Team AM News
By: Joe Bianchini
My first experience on a longer bike ride of sorts was in 2014, after I had just graduated college. My girlfriend at the time and now wife, had just received a road bike for her birthday and was eager to try it out. We were staying at her parent’s cottage near Bellaire, MI and had spent a lot of time meticulously plotting out how far we were going to go, what speed we wanted to maintain, what clothes to wear and most importantly how long we could afford to stay at The Dockside, a local bar on Torch Lake. When I say afford, I mean both how many beers we could literally afford having just graduated college and how much time we could afford before it got too dark out for our 15-mile return trip. These were the important things at the time that I needed to know before embarking on a ride over 5 miles of flat roads yet alone the 30 miles of rolling hills that we were about to do.
We ended up making it back okay but with about 3 miles left, we had one last climb to the top of a hill before this venture would come to an end. It was a twisty turny climb that I always thought people were crazy for biking up as I rolled past them in my car countless times. Now here I was doing it with a greasy hamburger and several beers sloshing around in my stomach. The biggest challenge however was the fact that I was on a hand me down children’s sized mountain bike from the 1990’s that had “Destiny” emblazoned across the top tube. Prior to getting to the climb, Brooke had very generously offered to ride “Destiny” up the hill and let me ride her bike. Despite the bike being heavy, too small and this being one of the steepest hills around; I was not going to let this challenge defeat me. Eventually, and not in quick fashion I made it to the top, but more importantly I had made up my mind about getting a road bike.
I grew up playing a variety of sports including football, lacrosse, wrestling and rugby but I never had participated in sports that were more endurance related such as biking, track, cross country, etc. However, the last time I ever participated in any competitive sport was high school. Having that brief period where my mind switched over into that competitive mindset on that hill was so exhilarating and I was hooked. It was such a fulfilling experience to not think about anything else that was going on in my life and only focus on getting to the top of that hill. Although I am sure that I could climb that same hill much faster today, the fact of the matter is that my attitude was the same then as it is now: Get to the top as fast as I possibly can.
That following winter I bought my first road bike and started going to spinning classes in anticipation of the coming spring. Once spring hit, I started venturing out on various group rides during the week but eventually hooked up with a small group of people who had work and life schedules that provided more opportunity to ride at 5:30 AM rather than the afternoon. We dubbed ourselves the “Morning Cranks” and over time the group began to grow, and the rides began to become faster. This provided me with a group of friends to ride with consistently, compete on Strava segments with, give me confidence to sign up for my first race and overall really made me enjoy the sport. Every time I got on the bike, I was constantly trying to learn from the other people around me to make myself a better rider and having fun doing it. Eventually, I began to partake in cat 4/5 races with varying level of success but knew overall that this was something I wanted to keep getting better at. It wasn’t until earlier this summer when I began talking to Terry Ritter about taking my racing to the next level. At first, I was a little nervous for a magnitude of reasons but eventually became confident that joining Team Athletic Mentors was something I really wanted to do.
Since joining the team, everyone that I have met has been extremely helpful in a variety of ways. The thing that I look forward to most is being able to race among teammates and doing whatever I need to do to help us win some races. I have had a couple opportunities to do that in 2019 when racing the Summer Waterford Series, Cherry Roubaix, Uncle Johns Dirty Ride and The Lowell 50 and I can honestly say it has been way more fun and fulfilling than getting on the podium myself. Not only is the actual racing fun but all the conversation that is had leading up to the race and after the race is always something that I look forward to. I am very excited to be a part of this team and can’t wait to see how we perform during the 2020 race season.
By Collin Snyder, Team Athletic Mentors cyclist
A little after 3 weeks after surgery and 7 weeks since I first came in, things were finally heading in the right direction. I was putting on weight, eating real food, and ready to go home. Upon release, I set a goal for myself that I would finish Iceman this year. Some of my teammates looked at me skeptical but said they’d cheer me on.
Five weeks post-op, I got on my bike for the first time. I rode for just over 20 minutes and I was exhausted. My power output was less than a third what it once was, yet my heart rate neared race efforts. It was great and demoralizing at the same time. The next day, I rode up to my local bike shop to say hello. I managed around a 15 mph pace (with a tailwind) at a hard effort and had to hang out for the next hour to prepare for the half hour return trip.
