Cycling with an ICD

Martin Woolcott

Martin Woolcott adjusted to life with an ICD and now he can’t stop cycling. He tells Rachael Healy about his biggest biking adventures. 

“My most memorable ride was the Maratona dles Dolomites in 2014,” says Martin Woolcott. “It’s tough – you’re cycling up and down eight mountains – but when you cross that finish line, there’s the euphoria and you want to do it all again.”

Martin has an abnormal heart rhythm and in 2008 was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), but you’d never know it. Most days of the week, you’ll find him on his bike. He’s ridden the Mendip Hills in Bristol, defeated the Dartmoor Classic, scaled the mighty Italian Dolomites and covers up to 40 hilly miles cycling to and from work.

“My proudest moment was completing the Prudential RideLondon 100 last year,” he says. “My son Edward said he’d do it with me, and between us we raised almost £1,300 for the BHF.”

My first ride was the Dartmoor Classic... I raised about £800 for the BHF

Martin, 51, wasn’t always a cyclist, but he’s always been active. When he left school, he was a keen rugby player, filling the roles of wing and goal-kicker. Later in life, he trained to be a football referee and adjudicated at matches for leagues of all ages. He’s always played a bit of cricket too.

During his rugby days, he’d sometimes feel a strange sensation after a blast of running. “All of a sudden, I would feel very dizzy and I would have to stand still for five to 10 seconds,” says Martin. “I put it down to being an active person and my body telling me I’d done a bit too much.”

He forgot about these dizzy spells until he became a referee in his mid-40s. “Not only was I getting this sensation of dizziness, which was more disconcerting at that age, but my legs were turning to jelly,” he says. “During summer 2008, while I was refereeing an under-eights game in a tournament, I actually keeled over. It was then that I decided to seek medical help.”

Looking for answers

Following an appointment with his GP, Martin was referred to Torbay Hospital, where he underwent an exercise ECG test, also known as a stress test, on a treadmill. This examination looks at how your heart works while you’re active, but the symptoms Martin had been experiencing during football matches didn’t materialise.

Martin Woolcott “The consultant wanted to get to the bottom of it. I suggested I could wear a heart monitor, if necessary, and he loaned me one [a cardiac event recorder] that went round my neck,” Martin explains. “Then, lo and behold, that Saturday while I was refereeing, the symptoms came again. I was able to press a button on the monitor and it retained all of the information.

“It was the first time that not only did I get the dizziness, but I actually blacked out and collapsed on the field. It transpired that my heart was beating at around 280bpm.”

Martin returned to Torbay Hospital, where cardiologists investigated his condition. An angiogram revealed his arteries were in good condition. “The consultant said: ‘I’m a plumber, you need an electrician.’ There was something wrong electrically, something wrong with my heartbeat.” Martin was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia and was transferred to Exeter Hospital to have an ICD fitted.

A new chapter

Martin wanted to get back to refereeing, but wasn’t sure he’d pass the Football Association’s health tests. Keen to get moving again, he took up walking. “Having always been fit and played sports, I wondered what I could do next,” he says.

In summer 2009, while in Moretonhampstead with his son, Martin spotted cyclists riding the Dartmoor Classic. “I thought: ‘I want to do that’,” he says. “I decided I could raise money for the BHF. Somebody was doing something years ago that allowed me to be lucky. So, in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, somebody might benefit from the money I raise.”

Before the fundraising could start, Martin needed a bike. Using the Cycle to Work scheme, he got a hybrid bicycle and began travelling to the office on it at least once a week, building up stamina for longer rides.

I just enjoy life, because I’ve got a second chance to do things

After a few months of training, he was ready. “My first ride was the Dartmoor Classic. I raised about £800 for the BHF doing that in 2010,” says Martin. “I decided to do it again in 2011.” Martin was hooked. In 2011, he signed up to numerous cycling events.

“There was the Lionheart out of Longleat, and I did a Black Rat Challenge, which is round the Mendips in Bristol,” he says. “Then there was the Dartmoor Classic again, and I went round the Isle of Wight on the Wight Ferry Sportive.”

This year, Martin will complete the RideLondon 100 again, Velothon Wales, the Rise Above Sportive with Mark Cavendish and the Tour de Yorkshire – all to raise even more money for the BHF.

It hasn’t been a completely smooth ride; a rain-soaked Bristol Belter in September 2011 led to Martin fracturing his hip. He didn’t let this dampen his passion for cycling, though. Before long he was back in the saddle. Similarly, on the three occasions his ICD triggered, he’s stayed positive.

“Every time it’s triggered, I’ve not had the symptoms I was displaying previously,” he says. “It constantly monitors what my heart is doing, so it’s never got to that stage where I’m collapsing. It is working.

“I just enjoy life, because I’ve got a second chance to do things. I’m here to enjoy myself, whether that’s on my bike, at home or out with Edward. I’m lucky.”

Help Martin raise money for us at his JustGiving page or text WOOL65 + donation amount to 70070.

Martin’s tips for getting started

Find your nearest bike shop

It’s important to find a style of bike to suit your needs. “You can get loads of advice from your local cycling shop,” says Martin. Town bikes are good for relaxed rides, but if you aspire to long routes like Martin, you may need a road bike. With hybrid, mountain, folding and electric bikes too, there’s something for everyone.

Read more about how to beg, borrow or repair a bike.

Use the National Cycle Network

This network of traffic-free and leisurely routes covers 14,000 miles of the UK. “For those who are worried about cycling on the road, you can go off-road, onto quieter roads or onto old railway tracks,” says Martin. “For those who haven’t been cycling for a long time, this will help you become more confident. Take your time; it’s about the enjoyment of cycling, seeing the countryside that you’d miss in a car.”

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