After the Lord Mayor’s show: Diets, Cramps and Serotonin

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If ever you’re wondering what’s possible on a bike – and just how crazy some cyclists are – consider the friend of mine currently racing from Belgium to Turkey. He’s doing it unsupported, with the clock never stopping. Sleeping under hedges. Going over the Alps. He did the same last year – a massive event – and talked about, not only the tiredness afterwards, but the mental and emotional “flatness”. The post-Olympic low. Most people are probably familiar with this sensation immediately after a peak of adrenalin or stress; or a major event: if you’ve been focussing on a given moment, or goal, and when it’s gone, normality suddenly seems a bit slow (or empty?) because you’ve become so attuned to being ‘driven’.

I’ve returned from a relaxing family holiday in the beautiful Alps (ps I want to live there now…), but in cycling terms, and in cyclingwithms terms, flatness is where I’ve found myself. The week before the Alps I’d been geeing up my MS-ing body, pretending (both to it and to myself) that cycling in the Alps would be possible. Persuasion through adrenalin (and excitement) got me so far… but the result was that I only just crawled over the line and (see my last couple of blogs) I think I’m still wearing a psychological (and emotional) cycling-scar from the “Etape du Tour”. I feel that I stretched (on tip-toes) up to an event – which had been inspiring me to get out of bed every morning – but now, without all that anticipation, I’m now struggling to overcome the MS-lethargy I’m currently suffering. (Athletes and cyclists need rest and recovery (yes, I know) – but I feel that this current lassitude, buzzing with pins and needles (and other lower body issues), is more than just physical tiredness). Earlier this year, I was riding my bike with entry to the Paris-Brest ride on my radar – but, after very careful consideration and discussion with my audaxing ‘wingman’, I’ve decided not to go for it. Despite all those efforts to qualify, I just don’t think it’s what I’m should be looking for right now. My friend and I are going to do something else in its place…. something that will hopefully be less nocturnal; more scenic; and less crowded. It’s only 4 years until the next one anyway.

Feels to me like I need a new source of serotonin.

An MS diet

I have my suspicions that the MS diet I’m pursuing is not helping my tiredness. I’ve been exercising a lot – and struggling to keep my weight on – under a regime of near-vegetarianism and abstinence from all saturated fats. I’ve been disciplined about it and rotate my way through a set of meals that fit my needs (of which I’m getting increasingly bored!): usually some combination of white fish, pasta and salad/veg, followed  by fruit. But I also feel hungry too much of the time. My wife finds me, what she calls, “snaffling” – which essentially means me staring at a food cupboard, or fridge, craving “a little something” to satisfy my appetite, even after I’ve eaten.

Since I was diagnosed on 23 March 2015, 128 days ago, “Strava” tells me that I have cycled 5,259 miles. This averages out at 41 miles a day… which, very roughly, means that I’ve been burning up about 2,200 calories…  every single day. This is the recommended diet for “an under-weight man looking to put on weight”. So every day this year, I have been needing to eat, not only my own recommended calories intake, but also, in addition, the number of calories recommended for someone actively looking to put on weight. If one day I only eat a “normal” diet, the next day I need to eat three “normal” days worth just to catch up.  I’ve been doing my best. I’ve read blogs written by hard-core ultra-marathon runners who are vegan, so I know that this approach must be possible, but I can’t eat more volume (I’m eating mountains of food) – I need to work out more densely-packed, high-energy intakes. It’s been suggested that I go and see a Dietician (sounds pricey…) but my suspicion is that this might just lead to a recommendation of ‘high protein’ vegan foods and I’m already aware of these – Quorn, pulses, seeds etc. Unless I start drinking flaxseed oil out of pint glasses, I feel as though I’m going to turn into a (very thin) broccoli (although, admittedly, it would be nice to return to having such a full head of hair…)

Cramps

One factor on my bike that I thought might be related to all this, is the (very unwanted) appearance of pretty dreadful leg cramps during some rides. This is what really killed me on the Etape when I ended up having to ride over 70km with every pedal stroke driving cramp in both legs – it was a killer. I had suffered these once in the past – but this year they’ve cropped up maybe 5 or 6 times. Anecdotally I’ve heard much about dehydration and electrolyte deficiencies (or magnesium, or salts…) being a primary cause. And under training (or over-exertion). But these don’t seem to tally with my experiences this year. Another proposed cause, “overheating”, maybe tallies more so (especially on the Etape when the temperature in the valleys hit 40 degrees). So I did some internet research (always dangerous…):

Remarkably given all of the anecdotal conviction, there is no proven scientific link between dehydration (or mineral-deficiency) and cramps (arguably, this is because such a complex link is very difficult to “prove”, even though it may well still exist). Consensus seems to be that there are multi, varied causes – and rehydration and better training do seem to be the most reliable defences; and stretching is the best short-term, emergency cure. But then I started reading words that set my MS alarm bells ringing: “neuromuscular fatigue” – fatigue which contributes to a breakdown in the normally efficient neuromuscular pathways that control the movement of our muscles. This rings more true to me: “Neuro” (again). Is this just another gift from my MS friend? Or just another opportunity to use MS as an excuse for everything? Is there a bodily function left which it’s not going to touch?