Each day, I was able to go a little harder, a little longer. Three weeks after getting on the bike, I rejoined my Monday Night Crew. That night we rode for nearly 30 miles, and I even found myself pulling at the front. Each time I logged into Zwift, I would have to slide my FTP bar slightly higher to ensure I was working out in the proper zones. After each ride, I look at my power curve and see a new personal best. On one Monday night group ride, my buddy titled his ride on Strava as “Last ride ever where I’ll be faster than Collin.”
I feel great now. I am now back up to my old weight, I can eat just about anything I want without fear of it causing me pain and symptoms. My fears of never being able to race again have passed. My power levels are now to the point where I have to adjust my overall Iceman goal. No longer is the goal just to finish, but to place in my age group. I’ll be doing it with gears for the first time in 9 years, but I think I have a slight excuse.
Once again, I want to thank all the wonderful people in my life who helped out while I was out of commission. My wife, for being there at my side through the darkest hours. My parents for daily visits and helping out my wife with child care each night. Friends pitched in to set up a meal service for my wife and toddler. People teamed up to mow my yard and weed my garden. Heck, one of my riding buddies did a full tuneup and detailing of my mountain bike. The outpouring of love and support was overwhelming. I feel blessed to have the friends and family I do.
Living with an ostomy is not the scarlet letter I had envisioned. Off the bike, I feel completely normal. No longer am I eyeing where the bathroom is at every new place I visit. I can sit at work and actually work straight without having to get up every 20 minutes. I can dress in the same clothes I’ve always worn. On the bike, its not the death sentence I thought it was going to be. With support groups online such as the Facebook group “Ostomy Lifestyle Athletes,” I’ve learned ways to adapt to my new body. My fears of constant dehydration have not materialized. Most importantly, I’m back home with my wife and children enjoying life. Comparing the alternative, I am completely happy with my decision to go ahead with surgery.
I have gone back and forth whether or not I wanted to share my story, but if this can give just one person hope, then this amount of sharing is worth it. While I sat in that hospital bed, I scoured the internet looking for any high level athlete who managed to compete with an ostomy. I really didn’t find much which only added to my fears and anxiety. If you are reading this and in the same uncomfortable hospital bed as I was, let this give you hope. Life will get better, and you will once again do what you love.
If you have persistent GI issues, see a doctor right away. Early treatment can spare you from what I had to go through. If are interested in learning more about Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis visit these sites for information:
By Collin Snyder, Team Athletic Mentors cyclist
Continued from Part 1: A Dark Road
That night, after running to the bathroom for the upteenth time, I looked in the mirror and could barely recognize the frail body in front of me. I could see every rib, my eyes were sunken in, and I felt as bad as I looked. At this point, I could barely lift my girls, hadn’t been on the bike in over a month, and could barely muster a few laps down the hall without feeling exhausted. I was so weak, and nearing a month since my first day in the hospital with no improvement, I knew what I had to do. I had to accept my fate. Although it was less than an ideal outcome, it would lead to a path of healthiness and out of this hospital.
Surgery went well. My surgeon said that my colon was one of the worst he’d ever saw that didn’t rupture. He said that if I wouldn’t have had the surgery, it probably would have ruptured within a week and sepsis could have set in. The next day when I woke up, I felt as if a cancer had been removed from my body. Everyone who saw me that day said I looked a million times better. I started to have hope.
A couple days later, the first complication arrived. I started to get extremely nauseous and then started vomiting everything that I had ate or drank since surgery. That is when they found out I had an ileus. At the basic level, its a side effect from surgery where the guts just go into this dormant state and there is nothing they can do about it except to wait it out. While you wait for your guts to wake up, they put a tube down your nose, into your stomach to suck out any stomach acid and bile that gets produced which would lead to further vomiting. This meant no fluids or food until it was removed. They placed me on IV nutrition to slow my starvation process down. I kept losing weight along with my spirit. I was down to 116 lbs, about 50 lbs less than my race weight. At one point, both my parents and wife were scared I may not make it.
