Deep down, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. I’d seen it there, the weird freckle, a few months earlier. I’d even gone to see a doctor about it but he brushed me off, telling me “I’m not a dermatologist. You’ll have to make another appointment and see someone else.” Weeks went by before I went back to get it checked out. When I did, I could see in her eyes what the tests would tell me.
Hearing the word “cancer” at the age of 25 was not an easy thing to come to terms with. It was a few days before my 26th birthday. To be honest, I stopped listening after a few minutes of medical jargon and pointing at diagrams. My brain just couldn’t take it in.
I think it was Albert Einstein that said “Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving forward.” I would soon find out how very true that statement was.
Early 2000s – A Human Experience
I was never super sporty at school. My sister and brother were natural athletes, while I was always more of a participator. I never really excelled at anything and never felt particularly in love with any sport or activity. I’ve started and quit more gym programs than I can count. Nothing active really seemed to excite me that much.
My first experience with death was at the age of 19. I took a year out of university and had taken up jogging and some casual laps in our swimming pool, so I didn’t think anything of it when my lower back started to hurt. After a few days of feeling under the weather but pretending I was ok, I was in the car with my mother and her friend on our way to a concert (Robbie Williams if you must know!) and I fell really ill. I couldn’t move, I was nauseated. I started vomiting and couldn’t even keep Panadol down. My mother took me to the emergency room and the last thing I really remember is laying down on the floor of the emergency room.
An untreated UTI had left me with pyelonephritis and peritonitis, progressing to septicemia (blood poisoning) and finally moving into septic shock. In the hospital, I was hooked up to a bunch of machines including a heart monitor which would start beeping if my resting heart rate went above 170 or below 50. Mine was routinely doing both. There was a moment when I felt it – a gentle pull. I could see my body from above the hospital bed. I could see my mother leaning over me. All I wanted to do was sleep.
I can’t tell you what brought me back. Years later, someone once said to me “We’re not human beings. We’re spiritual beings having a human experience.” I know what I saw… and what I saw is that life is but one stop on a much longer journey.
2010 – Fairly Dark Indeed
Like every other New Zealander, I moved over to Australia. Unlike many of my friends however, I had a secret: I was in an abusive relationship. It started out so slowly, I hardly noticed it. He was protective. I dismissed it as just caring about what I wore. He didn’t want other men to look at me. That was a good thing wasn’t it? Over time, things got worse. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere on my own. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone without him in the room. I wasn’t allowed to make private phone calls. Eventually, I wasn’t even allowed a phone.
I made every excuse conceivable. I didn’t want to believe I had become a person who let this happen to them. I didn’t want to believe things got this bad. I wasn’t this weak shell of a being, was I? I had always considered myself to be a pretty strong person and yet I couldn’t believe how much of myself I had lost.
Where was my voice? Where were my standards? Where was my self-respect? My confidence?
Where was my independence?
On a cold July night, with the help of a childhood friend I confided in, one bag and the clothes on my back, I got on a plane looking for a fresh start.
2011 – Never The Same Again
It took time to build back a shred of confidence. My trust in people had been dashed and I couldn’t accept that life could be good. I was suspicious of anything going too smoothly and would routinely sabotage things because by that stage, failure and misery had become my good friends.
In May 2011, life made sure I would never be the same again with the mother of all curve balls. In the same week as I met the love of my life, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a scary time, full of uncertainty and fear. After 2 months of sitting around hospital waiting rooms with people 3 times my age, dozens of appointments, surgeries and guessing games, my love and my life were back on track.
A few weeks later, as a way to inject some happiness back into my life, he bought me my first bike as a present: a Giant Via.
At the time I didn’t know it, but this would be one of the single most important moments of my life. Even the name would act as a metaphor, mirroring my life. My journey. Via is a word we use to describe the route through which we get to a destination or sometimes the stopping points we take along the way.
My Via would become my greatest teacher, reflecting everything I was, outside and inside, back at me. She would become my voice, my self-respect, my confidence, my voice.
She became my independence.
2012 – To Conquer Is To Overcome
Apparently this is a pretty common phenomenon, but after July 28th 2011 came and went, I got the idea into my head that I would stop smoking (left that bit out conveniently, didn’t I?) and get fit.
A triathlon seemed like the most natural way to tackle the fitness thing… and I did give up smoking I’m proud to say. So, my partner being entirely supportive, registered with me for an Olympic Distance triathlon in February 2012. Unbeknownst to us it was the State Championships and I would end up finishing last, but the rush of completing it was addictive… even if I did do the bike on a flat bar mtb and held onto the stationary craft twice during the swim.
