Sarah Gardner (left) and Katherine Ross (right) ride the infamous Cape to Cape MTB race
Last month amateur endurance enthusiasts Katherine Ross and Sarah Gardner teamed up to ride Western Australia’s epic Cape to Cape mountain bike race. In addition to testing their limits and having type 2 fun, their aim was to raise awareness and funds for multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition both women have, where the immune system attacks the brain and nerves.
Racing as the team MSisters, Kat and Sarah took on the four-day, multi-stage mountain bike event, which includes an accumulated distance of 169km and a total elevation gain of 3167m. I grabbed the women (virtually!) for a Q&A about their epic achievements and how the Cape to Cape went down. And if you need further inspiration, check out this piece Kat wrote for me a few years ago about training and competing in multisport after a multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
Let’s rewind. Sarah, you were diagnosed with MS two years ago. What were your symptoms, and how did they affect your life?
I ruptured my right Achilles tendon while skiing, and then 6 weeks later developed neurological symptoms – horrific double vision where I couldn’t see past my fingertips, loss of function in my right arm and hand, and abdominal spasms that felt like I’d done 1000 sit-ups on one side of my body. Because of the way this presented, I was admitted to hospital to rule out a stroke or blood clot that could have been caused by the Achilles rupture but came out with an MS diagnosis instead.
The worst part was sitting in a hospital bed, going through all the tests and scans without a diagnosis or medication to treat my symptoms. I had a 4-day gap between my head MRI (where they told me I had lesions on my brain) and spinal MRI (when they could finally give me a diagnosis). It was the longest four days of my life, and I went to some horribly dark, scary places, thinking about the worst-case scenarios and fretting about what my life would look like going forwards.
At this point, I resolved that whatever the diagnosis was, I wanted to continue to enjoy my life and not waste any opportunities. Now, I prioritise health more than I did before, not that I was unhealthy, but how I dealt with things such as mental stress and anxiety was to physically stress my body, which I’ve since learnt is not the best way to handle things. So I prioritise rest and sleep more, reduce adrenaline/high stress driven behaviour and do more relaxing things. I listen to what my body needs, rather than “pushing through” or ignoring it.
Kat, your MS diagnosis was in 2017, and you’ve continued to compete in endurance sports. What symptoms do you manage daily, and how do they affect your training and racing?
My symptoms wax and wane (which is normal for MS), usually correlating to how well I’m taking care of myself. It is the ultimate reminder – if I’m stressed, tired, or not eating well, my symptoms increase. If I’m having a good day, I’ll just have sensation disturbances – numb sections of my feet, hands, calf, etc. On my tougher days, it might look like a foot drag/drop on one side or reduced reaction and function in a hand/arm. This means that when I’m training/racing, I need to take extra care to brake early on the bike or really lift my foot when off-road running to avoid falling and hurting myself. I’ve tripped headlong over more rocks while running than I would like to admit! The great thing about exercise is that it stimulates and promotes all the neural pathways – so by continuing to compete, I am making myself better, which is a very powerful motivator.
Tell us how you came to ride the Cape to Cape together?
Sarah –- A few months after receiving treatment for my initial MS flare and whilst progressing nicely in my rehab, I was dying to get back into sports, but I was so scared to push my body in case I caused a relapse. I think I’d read somewhere that relapses can be caused by ‘periods of physical or emotional stress’, and this just sat in the back of my mind, restricting me from doing things I loved. Going from being a person who thrived on seeing how far they could push themselves physically to being scared to even do a very low-intensity exercise was a huge psychological challenge for me.
I did a Google search to see if I could find anyone with MS doing the things that I loved to do, and I came across your original article on Kat. Everything Kat talked about was exactly what I was thinking, feeling, and going through at that time, plus the fact she’s also from New Zealand really made it feel relatable to me. So I messaged her to say, “Thanks for sharing your story, it really helped me”, and that was the start of our friendship. We quickly realised that we are very similar but also complement each other well. This made the decision to do the Cape to Cape pairs event together easy because we attack things in similar ways, are both pretty driven, focused and determined and have the same funny warped sense of humour.
Kat, you completed the Cape to Cape solo in 2018. Can you share what makes this event so tough?
Any big mountain bike race is tough, but multi-day events add another layer of complexity. Your training, pacing, nutrition and recovery strategies all have to account for getting up again the next day in good enough form to enjoy yourself. If you slack off on any of those elements, it’s going to hurt. This event specifically has a great range of terrain, so you’re always going to have bits you love and bits you find really hard – and then when you add a partner into the mixture, you might not even be keen on the same parts! Then there’s all the usual things – weather, clothing, mechanical issues, a field of 1100 other riders… it’s a challenge to be proud of completing.
Sarah, you didn’t have any MTB racing experience before signing up. What did your training and preparation look like?
Once I’d completed my Achilles rehab, I started working with a multisport coach, who took this nervous rookie cyclist under her wing and helped me gradually increase the load, intensity and time on the bike. I discovered along the way that the sports that I was previously attracted to, such as CrossFit and working out at high intensity, fuelled by adrenaline, no longer seemed to agree with me (the rapid increase in body temperature makes my hands tingle). Whereas I can do endurance activities such as swimming, running and cycling and sit in a threshold zone for hours and not have any symptoms.
Most of my training leading up to the event involved:
- 3 sessions a week on a bike trainer (intervals, cadence work, leg strength).
- 3 sessions a week of weights (working on balance and coordination as well as upper body strength).
