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Spinning for Answers



His face was ashen. He couldn’t breathe. He sweated so profusely that salt caked behind his ears and his cycling jersey looked like a jigsaw puzzle.

Richie Marcus from Boca Raton, Fla., returned home from yet another cycling disaster. This time it was a training ride -- 25 miles out, 25 miles back. On the return trip he fell apart -- lost energy, hyperventilated, couldn’t even pedal.

“It’s like I’m drowning,” he told his wife, Chris. “One minute I’m going as fast as I can, the next I’m being pulled under the water, gasping for air.”

It had happened in races, too, causing him to collapse and drop out.

Yet at other times this well-conditioned athlete performed exceedingly well, competing against people much younger.

Why the drastic swings?

Richie had consulted dozens of coaches, doctors, specialists and medical centers trying to find an answer. He passed the medical tests with flying colors.

“They’d tell me I’m the healthiest 55-year-old they’d ever met,” says Richie. “Sure I did well in the sedentary setting, but that’s not where I was having my problem.”

He even asked one university medical center if he could bring his bike and stationary trainer to recreate the situation. “Nobody could do the kind of testing I needed,” he says.

Chris knew her husband’s passion had hit a serious roadblock. She searched online and discovered the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls. She sent Richie the link.

“I knew that many centers promised to uncover an athlete’s inherent performance issues, but Sanford’s institute was the only one that stated athletes could bring their bikes and get tested in a climate chamber. They had the ability to duplicate the precise conditions in which the athlete had the problem,” says Richie. “This was the place for me.”

A retired business owner with a self-described Type A personality, he called the institute last November. Two weeks later he was on a flight to Sioux Falls for two days of testing.

A world apart

Institute director Dr. Michael Bergeron was not surprised at Richie’s symptoms or his difficulty in finding help.

“People get frustrated because what appears to be a medical issue cannot be solved in the conventional medical setting. Physicians and hospitals don’t have the athletic perspective or capability to replicate the scenario in which the athlete is having the problem, but that viewpoint and capability are key in reaching a solution,” says Dr. Bergeron, who’s internationally known for his research in exercise, heat stress and athletic health.

The institute’s capability to safely test at this level in combination with advanced athletic health and performance knowledge has drawn athletes from all over the world.

Says Richie: “Dr. Bergeron and his team gave me -- an amateur -- the same level of attention and expertise they give to elite and professional athletes. It was all I had dreamed of and more.”

Answers early on

Richie’s problem was identified early. Under close supervision, he pushed himself in a cycling test that matched the conditions of a typical hot, humid day in Florida. He sweated profusely, with salt building up on his skin. He nearly collapsed, reflecting exactly what happened in a race.

A heat sensor pill he’d swallowed the night before registered a core body temperature of 103.5 -- 106 is heat stroke. Additional test results showed Richie’s loss of fluid and sodium was extreme.

“Basically my system went into distress mode, trying to keep the vital organs working at the expense of my leg muscles. It’s no wonder I felt like I was drowning and couldn’t even push the pedals,” he says. “There was absolutely an explanation.”

And a solution: Richie gained extensive education in how to maintain his fluid and sodium level and better prepare for and recover from intense training and demanding competition. He received hydration recommendations, nutrition advice and a custom-designed sports drink. He also learned how to improve his cycling mechanics and balance his training schedule.

A day-one difference

Relieved to have answers, Richie returned home and resumed cycling. “I noticed a dramatic difference from day one. It was revolutionary,” he says.

The past several months produced positive results, too. “As long as I keep loading up on the appropriate fluid and sodium at the right time, I don’t have a problem -- no more hitting the wall, no more dropping out of races,” he says. “I’ve had the best racing season I’ve ever had -- by far.”

Two thousand miles might seem a long way to go for a solution to an athletic performance problem. But to Richie? “The expert help meant the world to me. I got something at Sanford that I couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Posted Date: June 2011

Spinning for Answers

Florida cyclist Richie Marcus knew the thrill of a well-ridden race. But he also knew the defeat of collapsing and dropping out. Why such drastic swings in a well-conditioned athlete? The answer was 2,000 miles from home.