Saturday 27 May 2017

Irish man (30) cycled 27,369km of this planet in spite of debilitating bowel disease

Intrepid adventurer Ian Lacey has cycled the planet from Alaska to Argentina. He tells our reporter how he pulled off this bold pole-to-pole bicycling feat despite being in the grip of a debilitating bowel disease

Ian Lacey (30), who recently cycled from Alaska to Argentina. Photo: Marc Condren
Ian Lacey (30), who recently cycled from Alaska to Argentina. Photo: Marc Condren

Joy Orpen

Not so long ago, Ian Lacey (30) cycled from Alaska to Argentina. That's 27,369km, or 17,009 miles, for those of you who resist metrication. What makes this feat so astounding is the fact that he was already quite ill when he set off on his epic journey. But then again, Ian is no ordinary guy.

His health problems first surfaced in the summer of 2003, when he was a lanky 17-year-old, living in Gorey, Co Wexford. "I started to lose weight," he begins. "So I had blood tests, which showed I was anaemic and needed iron." But in spite of medical interventions, Ian lost another three stone, which was not good for someone who was already thin. During this, his Leaving Certificate year, Ian missed 30 crucial days of school.

Then came a morning when he was so fatigued he couldn't even get out of bed. "Food was just running through me," he remembers. "Half an hour after I'd eaten, I'd be dashing for the loo." So, his doctor referred him to St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin, where he was given a colonoscopy, which eventually led to a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis (UC).

In Ian's case, ulcers (or sores) were discovered on the inside of his large intestine, or colon. "The cause is unknown," says Ian. "It could have been triggered by all sorts of things. But the specialist said I would need to take medication for the rest of my life."

Nonetheless, the diagnosis came as something of a relief, because Ian had worried that the cause of his condition might have been life-threatening. Fortunately, the prescribed medication - which included steroids for a limited period of time - did the trick. Once he'd recovered, Ian was able to put his head down and get on with his studies.

After school, he did archaeology and geography at UCD, which was followed by a master's in world heritage management. During that period, Ian had two UC relapses, but he recovered following treatment. Soon after he completed his thesis, he met a like-minded young woman called Aine Lynch, who was about to begin her own master's programme. The pair fell in love, and have been together ever since.

However, the timing wasn't great, as Ian already had plans to relocate to Denver, Colorado, to work for the Wilderness Society. While in the US, he began to give free rein to an idea for an ambitious trip. "I'd heard about a Swedish adventurer who'd cycled to Mount Everest, summited the mountain and cycled home again," he explains. "And I wanted to do something similar." So he decided to cycle from the northernmost point accessible by road in the Americas to the most southern city in the world, Ushuaia in Argentina. But first he needed to return to Ireland and earn enough money to fund the adventure.

Unfortunately, he suffered another UC relapse. "The consultant said I shouldn't embark on this expedition under any circumstances," says Ian. Undeterred, Ian began another course of steroids, while taking his usual medication. And satisfied that he was doing all he could, he jetted off to Alaska. He'd saved just enough money to fund the trip and had sponsorship for some cycling equipment.

Finally, he and a partner set off from Deadhorse, Alaska, near the Arctic Ocean. Their first destination was Fairbanks, almost 800km south of there. From the very beginning, Ian struggled, and began to have serious doubts about whether he could succeed.

"I felt like a complete and utter fool," he says. "I had banked on the steroids kicking in, but this time they weren't helping." Even though he felt weak and exhausted, he had to cycle with 45kg of equipment for hundreds of kilometres, and up long, steep hills when necessary.

He was getting desperate. But his determination overrode the crippling lethargy. "I felt a really strong urge to tap into my own spirit," he explains. "I just took it one day at a time."

Some 10 days later, the two lads rode triumphantly into Fairbanks. They'd been sleeping in tents and they'd been savaged by mosquitoes, but they'd made it over their first huge hurdle. "Having done the 800km, I felt something shift," says Ian. "It was such an achievement to get there. I also felt my body was changing. My health was improving and my body was getting stronger. I still don't know why that happened. Maybe the medication finally kicked in, or perhaps it was all the physical activity. But, as we went on with the trip, I began to feel the best I had ever felt. I was sharp mentally, and I began to know the rhythms of my body. So I started to reduce my medication."

Three months into the trip, he and his travelling companion decided to go their separate ways. Ian had no problem with that; he was happy to continue alone. "You go slowly on a bike. And you meet people along the way, because there's not a pane of glass between you and them. They will talk to you because you're 'different'. And they might even take you home and feed you, and give you a bed for the night."

Ian had many memorable experiences during his epic bike ride. He says the very worst part was when he reached northern Argentina. "I was facing into a fierce wind," he recalls. "It was full-on, in my face. I really struggled. All I could manage was 20km to 30km a day. Until then, my daily average had been 100km to 120km." Given that Argentina stretches for almost 3,700km, Ian's frustration must have been extreme and his patience sorely tested. But he kept on going. Then there were a couple of times in Patagonia when his tent was blown away, forcing him to chase after it. But he says all of that was compensated for by the many wonderful experiences along the way, most notably over the border in Chile. "It's one of the most beautiful places on Earth," he says.

Still, the ultimate experience had to be the final descent into Ushuaia. "Freewheeling down that last corner brought on a rush of emotion," says Ian, in his riveting book, Half the World Away. "[It was thanks to] my own physical power that I had been able to witness, and to interact with, the great wonder that the Americas have to offer."

In October 2012, Ian finally made it home to Aine and his family. His heroic cycling efforts generated €30,000 for the Carers Association in Ireland. Since then, he and Aine have spent three years in Laos, in Southeast Asia, but are now happily settled back in Dublin. Meanwhile, Ian has suffered no further bouts of UC and he no longer needs medication.

Ian Lacey's book, 'Half The World Away', is available in paperback or as an e-book from Amazon. See ianlacey.com

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