I don’t think, however, that there’s such a thing as “neuro-hunger”. I stand by the opened fridge and look at another bag of spinach.  And low fat Soya Milk.

And broccoli…

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Making friends again

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Thank goodness we re staying on a mountain summit, not at the foot of a valley.

I got back on my bike and rode downhill for 25km. I don’t think I pedalled more than two or three times as I swept round the hairpinning turns. Sun on my face, no one else around.

I have now been back and tried a climb. I rode “glass pedals” and kept my heart rate at walking pace. It was a stunning early morning in the Alps. Crisp air, blue skies and quite staggering views. The day was clearly going to be a scorcher…. but not yet. The day was still at its best before the high thirties of the midday sun arrived.

A driver pulled over with a friendly wave to let me overtake on the descent. The empty road had a perfectly smooth, newly laid surface- and the shiney new hub on my rear wheel purred with pleasure. The air felt so fresh and clean (pure) and I was so very much outdoors.

I do love being there; being here. I took a tough beating on Sunday – maybe I’m just a silly ageing man who needed it. I keep remembering last year when I raced the Etape as hard as I could… then rode another 50 miles back to the start where I had left my car. The older everyone gets, everyone has stories of “what they used to do” – I need to cut out the melodrama, enjoy the wonderful pleasures of cycling when they are offered and keep smiling.

Remember it’s all just about riding a bike.

Was that a white flag? Etape 2015

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When (Sir) Steven Redgreave won what turned out to be his penultimate Olympic gold, the cameras caught him at the finishing line. “If ever you see me near a boat again, you have my permission to shoot me…”
Back he was, four years later, winning another Olympic gold.

The struggle can get pretty bad. Even when (so I’ve been told!) you’re winning.

I used to do a lot of running, and was a far better runner than I will ever be a cyclist, but my own white flag moment was not one I came back from. I was running the Paris marathon when, what had been for many months a niggling knee injury, escalated into something that felt much worse. Probably best equated to a painful toothache, but in my knee… I tried to carry on, but my lower back then flared up… then my hip. I finished in pain. Several weeks later a consultant was showing me an MRI scan- my arthritis had got so bad that hairline fractures were appearing on my knee joint. I didn’t have the heart to go back to that pain cave again- that was it for me. A white flag waved- and I haven’t run since. I don’t regret it, my body was spent.

Yesterday I cycled, or tried to cycle, the Etape du Tour in the French Alps. The last couple of years I have targeted this annual even and have trained for it, and ridden it as hard as I could. As you will know if you’ve read any of my blogs, of course, this year has thrown up its own set of challenges; so as this event has got nearer and nearer I’ve wondered what it would mean for me in 2015.

As it happened, there were several bad accidents during the event (as there are most years). I was not one of these fallers – so in many respects things could have been worse. But a good headline would seem to be a text sent to my wife as I got to the bottom of the final climb:

“Struggling. MS symptoms bad, not sure I ll be able to finish. Might be coming to peace with a surrender. I’m going safely, not to worry, but might be home late.”

I need some time to digest the implications of where I went yesterday. What I know is that, although people talk about bravery, of “good heart”, when cycling, one can only do what the body can take. Nothing can replace adequate preparation, training and health.

Pre-event concerns

As I’ve tried to continue my cycling through my MS I’ve gone with the approach of battling on. If I’ve planned a ride, I’ve just gone on it. At times this has meant cycling when very weak, and at times, cycling when I probably shouldn’t have been. But it has meant that I haven’t felt beaten by this condition… Not yet… I’m maybe not the cyclist I was, but I am still trying to live the life that I want to. I’m still angry at my condition, not accepting of it. Again, not yet…

After a few weeks of much improved symptoms, last week they flared up again, for whatever reason. The night before the Etape, I had bad pins and needles. My legs were spasm-ing badly, violent mule like kicks when I was asleep, as if my mind was worried that they’d lost touch with that part of my body. I felt weak, I’d been sleeping for longer and longer each night without recovery… And was back to getting up five times each night to go to the loo.

I did contemplate not starting, a DNS, but I also knew that i wasn’t going to let that happen. To me, this would be “losing”, beaten by a force of bad. I had been on rides this year when I had felt similarly bad, and had emerged largely unscathed, so I wondered how bad it could be… I was (over) confident that I could take it.

The Etape du Tour 2015

As a cyclist, one of the tricks is getting to know your own body, to know when you can accelerate, and when you need to hold back. On long distance events, you need to know how hard you can push, and how hard you shouldn’t. The trouble is, when your body isn’t feeling right, it’s difficult to know what implications that should have. Should you abandon? Or just go at 90%? Or at 50%?

At the start I didn’t feel right, so set off at what I’d describe as a steady pace. The first climb was beautiful, but already hot in the morning sun. I was suffering a symptom I’d had earlier in the year when I was complaining of a lack of strength in my muscles, I was being overtaken by a steady stream of riders. I knew I was breathing heavier than I’d expect; heart rate higher; sweating more.
The first descent (on closed roads) was still an absolute pleasure, but the temperature gauge was rising.

