Being a cyclist can be a tough gig for anyone, those that are training to race or just those trying to stay fit. Most of us do the early morning training before family and work commitments, or sometimes just because there are bunch rides that we love to do for the social aspect with the obligatory coffee afterwards. I have been training for the last 4 years to be an elite cyclist, with one Paralympic Games under my belt and having attended 4 World Championships, I am now aiming to represent Australia at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
There are a wide range of categories in Para Cycling and the category I race in is the T2 which stands for Trike 2. The Trike category has two levels 1 and 2, with 1 riders having a greater disability and includes people with many different conditions that may affect their balance such as Brain injuries, Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I have MS and it can be a huge challenge to stay at the elite level.
Living with MS can be a tough existence, not because I have to deal with the symptoms but because most of my symptoms are invisible and at times I feel like people just don’t understand how I could be sick. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “But you look so good”, I would be wealthy.
People see me out riding my trike with others and even competing but don’t see what it takes for me to be out there and what I go through to be able to compete as an elite Para-cyclist. I also never let most people know about the symptoms I deal with on each and every ride whether it be training or racing. I have never been one to be a complainer so don’t let on about what is happening to my body during my rides. But I think it is important that people understand what it takes for me to be out there training.
The pathology of MS is completely different for every person affected by it. We may all have similar symptoms but none of us present the same way. I hope by writing these articles I can explain what it takes to actually be able to train and race while dealing with these symptoms, which for the most part are invisible.
The first symptom I want to discuss is heat intolerance. If my core body temperature goes up during training or racing then all the other symptoms I experience get worse. Symptoms that I will discuss in upcoming articles such as fatigue, tremors, neuro pain and balance. This can happen in the heat of the day, even if it is a warm morning or while I am in a pool or at the gym cross training. If the water temperature is over 27C even by 0.1 degrees in the pool, this can cause issues and until my core body temperature goes down then the symptoms won’t go away.
Because of this it’s important to work out how to keep my core temperature down during not only training but especially while racing. I have spent a lot of time with my Sport Scientist, at the Victorian Institute of Sport, in trying to work out the best way to do this.
In 2014 at the World Cup in Spain the temperature was 36C and very dry. The T2 Class men and women were racing the Road Race together at 2pm in the afternoon, in the heat of the day. It was a 24km race so less than an hour but in order to be able to not only finish the race but be competitive I needed to really deal with the heat before the race. My warm up was done on a wind trainer under our team tent with a wet towel around my shoulders. My cycling jersey was left to soak in a bucket of ice water while I was warming up. When it was time to head to the start line putting that jersey on was one of the hardest things I have done! I was then accompanied to the start by a couple of our team staff members with another wet towel around my shoulders and an umbrella held over my head. Upon arriving at the start we found out that the start was going to be delayed due to another race finishing and I don’t think that without that wet jersey, wet towel and umbrella I would have been able to race the way that I did. Although my core temperature did go up and my symptoms became excruciating I was at least able to finish and come away with a win. But at the end of the race I had to be helped off the trike and covered in cold wet towels and consume some very cold drinks.
Once my core body temperature returns to normal most of the symptoms go back to where they started from and I am able to continue on as normal. With training I can usually get through the session and then a cold shower can usually get the body temperature down.
I am sure that one day there will come a time when I have to make the decision not to race, but for now I’m not complaining. I have a lot of fun training and racing, so will put up with the symptoms until they get to the point where I can’t anymore. But as I’ve found out life is too short so we have to make the best out of what we have.