by Vaune Davis,
In the formidable women’s field at this year’s Bike Sebring 24hr, my fiercest competitor was myself.
I’ve been on the ultra-cycling circuit for a year and a half. I’ve qualified for the Race Across America (RAAM) and racked up a good list of 50+ age group titles, including the 2013 Ultra Marathon Cycling Association (UMCA) World Cup and Ultra Cup age group championships. I did a 1200 km brevet in freezing rain. Yet I started this season not sure I would ever be able to finish a 24-hour race again.
The skeleton in my closet: psoriatic arthritis, a disease I’ve fought since age 19. In my 20’s and 30’s it eroded all the cartilage in my shoulders, fused cervical vertebrae, fingers and toes, and put me into orthopedic surgery four times. Sometimes I couldn’t walk more than two blocks much less ride a bike.
In my mid-40’s a new biologic drug changed everything. It put the arthritis into a complete remission. I started bike commuting because it was easier than pounding my damaged feet on the Toronto sidewalks. Oddly, that led to ultra racing. Or perhaps not odd at all – arthritis gave me an insanely high tolerance for pain.
Fast forward to November, 2013. On an adrenaline high after completing the Trona 353, I registered for this year’s Race Across the West solo. A week after pressing ‘send’ on the registration form, I started waking up at night with stabbing knee pain. Within days I was struggling to walk and climb stairs.
The MRI and blood test results were a shocker: my arthritis had not only figured out how to outwit the $22K-a-year miracle drug, but it was chewing up my knees. I had severe cartilage loss in both, inflammation in my hips and elbows, and a double-knee replacement instead of a double-century in my future.
First thought: the party is over. Mourn your mid-life passion for ultra-cycling, hurl curses at the unfairness of life and move on. Those of you who love this sport will be able to imagine the bucket of tears I shed.
Fortunately, ultra-racing has taught me one thing: the most important muscle is the brain. I formed a general plan, then tried not to think of the task and uncertainties ahead, knowing it would destroy my morale. In a nutshell, it went like this:
1. Carpet-bomb your calendar with medical appointments. I consulted multiple doctors and did every evidence-based treatment available, short of surgery. This included biweekly physiotherapy, acupuncture, cortisone shots, synthetic joint fluid. Laser. Anti-inflammatory drugs. New arthritis meds. Knee and glute-strengthening exercises.
2. Confront your fears. I was afraid I’d never be able to race my bike again, or, if I persisted, I’d destroy my knees. A surgeon comforted me with the fact that my knees are so wrecked I can’t make them much worse. In fact he recommended I continue cycling, because it is low impact and helps keep the supporting muscles strong and joints lubricated. Five-hundred mile races? Possibly destructive, he admitted, but impossible to say. He agreed with my end-stage logic: If a double-knee replacement is already a near certainty, I might as well enjoy doing my crazy sport as long as I can.
3. Embrace the worst-case scenario. In my case that would be surgery and about a half year of rehab instead of Race Across the West. But most people are able to cycle well on fake knees. Maybe not ultra-race, but I’ll get over that if I must. I’m lucky there’s a solution and that in Canada I don’t have to worry about the medical bills.
4. Think about the here and now. My coach and I decided that the best approach was to treat the problem like an ultra race and divide it into discrete segments. Banish the big picture, with its dire scenarios. I set aside all plans for Sebring and the Race Across the West (RAW), and focused only on weekly training goals. Every week that I could complete the required physiotherapy and Computrainer intervals was a victory I relished as if I’d just finished a RAAM-qualifier.
The result? I registered for Sebring four days before the race. I made it to the start and to the finish. I paced the race well, and put up with the hip and elbow arthritic pain that dogged me for the last twelve hours like an invisible tandem partner who refused to pedal. I stayed in the saddle and cycled lightly at a high cadence, zoning out to a 90-rpm playlist on my iPod, to avoid stressing my knees. The downside to that strategy: saddle sores. The upside: I crushed my previous 24-hour personal best (333 miles), with 353 miles and the 55-59 age group title.
I still don’t know if I’ll be able to do Race Across the West. My knees held up reasonably well on Sebring’s flat terrain. The next step is to test them on some long Western climbs. I need to find an arthritis medication to replace the one that stopped working. So I’ll continue with Plan A for now, and have fun with my mini-goals.
This is an unconventional race report. And ultimately there may be no fairy tale ending. I share it merely to show that the lessons we learn from ultra-cycling can help us cope with even more epic challenges in our real lives.
Vaune Davis is 54-year-old ultra-cyclist, wife and mother of three. She works as a news producer for Canada’s public broadcaster and is coached by RAAM-soloist Peter Oyler out of WattsUp Cycling in Toronto, Ontario. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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