Still Riding Bikes

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Despite everything that is going on with my health these days, most days really still do revolve around bikes. Riding bikes. Deciding where to ride bikes. Determining which bike to ride. Planning rides. Recovering from bike rides. Getting ready for the next bike ride.

Up until mid-June I was training rather seriously for the upcoming cyclocross season. I had set a goal of winning the Canadian National Masters (40 – 49) title. A big stretch goal considering where my fitness was when I started training in January with Coach Steve Weller, but I knew that so long as I did the training, I had a good chance at achieving my goal.

Once I started training again with Steve I realized how much I missed structured focussed training. It gave purpose to my rides and better yet, I could feel and see myself getting stronger and faster. My confidence was really quite high and I was starting to feel like a bike racer again. Capping this off with a super two weeks of riding in France, and well – I was crushing on the bike again.

So now I’m no longer training with Steve. This was a mutual decision. Steve has been through this ulcerative colitis roller coaster as long as I have – he was my coach when I was first diagnosed, when I raced at the World Cyclocross Championships, when I was hospitalized in Belgium, when I fractured my L3 vertebrae and when I got very sick again. He and I have worked together for so long that it was hard to pick up the phone and tell him the bad news about this ulcerative colitis flare. I know he was hoping as much as I was that somehow this would be a short flare and I’d be able to get back to training again.

But, it was not to be. We’ve trained through flares before – sometimes it’s worked out okay and other times it hasn’t been so great. This time, just like the last time, we both knew that training had to take a back seat.

Admittedly, I was super disappointed and floundered for a bit. I couldn’t see the point really in riding without a training plan and focus on my goals. Those initial rides after I realized that this wouldn’t be a “short” flare were not fun – “what’s the point?”, “I’m just going to lose my fitness anyway”, “why bother?”. But here’s the funny thing – I feel so much better when I’m riding a bike.

Sure there are days when I’m tired and I drag myself around. But more times than not, I feel great on my bike. It’s like I’m not sick at all. I don’t know if this the endorphins or if it has something to do with the brain/gut connection (more research about this all the time). But when I’m riding, my cranky colon settles down and I can ride without thinking about my disease (sure there are some crazy cramps, issues with heat management, extra concerns over dehydration, and lots of bonking happening) – but really I feel normal.

So, this is why you’ll see me lining up at the Eastern Ontario Cyclocross Series this year. I’m a bit nervous about it. When I’m healthy it can be a struggle to get to the start line with my nervous “race” stomach… So I’m not sure what will happen now that I’m in a flare. But, I won’t know if I don’t try. I really don’t know how I’ll feel out there on the race course. Up until I got sick I was doing lots of tempo intervals, long base rides and had started to get into the pointy-end of things with some threshold work – but I know that I don’t have a top end or the ability to recover from hard efforts repeatedly. So, I’ll just go out and race. I’ll try to race with my head and my technical skills – and hopefully my fitness can hang on for 50 minutes. It’s a risk of course to race – managing getting to the start line with this kind of disease is not easy – but I know if I don’t try, I’ll feel worse.

It’s not the racing that makes me want to get out there – it’s the people. There is something special about the cyclocross scene and there is something extra special about the Ottawa cyclocross scene. In the moment the racing is serious, but as soon as the race is over, it’s completely different. It’s hard to put into words, but everyone is so encouraging, supportive, helpful and really is happy to see someone improve. It’s hard to pass up this experience and sit on the sidelines watching.

So, with this being said, I should put some wheels on my trusty cyclocross bike and get out for some barrier practice… The other day I realized that if I hadn’t gotten sick, I would have been working on my technical skills for a month now. Now instead I ride where the roads and legs take me. Some days I do a long road ride. Other days all I do is bike the 22 km to work and back. Weekends see me out on my mountain bike exploring and testing my nerves. It’s different but the same. At the end of the day whether it’s V02Max intervals or a steady ride to the coffee shop – it’s still bicycle riding.

On Being Chronically Ill

I’ve written this post over and over again, and hopefully this time I’m getting it right.

I am a chronically ill person. I will be sick and dealing with illness for the rest of my life. This is an undeniable fact.

There are times when I will be in a remission and won’t be dealing with the everyday symptoms of ulcerative colitis. But even when I’m in a remission, the disease is always present. The cramps that I get for no apparent reason. The strange and sudden fatigue. The close scrutiny of every ache, pain and temperature fluctuation. The fear of being in contact with someone who “just has a cold/flu/bronchitis/strep throat/etc” and what will happen if I get your sickness. The wonder if today will be the last day of my remission and tomorrow I’ll be back dealing with an ulcerative colitis flare.

