This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.
Cycling has always brought me great joy; I love the freedom that comes from riding, whether it be on trails or country roads. In 2001, cycling took on deeper importance for me as I was diagnosed with a rare disease called pulmonary hypertension (PH).
As with most patients, I had never heard of PH before my diagnosis. It’s a progressive disease that affects the blood vessels in the lungs, causing elevated blood pressure. This in turn causes the right side of the heart to work harder, eventually weakening the right ventricle. Left untreated, PH leads to congestive heart failure. When I was diagnosed, there were just three treatments for PH. The survival rate after diagnosis was two to seven years. The news was devastating, especially since I was 38 and had three young sons.
One of the tests to monitor PH is a bicycle stress test. The CPET (Cardiopulmonary Exercise Test) involves riding a stationary bicycle with increasing resistance until you cannot pedal any more. It’s a grueling test when you have something like PH, which causes shortness of breath with very little exertion. In 2001, PH patients were told that exercising could be detrimental, however, my exercise physiologist advised me that I could exercise if I kept my heart rate at 115 beats per minute or lower. I got a heart rate monitor and started riding my bike on the West Orange Trail, a rail-trail near Orlando, several times a week.
Although I had to ride slowly at first, riding my bike was uplifting and strengthening. As time passed and the medications prescribed began working, my cycling helped my heart, lungs and body become more efficient, and I was able to do more and more exercise.
At 60 years old, I am able to ride and run and swim as much as I like, as well as just live normally. I am so very thankful, as most PH patients have physical restrictions. Over the years, the prognosis for PH patients has improved somewhat. There are now 14 FDA-approved medications for PH, and the average survival time after diagnosis has increased; yet, it remains a disease without a cure, and one that is still debilitating as well as life-threatening.
I have continued to ride often on the West Orange Trail as well as other Florida pathways, such as the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail. My husband and I have also taken weekend trips to ride on the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail and the Withlacoochee State Trail. I relish these rail-trail adventures, taking in the beauty of the natural settings, as well as enjoying the quaint towns, farmlands and cities the trails go through.
Cycling for a Cause
In 2012, I met an incredible group of four women led by Dr. Patricia George (a PH specialist), who banded together for Team PHenomenal Hope. Their mission was to ride in the Race Across America to raise awareness of pulmonary hypertension, and to raise funding for research into a cure for PH as well as find ways to improve the lives of PH patients. Two years later, the group rode from California to Annapolis, Maryland, in seven days, seven hours and 15 minutes!
In the years since their first cross-country race, Team PHenomenal Hope has grown into an organization of endurance athletes across the United States who continue to participate in these important events. I have been able to be a part of this organization for the past 10 years and have used my cycling to fight PH for myself and other PH patients.
My friends Wendy Pascucci, Brenda Hamilton and I rode from Buffalo, New York, to New York City on the 750-mile Empire State Trail in the summer of 2021, with my husband, Joseph Richardson, as our wonderful guide. While I loved the scenery and history along the Erie Canal, the area leading up to New Paltz was my favorite, where we hit rolling hills and lushly wooded areas, as well as rode through spaces where the path for the railroad had been cut into the hills so that we had walls of rock looming over us.
As we went along, we updated our followers on Facebook with photos and videos from the experience, and we dedicated each day to the memory of a PH patient who had passed away, as well as to a PH warrior sharing some of their PH story. We ended our journey in New York City at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where we were cheered on and welcomed by my PH doctor and a few of the nurses who work in the PH clinic. It was an emotional celebration—the victory of riding 586.7 miles over 11 days and celebrating surviving life with PH for 20 years was oh so sweet!
Cycling on America’s rail-trails has been an integral part of my journey—helping me to survive PH physically as well as emotionally. I’m so glad these trails exist, and I look forward to another 20 years of riding them.
Related: Top 10 Trails in Florida
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