Balclutha cyclist’s courage overrides heart condition

Cyclist Shirley Johnstone can suffer a cardiac arrest or unconsciousness if she over-exerts herself, yet she completed a 656km cycle to raise funds for the Heart Foundation.

Cyclist with a heart condition

Tour of New Zealand Heart Racer Shirley Johnstone   Photo: SAMUEL WHITE / OTAGO DAILY TIMES

The 55-year-old Balclutha farmer is relaxed about taking on the big distances on her bike despite her hereditary Romano-Ward syndrome.

“I just go with it. So long as I’m not pushed to go up too many hills. Even that’s ok, there is always walking,” laughs Johnstone.

“I know my heartbeat. I wear a heart monitor, when it reaches a certain level I have to slow down or pull over.”

Johnstone took part in the eight-day North Island leg of the Tour of New Zealand with approximately 200 riders who met 200 South Island riders in Wellington on 08 April for a criterium race at the Beehive.

Family history

For Johnstone, raising funds for the Heart Foundation was an “obvious choice”. Her mother also underwent a quadruple bypass and her father died of a heart attack aged just 42, when she was a teenager.

“He was meant to go to hospital the next day for tests but he never got there. He had been to the doctor who should have sent him straight to the hospital, as they do now. They have learnt a lot since then.”

Cycling became part of her life about 16 years ago after a week of an erratic, racing heartbeat saw her admitted to hospital. She was told she had to “give up the smokes and slow down”.

“I went home and pondered it and I thought, ‘bugger it, I am only going to get one chance at this’. I chucked the smokes away.

“I didn’t get on the bike straight away. I slowed down and I had a bit of a rest but after a while I thought ‘well I have got to do something. I have to take my mind off it’.”

Start slowly

So she started with a combination of walking and biking. At first, she rode a mountain bike because she lives on a gravel road, then that progressed to a road bike. 

Training has to be done at nights and weekends to fit around farming life.

“At the moment I probably do three to four rides a week of 30 to 60km per ride.”

Johnstone completed the South Island leg of the Tour in 2015 and absolutely loved it. She says her focus this year was just to make the start and the finish, as she did the first time.

“You just get up and ride your bike every morning – you don’t have to worry about anyone else. I don’t think people would call it a holiday but it is great fun, and you meet an amazing group of people who provide a lot of encouragement and support.”

Romano-Ward syndrome is an inherited cardiac condition which affects the heart’s electrical system. Symptoms vary in each person from no symptoms at all, to episodes of abnormally fast heartbeats causing unconsciousness, cardiac arrest and potentially, sudden death. 

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