Bruce Campbell defies Pompe disease to beat Cape Epic 2017

Bruce Campbell flying through some fast-flowing singletrack in the forests during stage three of the Absa Cape Epic 2017. Photo: Cape Epic website

Bruce Campbell defied everything that medical doctors and textbooks say about the human body when he crossed the finish line at the 2017 Absa Cape Epic.

The 29-year-old is different from most athletes his age, and suffers from a rare neuromuscular disease. Despite the odds stacked against him, Bruce overcame this condition to complete the race for the first time, with race partner Anthony Daniels.

The pair was later chosen as the winners of the #ConquerAsOne initiative, embodying the will and perseverance to overcome challenges as a team.

Bruce shares the story of realising his Cape Epic dream with the hope of inspiring other athletes who may be in a similar position to him:

Discovering that something was wrong

This time of my life was filled with many moments of self-doubt, false diagnoses, excruciating pain and at times, complete despair.  I was on an emotional roller coaster of hitting rock bottom, then dragging myself to the next set of specialist doctors (who would more than likely falsely diagnose me or tell me that they had no clue what was wrong with me).

My first incident of complete muscle failure and extreme pain was nine years ago. I was doing a trail race when all of a sudden, my body was in complete agony and I couldn’t walk. It took me an hour and a half to lift each leg with my arms and move them one at a time to get to help. As a multisport athlete, I’d experience more of these incidents in different sports from then, but only once every few months. Fast forward seven years later, and they were occurring weekly, even to the point where I struggled to function for a few days and landed up bed-ridden.

As a school teacher I was dealing with constant and extreme pain, and often had to teach sitting down. After recess one day, I climbed the stairs to get to my class and I could not lift my legs – that was the point where I was completely helpless.

Living with Pompe disease

An amazing doctor admitted me into hospital and took extra care because I taught his daughter at my school. He was initially just the mediator in getting specialists to run tests, but after a few months of drawing vials of blood and a muscle biopsy from my leg, he was the doctor that actually diagnosed me with the very rare genetic disease known as Pompe disease. It causes extreme muscle weakness and pain, and is the result of a build up of a complex sugar called glycogen in the body’s cells. This impairs organs from functioning normally when exercising or during any other strenuous activity.

I taught myself more about the condition and changed my diet, which made a huge difference. In a strange sequence of events, I was put in touch with Kelly du Plessis from Rare Diseases South Africa. She broke the amazing news that there was a treatment for my disease that would slow the deterioration of my muscles! And this would help me  in the long run to live the fullest possible life.

She then told me that the price of the medicine was R340,000 a month… my heart sank. I could never afford one month’s worth, but she reassured me that my medical aid will cover it as it is part of my prescribed minimum benefits. We began doing all the tests to get the enzyme replacement therapy approved, and I am so pleased to say that I started treatment in July 2016. I have seen a huge difference since then and am now able to be a lot more active without as much pain; I just cannot do any activities at too high of an intensity.

Bruce Campbell savouring the moment of reaching the mountain ridgeline overlooking the beautiful Elgin Valley.  fifth stage of the Epic at this point, he’d really put in the distance ! Photo: Cape Epic website.

Nothing in life should hold you back from chasing your dreams

I have done lots of research using sports science studies to see how I could improve my body’s ability to utilise fat as an energy source instead of glycogen. When my body looks for glycogen and can’t break it down, my body starts breaking down my muscles, which leads the extreme pain I experience during those times. Through a trial and error process I also worked out that in a multi-stage event, I seem to get better with each day as my body doesn’t have enough time to store glycogen.

I started off doing smaller stage races like the two-day Fish River Sun stage race, and then moved onto the three-day Great Zuurberg Trek stage race. Eventually, I gained the confidence to do the (very tough) four-day PEPlett mountain bike stage race.

I did all these events hoping to create awareness for Rare Diseases South Africa, educate people about the various kinds of rare diseases, and perhaps help the people suffering from them to find a diagnosis. The Absa Cape Epic was bit of a risk to enter, but the awareness I’d be able to create outweighed my personal feelings. I was granted an entry into the event with consent from my doctor, and I signed up for the world’s toughest eight-day mountain bike stage race!

Pompes disease, cycling, endurance sport, Cape Epic, inspirational, Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell and Anthony Daniels embrace hands they cross the finish line of the final stage of the Epic after 691km. Photo: Cape Epic website.

When two are better than one

Anthony and I started training about six months before the race, waking up before 4am each day and riding for at least two hours, sometimes even riding twice a day. We’d then do longer 5-7 hours rides over the weekend. There were times where I’d experience extreme pain and would be unable to do any exercise for a while, and would have to build up slowly when I could start training again.

Carving up some of the most Cape Epic’s mind blowing trails was pretty sweet. I had huge problems with my body right in the very beginning in the prologue. Anthony really had to push me and we had to stop under a tree for a while. We managed to finish, but I was so scared that my body would not cope if I was having issues so early on, and in the shortest stage!

Anthony played a huge role in having a great strategy each day to just get to the finish line before the cut off time. Each day felt like the toughest mountain bike race ever, so I had to focus on just finishing one day at a time. His brilliant strategy was to keep our tempo constant all day – we’d start off slow and build to a comfortable pace, and then stay there. It really worked – each day so many people would start off fast, and then we would pass them later when they were broken after pushing too hard in the beginning. Anthony always asked how I was feeling, stopped if my heart rate was getting too high and was super patient through it all.

The things that kept me going

In the moments that I’d stop and ask myself why I was doing those, I’d think of a little boy named Juan. He is my biggest fan. He is also fighting his way through life with Pompe disease, which is so much worse for children than the late-onset disease. His mom is the founder of Rare Diseases South Africa, she helped me get onto the life-changing treatment I needed, and also always sends me photos and videos of Juan giving me messages of encouragement. I draw my strength from knowing that I can make a huge difference in so many other lives, and help people gain supportive care for an improved quality of life.

Crossing that finish line and winning the Conquer As One award was something special. I had no idea that there was such a competition and was really taken back that the Absa Epic people knew about my struggles. I have always lived by and adopted the mentality that nothing in life should ever hold you back from chasing your dreams, and that’s something that has been proven true over and over again.

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