A few weeks ago, I saw an amazing lady posting in a Facebook group about using Zwift as part of her rehab from a traumatic brain injury. I found her story incredibly inspiring, and it made me feel more comfortable about sharing more of my own.

For those who do not know, Zwift is an immensely popular internet cycling app which allows members to train and race in a virtual world, all whilst sitting on their own bike in the safety of their home. Once a rather boring activity which in no way replicated the buzz of riding outside, the gamification and realism as the Zwift platform has evolved, means that it now draws in an incredible number of riders from around the world (when I checked just now, there were nearly 6,500 riders simultaneously using the platform!).

An unlikely athlete

If you hear my medical history, you probably will not expect me to describe myself as an athlete. Born with congenital heart defects, I have now had three open heart surgeries, a 2016 stroke which took all usable vision from my left eye, and then, just a year later, I got a life-threatening infection in my prosthetic heart valve. Things quickly got serious and I was transferred in an ambulance across the country to a different hospital, had emergency surgery and was then hospitalised for many months whilst receiving antibiotics. It has been a slow process of recovery ever since.

Me on zwift

Yet even with that background, I have always been drawn to physical pursuits. I absolutely love pushing my body and have a deep desire to find my physical limitations – and then to exceed them! I spent much of my 20s and 30s as a competitive triathlete, moving from short to long course racing and beyond. I was far from an elite level, but good enough to place well in local races as I honed my skills over many years. Swim-bike-run is my passion, but these days you are equally likely to find me hiking, sailing, kayaking, climbing, paddleboarding or some other activity which involves moving my body.

The last few years have been a mental as much as a physical challenge. My post-endocarditis recovery was slow, and I have not been able to regain the ability I previously had. Ongoing health challenges mean that I have felt my identity as an athlete slipping away, and it has forced me to question who I am without that form of expression. I have certainly experienced all the stages of grief, from denial, anger, and depression to ultimately acceptance. 

Living life to the full

That fear of further loss and decline is what motivates me to grab every opportunity which comes my way. There is that choice between listening to the ‘what if…’ voices in my head, which tell of bad outcomes and further suffering if I continue to push myself, versus the desire not to let my health define who and what I become. It is not an easy path to tread, and I have utter sympathy with people who withdraw and seek an easier life. Thankfully, that just isn’t in my character!

At this point I am facing yet another valve replacement (scheduled pre-Covid-19 but now on hold) and I am fighting against an increasing deterioration in my fitness levels and symptoms. The damage to the right side of my heart, which pumps blood to my lungs, is now such that I do an excellent impersonation of a heavy breather on a dirty phone line whenever I push myself with speed or incline. My desire in staying fit using Zwift is very much to slow the decline in my FTP rather than hope to boost it!

Worse still, my electrical circuitry has developed a random glitch, meaning that at any moment my heart rate can randomly take off to a level unrelated to my effort. It is impossible to know if an ‘episode’ will last three minutes or three hours. It is the unpredictability which is most frustrating; I can go days without an issue and then be struck down in the middle of a group ride. I then have to cope with what feels like a floppy wet fish in my chest and an inability to push more than minimal watts. It is often impossible for me to keep up. Medication makes the problem less frequent but does not entirely solve it, plus the side-effects have a negative effect on my ability to ride my bike or function at all. Given this is an annoyance and not a life-threatening problem, with the agreement of my consultant I try to go without.

Finding hope

Yet this is not a story about what cannot be done, but instead what can!

When I first joined Zwift on March 20, a few days prior to the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK, I had little idea what an important piece of my life it would become. It has become my sanctuary; a place where I go almost every day to work away my worries, drive out the stress and build some normality and structure into this seemingly topsy turvy world.

Although regularly working out has always been important to me, I will admit that over the last 12-months my gym routine had become stagnant and I was somewhat going through the  motions. Recognising that lockdown was going to remove a big aspect of my physical outlet – I am in the high risk group so have to be even more careful to avoid exposure – I took the leap and bought a Wahoo Kickr and a giant fan. The front room of my tiny Cornish cottage is now dominated by my Zwifting setup, much to the surprise of the occasional visitors who have not heard of my addiction.

What I expected to be a temporary interest to pass the time until I could get back to the gym, has turned into a revelation. My fitness and confidence in my body have been rebuilt, and I now think little of riding for several hours every day and covering 1000+ miles each month.

Zwift as a leveller

Sport, and Zwift in particular, can be an incredible leveller. It matters little your age, gender, fitness level, location, income, or what other s**t you might have going on in your life at the time. We can all come together and just ride our bikes. Most people on Zwift are just are simply seeking improvements in their health and fitness, whilst wanting to challenge themselves in a safe environment. Sure, there are those who use it predominantly to race and be highly competitive, but they are seemingly in the minority. For most riders, it is a fun place to chase that PR, get a route badge, or, most importantly, ride with their friends.

