This is the third and final part in Johnny’s story (refresh part 1 & part 2). As you’ll see, his journey isn’t over yet – there’s no quick fix to repair the damage – but now that he’s applying the same determination to wellness in partnership with performance as he did to weight loss, he’s on the right track and always on the improve (though no doubt at times it feels like 2 steps forward, 1 step back).
Johnny and his wife were in Rotorua over the long weekend, both racing Whaka 100. It was great to meet them in person, and see them both cross the finish line of what is unchallenged as NZ’s toughest MTB race.
Johnny’s experience is certainly near the extreme end of REDS, but by sharing such a personal story so openly the hope is that others won’t slide so far down the slippery slope. If you do recognise yourself or someone you know, get in touch – with me, with Johnny, or with a health professional. Health should never suffer in the pursuit for performance.
I JUST WANT TO BE NORMAL
In the final part of this blog I explain the journey I have been on and the road for recovery. The specialist first said to me it could take up to 2-3 years to be back to normal, which I thought was a load of rubbish, but to date I have been proven wrong… Again.
Monday 9th March 2015 – ?
This was the day I wish and hope will never happen again, to me or anyone else. It was my wife’s first day at her new job which she was nervous but excited about. It was 2 days after not racing Motutapu and I still had very little sleep if any.
The Monday morning I just starting crying to the extent I could barely control myself. I knew this was the first day I would be alone again with my wife no longer around. The previous few months I had hidden my feelings from her as I needed to stay strong while she dealt with her career change and new possible beginnings.
The sun rose and by now I fully realised I couldn’t cope anymore. I didn’t like me or the person staring back at me. I needed help. My wife came into my bedroom to see me in a mess. With tears streaming from my face and hers I said to her these words – I JUST WANT TO BE NORMAL.
It had been so long now I could not remember what normal was. Just about zero testosterone, night after night of barely any sleep, cortisol levels were out of control, night sweats, uncontrollable emotions and feelings, lack of any empathy, confusion and stress, impaired judgment, to name the worst and to add to that list I was now convinced I had depression.
That day I rung the doctor and went in immediately to bare all to her. First off we made a plan. Tackle my now addiction to weight loss via improving nutrient uptake then see the specialist to figure out what to do with my testosterone and finally the depression.
I had seen a few nutritionists in the past and felt who I was working with didn’t understand the cyclist mentality, the importance of weight power ratios etc and the practicality of endurance nutrition on the bike so they never came to much.
I was sent later to a specialist sports nutritionist who also was a previous endurance cyclist so my hopes were up that she would understand. We had a few meetings and her conclusion was I was suffering from “Female athlete triad”. But hang on I said, I’m a male! The other term which hadn’t really been talked about was the term REDS – Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.
To date very little research had been done on male athletes. At the time I thought my god she was crazy until she showed me the chart they used for related symptoms. I had all of them on the list. I left feeling a little upset as if I was I made out to be stupid for this to happen to me and with the depression added in this was only another kick while I was down.
I decided I needed to sort the other two problems first and at least get myself feeling kind of normal so I could make the correct changes going forward.
Next stop was back to the specialist to evaluate what to do with my lack of testosterone. Between the specialist and my doctor the decision was put to me to take a testosterone booster to see what the effect it would have on my mood and feeling etc. I was not happy at all with doing this at first as we all have heard about the Lance Armstrong story and testosterone doping but in order for me to move forward it needed to be done. The decision was made by the doctors to inject me immediately the next day.
The injection would last 4 weeks before being completely out of my system. I came to the terms of it and was happy to proceed as the race I had been training for all year was the Naseby 12hr solo and by the time the race was to be on it would be no advantage to me on race day.
It was made very clear that for me to improve my testosterone levels back to normal male level of 25nmol that this could only be done naturally and over time with reduced stress, training and improving fat percentage. The injection was artificial and only a temporary measure to gauge reaction. Even when tested again after 3 weeks my level was only 7.8nmol from my lowest reading of 0.3nmol so it didn’t really do as much as I thought it would.
The outcome of the injection was nothing really. I still felt depressed, and didn’t really notice anything different apart from a sore bum (you get injected in the bum).
Next part now came down to using anti-depressants and making lifestyle changes. Between the specialists we decided to work to a clear time frame so we decided to get the last few races of the season out of the way then start a program in June.
The week leading into the race was really calm for me. I had nothing to lose really, I couldn’t get any worse that what I was. In the back of my mind I had some small motivation going on from a few words the doc had said to me: “You do know that your are racing at probably around 80% only of your ability with no testosterone don’t you?”. With that in mind it was my goal to prove to myself that I could do it and do it well despite the odds.
I finished 2nd place overall after a tight battle for 1st place for most of the race. I will never forget getting off the bike after 12 hours to all of the friends and fellow racers congratulating me even though they had no idea what was going on.
I had a photo of me sitting in a chair with a friend of mine who also completed the race and I remember him saying – how was that? To my reply “what a bloody journey that was” he thought I was talking about the race but I was thinking about the past year!!!
To complete the season I then raced Hawea epic placing 7th and two weeks later won the Ashburton 6hr solo for the second time. June arrived and now it was time to start the journey of recovery.
