Samantha McCarthy likes nothing better than taking to the country roads on her bicycle of a summer evening – but this Clarewoman is not your typical cyclist. The petite blonde, who took up cycling two years ago, has spent the last two months preparing for the formidable An Post Tour de Burren cycle with an all-female cycling gang, The 0-60k Cycling Group.
She also swims regularly and does yoga – yet, since her early 20s, Samantha has had multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system which causes a gradual degeneration of the nerves.
But the 36-year-old from Ennis has bounced back from a range of problems, including temporary loss of sight in her left eye, loss of strength in her right leg and the pain associated with sciatica.
"Despite being very ill during the initial years after my diagnosis, I always tried to look to the future in a positive manner," she recalls.
"Of course, I was scared; I still get scared, but now I let people around me know I'm frightened as I know they'll help me.
"I set milestones and goals for myself and these keep me motivated and driven," she says.
However, she warns, it's crucial to listen to your body.
"It's the best adviser for your well-being. Your body will let you know when you're pushing it too hard!"
An education and training co-ordinator with the Clare Local Development Company which delivers community development initiatives and services throughout the county, Samantha started to become ill at age 19, and was diagnosed with MS two years later.
"Initially I had Bell's palsy and then sciatica, which is nerve pain, and eventually my right leg became very weak," says the mother of an 18-year-old son.
"I also lost sight in my left eye. I was quite sick in the beginning," she says.
These conditions, she emphasises, however, can occur independently of MS and are not necessarily an indication of the disease.
Samantha has always been interested in exercise, but has had to choose her sports carefully.
"I've always looked after myself. With MS, if you overtrain, the body can become very fatigued, so you have to be careful about what exercise or sports you select."
She enjoys jogging, but has found that cycling is low-impact and provides an excellent workout.
"It's an overall workout. I've been cycling for two years now," she explains, adding that although she had fully intended to complete the 55k route on the Tour de Burren with the 20 or so members of her cycling group, a family wedding on the same day means she'll have to cut her planned cycle short.
She's been really looking forward to the event, which features a variety of cycling routes ranging in distance from 8k to 155k and, despite the wedding, will definitely be participating.
"I will complete at least 10k," she pledges, and she's planning to go to the Burren extra-early to finish her challenge in time.
Set up under the Clare Sports Partnership, the 0-60k Cycling Group has been a big success. Members range in age from those in their mid-20s to women in their mid-40s, and all of them enjoy the sport immensely.
"We've worked our way up to 35k as part of a 10-week programme," she says proudly.
The group of about 20 women, which is led by volunteers from other cycling groups around the county, meets for two hours on Wednesday nights.
One benefit of cycling in a group is the motivation and support members provide to each other, she says – but there are plenty of others.
"It gets you out in the fresh air and helps you maintain a clear head. It's a very good way to de-stress after a day's work.
"There are times you feel that the last thing you want to do is go for a cycle but you feel so much better when you come back from it. I also swim and do yoga so I balance my exercise."
Samantha likes the bike so much, however, that she plans to participate in another big cycling event called Rás na mBan, which is coming to Clare in September.
"Physically, my MS has not affected me in the long-term, but I'd never let it hold me back.
"You have to be proactive about your own health and well-being. You need to keep yourself as strong and as fit as you can but at the same time it's important to do that within your own limitations."
If your balance and co-ordination is good, she thinks cycling is a great option.
"You don't get the same injuries as you would with a higher impact exercise such as running."
This article originally appeared in Fit Magazine