If you know me, then it’s hard to really understand and appreciate that I am a chronically ill person. It’s hard to see that behind the tan, the clear skin, the shiny hair, the robust bodyweight, and energy that I am actually very sick.

You need to know and remember that sick people often don’t look sick. Nope, we look like you on the outside. The difference is how we feel on the inside.

The other thing you need to understand is that those of us who are chronically ill – we don’t complain about colds/flus/bronchitis/strep throat/sore muscles/headaches/etc – we’ve got much bigger things to deal with. So while we seem to be able to “push through” and make the “best of it”, this is because we have no choice.

We’ve got this disease for life, it can’t be cut out, it can’t be zapped or pummelled with some cocktail of drugs. Nope, instead we take a cocktail of drugs for life. Drugs that are just as potent as chemotherapy – we swallow these in our bathrooms and kitchen on a daily basis, we get hooked up to intravenous drips every six weeks – and we do this for life. We can’t pack up and move to Europe for a year or two or go on a round-the-world trip – we need to be able to get our medication on a defined and immovable schedule.

So, yes, we may “look great” – but we’re not great. We are chronically ill. I am chronically ill. I have this for life and while the medication might give me a remission for 1.5 years (longest remission in six years) – it’s not guaranteed.

I’ve now been in a flare since early June and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon. You see the tricky thing with a disease like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease is that the doctors and scientists don’t know what causes these diseases. So there is no cure. There are only bandaid solutions. And eventually, the bandaid is going to fall off. When you get to the level of medication that I’m at, there aren’t many bandaids left. Instead it becomes a science experiment, testing out hypothesis (guesses) until we find a bandaid that sticks for a little while.

In the meantime while I may “look great”, I’m actually not. Yes, I’m still biking to work two days a week (and don’t assume that because I’m biking to work that I can’t be “that sick” – and definitely don’t say this to me…). Yes, I’m still biking on the weekends. Yes, I’m still meeting up with friends.

And yes, I’m in a constant state of exhaustion. Some days are better than others. But in between the work, biking, and just carrying on with life – I’m going to the bathroom on average 15 times a day. I go to the bathroom so much that I have to plan when I eat so I can make sure that I’m not caught somewhere without fast (and I’m talking 15 seconds fast) access to a bathroom. In addition to these constant bathroom trips, I’ve got the cramps, the headaches, the muscle aches, the stiff joints, and general awfulness that comes with being chronically ill. I know that for most of you, if you experienced the kind of “bathroom visits” that I do, you wouldn’t be going to work and you wouldn’t be going for a bike ride or braving going out in public.

But because I’m chronically ill and I’ll be dealing with this for my entire life, I like so many other people living with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease, have learned how to “live with it”. This doesn’t make it easy or “no big deal”. Shitting blood and mucous 15 times a day. Debilitating abdominal cramps. Constant muscle cramps. Ridiculously intense headaches. These are all a pretty “big deal” and when you add them all up and squish them into one day – well this is just the life of a chronically ill person.

I am a chronically ill person.

The reality is that I can’t rollover and let this take over my life. This is why I keep riding my bike, going to work, volunteering, and living life. But this isn’t easy. It may look simple but it’s not. Those of us who are chronically ill we choose to do all the things that “normal” people do because, we really have no other choice. We can’t wait for a cure or the next miracle drug. We can’t wish to wake up and be magically cured. We know that changing our diets and reducing our stress levels won’t cure us.

Chronically ill people have tried it all. We’ve drunk the green juice. We’ve given up meat and become vegans. We’ve tried resting. We’ve started meditating. We’re doing yoga. We’ve drunk the kool aid and it didn’t make a difference. Just like you would, we’ve tried it all. We’ve scoured the Internet for the latest research, we’ve bought all the books, we’ve tried all the diets, we’ve talked to the experts.

The fact is that there is no magical cure. The fact is that this is “not our fault”. There is nothing I could have done to prevent this. This is the way it is.

Number One Rule: Don’t Panic

Number One Rule: Don’t Panic

This rule got me through a lot of bike races. Whenever I would feel myself panicking, over-thinking, or riding on the front of the field when I didn’t need to be there, I’d hear both Marc and Glen in my head saying “Number one rule: don’t panic”.

When traveling to cyclocross races in Europe and my bags were lost or when I struggled to put my bikes together in a jet lagged fog or when I got a flat tire on my rental car or when I felt the pressure creeping up – the number one rule was there for me.

I’ve recently discovered that the number one rule is about so much more than bike racing. The number one rule works for regular old life as well.

I’m trying to teach Calvin the cat (we got a cat) the number one rule. Calvin is a skittish cat who twitches at a sneeze, a deep breath in or a creaking chair. We’re trying to teach Calvin that he’s safe here and there’s no need to panic.

