Ben get airborne at some of his local trails

In October 2011 I raced in the Tour of Langkawi, Malaysia, a five-day mountain bike stage race. Here’s what happened and why I am, where I am today

On stage one of the five days of racing, I wound up stranded in the jungle with bike troubles. Pouring with sweat in the almost 100 per cent humidity and soaring temperatures, I fumbled around while the local mosquitoes commenced their barrage. I was forced to walk 26km to the next feed/tech zone, arriving over three hours later and severely dehydrated. I finished the stage in the heaviest rain storm I had ever seen.

Over the next day’s stages I felt good and considered myself lucky to have missed the bout of food poisoning that team mate Dan McConnell had fallen to, along with our mechanic Pete Dowse and numerous other riders including Paul VDP. Little did I know that my turn for the wrath of Langkawi was on it’s way.
Ben at the Perth National round where he began to feel the effects

Arriving home after a few days of Malaysian safety go karting, jet skiing and scooter drag racing, I could only presume I had the worst case of ‘plane legs’ one could expect. Absolutely useless lumps of meat lumbered over the pedals. By the end of a week of unproductive training I was getting dropped on the climbs by the old man. Bad news. The next day I succumbed to a heavy cold and subsequent chest infection. That explains all the creeping, I thought. From there the really dumb activities began. I raced the Highland Fling 50k with legs and now lungs that wouldn’t power an 80’s Casio wristwatch. I finished, of course, wrecked.

If that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, I was waking up every morning feeling like I’d just finished a marathon. Trusty antibiotics will take care of this, I thought as I packed for the National Round in Perth. “Empty legs but a determined mind” was the theme of the trip and the podium finishes were no reflection of how I was feeling. Arriving home, I was hit with another bout of illness (“no shit,” we all chime) but this time it was three weeks of heavy fever and coughing. By the time the major symptoms went away the real damage of my invincible attitude was becoming evident and this is where the journey began.

Not being able to do the things you love is going to be tough. If you live for something, as we all should, having that something taken away from you will be life changing. Not being able to apply your passion elsewhere makes things harder again. The last 18 months should have been hard. No energy, no achievements, no outlets. Instead it became the biggest challenge I have ever faced and the darkest, most depressing time of my life. However, sitting here still not in the clear, I don’t regret what I’ve gone through.

For the first three months there was not a single clue as to what was going on inside my body. Every blood test came back clear and negative. I was tested for almost every disease: Malaria, HIV, Diabetes, Hep B & C. Nothing. Meanwhile, I was being absolutely hammered with hot flushes, fatigue and unbearable hunger. I would wake up in a pool of sweat that I didn’t know was possible. Tens of times every day I would feel what was something like a massive hunger flat. Empty, weak and unable to stand. I would recover briefly only to be hit again. It was mentally and physically destroying. To lay in bed so hungry, but without energy or the will to eat. I felt at times like I was dying, and while I never considered anything untoward, much of the time I simply did not want to be. To go through the same thing every day, weeks on end, with no end in sight and no explanation, I was broken. Breaking down wouldn’t change a thing. There was no escape. I lay there, too wound up to rest, too exhausted to sleep. This was what it was like to feel truly hopeless. And so it went on, long, long past what I could take.

Making way through railway  tracks

An appointment at the Infectious Diseases Unit at Canberra Hospital would be the beginning of an explanation. With over 20 tests requested it was another lucky dip. “Chikungunya” showed up; an insect-borne virus that is transmitted to humans by virus-carrying mosquitoes. Native to African and Asian countries, Chikungunya is an Alphavirus similar to Ross River Fever and Dengue Fever. Along with this, evidence of the more common Epstein-Barr virus (Glandular Fever) showed up, but this would not be confirmed until April when decreases in IgG levels proved it had been current.

While the diagnosis was a welcome discovery, the relief was short-lived upon finding that there was no treatment for either virus. I spoke with others about my illness. “I had a friend who was ill for seven years with something like that,” was one person’s attempt at understanding. It would be a long time before I would talk to anyone who could really understand.

