Making hay (in the Alps)

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I’ve been reading my son the “Little House on the Prairie” series. As our own house buzzes with umpteen electronic devices – from can openers to Ipads to expresso machines to toothbrushes – the books feel like bygone writings about bygone eras. Set in the deep mid-West of the USA, the Wilder family battle against the elements to try and eek out a simple, subsistence lifestyle that survives winter blizzards, summer droughts, prairie fires and locust swarms.

Living in the modern-day UK, I would say that the seasons rotate around our lives (not vice versa). On my bike, I like this revolution and enjoy the act of cycling through all the weathers. Their passing punctuates chapters of time and of life – day by day, month by month; I envisage our planet spinning in its elliptical orbit, in freefall round the sun.
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On my first ride of the year, the roads felt bald; polished by nightime frosts. I couldn’t trust their gleaming surfaces: winks of black ice amongst the pretty coating of white dust. The morning darknesses felt as though they might crack with cold. The milkyway could be seen, crisp and clear in the sky – an innocent, silent witness to our lives, light years below. Despite double-gloves and shoe covers, my fingers and toes smarted with a swollen numbness, and my body raged with the prickles of MS when I had my hot showers.
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Two weeks ago, I rested, exhausted and panting on my handlebars as a stream of sweat poured down from my face. My eyes stung with salt, my lightweight summer cycling-top was soaking wet. I was drinking my water more quickly than I could get to the next water-stop, and my arms and legs were pasted with layers of suncream and dust. I had started to get cramps in my inner thigh, and the soles of my feet were burning hot pressure points. The dominant smell was that of tarmac, which felt soft and sticky as it melted under a blazing sun. I had just passed by a temperature display showing 39.4 degrees. And there wasn’t a breath of wind.
The Alps felt raw. Beautiful. Uncompromising*. And hot.
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Inbetween those two rides, as seems to be a reoccurring annual pattern, my MS had first flared up (and dragged me down); it had stutteringly abated; then, with a realisation similar to that of watching the tidal retreat in Pwll last week, it had dawned on me that I could barely see what had been lapping at my toes just a moment ago. There were rockpools and a few eddying currents that remained – but the estuary now showed only the ripples of sand. A convoy of beach vehicles drove where, an hour earlier, the sea had stood.

My toughest day of cycling in the Alps saw me ascend almost 6,500 metres. I drank ~10 litres but still finished the ride feeling dehydrated and sun-struck. When my alarm rang at 6am the following morning I felt drained and empty – but I was not buzzing with pins and needles. Tiredness and pins & needles I have grown to see as being one and the same – but not this time. I mentally turned the physical pages of my own body: a residual tingling in toes and fingers; and my left abdomen; an urgent, and familiar, need to suddenly go to the toilet… but nothing worse.

Perhaps a 200km Alpine bike ride is the cure.

Continuing that bike tour when physically empty allowed for only steady, slow progress – trying to allow the body to regenerate on the bike. Eating, drinking, resting. Avoiding the midday sun. I did feel stronger the next day – but the remaining 3 days of my tour were all on ‘go-slow’. Go-slow, but no MS.

This felt like making hay. Like Mr Wilder in those books: me, reaping the summer harvest of a winter’s hard-work.
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Weirdly, and perhaps paradoxically, a few days ago I managed to flare-up my MS by jogging no more than 10 metres alongside one of my boys. Pins and needles back up my torso and arms; a grey palour to my face; a strange disconnectedness to my left-foot; and a few days of buzzy exhaustion followed. I had to lie down with vertigo after looking straight upwards into the trees. I have to watch it carefully, this hiding friend of mine – but I do believe that summertime is “my time” – always has been.

The months pass. The seasons rise and fall. My MS ebbs and flows. I wonder where my new “normal” now sits. Like our earth spinning in the universe, I must remember that ‘my’ MS is just a small part of wider “whole” and so very much more is going on. Make hay while I can – let’s see what next winter brings.

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* having re-read I’m slightly embarrassed to have used this word. As “uncompromising” as a tourist-trap with hot coffees and fresh pastries can be!

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