As a lifelong athlete, movement is definitely medicine for John McWhae.
The Calgary ophthalmologist has competed in several different sports in his 59 years and this past summer, he upped the ante by setting the record for fastest solo bike ride across Alberta. The 373.6 km ride on his recumbent bike took 11 hours and 39 minutes.
It’s particularly impressive given John was diagnosed with arthritis when he was 35, though he’d experienced symptoms since he was 15.
“I’ve always been an athlete, so I had to learn to work around my condition,” he shares. “It is a challenge at times.”
After he was first diagnosed, John wasn’t able to ride a bike for 10 years, but he returned to the sport by using a recumbent bike, which places less strain on the joints because of its reclined position.
“Once I realized I could get on a bike again, I got very serious about riding,” he says.
He first thought about doing the ride across his home province 12 years ago, but a big flare-up put that idea on the back burner. But he never gave up on the idea.
In the summer of 2020, he decided on a test ride. He did a 300 km ride with a 2,000-metre elevation change.
While his ride in July 2021 was flatter, it didn’t go as smoothly as John and his support team would have liked.
“The weather didn’t co-operate, and I had some issues with my bike – three flat tires and other mechanical problems,” John says. “We brought spare tires and parts and we used an awful lot of them with everything that went wrong on the ride.”
(He had a support vehicle with two bike mechanics on board).
But he did make it. After starting at the British Columbia border at 6:20 a.m., John and his team were excited when he reached the Saskatchewan border at 5:59 p.m. that same day.
“I was stiff the next day but, none of my joints were bothering me.”
John wanted to challenge himself physically and mentally with the ride (and secure the record), but it was also an opportunity to raise funds for a charity that teaches children how to fix bikes and provides them with one.
The hours of training also had a pleasant side effect for his arthritis. Instead of hurting his joints or causing a flare, his program of 16-20 hours of low impact exercise a week has allowed him to manage his condition without medication right now.
“I’ve been able to stay off my immunosuppressants for a year now,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve been off medication in 18 years.” He still uses topical creams.
By being careful and ramping up slowly, John believes other people living with arthritis can get more active too.
“You can go from being limited by your arthritis to being active in your athletic endeavours,” he says. “That has been my experience”.