For some of us with multiple sclerosis, just getting on a bike is an adventure, like the lost art of tipping over without pedaling one stroke. And then there are others who can bike like they are on the Tour. ActiveMSers’ intrepid cyclist, known as AMF Adventures on the forums, has put together a tale of his 2008 MS 150. It was indeed an adventure for the near 60-year-old MSer, who was officially diagnosed in 1999.
WOO HOO, what a ride. In June of 2010, I finished six out of seven days of The Ride The Rockies Bicycle Tour for a total of 450 miles and 23,850 ft. of ascent. I did all of the major climbs including The Colorado National Monument, Grand Mesa, Red Mountain Pass, Molas Divide, Coal Bank Pass and Wolf Creek Pass. A week later I successfully completed the MS 150, NOT a piece of cake for most people, especially for an about-to-be 60-year-old.
This has been a spectacular year for me, but while pondering these accomplishments, it occurred to me that the turning point in my cycling occurred on the 2008 MS 150. It may forever be the most challenging and personally meaningful ride I have ever participated in.
MS 150 Recap
It was late June of 2008 when I attempted an MS 150 bike ride here in Colorado for the second time (the first one, in 2005, didn’t go so well). The course went from Westminster in North Metro Denver to Fort Collins and returned the following day. I had found a training schedule online and had been following it since March, so I felt pretty good about being able to make the distance but was a bit less confident when it came to the hills. There was a 1,300-ft elevation gain going to Ft Collins, which included a brutal 900 ft on a 10-mile long climb up to and past Horsetooth reservoir (about 20 miles before Ft. Collins). After that it was down hill into the city for the night. The riders also had to repeat that climb from the other side first thing the next day. If the climbs got too tough there would always be a SAG (Support And Gear) vehicle around somewhere for a ride up the hills.
The first 50 miles of the ride went fine; several of my recent training rides had been tougher than that. I felt good approaching the big hills just before Horsetooth reservoir, so I kept on going not even considering a SAG wagon (there weren’t any around anyway). In retrospect, I might have felt a little too good. The skies were cloudy, the temperature was a comfortable low 70s, and the endorphins were really starting to kick in.
I cranked up the level of effort a bit to get up the hills and felt a little twinge in an old ski injury in my “good side” knee. If I pushed harder than necessary, it might have had something to do with groups of very fit young women constantly passing me. I think the team name was “Raw Heinies” although some of them might have been “Megasoreasses.” Anyway, I crested the big hills and coasted into Ft. Collins and across the first day finish line after six and a half hours and still felt pretty good—good enough, anyway, to get to the free beer tent for some medicinal pain relief. Thank you Breckenridge Brewery, you came through again!
The people you meet at these events are always fantastic. Even the ones you can tell are usually jerks are fun to be around. Must have something to do with being so exhausted that you're just happy to experience that still-alive feeling and sit down and enjoy a beer in the company of some strangers who've been through the same ordeal. And yes, even a really fit bike rider can manage to exhaust himself on one of these rides.
A number of MSers were wandering or wheeling around. One lady and her friends sat next to me and told me she had been diagnosed in February of that year and that the company she worked for had sponsored a team for the ride. She talked about getting a bike and starting to ride; I seconded that. I told her about the therapeutic yoga classes many MSers do and we discussed some of the research we had read about recently. Although I never mentioned my own MS, she definitely guessed by the end of the evening. It is uncanny, the knack that we demon fighters have for recognizing one another, even while NOT discussing our illnesses or injuries.
Day Two of the MS 150 and No SAG in Sight
We were up at 4:30 the next morning to grab a bite of breakfast (these people feed you about every 60 minutes) and on the road at 6 a.m. heading for the climb back up Horsetooth. There was a slight pain in my knee, nothing too bad, but a SAG up the hills seemed like the safe way to go.
The hill climb began only 4 or 5 miles from the start line and it was a bit dismaying not to see a single SAG by the time I reached the base. One certainly would have wandered by had I waited but it was actually cold that morning, maybe low to mid 50s, and a moderate pace up the hill was needed just to stay warm. Those young, fit girls were blowing by me in droves again but that’s OK I thought, maybe I’d catch them up on the downhill side.
There were no SAG vehicles for the next 10 miles. My knee was beginning to hurt more and more so I tried to rely on my “weak side” leg to get me up the hills. Climb a while, rest a minute, climb a while, rest a minute, crest the first of the three big hills that made up Horsetooth from this side, and repeat two more times. An hour and a half later, with my knee screaming, I got over the last of the three steps. The only thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that the next 10 miles would be down hill. I pulled into the next rest stop looking for food and water—and determined to get on a SAG.
