with special thanks to Smiling Tri Coach and Cycle Retreats, by Debbie Pitfield
Foreword - By Kate Offord
When Debbie asked me to coach her towards the end of 2021 I was struck by her determination and her passion for cycling. I was excited to have the opportunity to coach her for her Lands End to John O'Groats Challenge.
Little did I know what a challenge that would turn out to be, nor did I realise how important Debbie's determination and passion would become.
I'm proud that she has chosen to share her story.
Debbie's Story: Training for an EPIC event through Cancer treatment
I thought I would write about how exercise and the ride that I am having so far has been. It is not a ride that I wanted to sign up for and definitely wouldn’t have done so if I had any choice, but cancer doesn’t discriminate. I had a diagnosis of breast cancer on New Year’s Eve 2021. I am a keen cyclist and I have done plenty of challenges especially during lockdown, but I did not have this challenge on my radar and I had no idea just how difficult it would be. I should also add here that I am a specialist oncology nurse looking after neuroendocrine tumours.
Before my diagnosis, I had already started training for Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle ride over 12 days fully supported, but still, the biggest challenge I have ever undertaken. Total distance: 1016 miles / 1635km Total elevation: 62,360ft /19,000m. This was being organised by Cycle Retreats in conjunction with The Royal Society of Histopathologists who were celebrating their 60th anniversary I had already enlisted a great coach, Kate Offord, from Smiling tri to help me train for this and had started our plan in mid-November. I have never had a coach and a training plan but this as to prove invaluable and a real team effort both mentally and physically.
I also had a rearranged London to Amsterdam ride for Women v Cancer in June that I wanted to try to do depending on what my treatment plan was going to be, as that needed to be the priority. Being on my bike and cycling is my happy place and exercising is vitally important for me both mentally and physically.
My world fell apart when I had a recall on my screening mammogram on 13th December to attend breast unit, on the Wednesday 15th for further tests and biopsies. That night I was on the turbo and blasted out a great session as my head was all over the place and I was really scared. Was too exhausted to train the next evening as sleep went AWOL and I felt like I had a permanent adrenaline pump attached. Night time is awful for an over active imagination. Wednesday 15th came and I attended the breast unit although my husband, had to wait outside due to COVID restrictions. I had a vacuum biopsy which was fine but left me very bruised and sore afterwards. I then had the wait till 31st December for results. The next few days I was really too sore to train on my bike or do any strength work so I went for walks. I was also pretty tired as I found it impossible to sleep. Saturday and Sunday I was back on my turbo and found the training on this gave me a focus and allowed my overactive brain some down time. I blasted out music and watched my stats on the screen.
I also then continued to train with a group on Zwift and the chat and camaraderie in this was uplifting. Training on a turbo in winter is fine and I had multiple ‘meets ups’ with friends and chatted and cycled with them. The virtual world is great at times like this. I was also very aware of the need to isolate as much as possible as COVID was still rife and I didn’t want anything to interfere with my treatment.
I was given my diagnosis on New Year’s Eve. I had already discussed the management of m my future training with Kate. It was good to talk to her and she understood my need to stay active, but also to allow my body to heal. During the next few months I had 4 separate lots of biopsies and by the time I went to surgery on 8th February I had had 64 scans. The biopsies left me very sore and bruised, so I trained on my turbo to avoid any risk of injury. The jolting and bumps on the road made riding my bike outside very uncomfortable.
I was still doing the harder sessions, although sometimes had to scale them down a bit. I was suffering from lack of sleep and loss of appetite because of the stress. Eating enough to train was difficult, but Kate and I discussed this and went for the eating little and often, which did help and as my surgery date approached, we eased off on the training going for zone 2 endurance rather than sweet spot or tempo rides to maintain my fitness, but also not to over stress my body which had a 5-hr surgery ahead of it. I did go for a walk the day before my surgery and did some weights and Pilates.
Being able to cycle helped alleviate some of the anxiety and tension whilst waiting for biopsy results and numerous hospital appointments.
I had surgery on the 9th February and was told by my surgeon on no account to get on my bike for the next 10 days. I had wide local excision, lymph nodes dissected and bilateral mammoplastie, which took a little over 5 hours. At day 10 I was turning the pedals on my turbo. I did have to adjust how I sat as my left arm was really sore to get onto the handlebars. I had gone out walking from the day after surgery, gradually building up the time and distance. I like walking but not as much as cycling. I loved my training plan on 14th February as it was to eat ice cream, cake, and rest!!. I started doing some gentle training rides for an hour or so on the turbo all in zone 2 to allow my body to heal, but still maintain my fitness levels. During this time, I was closely in touch with Kate and listened nearly all the time to her advice. My husband and children were also on my case, so it was hard not to be sensible. I was tending now to do my turbo training session but then also have a walk outside and then do some strength training depending on how I felt. I had my arm exercises to do post-surgery to maintain my mobility. A few times I was too tired to train and then just listened to my body and had a rest.
