Feb 2013: 99er Cycle Race – Fitness Saved My Life

8 February 2013: The 99er Cycle Race takes place annually in support of the El Shaddai Christian School in Durbanville. In February 2004, Dr Michélle Booysen, Managing Director of Pétanque Consultancy, began her 99er cycle tradition with the 78km ride; little did she know that this would spark a significant change in her life.

As she was in training for the up and coming Argus race, Michélle assumed that the 99er cycle race would be a constructive breeze. “20km’s into the race, I got a really intense burn-sensation from my stomach into my chest”, Michélle says. Being a type one diabetic, instinct told her she was possibly just a little dehydrated, and with this, drank some water and carried on.

Just over half way, the burning sensation intensified, but by this time the pain was so uncomfortable, that the only thing that kept her going was the will to finish the ride, frequent sips water and a banana. “I passed both the Medi-clinic paramedic stations during the race, each time thinking, just hang in there for the next 20 kms, it will get better.  Why did I not stop and report?  Because in my life long experience – as soon as I say the diabetic word – all sort of medical matters kick into place by well-meaning people and the chance that I will finish the ride, becomes almost nil.” Michélle Booysen had no idea that she was actually experiencing a heart attack, with typical symptoms for a woman with diabetes while cycling the 99er. “I was in such agony with what felt like a raging fire in my chest, arms and hands the last 10 km of the race, that I was holding my handle bars with my pinkie fingers. I finally crossed the finish line, did my glucose tests and immediately caught the attention of the medical doctor at the MediClinic finish line post, asking for a drip to assist with high ketones and dehydration.  I was expecting the source of my discomfort to be  diabetes”

When she requested heart burn medication in addition, the doctor thankfully made an immediate diagnosis of the heart attack and rushed her to hospital right away.

Twenty minutes in the ER and an emergency EKG and enzyme blood tests later resulted in medical experts breaking the news that she had experienced a heart attack during her race. At the time the through-flow of blood, due to severely blocked arteries was between 15% and 20%.  Michélle was in complete shock, saying “I’m the fittest I have ever been in my life; this does not make any sense.”

She was booked in for a bypass procedure, which usually involves harvesting vessels from the legs to reconstruct the damaged arteries of the heart. Michélle’s bypass operation that was scheduled to last  between 6 and 9 hours, turned out to last only one hour when it was found that the vessels in her legs were too brittle to ensure success. This bad news forced her to come to terms with the fact that her physical life would never be the same.

Struggling to come to terms with the new limitations, she re-designed her spinning training into slow spinning a few weeks later and during such a class two months later “a sharp pain  rushed up my arm, and this was really scary” said Dr Booysen.  She called her cardiologist on that Friday night and was admitted for an emergency angiogram, two months after the first angiogram indicated the need for a five artery bypass.  This time Michélle’s physician inserted one specially prepared stent into one of the blocked arteries to her heart. The procedure caused such discomfort that a second stent was no longer an option.  Then the good news came. “During the angiogram my cardiologist found a very rare third vessel in my lower arm.  We all have two vessels splitting from the main vessel out of the elbow to the hands.  I was one of the a very few people who had 3!”

That was finally the answer as it provided the much needed vessels for the heart bypass, which had become essential. She was admitted into surgery immediately to harvest her arm vessels, along with a vessel from the chest, and these were used to reconstruct the arteries of her heart.

Fast forward one year.

The 99er Cycle Race came up the following year and Dr Booysen entered to cycle the 38km race, which she finished, experiencing no major hassles. Subsequently, she has concluded 6 Pick n Pay Argus Cycle Tours, cycle-toured for 9 days from Knysna to Cape Town and participated in a gruelling 6 day cycle tour in the south of France last year.

In celebration of overcoming such a harrowing ordeal, Michélle Booysen now sponsors the “Last Lady In” prize for the 99er race. This prize, for the 9th year running is awarded to the very last woman to cross the finish line at the cut off time, to acknowledge her on her achievement of completing the race. The prize represents Michélle’s belief that participating in, and finishing the race is perhaps more important than winning the race.  It also means that the person receiving the prize, is paying attention to her fitness.  “Through this experience, I learnt that fitness saved my life.  How? Due to taking care of my fitness most of my life, my body had constructed an intricate set of albeit inferior little vessels around my heart to compensate for the many years it was receiving less and less blood due to the massive clogging of the main arteries, caused by the combination of diabetes, cholesterol and simply being an A type personality. Were it not for these little vessels to keep the heart muscle going during the heart attack, I might not have survived, leave alone doing what I do today:  living a full life. I also know that life is extremely precious and fragile.  It is important to look after one’s one-and-only body, as it is, along with a mindset of enjoying what life offers, is what is enables us to participate in what life offers.” says Dr Booysen.  She believes that true winners participate in life and appreciate a healthy lifestyle while pursuing their life goals, persevering to reach the finish line even if you are the last one crossing the line.

Good luck to all partaking in the 99er Cycle race this weekend.


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