Thanks to ulcerative colitis I get frequent daily reminders of rule number one. When I’m trying to get my cycling jersey off as fast as possible so I can get those darn bib shorts down – don’t panic. When I’m stretched out on a hospital bed waiting for a flexible sigmoid exam (as invasive and unpleasant as it sounds) – don’t panic. When I’m wondering if it’s safe to eat before getting in the car to drive to work – don’t panic. When I find out that there’s a strong chance that my medication is no longer working – don’t panic.

Really, in all life situations, panicking is the worst thing we can do. Don’t panic during a bike race – you’ll end up wasting valuable energy and becoming frustrated. Don’t panic when you can’t get the headset tightened properly on your cyclocross bike. Don’t panic when you have to go but there isn’t a bathroom in sight. Don’t panic, it will all work out eventually.

Number two rule: take it all in and enjoy the good stuff. (Easier to do when following rule number one: don’t panic.)

Reality Check

I’m sitting here at home on my back deck listening to the sounds of my neighbourhood. There are kids playing outside. Someone is watering their lawn. Dogs are barking. A plane is flying by. Birds are chirping. All familiar sounds that remind me of how good life is.

We returned home from our vacation last Saturday. To say that we had a great vacation would be an understatement. Every day was a good day. The riding was like no other riding I’d ever experienced. I tested myself physically and mentally in so many different ways. The scenery, the food, the pace of life were all simply spot on for what we needed. All in all, it was truly a gift of a vacation.

I remember during one of my rides thinking to myself “I would never have been able to do this two years ago”. And it’s true – two years ago I was still recovering from a hospitalization and trying to get myself back. I felt so good during our vacation, I felt like a “normal healthy” person. I was riding well and could feel myself getting stronger. These are such amazing feelings to have – I felt free and able to do anything I wanted.

(And now comes the hard part…)

I’m sick again. My ulcerative colitis remission ended on the day we flew home. Just typing this is so hard because I can’t deny reality anymore. The reality is I had a really good streak with my remission (almost 2.5 years) and now I’m in an ulcerative colitis flare again.

No, I don’t think it was the vacation that caused this. My rudimentary understanding of the human body tells me that it takes much longer than two weeks for the immune system to overreact. I don’t know what caused this – but of course, not even the experts studying ulcerative colitis know what causes it…

I was sad for a couple of days. But now I’m just plain old frustrated. Frustrated that I won’t be racing next week as I had planned. Frustrated that this damn disease is taking over again. Frustrated with what it is doing to Marc. Frustrated because I was doing everything “right” and it still didn’t matter. Frustrated that I might not get to do the things I enjoy. Frustrated that I’m letting a lot of people down. Frustrated because I really have no control over this.

All I can do is hope that my Remicade infusion on Monday will help turn things around. I’ve got lots of questions and no answers. Perhaps this is the worst part – not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Head Games

There is something about endurance sports that really can play games with your head. In fact, the more I ride, the more I’m starting to understand and appreciate that it really is 80% mental, 10% physical and 10% smarts/luck. Today was one of those days for me…

We’re still on holidays here in France and have moved to a new location – we’re based out of Malaucene at essentially the foot of Mont Ventoux. We’ve had a couple days of excellent riding here, including a big day on Saturday when I rode up Mont Ventoux. Let’s just say that was challenging and I honestly thought I might cry during the last three kilometres – yep, I went through every emotion possible during that 21 kilometre climb. (Marc has since ridden up Mont Ventoux three times – he’s done each route once… I have not even considered this…)

Anyway, back to today’s ride. Well, actually, I need to back up to Sunday’s ride. Sunday’s ride was excellent and magical. It was my first longish day since we’ve been here and it had everything I wanted – a decent amount of climbing, some “flat”, beautiful scenery, interesting little roads, a chunk of descending, and everything in between. I truly enjoyed this ride and apart from running low on water at one point, I generally felt pretty good the entire time.

And now back to today (Monday)… When I got on the bike this morning, my legs felt like blocks of wood. Turning the pedals was happening ever so slowly. But I told myself to give my legs time and that they would wake up – indeed they did after 30 minutes or so. In fact they woke up so much that I felt like I was “flying” up the hills – I was channeling Mike Woods and actually climbing instead of dragging and slogging up and over the hills. I felt like this for a solid 90 minutes and was so inspired that I decided to ride “up” to a town I could see perched on the side of a hill. The ride up was great and I felt like I was riding without a chain on my bike. I chatted with a super friendly guy at the top and then made my way down and back the way I came. And then it happened…

My legs fell off… I couldn’t turn the pedals. I was barely moving and the road felt “flat”. I even stopped to see if somehow my rear brake had seized and was closed against my rim. I checked to see if I had a flat. Nope – neither of these things. It was just me, the pavement, the amazing scenery and a feeling of despair. I told myself to just keep on pedaling and that things would come around. I ate some Clif Shot Bloks and chugged my drink. I thought of the racers I know who put themselves through so much. I thought of all the racing I’ve done. And I just kept on pedaling.

