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The Space Odyssey: Jack Thompson finds purpose in ultra-cycling while raising money for mental health

The motivation that it takes to ride 1 million vertical meters in a year is elusive for most, but for Jack Thompson, ultra cyclist and GU Energy Labs athlete, it’s just the next milestone in a career punctuated by big goals on the bike. Pursuits that began in his teenage years as a triathlete have gotten progressively more astounding, culminating in his 2022 commitment to do an "Everest" every single week, (climb the vertical equivalent of the height of Mt. Everest, 8,848m) plus the additional vertical meters it's taking to achieve the 1 million mark. His path thus far has been far from trouble-free, though, and for Thompson, spending long hours in the saddle is an outlet that he adopted partially out of necessity.

After some success as a teenage triathlete, Thompson struggled at university. “I stopped triathlon, finished studies, went to university, wasn't involved with cycling at all, and I developed a drug addiction,” said Thompson. “I was partying pretty hard and I ended up in a rehab facility.”

After rehab and with a bit of encouragement from his father, Thompson once again took to the bike in hopes of channeling his energy. “I had suffered from depression throughout my teen years, and I found that triathlon gave me a lot of focus, whether that was swimming, riding or running every day,” he said. “I had these little objectives and it just kept me on track and it gave me that sense of achievement day after day.” And so with his fresh start, he began to set new and increasingly difficult objectives for himself on the bike.

“I admittedly have an obsessive personality, so when I do something, I do it to the best of my ability.”

Fast forward to 2022, and Thompson now has a long list of cycling achievements that range from setting Guinness Book World Records for most kilometers ridden in seven days to riding all 21 stages of the Tour de France in ten days. This year’s undertaking is maybe the most arduous of all, and is appropriately titled the Space Odyssey. He has set out to ride 1 million vertical meters in a year, all while raising money for mental health charities worldwide.

We caught up with Thompson to hear more about his 2022 project and what has kept him going over the past months.

Jack Thompson

 

I did some math and I said, “Well, what if I climb a million meters in a year.”

GU Energy Labs: Where did the idea for the Space Odyssey come from?

Jack Thompson: The idea came to me when I was in Portugal last year. I had this idea to Everest in every municipality, but for whatever reason the funding fell through. I started looking into other objectives and thinking that I could try to Everest once a week for a year. Then I thought, “Well, how's that gonna work?” I was going to have six days where I wasn’t doing anything. I realized that there needed to be more substance to it. So I did some math and I said, “Well, what if I climb a million meters in a year.” I worked out that Everesting once a week would give me just under half of that, so there was still a substantial amount to do every other day. And then I paired this objective with my desire to give back and help others in a less fortunate position than me on the mental health side of things.

I decided that for every meter I climb, I want to try to raise a euro: a million meters and a million euros. But nobody really knows what a million meters is and so we came up with this idea of going to space and having a bit of a play with NASA and trying to give it that perspective because space seems like a long way away. That’s where the Space Odyssey comes in. 

GU: Tell us a little bit about what you've been going through—your ups and downs, challenges, days when it feels easy and days when it feels hard. What has that trajectory looked like for you this year?

Jack: In my mind I've split it into three chapters. The first chapter was where I didn't really say anything to anybody for the first three months. Then I released the concept in March of this year. That next little period up until perhaps two weeks ago felt like no man's land for me because it still felt like I had such a long way to go and I didn't really feel like I was making any progress. That was difficult. I also think one of the challenges of this year is the fact that it’s a year-long project. It's hard to keep people engaged. And that's something that I've really struggled with, especially on the fundraising front.

I'm happy to do the meters every day. I don't mind going out and riding all day if I have to, I can control that, but I can't control somebody's ability or desire to donate towards the cause. So that's been challenging through the year. But I feel like I'm in a good place now and I've sort of accepted that if I don't raise a million dollars, that's fine. I've raised a quarter of a million dollars so far, and I think it will ramp up from here. I've done everything I can.

GU: What would you say is the biggest unforeseen challenge?

Jack: Outside of the fundraising, the biggest challenge I would say is that I don't have a lot of time for normal life. I didn't realize how onerous this would be with my whole life. There's not a lot of time for other things and I'm also conscious that I don't want to get sick and I don't want to fatigue myself in other areas of life.

I think I always thought that the actual Everesting would be the hardest thing each week. But what I found is that it’s not. It's the lead up to the Everest that’s difficult: the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday grind. And I think what's surprised me the most is that when I get to Friday, I feel a sense of relief and a sense of excitement that the week is almost finished.

GU: I'd love to hear about how you approach this objective nutritionally.

Jack: It's changed a bit during the year. At the beginning, I thought I was going to be eating a high carb diet day in and day out. And what I found—because I'm also using Supersapiens for body metrics data collection—was that when I actually got to the bike, because I was so heavily reliant on glucose, it didn't really have any effect on my energy levels. So essentially what I've done is I've reduced most of the carbohydrate outside of training. I almost don't touch carbohydrates for the rest of the time. I'll have bits and pieces here and there and I don't exclude it as a food source, but I try to periodize it around the training. And I found that's been really effective because then when I do eat it, my body knows how to use it.

I eat more protein off the bike just because I'm damaging my body and I'm aware that I need to recover. That's like another challenge. So it's higher protein, higher fat, less carb, and then on the bike, as much carbohydrate as I can consume.

GU: What does fueling look like during an Everest?

Jack: I’m eating every half-hour. So whether that's an Energy Gel, Chews or one of the Stroopwafels, every half-hour I religiously eat something. At the end of the day I might consume—say it's like 12 riding hours—I might consume 16-24 gels and I might have four bags of Chews and four Stroopwafels. I find what's really interesting is that when I hop off the bike I don't have a craving for food. Whereas in the past when I haven't fueled properly, when I hop off the bike, I'm ravenous.

GU: How did you adjust to this kind of fueling?

Jack: In the past I've struggled with eating the same things. And this is where I think, speaking from the heart, GU is so far ahead of other brands. There are so many different flavors that I could eat a gel every half an hour and not have the same gel twice in a day. And that for me is game changing because I don't get sick of them.

GU: You only have two months left. How are you feeling about the home stretch? 

Jack: I'm ready for it to be finished. I'm ready for a bit of variety. I'm ready to live a more normal existence, but I also worry about what's gonna happen in January when I don't have that structure anymore because I always suffer a little bit from post-event blues. I think this will hit me tenfold because it's been a whole year. So I'm nervous about that, but I'm also excited to plan for next year and for the coming years.

GU: What do you have planned for 2023?

Jack: So for 2023 obviously my body needs a bit of a break, so I’m embarking on three philanthropic projects. I see that the world's in a bit of a crisis. There's climate change, there's deforestation, there's hunger, there's poverty, there are education gaps, there are all of these different things going on. And I want to use the bike as a way of telling some of those stories. I’m going to spend some time in Alaska telling a climate change story, some time in the Amazon telling a deforestation story and, and then some time in India telling a hunger story and using the bike to piece it all together. So that's 2023. And then in 2024 I'm going to try to break the around-the-world record.