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Monday, March 4, 2024

Woman Shows Her MS Who’s Boss by Completing 500 Mile Cycle Challenge in The Highlands

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Being diagnosed with an incurable condition would be life-changing for anyone, but one woman decided to use her multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis as an opportunity to make a positive change.

And now she’s completed a 516 mile (830km) cycle ride in the Highlands after losing more than 3 stone (20kg). 

Raquel Garzon Calderon, 43, who lives near the Braid Hills to the south of Edinburgh, was diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS in 2018.

Her first symptom was paralysis on the left side of her face.

Six months later she was told she had MS. 

MS damages the protective myelin coating around nerves in the body and makes it harder to do everyday things, like walk, talk, eat and think.

Although she still experiences pins and needles in her face and has limited movement on the left side of it, the main way Raquel’s MS affects her is cognitively.

Raquel, who is originally from Madrid in Spain, explained:

“I remember once I was working remotely and someone from work sent me a message.

“I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

“That message was in English but the same thing also happened in Spanish.

“My family would send me a message and I could not understand it.

“Now I cannot do that work because my brain is not working properly.

“Later I realised I was fatigued, and it was brain fog.

“I am still unemployed at the moment.

“Physically I’m ok, but cognitively I’m not so ok.”

By her own admission, Raquel had an unhealthy lifestyle when she received her MS diagnosis – but she decided to do something about it.

“So many things have changed my life,” she said.

“When I was diagnosed I didn’t have a very good diet.

“I smoked and I drank.

“I tried to eat a Mediterranean diet in the UK but it was not easy and I didn’t always choose the healthiest options.

“I wasn’t healthy.

“In 2020 I quit smoking and my partner and I both decided to change our diet.

“We stopped eating processed foods and started eating a lot of veggies, a lot of legumes, chickpeas, and protein.

“And we started doing calisthenics (a form of strength training primarily using bodyweight).

“We started doing exercise and going for a walk in the Edinburgh hills every day.

“From that I lost 20kg. 

“I still eat everything – I just ate a burger – but the thing is, if I eat a burger, I know I need to burn it.

“So I can eat everything, but I don’t eat everything every day.

“People who know me say: ‘This isn’t you Raquel, what happened?’

“It’s really surprising to them.

“But you know what? If I can do this, then anyone can.”

As part of their new healthy lifestyle, Raquel and her partner, Alejandro Dorado Martin, took up cycling.

They bought second-hand bikes and cheaper equipment so they could decide whether they enjoyed their new pastime before investing too much money in it.

After a few short trips they were hooked and last year they cycled part of the popular North Coast 500 route anticlockwise, missing out the most northerly section then heading to Fort William and travelling through Glen Coe and Glen Etive before arriving in Oban.

The couple decided to ride the full route this year, this time clockwise from Inverness.

Not only did Raquel want to raise funds for the MS Society, she also wanted to use the trip as an opportunity to raise awareness of MS and show people that it doesn’t have to stop you following your dreams.

Speaking from the road part-way through their trip, which began on Friday 2 June, she continued:

“This adventure poses a significant challenge for me.

“Fatigue is a constant struggle; it drains my energy, leaving me unable to think and turning me into a robot.

“At the beginning of the trip, we had a heatwave.

“It was so hot and, like many people with MS, the heat makes my symptoms worse.

“When we got further north the weather was windier and fresher I was doing a lot better.

“Alejandro sometimes has to explain to people what we’re doing because I’m too tired to talk. 

“Sometimes I try to speak to people and my brain doesn’t work so I need to focus.

“One day I couldn’t even say the word ‘sclerosis’!

“It takes me time to focus on what I’m doing with the bicycles too, which makes me slow.

“Sometimes, while cycling uphill, I make mistakes with the gears, setting them harder instead of softer due to confusion.

“It frustrates me, especially considering my cycling experience as a teenager.

“I have to think every time, I can’t trust my brain to shift gears subconsciously.

“We are wild camping and when we arrive to set up the tent we have to find a nice spot off the road, we need to think about where we’re going to sleep.

“Sometimes I can’t think and my partner has to make all the decisions.

“We set up the tent every day and sometimes I still forget how to do it.

“But when I’m cycling up a hill, and I’m finding it very hard, I feel like I can do it.

“Alejandro is really, really supportive.

