Leigh, Derby, UK

“Well I hadn’t thought about it until you just asked me, everything was fine.” Leigh pauses. Hang on, I’m turning 40. WHAT?!” He laughs and tells me it’s parents that turn 40. “I’m still a kid.”

Leigh says he doesn’t find the thought of turning 40 particularly daunting, but does think it’s an interesting time. He says: “I remember having a conversation with somebody, maybe a decade ago, about crossing a bridge in family responsibilities. How your parents are getting older, and some of the responsibility shifts onto you. Like, you’re the one that’s earning the money, and instead of your parents taking you places, you’re the one taking them to the train station to go on holiday. A strange role reversal.”

“40 for me is less about an emotional reaction and more a realisation. Here in the UK we’re still locked down because of COVID, and I’ve had a year to think about what I’m doing with my life.”

Leigh was 35 when he returned to the UK after spending seven years cycling around the world. “I’ve been using my body to escape my troubled mind for a long time. When I came back there was a search for the next adventure, the next big escape, what to do with my life.”

He wanted to get a world record, and in 2018 Leigh smashed the time for the fastest cycle across Europe, gaining him a Guinness World Record. Shortly afterwards, someone asked Leigh what he wanted in life and it made him think. He says: “From the outside, everyone has seen me as an adventurer, as a cyclist, someone who goes off and does these wild things and whose life wouldn’t be complete without it. But I’ve thought about a lot in lockdown, that maybe, all these things that I’m doing have just been to try to give myself value. Like, getting a 1st class degree wasn’t good enough, backpacking around the world wasn’t good enough, cycling around the world wasn’t good enough, and then getting a world record ended up not being good enough. Like, where do you stop? I keep on climbing and climbing to look for acceptance from others or to feel good enough in myself.”

He’s done a lot of soul searching and has realised what he’s been searching for in all his pursuits. He says: “What I’ve been looking for is to value myself enough to be loved. I want to be loved, that’s basically all it came down to. I had the horrible realisation that maybe through all these years of doing wild adventures and achieving so much, I’d missed the whole point of it. If I want to create this world where I can be loved, have a great relationship and be the father I want to be for my own kids, I’ve actually missed out on holding onto those relationships. I’ve pushed them away so I can go off and do other projects. I’ve not settled and had the children so I can be that father. All the things I want, and the things I was doing, didn’t align. So if I do want to settle and have children, then I have to sit those adventures on the back burner for a while. Or be forgotten completely. Like, I’ve done amazing stuff, maybe that’s kind of the end of a chapter on that.”

Leigh has learned to let go of any expectations, and in doing so says it’s let him rest in who he is. “I would go into situations quite anxious thinking ‘God, they expect me to be this fountain of knowledge or for me to speak in a certain way’ and I came to the realisation that, actually, all I am is the sum of the experiences I’ve had in the last 39 years, and I’ve done them the best I can. I can’t be all of these expectations. That was quite a nice eye-opener.”

“At 40 I’ve collected a lot of experiences, and have seen the world from a lot of different points of view and so I’ve started to see my world in a different way. At this age I’m starting to think less about my own pursuits, and although there’s still a lot I want to do, I want to use my experiences to help other people, like children, charities and my local community. I’ve realised the value of home, and belonging. I’ve realised the value of my own identity and what I can bring to other people, getting past all those negative opinions and thoughts. Having pushed myself so much, and having achieved so much, every step along the way I’ve learnt an immense amount, and it applies to so many different areas.”

Leigh says having counselling has been a really important part of his journey through life, where he’s learnt how to understand what he’s going through. He says: “A big thing is when I’ve explored my own vulnerability, and used that to open up. It’s super important.”

He first tried counselling in his 20’s, but he admits he didn’t actually do the work, and so it wasn’t helpful. He says: “At that age I was looking for a silver bullet. You have to do all the homework they give you, be willing to look–and get right into–those dark corners, but I didn’t do it. Instead, I went travelling to escape. It’s the greatest escape, but you can’t run away from your problems. After years away, when I came back, I thought that surely normal life would be so easy, nothing would faze me again. But I reacted to it–relationships, responsibility, finances–in exactly the same way as I had done 10 years before. I realised, no matter where I went in the world, I took myself, and that if I wanted to change, I had to look within. I think a lot of us are looking for that ready made place or thing we fit into, when actually we have the capacity to build it ourselves.”

Leigh worked with a psychologist when doing the world record, and one of the most important things he learnt was that if you want to achieve your best, then you need a why; something intrinsic. He says: “I didn’t have the capacity to do that in the beginning, I just wanted to get the certificate and be the best in the world. The psychologist would ask ‘yes, but why?’. He said it was like an onion, peel away the layers and at the core you’d have the true, strong motivation.”

12 days into his world record, Leigh changed how he defined himself. He says: “I didn’t want to be this athletic robot who was being analysed all the time, I just wanted to be a human, I just wanted to be loved. That was a really important moment for me. I’d like to do another world record, but instead of chasing that end goal, that achievement, I want to try and see happiness in every moment. Appreciate every part of it, and have a laugh. To be able to deal with every situation with a smile, no matter how challenging, is a big goal for me.”

Getting rid of that seriousness is a weight off Leigh’s shoulders. He says: “I definitely still have a tendency to judge myself on what other people think of me, but I’m getting there – you get to a point where you don’t give a shit so much. Values are really what defines a person, not achievements. So how I choose to treat people, what my morals and values are and how I contribute to society is what’s important. The times in my life where I’ve looked the most stupid is when I’m trying my hardest at something new. You’re thinking, look at these people pointing and laughing at me, but ultimately, I’m the one that’s learning, I get the reward.”

“One thing turning 40 does is to force the understanding that you can’t do everything in the world; because you’ve been alive for quite a while now, you can’t be alive forever, and life passes quickly.” Leigh finds this empowering, rather than daunting. He says: “I don’t regret anything that I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of cool stuff but I also have a habit of procrastinating. I’m using all my experiences to become a better version of myself. My early 30’s were about external discovery, and my late 30’s all about internal discovery. My 40’s feel like they’re going to be about helping others. I know myself a bit more and the awareness of my ‘why’, my actions are starting to be a little more purposeful, rather than stumbling into things. I’m focused on knowing what I can do, achieve and enjoy.”

“I’ve got a way to go, don’t get me wrong. To have that awareness, that self belief, confidence and that self-love, but I’m definitely trying. I love the idea of just having a humble little life somewhere, living in connection with the world.”

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