Markella Mildenberger was fit and active before a routine surgery went wrong in 2011, affecting her ability to walk and leaving her with chronic pain. Life, as she knew it, changed forever and for the next five years, she watched her world unravel. The turning point came in 2016 when Markella learned that her pain was permanent, and she made the decision to start ‘living life again’.
Three years later, whilst looking for a new challenge, and with no mountain bike experience (but a huge amount of pain just sitting on the saddle), Markella, a mountain bike newbie, signed up for one of the world’s most gruelling multi-day MTB events, the BC Bike Race in British Columbia – 7 days, 300km and 10,000m of elevation along some of the sport’s most technical trails – and made a film of her experience: “It’s Just Like Riding A Bike”.
Ahead of the UK premiere on Monday 16 March, which kicks off a week of adventure, wildlife and environmental films at the annual Four Seasons Film Festival, I caught up Markella via email to hear more about her experience.
Tell me how your life changed when you had routine surgery in 2011?
That’s a loaded question! The surgery was a standard procedure that took place in the pelvic area and resulted in damage in my left leg, groin and buttocks area – from the surgery. I know, crazy!
At the time, I was 28, I had been training for a marathon, I was a fit young mother of two and very much a ‘type A’ person. In the blink of an eye, when I awoke from my surgery, that was all gone. I went from walking and running everywhere to dragging my left leg, limping, and in a state of constant pain.
I could no longer carry my kids, who were quite young at the time, and as you can imagine, everything began to unravel. Friendships and relationships were strained, I became withdrawn and depressed and eventually, my marriage fell apart. I couldn’t move the way I used to, I could only walk [for] a few minutes and the pain was unbearable, so I sported a heavy limp to compensate. I couldn’t sleep or sit on my left side (and still can’t) and day-to-day activities became a challenge.
What was the turning point for you after all of this?
In 2015/2016, my injury was diagnosed as permanent. I was told that it would never really get better, BUT I was told that it was also stable, so it wasn’t going to get any worse. It was then that I made the conscious decision to live again, despite all the losses that I’d had until that point. I was tired of watching my life fall apart, I was tired of the pain, but mostly, I was tired of waiting for a solution that would never come. I was angry and then needed to learn how to move past that into grieving and then into acceptance.
I started by climbing Grouse Mountain in Vancouver’s North Shore, a torturous hike known to locals as Mother Nature’s Stairmaster. I forced myself up that mountain and that was really the start of my accepting that ‘this’ was my life. I had to learn how to move through it in spite of pain and injury. I had to push to see how far I could go…
What pain do you still have now, and is it true you only started walking properly a few years ago?
So, I live in chronic pain. In the past it was debilitating, and as a natural mechanism, we humans retreat. If it hurts, we stop using it. We tense up and try to protect ourselves from more pain – that’s our lizard brain, our fight-or-flight response. My injury happened in my pelvis as a result of a TVTO surgery gone awry, so I experienced – and still do, just on a different level – pain in my groin and buttocks; sort of like a rainbow band from the inner groin all the way around the left glute. So as you can imagine, sitting on the saddle of a bike is incredibly painful.
I became a full-fledged ‘walker’ without my heavy limping and dragging my leg, and only with minor limping here and there, around 2016, give or take.
Where did the idea to enter the BC Bike Race (BCBR) come from?
The BCBR itself was a suggestion from [mountain bike brand] Race Face. I had pitched a film idea to them and we discussed BCBR. The main goal of my film was to reach others who may be in a similar situation or feeling inadequate, who were suffering from an injury, mental health, chronic pain or disease – you know, real people.
My story is not unique. My story is one of millions like it, and the sooner we recognise that we truly are not alone, as cliché as that sounds, we invite a support system in and we can heal in ways we never thought possible. We are also all only temporarily able-bodied. There will come a time, through age, injury and illness etc where we will not be in the optimal health we once were; that is life. It’s not to say we can’t strive for that – we can be in optimal health and physique with a disability or illness, or with age or with pain.
When had you last ridden a bike?
I had never ridden in the mountains ever and the last time I rode for any length of time was when I was a young teenager back in the prairies. I rode a bike for an hour down the Seawall with my kids the year before, but hardly a ride. I had literally no skill.
From signing up, how long did you have to train before the race?
I would never suggest that someone go into anything blind. Despite me being a rookie at nearly everything I attempt, I have base fitness. I had 2.5 weeks to train before the race. But I only received my race bike the week prior to the race.
