Lyme disease: why we need to tackle it now

More awareness is needed of this little-understood disease that is damaging the health of too many triathletes

Credit: Daniel Seex

Its crippling lethargy prematurely curtails the pursuits of countless pro and amateur triathletes. Yet despite 14% year-on-year growth in cases throughout Europe, few are aware of Lyme disease, fewer appreciate how close we may brush to the tick-borne bacteria every day, and fewer still understand how to diagnose and set a path to recovery. 


It derailed the career of multiple IM champ Mary Beth Ellis and forced Canada’s Commonwealth Games silver medallist, Kirsten Sweetland, into retirement, aged just 28. For Sweetland’s compatriot, Angela Naeth, it began last November with flu-like symptoms that progressed to headaches, muscle spasms, anxiety and depression. 

As training became increasingly caffeine-fuelled to ward off the weariness, blood tests revealed only slight inflammation. Yet by April, Naeth was housebound and spent seven straight days in bed. “I was told it was a virus and to take a fortnight off,” she says. “The symptoms got worse. I was going crazy and wanted to rip my body from my head.” Naeth also continued to race, as there was no diagnosis and it was her profession. “Everyone around me said it could just be mental,” she adds. “But the burning pain and headaches wouldn’t go away.”

It eventually took a DNA test from a specialist to confirm Lyme and two co-infections that affect the neurological and muscular system. Five different antibiotics, detox and a variety of immune-boosting medication addressed the condition, and Naeth even finished an impressive eighth at the Ironman Worlds. “It was the best performance of my career so far,” she says. “And, knock on wood, I’m 100% healthy.” 

Lesley Paterson, Scotland’s three-time Xterra world champion, is also proving perseverance pays off. At the peak of her career in 2011, Paterson was diagnosed with Lyme and even chanced a radical faecal microbial transplant, where a donor’s healthy bacteria-laden faeces was implanted into her gut. After a six-year hiatus, Paterson fought
back to regain her Xterra crown in Maui in October. 

But not everyone has the finance or guidance to find solutions. Around 4% of UK ticks carry the bacteria, with joggers brushing through foliage thought particularly at risk. Yet the basic NHS blood test – ELISA – is prone to false negatives. I spoke to a British age-grouper, who became so disaffected by the system he spent thousands on blood tests abroad before Lyme was detected. 


If a breakthrough is to come, it will be in no small part to Phones 4U founder John Cauldwell, a self-confessed “vigilante” against Lyme, who last year proffered “significant funds” to the Department of Health to tackle the disease. The businessman and Lyme-sufferer has established Caudwell LymeCo charity with a goal of curing every UK patient on the NHS. Given there are ‘officially’ 3,000 new cases in the UK each year, and those living an outdoors lifestyle are most at risk, it’s a cause the endurance community should support.