Annual Review 2019

2019 was one of the toughest years I’ve had in a long time. It was set to be so from the first month.

January started with my uncle Georgi getting ill and being hospitalised. This soon went from bad to worse and he passed away on the 3rd of February. A few weeks later my grandmother (his mom) also passed away.

My uncle and my grandad are two people that have had absolutely monumental impact on how I see the world and try to approach life. Not purposefully, but through how they were as people. My uncle in particular inspired my love for nature, the mountains and appreciating the beauty they have to offer and the peace they bring to the soul. He was always the optimist, smiling, laughing, joking and taking life in his stride. It is this that I remember him most vividly for and maybe that is why his passing hit so hard, because that part of his character seemed to me to fade toward the end. I will miss him always!

My grandmother was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. She had lived through communism, through a male dominated world in one if its peak periods and yet she could spar in mental strength and conviction with the best of leaders. All of that she would do through simplicity and a lot of hard work. She was also demanding and had high standards.

Thinking of home now is strange, everything is different. My childhood experiences feel like a beautiful, faded dream of warmth, love, safety and a lot of running around. I can’t help it but feel that with their passing, it is drifting further away from me. Not in a dreadful way, but just as part of life, change and growing up. I would like to keep those memories close for just a bit longer.

What didn’t work?

To understand a lot of the sections below I feel it is best to explain how the year started. I had committed to and received a place in the toughest ultra endurance cycling race in Europe. Andra had quit her job and joined an intense four months programming course, starting from not knowing what a terminal is all the way to learning about JavaScript, setting up servers, writing mobile apps and looking for a job. On top of that, we would both be commuting – I to Leeds, and she to Birmingham.

A normal day for me would look like – wake up at 6a.m., go to a spin class from 7:15a.m. to 8a.m. Catch the train at our 8:21a.m. Work until 5p.m., get to Sheffield for around 6p.m. and either go to the gym for another spin class / strength training session, or go out for a ride. Finish by 8p.m. and go home to start making dinner with Andra. After dinner we would sit for an hour to look at what she had learned through the day, revise, look at anything that she didn’t understand. Spend some time on looking at bike parts, cycling gear or route planning. Go to bed between 10-11p.m.

This routine with small variations continued for around five to six months. We knew it will be like that, difficult, we chose it consciously and together.

Relationships

Every minute in which I wasn’t training or doing the daily necessities I was reading on gear, on parts for the bike and planning the route for the race in the summer. More on that later.

Because of this “schedule” I shut down all of my communications with the outside world, there was simply not enough time. I closed in and focused on getting my head in the right place. However, this incurred a cost and I lost tough with all my family and friends, I was living in a complete bubble.

I am not a victim of anything here, it was a fully conscious choice and those were the side effects. But simply all my relationships suffered and I can tell.

Finances

As expected, our finances suffered through this process. I invested a fair bit to build a new bike with all its gadgets and gear, cycling clothes that could last the rigours of the race, accommodation during the race, food, etc.

Andra also had quit her job and that would inevitably have influence the result at the end of the year. It was still a very good long-term investment as she did essentially re-qualify into a new career, with more flexibility and options.

Finally, both of us started commuting, and the prices for monthly train tickets are absurd in the UK.

Overall, the financial end-of-year summary ended up better than I assumed it would half-way through the year, but I am adding it to the “what didn’t work” section as I want to focus more on it next year to improve things. All of the decisions we made were difficult, but positive in the long run. This review is however a snapshot in time.

Health

This is always relative, overall I feel like I am healthy and the medical tests done at the end of 2019 have proven that. Nevertheless, there were an array of problems in 2019 that I simply cannot ignore as they influenced my mental health and my day-to-day quality of life.

My participation in both the all points north (APN) and the transcontinental (TCR) races ended prematurely because of health problems. Specifically, haemorrhoids (one diagnosis) and anal fissures (another diagnosis). The second half of the year was pretty much defined by the implications of those diagnoses and trying to manage the symptoms.