I’d read anecdotally that hot weather and MS do not sit well together. Life in Bristol had not been a test of this…. it became clear that this ride would be. As I started the second, major climb of the day, it was over 30 degrees. It was becoming apparent that my body was not going to let me have a clean run at this event. I started struggling really badly, and hadn’t yet covered a distance that I’d been comfortably doing two or three times a week for the last month. I eased off…. and off… until it felt as though I was barely making progress at all. No leg strength. I knew then that the ride was going to disintegrate into a battle, not of fitness, but of will. I acknowledged this shift, and reluctantly admitted to myself that I was going to have to steel myself for a fight.

5km later I pulled off onto the gravel to remove a layer (my vest) and arm covers. That two minute break was to have repercussions as, a couple of kilometres later, I heard the cyclist’s “dead man’s wheeze” as air slowly escaped my front tyre. It seemed to puncture my spirit as well as my tyre…. The cause must have been some shrapnel picked up at my stop. Such things happen, but, rather than a five minute change, somehow it took me well over ten. My hands were fumbling, and I didn’t have any dexterity in my fingers. When I got back on the bike my right leg immediately cramped up. Then my left.
I stood on my pedals, but two minutes later my right leg cramped up in this new position as well.
At that point I didn’t think I’d finish.

My vision started playing MS tricks on me. I kept focussing on the wrong things and, subconsciously, I’d start steering towards them. A waistband of numbness appeared around my torso, a cold, tight MS hug. I stopped being able to cycle directly up the hill- instead I had to tack like a sailor into the wind. I wondered if I was actually making any progress at all. At the top of that climb, the Col du Glandon, I lay down and fell straight to sleep.

I did the next descent still appreciating that it was beautiful, but distracted by my body and what it was doing. Before the last climb I stopped and sent the above text to my wife. That was a white flag moment of sorts for me. I’m not going to stop cycling, but this was too much. I don’t think I’m just a “Sunday cyclist” who had bitten off more than he could chew… it was me that had been chewed up (and spat out). Cyclists go “into the red”‘ but this was beyond my red. My suspicion was that my MS had been lurking in the shadows, knowing that, eventually, this time, inevitably would come. I would break.

I did the final climb in slow motion; and finished 2 hours later.

I’ve got to work out now whether my white flag was a “Steve Redgreave” one; or a Paris marathon one. I now have to confess that I can’t take everything that cyclingwithms throws at me and, sitting here the next day, my appetite for more is running on empty.

Last night I slept to the lullaby of my buzzing pins and needles. I woke up frequently but they sent me straight back to sleep each time.

Footnote

I have just re-read the above, which I typed out straight from the heart, as soon as I got home. Perhaps I should have waited a bit for all those emotions to settle.

<<Don’t let MS be your excuse. It is “you” just as much as the scar on you leg, the colour of your eyes, or your love of your children. Blaming MS for something is no different from blaming yourself.>>

I’ve been knocked down but I’ll get up again.

The carrot…. and the stick

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Cycling is a beautiful, but cruel, mistress.

It makes you work for the good times. And dishes out some bad.

The Tour de France is on our screens at the moment. All those crashes are spectacular, gringe-worthy viewing. But each threatens to extinguish an entire year’s worth of training, of hopes and dreams. An incident, over in the click of fingers, unravelling all those hours on the road.

Earlier this year, as I slogged out a long ride with qualification to the Paris-Brest event in mind, I got talking to a rider from my club. He’d long been an “audax-er” (or long distance) enthusiast – and had long held an ambition to ride the Paris-Brest. As we ascended a climb he explained the various life-factors that had prevented his participation both 4 years, and 8 years ago (the event is every 4). This, he felt, was his “last chance” – and the timing of qualifying rides meant that he had to finish that day. As he spoke, suddenly his legs gave way – and we saw that his rear derailleur had sheared in two. His ride was over. He could only smile: “So here ends my campaign…” He was going to have to get a (very) expensive taxi home.

Over the last few weeks I’ve allowed my hopes to get dangerously high. After 4 months of suffering MS symptoms, I’ve been feeling much better. And the “Etape du Tour” event in the French Alps has homed into view. This mountainous event has been a ride that I’ve targeted the last couple of years – ramping up my training and efforts to try and get my best possible time. 4 months ago I was hoping that I might be able to get to the start line… then slowly, over the last few weeks, it’s been dawning on me that I might actually be able to give it a proper go again. I’ve felt fit, and strong up hills on my bike.

Then 4 nights ago I woke up with intense pins and needles along both arms. Really powerful ones. That next day I had a couple of weird bouts of vision-distortions. I started needing the loo with dramatic urgency again…. pins and needles re-appeared in my feet.

Last night I slept for 12 hours and could barely get out of bed when my alarm went.

Maybe there’s an element of these symptoms being psychosomatic. But it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like MS is still there and does not want to let me ride the Alps. I thought the question was: should I race the Etape? But like always, it’s not necessarily the answer that’s the issue…. it’s whether or not you’re asking the right question. Maybe it should be: what on earth am I doing? What’s this life all about?