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Riding for wellness

posted Jul 7, 2012, 2:24 AM by Dianne James
by Forest Dale

On July 17, 2010, at age 60, I embarked upon my first Group Health Seattle to Portland (STP) Bicycle Classic. The following day, I woke in Napavine without any muscle pain. Although I felt a little stiffness, I was not sore in my shoulders, arms or legs. At that point, I knew I was going to finish.

As I joyfully pedaled along on Sunday morning, it occurred to me that, though I had been diagnosed years earlier with Parkinson's disease, I was not showing any obvious symptoms. When I'm on a bike, Parkinson's does not define who I am. The bicycle is a great equalizer.

Eight years ago, I first noticed "heavy legs" and an unusual arm tremor at the conclusion of my regular four-mile run. My running pace slowed. I began to shuffle my feet and walk slower. Three months later I was shocked to receive a diagnosis: Parkinson's disease. At 53 years old, I perceived myself as the quintessential healthy guy—one who ate healthy foods and enjoyed plenty of exercise. Parkinson's disease? How unfair is that?!

Eventually, I acknowledged that Parkinson's was not going away. Only then did I find the strength to deal with misdirected blame and misplaced resentment. I began to receive treatment, and my symptoms subsided. I continued to run regularly, albeit at a slower pace, and began to swim. My employer generously offered accommodations and I continued to work, most people unaware of my condition. I persisted in my search for creative adaptations and accommodations for Parkinson's disease.

Last year, I encountered new research indicating that the spinning motion of bicycle pedaling has a beneficial effect on Parkinson's symptoms. So I bought a bicycle and decided to ride the STP. Training began last March with only 10-15 miles per week for the first four weeks. Using a weekly commute from Burien to Issaquah (25 miles one way) as a foundation, I gradually increased my training miles until I reached about 100 miles per week in mid-June.

I finished the 202 miles at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 18, with an elapsed time of 15 hours, 57 minutes, and an average speed of 12.7 mph. There's nothing particularly outstanding about the numbers; nevertheless, it was a significant ride for me as well as my family, friends and sponsors.

I rode for Team Parkinson's, a group of athletes and enthusiasts who have been touched by Parkinson's. Through Cascade Bicycle Club's Pedal Power program, the team uses the STP to raise funds and awareness for the Northwest Parkinson's Foundation, which seeks to improve the quality of life for some 70,000 Parkinson's people in the northwest five-state area (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA).

Following the STP, I've continued to ride. My goal is two 10- to 20-mile rides per week. I park my truck partway between home and work, and ride the rest of the way—and I'm participating in the Cascade Training Series again this year. I'll be ready for Flying Wheels, a rural ride in June, and a second STP in July.

My experience as a new bicyclist has convinced me that there is great potential in further research in this new field: Parkincycling. A cure for Parkinson's is being sought, but we do not know when that day will arrive. Meanwhile, I have a vision of myself working while seated in my Parkincycle chair, pedaling at a moderate cadence of 85 revolutions per hour, and waking up every morning symptom-free—as a bicyclist, not a patient.