A Cyclist’s Warning

As cyclists, we’re trained to suffer, but as one Pez reader tells us – knowing the difference between sucking it up and saying ‘uncle’ could keep you around to enjoy those priorities for a much longer time.

– By Paul Ellsworth
In Spring 2003 something happened to me. I became very dizzy at work on a Wednesday morning because I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I stayed home from work the next day but went back to work on Friday. That night the same thing happened except this time it was worse and accompanied by vomiting. Then the headache began and lasted all weekend. I just kept thinking I could get through it. I’ve suffered worse than this on the bike after
all. I passed it off as a sinus problem.

Finally, on Monday morning I called my doctor and went to the ER. One scan gave them all they needed to know. I had had a stroke. A spot on my cerebellum the size of a quarter was dead. There was the explanation for the nausea, dizziness and headache.

I was admitted to the hospital and then began a series of tests to find the cause. No conclusive evidence was found for why it happened, but the attending physician even said she wished she were as healthy as I am.

Why am I telling this? It is not to warn cyclists about strokes. If you look at what I did and how long it took me to act, you will see my goal: The very thing that makes a cyclist perform well, the ability to overcome pain, can be the same thing that leads to health problems off the bike.

It isn’t about ignoring problems either. If only it were that easy. No, this is about a cyclist’s trained ability to acknowledge pain and overcome it. Something that is much more dangerous.

Once I got out of the hospital I pledged to never do something like that again. I would go to the doctor at the first sign of any trouble. As you can probably guess, I blew it. Nothing big this time. I had some patches of what I thought were dry skin on my forehead and near my ears. My wife ordered me to go the dermatologist.

Being the stubborn idiot I am, I waited. In fact I waited about 4 months. My excuse this time was that the season wasn’t over and with family, work and training I didn’t have the time. I finally decided to go even though the spots were shrinking rapidly.

The dermatologist took a look at the spots as well as the rest of my upper torso. He said, “You have what is called ‘basal cell carcinoma'” – skin cancer. He explained that basal cell carcinoma is not extremely serious but it needs to be taken care of nonetheless. He immediately stuck a needle in the spots to send to the lab and then burned off the affected areas. Once again my self-diagnosis was incorrect.

This time my point is not about skin cancer. It is about really listening to your body (as well as listening to your spouse). I am not a doctor, I’m just an average athlete. I’m certainly not advocating hypochondria, but the best thing a cyclist can do is to swallow the pride, accept that there are things that can’t be trained through or mentally defeated and go to see the doctor.

As cyclists we are actually much more familiar with our bodies than most people. How many men actually get up close with their legs on a regular basis? If you shave them you do. Use the opportunity to evaluate your body just like you would evaluate your bike. Do I need the wheel trued or are the bearings shot? Is this pain just because of a hard day in the saddle or does it interfere with my normal life?

I wish I could give a conditional statement – if x then y – but obviously I can’t because I screwed up twice. The only rule I can offer from my experience is to get an opinion that isn’t your own. Make sure it isn’t from another cyclist either (they are all nuts anyway). And when you tell somebody about what you are experiencing, don’t hold anything back. You shouldn’t be the one to decide what is relevant.

Cyclists train to overcome a laundry list of suffering: wind, gravity, weather, not to mention their own minds. When you think about it though cycling isn’t really about suffering, it is about recovering to suffer again and improve. That’s why we ride more than once in our lives.

Just make sure that those lives are as long as they can possibly be.

-Paul Ellsworth

Paul is 36 years old and lives in the Chicago area with his 2 kids (5-1/2 and 4) and wife. He restarted competitive cycling 4 months after the stroke and is currently a CAT IV racer with Athletes By Design.

“As far as the stroke I am fine now. I was on blood thinners for 3 months and aspirin for an additional 4 months. Only my fine motor skills have been affected long-term so my penmanship is a little sloppier. As far as the skin cancer I just have to be careful. Sunscreen and a hat are mandatory now. I just keep an eye out for both issues and let my wife know about any symptoms.”