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.
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.
A first for me this year has been the (very unwanted) appearance of pretty dreadful leg cramps during some rides. This is what really killed me on the Etape – riding over 70km with every pedal stroke driving cramp in both legs – it was a killer. This year cramps have cropped up maybe 5 or 6 times (although never previously to this extent). 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. 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 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’ll get up again.