Over the next few months, reality began to set in. The chance of Olympic selection grew further out of reach. I had to be a better rider than I had been before to make it and even with naïve optimism, to be back at that level in a month or two wasn’t going to happen. I watched the World Cups live on the lounge and turned all my willingness to Bec and Dan’s success. I was nervous before the races and my elevated pulse and adrenaline on the start line was quite a strange experience. There is nothing like being on the start line of World Cup and I vividly recalled the anticipation and energy that builds before the gun.

Following tracks

In March and April after watching each of the races I was physically drained to the point I almost couldn’t move. It wasn’t that I emulated the physical exertion of racing, it was that being excited for over an hour simply took more energy than I had. It was the same as watching a good movie. Any stimulation was utterly draining. One night I had a dream. A long, fairly uneventful adventure with some friends until things suddenly took a horrific turn. I informed those around me that I “couldn’t do this” and woke myself up. It was truly an amazing experience to have so little mental and physical energy so as not to cope with your own dreams.

Each day I would contemplate just how long I could handle being this ill. “Three months now, four has got to be it. What if it was six months? I can’t imagine coping with this for six months.” The days didn’t drift by either, they crept like wind-trainer time during max efforts. Too frustrated to sleep properly and too exhausted to get the frustration out, there was no relief.

Skirting through rock gardens

By May I had improved slightly to what I would call the second stage of my illness in which I was, on the odd occasion, capable of surviving a sedentary day without being completely destroyed but finding that I could briefly do an everyday activity before crashing. I could hold a conversation for more than five minutes without completely losing track like before. I could now read a few pages of a book, I could do a puzzle, I could go out briefly. This was the longest stage and while things had definitely improved, it brought about motivation and hope which transformed into frustration as the months went by without change. It was at this time that being a highly motivated and driven person had its downfall. My impatience became detrimental to my recovery in many ways.

In July my long-time partner Ali and I moved into my parent’s home. I spent most days there anyway for the company and care with Ali so busy at work. With limited energy, it became impossible to upkeep a house and look after myself. Ali was amazing and supported me more than anyone would ever want to ask from someone. She saved me in many ways. However, Ali needed a lot of support herself with no family in Australia. I couldn’t provide it. You cannot make someone happy when you are not happy yourself. When I went to London to watch Bec and Dan race the Olympic Games, I received the news that she wouldn’t be there when I got back.

Dealing with the obvious difficulties that arose from this, I had the fortune of having improved health-wise. The time spent overseas, for whatever reason, had given me a boost. I used my new-found but limited energy to seek joy in life and do the things that, as an athlete, I never had the opportunity to do. Some thought I’d lost it, but I’d found it. My carefree side.

I’ve always trained for a performance that inspired me. I’ve trained in hope to reap what I sowed. I raced to do what I didn’t think I could do. This was my process. I will race again, someday when I can, but in a new way. I will achieve what I know I’m capable of. I will own the confidence rather than accumulate it and I will know exactly why I am going through the suffering that it takes. My reasoning can no longer be broken. Optional physical suffering is a privilege.

Railing hard

I will always be grateful for every show of support I did receive. Each and every kind act, smile, card, simple gesture, conversation, message and phone call was gratefully received, and its effect multiplied.

The thing about tough times in your life is that you learn who is really there for you and who isn’t. Who is there for the bad days as well as the good ones. This has brought me closer to the people around me and I feel I have an even stronger network of people I can rely on when things get tough, which when you set about achieving challenging goals, inevitably comes about. Another reason not to regret this whole experience.

If you think someone might be having trouble, talk to them. Simply asking someone if they are okay can help, even if they lie. If you’re too tough to ask someone how they feel, you’re not tough at all. Help your friends, or get help for them.

If you yourself don’t feel things are okay, talk to someone. If you don’t have anyone or it doesn’t help, find a psychologist. They’re just professional helpers, not analysers. It’s just like going to the dentist or the physio or the mechanic. You can’t imagine how much someone else can help you feel better. It’s a mistake not to use them.

Being able to ride a bike became, and still is, a privilege. I love it for what it is. Riding is something that gives you so much back. It’s an escape from life while making you feel alive. To be able to step back and understand what it is about riding and racing that means something to me has made a world of difference. I will never need to ask myself again in times of suffering; “why do I do this?” I ride for the same reasons as everyone else, even if they don’t know what they are.

                                                                     Ben Henderson

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  • Debbie Thomsen

    A true inspiration. You are my hero, Ben :)