I believed it would get better. Heck, it couldn’t get much worse… And you know what, with some positive talking (yes, out loud talking), I managed to wake up my legs and push back the negative mental demons. While I wasn’t flying up the hills like I was on the way out, I was riding better and managed to wake up enough to appreciate what I was doing.

I was riding my bike in France. I was pedaling my bike around amazing countryside.

And for me is what it’s all about. I told myself not to worry about the watts, the cadence, the kilojoules, the average watts, the distance, etc (sometimes there is just too much data) – and to simply ride my bike. This I know how to do.

I wanted to get back to these feelings from Sunday:

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I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but today was a special one.

Vacay Time

Vacations are good. In fact vacations are awesome.

(Never ever should anyone “not take” their “vacation days”.)

Suffice it to say, we’re having a super awesome time here in France.

This trip is all about the bicycle. We’re riding. We’re eating. And we’re doing it every single day. Couldn’t be much better.

For the first week we’ve got a great little Air BnB place in Sechiliennes, France. Our place is at the very top of a tight and twisty road. We saw some guys trying to ride up our road this morning and let’s just say, it looked intense…

The riding has been great – we did a loop yesterday that involved riding up Alpe d’Huez – this was pretty special. I’ve watched the pros race up this climb and after doing this climb, it really puts a lot into perspective. I had no idea what to expect as this was my first time riding in the mountains, but Marc did a great job of getting me prepared for the climb. I saw him in the village at the top and he rode with me to the “official Tour de France” finish. Super day that was made special with a cool descent and ride through Villard-Reculas. I got to practice descending a mountain in the rain! (Yes, I still have brake pads left!)

Today was epic. (No, not exaggerating.) We rode for about 30 minutes before hitting the start of the Croix de Fer climb. This one is a humdinger… I climbed steady for a little over two hours – apart from a much-appreciated flat section and fun descent in the middle it was all about the uphill for 120+ minutes. This ride definitely had me experiencing a range of emotions and I found the last 2.5 km of the climb to the very top to be very challenging. Luckily Marc was there to ride with me and provide encouragement. Thoughts of the hot chocolate in the cafe at the top helped get me through the last bit of the climb. The descent down was fun though the small amount of climbing on the way back really had my legs feeling like lead! All in all, a great day – just shy of four hours of riding with a good mix of flat, up and down.

Really the rest of the time has been spent hanging out, eating, and doing a little bit of browsing (shopping for me) in a couple of souvenir shops and at Decathlon (big sports store).

Not sure what we’re doing tomorrow but I think it involves a cable car ride (with our bikes) and the Col d’Ornon.

So, if you’ve got some vacation days lingering – take them! Do something fun. Life is short and vacation days should be used. Work and deadlines can wait!

Raining

As I sit here in Wilmington, NY, it’s raining and coldish. I don’t like to use the word cold since the temperature is above 0 and isn’t anywhere close to -40 but you know what I mean…

My training schedule says I’m supposed to go out for a 2.5 – 3 hour hilly ride…. Hmm. I’ve packed all the gear – rain jacket, booties, gloves, hat, thermal long-sleeve, and leg warmers. But as you can tell, I’m not riding. I’m sitting inside listening to the rain.

I feel slightly conflicted about this. I’m trying to build myself into a racer again so shouldn’t I be out training – regardless of the conditions? The “old” me of the 2007 – 2011 era would be out there right now. Heck, I’d be an hour into my 3 hour ride… And here I sit.

I think this is okay. Yes, I want to be a racer again. But I’m more about the fun of it now. I have some goals I’d like to achieve, but I’ve said from the beginning of this process that if I don’t think I’m ready or I don’t feel ready when the time comes, then this is okay. The journey and the process has been worth it.

Now, some of you might be reading this and thinking “nice excuse for not achieving what you want” or “cop out”. Oh well, that’s your opinion. And I guess if you have this opinion, then you don’t know me or haven’t been down the same roads as I have.

So if I’m not trying to justify my reasons for not riding, why the post? I guess because if I learned anything from my post about self-doubt, it’s that I’m not alone here. Maybe if more of us started being more honest with ourselves and with one another, we’d all be a little bit happier and a heck of a lot more content with the amazing gifts we do have. Or maybe I am just trying to justify my not riding…  Who really knows? Besides, this time next week, I’ll have ridden up Alpe d’Huez so I think a rest day is a-okay today.

(Alright, I’m going back to my colouring. Yes, colouring – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.)