Physically challenged riders reap many benefits from training
By Debra Melani, Rocky Mountain News
June 17, 2003
Sometimes, the multiple sclerosis makes Gretchen Mitterer's feet feel like they're encased in cement boots when she's riding her bike. On long rides, one leg might bruise as it bangs against the frame.
For Kelly Walker-Haley, distorted vision gives the illusion of peering through Swiss cheese when she looks at the road ahead. Her fatigue can become so consuming that collapsing is an ever-present threat.
Yet for both Colorado women, who are training for the Great-West MS 150 Bike Tour in July, sitting idly on the sidelines watching others raise money for their disease is not an option. Thanks to supportive husbands and advanced bicycle designs, it doesn't have to be.
"We're such a team," Mitterer said, referring to her husband, Dan Myers, who rides a tandem bike with her to compensate for the unpredictable losses of strength and balance caused by the neurological disease.
Many people with physical challenges will join the Littleton couple next month, peppering the route from Broomfield to Estes Park. Cycling lures people with disabilities for many reasons, from the availability of adaptable bikes to the desire to ride for the cause, from the need for exercise to simply wanting to be outdoors.
"It's so beautiful out there," said Melissa Dundee, recreation coordinator for the Denver Parks and Recreation special needs program, who teaches a popular adaptive cycling class at Sloans Lake.
The program attracts a continual flow of people who are blind, deaf, paralyzed or otherwise physically challenged, who learn to ride the program's handcycles, tricycles or tandem bikes, she said.
"They enjoy nature and the company," Dundee said. Many also are trying out the sport before making what can be a large investment in an adaptive cycle. Most recreation centers offer special-needs programs, an inexpensive means to adaptive cycling.
Couples and families find the cycling experience bonding, especially when they are hooked together on a tandem bike.
"It's the best time to focus on each other," said Walker-Haley, 37, whose custom-made, $7,000 ride includes an elevated handcycle on the front for her and a regular bike on the back for her husband. "We can't get away."
Lori Barton, a 24-year-old Denver resident with cerebral palsy who cannot walk without braces, likes to strap herself into her hand-powered three-wheeled cycle with a wheelchairlike seat and pedal with her father around Washington Park.
"It gives them special time together," said Lori's mother, Sheryl Barton, who spent about $2,000 on the cycle. Her husband, who rides a regular bike by Lori's side, helps his daughter train for the Special Olympics.
"Sometimes she complains that he pushes harder than her regular coach," Barton said.
Socializing and exercising are important for the physically challenged, and cycling sometimes is the only option they have to boost their heart rates for extended periods.
"It gives me real good upper-arm strength," Lori Barton said. Cycling also improves balance, coordination and mobility, said Dundee, who has a degree in therapeutic recreation.
The physical challenge of cycling is the most appealing aspect to Mitterer, 40, whose first love - climbing 14,000-foot peaks - has been tamed by MS. "It's amazing; it's just awesome," she said of the feeling she gets when she crests steep, switchback-heavy mountain passes with her husband.
And it truly is a feat. Climbing a mountain on a tandem bicycle tests muscles and attitudes, Mitterer said. She sometimes gains inspiration to keep going from the more challenged riders.
"Everybody's just passing us by," Mitterer said, describing the bike as a "big locomotive."
But going downhill on the heavy contraption is another story. Mitterer has an extra rear brake to slow it down. "We've hit 55 mph," she said.
Myers, 35, said he likes exercising with his wife and cutting back on couch time. The pair logs 70 to 100 miles a week while training for the MS 150. They also generally join the Elephant Rock and Moonlight Classic bike events each year.
For Nancy Speer of Firestone, multiple sclerosis - and her husband's concern - inspired her to exercise.
"He was always saying, 'You've got to bike, you've got to bike,' " Nancy Speer said of her husband, Raymond Anderson, an avid cyclist.
But Speer, 43, who never made time to exercise before her diagnosis, knew she couldn't do major rides alone. She sometimes loses all strength in one leg because of her MS, which strikes women more often than men. Colorado has one of the highest rates of any state.
"It's been a blessing in disguise," Speer said of the MS, which fueled a more active lifestyle and helped her lose 20 pounds. The couple's bike, which will be among the parade of 2,500 cyclists at the July MS fund-raising event, is a custom-made tandem with separate pedaling systems.
"I can either elect to keep up with him or not," she said.
Exercise was a large part of Walker-Haley's life before being slowed by MS. The Fort Collins resident majored in exercise and sports and was a religious runner and aerobics enthusiast. Now, she spends her days in a wheelchair - unless she's riding.
"I never felt so free as I did the first time we rode up to Horsetooth Reservoir," Walker-Haley said of the spot in the foothills west of Fort Collins, where she used to run. "It's like it brought the life back into me.
"I do believe in the concept of 'use it or lose it,' " said Walker-Haley, who has an individual handcycle and a regular recumbent bike that she uses to stretch her rigid legs. When her symptoms begin to worsen during an exercise outing, she knows it's time to stop, generally halting her MS 150 challenge at about the 40-mile mark.
But not giving up on physical challenges is key to living with disabilities, said David Sherman, whose life has centered on sports.
Born with Williams syndrome, which severely affects physical ability, balance, learning and depth perception, Sherman faced a bleak future in school and sports, according to doctors. But his active family refused to let the limitations rule his life, encouraging sports as a way to instill self-confidence.
Learning to ride a bike was a long, arduous process for Sherman, who, as a young boy, would hang onto the handrail of the staircase, slowly and methodically feeling each step with his toes before lowering himself, said his father, Chuck Sherman.
Now, at 31, David Sherman cycles all summer, competing in bike events and joining the Courage Classic, a 162-mile July fund-raiser for Children's Hospital. He skis all winter and works with the disabled program at Winter Park. And, he graduated from high school.
"Sports, without any question, have been key," Chuck Sherman said. "The coordination and muscle development, all the things that come with any sport, were necessary for his physical development."
Continually overcoming the challenges presented by sports also bolstered his ability to conquer school, he said.
The physical challenges of cycling are intensified by the reality of multiple sclerosis, Mitterer said. Both she and Speer draw some of their inspiration from sisters who also have MS, but with more severe symptoms.
"It's really emotional," Mitterer said of reaching a peak or crossing a finish line, which this summer will be in her sister's hometown of Estes Park.
"I think of her and of the disease. I think of anyone who can't ride
a bike," she said, adding that she'll ride "until I can't do it anymore."
Copyright 2003 © The E.W. Scripps Co.