By John Stifler
Special to The Conway Daily Sun
PINKHAM NOTCH — The Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb has been no stranger to inspiring athletes racing in the face of long odds. In recent years, the Hillclimb has welcomed cyclists with cystic fibrosis and double knee replacements. Now a New Hampshire cyclist with Parkinson’s disease will add to the list of inspiring figures who have faced the challenge of pedaling up the extraordinarily steep 7.6-mile Auto Road to the summit of the highest peak in the northeastern United States.
The 46th annual Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8:35 a.m. The weather postponement backup date is Sunday, Aug.19.
Brian Hall, 56, of Hampton, began showing symptoms of severe foot cramping and rigidity when he was just 15. These were later accompanied by debilitating headaches, stiffness and balance issues. For 11 years the correct diagnosis was elusive.
“My neurologist said I was the healthiest sick person he had even met,” said Hall recently.
Eventually Parkinson’s was confirmed, and Hall has been coping with the disease for 42 years. Adjusting to impairments in movement and balance and to other symptoms that cannot be reversed, Hall has responded by living as active a life as possible — including, this month, bicycling up one of the hardest climbs in the world.
Professional cyclists have called the Mt. Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb as difficult as the hardest climbs in the Tour de France. As it rises to Mt. Washington’s 6288-foot summit, the Auto Road offers not a single moment of level surface where the rider might take a break from hard pedaling.
“If anyone asked me why I was attempting to climb Mt. Washington on a bike,” Hall remarked, “I would say, ‘Because I can’t walk it!’ Seriously, I would like people to know that catastrophic health news isn’t necessarily the end. I like to think of it as a new beginning.”
All his adult life, Hall has pursued various ways of adjusting to his disease. In 2007 he underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), in which electrodes are implanted into a targeted part of the brain and then an impulse-generator battery is installed, which works like a pacemaker. The intent of the operation is for this battery to send impulses (which can be controlled by an on/off switch) to block electrical signals that cause Parkinson’s symptoms.
Hall was also on medication to help with the symptoms that come with Parkinson’s disease but got off it 10 years ago as he believed the side effects were killing him slowly.
In the Hillclimb, Hall will use an E-bike, equipped with a motorized support system that becomes engaged when the cyclist pedals — a necessary accommodation for someone with this terrible disease. But do not let the assistance of the E-bike fool you on Brian’s athleticism. Brian has skied on the slopes of Mont Blanc in the Alps.
“I haven’t had that feeling of exhilaration since then,” he said this summer, explaining that part of his motivations to compete in the Auto Road is to gain on Mount Washington the same kind of excitement he felt in the French Alps.
As he continues to live an adventurous life, Hall is also writing a book about his journey. Its title: “Not Afraid to Fall.”
“I go out into the real world, and I sometimes stumble and fall,” he says in the book’s introduction. “If I were concerned about how people saw me, I'd never leave home. I owe this disease great credit for who I've become."
The Hillclimb is the main annual fund-raising event for the Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, which provides environmental and recreational education for children, schools and families in communities in the White Mountains and the Mount Washington Valley. The entry fee of $350 includes a substantial (and tax-deductible) donation to the Center. Registration for the 2018 Hillclimb is still open. Interested riders can register at bikereg.com/mwarbh. The registration deadline is this Monday, Aug. 13 at 11:59 p.m.