The long and winding road back to health

Over the past three months I’ve written plenty and often about the lingering illness I picked up after getting back from the Tour de France.

In that time I got a round of blood tests done and saw two doctors, both of whom told me I was fine. Except I wasn’t. A 25km flat ride would wipe me out for weeks. Several times I went more than a fortnight without riding because I simply couldn’t muster the energy.

The hardest part was not knowing what was going on. The doctors had told me I was fine but I wasn’t feeling fine and I wasn’t getting better. I didn’t know if I was just going to keep feeling sick or if rest would make things better.

A couple weeks back I finally got some answers.

The Swan River in Perth.
The Swan River in Perth.

I had sent out a despairing tweet about being sick of being sick and an emergency doctor by the name of Dr Carl Le got back to me, saying I should go and see him. I was keen for answers, he seemed happy to help and so I went over to Knox Private Emergency Department and saw him.

We did some blood tests to rule out a bunch of potential illnesses that my first blood test hadn’t checked for — glandular fever, dengue fever, hepatitis, even HIV. I had a chest X-ray done and also went along to a cardio clinic and did a stress echocardiogram (ECG).

The stress ECG involved sticking electrodes on my chest to measure how my heart reacted to increasing levels of physiological stress. I started walking on a treadmill and every couple minutes the gradient of the simulated path and the required walking speed would increase. This continued until I was running and I was at my max heartrate.

Marina between Perth and Fremantle
Marina between Perth and Fremantle

The good news was that my heart is perfectly healthy. No sign of arrhythmias or anything (something I’d been worried about last summer) and I’m able to push as hard as I want on the bike, according to Dr Carl. The bad news: I still didn’t have any answers about why I wasn’t starting to feel better.

Thankfully the blood tests were able to shed some light. Turns out I had what is known as an ‘atypical pneumonia’ – a form of pneumonia caused by a type of bacteria that’s not responsible for more ‘standard’ forms of pneumonia and that doesn’t respond to regular antibiotics.

Because the illness hadn’t been detected earlier I didn’t get a chance to throw antibiotics at it and as a result my body had to fight the infection off on its own. It got the job done, but it took nearly three months to get there.

More views of the Swan River.
More views of the Swan River.

The blood tests also revealed that I had a Vitamin D ‘insufficiency’ (the levels weren’t low enough for it to be called a ‘deficiency’). Thankfully that’s easily fixed with Vitamin D supplements.

I can’t explain how much of a relief it is to finally have some answers and to know what my body’s been fighting the past three months. Most importantly, and as the blood tests showed, my body’s fought off the illness and I’m on the improve.

I’ve been getting back on the bike here and there and I’m slowly starting to work my way back into things. I’m pretty bad at pacing myself – I usually jump straight back in where I left off, and promptly realise that I’m just not able to do what I could before.

Views from Kings Park.
Views from Kings Park.

I’d be surprised if I did more than a dozen rides in the past three months and many of those were short and flat. I’ve lost an incredible amount of fitness and it’s going to be a long and painful road to get back to the form I was in while following the Tour de France.

But, I’m making small steps in the right direction and I’m motivated to get back to the level I was, if not higher.

The first rides I did after learning about my diagnosis were over in Perth. I was over there to see my youngest brother Ash perform his final recital for the jazz double bass course he’s doing at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. The gig was amazing, it was an amazing few days and I really enjoyed getting to explore Perth by bike.

Bike track alongside the Swan River.
Bike track alongside the Swan River.

I rode to Fremantle and back one day (roughly 30km each way), I did a lovely ride around Kings Park (which looks out over the Swan River and the Perth CBD) and I rode to the airport on the final day we were there.

I even managed to put in a hill-climbing effort on a short climb near Kings Park and found that I didn’t suffer too much the next day. That next-day exhaustion and unwell feeling had been a defining feature of the illness and I’m so glad to have left that behind.

In wrapping up I’d like to say a big thank you to Dr Carl Le for his concern, care and for helping me to (finally!) find some answers. The awesome nurses at the Knox Private Emergency Department deserve a special mention too. I might only have been there for a couple hours in total but they did such a great job of looking after me. It was a welcome reminder just how important a job the good folks in the medical professions do.

Panoramic view of the Swan River.
Panoramic view of the Swan River.

Thanks very much for reading and a special thanks to everyone that’s left comments or sent me tweets, Facebook messages and emails over the past few months. The support means a lot and I’m glad so many of you have gotten something out of reading these posts, even if has felt like I’ve just been whinging at you all.