More over, after the TCR mentally I went downhill. After a few years of a dream, six months of intense training and laser focus on one single goal I now had not achieved it (did not manage to finish) and also had no goal to focus on. Mentally, I was also drained from the training, the energy and resources invested, from the lack of something else to look forward to while also not feeling my best physically. I couldn’t even ride my bike anymore, something that had defined my identity for the best part of the year.

Meditation

I meditated a little bit in the first months of the year, but as the schedule ramped up and less time was available I dropped meditating. I am sure it would have helped, but it felt more of “yet another thing to have to do” rather than something to relax.

Languages

Similarly, I stopped my daily Duolingo practice, at the end it had been at a daily streak of over 500 days and 20 000 points. However, similarly to the meditation I felt like it was too much in conjunction with everything else that was going on.

It also lead me to drop reading the Spanish version of Robinson Crusoe and learning Romanian. I could have tried to do those but due to the health and mental health struggles I didn’t even look at my goes for the second half of the year.

Reviewing goals throughout the year

As mentioned, one big mistake was that I didn’t list the goals for the year in my Trello board so that they are in front of my eyes as a reminder. That lead to a lot of them slipping out of my mind.

Videos / Albums

Unfortunately, I didn’t dedicate any time to making printed albums or editing the library of videos taken over the years.But hope to do it next year.

What worked?

Citizenship

At the first half of the year a long process came to completion for both me and Andra. After getting kicked into gear with a lot of help (and some pestering) from our friend Tudor we finally received our British citizenships and later in the year our British passports.

The process was lengthy, but mainly made worse from our reluctance to do things as soon as possible and spending a long time to find the motivation to do what we had to do.

It also contributed to the financial outcomes at the end of the year as it is a very expensive thing to do. However, we both hope it will pay off long-term and give us more opportunities and options. It also helps that now we both have the same citizenship and in the context of Brexit and the general political craziness. It bought us a peace of mind as well.

Writing

I didn’t write almost at all in this blog. The only posts I wrote were on the http://smilyanp.com/adventure/ website relating to my preparations for the cycling events, what I’ve learned around them and a record of the All Points North days. Even thought it didn’t go as I wanted it to, I still wrote a fair few articles and those have now been shared and referenced in discussions with other people.

Reading

I am happy with my reading score this year. I finished 36 titles on Audible and a lot of it is due to the extra time I had on trains commuting and while riding (I finished a few books on the long training days).

Some of the books / recordings that I loved were:

  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – An absolutely beautiful book to read, it would give you such a fresh perspective on the quiet and “slow” inhabitants of this world. They truly live a much richer life than I had ever expected. Thank you Daniel Kilby for the present!
  • How bad do you want it? by Matt Fitzgerald – A book that helped me a lot in my mental training for the races. It is simple, easy to read with impactful examples and mental models described. I would keep that book on my virtual shelf and would re-read it not just because of sport but to help with mental fortitude in life in general.
  • A passion for nature – John Muir by Donald Worster – The book describes the views and life of John Muir, one of the first (if not the father) of naturalists and true lovers of nature and fighter for its preservation. What I loved about the book is the analysis of Muir’s personal life and how that fed his views and character.
  • Putin: Prisoner of Power by Misha Glenny – Absolutely brilliant! It is a free series on Audible and a must listen. It describes the rise and current power clasp of Putin. It pains a very different picture of what one can see on the outside and for me highlights the future struggles Russia will face once Putin let’s go eventually.
  • The imposter cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd – I read this book in preparation for a talk that I had to give at a work event. Not just reading, but studying its contents has truly given me a deeper understanding of the imposter syndrome that has been part of my life for a long time.

House move

It wasn’t planned from the start of the year, but in October we moved flat. It was a great decision, because even though (as always) there was turmoil, it has given us a much more appropriate space to be at home and rest. We both love it and are glad for the decision.

Sport

It’s safe to say that the sport side of things was my focus in 2019. In preparation for the cycling races I realised that as most people take a few years to prepare for them I only had around six months. That meant I had to use every minute correctly following a disciplined schedule, training regime, rest, food, etc.

