Rowing against the current of Parkinson’s disease

David Blakey on the WaterDavid Blakey on the water
Photo credit: Lee Narraway

By David H. Blakey, D. Phil.

There I was, 63 years old, sitting in my 1997 Hudson single behind the start line for the 2015 Head of the Madawaska regatta in eastern Ontario. Cold rain was teeming down as we waited to be called to the start. I had promised myself months earlier that I would race again some day. It had been ten years since I last raced. But this was no ordinary challenge. It wasn’t enough to attain the necessary fitness to race, nor the control of balance and timing in the hull that was only 11 inches wide at its widest point. This was all out war against a disease that was robbing me of my physical being, Parkinson’s disease. This was my Everest.

In the summer of 2011, I went to see the doctor because I was having trouble handwriting. I had also stopped swinging my right arm when I walked, which I had initially attributed to a stressful job. The doctor didn’t like the way I looked and sent me for an assessment at the Ottawa Hospital Neurology Clinic. After some seemingly unusual tests, I was told that I did indeed have Parkinson’s disease.

At first, the disease did not seem to have a very profound effect, but eventually my gait and fine muscle control became impaired. Everything I read emphasized the importance of exercise in coping with Parkinson’s disease. I began to exercise seriously, both in the gym under the guidance of my physiotherapist, and by doing the two physical activities I loved the most; cycling and rowing.

Although the medication I was taking initially worked very well, I eventually developed problems doing aggressive exercise. When I cycled, I had balance problems and my legs couldn’t keep up with the pedals. When I rowed, my balance was poor and I could not keep up with the desired stroke rate. This happened when I was rowing my single alone and also when I rowed in a four-man boat, called a quad, with three of my rowing friends who were willing to tolerate my new reality. These deficiencies were hard to take. I had always been a keen cyclist, biking to work since I was a grad student until I moved so far from work that riding to work became impractical. I had rowed for about as long. To be clear, I am not a natural athlete and I was no super star at either activity, but I loved both sports. Given my size and shape, finishing a race in the middle of the pack was a good result.

Since the onset of the disease, my rowing had been getting steadily worse. Early on, I fell out of the boat twice after not doing so for almost thirty years. I became so unsteady in the boat that I couldn’t row safely on the Ottawa River, where the Ottawa Rowing Club is situated. I eventually began rowing occasionally on the Madawaska River, an hour west of Ottawa, where the water is calmer, shallower, and cleaner. Even there, I was still off balance and rowing poorly. My cycling continued to be slow and unsteady.

In the fall of 2014, my neurologist gave me a different medication to try when I was going to exercise. It worked really well and I was rowing and cycling as though I had never been diagnosed with a chronic disease. I was soon able to return to rowing on the challenging waters of the Ottawa River and I was cycling with greater control and speed. Rowing has been compared to a combination of weight lifting and golf, requiring the strength of weight lifting and the finesse of golf. You use most of your body and technique and timing are so important. The oars have to be manipulated through a complex series of movements with precision or you will swim. Regaining the ability to row, let alone to compete, took a serious effort and I have many people to thank who helped. None of this could have happened without my physiotherapist at NeuroLogic Physiotherapy in Nepean, who prepared me mentally as well as physically, teaching me to appreciate what I had rather than dwelling on what I had lost. My sincere thanks go to the management at the Ottawa Rowing Club who allowed me to keep my boat in their boathouse, while I was not really rowing enough to qualify for a rack, and the incredibly kind people at the Burnstown Rowing Club who welcomed me to row off of their docks and offered to accompany me when I rowed in case I had an accident.

Having vastly improved my performance on the river and the bike paths, I decided to commit to rowing a head race in the fall of 2015. In a head race, rowers are timed as they row over a set distance, much like a 10k running race. To prepare, I rowed as much as I could and when I didn’t row, I often biked so that I was reasonably fit. The day of the race at the Burnstown Rowing Club on the Madawaska River was coming. I had agreed to referee at the regatta (I am a licensed referee), so, I would be at the race site anyway. It was with great trepidation that I took my boat to the Madawaska course. Despite the progress I had made in pushing back against Parkinson’s disease, I was still not able to row as I did when I was younger. Early on, I seemed to have lost my muscle memory, but lately, it seemed to be back. But was that enough? I was terrified of making a fool of myself.

I finished the race. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it. I had trouble breathing and had to stop during the three kilometre race to catch my breath. Nevertheless, this was a massive victory for me. I didn’t win the race, but I didn’t come last either, and I gained so much in the process. This was an accomplishment that will give me the strength and willpower that I will need to face future challenges as I continue to live with Parkinson’s.

I learned some important lessons along the way. You can live a good life with Parkinson’s disease, but you have to push back against the debilitating effects of the disease. You have to exercise, exercise, exercise. Find something you love and do it. It doesn’t matter if you win the race or cycle, swim, or run the fastest, just do it. The victory is in the doing. I am convinced that it allows me to have a better day if I exercise. Finally, set a goal and build a team to help you achieve that goal.