After experiencing leg pain for many years, Jerry VanStrien finally learned just how far his legs could take him.
About 3,200 miles. On a bike. On a mission.
His leg problems began after a quarter-century of driving trucks.
“If you’re sitting down a lot, the circulation isn’t good in the legs,” he said. “Quite often I had leg pain while driving and even at home.”
Following back surgery in the 1990s for herniated discs, the Hudsonville, Michigan, resident developed spinal stenosis. Therapists encouraged him to ride a bike, and ride it often.
But 15 years later, a new kind of pain surfaced.
“I was getting more and more leg pain as I was driving,” VanStrien said. “I knew it was something else.”
His primary care physician referred him to the Spectrum Health Vein Center, where he underwent an ultrasound.
“They found multiple valves in both legs that weren’t working right,” he said. “You have valves in there that keeps the blood from pooling. Mine were not closing properly. Older people get it a lot and truck drivers get it a lot. It can cause a clot, which can cause a stroke or heart attack.”
In November 2017, VanStrien underwent a procedure to repair his veins.
Jennifer Watson, MD, a vascular surgeon with the Spectrum Health Vein Center, increased blood flow to both of his legs by facilitating new blood flow paths through healthier veins.
“They actually destroy the vein because your body has the ability to send that blood to other veins and increase the size of them,” VanStrien said. “There were four spots in both legs they worked on.”
The results have kept his bike tires spinning.
“It’s made quite a difference,” he said. “It’s better than normal. Normal for me was there was always muscle ache. It got really bad five or six years ago, so I started doing more long-distance bike rides. I feel the best when I’m on my bike. That’s when I have the best blood flow.”
VanStrien had pedaled across Michigan before, but a month after his procedure he set a goal that made even him nervous: 3,200 miles across the United States, to raise money for multiple sclerosis.
Could he actually pedal that far? Would leg pain flare, causing him to abort the mission?
“I rode with them for one week last year and kind of got the bug for it,” he said. “I decided, ‘If you’re going to do this, now is the time. You’re getting older.'”
VanStrien, 57, trained on a bike in his basement during the winter and rode with friends and solo after the weather warmed.
“I rode with groups around here one or two times a week and I’d ride 30 to 50 miles after work and on weekends,” he said. “I think that really set me up good. I did 2,800 miles in training.”
In June, he drove to Virginia to join the Bike the US for MS group. They rolled out on June 11 from the Virginia-Kentucky state line.
Destination? San Francisco.
“I was nervous,” VanStrien said. “My wife was nervous. It was the longest we’ve been apart since we got married 29 years ago.”
En route, VanStrien and his group camped or slept at churches, civic centers and libraries.
“We started with 23 on our team, but lost two in Kentucky to broken collarbones (caused by bike spills),” VanStrien said.
He rode through rain, over prairies and up mountains. Many eight-hour days. Some 10-hour days. Sometimes more than 100 miles per day.
“I’m probably in the best physical shape I’ve been in since I was in high school,” he said. “I didn’t have any issues with my legs. None. At one point on the trip, I was even down 20 pounds from when I had started.”
VanStrien said he was especially nervous about how his body and legs would handle elevation and pedaling mountainous inclines.
“You get past Pueblo, Colorado, and you start doing some climbing,” he said. “You go up over Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide. It’s 5,000 or 6,000 feet then Monarch Pass is 11,000.”
For nearly two hours, he climbed. All uphill, a 4 to 6 percent grade.
Around and around his legs churned, in his bike’s lowest gear.
“I just kept going,” VanStrien said. “My biggest fear was getting winded. It was pretty cold at the top, about 54 degrees, but my legs didn’t tighten up.”
He kept going and going and going.
On Aug. 1, he rolled into San Francisco with the Bike the US for MS team, raising more than $95,000 for multiple sclerosis. After pedaling his way through his own health troubles, VanStrien feels grateful to be able to hopefully help others, through research, with theirs.
“It was a beautiful ride,” VanStrien said, referring not only to his trip, but also metaphorically to his health journey. “Pictures just don’t say enough.”
Dr. Watson said she’s impressed that VanStrein was able to pedal across the country on his bicycle.
“That is great,” Dr. Watson said. “I am so amazed.”