Health & Fitness

Cycling Across Canada For Crohn’s

With a backpack full of bear repellant, Michelle Brideau is biking nearly 3,000 miles while dealing with a chronic condition.

Michelle Brideau begins every morning the same way. A cup of hot coffee brewed in an Aeropress, a backpack filled with clothes, food, and a sleeping mat secured onto her back, and the sounds and sights of the Canadian wilderness in her view. As she cycles across Canada, Michelle’s partner, Nathan, is her sole companion, minus the stray campers and cyclists they meet along their way.

Michelle, a native Canadian, mapped out a journey to cycle from Vancouver to Halifax over the course of 70 days this summer. When she and her partner began their cycling journey, Michelle left London, her home of the last decade, behind her. On average, Michelle cycles more than 60 miles per day, with her journey between Canada’s coasts clocking in at 4,200 miles total. But for Michelle, cycling across Canada is about more than the numbers. As she puts it, cycling isquite literallyher medicine.

Michelle is one of the 1.4 million people who live with an inflammatory bowel disease. Specifically, Michelle lives with Crohn’s, a lifelong condition that has no cure, only treatments. Crohn’s is an inflammatory disease that attacks the lining of one’s digestive systems. For people who battle Crohn’s, “trigger” foods can vary by the day — and even by the hour. With the support of her doctor, Michelle does what any “normal” person would do, in spite of a disease that can be, at its worst, debilitating.

michelle_crohns_mountains

Michelle Brideau against a picturesque mountain backdrop.

As a woman living with Crohn’s, Michelle knows to never take a healthy day for granted. Cycling serves as more than just a means to an end for Michelle to appreciate her body and push herself, however; as she explains, cycling literally combats her Crohn’s symptoms and keeps flare ups at bay. It’s taken years of trial and error for her Crohn’s symptoms to recognize cycling as her preferred treatment, though.

Physical pain aside, Michelle and fellow Crohn’s sufferers know that one of the most frustrating aspects of life with Crohn’s is the degree of misinformation people have about the illness. A major misconception about Crohn’s, Michelle explains, is that there are certain “good” and “bad” foods that will either trigger symptoms or won’t. This misconception sometimes leads people to believe that those who suffer from Crohn’s can simply “eat right” or “be more careful” and alleviate their symptoms. As patients with irritable bowel diseases know, however, this could not be further from the truth.

For Michelle, the dietary restrictions are far from clear cut. “There are some days I can eat,” she says, “and some days I can’t.” Facing this side effect of her Crohn’s, Michelle explains, helped prepare her for the seemingly insatiable hunger and fatigue that come with long-distance cycling.

“There are some days I can eat,” she says, “and some days I can’t.”

Like other autoimmune disorders, Crohn’s can develop at any point in a person’s life. Many people who suffer from Crohn’s are diagnosed under the age of 30, and Michelle, who was diagnosed at age 25, is no exception. With a diagnosis, Michelle finally had an explanation for her painful symptoms, but no easy answers on how to live the “right way” with Crohn’s. It would be over a decade, in fact, until Michelle would find her preferred treatment: cycling.

Years after her diagnosis, when Michelle was 36, doctors removed eight centimeters of her small intestine at the ileum, including her appendix, and Michelle realized she’d been taking her health for granted. Her career as a web developer in London didn’t leave her a lot of time to exercise, so after recovering from her surgery, she decided to use what time she did have wisely. “Commuting the eight miles to work by bike seemed the best way to fit exercise into my daily routine,” she explains.

From there, the cycling bug bit Michelle in no small way. At the age of 39, with no background as a professional or competitive cyclist, Michelle purchased her first road bike. Alongside Nathan, who at that point had two years of cycling experience under his belt, Michelle cycled the 60 miles from Oxford to London. This trip, Michelle explains, is what tipped off her passion for long-distance riding.

Michelle is cycling across Canada for Crohn's disease.

Michelle is cycling across Canada for Crohn’s disease.

Seven short months later and Michelle found herself planning her greatest undertaking yet: Cycling from coast to coast of her home country, Canada. Planning a cross-country venture is rarely a simple task, but for Michelle, the challenges were ten-fold. Initially, Michelle considered completing the LEJOG, a common route cyclists use to journey through the United Kingdom. Eventually, she decided to journey where her heart told her to go: home. “I wanted to end in Halifax,” she explains. For Michelle, a Halifax native, completing her journey in her hometown means finishing with the direct support of her friends, family, and community.