- Running and a long MTB ride on the weekends.
Being based in NZ means we can MTB pretty much all year round, which is a big advantage. Otherwise, it was really just hours on the bike and learning how to fuel and eat for long endurance rides.
What were the high points of this race for both of you?
Sarah –- My high points were getting to finally ride with Kat because it seemed like we had been training for the event and talking about it forever. To see her dominate some of the hills when literally everyone else was walking and she pedalled her way up to the top was so awesome, and I was so proud of her. For myself, just to complete the event without any injuries, MS-related issues or bike/mechanical issues, when by day four I was feeling both physically and mentally exhausted, was an absolute blessing. It was also proof to myself that I could do these sorts of things and be fine; that MS is not a limitation in my life, it’s just something I have to consider and manage.
Kat –- Seeing Sarah go through all the mental aspects of the race – as a first-timer and MSer – was super rewarding to me. I went through all the highs and lows on my own the first time I did this event, proving to myself that I could do it, and it gave me goosebumps to watch her go through it all and come out with the same euphoria and pride. It was also personally very reassuring to do it again and feel that I was stronger and fitter than the last time – I felt great, reiterating the value of all the day-to-day work we do to keep well.
What was your fuelling strategy for the event?
Sarah –- Thankfully, the food between NZ and Australia doesn’t vary too much, so I could maintain a pretty normal day-to-day diet when travelling, which is one of the hardest things when doing anything overseas. I did bring my race day supplements/gels and bars from home to stay consistent with what I had been used to training with. I used Tailwind in my Camelbak to get my carbs and electrolytes and then supplemented with bars on the longer days or when I needed something extra.
Kat – The golden rule of ‘nothing new on race day’ applies so strongly to multi-day events. You have to train for the fuelling and then be consistent for the whole event. Plain food at night-time, save the beers till the finish line and remember you’re fuelling for tomorrow as well as today. I knew from my training roughly how long each stage would take us and, therefore, what our calorie demands would be. I prefer liquid carbs (Maurten) to solid food for the more intense days, but I add real solid food (bananas) on longer days. We fuelled while riding most of the time and then coordinated our eating with bush wee stops when needed!
Racing back-to-back for four days is a big ask for anyone. What extra challenges does this present when competing with MS?
Sarah –- I can sometimes be affected by the heat or if my body temperature gets too high (makes my hands tingle), which can be an issue for lots of people with MS, so I made sure I dressed appropriately and had lots of hydration available during the race. I also often struggle with sleep, even when I’m exhausted, so making sure I stuck to my evening routine and prioritised it during race week, so I was rested and ready to go the next day was key.
Kat –- RECOVERY. Like Sarah, I also struggle with sleep, and my recovery from activity isn’t what it used to be. So we have to work harder than the average person to ensure we’re refuelling and recovering for the next day – and the day after that. As the fatigue accumulates across the days, our symptoms can increase, but being able to mentally set that aside and trust our bodies to do what we’re asking is a real and rewarding exercise.
You’ve both spoken about the lack of positive stories around active people with MS online. Is there an online community for MS athletes?
Sarah –- In NZ, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t anything for MS athletes specifically. The hardest part I have found about the whole journey is that those with MS who are doing well and living their lives often don’t talk about it; they just get on with it, which is fabulous. But for those who are struggling, it’s nice to hear about the people living well, especially if they are relatable, as it can make a huge difference in your outlook going forward.
Kat –- There is a little informal Facebook group that I am a part of called Running with MS, which is coordinated by a passionate runner with MS named Matt Knaggs – but that’s about it. It’s a question I’m asked a lot, and it has prompted a bit of discussion as to how we might be able to change that.
You were raising money for Kiss MS Goodbye. Tell us about this?
Kiss Goodbye to MS is the fundraising vehicle for MS Research Australia. They have set up a wonderful platform which collates the money from donations (tax-deductible) and funnels it directly to MS research. There are researchers looking at prevention, treatment, and cure elements – and not just pharmaceutical but nutritional and mental health treatment aspects too. We nearly doubled our fundraising goal with the generosity of friends and family, which was super humbling.
Now that you’ve finally met and raced together, is this the start of a great partnership?
Sarah — I think the race definitely cemented our friendship and is the start of a great partnership. We managed to figure out how we communicate and work best after day 1, so I would definitely do another race with Kat. We both have a few individual goals to achieve in the immediate future, but we’ve thrown around the idea of tackling the NZ Coast to Coast one day, which is a 2-day multisport race (Kayak, Run, Cycle) from the West coast to the East coast of the South Island. Either way, Kat has become one of my closest friends, and I’m sure we will have more epic adventures (and lots of laughs) together in the future.
Kat –- Absolutely! We work so well together and have had so much fun that I think it’s a given we’ll do more together. The nuance of racing in a team is something neither of us had experience in, so it’ll be fun to come up with more ideas!
Did you have any brand sponsors for your Cape to Cape?
Sarah –- None for me, but huge thanks to my coach, Carolyn Burmester (@caro_burmie), who helped get me across the line and has also played a pivotal role in my journey back into sports.
Kat –- We didn’t have any formal sponsorship, but my local bike shop Giant Ocean Keys (@giantoceankeys), has been fantastic with sourcing parts and gear for us and making sure our bikes were ready for the event. The race organisers were also super supportive of our story and goals and helped us get some extra media to get the message out – we’re very grateful for their enthusiasm!
To donate, visit: https://kissgoodbyetoms.org/fundraiser/the-msisters/.