My mountain biking history is brief and my downhill experience is even briefer, but my experiences along the way are noteworthy. I would like to share my brief but eventful path. My story is about how I discovered mountain biking and DH at 48 years old and my challenges along the way including of being diagnosed with breast cancer at 51. I continue to ride in spite of treatment and other obstacles. My story is interconnected like trails and I will do my best to highlight the most interesting aspects of this ride.
I can start with a brief background history. I had a desire to take up road cycling around the age of 42. Up until then, I only exercised in a gym and I rode a ridged mountain bike on the streets of Toronto. I sometimes commuted to work on bike but mostly I rode on paved bike paths on weekends. Back then I would describe myself as a strong cyclist. I prided myself for having a natural hill climbing ability as well as explosive sprinting power. A favorite game I played while riding was fox and the hare. I (the fox) would spot a cyclist (the hare) in the distance. I would then pedal hard to catch up to the unsuspecting cyclist, quietly shift gears and then sprint pass the roadie before they realized being out-foxed by a female on a 40 pound mountain bike. Dusting roadies was fun but after a while I figured that my strength and endurance could advance to another level.
I was drawn to road cycling because that was the style of riding I had exposure to on a daily basis. After consulting with others I purchased a nice road bike, joined a bike club and learned the techniques of group riding and eventually racing. I rode with the club every Saturday and Sunday from April until October. During those 3 years I was riding about 200 km per week, my average speed was enough to pace with the intermediate male and female riders, and within a short period of time I mastered echelon riding, drafting, participated in a century ride, did 2 time trial races (made podium x 2) and 1 criterion race (I did ok in that too). After 3 seasons with the bike club I grew a little restless after reaching the goals I set out for myself. I concluded that there wasn’t much more to accomplish with road cycling other than speed (going faster) and endurance (riding longer distances). My focus began shifting to less competitive venues and to explore more solo riding which I found more pleasurable.
Around this time I met my future husband, Chris. We were highly compatible, loved each other’s company and even our differences made our relationship rich. For example I was a lifelong vegetarian/vegan, he was a carnivore but because of my diet choices he started to eat less meat; he is a fabulous cook and I liked to clean, well I don’t really like to clean but it is a compromise. Another bond we had was a love for biking, the difference was that he was a mountain biker from way back and I had never ridden off road. In order make this relationship work and to spend time together, 2 things had to happen. First, I had to learn to ride off road and second, I had to learn a totally different activity from scratch. Most people my age are already settled into their familiar ways and habits and don’t like to learn new extreme sports either because of fear of injury or fear of humiliation if they fail. Naturally I enjoy a challenge but this time I had to hit the ground running to keep up. I quickly discovered it was a steep learning curve. I also confess that it was a lot more difficult for me to learn mountain biking skills than it was to master road cycling.
Chris had been riding a mountain bike off road since 1990 and was a really good technical rider so I learned by following him and mirroring his techniques. Chris was also a very tolerant coach. He and I rode the easiest trails so I could learn the basics. I had to session those trails over and over; spring, summer, fall and winter but over time my confidence and skills grew, as I tackled more difficult territory and encountered diverse riding conditions. After a while I progressively handled the bike better. I got a better feel of the ground and terrain under my tires, becoming more intuitive rather than hesitant when I encountered a new trail or obstacle. Each time we rode I grew more proficient climbing; I went a little faster downhill and became more skilled at turns. After my first full year off road, I progressed to the easier downhill runs at Blue Mountain and Horseshoe Resort. By my 2nd year I was riding at Mont Sainte Anne, Quebec. La Vietnam, La Tordue and La Grisante become some of my favorite trails and the intermediate downhill trails at Blue Mountain (Embryo, Raisin Run, Haole, and The Ridge were favorites of mine).
The transition and learning curve was not smooth. My body was always sore and I was covered in cuts and bruises including insect bites. Even when wearing body armor for DH, I always managed to injure something! My biggest setback was in the fall of 2009, on our first day of vacation in the Okanagan, while on a downhill, my front tire got trapped by a rain rut and I crashed hard and shattered my dominate wrist. For the remainder of the vacation, I spent the week recuperating from surgery (a plate and 10 pins), exploring numerous wineries, and hiking up and down mountains like Silver Star while Chris and Johnny Smoke our guide and host rode beautiful trails.
My wrist healed quickly. The fiberglass cast was removed after only one week and the orthopedic specialist who followed up in Toronto concluded that I had a lot of determination to get back to normal. I guess he also concluded that I wasn’t really that normal. Rather than have physiotherapy, I performed daily activities and did things I found normal. The treatment program I set for myself included doing weekly spin classes and yoga, which gradually build up the strength and help me gain more range of motion. I was riding again four weeks post op. That winter we continued to ride outdoors, “as long as the ground or river is frozen” says Chris. We also started to make plans to get married and spend our honeymoon riding in the Okanagan. My goal was to spend the rest of my life with the man I adored and so I needed to push myself to continue to advance my riding skills.