My surgeon also made me promise not to go out on my bike for 6 weeks after my operation and I did stick to this. I would have been crazy not to after 5 hrs of surgery. At one point part of my wound broke down a little and I found another use for the little snack bag on your handle bar. You can put a little wound drain pump in it and keep cycling. My training was mainly in zone 2 in order to allow me to recuperate from surgery but also keep my base level of fitness.
Post-surgery, having had my histology results, I needed to have a 5-day course of radiotherapy. I found this really tough and again being out on my bike helped me forget this treatment. I got sore and tender. The hospital had fitted in my radiotherapy so I could still go on my already booked cycling holiday to Spain with Cycle Retreats . 10 days after finishing radiotherapy I went cycling. I can still hear the voices of Zoe, Mark and my husband Ian asking me my heart rate and if I was in zone 2. The mental boost from being out on my bike in the sunshine and doing what I love I find hard to put into words. I took it easy (for me) and managed about 80 km a day and was lucky as we had an extra rest day as the weather was awful on the Thursday so no cycling . That was good for me as although I was tired, I would have cycled. Instead, I nodded off on the sofa whilst everyone was chatting. On the last day I did a 100 km ride with a decent amount of climbing. I felt awesome and so proud of myself.
I am also taking a drug called letrozole as my cancer was oestrogen positive to reduce the risk of it coming back. This makes me feel a bit yuck. I then also got Covid having managed to work through the whole pandemic from the start and avoided it. This was just before the Jubilee weekend. I managed to be clear 10 days before London to Amsterdam. My lovely surgeon had signed the medical form to let me take part. This was a 4-day ride of about 314 miles in total but with only the first day having any climbing in it. The ride was a blast and I met some really inspirational women and have made friends for life. They were truly awesome. It was also a great platform for me to build on for LEJOG as I had managed this ride just 6 weeks after radiotherapy and just after having COVID. I think I pushed my luck a bit there.
I am also a member of the Yorkshire Cogs and Roses cycling club, although I live near Cambridge. They are also a fabulous group and have been so supportive to me throughout this experience. I am truly lucky with the family and friends that I have. Cycling enabled me to cope with the challenges that cancer threw at me and without my bike the whole experience would have been very much harder. It has been my saviour.
I then had a few recovery days after London to Amsterdam and I was pretty shattered, but I was back on my bike on the Wednesday 15th June and had a longer ride than I planned. I met friends whilst mending a puncture and cycled with them for a while to have a coffee. There may have also been cake involved.
My husband Ian was also training for LEJOG, which was great and we loved going out on rides together. I also went out on my own when I just needed to clear my head. I had a lot of brain chatter going on and find that out on my bike makes everything clearer and more manageable. The weather was great, so most of my training as done outside and we cycled to any event that we could. I had a nursing reunion about 50 miles away so cycled to this, stayed in B&B and cycled home the next day. Really easy way to get training in and also fun.
Mark and Zoe also had a Cycle Retreats training plan on zoom with 3 sessions a week, 2 of them guided. I joined these sessions but also did the session that Kate had planned – chatting on the turbo makes the sessions pass more quickly. I did occasionally ask if I could do theirs and always got a big NO as an answer. ‘A girl’s gotta try and push the boundaries.
Ian and I planned a weekend away, cycling and seeing friends to make training more fun and put in some hills. We took our bikes on the train towards Brighton and had 4 lovely days, cycling in that area ,staying with friends and climbing lots of hills. It was also very hot, so staying hydrated and working on eating on the bike featured highly. The owner of the bed and breakfast that we stayed in donated half the cost of the room to our Just Giving page as she had also had breast cancer. I have been overwhelmed by the support.
I have always struggled a bit with rest days, but though this I really realised the importance of them. It was July and I was due to go back to work on 1st August. I had taken off longer than I planned because nature of my work and I had felt that I wasn’t realty mentally to go back before this. I was on a phased return for 6 weeks then I had booked holiday to cycle LEJOG.I planned to return back to my normal working hours. I wasn’t really sure how training was going to fit in with going back to work or how tired I would be.
Before my return I had a lovely time in Sheffield with our daughter and she even cycled with me. It’s really hilly around Sheffield! I also had a great ride with Cogs and Roses and it was great to see them and catch up. I continued with the turbo sessions and was even allowed a few sweet spot sessions and then a couple of harder ones.
