Period drama

I almost wrote a blog post about menstruation last night. But then I talked myself out of it. I don’t always think very much about who reads my posts – because when I do it usually stops me writing anything at all. There’s no one version of me that could possibly be acceptable to all of the many different people I know (and all the many more whom I don’t know, but who read my blog, and thus to some extent know me), with all their different beliefs and cultures and backgrounds and ages. That’s why I leave so much out (though you wouldn’t think it from all I’ve written). I almost always err on the side of inoffensiveness.

I’ve decided to be bolder than I usually am, and to take a deliberate step out of my comfort zone. If I lose readers by writing about my periods, then so be it. I’ll probably keep a few and gain a few as well. And actually, I’ve never checked how many people read this blog, so I only have comments and emails to go on.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem. Comments and emails give me a skewed impression of my readership. I get far far more from men than from women, which for a long time led me to assume that my readership is almost entirely male. (And that would be about right, wouldn’t it? Adventure travel and bicycles are generally considered boys’ topics, after all.)

But I do get some emails from women. Quite a lot of them begin with an apology – ‘sorry to write out of the blue’; ‘I’m sure you must get a lot of emails like this’; ‘please don’t bother replying if you’re busy’. Some of them go on to ask me a question about bike touring. A few tell me that reading my blog was one of the things that helped them turn their own cycle-touring dream into reality, or inspired them to make some other change in their life. These are my very favourite emails, and these readers are the ones I care about most.

I’m worried about what people will think when I write about menstruation. Men quite often greet the subject with polite disgust (‘yes, but I don’t know why you have to talk about it’), or with prurient over-interest. This will probably be one of the few posts my mother doesn’t print off and send to my grandmother, for fear of scandalizing her. But I doubt I’ll lose any of my readers who are also women, also ride bikes (or climb, or run, or row), and also have to rearrange their lives around their periods on a regular basis.

A few sportswomen have recently started talking about their monthly cycle affects their performance. And as soon as they did, I realized how ridiculous it was that no one had started this conversation much sooner. Because almost every woman menstruates. Some of us barely notice it; others are virtually bedridden for a few days. I had, I think, always assumed that professional athletes must be taking some kind of hormones to stop them menstruating altogether, but I don’t even know if that would be legal. They’re probably not. Some of them are probably struggling with their periods just as much as I do, frustrated that, unlike the rest of the time, they can’t get their body to do exactly what they want it to by means of training and willpower.

Periods vary enormously from woman to woman. I’m lucky in that mine are fairly short – I knew a girl at school who bled heavily for nine days out of every 28. And they even happen differently at different stages of your life. Mine have gone through some phases of being no trouble at all, and others of being extremely painful. For the last few years, they’ve been short and intense. I get a couple of days of pronounced PMT (which feels like a mini-depression – I’m incapable of looking on the bright side, convinced everyone hates me, and often on the verge of tears), and then a couple of days of strong, dizzying, nauseating pain. Not only that, it feels as if my entire body and mind have been taken over, and all the energy has drained to my throbbing uterus. It’s hard (sometimes impossible) to concentrate on writing. If I’m cycling, my (normally indomitable) thighs feel drained and weak. My lower abdomen churns constantly, like a sack full of angry snakes.

I’ve learned to arrange my life around them, and wherever possible to make sure I don’t commit to anything demanding on those two days. I request my courier shifts with this in mind. If I have an article due in, I make sure to get it done early. But this isn’t always possible. During my Cambridge interview I was in so much pain I was writhing around in my seat. (I still got in.) During my first day as a courier even Ibuprofen didn’t help, but I knew that if I went home early I wouldn’t have a job to come back to. During that horrendous ten-day dash to get out of China before my visa expired, one of the many challenges I had to overcome was a heavy and painful period.

I’m not, by the way, suggesting that life is much harder for women because of menstruation. Life is difficult and inconvenient for everyone in various ways. People have to keep going to work when they’ve just been dumped, or lost a parent or had a miscarriage. Some of us are diabetic, or have asthma. We all get at least one cold per winter, and keep going in spite of it. People go on bike trips and other expeditions whilst managing chronic health conditions and recurring injuries. (I would much rather deal with a period once a month than cycle across Asia with a wheat allergy – or even as a vegetarian for that matter.)

What is absurd though, is this strange conspiracy of silence around menstruation. It’s not exactly a minority concern – probably 50% of us will experience it at some point in our lives. And for some of us, our monthly cycle has a significant impact on our wellbeing, our mood and our performance in whatever task we’ve set ourselves. (It’s not always a negative impact. Round about the time I’m ovulating, I’m usually in a ridiculously good mood, full of energy and pulsating with optimism and good ideas.)