There was a man and his daughter on a tandem bike at the rest stop; the daughter had Down syndrome. We talked, shared the hill climb experience, and looked over his tandem bike for a few minutes. He was a younger much fitter specimen than I was but he inspired me; I figured if he could do what he was doing I could at least give it another shot. After all, if it got that bad, sooner or later, a SAG certainly would come by. So on I went.
Upon reflection, I found it curious that it wasn’t my multiple sclerosis that nearly derailed the hard work training for the event but rather an old, nearly forgotten ski injury that got reactivated by an ego that made me chase some “Raw Heinie” up a hill.
It was little over 35 miles into the second day ride now and I started to figure out that if I kept the bad knee pedaling, with minimal pressure on it, it didn’t hurt nearly as much. If I stopped pedaling and just coasted, even for a few seconds, the knee let me know about it when I started back up. There were only another 12 or so miles to go to the lunch stop, which would put me past the half way mark and it was mostly downhill. That much at least, looked possible.
My brother and his friends were at the lunch stop. They were doing a version of the ride too except their version stopped at a little lake on the way up to Ft. Collins for some water skiing and didn't include the big hills which is why we weren't riding together. They also wanted to lounge around in the cold mist tent for a while after lunch but I thought I had better get back on the bike soon or I might just not get on it at all.So again, on I went.
The hills over the next 15 miles were fairly moderate—the knee still hurt but it was manageable. Then there was this one hill. As a group of us started up this hill, we encountered a cheerfully vocal cop directing traffic to assist the riders through an intersection. He stopped us for traffic. When he signaled us through, one of the girls came from the back of the pack like a bat out of hell and blew up that hill past the whole group of us who were just getting up to speed after waiting at the light. The cop turned around and yelled something to the effect of were we really going to let that girl blow past us like that. Somebody yelled back "Who put this stupid hill here anyway" and we all laughed, and at least made an attempt to look like we were serious about going after the girl up the hill. Of course, that set my knee off again. It was really screaming now. I could not imagine getting up another hill.
Somehow I made it a few more miles to the next-to-last rest stop, bound and determined to find a SAG wagon for a ride to the end. It wasn't a particularly good rest stop. The road into it was rock and gravel, definitely not conducive to staying upright on those skinny road bike tires. Also, the food and water kiosks were located a good city block or so down hill on that rough road and I didn’t relish the idea of walking it either. I dismounted, laid the bike down and stood there to survey the situation.
There were at least two SAG wagons about 100 feet further up the main road and only a couple of bikes waiting to get on them. Seeing no need to try to get to the food and water at the stop because salvation looked to be at hand (and not feeling particularly rushed), I grabbed one of my water bottles off my bike and just stood there savoring it slowly. After 10 minutes or so I righted my bike and walked back up to the main road. Thinking it would be easier to ride than walk the 100 feet or so to the SAG wagons, I mounted my bike and started pedaling.
GOD AND THE SAINT OF BAD KNEES BE PRAISED, standing on that gravel road in the sun for 10 minutes, drinking that bottle of water, had cured that aching knee, at least mostly. It felt good enough anyway to pedal right past the waiting rescue vehicles and keep on going. I was sure I could at least make it to the next and final rest stop.
It started getting pretty hot about then, and I only remember bits and pieces of the ride after that. Somewhere along the way my water bottles got refilled—it must have been at the last rest stop. There were also several more hills and riders commenting how this must be the last one, always the last one and always one more after it. The knee hurt but the pain had become less grating, more of a blur. I remember crossing the finish line, dismounting my bike, and getting a big hug from the lady in the wheelchair with MS greeting the finishers. I wanted to tell her that I was a sufferer too but I was just too dazed.
I looked for the nearest shade and ditched my bike on the way to it. I knew I looked like an old guy who bit off more than he could chew. I did not think I was listing to one side any more than the other though, since the bad knee on my good side offset the weakness, which was severely exaggerated by the heat now, on my bad side. I grabbed a bottle of something cold with the arm on my good side, and seven and a half hours after starting that morning, sat down in the shade. The only thought going through my mind at that moment: how good it felt to be off that bike.
Upon reflection, I found it curious that it wasn’t my multiple sclerosis that nearly derailed the hard work training for the event but rather an old, nearly forgotten ski injury that got reactivated by an ego that made me chase some “Raw Heinie” up a hill. It is still, to this day, the most difficult ride I’ve completed. As I look at my most recent accomplishments and I reflect back on that 2008 MS ride, I know that there are yet limits to be tested, regardless of MS or age or bad knees.