You were coached by (cyclocross racer) Courtenay McFadden. What did your training involve?
I had a decent base fitness – I strength train as often as I can and work through my pain this way, so not only was this beneficial to me, but I also know how to deal with pain for extended periods. Courtney McFadden and I live 3 hours across the border from each other so we had a ton of emails and texts. We focused on just me getting time in the saddle – I had to prepare to know how this would feel with my injury and how to navigate this. It was about finishing, not kicking ass.
What learning curves did you experience while preparing on the mountain bike?
Everything. Technical skill downhill was really difficult – so much of mountain bike riding is technique. I can build for endurance, learn to manage pain, but technique comes with time and training – neither of which I had. I also struggled with balance; not understanding how my injury would make me want to shift to the right. There were a ton of epic wipeouts.
How did you feel going into the race?
I was nervous! When I saw all the other riders, I started to question why in the world I thought I could do this. It also didn’t help that literally every person who spoke to me, would ask about my riding ability and then express total fear at my racing this race. It was then that I got a better idea of just how extreme this race was.
How did you feel after day one of the BCBR?
I was freakin’ scared! We rode two mountains that day. It took everything out of me and I learned a lot too. I had some major crashes and as the day wore on, I had to keep my self-talk positive. When I crossed the finish line with a bunch of others in my wave, I realised I had one day done. I was committed to finishing.
Which was the toughest day?
Day 5. It was a big day: 57.8km and 1600-1800m of elevation. The culmination of 4 days of new injuries sustained, long riding days, adrenalin, poor sleep and filming all caught me. I woke to rain that morning and was exhausted. At that stage, I had so many bruises I was a sideshow and I had lost the full function of my hands from tight gripping, although my skill level increased – baptism by fire.
Did you ever feel like quitting?
I didn’t feel like quitting so much as I got really angry a few times. There were just some things that I could not do, either because of technical ability and little training or because of my injury. Those feelings led me to feel inadequate and question why I thought I deserved to be there and why did I think I could do this?
To get through, I just imagined myself not finishing and the feelings that would follow… I had to accept where I was physically out of my capabilities and walk those spots and adapt, the same way I do in everyday life. I hadn’t felt proud of myself in a very, very long time and I wanted to know that feeling would come from putting in every last drop and finishing. So, I’d pick myself up, allow myself a cry, or a moment, and then move on.
What were the high points of your experience?
Every day crossing finish lines was a celebration. Day 5 was an 8:34-hour day of riding, so that was especially incredible. I loved the people who were in the last wave with me, and the ones who weren’t would wait to watch me cross the finish line every day. I have never been more encouraged in my life.
And finally, all the people I met – lifelong friendships have been forged in that week. We shared bruises, injuries, tears, and stories.
Did you learn anything about yourself from your BCBR experience?
So much. I really don’t have any ‘quit’ in me and will always get up. I surprised myself with how positive I remained every time I was picking myself up. Outside of the physical stuff – I had been relatively closed off to inviting people into my life since my injury – I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, but also didn’t want to hold people back or feel ashamed that while I look ‘normal’ I still struggle with multiple things from my injury. But, then came the race and the more open I was to discussing my struggles, I was met with incredible individuals who shared their own stories with me.
All the reasons for my wanting to make this film were reinforced by the people I had met and the stories we all shared. I learned how important it is to take up space and to invite others in. As a result, some incredible friendships were formed.
Are you tempted to do any more bike races?
Oh, 100%. I really want to see what I am capable of with training and new techniques I’m using to work through pain. I’ve had a few races reach out and some recommended – the Merritt Crown, The Tour Divide (possibly another film with some epic humans). Currently, I’m training for Ironman 70.3 in Calgary this summer.
What kit did you find indispensable?
Race Face had me decked out – the mesh jersey for me was a godsend; I overheat and swell so I needed that extra breathability. I also lived in my chamois, as we all did.
Were you sponsored by anyone?
Yes, Race Face / Fox.
You can follow Markella via her social media: www.instagram.com/markella_markella_
Book your tickets to see the London Premiere of “It’s Just Like Riding A Bike” at Four Seasons Film Festival on Monday 16th March, screening alongside the London Premiere of “Dream Big” and “Return to Earth” in a special triple bill screening.
Watch the trailer for It’s Just Like Riding A Bike here.