I had tried to anticipate this period, and even planned an extra day off the bike before I left Whitehorse, convinced that that would give it time to come and go. But, just as happened in Asia, where the demands I put on my body meant I had five blissful period-free months (and then an unexpected cataclysm just when I least needed it), the rigours of the last few weeks meant that my period was a week late, and I really couldn’t justify hanging around any longer. Perhaps, I thought optimistically, it wouldn’t happen at all. After all, I had lost a lot of weight, pretty quickly, and that often does the trick.

No such luck. After a couple of days of feeling curiously emotional, and at one point even bursting into tears during a long, doleful, self-pitying inner monologue on a long, slow climb, the pain started. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. I’m about to embark on a three-day stretch of road (between Teslin and Watson Lake) with absolutely no services – no shops, no lodges, no people, nowhere to sleep but my tent. And the temperature’s hovering around -35C.

“-43 with windchill”, warned the server at Johnson’s Crossing.

“-51 here last night” said the cook at Teslin’s Yukon Lodge.

And that’s where I am now. I had planned to be a lot further on. But cycling’s been hard for the past two days, with the dizziness, and with the energy being sucked out of my legs towards my core, and with the cramps occasionally so bad that I groan out loud.

I’ve decided to forgive myself. I made small progress yesterday, and small progress today, and that’s better than no progress. A very kind person recently gave me some money for a room when I was in need, and I can think of no better time to use it. I’m going to spend the night in this comfortable motel room, having hot baths, cuddling a Nalgene full of boiling water, watching a movie if internet speed will allow, and getting as much sleep as I can. Hopefully tomorrow the worst will be over. And by the time I’ve reached Watson Lake, I should be fully recovered and refreshed, and ready to take on one of the most demanding and underpopulated sections of this ride – the Stewart-Cassiar Highway.

And furthermore, looking on the bright side, if I manage to lengthen my next couple of cycles by a week apiece, I should be able to avoid having a period during the Transcontinental this summer. There’s an incentive to push my limits, if ever there was one!

[This post is written from my current location – I’m in Teslin right now – but there are still a good few to come with accounts of the last few weeks. Sorry I’m not keeping myself in order.]

Leave a Comment

23 Comments

  1. michaella williams
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    I understand what you are going through and glad you are talking about it. Being a female–having a period -fatbiking in minus 30 degree is hard enough (on top of that the dizziness and lack of energy, and so on ) vitamin D helps with energy

  2. Si
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing about it. As a father of two girls, who I hope will continue to share my passion for cycling as they grow, this is one issue I would like to be better informed about. At the very least so I can be as supportive as possible.

  3. Marianne
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Loved it. To the whole concept that menstruation is gross and ‘unclean’ you might of course reply….

    My guess why women don’t talk about PMT and how periods affect their performance is that it elicits the concept of the “uncontrollable” “mystical” nature of women that is often an implicit (and used to be explicit) argument for their discrimination and suppression. Better hush hush, we want to be equal to men so we pretend to be the same.

  4. Susan
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Hello brave Emily,

    I heard a bit of your story in the radio here in Whitehorse the other day and have read a few of your days since leaving Anchorage.

    This really is the coldest weather we have had here in 2 years. I cannot imagine how you manage day after day, living day and night in these cold conditions. I love life in the north but am careful not to let it freeze me on a regular basis.

    Thank you for sharing your adventure and doing what seems unreasonable. It has been a while since my bike and I were off adventuring, so appreciate the vicarious tour.

    Bon courage!

    Susan

  5. Posted February 4, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    That was brave of you, Emily, thanks for your constant honesty and sensitivity towards basic stuff. I’ve seen myself in your words and I’m glad you started this topic not for complaining, just to talk about it. To understand something genuinely human, first we need to share it. So this is great.

    To me, the worst part while riding is the PMT part. It’s that rational awareness of you being -and feeling- emotionally weak, not knowing why, but fighting hard to keep it together, which strikes me the most. Physical pain is hard, too, but I somehow get to manage it with better results (even the “dead legs”, as I call them, are just a small problem with a clear head). I guess that varies from woman to woman, but I find this emotional rollercoaster a little too long and unpredictable to me.

    That said, it’s never THAT bad and we always have a lot of ressources to even forget what’s going on in our bodies. And that’s what you seem to master in all your adventures, and that’s what’s really important in this conversation, right?