The good news is I can now get back to focusing on riding, and writing about riding, both of which I’m very much looking forward to. Stay posted for reports from the Domestique Dirty Dandys ride and a weekend at Mt. Buller which included a climb with Simon Gerrans.

29 Replies to “The long and winding road back to health”

  1. Hey Matt, great to hear you have some answers. Pneumonia snuck up on me earlier this year and put me in hosp for 3 days. Not good, but good to know what it was.

    On your recommendation, I went out today and did my first climb: up Mt Dandy Tourist Road to Kalorama. Well, I made it at least, and have a baseline pace to work off next time. Thanks for the inspiration and for such a great site.

  2. Glad to hear you are finally on the mend & saw via Strava you already doing some good stuff up Mt. Buller. Pace yourself back into it & enjoy.

  3. Great news to hear you are on the mend, both things can drive you crazy not knowing what is making you crook and not being able to ride. Hope to catch up during the 7 Peaks rides. Cheers.

  4. Good to see its all working out, always frustrating when you are feeling unwell but just don’t know what it is

  5. I’ve had pneumonia twice now, 24 months apart, and have been told you are more susceptible in the future once you’ve had it. For me it was ignoring a cold (maybe flu) and going out for rides in the dark, cold and wet through Melbourne winter.
    The cold dry air isn’t good for you but the warm Perth air should’ve helped.
    For me I really started getting better, whilst still on antibiotics, whilst on a holiday in Thailand. The hot humid conditions helped.
    Take it easy back on the bike – long, easy rides are better than Strava segments & intervals.
    And (mild) chronic fatigue is pretty normal after such a blow. (Especially if you push too hard too early)

    Think of it this way – years ago pneumonia killed people, now we spend some time on the couch or can’t ride our bike for a couple of weeks/months.

  6. I got pneumonia December 2012 and only got my grove back 3 months ago. You’ll be right. It just takes some time.

  7. Good to hear. And good on you for persisting with the hunt for a diagnosis. Demostrates that GPs are sometimes not as diligent as they could be.

  8. Before we knew you and Hells500, my husband and I thought the Lake Mountain was our biggest mountain that we could ever climb. Completed 7 peaks last yesr, was a big miracle which would never happen without you guys. Do get better, Matt, hope to see you on 16 Nov – Lake mountain ride.

  9. Hey Matt, finally you have some answers what a relief that must be for you.
    Well now that you know what it is I’m sure you will do your best to get on top of your health and no doubt work your way back on top of the mountains!
    Wishing you a full and speedy recovery.

  10. Happy to help and get you back out riding so that I can (selfishly) enjoy your blogs / guides.
    Just a further plug for Knox Private Emergency Department – at the base of Mt Dandenong in Wantirna – we’re always there in case a ride goes wrong.
    We can treat any emergency (minor or major) and have prompt access to orthopaedic surgeons, sport physicians, psychiatrists, etc.. 😉
    Look forward to seeing you on the first Domestique 7 Peaks Series climb up Lake Mountain!
    Dr Carl

  11. So many Victorian cyclist take Vit D supplements. But great news that you have an answer and on the mend just in time for Summer.

  12. Great to hear that you’re on the way back Matt. I’ve had my fair share of setbacks with injury in the past (2 knee reco’s, fibular stress fractures, sprained ankles, etc.) so I know what you’re going through.
    A little forewarning about Vitamin D deficiency – many people often get false positives (the testing is notoriously unreliable) so you may in fact be fine. But taking a little extra Vitamin D can’t hurt.
    Hope to see you out on the bike soon!

  13. Brilliant!..glad to hear you are on the mend…It hasn’t seemed right that You, the one that inspires so many of us to ride hills couldn’t get out there and play…just take it easy peasy to start with, a man of your caliber wont take long to get back to peek fitness anyway.

  14. Matt,

    Good to hear you’re on the mend.

    I suffered an enforced 4 months off the bike – thanks to a car turning where it shouldn’t have & broken back – and the first few months back were very frustrating: my head kept asking my body why it’s couldn’t perform at the level it did just before the accident.

    But don’t worry, the fitness returns.

  15. Matt – fantastic news to hear you’re on the improve, and also that it’s nothing too serious in the grand scheme of things. Sounds like you just need to show a little self restraint to start with. Take it easy mate and make sure you really enjoy the riding.

  16. Really glad to hear you’re back on the mend Matt. As you know I’ve had that chronic fatigue kinda feeling post Syd-Mel and 3 Peaks so I understand the frustration. I reckon Vitamin D insufficiency must be pretty common amongst Melburnians!

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