In the five-months I have now been Zwifting, I have found myself feeling part of an incredible community. It is welcoming. It is supportive. It encourages me to show up and turn the pedals, even when I don’t feel like it. But most of all, it is a place where my health problems generally don’t matter.

Since my 2016 stroke, I had honestly started to think that my days of enjoying cycling were over. Being blind in one eye means I am unable to accurately judge distance, plus I have no peripheral vision on the left. Transitions between light and shade bother me even more, and there is the ever-present fear of something flying into my ‘good eye’ and rendering me temporarily blind. None of these things bother me on Zwift, although I do wish that I had a bigger screen so I could more clearly see what was going on!

A sense of community

You might anticipate that riding solo at home would remove the social aspect of cycling, but that is not the case. The inbuilt messaging system in the companion app makes it super easy to have on-screen conversations. Better still, loading the Discord App even allows for real time voice chats, much as if you were riding alongside each other. The detailed in-game scenery may not be quite as fulfilling as some real-life rides, but I don’t have to contend with traffic, potholes, traffic lights or inconsiderate drivers!

I was initially reluctant to join any group rides on Zwift, thinking I was bound to be the weakest link and that would further dent my self-confidence. I could not have been more wrong. With so many different groups riding at various paces, it is always possible to find something appropriate to my ability.  I have never been judged for being slow, and even when I am having a difficult day, I can get on Zwift and enjoy the sense of encouragement and camaraderie.   

I have found myself looking forward to my regular rides with specific groups, especially the inclusive ladies of AHDRL and the amazingly supportive folks of The Herd – mooooo 😊. I have also discovered a growing community of fellow Cardiac Athletes who ride regularly on Zwift, despite similarly living with a wide variety of heart conditions. Do check out their FB group of the same name if your own medical history entitles you to belong.  It turns out that I am far from alone in my desire not to let heart issues define what I can achieve!

A huge goal achieved

On August 16 I achieved something I have been working towards for many months – the double achievement of the Tron bike for completing the Everest Challenge with its 50,000m of climbing, followed by my final route badge with the PRL Full. It was long. I was slow. But I got there! I would never have guessed when I first set-up my trainer, that I would be feeling like I do today. My fitness levels, although not low before, have undoubtedly increased. My endurance in particular has skyrocketed and three to four-hour rides seem surprisingly normal, with seven or eight not out of the question. I have not been able to say that for almost 20-years!  

Living with a chronic illness can often seem like a relentless process of loss – physical capacity, employment prospects, friendships, hopes and dreams – yet Zwift is somewhere I feel like I can be myself. It cannot make my handicaps disappear, but at least for the time I am on the bike, it can make them matter less. For those precious hours on the bike, I have a new persona which is largely unfettered by my health or fears for the future. I am not ‘Beth with a heart condition’, but simply ‘Beth the athlete’ doing my best with life cards I have drawn. The same can be said for everyone else I am riding with!

Not defined by my diagnosis!

Following my first open surgery when I was a child, I used to wonder if I would be forever defined as a sick person, someone less capable, or that my life would be forever impacted by that strange twist of fate which saw me being born with a ‘dicky ticker’. Perhaps avoidance of that label is what has constantly driven me to so to be so determined when it comes to finding, and then pushing through, my physical boundaries.

I certainly hoped that Zwift would temporarily fill a void in my life during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has proven to be a whole lot more. It has given me the opportunity to express myself physically, and in so doing to challenge other people’s perceptions (and to a degree my own) of what it means to be an athlete living with a chronic health condition.

Overcoming adversity

I have never wanted to be a poster child for overcoming adversity, but maybe someone else on the Zwift platform will see the ‘cardiac athletes’ after my name, look at my profiles or Strava account, and wonder if they could also do or be more. Nothing makes me happier than helping someone else to exceed their physical limitations when the odds are not stacked in their favour. I have spent most of my working life as a personal trainer, and over the last 10 years have worked predominantly in medical rehab. I have had the honour to work with hundreds of people both in person and online who are similarly determined that their medical history will not define them. That feels like a very worthwhile legacy.

Interestingly, over the last five months, a good number of Zwifters have reached out to me to share their own stories, from people still cycling with orthopaedic, pulmonary, cardiac or metabolic conditions, to those who are coping with mental illness to physical disabilities. The reality is that you may never know the story behind that avatar on the screen beside you. We are simply people united in a love of the bike, the joy of physical expression and a desire to make every day count!

PS – I would love to connect with more people who enjoy Zwift, especially those living with chronic health conditions of any type. Feel free to follow me and I will return the favour – Beth Greenaway (Cardiac Athletes) – or similarly find me on Strava, or any of the other social media platforms. If you prefer, share your story via DM or email beth@UpbeatWarrior.com