    Good luck and a lot of extra strenght for the next weeks!

    • Posted February 6, 2015 at 2:40 am | Permalink

      “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” (Said Edmund Hillary, or someone similar.)

      And yes, PMT is particularly bad when you’ve been riding on your own for a few days, and have nothing but your own thoughts, going round and round and round, in an endless downward spiral. (I will remind myself of this conversation, next time it happens.)

  6. Kirsten
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    One of the things that bugs me is that whenever periods ARE talked about in terms of athletic performance, they’re always talked about as a hindrance. There’s no doubt that for many women, some parts of their cycle are debilitating. But there’s also lots of research that suggests that for many women, different parts of their cycle result in improved performance.

    • Posted February 6, 2015 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      Precisely! And one thing I wish I’d managed to say in my post is that having a menstrual cycle is in some way a massive privilege, in that it’s much easier to plan for the good days and accommodate the bad ones. I don’t know who started the myth that menstruation makes women dangerous and unpredictable – from this point of view, we’re quite the opposite!

  7. Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for being so honest.

  8. Posted February 6, 2015 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for writing about periods. Like you, I always suspected that athletes and adventurers must have some magic solution. It’s actually good to know that everyone’s dealing with the nuisance at some point.

    And, speaking as a Canadian and a Yukoner, forgive yourself for hanging out in Teslin for a bit. It is a Good Idea. Sticking to a schedule and not respecting the cold is a Very Bad Idea – as Sir John Frankline and numerous others have amply demonstrated over the years.

  9. Renee Rowland
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hey Emily, thanks so much for this post. I’m so sorry you had to think twice (or more) about whether to write and post it. Humans are so f***ing awesome it blows my mind on a daily – nay, hourly – basis (and in fact I came to your site today because I felt a bit blue and wanted some inspiration). I agree with everything you’ve said and feel an especial anger at the quasi conspiracy that abounds. Every woman has a different relationship with her cycle and we’re all beholden to hormones so why are we made to feel like we should whisper between ourselves about periods like its some dark lord? All that does is perpetuate a taboo that undermines and frustrates the fight for gender equality and therefore the full and frank appreciation of the wonderful differences between men and women that must be understood and celebrated rather maligned or perverted.

    Blood! Vaginas! Bleeding! Tampons! Mooncups! Emotions! Parties in our Pants! Being women! Wooohooo!

    I love sport and exercise but I know there are times of my cycle when I’m mentally stronger, retain less fluid, am calmer, more co-ordinated, more efficient and more in control than at other times. I’ve learnt to understand the panoply of fluctuations and adapt accordingly – maybe do yoga rather than run long when my legs are bloated, avoid traffic on my bike if my spatial awareness is a bit out, avoid the news and have the hot water bottle and comfort food ready. But I’m doing that from the comfort of a temperate winter in London with all the comforts of home within reach. What you’re doing, that is a whole other game. I can’t fathom the mental battle and emotional ravages you’re up against, on top of everything else. Thanks for writing and sharing and adventuring. Safe roads and warm wishes,

    Renee

  10. Posted February 7, 2015 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Hi Emily,
    I loved this honest and factual blog. I read your blog because I love your prose and storytelling, although I know nothing about cycling, I am a swimmer, horserider and skier. I work with women and families providing maternity care in Cornwall and am often amazed by the strength and tenacity of women and their bodies. Giggled at the thought of your mum’s dilemma of whether to print off the blog for your gran or not. My blog is tame by comparison to yours but I print it off for a great aunt and she would definately not want to know about my periods! Fortunately, ‘periods’ are only a distant memory now, but the menopause also carries the same – not to be talked about – taboos. I can vividly remember nights looking after labouring women in their own homes with the dilemma of not having taken enough tampax replacements to work and having to improvise, or ask if I could one of the women’s postnatal pads, or even arrive home slightly messier than I would have wanted to be! Have also found that period pains often ebb and flow with the women’s contractions on these nights! The bad news is that post menstruation the brain also ebbs and flows and with no predictive qualities, but as you say, life is difficult and inconvenient for everyone in various ways and that’s what makes each day interesting and rewarding. Living, working or travelling somewhere that gives you a ‘good view’ factor always helps to keep the focus positive, despite what the innards are doing. We don’t have mountains or snow in this part of cornwall but we do have the sea, the sun and the sky and some outstanding views! Best wishes for more posts to come.

