Why I simply HAD to complete PBP.
Warning – This post contains some unpleasant medical details.
I’ve been writing over the last year or so about my journey to PBP (Paris-Brest-Paris), but it won’t have gone unmissed that I never published a post about my experience on the ride itself. The post that follows is not anything like I thought I would write about it, but I think it’s important. It’s very personal to me, and I’ve rarely discussed it, but I think that many others out there may be able to relate, and so this story will be told.
I want to explain why it was so important to me to complete it, ideally within time, but even out of time if necessary. The reason is not what you would expect.
You may be thinking that I was just another middle aged person going through a mid life crisis, trying to do something spectacular before my body and enthusiasm gave up on me in menopause. In part, you might be correct, although in reality it was so much more than that.
Around 1990, I was in the Bridal shop trying on wedding dresses and I noticed I was very flushed around my neck. I had an overwhelming desire to visit the bathroom, something that was becoming more and more common recently. I put it down to nerves, a bit of IBS, and thought I had better simply eat less junk and more veg. The symptoms steadily got worse, I was constantly getting stabbing pains in my stomach, that would leave me doubled over in pain, so I reluctantly visited my doctor. After various highly unpleasant & invasive tests, I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis. Apparently at the time wasn’t particularly common, at least for people of my age in the area that I lived in.
Various cocktails of drugs were prescribed, including a high dose of steroids that left my body bloated all over, ravenously hungry all the time, constantly buzzing, but with a memory that was incredible (the only positive side effect that I could tell). It was a terrible time, and made me feel dreadfully old and miserable – I was only in my late 20’s.
Eventually the major symptoms subsided, but over the years it would regularly return, often brought on when I was stressed, and each time significantly worse than the last.
The last time it returned was in March 2017, and it totally wiped me out. By this time I was Audaxing, and was trying to build up my rides to get ready for PBP qualifiers in 2018/9. Riding a 300k or 400k Audax, when your insides feel like they might explode at any moment is no fun. You are ok if you don’t eat anything, but even the smallest amount of food, can set off an internal chain reaction which is unpredicable at best, debilitating at worse. So there is a choice to be made, don’t ride, or don’t eat. Also it had a major effect on iron levels, which would mean I was generally wiped out for some time after a major ride.
Now I’m quite stubborn, and decided that I refused to be ruled any more by this lottery of an illness, and if I could ride then I would. After a couple of very nasty incidents (I’ll spare you the details) on some early season events, which resulted in out of time finishes, I set about making some changes to help me get back on the bike and avoid getting caught short, or being unable to eat.
First off, I opted for Audaxes that passed through lots of public places where I could find facilities and public toilets. Public loos can still be a problem on Audax, as they are often locked when we are riding, so my answer to this was to get a radar key. It was a genius answer, since the disabled toilets are also big enough to take your bike into. I can be quite popular now on night rides, since my key goes everywhere with me.
My next battle was to be able to eat on rides. With regular drugs, my symptoms had started to reduce, so I looked at what I was eating. Identifying that my diet could be improved, I tried to avoid any of my trigger foods on rides, and would also nibble certain safe food little and often. I found gels and bars that didn’t upset my stomach, and stuck with these for emergencies. I still wasn’t eating anywhere near enough to fuel my rides to the end, but it was an improvement. I had a few years earlier given up dairy which is a trigger for me, and although it was a good protein source, I would keep consumption down as much as possible. A year before PBP I also gave up meat, and this it would seem has had a major positive impact.
Finally, in the year before PBP my symptoms disappeared entirely, and although I was able to do the Audax distances, I was slow, and spent too much time at controls. Given my condition, I have no choice but to take my time eating, and having some rest at controls. So I knew that whilst I would keep stoppage time to a minimum, the only way to guarantee completing my qualifiers in time, and have a shot at entry to PBP was to get quicker whilst peddling.
My previous posts have talked about what I did to ensure that I got to the start line, and to take part in this iconic event.
There have been those that have felt that the fact that I had a ‘support’ vehicle for PBP was somehow not in the spirit of Audax, but many of those do not know just what I overcame to even be able to ride that kind of distance. I needed to be able to guarantee being able to eat food that was suitable for me, and be able to minimise my stopping time whilst still getting the rest I needed.
My reason for doing this event….and also future events is simple. I refuse to be defined by an illness. I will work with it, and I will conquer it. I simply needed to prove to myself that I could.
In the end, for some reason, on the event, it was as if my body suddenly forgot that it had learned to move faster. I felt like I was going faster than I was. My body felt so much stonger than it had ever felt before. At no point was I in any doubt that I could complete the distance.
However, wind, not enough sleep, freezing night time temperatures, and finally failures on both back lights scuppered my attempt to finish within the time limit. I joined with another lady who had also struggled earlier in the event, and we decided that regardless of time, we would ride to the end. Through the last official night, we prioritised sleep, and made our way in tourist mode to the end.
I might have been 24 hours late, but Audax Club Parisien still presented me with a finishers medal.
I wear my PBP jersey with pride as a reminder that if we put our minds to it, we can conquer anything that our bodies throw at us. You might have to do things a little differently to others, but if you want something enough, you will find a way.