Spinal problems and a rare autoimmune disease didn’t stop Carl Nolan from completing six sportives and some pretty quick time trials last year
‘‘I’ve done a lot of sport in the past — cycling, running, squash and played rugby — but it’s not always been easy.”
“When I was 20, I was hit by a car at 50mph. My head went through the windscreen then I somersaulted over the car, landing back on the road. After a week in hospital, and surgery to stitch my ear back on, I was up and out again,” says 47-year-old Carl Nolan.
“In my late 20s I started to have symptoms of spinal problems. I got numbness in my right hand after getting hit in the head playing rugby. Then in 2002 I had to have a spinal fusion [C4-5-6], and in February 2007 another one [C3-4].
“After my first spinal surgery I got back into sport a bit, but after the second surgery I did very little. That was when my autoimmune problems started kicking in. It was horrible. I tried to do a bit of running again but I just got sick and had lumps developing in my lymph glands. My whole body was a mess. Over four years my fitness died away,” Nolan says.
By October 2011, things started heading downhill dramatically. “My right shoulder dropped and my trap muscles, rhomboids and some scapulae muscles, all lost voluntary movement,” Nolan says.
“Then, because those muscles weren’t holding my spine in place, it twisted and bent. It started to hurt and my lower back had to try and compensate. I started getting a lot of pain in the lower back and down my legs.
“I had nine months of testing, multiple consultations, nerve conduction studies, MRIs, blood tests, genetic tests, and even a lumbar puncture. Finally, I was referred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. One doctor there took a bit of a punt and said it looked like I had multi focal neuropathy with conduction block, which may be as a result of my earlier spinal damage,” Nolan says.
Carl has found one substance has particularly helped his condition: colostrum or ‘first milk’. “Colostrum has helped a lot,” he says. “Rather than having to go into hospital every five or six weeks, it looks like I can delay that to every couple of months if I take colostrum.”
“The easiest way to confirm if this was the right diagnosis was to try the treatment. I ummed and ahhed for about a month, and then said, let’s try it. In July 2012 I started Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG) treatment, which is an antibody infusion.”
At this point, Nolan had to spend five days in hospital on a drip, but with his physical and mental health at an all-time low — and his weight at 112kg — he felt he had little option.
“It took three weeks for the treatment to have an effect, but when it worked I had a huge sense of relief at first. Then it dawned on me what that meant: I’d have to go into hospital for repeat treatment for the rest of my life,” Nolan says.
“I had another three months of physio and then I decided to get on the bike. The first couple of rides were only 20 minutes on a turbo-trainer, but gradually it progressed to going outdoors, doing 30-mile rides with my son, Dylan.”
By the start of 2013, Nolan felt good enough to set himself a challenge for the year: six sportives and a 25mph 10-mile time trial.
“I did the Cotswold Spring Classic and the Action Medical Bath 100 in April, then in May I did my first 100-mile ride: the Action Medical Suffolk Sunrise. I also did my first time trial — NHRC’s Aldermaston 10 — in a time of 24-24.
“June was even better. I did Reading CC’s Aldermaston 10 in 23-42, hitting my 25mph target for the year. And my brother Jared and I did the 81-mile Medio Fondo route at the Dragon Ride.”
Back to back
The progress didn’t last. Nolan relapsed after his doses of IVIG were lowered in an attempt to reduce the amount of time he had to spend in hospital, and alleviate his side effects.
“My back went in July, and then again six weeks later.
There were a couple of months where everything fell apart,” Nolan says. “I was in and out of hospital, I was laid up for a few days with back pain, and I ended up catching a bug as well — that’s the other side effect of auto-immune stuff, you tend to be a bit susceptible to things. Mentally I suffered, too: I’d planned so much and up to that point I’d done so well.
“Since then, though, things have improved and I’m able to understand my treatment better [see box]. In September, I rode several times round the Brecon Beacons with Jared. I’ve also done some more sportives, including another 100-miler, meaning I’ve hit my target of six sportives for the year — in fact I’ve actually done seven including the Wiggle Magnificat and New Forest.
“Looking forwards, I have the Dragon Ride scheduled again for this year but I want to focus more on TTs, perhaps do some 25s. I want to enter some proper opens and see how it goes — a 22-minute 10 and a sub-hour
How it worked for me
Joining a club was one of the most beneficial steps that Carl Nolan took. “I realised I was fine doing short rides and training indoors, but I needed to do longer rides at a nice steady pace, so I joined a local club, Swallowfield Velo Club,” he says. “I was really nervous that they were going to go too far but I really enjoyed it. Then I joined North Hampshire RC so I could do some time trials, and from there things have developed.”
An inexact science
Because of the nature of Carl’s condition, there’s very little information available to guide him. “It’s still early days for me with this treatment — it can take years to get yourself sorted with it,” he says. “But I’m getting a better understanding of the time gap between treatments. I also have a dozen core exercises I do two or three times a week to help keep my back strong.”