt that exhausted, that broken, that hollow and that helpless for the first time during the ride I would have been scared away from the attempt. They were truly horrible experiences, but I was grateful for the chance to understand my body a little better and to learn about my mind’s reactions to stress, fear and extreme sleep deprivation.

By the time of the ride I had ridden 18000 miles in six months, with many 1000-mile weeks on the bike. My body felt strong and I was able to maintain strong paces for hundreds of miles. It transferred to the ride itself where I averaged 23mph for the first 24 hours over the challenging terrain of the South West of England and Southern Wales. I had turned my body into a machine that very simply needed food in order to operate.

I worked my sessions very loosely: I had long rides (between 200 and 400 miles), Short rides (100-150 miles), Speed sessions (50-100 miles), Very long rides (500+ miles) and then multiple conditioning sessions, stretching (every day if off the bike) and then multiple body-weight training regimes. I didn’t use a gym or any supplements. I wanted my body to prepare for this completely naturally – to the point that the clothes and the bike were the only man-made things I was using. Everything else came from nature, and that was reflected in my diet; all natural foodstuffs, and a huge amount of fat!

The joy of riding my bike for 50+ hours a week was that I could eat anything I wanted. I really just needed the calories. I tried to eat as healthily as I possibly could, but for the large part, I was searching for fat and carbs as if they were going out of fashion. I was eating over 8000 calories a day – and losing weight! It was tough eating that much food.

A key element of the training, however, was teaching my body to be comfortable digesting food whilst I was cycling. I did this by eating my meals on the turbo trainer and balancing the meals on the handle-bars. It all appears very Heath-Robinson and amateur…but that’s exactly what I was, and in the future I wouldn’t change it at all! The innocence, the naivety and the explorative nature of my cycling development was something that I think helped me immeasurably.

Where does cycling take you now and in the future?

So I found cycling through a desire for speed. It fostered my enjoyment for going places and seeing new things, and for a child who wasn’t rolling in money it was a wonderful, free way to explore and spend my weekends. I think I will now always be a cyclist, although I am confident that I will very soon return to my touring roots, for that sense of discovery and adventure is something I now seek more of.

Who or what has been your biggest influence?

I don’t think I can pin-point this, which I know is a very boring, non-committed answer. If you were to push me on the subject, I would suggest that my biggest influence is probably my Nan, for I will always remember her matter-of-fact nature and that she never seemed shocked or worried by any plans I ever told her. She always laughed when things went wrong and she was a problem solver – she did everything she needed and enjoyed life, remaining fighting fit right through to her ripe old age.  Although I think who I am is largely a product of all the amazing things I have read about other people doing.

Do you have any tips for people out there wanting to achieve their dreams?

I don’t have any specific advice, for everyone will achieve their dreams in a different way – I don’t think it is prescriptive. However I would borrow a quote that says this:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” (T.E. Lawrence).

What are you currently reading?

Right now I am reading a book called “Misadventures in a white desert” by Patrick Woodhead. I have aspirations to reach the poles…

Music of choice at the low and high points of a challenge?

I find music an incredibly powerful tool – so much so that it can make or break  the challenge simply by provoking a certain series of emotions. I tend to prefer songs that initiate memories or that remind me of certain people and events. So at times when I am jubilant I can often be heard listening to things such as Jack Johnson, Paul Simon, the Scissor Sisters (don’t judge me), Bon Jovi, or maybe some hit musicals, in between Elton John and the Eagles, perhaps some REM, too.

When I’m not feeling so great I actually like to acknowledge that and then listen to something that reminds of why I might be out doing this ‘ridiculous’ activity, or why I feel I want to continue with something. Then I tend to listen to a lot of counting crows. Music really reminds me of certain people and so I like to enter into a state of remembrance when I feel low. I like to think about people I really like and that always brings me out and back to the rock tunes, always with a smile that makes people around me think I have lost the plot or am hallucinating. I really do have bizarre musical memories from certain events – California Girls by Katy Perry is the song that reminds me of the LEJOGLE ride….

Favourite food?

Depends entirely on where I am, how I am feeling and what I am doing. Big favourites for me, however, are sweet-potato cottage pie / bacon and leek risotto / clam chowder in a bread bowl / pizza / jaffa cakes / lemon drizzle cake / baked bananas with melted chocolate / Roast beef with crispy roast potatoes.

If you would like to know more about his epic journey then check the link below and grab yourself a copy of his book which has everything on the incredible journey. Finally  please leave your thoughts on anything in this as I find bits of incredible, amazing, mad but above all inspiring.