This Thursday, adventure sport athletes Katherine Ross and Sarah Gardner will pair up to take on Cape to Cape, a four-day mountain bike stage race throughout Western Australia’s South-West.
The women will be racing as MSisters, a team name that reflects both their multiple sclerosis diagnosis and the close bond they share.
It’s a bond that has been cultivated online over the past few years as they shared their experiences of living with MS and their love of multi-sport and adventure racing.
And yet, the pair had never met in person until yesterday when Sarah travelled from New Zealand to spend time with Katherine and her partner at their home in Perth. They now have just two days to figure out their race strategy before tackling almost 170km of riding from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste.
If you look up multiple sclerosis online, you’ll be hard pressed to find much reading on positive outcomes. This was the reality facing Sarah when she was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease two years ago.
It wasn’t until she came across an article on adventure sport blog Lessons in Badassery about Katherine and her unwavering determination to keep pursuing the things she loved in spite of her MS diagnosis, that she begun to believe there was a brighter future ahead for her.
“After I'd been diagnosed with MS, I disobeyed doctors’ instructions and, being an academic myself and an inquisitive mind, I googled MS and everything that you come across is pretty negative,” said Sarah. “I read some of the stuff and it was really confronting, and I thought, 'what is my life going to look like going forwards'. Having been someone who was super active and really independent, to then suddenly wondering if I'll ever go back to work, be able to do any sports, able to walk the dog, I couldn't ever imagine what my life was going to look like.
“I wondered if there was anyone with MS out there that's actually living a life like I used to live and like what I would like to continue to be able to do,” she said. “Unfortunately one of the big things with MS is the people who are able to carry on and get on with it don't actually talk about it, so most of the people who talk about it are the people who have this disability or have this struggle, but the people who are doing really well kind of stay silent and carry on with their lives, which is totally fine, but when you're someone who’s newly diagnosed and you're looking for that little beacon of hope, it's really hard to find.
“So I ended up just googling 'MS multi sporter' and then Kat's profile came up for the article on Lessons in Badassery. I read that article and I was like 'oh my god, this is exactly what I'm going through, this is exactly what I'm thinking', and I was just reading the article nodding my head going ‘yes, yes, this is exactly it’. It touched me so much that I had to contact this girl and say thank you so much for sharing your story and putting yourself out there because it's meant so much to me, and really was quite a pivotal moment for my own outlook going forwards into what I could expect,” said Sarah.
Katherine was diagnosed with MS in 2017 and like Sarah, scoured the internet to find examples of positive outcomes for people with the disease but struggled to find many. She says this was part of the reason why she decided to share her own story – and why it’s important people keep sharing their stories to provide others in similar positions that beacon of hope needed in difficult times.
“Getting our story out there and saying hey, this doesn't have to be a death sentence, and whether it's MS or something else, to chase your goals and have a go, you'll probably achieve more than you think you will. If we can put that kind of positivity out then I think that's a really huge deal as well,” said Katherine.
Both women grew up in New Zealand and led lifestyles filled with outdoor activities and adventure sports, but it wasn’t until Katherine moved to Perth 12 years ago that she took up mountain biking and for Sarah, not until after her diagnosis.
A ‘half decent’ mountain biker, Katherine completed Cape to Cape in 2018 as an individual rider – her first big race after diagnosis. On the other hand, this year’s Cape to Cape will be Sarah’s first ever mountain bike race.
“Sarah ruptured her Achilles at the same time as when she went into hospital and got diagnosed. She couldn't do her normal sport after, so she took up cycling as a rehab because she was quite a bit more disabled than me at diagnosis, she had quite a dramatic, very rapid diagnosis. So she took up cycling for rehab and after talking to me she decided to extend that into mountain biking and also adventure racing,” said Katherine.
“It kind of grew from there, our running joke is if you have a stupid idea, you should always share it with the other person and so she said I've got a stupid idea, I want to do a four-day mountain bike race, she's never done a mountain bike race before,” she said.
“I'm going into Cape to Cape having never done a mountain bike event because unfortunately COVID cancelled all my lead in events. But because Kat’s has done it before and knows the area, I feel fine, I'm just going to tag along behind her and we should be good,” said Sarah.
Despite their contrasting experience, Katherine and Sarah are both riding for the same reasons – to have fun and finish.
“We're there to finish, have the achievement and have a good time,” said Katherine. “I reckon we'll be mid pack-ish, but just there to have a laugh, and to give Sarah that feeling of achievement of finishing a four-day race. Even though we're quite capable, in your head you question whether you can do this.
“We're also there to win the best dressed category. We're matchy matchy the whole time. We've got a couple of jerseys from New Zealand and a couple from Australia, so we'll be twinning kits the whole way round,” she said.
“I just want to finish it because it'll be not just my first mountain bike race, it'll be my first multi-stage mountain bike race, riding four days back-to-back, so that in itself will be a huge accomplishment,” said Sarah.
The pair will also be racing to raise money for MS Research, and to raise awareness of what life is like living with MS – both the good and the bad, with emphasis on the good.
“We are both fortunate enough to be living well with MS, but others are not in the same position – and many others will be diagnosed in future. If we can contribute even in a small way by raising funds for research towards treatment, prevention, cures, and awareness about what's possible with MS, and maybe even inspire someone to chase big goals, then we'll consider it a success,” said Katherine.
“Kat and I are mad keen mountain bikers and decided that we wanted to change the perception of what MS looks like and give some hope to others that MS is not a death sentence and doesn't mean that you can't keep doing the things that you love – you just may have to modify or change your approach to them,” said Sarah.
By racing Cape to Cape, Katherine and Sarah want to inspire other people with MS – to show that achieving the things you want to achieve is still possible, no matter what it looks like.
“I guess for me the big thing is to have that outlook, or be that person or whatever, just to show that actually you can still do this stuff, you just may have to approach it differently. Maybe you have to hire a coach, or maybe you can't train at the same intensity you used to train at, or maybe you need to come up with different strategies, but it's certainly not something you can't ever do, you may just have to approach it slightly differently to how you maybe have done in the past,” said Sarah.
“I think too, with MS, most people are diagnosed in their thirties so you're still young, you've still got your whole life ahead of you, so don't take it as a death sentence, you've just got to keep on living, you may just have to come up with some slightly different strategies,” she said.
“We’re acutely aware that not everyone has the same experience of MS as we do, and there's people that couldn't do this. For us it's about showing ourselves and showing everyone else that whatever your goals are, you should have a go at them, and you'll probably achieve much more than you think you will. And for us too personally, it's about that reiteration of we're doing well, life is amazing, we're working hard, we can handle this thing and have a great life,” said Katherine.
Cape to Cape begins on Thursday 20 October at Cape Leeuwin and finishes on Sunday 23 October, almost 170km later at Cape Naturaliste.
For more information on Cape to Cape visit https://capetocapemtb.com/
To support Katherine and Sarah and donate to MS Research visit https://kissgoodbyetoms.org/fundraiser/the-msisters/
Tag(s): Cape to Cape