The weekend before I went back to work, I had a lovely week end up in Yorkshire with friends, but also helping at the Yorkshire Lass Sportive. I was cycling with a good friend and it was lovely and took my mind off going back to work. We had planned to cycle the 100-mile route, but the weather had different plans and it was torrential rain. So, the route was shortened to 60 miles as there were places on the longer route too flooded to be safe. I really enjoyed the ride and just kept in my mind that it was excellent training for LEJOG.
Work was really hard and I felt pretty wobbly at times but cycling to and from was my happy place. In the car on part of my journey I often felt a bit overwhelmed with keeping it all together and getting back to the old me and being useful and effective in my job. I have to recommend Maggie’s here as being a wonderful organisation and fantastic support . (Maggie’s is a charity providing cancer support and information in centres across the UK and online)
Mid-August we also hit the major heatwave and of course our big training rides were on the cards now. The weekend for doing them was when we had the 37/38C temperature so we got up at stupid o’clock and set off. The first 50 miles were fine but the second really tough as was so hot. It’s never a good sign when your tyres are sticking to the road. Trying to stay hydrated was also tricky but we did it and felt pretty proud of ourselves. The next day we just did 50 miles and were home before 10am to avoid the worst heat of the day. Again, all this was in zone 2. I was becoming a bit of an expert on zone 2 riding. Late August we had a great get together with Cycle retreats and all did a sportive together in the Cotswolds which was pretty hilly and 130km . It was also lovely to meet some of the people that were doing LEJOG.
Part of our training plan was to be doing back-to-back rides of about 50 miles, so Ian and I went out most weekends and tried to cycle to any events to fit the training in. We went to a friend’s 60th birthday and again cycled there. It was amazing how much you can fit training into your everyday life. We were also getting good at mending punctures – which came in useful on LEJOG. Training this hard was great for me as I still felt pretty overwhelmed by my diagnosis and cycling just levelled me out. It was the place where I felt like me again.
Taper week arrived and I have never been so pleased to have a taper week. I felt pretty nervous about the challenge ahead, but also knew that I had trained as hard as I could given my diagnosis and also get used to the side effects of treatment . Mentally I was still struggling. It’s very hard when your world gets turned on its head and you have a new body image to adjust to and also the side effects of treatment. I have a lot of nausea in the morning which makes eating hard, but during my training Kate and I had discussed this lots and I knew what I could eat in the morning – porridge. I also know that jelly babies on the bike are great for me along with Tailwind in my water bottles.
LEJOG AT LAST.
We took the train down to Cornwall, having dropped our bikes off before to be transported down with Mark and Zoe to the start and had a couple of nights in Penzance before we set off. The day before the ride we walked to the registration point at the Cape Cornwall club and picked up our bikes and met lots of the other riders. There were 21 of in total.
Day 1 Lands’ End to Lauceston . The ride started on the 13th September and it was in torrential rain. I knew that the experience of the Yorkshire lass sportive would come in useful. It was a long day 160km with 2514m of climbing and also 2 punctures, both mine. I did have a bit of a melt down on the second one as I had felt extremely nervous setting off and doubted myself. Everyone was lovely and I soon got my act together and we were off. It’s hard to know how you are going to fare cycling so far and for some many days in a row.
Day 2- Lauceston to Ilminster was even more brutal than day one and I did have another puncture. I also had a slightly buckled wheel in the afternoon so had cycled some of it with my back brake rubbing. The lovely Mark from Cycle Retreats soon put that right . Nothing like making it more difficult for yourself. The climbing was 3000m today and 154km and I got up every hill and didn’t walk any. There were 4 of us cycling as a group and we finished in the dark, but to the cheers of others from our group which was such an uplift at the end of a long day.
Day 3- llminster to Gloucester was also a tough day with a Landsdown hill out of Bath which is used for hill climbing championships . Again, I managed to cycle up this the whole way. We all breathed a sigh of relief at the end of this day as day 4 was a shorter day, just 100 km and not so much climbing. We hadn’t factored in a shocking headwind. It was a tough day mentally and all of us in our group had to dig hard to keep going- well apart from Bob who I’m convinced has Duracell batteries. We all settled behind him to avoid the wind . On getting to the hotel in the evening, I did a live interview on Radio Cambridgeshire about the challenge and our fund raising. It was really good to get the message across of how important it is to attend screening. Good job it was on radio as I was in my Pj’s sitting in bed under the covers. I did get dressed to have dinner.
Day 5 -Ludlow to Warrington 155km 1,473m of climbing. Again, we had a head wind but it was a stunning day cycling with beautiful countryside and views, although someone had stolen the tarmac of the road on the last few miles into Warrington.
