Dr. Mike on a Bike: The reason he's pedaling around the world

"There’s a huge stigma amongst the medical community against showing any kind of weakness."

Doctor Mike on a bike

Dr. Mike Nally is a doctor from Manchester, England who set off in February on an around-the-world bike ride — and he’s still on the journey.

In the process, he’s raising funds for Mind UK and the Royal Medical Benevolent Fund, raising awareness about the mental health struggles experienced by medical professionals. Sometimes he bikes along with other doctors and sometimes he bikes alone.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

I spoke with Nally as he rode along a rural stretch of road by Lake Superior — that was, we spoke once he was able to wait out a sudden downpour. You can follow his journey here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hi Mike! Where are you en route to?

We’re going to Wawa, Ontario, and we have about two weeks until we reach New York. We’ve gone about 112 miles today. We got caught in a downpour, but we’re all dry now. We caught a tailwind and we’re flying along.

Why are you doing this crazy ride?

There are many reasons. Personally, this is me achieving a dream. I’ve been on what I call a “conveyor belt” since high school — just going with studies, moving along, and never looking back. I’ve been working as a doctor for two years and have come to a natural hiatus in my career because I’m at a point where I need to choose my specialty. I came to the realization that if I didn’t do this now, I would never.

This is a chance for me to realize a dream, but also to test my limits — to put myself out there and see what my body can do. Working in medicine, there’s a lot of pressure put upon you, and I found it difficult to cope with the emotional stress of the job.

Dr. Mike on a Bike

There was this moment where a middle-aged gentleman came to where I was working at a family practice. He was very stressed at home, stressed in his family life, and had a breakdown that morning. At the time, I was 26 and found myself giving advice to this man with far more life experience that I have. I just thought that was wrong — I needed to get out there and experience more of life and develop more as a person before I could properly advise my patients.

The relationship between doctors and mental health has also been something on my mind since I’ve left university, so I also saw this as an opportunity to raise awareness about those issues and raise a bit of money, too.

Have you personally experienced any mental health struggles while working as a doctor?

I am lucky enough to have a really supportive group of family and friends around me, so during the times where I’ve been low, I’ve had them as a safety net. But many people don’t have that, and this is my way of supporting my colleagues.

Being a doctor is something I have always wanted to become, but I’ve become a bit disillusioned by the system and the support that is and isn’t offered. I’ve seen so many of my colleagues struggle, and had heard from friends who are doctors of stories of young doctors straight out of university taking their own lives.

The suicide rate amongst doctors is double that of the general population. My hope is that this ride not only raises awareness about that, but hopefully it helps doctors open up about their feelings and feel like they are in a position where they can share. There’s a lot of focus in medicine about professional development but not necessarily about personal development. I don’t think we are properly prepared for the emotional stresses of the job.

Doctor Mike on a bike

There’s a huge stigma amongst the medical community against showing any kind of weakness. Obviously, feeling a certain way is not a weakness because competition is so intense I think people are afraid to reveal any chink in the amor. But happily, during this ride I’ve received so many messages from doctors saying that they feel supported.

Have there been any moments over the past several months that have been particularly psychologically testing?

Oh yes. The hardest part of the cycle has been when I was in India. There was one day in particular: I was doing the ride in the middle of the summer, so it was 113 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent humidity. It was as hot as it can get. I was arriving at guest houses close to collapsing, just exhausted.

India is a fantastic country, but you can’t ever switch off. You’ve got cars and mopeds coming at you left, right, and center; people wanted to take selfies with me. In a lot of ways it’s fun, but when you’re exhausted and there are constant distractions around you, it can be sensory overload. Ultimately, I ended up in a bike accident. I smashed into a taxi that was parked into the side of the road after being distracted by a lorry coming past me. My bike was completely destroyed. I hit my head on the car, but luckily I was okay.

To be honest with you, in that moment I was in tears. My bike was destroyed, there was cracks all through the frame. The whole family that was in the taxi was laughing at me; they just obviously didn’t understand the significance of what just had happened. I felt like a school kid in a playground. I called my parents and I said, Mom, Dad, I’m coming home. It’s over.

But my dad said to me: “Look, there’s no problem with you coming home, but how are you going to get home?” And I looked around and realized I’m in northeast India, not close at all to any airport. So I put the phone down, the family in the taxi helped me re-bend my bike into a workable shape, and I was able to barely cycle to the next stop.

I thought that was the end of my dream, but then I received all these messages from people saying they wanted to help me get back out there on the road. I went to sleep and when I woke up, I found that friends, family, and strangers who had been following the journey on Instagram had rallied together to get me a new bike and raise $8,000.

I was so close to calling it. But it went from the worst part of the trip to a reaffirming life event where you’re reminded that, wow, humankind can be the best.

Doctor Mike on a bike

Have you experienced other beautiful moments on the road?

Many, but one in particular was a stretch across the Australian Outback. For miles and miles, all you can see is bush and this flat straight road. It was the first time I have ever been completely alone to that extent. You don’t have any phone signal; you’re just alone with yourself and your thoughts. I don’t want to say it was exactly a spiritual moment, but it was something quite like it.

It was just unbelievable landscape: A never-ending road with kangaroos bouncing alongside you and eagles flying above.

Have you noticed any changes in your mental state since you took in London?

Not to be cliche, but I had a lot of growing up to do. I left the United Kingdom with a more negative outlook on things, although I’m not sure why that was. But as I’ve travelled, I’ve seen all these acts of kindness, and it’s filled me with emotions that can be overwhelming at times. You see someone waving at you, and you just want to give them a hug.

I’m more positive now, pushed my limits and realized that my mind and body can go much further than I ever thought they could. The other really important thing has been learning how to be more aware of myself, physically and mentally, and this has come from spending eight to nine hours on the road cycling. I’m much better at realizing when I’m feeling stress or anxiety, and the ability to realize that those things are happening is a new, invaluable ability.

Doctor Mike on a bike

What’s next for you and what are you looking forward to when you get back?

So from New York, we’ll fly to Portugal, and from there we’ll cycle back up to London. The goal is to get there on October 26. We’ll have a bit of a celebration there and then I’ll complete the last leg to Manchester.

I’m looking forward to having a roast dinner, a good cup of tea, and a slice of cake. That’s my mom’s speciality, so I’m sure there will be a cake waiting for me when I get home.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

Media via DMOAB