My understanding of training really evolved, and I found my body’s limits, especially when increasing the training volume so much, so quickly. That lead to an injury or rather a problem with achilles tendonitis due to my muscles not being strong enough to take the load and it ending up mainly on my tendons.

I had to re-evaluate how I train and included a lot more strength training, yoga and stretching which with the help of a few brilliant physiotherapists helped me get over the problem in a matter of two months.

All Points North

The race was technically my first ever long-distance self-supported cycling race. It was a brilliant preparation for the Transcontinental. It spans over the period of three days (before cut-off times) or less. It starts and ends in Sheffield covering eight more checkpoints in whatever order you desire for a total (for me) of 900+ kilometres. You can read my description of the days here in day 1, day 2, day 3.

Transcontinental

Next was the biggie, attempting to cycle 4000km across Europe, self-supported. It became my dream the first time found out the race existed a few years ago. I never thought it would be something I would actually have the chance to do, but in the first six months of 2019 it became almost the only thing on my mind.

Also, with the news of my uncle passing, I decided to dedicate my participation in the race to him, because I am absolutely certain he would have appreciated it for what it is and would have supported and cheered me on.

Unfortunately, I did not manage to complete the full distance and had to scratch (quit) after just shy of 2000km and 8 days. As anyone familiar with these races would know – they show you your limit in every sense. I felt a part of a new community whilst also being really alone much of the race. I was cold (sleeping on a mountain top), roasting hot (at 40C in the middle of the day), rode on the most horrendous roads ever (if you can call them roads) in Serbia, met incredible people, cried, laughed, listened to music with enjoyment and with complete numbness, cycled through the night and felt every part of my body ache. It was an incredible, truly immersing, intense and rich experience. But because I didn’t complete the full distance, I felt like a failure for a long time. Now, five/six months after it is over, I am ready to look back and appreciate it (expect some more posts on that in 2020).

Calisthenics

After the Transcontinental I felt very demotivated, but as with many difficult periods in my life I stuck back to training, this time just body-weight exercises. And I progressed further than I’ve ever been able to before (probably because of the weight I’d lost cycling).
Some of the moves I feel very grateful to have progressed are:
The splits – towards the end of 2019 after multiple weeks of going to stretching classes with Andra, we both managed to do the splits (only one side).
Muscle ups – If you’re not familiar with the move, it simply means to hand on a pull up bar, pull yourself up and over the bar and then push down until your arms are fully straight. Then, you drop back down and repeat.
It has been a goal of mine to be able to do this for many years, but this year I finally came closer than ever. In the video below you can see my best ever attempt so far. I am using a light green elastic band to help me get up, but nevertheless it felt like a huge achievement:
The progress with all of these has really helped me stay a bit more positive and actually excited to have new goals and continue training. It just proved to me that switching focus can also lead to great results. As once said “you don’t need to do extraordinary things to achieve extraordinary results” – Warren Buffet.

Sleep

My Fitbit broke in September and that’s when I stopped tracking my sleep. But overall, no matter what I’ve done over the past years it seems that I always sleep the same amount. My body manages naturally and I can potentially benefit from a bit more sleep, but realistically I cannot overcome what seems to be the average my body requires. So, as much as I still want to keep a track of it, I won’t try to track and increase it.

The summary of my year in training stats:

  • January – 20 workouts – 22:59h – 23628 kcal – 652km
  • February – 17 workouts – 37:25h – 31934 kcal – 945km
  • March – 16 workouts – 17:51h – 16245 kcal – 417km
  • April – 16 workouts – 30:58h – 21766 kcal – 620km
  • May – 17 workouts – 64:17h – 41851 kcal – 1231km
  • June – 16 workouts – 39:10h – 28477 kcal – 792km
  • July – 14 workouts – 55:15h – 39517 kcal – 1180km
  • August – 6 workouts – 40:30h – 32111 kcal – 947km
  • September – 22 workouts – 22:07h – 9818 kcal – 18km
  • October – 16 workouts – 16:09h – 7583 kcal – 6km
  • November – 15 workouts – 15:06h – 7662 kcal – 14.05km
  • December – 15 workouts – 14:45h – 7942 kcal – 20km

