Mariah Zebrowski Leach has rheumatoid arthritis (RA). She is also the busy mom of two sons, a blogger, and the creator of the Mamas Facing Forward, a Facebook group about parenting with a chronic illness. And she recently rode in the California Coast Classic, an eight-day, 525-mile bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to benefit The Arthritis Foundation. We talked about her life and the ride.
Health Central (HC): Please tell us about yourself.
Mariah: I live near Boulder, Colorado with my husband and two little boys, who are 2 and 4 years old. I was diagnosed with RA when I was 25 years old and in the middle of working on a law degree and a masters in environmental policy. When my husband and I got married, we wanted to start a family. I didn’t think I could handle RA, starting a family, and starting a career all at the same time. For the past three years, I’ve been primarily focused on starting a family.
There were no resources to help me make the challenging decisions on starting a family. I started putting together resources for other moms who might be going through this so they don’t have to feel less alone as I did. I also started the Facebook group Mamas Facing Forward.
HC: A month ago you rode in the California Coast Classic, an intense bike ride from San Francisco to LA to benefit The Arthritis Foundation. One word: why?
Mariah: The first time my husband did the ride was just after our first son was born — he wanted to support me because of how difficult it had been for me to go through the pregnancy. When I reached a point recently when my Biologic was working really well and I felt better than I have been many years, I thought “maybe this is my chance.” Being an athlete used to be really important to me before being diagnosed with RA, and it’s been missing from my life in the past eight years. I thought this might be the opportunity to reclaim that part of my life at least a little bit. So I went for it.
HC: How did you prepare?
Mariah: I tried to ride as much as possible, but didn’t get as much in as I would’ve liked. There was definitely also a certain emotional, mental preparation. A lot of self-doubt, of what have I done, can I do this, am I crazy? My husband reminded me that the California Coast Classic family, the people who do the ride year after year, are wonderful people and they’d support me. There’s an SAG van supporting the riders and I could stop riding any time. He also said no one was going to judge me based on how much I did. Trying to give myself credit for whatever I was able to accomplish instead of focusing on what I couldn’t helped.
HC: What was the ride like, for you and your RA?
Mariah: I was prepared for pain in my hips and knees and legs, but hadn’t really thought about the effect on my hands. Some of the roads were nice, but some were really choppy, which was really hard on my hands. Ironically, my knees and legs did fine.
The day we were coming out of Big Sur, there are two giant climbs they call the Twin Sisters. All the riders talk about how hard they are, but I was able to do them. Slowly, with lots of stops for resting, but I did the whole thing. That was an amazing feeling of physical accomplishment that I haven’t had in many years.
I didn’t ride every single mile, but it will feel like a pretty awesome accomplishment.
I’d asked people to give me their name to ride with me, wrote them on a green ribbon, and wrapped it on my bike. Being able to look down on all those people who thought it was a cool idea to be able to take on a crazy challenge while having RA helped me keep going.
HC: What is next for you?
Mariah: My bike is still in pieces in my garage, and I’m OK with taking a rest. I am excited to have discovered cycling as a relatively low-impact way to be an athlete. I will continue to do it as a form of exercise in spring when the snow melts. Hopefully, we’ll do a lot more snowboarding this winter. It’s a very Colorado [activity] that it’s nice to be able to participate in. Some day in the future we may do the ride again.
I want to grow the Mamas Facing Forward Facebook group as a resource for people starting a family and those who are trying to figure out how to take care of kids when you aren’t feeling well. Also, when I was in law school, I was involved in writing “International Environmental Law in a Nutshell.” I’m currently updating it and it’s great to be using that part of my brain again.
Follow Mariah on her blog From This Point. Forward.