Next up was the Great Wall Marathon of China in May 2012 – exactly a year to the day I had found out about the Melanoma.
A few days after I got back, I was at a cafe and saw a pamphlet for the Ride To Conquer Cancer; a 200km, 2-day event raising money for the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre – the hospital I was just treated at. I didn’t even own a road bike at that stage, let alone put a lot of thought into whether riding 200km was even achievable… but before I’d even thought through the logistics, I had already mentally opted in. When I went back home, I told my partner I wanted to do it and a few weeks later I had my very own road bike.
Bit by bit, with every event I entered, I gained a little bit more confidence and my collection of bikes was growing.
Meanwhile, another life changing event was on its way. A journey into a different kind of unknown.
2013 – The Unknown
Moving to a new city was nerve-wracking, but exciting. Independence had become hugely important to me (rightly so), and a large part of that was having my own circle of friends. With my newfound love of road cycling, mountain biking and commuting by bike, I knew that this would be the best way for me to make new friends in my new city.
In April of 2013, Chicks Who Ride Bikes was born. I created a Facebook group and would stop girls on the trails and at the cafes to tell them about it. Over time, the community grew. And grew…
At the same time, I decided to enter and train for my first long course triathlon – a 70.3 Ironman. It was a 16-week program, the longest amount of time I had put into any single event. Just looking at the training schedule was utterly exhilarating and exhausting in equal measures. I learned what it was to be dedicated. To do something because you know you should, not because you want to. I learned what it took to get up at 4am when it was cold and dark outside and go train before work.
During those 16 weeks, I learned what it meant to be dedicated. To do something because you know you should, not because you want to. I learned what meant to be strong. Not just in the body, but in the mind. It took an iron will to get up at 4am when it was cold and dark outside and go train before work. During those 16 weeks, I found myself again. In August of 2013, I crossed the finish line in 5 long hours and 40 agonising minutes. And for the first time, I learned I was capable of anything.
10 weeks later I suffered a stroke while out for a jog.
At first, I thought a snake had bitten me. Weird, but I couldn’t think of any explanation more logical. My face went numb on one side and I felt my mouth, the neck, then arm and leg on my right side go completely limp. By the grace of God, I had been carrying my phone in my left hand and was able to call my partner for help. Within minutes, we were on our way to the emergency room and I was admitted to the neuro ward for 4 days.
When I got out of the hospital, the first thing I wanted to do was ride my bike. It didn’t have to be fast. It didn’t have to be far. But somehow, riding my bike had become the very barometer of my independence – a part of me I had only recently gotten back and which I would gladly walk into battle to keep.
The next week, I rode my bike around the block and never felt so proud.
2014 – Never Say Never
Many people had asked me if I would ever do a full Ironman and I had vowed I wouldn’t. “The 70.3 was too hard on my body – no way I’ll ever do a full one!”
However on a warm evening in late March (after a few too many wines), I decided it was a smart idea to leave it to Facebook to decide. 75 people on Facebook to be exact. Within an hour, my fate was sealed. It was a mixture of excitement and terror, a combination of emotions that would stay with me right until the start line.
And so, with the credit card details entered and my finger poised nervously above the mouse, I clicked my social life away and entered a full Ironman triathlon, only 16 weeks after a stroke and with just under 12 months to train.
And boy was there a lot of training…
2015 – The Year of the IronJord
After 2 years building the Chicks Who Ride Bikes community, organising rides and social events, I was lucky to have a huge amount of support (both physically and digitally) for the Ironman. With every kilometer of the race, I felt the full weight of my journey. This was independence of the highest magnitude. However long you’re out there – whether it’s 8 hours or 17 – it’s just you. It’s you, your mind, your fears, your aches and pains. Your dreams and desires. Your story. It’s a massive undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe anyone can achieve it with the right training program,
Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe with the right training, nutrition and coaching anyone can achieve it, but let it be known it takes a huge toll on your body. Particularly a body that has a propensity for rapid and random deterioration.
To find out more about the event, check out this related post: Why I prefer to call it IronJord.
In March 2015, I crossed IMNZ finish line in 12:36. Another stopping point on my journey.
2016 – En route
My life has certainly been a journey. Yet just like my Via, I’m still here. A bit scuffed from the knocks. A bit scratched from the falls. They each will tell you a story of why I ride.
Turns out we’re all en route to a destination.
Some days it might be a psychological one. Other days it’s emotional. Sometimes it’s simply a trip around the block to prove to yourself that you can.
If my journey has taught me anything it’s that life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving forward.
Thanks for sharing in my story. I’d love to hear from you, so if you would like to send me a message you can do so here!