Total: 190 workouts – 376:32h – 268534 kcal – 6842.05km

Travel

  • Ukraine (February) – to visit my parents.
  • England (APN) (May) – Cycling from Sheffield, to the west coast, to the Scottish border and then to the east coast, and finally back to Sheffield. I felt like I saw a lot more of England and met some wonderful people on the way.
  • Bulgaria (TCR) (July/August)– As the starting location for the Transcontinental race (TCR) it was great to cycle across the country in two days and to appreciate in the general diversity of the participants in the race, the feeling of being “back home”.
  • Serbia (TCR) (July/August) – I will remember it with great natural beauty and the most horrendous roads I have ever experienced. The people were amazing and I realised that I can communicate with them in Bulgarian – we understood each other without any issues.
  • Croatia (TCR) (July/August) – Beautiful nature and some of the friendliest people.
  • Slovenia (TCR) (July/August) – A true treasure, hidden amongst mountains. For me Slovenia is the little Austria – impeccable cleanliness, roads and picturesque country-side.
  • Italy (TCR) (July/August) – Where the race ended for me, among quaint little villages and at the base of the breathtaking natural wonder that the Alps present.
  • Greece (September) – The best trip of the year, a much needed, idillic recovery with Andra and plenty of sunshine.

Professional Growth

2019 was good for me professionally. I passed my probation at BJSS and had the best project of my career in terms of technology, team, achievements and recognition from the client. I also did five projects overall throughout the year with a range of technologies, in different teams and at very different scales. It was enjoyable, most of it and definitely improved my knowledge, tech skills, soft skills and appreciation.

The highlights:

  • Passed probation
  • 5+ projects
  • 2 talks (on external and one internal) on the outcome of a project
  • 2 talks on imposter syndrome
  • Participating as a supervisor in the BJSS academy
  • Mentoring as part of the Techup Women programme

The most valuable for me, personally was my participation in the Techup Women York residential weekend where I presented to hundred women a talk on imposter syndrome.

The program is similar to what Andra had gone through earlier in the year, where a group of hundred women learn an array of skills and then enter the tech industry. The talk I prepared took me from experiencing huge levels of imposter syndrome while preparing and giving it. However, the results were beyond my expectations. It seemed to have hit a soft spot with most of the people in the room and it opened many discussions. The feedback was so positive that BJSS and specifically Eleanor Davill (one of the organisers on BJSS’ side) organised another session for the same talk to BJSS internally. Now, it has been booked for four more events in the beginning of 2020.

Personally, for me the talk and the discussions with people afterwards was one of the most rewarding experiences of the year and a true highlight. I was dreading doing it, but now feel so happy to have gone ahead with it.

Photo for the year

Well, I couldn’t choose just one, bu there are some photos from the beginning, middle and end of the race, beautiful, difficult, funny emotional moments. And some others moments that I am grateful for.

Start of the Transcontinental race – fresh and excited

Riding through the night, chasing another rider (red light), car incoming (white lights)

Top of the Troyan pass in Bulgaria

Top of Buzludja at control point 1, slept there the first night. This is a photo from my bed in the morning.

The views in Serbia while climbing the mountain to control point 2

Hiking with the bike in Serbia to reach control point 2

In Serbia, control point two hidden in the clouds, and the sun setting

Last day of the race for me, arrived at the AirBnb in Italy

Waiting for the plane and doing a walk around Venice with Mr Fox (in cycling gear)

The best time of the year in Greece

Mr Fox was there too, he insisted to be included!

Summary

Emotionally, physically, mentally and socially 2019 has been a really difficult year. The biggest surprise was how fragile I found myself at the end of all the dynamics. I knew it won’t be easy, but I expected to be able to get up and continue much more easily and quickly. The reality is different, and I am still recovering, but I am hopefully and determined to get back up. Nothing lasts forever, it is just a matter of time for change (for the better) to occur.

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