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  • nigelbartram

How MS turned a good turn into a wrong turn, with me ending up in the drink on my ‘Bridges of Hope’

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

charity cycle ride

MS has robbed me of much my sight and limited my ability to walk anywhere close to usual distances. Lack of balance means I can no longer mount, let alone ride, a bike. But before you reach for a Kleenex or avert your gaze, life is good. What remains totally undimmed, despite these and other limitations, is my enthusiasm for taking on a challenge. Especially when it’s in support of a good cause such as those which help children.

For instance, in 2009 I decided to do the London marathon on crutches in aid of Cancer and Leukaemia in Children (CLIC). Not that I need crutches to walk but, after 10 minutes or so, I start to wobble and am unable to walk further. So, some stout crutches seemed like the obvious way for me to get around the course. It all went well except for the fact that - as I was going at a sedentary pace - my only company for most of the route were the street cleaning machines that follow and clean up the route after runners have passed. Their presence became a constant mental jibe at the fact that my speed would have shamed any self-respecting tortoise. Whenever I glanced round, the front of the machines seemed to take on the appearance of an ever more sinister face, with their whirring, rotating brushes bristling threateningly on either side of what I fantasised to be a gaping mouth. One slip and would I be prey to the beasts? Or would the high-pressure water jets summarily wash me into the gutter, along with tons of other street detritus? Happily, I escaped the machine’s clutches and any involuntary wash and brush up. I finished in a time of 10 1/2 hours, very proud to have raised £14,500.

When I was normal, push bike able, I completed a sponsored bike ride across Australia for charity. But that tale is for another time perhaps. I mention these past endeavours to persuade you that taking on the challenge I mention below wasn’t quite as madcap a venture as it may seem on the face of it for somebody with less than a full complement of capabilities.

It all came about because my then employer announced how they wanted to mark their 40th birthday. Any employee undertaking a sponsored charity challenge featuring the number 40,would receive match funding up to £2,000. Whey hey! What a cracking combination: money for a good cause plus a challenge. But what challenge? As if by preordination, the answer came to me in a flash of inspiration: how about a tour on my trusty tricycle, crossing 40 bridges over the River Thames and tricycling between them? Choosing the charity was, if you’ll forgive the pun, child’s play. It had to be Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children for the fantastic care they’d given my son when he was young.

My ‘Bridges of Hope Tour’ would start just west of Henley to the West of London and finish at Tower Bridge in the East: some 62 miles. I estimated that the trike trek would take three longish days and require two overnight stops en route. Being halfway sensible, for once in my life I listened to my wonderful sisters who said that they would join me as my backup team, in case of emergency and for company of course. I was extremely grateful to my two trusty kindly sisters and I know it sounds a mite churlish but if the truth be told, Claire and Sonja are more fun and jolly than athletes. But hats off to them, they did some serious(ish) training to be in shape and able walk the 60-odd miles. I did too. Lots of tricycling and some gym work. I’d also decided to go on the wagon for a year to see if it would stop the MS progressing.

We mapped out a route which stuck as close to the river as possible: along paths and across fields, wherever possible, to avoid roads and enjoy nature to the full. By the by, I was amazed at how far into London one can go before having to take to urban footpaths and enjoy at least the illusion of the countryside. My strategy was to do long days, roughly 9.30am to 7pm, with a short break for a snack lunch and spending each of the two nights in a hotel.

We arrived at our starting blocks, bedecked in garish purple Great Ormond Street hospital tee-shirts. I had a backpack stuffed, Mary Poppins like, with clothes, nightwear, toiletries, wallet, mobile phone, you name it. Whether it was arrogance or naivety I can’t say but I wasn’t feeling in the least bit daunted by the challenge I was just about to embark on. In fact, what concerned me most were the lowering black skies and storm Kate warning that I’d heard. As it turned out, I was right to be apprehensive. The going was tough: the paths were mostly muddy and strewn with branches brought down by the storm. I was poured and pelted on by painful hailstones, which felt like toothpicks being fired by a Gatling gun at point blank range. My face, arms and legs began to feel as though I’d fallen into a giant wasp’s nest. What made it worse was that despite it being April, the rain and hail was freezing cold, the latter patently so!