  11. Sarah
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Great post! When I look back over my own blog I can see which days are PMT days. It’s the ones when everything is so bloody frustrating. All the little things conspire and I’m far less resilient than normal. I’m not great at following my cycle so it’s such a relief when I get my period and it puts my mood into perspective. After that I have lead legs so I plan a shorter day. I’ve never thought of the up side – looking for the high points too.

    After the athlete mentioned ‘girl things’ I tried starting a conversation with some open minded male friends about what she’d said. It didn’t happen. They looked a bit freaked and quickly ordered another round.

  12. Posted February 8, 2015 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    On a long distance self-loaded bike trip, a period with noticeable menstrual cramps, is worth coddling yourself and feeling best for cycling again by giving time to rest for a few hrs., a day or so.

    I wish that for cycle touring, women would share more about dealing with menstruation. It’s a reality we can’t banish at all.

    I’ve been lucky not to experience pain like most women.

  13. barbara
    Posted February 10, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I always come back to your blog at randomness, to check what I’ve missed the last weeks (or sometimes months). I enjoy reading up on what you’re doing and am glad you mention periods and the unease / discomfort they can cause when cycling / exercising.
    I’ve been without them for a while now, as I’m nearly 6 months pregnant and I think that would make a very opinionated topic: cycling / exercising in pregnancy 😉 I still cycle the 1 hour journey to work (though I swapped my bike for the bus when it was snowy / icy) and feel great! My single speed racer is getting dusty in the bedroom as I’m not using a speedy dutch-style bike, but I’m enjoying being on a bicycle as much as before and can’t wait to take ‘the future little one’ on cycle trips…Interestingly most disapproving comments I get originate from males…
    Enjoy your journey, through pains and discomfort and joy and happiness, it’s all worth it in the end :) Hug from Edinburgh x

    • barbara
      Posted February 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      correct error: *now* using a speedy dutch-style bike

  14. kate
    Posted February 10, 2015 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Love the point about the predictability of good days! So true. Personally (Emily, you might have noticed) I like to talk about periods as often as opportunity allows.

    Speaking of numbers, not only will 50 per cent of the world experience them, but right now, there are roughly 2 billion people of period-age, which, at an average of 5 days/period/30 days for women aged 12-50 – means 330 million women have their period right now. I think…

  15. Posted February 11, 2015 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    You are quite right – silence from the blokes!

    I feel your pain Em. Big hugs from down here – keep trucking x x

  16. Graham
    Posted February 11, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this Emily. It helps us blokes to understand a little, even if we don’t always know how (or whether) to respond. Even for the well-meaning guy, there’s a fine line between being caring and supportive, or intrusive and patronising.

  17. Linda McDonald
    Posted February 11, 2015 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emily,

    I just waved you off from the Watson Lake Signpost Forest. Temp is currently -21C and with windchill -25C. There is blowing snow, so not great for visibility. It was so wonderful to meet you and have a tea with you yesterday at John and Jenny Skelton’s house. I am so happy that Jenny thought to call me and let me know that you were at her house. The temps will be warmer as you head south. The forecast for Dease Lake is more snow, but warmer temps -6C. You have some amazing scenery coming up. I’ll be watching for your posts. All the best, and one day, perhaps we will meet again. Cheers, Linda

  18. Linda
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Ah! Great post! I love to talk about menstruation and ovulation, PMS and that feeling of total awesomeness. It could have been me writing. Being silent or ignoring the fact that half the population goes through a monthly hormonal cycle really is nonsense. Talking about it helps people understand it and it for sure makes life so much easier to know how to plan and behave accordingly.
    This is the first time I came across this blog, I got the link from a male friend :) but I’ll be back!

  19. Anne Elkins H.S.
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Em I think this post is brilliant! One of my lecturers was talking about the lack of studies on the subject the other day. Bonkers! BUT the main reason I like ths post is that it reminded me of our period party conversation 😉 Hopefully you remember it, otherwise this will make no sense at all!!!!!! Much love x x x

  20. Kate
    Posted March 21, 2015 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Brilliant post! Well done Emily for tackling it and tackling it so well. It does seem weird that period talk is still so taboo even in this day and age. Having periods while travelling can be a major inconvenience, let alone having to deal with the physical symptoms whilst cycling. I have just finished a two month cycle tour around cambodia/Laos and was dreading having to deal with my periods, which had recently become very heavy. However, very conveniently I have been fast-forwarded into menopause due to undergoing breast cancer treatment recently. My periods stopped a month before I left! There is a silver lining to everything.