Knowing that the symptoms of REDS was the main reason for my declining health we started first with depression pills which took a few weeks to work but my god my life went from dark to bright and I could for the first time see a future again. I reduced my training load in conjunction with my coach to a maximum of around 6hrs a week, started eating clean whole foods and increased good fats and proteins with 4-5 solid meals a day. Added a few specific vitamins to boost levels.
July arrived and I headed to America with my wife and a few friends for 4 weeks of fun trail riding which helped escape the bad daily habits of back home. This was huge for me as for the first time in ages I didn’t have a weight scale to fight with every morning. I just ate what I wanted, rode bikes and laughed with friends and lived life again. When I returned I tested again but this time 6.7nmol. I was stoked to see such an improvement so quickly. Once I returned home a new strict diet was put in place to increase body fat percentage but in a healthy state and the last part for me was finding me again.
First off was coming out about it and telling family and friends. Many still think I am strange and don’t understand it but for me getting it off my chest was a huge relief.
I started Pilates and found that super relaxing as well as some Mindfulness work for 1 hour a day. I even tried learning how to cook but the number one for me was reading.
I hadn’t read a full book in probably 20 years. First I read Tyler Hamilton’s book ‘The Secret Race’ and few more inspiring adventure racers. I learnt heaps from them and what they also had to endure in their careers. I read a lot of books about the mind and how to strengthen the mind which I found to be rather boring at times but the area I benefited the most was understanding food and nutrition – not only what’s good for you but more so the timing of when you need to be eating it. Hands down learning about the correct nutrients off the bike has been the best thing to date.
One of the first races back on the road to recovery was the Dean’s bank 10 hour solo. My testosterone level had increased to around 10.2nmol, I was back weighing in around 92kg and in a good state of mind.
This season my brother James was on board to help out on the side line. After 7 hours the leader and me had been within 30 seconds of each other all day.
On the 13th lap I rode past support and asked how far 3rd was behind as my body felt good but my vision kept on going strange for some reason. I heard 30 seconds and I thought oh shit…. I cant slow down now as I needed a half lap or so to sort out what was going on with the vision issue. I made the choice to push harder in the hope I could just push through it. Two km later my vision went completely blurry again and before I knew it I was out cold on the ground. I woke up with people around me making no sense and I was stumbling all over the show. I tried to get back on the bike but just fell off again. The race director was close by and pulled me out of the race.
At camp I arrived to my whole family being there. I was so embarrassed as the first time they showed up to a race of mine and I was out!!! But my wife nailed it and took a massive solo win. Oh the stories and banter that went around after that day!
I found out a few weeks later that the depression medication I was on was a completely new type and hadn’t been tested on athletes especially those that compete in endurance MTB races! A change of pills fixed that little hiccup….
I later went on to complete the Pioneer 2016 7-day stage race with a good friend of mine and had no problems at all and for the first time started to feel a little bit normal again. We finished 6th and the first NZ male pairing which was one of the best and fulfilling events I have ever done.
As of now in October 2016 I am still on medication, weight has stuck around the same of 92kgs, I am back sleeping in the same bed as my wife, sleep has returned but reproductive capacities haven’t. This is something I will need to battle with for a while longer and I still have hope it wont be lost for ever.
The good part is I have hit 14.9nmol in my testosterone score. Half way there now I am hoping I still can return to normal health at some stage.
If you have been reading this you may be asking yourself, why? Why would someone put them self through so much? The answer to that is never going to be that clear. What happened to me happened very fast within 3 months from being on edge to falling off the cliff. I purposely was trying to lose body weight and body fat to be as light as I could then aim to increase power to be the best possible me. I had a fair bit of misguidance mainly from my lack of knowledge and reading into media hype about the next quick fix.
There was a lot of signs well before then if I only was aware of these or had information such as REDS maybe things may have been different.
What I have taken away from this journey is this: We are all made very differently and what works for others may not work for you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to look or weigh a certain way to be successful. Stop comparing yourself to others and focus on what you can do to improve you. To take a catch phrase from a fellow athlete and coach, train “smarter not harder”, eat well, understand what to eat and when.
I would like all who is reading this to understand that me coming out about what has happened is not by any means about promoting me or for sympathy. Making the decision to discuss this has been hard for my wife and I but we both felt we could not stay in silence knowing that others out there could be going down the same track. My only request is to please not be afraid to talk to us about this and if you know of anyone that may be of concern then please guide them to a professional or to me. Please don’t treat me any differently. I am still Johnny but Johnny with a story to tell.
Remember this – “Let the body find you, not you find the body “
I am back racing again the best I can with the Whaka 100 first up on the list, and a few local fun races before myself and my new team- mate Mike Sangster tackle the big race of the season – Pioneer 2017.
I have a huge list of people I should thank for the help but there has been so many I would hate to miss any of you but a huge big ups to Lisa Morgan and Kim Hurst giving me the courage to prevail with this and to all of you have played a huge role in my recovery, you know who you are.
To my wife – This has been a huge journey and I cannot thank you enough for being by my side through thick and thin.
If you would like some more information on the topic of REDS then check out the link below. It’s a little long but bear with it as it’s very interesting to both male and female athletes.