CHALLENGING Perceived Limits: A Conversation with Endurance Cyclist Mike Cotty
“The essence of exploration is a journey that you're not quite sure how or when it'll end."
At the start of any new journey, the ultimate outcome is always unknown. Whether a cyclist is racing along a smooth asphalt road, or a climber is navigating across mixed terrain, the journey unfolds as the individual advances.
For British endurance cyclist Mike Cotty, the physical element of his solo endurance challenges is just one piece of a larger whole, where on each ride he aims to break through the perceived limitations of the body and mind.
Most recently Mike tested this during his epic ride from Conegliano, Italy, to Chamonix, France, dubbed “The Road to Mont Blanc”, a 1,000 kilometer (621 miles) non-stop, 50+ hour ride across the Dolomites, Eastern Alps and Swiss Alps. The passage included climbing over 21 mountains and 21,000 meters, which is equivalent to ascending Mount Everest almost 2.5 times, but in a single ride.
Mike grew up in Romsey, a small town in the county of Hampshire, England. He began cycling at age 12 and the sport immediately felt deeply rooted within him. After realizing that he wasn’t on track to become a pro cyclist, Mike got qualified as an engineer when he was 21. In 2001 Mike landed a job at Cannondale Bicycles in Switzerland, moved abroad, and started his career within the industry he loved. As the years rolled forward, Mike intrinsically knew that a traditional path was not for him and instead carved his own multi-disciplinary career within the cycling industry through setting personal endurance challenges and founding cycling media consultancy, Media-24, in 2012.
Whatever your medium of work and expression in life, Mike inspires all on the power of training our minds to harness our real potential, to carve our own path in life, and what sheer willpower and determination can achieve when focused at that very thing you love. His story makes it clear that you don’t have to be super man or even a pro sponsored athlete to make your passion your living. You just need the right mindset.
Mike Climbing The Stelvio Pass, a mountain pass in northern Italy, elevation of 9,045 ft. It is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps, and the second highest in the Alps, just 43 ft below France's Col de l'Iseran (9,088 ft).
Alison: In your cycling career to date, what ride do you feel most proud of?
Mike: The ride I feel the most proud of may not have been my biggest ride, but it was the first personal challenge that I did, which was in 2011, when I traversed across the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. I had been cycling since I was 12 years old and I was about 31, and I had done a lot of different events, and big endurance races, but not personal challenges. I wanted to enjoy exactly what I get a lot of pleasure from—and that was purely just being on the bike and being right merged in the heart of nature and in the mountains.
I’ve progressed the rides since then, but on that ride I learned so much because, at the time, I didn't know my mental and physical capacity, so I didn't really know if I could achieve what I wanted to. It was a very spiritual experience for me and completing it was such a magical moment in my life. I had just a couple of friends and my girlfriend with me. Completing it was not really the end goal; it was about the experience. It's the trying, it’s all the emotions that you feel when you step outside of your comfort zone to do something.
In that ride I was trying to take myself back to the essence of why I enjoy cycling and what I get from it. From that one experience it went from that proud moment to thinking, “Hang on a minute, there’s more to this.” It was an incredible journey and I learned so much from the physical side, the mental side, and the emotional side, from feeling connected to what I do as an individual and then to the experience itself. Then I started thinking, “How can I use this and bring this to other people?” So that was a really important moment for me and one that also really opened my eyes up to the world again, which I will always be grateful for.
Alison: When you are in the midst of these epic physical feats, where does your mind go? How do you keep yourself going?
Mike: I’ve always had a fascination with body and mind ever since I was in school; the idea of perceived limitations and of what can be achieved. No matter what you are doing, someone will say something to you like, “It can’t be done, that’s impossible,” and I was never trying to prove to anyone that if they say it can’t be done, I’ll go and do it. That is the furthest thing from what I am trying to do. It is more that my own mind asks questions and I think, “I wonder if you apply the right training and a methodical approach, if you eat well and rest well—if you put all the pieces together, I wonder if my physical mind, body, and presence can actually achieve something like that.” So the challenges are really out of intrigue of what I can potentially do.
Mike with Mont Blanc in the background.