Anyway, we pressed on, come (rare) sun, rain, hail, or other pestilence until we encountered a totally unexpected obstacle: our first kissing gate i.e. a small gate hung in a V-shaped enclosure which only lets one person through at a time. Well, that would have been ok but for two things. I didn’t really want to stop to kiss my sisters and, more importantly, there was my trike which was much too long to get through. Something I omitted to say earlier about by trusty trike is that it weighs in at a hefty 28kg. Great for stability (or so I was lulled into believing for the moment) and weight training, but less than good news for us motley crew as we sized up the chances of heaving it over the gate. Where there’s a will and there is a small posse of Richmen, there’s a way!

We manfully but, in all honesty, mainly womanfully, womanhandled my trike over the gate. Interestingly, writing these last few words, the Word spellcheck was okay with womanfully and manhandled but highlighted womanhandled as a mistake. Read into that whatever you want, lady readers. On the other side of the balance sheet an unexpected bonus, both for our sense of well-being and Great Ormond Street’s coffers, was the generosity of complete strangers who cheered us on and gave us donations.

Notwithstanding the awful weather and odd kissing gate, we finished day one in good shape and in great spirits. Our overnight stop was a great chance to catch up with my sisters, as I don’t see them that often and there hadn’t been that much opportunity to do so during the day.

Next day I was up bright and breezy, unlike the weather. The skies put me in mind of a painting illustrating the Old Testament. Thunderous black clouds everywhere, as though cloaking God about to manifest his wrath by jabbing out a finger and sending a fork of lightening to earth in judgement somebody’s misdeeds. Being a committed Christian in the act of doing a good deed for sick children I wasn’t worried about God so much as another, painfully cold, soaking. But that’s what challenges are all about so off we went.

Over non-sodden ground I was able to work up a fair lick of speed, leaving my sisters trailing far back in my slipstream. I’d got bored just dawdling along so, when it wasn’t raining cats, dogs and toothpicks and the going was reasonably firm, I sped along - in so far as an MS challenged person can - at what felt like an eminently reasonable lick. I was feeling great, with the wind in my hair (well not quite as I’m somewhat follically challenged), leaving my sisters way out of sight. But speed was soon to become my undoing. My world literally turned upside down, in THE most dramatic fashion (was this the wrath of God after all?).

I felt a sudden, shuddering shock. The front wheel of my trike had hit a protruding tree root which my 50% of normal vision hadn’t spotted. I was catapulted upward and sideways. The next thing I can recall is sinking, upside down, with the full weight of my 28kg chariot pushing me down to the river bed. Whilst I’d like to claim, for no other reason than a more riveting tale to tell, that my life flashed before me and there ensued a frantic life and death struggle to save myself from drowning, in truth I managed to free myself from under the trike in a near trice, helped by the fact the river was only shoulder height where I’d dive bombed in. Re-telling this now, I can honestly say that not only do I not have the slightest recollection of hurtling through space towards a murky, watery grave but nor do I recall the faintest flicker of fear at what was happening to me. As God is my witness, my only sense of shock was at how warm the water felt! Fleetingly, I was almost tempted to stay put in my river bath and shelter from the bitingly cold rain and hail that had been pounding us.

The warm bath feeling was, needless to say, pretty ephemeral as was any wish to explore my ‘Brackish Brown Planet 2’. I stood up, chest and all body parts below immersed in the murky waters and stared up at the grassy embankment, some four feet above, holding on to what had now begun to feel like a three-ton trike. What an earth to do? There wasn’t a soul to be seen, either in a rivercraft or on the banks. Nothing for it but to wait for my sisters to arrive. They finally came within earshot, chatting twenty to the dozen. I didn’t want to alarm them, so when I could hear they were just above, but me out of sight down in the river, I chirruped a cheerful ‘hello’. A few seconds later, two heads were peering down at me from the embankment. They greeted me with the less than wholly compassionate ‘what the bloody hell are you doing down there, Mike?’ Big sisters! Does it ever change? I somewhat ungraciously thought.

