“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice everytime I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” (Susan B. Anthony, 1896)
Whilst growing up I recognised certain oddities that I took for granted. For example, I remember a PE class during my time at Catshill Middle School in Worcestershire in which we had to do a short period of vigorous aerobic exercise while measuring our pulse rate before and after. My resting pulse rate was high and my post-exercise pulse rate was sky high. When the teacher asked me to share my results, she proceeded to joke with my classmates since I’d either obviously measured it wrong or was extremely unfit. That was a low point in PE. The high point was being the school hockey team goalkeeper, which I was rather good at and didn’t involve much moving about.
Shortness of breath after aerobic activity, from walking up the stairs to the ordeal of running, was and remains typical for me. When I was a university student, the regular ill-feeling fatigue I got from not enough sleep was something I assumed was normal. Then, at the age of 22, my astute GP noticed that I was rather pale and did a blood test: the result was a very low level of haemoglobin. I was anaemic. Onto a 3-month course of iron supplements I went, and after that I got re-tested. There was no change whatsoever in the haemoglobin level. A puzzle. Later on in my 20s, and two more 3-month courses of iron later (with still no change in my low haemoglobin level) a connection was made between a rare blood condition I inherited from my mother, the beta thalassemic trait, and my anaemia: an unresponsiveness to iron supplements. Given beta thalassemia and the beta thalassemic trait are most common amongst those of Mediterranean, African and South-East Asian descent, contentiously not enough research by Western medical science has been done to officially conclude a link between the trait and the anaemia. Although a smart doctor at the Walkley Medical Centre in Sheffield observed that the different shape of my red blood cells as a consequence of having the beta thalassemic trait – a shape which has a reduced surface area to the norm and that is a natural mutation to protect me against malaria (helpful in Sheffield) – explains why I cannot absorb much, if any, iron. One of my measured haemoglobin levels in my early 30s was one decimal point off needing monthly blood transfusions (and that was immediately after a 3-month course of iron supplements). So, that was me back in my late 20s: an untreatable anaemic who accepted certain constraints that come along with that.
In my 30s, after some experimenting with exercise (I was pretty inactive before then), I decided to do a bike event with my big sister Nina, in memory of my partner’s mother who had recently died of cancer. When one witnesses the rapid degeneration of the body of a loved one, it can serve as a powerful reminder to live and live full while one still can. From that point on, the rest is, well, in my palmarès!
- 2011 Pedal for Scotland Glasgow to Edinburgh 50-miler. I rode this on a 3-gear bike!
- Ascent of Mam Nick, Peak District (average gradient 10%, maximum gradient 22.6%, 1.3 miles). Again, I rode this on a 3-gear bike! This included several stoppages and a wilful insistence that every inch must be pedalled, which it was. 🙂
- 2012 Birmingham to Oxford 77-miler. The moments riding through the Cotswolds were some of the happiest of my life.
- 2012 Chris’s Spin 52-miler, Peak District. Ascents included Mam Nick, Monsal Head, Great Longstone, Froggatt Edge, and Burbage Moor.
- Ascent of Hagg Hill, Sheffield (average gradient 19%, 0.124 miles).
- 2013 Chris’s Spin 52-miler, Peak District.
- 2013 Norwich 100-miler.
- 2013 Grindleford Goat Nanny 32-miler, Derbyshire Dales. Ascents included Monsal Hill and Sheldon Hill.
- 2014 Chris’s Spin 52-miler, Peak District.
- 2014 Norwich 100-miler.
- 2014 Grindleford Goat Billy 69-miler sportive, Peak District. Ascents included Mam Nick, Millers Dale, and Beeley Hill.
- 2015 Bolshy Cycle Ride, Sheffield and Peak District. This is my own socialist feminist educational ride.
- 2016 Chris’s Spin 52-miler, Peak District.
- 2017 RideLondon-Surrey 100 (miler) sportive.
I guess what I have proven to myself is that being an untreatable anaemic doesn’t mean I cannot ride my bike up the steepest of hills and over long daily distances. For sure, my lungs burn and scream, and my body and head swim in excruciating discomfort and fatigue, but stubbornness and determination – ‘I can do it, I will do it!’ – counts for a lot.