This continued for weeks. There would be signs that my guts were ready to wake up, only to go back to a dormant state. Online, everything says an ileus should last for 2-14 days. Mine lasted for 3 weeks. Going that long without food makes you feel less and less human. Nurses who were on vacation would come into my room and be surprised to see me saying “you’re still here?”
During this time, there were so many dark and depressing days. You become bitter at those who eat and drink garbage, while I lived a clean life, yet I’m the one sitting in the hospital. It’s hard when you go from a top local cyclist to someone who can barely get out of bed. Luckily I have an amazing wife, parents and friends who would visit me daily to keep me going. My “Monday Night Crew” who I’ve ridden with nearly every Monday for the past decade decided to surprise me and ride to the hospital one night for a visit. So many people from the cycling world would text or call me asking if there was anything they could do to help. Any visit would momentarily take my mind off the reality I was living. My number one dose of hope was the visits from my two year old daughter who was always happy to see me. Without the amazing people in my life, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through this dark time.
Check back tomorrow for the last chapter in my road to recovery.
By Collin Snyder, Team Athletic Mentors cyclist
On the first Saturday in November, I will line up for the most important race of my life. I’ve raced Iceman every year for about a decade but this year will be different. I know for a fact, I will not even be close to my results of last year, however this will be my biggest victory ever.
One thing most people don’t know about me is back in 2012, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. It’s an autoimmune disease that attacks the digestive tract, and can ravage an otherwise healthy body. That year, I had a bad attack, known as a flare, lost a ton of weight and strength which forced me into the hospital for a few weeks. When I eventually got back on the bike, I had to step back from 100 miler MTB races and temporarily move down a category on the road. However, I got on the right medications, and eventually returned to a normal life. I was symptom free for six years, however good things sometimes must come to an end. This April, I started to have GI issues after taking an antibiotic for a chest infection. After I finished the prescription, I figured the issues would go away. They didn’t.
For the next three months, my symptoms kept getting worse. My GI doctor started giving me stronger and stronger meds, but nothing seemed to help. By late June, it was hard to be focused at work as I would have to stop what I was doing nearly every 20 minutes to run to the bathroom. On 6/22, my anniversary, I had had enough. I called my GI doc and he said to come into my local hospital to receive IV steroids. Steroids are used as a strong immunosuppressant to keep my body from attacking itself. During my last flare, these were the magic bullet and stopped my symptoms nearly instantly. This time around, I wasn’t so fortunate. For the next two weeks they kept loading me up with steroids with little success. I was eventually discharged on July 3rd with nearly the same symptoms that I came in. Five days later, I woke up with a fever of 103.8F and told my wife it was time to go to University of Michigan to see their GI specialist.
After some imaging and analysis of my past medical history, the team at U of M re-diagnosed me with Ulcerative Colitis or UC. In the grand scheme of things, this is a slightly better diagnosis because UC can essentially be cured by surgery while with Crohn’s, a diseased organ can be removed only to have the disease pop up somewhere else in the digestive tract.
For the next two weeks, they did everything they could. At first, things were looking promising. I was given a super powerful drug (at nearly $20,000 a dose) and some of my blood tests started to improve. There was talk of discharging me the following week and they decided to give me one more dose of this drug for good measure. However, the day before my second dose, my blood markers started to go south again. The second dose did nothing. The team repeated some imaging and came to me with some devastating news. The medical and surgical team sat down with somber faces and said I had exhausted all medicine options. They had given me two doses of their biggest guns and imaging showed zero improvement. There was nothing left except for surgery. They would remove my entire large intestines and give me a temporary end ileostomy which means an external bag. I held it together for 2/3rds of the consultation, then I broke down in tears.
I knew that this would result in a cure, however, I was terrified of all the limitations this would lead to.
For the past 12 years, my life has revolved around cycling and I couldn’t comprehend how those could coexist. The number one reason why people with this surgery end up back in the hospital is due to dehydration. With a healthy body, dehydration is already a constant concern when racing. On the family front, I have two toddlers and I worried how this would affect play time, and even how they saw me. Would I still be their superhero?
Check back tomorrow for the next chapter of my story.