In February 2010, I went for a routine medical physical exam. At 50 the milestone for women is to get a mammogram and have your stools checked. My stools were quite healthy but the results from the mammogram were dubious. For those of you who may not know, a mammogram is an X-ray of the breasts. It’s not done routinely before age 50 unless there are risk factors. In my case, there is a history of breast cancer in my family so I’ve had these screenings done semi annually since I was 40. The day after my mammogram, I was asked to have the test repeated. No problem I thought. I’ve had to repeat these tests before.
A few days after my second mammogram my GP reported that there was a need for a biopsy. Now my gut feeling was doubt and I started to worry because I didn’t have any observable signs that anything was wrong. No lumps, no pain. I was a very fit, healthy, vegetarian/vegan, and living a very happy life. My GP explained that the mammogram detected small amounts of calcium (microcalifications). A couple of days later, a radiology surgeon did a needle biopsy. During the procedure I remember seeing the image of my mammogram on the screen and on that x-ray image I saw what looked like the silhouette of a white spider. I suspected the worst. The pathology report confirmed a malignant tumor—a ductal carcinoma—the most common form of breast cancer in both women and men. That spider-like image was the growing tumor: the big C.
Within a week of the biopsy I had a lumpectomy where a section of the tissue is removed. In addition, 5 lymph nodes were removed and examined. The good news was that no cancer was found in the nodes. The bad news was that the cancer had 2 types of receptors, one receptor was related to hormones and the other was indicative of an aggressive type of cancer. The recommended treatment for the aggressive cancer was Taxotere and Cyclophosphamide chemotherapy (T & C) every 3 weeks for 4 sessions followed by radiation every day for 3 weeks. The T & C chemotherapy works on the aggressive receptors and will cause the side effects of hair loss, potential mouth ulcers and fingernail loss, nausea and flu like symptoms. The aggressive chemotherapy was followed by Herceptin which is another chemotherapy that works on the hormonal cancer receptors. Herceptin is given intravenously every 3 weeks for 18 treatments. I was also prescribed Tamoxifen which is a long term oral chemotherapy taken daily. The Oncology specialists informed us about the treatments available and I was given the options of surgery, T&C, Herceptin, radiation and oral treatments. I was offered all or I could select a combination of treatments. I chose to take all the options offered because the percentage of recurrence is less with the additional treatment interventions.
So where does mountain biking fit into this equation? Well, I continued to ride because there wasn’t enough to stop me. More importantly, I didn’t want to become the hare being pursued by cancer the fox. Chris and I searched the internet for information at each stage. We learned that exercise during chemotherapy treatment is rare but it could be possible. The major benefits of exercise were simply weight control, stimulation of appetite and help with sleep. We were determined to continue to keep our routines normal. Throughout the 3 weeks of screening up to the day of surgery, we kept riding (ice biking, indoor biking at Joyride 150, Yoga at the gym). 2 days post op we did an all day urban ride downtown Toronto and continued to ride throughout the spring. From the start of the chemotherapy last summer, through radiation and through more chemotherapy this year we still rode. Through the worst of the treatment side effects we still went up to Blue and Horseshoe every weekend, and I paced myself accordingly. Although I wore a buff to cover my head (it was my pride and self consciousness that I chose to cover my scalp) I don’t think I looked out that of place other being one of the rare females on the hill. During all this Chris and I got married just before my first chemotherapy treatment and we spent our honeymoon at Lake Placid and rode Whiteface Mountain with our guide Downhill Mike.
Over the winter of 2011, I accomplished a long standing desire to learn to downhill ski. I took 8 private lessons (one hour each) at Hockley Valley and by week 6, I was on a black diamond swooshing. My instructor Earl was also mountain biker and he skillfully taught me to apply the techniques, body mechanics and sensations of mountain biking to skiing and it worked.
I had my annual checkup and I am 1 year cancer free. Yippee! My Herceptin chemotherapy treatment will end this fall. We look forward to another season of DH. Today I do feel more mentally alert, more energized, compared to last year. My hair is growing back quickly. I am fortunate that I missed very little work. Work is in itself therapeutic. However my colleagues tease me that my lack of sick time has set the bar very high for everyone. Chris and I continue to make plans to travel and discover more mountains on our bikes and now we have a backup plan to ski when the snow is too deep to ride.
As I reflect back on my story I realize that it really is only a tiny piece of my own life. I suppose my story is about pursuing what you love and don’t give up trying. Like many, I continue to ride while facing challenges along the way. Baseball pitcher Satchel Paige said it eloquently “Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do”.