My fit­ness chal­lenge

Af­ter decades bat­tling a chronic dis­ease, Justin Grace has a new liver and is back on the track. So­phie Hur­com hears his re­mark­able story

Cycling Weekly - - Contents -

When he was di­ag­nosed with the liver con­di­tion pri­mary scle­ros­ing cholan­gi­tis aged just 17, Justin Grace was told that within the next 15 years he’d need to have a liver trans­plant. The dis­ease left him feel­ing fa­tigued, sick with stab­bing pains and of­ten un­able to en­joy a nor­mal teenage life.

“The fatigue was one of the worst things,” Grace re­calls. “I would have short pe­ri­ods where I felt re­ally un­well, like my body was poi­soned and I’d want to curl up in a ball. At times it was like I had a knife stuck in the back of my ribs.”

In striv­ing to be­come a pro cyclist, Grace’s choice of dis­ci­plines was lim­ited.

“I think my ill­ness steered me to­wards be­com­ing a sprinter. It re­ally af­fected my abil­ity to be able to do en­durance stuff; I was just too fa­tigued all the time.”

De­spite the warn­ing that he would ul­ti­mately need a trans­plant, Grace had a full and suc­cess­ful ca­reer on the track, win­ning 13 New Zealand na­tional ti­tles, and com­pet­ing at World Cham­pi­onships and Com­mon­wealth Games, be­fore switch­ing to coach­ing full-time in 2008.

Now 46, he has been work­ing with Bri­tish Cy­cling as a sprint coach since 2014, guid­ing the likes of Ja­son Kenny, Becky James and Cal­lum Skinner. It was dur­ing the build-up to the Rio Olympics, in De­cem­ber 2015, that Grace’s health be­gan to se­ri­ously de­te­ri­o­rate.

“It was the first time in my en­tire life where I ac­tu­ally thought [my ill­ness] had caught up with me.”

There had been few warn­ing signs, he ex­plains.

“Iron­i­cally, even though I had this dis­ease, my im­mune sys­tem was very strong so I didn’t tend to get sick of­ten. I had a fever and a cou­ple of days later I got up and took stock of my­self and my eyes were the colour of ba­nanas.”

He was given the green light to go to the Games un­der su­per­vi­sion of spe­cial­ists, but sensed he was se­ri­ously un­well. “I’d turn up at the track and try to be high-en­ergy for the time when the ath­letes needed that, and then slink off and have a lie down.”

Grace was placed on the trans­plant list when he re­turned home, but it took al­most four months be­fore the call came to no­tify him that a donor had been found. He fi­nally un­der­went the op­er­a­tion last De­cem­ber.

De­spite the ma­jor na­ture of the trans­plant surgery and its af­ter-ef­fects, Grace saw an al­most in­stant im­prove­ment in his con­di­tion. He soon be­gan to pon­der the pos­si­bil­ity of com­pet­ing in the Bri­tish Trans­plant Games, in North La­nark­shire, sched­uled for this July.

Back in the sad­dle

Af­ter 12 weeks, he was able to sit on his Wat­tbike and pedal for five min­utes a cou­ple of times a week. “At the very be­gin­ning, I was rid­ing just to be sure I wasn’t go­ing to hurt my­self, and to see if I could pedal, given the mas­sive in­ci­sion in my ab­domen.”

He stepped it up grad­u­ally over the sub­se­quent weeks.

“Once I could do half an hour, I de­cided to go out­side. I went five kilo­me­tres; got 2.5km down the road and thought, ‘That's enough for now!’ I did that a cou­ple of times and within a few weeks I was go­ing out and do­ing an hour ev­ery sec­ond day.”

Grace’s road to the Trans­plant Games was not with­out com­pli­ca­tions. A liver trans­plant places mas­sive stresses on the body. The stress took its toll on Grace’s heart and he was ad­vised to stop rid­ing, mean­ing he was un­able to re­sume train­ing un­til the week be­fore the event.

Grace did not as­pire to win; he wanted to prove to him­self he could still ride. None­the­less, he fin­ished fifth in the 5km time trial, with a time of 10.36, and sev­enth in the 10km road race, in 20.44.

“I tried to down­play it to a lot of peo­ple, but I was re­ally ex­cited. It re­ally felt pretty amaz­ing; it’s been such a long time since I’ve been able to ride my bike with­out feel­ing not-right. It hurt be­cause it was hard, but it felt re­ally good too.”

Now back work­ing full-time at BC and with 100 per cent liver func­tion­al­ity for the first time in his life, Grace doesn’t un­der­es­ti­mate the sig­nif­i­cance of what’s hap­pened to him over the past year.

“Ev­ery now and then, you just catch your­self and it hits you: I shouldn’t be alive right now — what is go­ing on here? It’s quite sur­real. I’m here be­cause some­body else has given me a piece of their body — some­body who is now no longer here, some­one a fam­ily has lost. The psy­cho­log­i­cal side is just as heavy, maybe more so, than the phys­i­cal side.”

He has al­ready set more cy­cling tar­gets, be­gin­ning with the Euro­pean Trans­plant Games in Sar­dinia next sum­mer, fol­lowed by the World Trans­plant Games in New­cas­tle in 2019.

“I’ve got a long, long way to go,” he says, “but I just want to be able to go out and en­joy it.”

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