Michelle and Nathan are self-supported cyclists, meaning they travel with only what is on their backs. That’s right: There are no companions traveling via car alongside them, or packages of extra clothes or supplies mailed ahead to the towns they’re arriving in. Traveling under such conditions would be exhausting for most anyone, but Michelle promises that her Crohn’s doesn’t make it any harder. In fact, she says, it motivates her.

“The mental aspect of cycling is as important as the physical,” Michelle explains. “If you put your mind to something, it’s amazing what you can do.” For Michelle, traditional medicines used to treat Crohn’s have little positive impact on her body. For this trip, Michelle packed some Bromelain, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly used to combat Crohn’s flare ups. Michelle used Bromelain off-and-on for about ten years, but says she has largely replaced her use of the drug with cycling, and hasn’t used it yet this trip.

While Crohn’s impacts each patient differently, Michelle feels that as her Crohn’s has become more aggressive, the Bromelain is less and less successful in easing her symptoms. Given that Michelle has to take “twice as much” of the Bromelain to counteract her inflammation, she says she is happy to replace the medicine with cycling instead. “If I don’t cycle for more than five days, I start to get symptoms,” Michelle explains.

Like many people with Crohn’s, Michelle’s experiences with the chronic disease have varied over the years. Her symptoms manifest differently as she ages, and her medical care and treatments vary, too. Sadly, when Michelle first sought medical attention for Crohn’s-related symptoms at the age of twenty, her experience was crushing and, temporarily, silencing.

Michelle and her riding partner, Nathan.

Michelle and her riding partner, Nathan.

Michelle remembers her then-specialist, a doctor she had never met before, conducting an anal exam that left her embarrassed enough to never return to his office. She explains that these exams give her little pause now because she is so used to them, but that at “such a young age, with a doctor I’d never met before I was horrified.”

Like many people who suffer from invisible illnesses, Michelle left his office feeling that she wasn’t quite “sick enough” to necessitate seeking help again. With this mindset, Michelle waited until her symptoms worsened dramatically. “I just lived with my sensitive stomach for a few more years,” she admits, “until it got so bad it affected the quality of my life.”

Today, not much embarrasses Michelle. Now, she is happy to see a doctor she is much more comfortable with, a desirable dynamic for any patient, but especially one who has an incurable, life-long illness. Not only is Michelle comfortable with her current doctor, but they actually share a common love. Her doctor, Michelle notes, is also an avid cyclist, and is very supportive of Michelle’s love of biking.

While planning this trip, Michelle admits that she had a lot of fears. Physically, she anticipated body pains from the long hours spent on the bike, and mentally, she expected the strong headwinds to get her down. Two months of camping for a self-proclaimed city girl also brought about anxieties concerning the cold and wet climate typical to Canada’s forests. Still, Michelle swears that each day spent cycling feels like a gift, and even when she is cold and wet and tired, she is grateful for what her body continues to do.

Michelle’s backpack is always stocked with bear repellentjust in case.

One can’t camp in the Canadian wilderness without worrying at least a bit about bears, of course. That’s why Michelle’s backpack is always stocked with bear repellentjust in case. Luckily, Michelle and Nathan haven’t come into contact with any bears. They have, however, come into contact with wonderful support systems along the way.

“Other cyclists are really supportive of what we’re doing,” says Michelle. “I think most people are envious of being able to cycle every day.” While Michelle is no longer ashamed of having Crohn’s, she admits to having trepidations about identifying as someone who has a chronic illness. “Until I decided to do this ride for charity I’d been very private about having Crohn’s,” she explains. “I didn’t want to be discriminated against.”

Dousing her bike with ceremonial Pacific Ocean water.

Dousing her bike with ceremonial Pacific Ocean water.

Thankfully for Michelle, her job has been supportive and granted her three months of leave for her journey. Beyond gaining support from her colleagues, family, and friends, Michelle has also received support and encouragement from strangers. “Having been open about having it has lead me to become shocked how many people have this,” she explains. “It seems everyone knows someone.” In fact, Michelle even met a fellow cyclist who rides with Crohn’s, though she was traveling in the opposite direction.

Michelle and Nathan are raising money for Crohn’s research as they bike across Canada. But for Michelle, cycling for Crohn’s is about more than just the numbers, whether they exist as dollars raised or miles covered. For Michelle, cycling functions as medicine, for both her mind and her body. Long-distance cycling is anything but easy, but for Michelle, it’s the perfect treatment for her incurable disease. And what better place to go to heal yourself than home?