This man is no stranger to extraordinary challenges. At 28 James Golding was diagnosed with cancer and given a less than 5% chance of surviving emergency surgery. He endured potentially lethal chemotherapy and began ‘giving something back’ by combining a passion for cycling with cancer charity fundraising. Then, while riding his bike in the USA, he was hit by a truck at high speed and found slumped in a ditch. He survived, but on the first anniversary of that crash he got a phone call to say his cancer was back.
Despite these obstacles, James is now training to become the first Brit to win the gruelling Race Across America (RAAM) and defy the disease that twice tried to kill him – RSNG spoke to him to find out how he keeps pedalling in the face of adversity…
RSNG Do you fear that another knockout punch is just around the corner?
JAMES GOLDING, ULTRA CYCLIST ‘No, haha! I really wouldn’t get too far if I did. Today is 10 years to the day that I was diagnosed with cancer. When things like that hit you, I believe that you call upon an instinct to fight them.’
RSNG So your ability to bounce back is instinctive?
JG ‘Partly. I watch my 10-month-old daughter now doing what we all had to do at some point; drag ourselves across the floor, pick ourselves up grabbing the nearest piece of furniture, then fall on one’s arse, and try again. We all have that determination get off our arses and try again.’
RSNG What was it like, 10 years ago to the day, when you ‘fell on your arse’ as an adult?
JG ‘It was November 2008. I’d had weeks of this incredible lower back pain. The scans showed it was a 11.5cm (4.5 in) tumour wedged between my spine, kidney and bowel. By late February 2009 I’d dropped from 14 stone to just six. I’d lost the ability to walk. On the 24th of that month, just before midnight, I was rushed into emergency surgery. I suffered an arrest on the operating table. The doctors expected me to die.’
RSNG You thought otherwise, though?
JG ‘I don’t know what I thought. I later discovered that they found that the tube they had put in to feed me had eroded through the back of my bowel and so all of the food they being pumped in to me, along with all the food I was eating was actually being pumped into my cavity. I had peritonitis and septicaemia. After the operation, and two weeks in an induced coma, I started on the long road to recovery.’
‘At 28 years old I had to learn how to sit, eat and walk again’
RSNG A road to recovery that included cycling?
JG ‘Eventually, yes. It started with wiggling my toes, moving my legs until I could walk to the toilet. Once home I started to ride the bike – it’s still an escape, allowing me to process what has happened to me.’
RSNG You’ve kept riding ever since?
JG ‘I ride ever more demanding challenges now. It’s partly because I feel the need to do so, to affirm that the cancer isn’t going to stop me, but also because I can’t just say to people: “Sponsor me, I’m cycling 200 miles.” They would say: “Yeah? Then what will you do after breakfast?” I’m not intending to sound cocky – it’s just that expectations have changed.’
RSNG Raised expectations that bring you to the Race Across America (RAAM)?
JG ‘I want to be the first Brit to win the RAAM. I’m fixated by the event. I know how incredibly tough it is. You start at sea level and ride the first 1,449km (900 miles), climbing to 3,800m (12,500ft), through 55°C (131°F) of desert heat. It’s a four-lane carriageway running the same length as Land’s End to John O’ Groats… and it’s climbing all the way with no hairpin bends. The road surface, temperatures, climate, traffic and altitude – all are against you.’
RSNG Cycling in the US almost killed you, though?
JG ‘Yes, in 2010. I went to ride across America to fundraise, but was hit by a truck driving 70mph (113kph) on a road to New Orleans. When I was found I’d lost the skin on my legs and hands, I’d broken several ribs and smashed up my elbow. But within three weeks I was back on the bike.’
RSNG Fundraising isn’t the only motivation?
JG ‘No. Family is a huge factor. When my son got wind of me attempting the 7-day Guinness World Record he started telling everyone about his “Daddy”. That was real pressure – I had to make sure I did it then! I’m very fortunate. I don’t win scratch cards, but I’ve beaten cancer twice and despite having been told that it [cancer] had robbed me of the chance to be a dad, our second child was born this year.’
RSNG How do you deal with bad news?
JG ‘While we were expecting our little boy, I got confirmation the cancer had come back. It was another ‘fall’. But as I waited for a specialist surgeon to become available I completed the Great Swim Series, a three-day London to Paris ride, the London Triathlon and Etape Caledonia. I finished the three-day Alpine Challenge race on the Saturday and was on the operating table on the Monday. Two weeks’ after the second operation, Freddie was born. Miracles do happen.’
‘Last year I rode 1,766 miles in one week to break the 7-day Guinness World Record’
RSNG Physically, are up for a race no Brit has ever won?
JG ‘For sure. A lot of Brits who try but fail to finish the RAAM fall down because they don’t comprehend just what a beast it is. Last year I rode 2,842.2km (1,766 miles) in one week to break the 7-day Guinness World Record. I get told by elite riders that I have a great engine. I completed the World Record with a couple of hours to spare – but I still don’t consider myself a great cyclist, so I guess it’s the mental thing that I have to work on still.’
RSNG How do you train for a RAAM?
JG ‘Before the RAAM I’m training to ride from London to Paris and back as fast as I can. Ultimately these rides work into the plan that we have for RAAM. I’ve been training in Portugal, riding 450 miles a week. Sessions range from 6.5 hours some days to just one hour the next. I know I’m better at doing long rides at a sensible pace, than short rides flat out.’
RSNG What about training in the UK over the winter?
JG ‘I use a WATTBIKE (indoor trainer) to warm up on, or on really cold days I ride it after I’ve come back from a road session – just until the feeling returns. I prefer to ride outdoors. The key is to ride routes that you know well and don’t have to stop on. I’d rather do three-hour rides over winter – they’re shorter, more honest rides.’
‘Getting the right kit is key; rain membrane, shoe covers and gloves are essential. Because of the effect chemotherapy had on the blood flow in my hands I find wearing surgical gloves beneath my cycling ones really helpful. You sweat, but they keep the hands toasty warm – just don’t take them off and expose your wet hands to the cold air.’
RSNG What keeps you going on those cold days?
JG ‘Often the celebration of an achievement wipes out the recollection of what you went through to get there. At 28 years old, I had to learn how to walk, I had to learn how to sit, eat and walk again. With everything I do now, I always reflect back to weighing six stone and being unable to lift my own head off the pillow – nothing I ever put myself through is ever going to compare to that, I very much hope!’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Distance Over Time, the account of James Golding’s early battles with cancer, in the saddle.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.