In terms of how I get through the hard moments, the hard moments come, but I am just so focused. I look back and remember those moments were so hard, but what is great about cycling, and what I’ve managed to find, is that it is one of the only things that brings me back to the present moment. If I’m thinking, how do I get through the hard moments, normally the hard moments come when you are thinking about the future like, “I’ve got another climb, I’ve got another 10 hours, 20 hours, another night.” All these things are really negative on your head and exhausting because your mind is continually racing and thinking, “What am I going to do, can I really make it?” I just try to take that right back to the very moment when I’m riding and say to myself, “What am I doing now?” And I think, “Okay, I’m turning my legs, I’m going up a climb,” and I’ve got to deal with that second as it happens. And then I deal with the next moment, and the next moment and the next moment. If you are really present in what you are doing and if you ask yourself the question, “What am I really worried or stressed about?” you’re either stressed about the past or the future.
If that’s your mindset then you are going to have that stress throughout the ride or throughout anything you are doing in life. So cycling for me, especially at the hardest moments of the challenges, puts me right into the present moment where I’m literally just focused on that precise second or minute of my life to get through, to get through, to get through. And then the timeline just moves along; it’s that present moment that just moves along. I don't really think about the future or the past, I’m just right focused on breathing and moving and doing what I believe in and trained so hard for. It is that present moment that keeps me going. It’s just an incredible feeling.
One of your questions touched on the flow state and that is the flow moment, when your mind is right on the present time with what you are doing, that’s when you tap into that subconscious state where pain seems to disappear and you reach another level. It’s a fascinating feeling and quite hard to explain, but I think it all comes down to really being focused on what you are really doing and harnessing your mind energy, not to be thinking about anything else but literally just what you are doing in that second in time.
Mike at the summit of the Galibier at night during Les Alpes, 2013.
Alison: This makes me think about the first mountain I climbed. I was 13, so it also wasn't my biggest climb, but probably the most meaningful. I remember at first thinking, “How am I going to climb this?” Then when I was in the moment it was just one foot, one foot, one foot, looking at each step, making sure it was smart. And in that moment, it’s weird, time goes away, fears melt away, and it is just that narrowed in total focus.
Mike: It is such a cool feeling. I wish I could give that feeling to more people. Some of what we (Media-24) are doing is about trying to get people back into nature, back into that feeling, because I think that is the most powerful feeling in the world. When I really break it down and look back, I see that the best times were when I was perfectly focused on what I was doing, and the hardest times were when I was thinking about the future.
Alison: Definitely. One thing Anchor & Leap looks at is how do you tap into that optimal place of flow in your life, where the fears aren’t bogging you down, or all of the uncertainty and questioning.
Mike: I think that's really important. The last challenge I did was the 1,000K challenge, and it was quite a bit bigger than anything I had attempted before. I felt really stressed and that taught me so much for my next challenge because I wasted so much anxiety and stress. Months and months of this where I didn't sleep and I would just think, “Can I do this?” And I did it. So I look back now and think that I could have eliminated most of my stress and anxiety if I was just focused on what I was doing. It’s a mindset. It’s about looking at the mindset and focusing on what you are doing now and instead of looking at the future going, “What if”. I should have been saying, ‘Hey, this is going okay now so lets just keep on doing that and deal with it when it comes to it.” I think others can learn a lot just by looking at their mindset and it is something I am trying to learn more about.
Mike at the start of Les Alpes, 2013.
Alison: I read a quote of yours where you said, “Whatever you think your boundary is, if you can get to that point but then step a little bit further, the whole world opens up again.” Can you tell me more about your thinking and inspiration behind this idea?
Mike: You can’t really think about that moment before getting there. If you are just really in the moment of what you are doing, it is just mind blowing what you can achieve. It goes back to what I was saying about perceived limitations. We put these boundaries on ourselves that we can or cannot, and then just breaking them down and getting back in the moment, and believing in what you are doing. Then every time you go a little bit further, and a little bit further. This has taught me a lot, just from getting on and doing and experiencing and looking at it from a slightly different angle afterwards and thinking, “Wow, how on earth did I do that?” And I don't know, but I think it is really just being in the moment.
