'I was struggling to cope with my husband's MS – mountain biking saved me'

Aneela McKenna loves mountain biking. High-adrenaline, two-wheel adventures make her feel on top of the world. But more than that, cycling is what helps Aneela cope with her husband’s MS diagnosis.

Aneela found sport as an adult and she appreciated it all the more having been unable to take part when she was younger because of difficulties at home.

My mum suffered from depression and chronic ill health after years of living with domestic abuse,’ explains Aneela. ‘She was brave enough to leave her abuser when I was nine years old, but she suffered in silence and continued to experience issues with her mental health.

‘I remember having to look after myself, dress myself, get myself to school and look after Mum. I didn’t have any aspirations, I was there to take care of my Mum and deal with the consequences of the abuse she experienced all those years from my father.’

It’s no wonder then that Aneela didn’t have the brain space to make sport a part of her life growing up. Like so many women, her school-age experiences of physical activity weren’t exactly inspiring.

‘I remember sport at school felt like a burden,’ she says. ‘I used to pretend that it was that “time of the month” frequently to just get out of gym class.

‘I was a right wee rebel because I was one of the few Asian kids in the school. I wanted to be the trouble maker – I wanted to be accepted. Deep down I was embarrassed because we didn’t have much money and I didn’t have a parent picking up me up the school gates after school every day.

It was only when my mother passed away that I discovered my passion for sport. 

‘I knew that I didn’t want the life my mum had, and she wouldn’t have wanted that for me either. I also knew that my mission in life would be to give others the opportunities that I didn’t have, particularly those going through hardship – and sport would be the avenue to achieve this.’

In her 20s, Aneela trained to be a fitness instructor and ran classes all over Glasgow for women from socially deprived backgrounds.

‘I loved seeing the difference in the women after a few sessions – feeling fitter and stronger and more confident in themselves. They were like me. They had limited aspirations and influences and it was amazing how much fitness changed their lives.  

‘I gave that all up to pursue a career in diversity and inclusion, but by getting into mountain biking in the last few years, it has reminded me that I can share my passion with others. If we are fit and strong we will be confident and if we are confident we will be happy.’

Aneela never rode bikes as a kid. It was something her dad would never have approved of.

‘When my father was around he discouraged the girls in the family to do any kind of sport. It wasn’t right for young Pakistani girls to be doing such things,’ says Aneela.

‘My only recollection of riding a bike was getting a “backy” on my older brother’s chopper and it was so much fun!’

When Aneela met her husband Andy, he inspired her to start riding with him – meaning their meeting was the beginning of more than one kind of love affair.

‘I met Andy just after my mum passed away and our first date was a mountain bike ride in his local country park.

‘As I grew up in the city, I had never explored the countryside and I remember how beautiful it was to be outside in nature. He took me down some scary technical trails, I did it because I wanted to impress him – but inside I was terrified! 

‘I persevered and what I enjoyed most of all was being in the outdoors, away from the city, and that feeling of being a tiny dot in these wild rugged landscapes.

‘I pushed myself to keep up with the boys (back then there were very few women to ride with) and soon I was riding through magical glens and mountain all over Scotland.’

Aneela’s husband Andy was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2008, but she says they were in denial for years – they just didn’t want their lives to change.

‘We didn’t want to face up to what was ahead of us and we carried on as normal for years until we realised we couldn’t live a lie anymore,’ says Aneela.

‘Andy’s health was deteriorating, and I was making excuses for him more and more. We realised we had to be honest with ourselves.’

The pair launched an online campaign – Stoked on MS – as a way to raise awareness and create a dialogue about alternative treatments, holistic lifestyle strategies and stories of hope. 

Andy has even created a film called This Way Up which is all about coping with the diagnosis as a couple and connecting that journey to their love of mountain biking.

‘Our lives have changed so much in the last few years,’ says Aneela. ‘Andy follows the OMS 7 Steps to Recovery programme which include diet, exercise and meditation. I took the decision to join him in his journey and we would do it together.

‘Our diet is low in saturated fat, no dairy, no red meat and lots of fish and plant-based foods. The biggest change was cooking without oil and never could I have imagined that food good taste so good.

‘Since then we haven’t looked back and, while Andy still has flare ups, he has developed such a positive attitude to deal with his condition. Together we have raised nearly £50,000 for Overcoming MS through his film and other projects he has led as part of his campaign.

‘Facing adversity in the way we have has created a stronger bond between us. We might do things a little differently to before – our rides might be a little shorter and less steep – but we have the most amazing life together.’

Mountain biking has vastly improved Aneela’s life. Not only has it given her focus and purpose in the face of her husband’s diagnosis, but it has also helped her through personal times of crisis.

In 2017 I was almost at breaking point after a year of feeling unhappy and depressed,’ Aneela tells us. ‘I had lost my way and had forgotten what I wanted from life. I remember crying, sitting at the edge of the bed, so unhappy with myself and I was pushing myself further down a deep black hole.

‘I went off sick for a few months and decided to take a career break to “find myself”. I decided to head off, just me and my bike, and travel on my own – something I had never done before.

‘I knew that I had to do something that pushed me out my comfort zone because I knew the effect that would have at the other end. I toured all over the Scottish islands on my bike for a month and it was the best thing I could have ever done.

‘I was going through a healing process and making that journey on my bike gave me the confidence to confront what was going on.’

Connecting with nature and spending a month focusing on nothing but herself and her sport helped Aneela get to the heart of what was causing her pain. She knew what she had to do to get back to herself.

‘I realised that I had forgotten all about myself,’ says Aneela. ‘I was focused on my husband because there were so many life changes that had to be made for Andy to get him in a place where he was able to cope with his MS.

‘I know this sounds cliched, but there was an awakening in me. I was doing so much for everyone else and not dealing with my own personal problems. My husband’s health had affected me – being a partner of someone who has MS, I was very focused on my husband and it was important for to stay strong and positive for him.

‘I also realised that I was still carrying the burden of my mum all those years and that I had been angry and bitter. I couldn’t bear the thought of my mother having a short life because she was a victim of domestic abuse and as a consequence suffered metal health problems, isolation and depression.

‘I had been grieving all these years and I hadn’t let go.

‘Since that trip, my life has been the best it has ever been. My bond with Andy has never been as strong as it is today, I have gone part time in my job to pursue my passion – which is to get more women to ride bikes and to promote the benefits of what mountain biking can bring into everyday life.

‘I’ve made solo trips a regular feature in my life because they keep my head healthy.’

Aneela and Andy run a mountain biking tour company in Scotland, and Aneela wants to do everything she to help more women to get involved in the sport. Not least because she knows how it has transformed her own life so positively.

‘Mountain biking has given me so much,’ she says. ‘It keeps me fit, and it keeps me young at heart. It’s the only time when I switch off from the world of work and responsibilities and all you focus on is the trail ahead.

‘We are caught in this hamster wheel of life and we forget that if we want to move forward we need time to be in the moment to make that next step in life. Mountain biking helps build my resilience, which I bring into my everyday life.’

Mountain biking has become Aneela’s life. She rarely goes anywhere without her bike and she rides almost every other day. She’s even got rid of her car. It’s a far cry from the little girl who hated PE.

‘Be bold and get yourself out there don’t be afraid,’ says Aneela. ‘If fear gets in the way, find a way to challenge it and turn it into courage.

‘Once we’ve got that courage we can always pick ourselves up again when things don’t go the way we want them. That’s what I call a strong woman.’

Strong Women

Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.

A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.

But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.

We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.

Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.

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