In the evening we had a Celebration Dinner with CRUK and a scientist for CRUK who gave a short talk about how the money we are raising is used .
Day 6 -158 km, 2,375m climbing . Warrington to Kendal – this was a tough day and we arrived into Kendal in the dark at about 8pm . Gale force head winds and punctures . Neither of them mine, but it’s challenging mending a puncture in the dark by the side of the road. There were 3 in the group and we all kept each other’s spirits up. We did even manage a bit of a laugh about the puncture whilst we held the lights for Bob to mend it. Typically, the mechanic van arrived as we were ready to set off and then guided us down into Kendal with the vehicle lights. There was a bit of a wait for food when we finally arrived at the hotel, so I went off to have a bath and ate my dinner in the bath.
The getting ready each evening to do the same again the next day is quite exhausting in itself . As I was one of the slower cyclists, we had very little recovery time on an evening, it was shower, wash kit, eat, get stuff ready for morning and bed.
Day 7-109km, 1236m climbing . Kendal to Gretna Green -My 60th birthday and 35th wedding anniversary and also the Queen’s funeral so celebrations were very muted. The views were amazing en route. We rode with black ribbons on our helmets and had a wonderful view whilst we observed the silence. We actually had no punctures today and we arrived in the light at hotel in the service station in Gretna Green. I had a lovely surprise waiting for me in that our daughter Kate surprised me there. It was so lovely to see her and have cuddles. We had a lovely evening at a sports bar and celebrated my birthday. I felt pretty overwhelmed to be on the ride at all.
Day 8 -158km, 1556m climbing Gretna Green to Falkirk. We had breakfast in the service station and had a wonderful day cycling with rolling hills in the sunshine and lots of beautiful heather all around. At Roberton village hall we were treated to a full Scottish afternoon tea to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Royal Society of Histopathologists. We later had yet another puncture- probably the weight of the tea!
I was also joined by 2 friends who I met on the London to Amsterdam bike ride and they had dinner with us. They brought me a lovely bag of goodies. It was fantastic to see them and I actually didn’t feel too tired this evening. We managed to stay up till nearly 10 pm.
Day 9 Falkirk to Pitlochry- 125km and 1297m climbing.
Stunning day cycling . Sunshine and a fabulous tail wind. We flew along and had a fantastic hotel for the night . This is the drive up to it. We had a lovely evening meal in fantastic surroundings
Day 10 Pitlochry to Dingwall- 173km and 1369m climbing.
The rain was back to greet us in spectacular fashion today. We started off in torrential rain and had a very long day ahead of us in the saddle . Fortunately, the rain passed over and we even had some sunshine. We were on mainly cycle paths and B roads as we went into the Highlands via Drummond’s pass past the distilleries through Aviemore and Inverness. We then cycled over Kessoch bridge, which I found terrifying even though we were on a cycle path separated from the lorries. I felt pretty ok today and knew that we were nearly there and I had just one more big day in the saddle after this.
Day 11 -Dingwall to Thurso 170km and 1442m climbing.
Another day with a headwind but this was our final long day . The scenery was amazing and we had a morning stop at the Glenmorangie distillery where we got a wee dram to take home. The scenery today was awesome although the road surface was pretty shocking and you did have to keep a look out for wildlife. We were treated to a stunning, rainbow and a little bit more rain. The afternoon felt like it went on and on although the views were stunning but we dug deep as we knew that we has almost reached our goal. I did feel incredibly shattered this evening.
Day 12 Final Day 35km and 235m climbing .
Final push to John O’Groats. I don’t think I have ever felt so relieved that this was the last day of cycling. We all had a rendezvous point 6 miles from the finish and then we all cycled into the finish together. I can’t really put into the words the emotions that I felt as we came into John O’Groats and saw the sign post and all the crowd there cheering us. It was just amazing. I did have a big cry as I was completely overwhelmed. We took lots of photos at the finish and there were a lot of hugs and celebrations .
We then all went off to have something to eat and then got on the coach to Inverness to our hotel and a fabulous celebration dinner .
In total I cycled 1019 miles , 19,000m of climbing and spent 90 hrs cycling. We also as a group raised over £40,000 for CRUK of which I raised £7000.
So, what did I learn from this? Listen to your coach is probably my most important lesson . I also realised that this ride was more than just the biggest challenge I have ever taken on , it was about trying to find some of the old me following my cancer diagnosis and to also prove that my body was still able to achieve amazing thing. It did that and also massively improved my mental wellbeing. I was also blown away by the support from all those on the ride and a really special thanks to Bob and Sue who I cycled with. Cycle retreats and all their support crew made this a really special event. Just a big Thank You .