Pleasantries over, we set about extricating trike and Mike from the Thames, in that order. It was clearly going to require us to work as a mini-chain gang. We worked out a plan to get us both out. The first step was me wrestling the front wheel out of the water. This I did and then pointed the wheel up towards Claire who was leaning precariously over the water’s edge with one arm and hand extended towards the trike. After a bit of fumbling, and with Sonja holding on to her to prevent two unplanned swims, she managed to grab hold of it. After many a heave-and-groan our chain gang managed to pull my mud and bilge covered trike free of the river and onto the tow path. Finally, in what seemed like an ironic twist of fate, I grabbed hold of a bit of the same root system which had caused me to be in the Thames. Inch by inch, at somewhat less than Tarzanic vine-shinning speed, I managed to pull myself up, out of the river and onto the bank.

As I stood there, dripping wet and shivering, I was blissfully happy to be back on terra firma. However, my heart sank as I realised that the soggy sensation on my back was the backpack, replete with change of clothes, wallet etc. all unprotected and uninsured! But that was the least of my worries right now. My main concern, as I stood there drenched, shivering and with wet clothes sticking to my skin like a layer of leeches, was averting hypothermia. Fortunately, both Mike’n’trike were still functional and perhaps it was fortune favouring the foolhardy but, as luck would have it, there was civilisation only two miles or so further along the path.

So off I set in clingingly wet clothes, rain still hammering down, going as quickly as I dared but now very mindful of being upended by any other murderously protruding tree root. Some 10 minutes later I arrived at a pub and squelched my way in. I was a bit surprised that neither landlord, nor any customer, fixed their gaze on this dripping apparition. I guess it was because the black waterproofs I was wearing didn’t betray my totally sodden state and, when I looked around, there were other drowned rats to be seen: clearly fellow victims of storm Kate (what a strange choice of name for a storm, I always think of Kate as suggestive of a warm, compassionate sort of lady). To boost my spirits, given what I’d been through and felt like, I decided to temporarily park my year ‘on the wagon’ and treat myself to a modest half pint, which I supped and savoured as though it were a glass of Chateau Petrus 1927 (not that I’ve ever been remotely near one of those). My only regret about breaking my booze interdiction was that I didn’t drink several pints because I’ve subsequently learned that, far from being deleterious for MS, in moderation alcohol is supposedly beneficial!

Fortunately, I found a place in front of a very inviting open fire. I stripped off as many of my drenched garments as was decent in a public place and started the process of drying off and warming up. Some 30 minutes later, my sisters arrived. After a while, with no let-up in the rain, we decided to call it a day and called a van sized taxi to take us and trike to our next overnight stop. In the sanctity of my bedroom, I spent hours wafting a hair dryer over the clothes I’d been wearing, the spare clothes and night wear in my backpack, the backpack itself, my wallet, the credit cards, the sodden bank notes and, of course, my mobile phone. Alas, no amount of hot air would resuscitate the last.

Once I began to feel halfway human again and my mind turned to other things. My preoccupation wasn’t the fact we were only halfway through the ride but the risk that I’d contract Weil’s disease from having gobbled down a ‘good’ few mouthfuls of Chateau du Thames. I downed some of the stock of antibiotics I always take on excursions, as a precaution against getting one of my other MS afflictions: a urinary tract infection.

It must have again been a matter of fortune favouring the foolhardy, because I didn’t get Weil’s disease. I finished the ride jubilant at having got through the ordeal and raised some £7,500 for Great Ormond Street.

So, has my Thames dunking experience clipped my wings? Not at all. For my next ‘tour de force’ (at least I hope it’ll be that) I plan a sponsored round UK trike trek, again to raise money for sick, needy and disadvantaged children who forever tug on my heart strings. Wish me well!!

Mike Richman

Secondary Progressive MS

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