“For him it’s a bit frustrating because he cycles up the hills really easily and I don’t.

“So he has to wait on the top of the hill and there is no trees, there is nothing, no shade, and it is sometimes boiling there.

“He cheers me up when he’s behind me.

“So yeah, he’s really supportive.

“I was looking forward to seeing everything.

“We really wanted to do the Applecross peninsula and we did that near the start so it’s done!

“We didn’t know a lot about northern Scotland so we didn’t know what was waiting for us.

“We knew it was going to be quite hilly though!”

And the thing she was definitely not looking forward to?

Encountering more midges!

She added:

“I would like there to be wind every time we stop so we don’t get midges.

“They are a nightmare!

“You can be in a lovely place, with a lovely sunset, but you cannot stay outside.

“We’ve tried three or four different sprays but they don’t work – I’ve been covered in bites all over my body!”

A sign on the back of Raquel’s bike even references the famous flies and reads:

‘MS Warrior: Laughing at midges, dancing in the rain and pedalling beyond.’ 

In addition to all their camping gear, clothes and other essential items, Raquel and Alejandro carried solar packs so they could charge their phones and cameras. 

To help keep Raquel’s MS symptoms under control the pair took regular breaks, cooked and ate “proper” nutritious food, and had frequent rest days, which they used to explore the areas they were passing through. 

Raquel has a Bachelor’s Degree in Animation from DJCAD (Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design), part of the University of Dundee, and an HND in 3D Animation from Edinburgh College.

She worked as a technical artist (rigging department) in animation, in television shows for children in Ireland and the UK, and in television in her native Spain.

Although her MS symptoms forced her to leave her last job, Raquel utilised her creative skills by documenting her trip via photos and short video clips, which she shared on Instagram.

She also plans to make a film of the trip once she’s home and recovered.

She said:

“During my research on the best camping equipment for bike touring, I have watched numerous YouTube videos of people travelling around the world or engaging in bike-packing adventures.

“These videos have motivated me to travel and learn about the equipment that could work best for me.

“In Spain, I studied photography and television and worked for a channel in Madrid, where I recorded news programs.

“I would love to share my story and discuss the challenges that a person with MS faces physically and mentally during such an undertaking.

“Additionally, I wish to record our adventure, showcasing the beauty of the Highlands, the benefits of eco-friendly travel, and sharing my personal experiences.

“I would create a video for YouTube, sharing my experiences and journey with MS to raise awareness and inspire others.

“Through my channel, I aim to provide valuable insights into living with MS, discuss strategies for overcoming obstacles, and promote sustainable travel.

“I am determined to pursue this goal, despite potential challenges, and believe that sharing my story will have a positive impact on others.

“I’m filming a lot but the problem is it’s hard to edit on the road because it takes so much time.

“I also need to use my mental energy for the cycling; I can’t always be thinking about putting things online.

“I also cannot film with my phone while I’m cycling.

“So I’m filming a lot on my GoPro but I can’t upload that to Instagram while we’re on the trip.

“The plan is to make a video when we get home.”

The pair, who wore orange and white MS Society-branded tops, met people along the way who have loved ones living with MS.

The partner of one man they spoke to even contacted Raquel via Instagram to tell her she was an inspiration.

They’ve also received donations from people they’ve spoken to on their journey.

Raquel added:

“A number of people have sent me messages but we’re so busy and I’m so tired, and we don’t always have phone signal, so I haven’t been able to reply to them all yet.”

Initially they planned to cycle from Inverness back to Edinburgh after completing the NC500 but their tent was damaged on their final overnight stop before reaching the Capital of the Highlands so their impressive journey ended there.

Posting on Instagram after their arrival in Inverness on Thursday (29 June), Raquel said:

“We did it! NC500 done! What a great experience thanks to my biggest supporter Alejandro.”

Morna Simpkins, Director of MS Society Scotland, said:

“We would like to say a huge thank you Raquel and Alejandro for completing this challenge and raising both funds for the MS Society and awareness of the condition.

“More than 15,000 people in Scotland live with MS.

“It is relentless, painful and disabling.

“It is also unpredictable and different for everyone.

“Supporters such as Raquel and Alejandro allow us to continue supporting the MS community today as well as giving hope for the future.

“They truly are MS Superstars!”

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