My weekly training plan used to include at least one interval training session on a Wattbike and each session started with about 15 minutes of warm up. The Virgin Active Groenkloof where I did most of my training at the time had 4 Wattbikes on the ground floor – thank goodness for that – and on this particular morning the bikes were not busy at all. I climbed onto the one bike with the soft saddle, as usual started my warm up while I paired my Garmin watch with the bike and set up the music. About 5 minutes into the ride I felt like I was on high resistance and so I turned the dial down and removed all resistance. A few moments later I looked at the power output and the reading was around 50W – close to nothing, and very odd. But my legs felt like I was riding up a steep hill at 200W power and so the stationary bike was clearly out of order.
I quickly stopped and moved onto the next Wattbike – I would have hated to put in a whole hour of training and then end up underestimating the amount of effort I put it and obviously the level of fatigue accumulated too. As I was going through the same motions of setting up, I noticed someone getting onto the faulty Wattbike and I quickly remarked to him that the bike was out of order. But just as I was settling down on the new bike, I looked again at the power output and got the shock of my life. Resistance was low, output was around 50W but again my legs were very hard at work. I could not believe what I saw. That was around August 2016.
For many weeks after that, my legs, especially the right one, became lazier and eventually I started to even take rests on the stationary bike. Post-workout stats indicated that I did not actually have a fitness problem, but rather a power problem. My output matched my heart rate but I could not understand why I was not able to engage higher heart rates. Around the same time I realized on my runs that I needed to take constant rests during a 10km morning run, something that had never happened before. But for many weeks I believed that this was a passing phase and that I will eventually get my fitness back.
I did the 3 Towers MTB Stage race in late September – literally finishing at the back and in many instances, getting a push from my partner on steep climbs because I was too slow. A week before the 94.7 Cycle Challenge I did an afternoon run and the intervals at which I had to stop were a lot more frequent than before and worst of all, a walk was no longer sufficient to recover. I literally had to get to a complete stop to calm my calves and Achilles down. At the 94.7 Cycle Challenge I started a little after 7am – I had a fairly good seeding from MTB races the previous year – but cyclists would ride past me and then pass nasty comments about my legs not having showed up. It was humiliating but also physically painful. Nevertheless I managed to pick up some pace and completed 4:44, average heart rate of 136bpm - I hardly raced. On the surface this does not look like gross underperformance but for the effort that I put in, it was very discouraging.
Since my performance was noticeable only at high BPMs, I thought an expedition up Mount Aconcagua in Argentina would be ok. But even at the time. The first hour of the climb was always the hardest – and although the biggest factor for not reaching the summit was weather, I think I would have had a better chance to withstand the impact of the weather if I was at top form in terms of output from the legs.
Then in February 2017 I participated in a trail run in Grabouw, Cape Town that saw me ending the race in tears because for the first time I admitted that something was awfully wrong and that the problem was not only persistent, but it was getting worse. After that run I saw the writing on the wall, in big bold letters, and I could not ignore it anymore. That same week, in early March 2017, I made an appointment with a Sports Medic, marking the start of my long mission to get to the bottom of my leg problem.