Alison: Definitely. Linking that back to our conversation on authenticity, I don't think an individual can get to that point if they don't have an authentic relationship with themselves too.
Mike: I think that's a good point and another to add there is that I really have to put the training time in to give me that confidence; my personality is not just super confident. One thing I do have is the willpower, just to keep at it when the chips are down; I have this burning ambition inside. And I see that the only thing that is really going to stop me in a challenge or in business is my own mind. Of course you are not always going to have success, but that doesn't mean that you are a failure. It means there is a different path to be taken and you have to learn from it. It is just a journey and it is an incredible journey from where you are now to where you want to be. You may never get to where you initially thought is the right place for you, but that is not a failure. That is one of the most amazing things, that you don't have to be this super self-confident and gifted athlete or business person, you just have to have this authentic will to know that you can do it and know that there is something special there. And that’s what I have always lived by. If you are authentic about what you believe in, then it’s just a matter of time until you find that right path that is going to lead you down hopefully to the fulfillment that you want from life.
Mike climbing the Passo Giau during The Road to Mont Blanc.
Alison: What would you say is the ultimate impact that you are looking to have on the world through your work and also through the kind of person that you try to be?
Mike: I’d say the ultimate impact for me, which has sort of been an evolution for many years, is really to be able to use all of my skills, experience, and knowledge to really serve others to help them to believe and realize that anyone can do what they want. Take cycling out of it, cycling is just a mechanism that I found to experience this, but the formula is exactly the same. It’s just really having the belief and being authentic and if I can use my experience and skills to serve others and help inspire and educate, then that’s really what makes me fulfilled and smile inside. Every time I help someone realize that this isn’t a magic trick, this is open to everyone, you just have to have a little bit of guidance, a little bit of belief, and then you have to work like crazy and you can do some amazing things.
Alison: I love that idea that it’s not magic, and that cycling for you is the way in which you tap into it but it is something accessible to everyone.
Mike: I really believe in that. I wanted to be a professional cyclist when I was younger. That was my dream and my goal and I was training hard. But I was just a kid and the opportunity to work for Cannondale came when I was 21 and I was at a juncture and ultimately I made the decision to go into the bicycling industry. From a purely athletic perspective I had to be honest with myself and I wasn't a winner straight from school. And I thought, “How can I offer a different service within the cycling world that could benefit people, and for much longer than a professional cycling career?” I looked at this all and realized I wanted to give service to all these other people, and that it wasn't really about me.
Then I started thinking how we could use these endurance challenges to give back, as well as with the rest of Media-24, thinking about how we can serve others to reach that fulfillment in their own life. I think I said in the podcast, “If you take all of your experience and you just use it for yourself and never give back, then there is zero point in doing it." I wouldn’t need to work nearly as hard as I do if I’m just doing it for myself, there’s just no point. I could work 7 hours a day instead of 15. But it’s worth it because we are doing projects where we are trying to help others. And if I always live by that, I feel like I can do no wrong.
Mike preparing for The Road to Mont Blanc, 2014.
Alison: Looking back at all of this and your journey, what have been some of the lessons that you’ve learned that maybe you weren’t expecting to learn?
Mike: Probably the biggest one that springs to mind would be just quite how organic and connected you can be within business, because the traditional route to business, at least from my upbringing, is you finish school, you may go to college, then you may start a job, and you go through the run. I’ve learned that it’s not just about this standard path. When I was a kid and growing up, I thought that was what you were supposed to do. My dad was in finance and had a very 9-5 career for his whole life. This all taught me that the more you realize that that does not have to be the way of life, you can make changes. So much of this learning has been through organic learning and experience, and there wasn’t a textbook. You expect to be taught, you expect someone to say, “Now do this,” and you get on and do it and then they say, “Great, now do that.” But every time I was in that work situation that was when I said, "2 years maximum." The moment I got out of that line of thinking, was when I started to learn a lot more. You don't just learn about yourself, you learn about the world and about what you really can achieve. There’s a saying, “Failure is never there,” because it might not go how you want it to, but as long as you believe in what you’re doing, you will just keep going. I didn't realize how much just doing it my own way would serve me in the future, just through pure belief.