Part I – A tough road
I felt as if I was on holiday when I rolled in Annecy, halfway through Day 1. A market was in full swing with all its smells (fresh fruits and baking, crepes cooking) and colours. All around the lake, mountains loomed, up in the clouds where I was intent on going.
This first day was hard. I persisted with hopes more for the days to come when my illness should hopefully have dissipated. There were pleasures along the way – but these early miles were largely an effort to avoid abandonment; slow, but steady, in the misty rain. I averaged about 11mph on the flat that day – rather than the ~16 I’d usually cruise at.
That night, I was still too ill to eat any dinner. On Day 2, I would be running on empty.
Day 2 would also include my first real climb. Although my MS symptoms were definitely improving, my weakness was going to be a problem. The Col du Madelaine was a 27km climb – and by the time I started this ascent it was already uncomfortably warm.
This was going to be hard enough. Empty. Hungry. Hot. I pedaled as gently as I could. But I was beginning to frame this ride as me versus MS. If I could beat the ride, I could beat the condition. In my mind, it was becoming something representative, that I simply could not give up on.
I felt fuelled by a fear of my condition. And kept going because I was scared about what a capitulation might mean.
I remembered when I was 8 years old. Paul Bennett, my friend at Primary School, was earnestly explaining to me how to run if you were being fired upon. “You have to keep zig-zagging. And keep going. If you zig-zag you can’t be hit.”
MS felt like a dirty great big cloud gathering behind me. I kept going. I zig-zagged across the road when it got too steep.
I remembered too my first ever sight of mortality.
My Grandmother, who had always seems so utterly full of life, came to visit one Christmas with a continuous and rasping cough. A few months earlier she was full of all the energy in the world… she was now dying from her cancer.
Although she seemed suddenly so weak to me, on Christmas morning she came down, dressed in her Sunday-best dress, ready for church. She even had her hat pin ready. A hat-pin: a hang-over from a bygone era of Sunday bests and immaculate appearances at churches and family dinners.
She had dusted herself down – and would carry on.
I looked down at my sleeves which were messily pulled down. My knee warmers (put on in the early morning cold) had slipped down to my ankles. One of my bottle racks was rattling loudly and needed a tighten. My rear derailleur needed to be re-adjusted because I couldn’t switch down into my easiest gear. I was getting some friction discomfort from my shorts so I needed to stop and sort out some chamois cream.
I felt really weak when I stopped. I couldn’t seem to undo my helmet strap – which suddenly seems so fiddley in my cumbersome fingers.
I read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer – an account of tragedy on the slopes of Everest. One particularly poignant section stays with me: one of the climb leaders became marooned near the summit. He was “trapped” by his own belay – a tool he’d have unclipped from hundreds (probably thousands) of times before. But the frostbite in his fingers meant that he couldn’t quite undo the fitting. Heart-breakingly his wife was still in radio contact with him and begged him to try one last time… “For me. For your children.”
His fingers just wouldn’t work. He never came down.
My little inconveniences were nothing – and should be easily overcome.
I looked at my feet as they pedaled. I have written the names of my two boys, one on each shoe. One turn for you; then one for you.
Having struggled for almost 2 hours, the realisation that I couldn’t quite make the summit actually came quite suddenly. My legs, just like that, had nothing more.
Incredibly, at that moment, I saw by the roadside my wife and 2 children. I couldn’t believe it – “Look! There he is! There’s Daddy!!” They jumped with excitement and started to jog alongside me.
My wife’s hat blew off and she had to stop to get it.
Little Adam ran alongside – his little legs pumping a hundred times a minute to keep up. He gets so upset when he can’t keep up with his brother – I was worried he’d cry, but when he got left behind he was smiling. And waving.
Ryan kept running longer than I’d have thought. Eventually he slowed too though – his arms stopped whirring and he acknowledged it was time to stop (with a smile).
What a moment… but just when I thought it was over, I saw my mum and dad by the roadside. I couldn’t believe it. They, too, had come all the way to France to cheer me on. My dad started to run alongside me: “Go on! Go on!” He was red in the face, but laughing…
Then I woke up.
I was in my childhood bed. I too had been laughing in my sleep <<what a funny dream that had been!>>. My head was lying on my old “Danger Mouse” pillow (I wonder what had happened to that?).
Something didn’t feel right though. And why was my pillow covered in spiky grass?
I woke up again. This time I was lying on the roadside verge. According to my bike computer I’d been stationary for just over 10 minutes.
I was 10 kilometres from the summit.
There would then be a 20 kilometre descent.
Then 20 more kms (on the flat) to my hotel.
And, now, I actually felt quite well rested.
I look you in the eyes, MS, and you can see that I’m not beaten. See that you haven’t even touched the sides.