I got hooked on mountain biking just like most other people. In 2005, A good friend took me out for a ride. I was in far over my head. I crashed and got dirty. I went home, bought a better bike, and haven’t stopped riding since. Well, that’s not entirely true. My story about mountain biking weaves into a story about survival when, in 2006/7, I became quite sick.
After that first infatuating ride, I glommed onto anyone who would teach me how to ride with technical skill. In the people and the trails, I found a new world. As a home-schooling mom with three children ages six and under at home, this development was good for my overall sense of self. I was in love with something that belonged only to me. Bikes.
But rarely is something so simple. Where originally riding served the purpose of relieving my daily stress and making me stronger, later it began to highlight overall weakness. My rides became a struggle. My husband, always tag teaming with me for childcare, was becoming frustrated with my random behavior. He’d come home from work so that I could leave for a ride, and I’d back out, deciding instead to lay down for a rest. We spent an entire summer like this. I was moody. I was exhausted. Come to think of it, I didn’t feel so great.
For six months I ignored my symptoms and for four months I did nothing but chase them. The doctors sent me to all sorts of specialists. We did ongoing lab work, some bone marrow samples, and a lot of waiting. Meanwhile, my health declined. At times, I could barely make it from one end of the living room to another. The children, now ages 8, 6, and 2, were often fending for themselves. Strangers started bringing us groceries and meals. Emotionally, I wasn’t concerned. I didn’t have energy for that; I had begun to shut down.
Just when it seemed like there wasn’t much time left, one doctor found the answer. I had a rare blood disease called Severe Chronic Neutropenia. My body decided that white blood cells, the part of the blood that fights infection, were no longer necessary for my survival. They had diminished to nearly nothing.
The journey from this point forward was possibly harder than the first stage. There was a way to manage the illness, but the time it would take to rebuild my immune system and strength would be lengthy. I felt like a prisoner in my own body. And considering this was such a rare condition, my prognosis was uncertain. One doctor actually told me I’d probably never regain my energy. This assessment was simply unacceptable to me
At risk of infection and confined to isolation, I became obsessed with bikes from my place on the couch. My trainer was set up downstairs and, sometimes, I would have enough strength to sit on it for five minutes. Five minutes on the trainer, followed by a two hour nap. I watched the message board of our mountain bike club, hoping that there might still be some way for me to participate; if I could only get strong enough.
Five months later our club hosted the Midwest Mountain Bike Festival. No longer at high risk for infection, I put on a smile and went to check out the festivities. Desperately not wanting to be left out, I even rode my bike with the Mud Maids to the end of a half mile trail. Then I crawled in someone’s tent and fell asleep. While I tried very hard to have hope, in truth I was utterly downtrodden with the meager progress I had made. I was alive, but after a year of fighting I was still so weak and tired. I continued adjusting my medication and repeatedly chanted to myself “This, too, shall pass.”
Two weeks after that big festival, I had a burst of energy. I got up and rode my bike; two of the most sensational miles ever ridden. Never has a cyclist had such a high as I had that day. I rode my bike! I was getting stronger! I called out to my circle of cycling friends, who were the perfect picture of patience. They escorted me on one painfully slow ride after another. We went five miles, and then ten. By June, 2007 I rode 20 miles! On July 14, I rode an unexpected 50 miles. My recovery time in-between rides was quite substantial. It wasn’t like I rode and then came home and carried on with my normal activities. I rode, and then came home and slept for 12 hours. It was a major sacrifice to the other things that needed to be done in my home, such as parenting. But then again, I was riding my bike…I was surviving…I was living!
The combination of getting healthy and riding bikes has evolved. I became certified for the National Mountain Bike Patrol; and in 2008 I finished seven races, including a 24 hour mtbk team race. Considering this condition is chronic and lifelong, it has been quite a beast to contend with. Things have turned very black and white for me. Riding my bike equals being healthy. Not riding my bike equals being sick. In the end, riding bikes has become more than an average bike-junky obsession, it’s a benchmark of success on a journey about health, life, and love.