Johnny and Becki Roden Share Virtual Cycling to Cope With the Loss of their Son Tommy

Jon and Becki Roden turn to Virtual Cycling to help them cope with PTSD following the death of their child.

June 27th was Tommy’s birthday. He would have been four. On the 3rd of July in 2017, Johnny and Becki Roden lost the youngest of their four sons to sepsis at only six days old.

 

“Tommy was born prematurely at 31 weeks,” opens Becki.  “He contracted an infection that put him into septic shock.”  Tommy never left the neonatal (NICU) unit.

Coping With PTSD Following the Death of a Child

Recent findings suggest that parents of children who die from any cause are more likely to suffer symptoms of traumatic stress and experience more severe problems with emotional dysregulation than occurs with the death of a spouse. 

 

Parents of children who die suffer a broad range of mental symptoms.  Depression causes intense sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and suicidal thoughts.

 

Parents also experience physical symptoms such as insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and obsessive thinking. (1)

The Loss of Her Son Devastated Becki

“My PTSD originally started in 2015 when our third son Matthew was born prematurely at 28 weeks,” Becki recalls with mourning, and “the depression and anxiety became severe when Tommy passed away.” 

“I was petrified of everything and wanting to keep the children close all the time.”

Becki began riding on Zwift as a distraction following the death of her son Tommy.  Becki hadn’t ridden a bike in 17 years and used group training rides to build fitness and comfort with cycling.  Becki’s body had suffered the devastating effects of the loss of her Tommy as much as her mind.  Things were going well.

The Loss of His Son Devastated Jon

Jon always had a passion and talent for cycling and rode for the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) while serving in the British Army. Things didn’t go as smoothly for Jon after attempting to restart his racing career, however.

“In 2017, after we lost Tommy, I turned to cycling as medicine, and this was the start of it all,” Jon describes how he used riding as a coping mechanism during training and racing.

“I punished myself physically, so I didn’t have the mental pain.”

He found a coach on Zwift and put a plan in place.

Jon riding his bike

No More Cycling = No More Failure

Despite significant success at the onset and several British Road Racing Series victories, the emotional trauma of the loss of his son became too much to bear and sent him into a downward spiral of self-doubt and waning motivation.

“The mental images of when we lost our Tommy, and the stress of army life caused the PTSD.”

As Jon rose up the cycling ranks, the competition improved, and results didn’t come easily. The inadequacy he felt after losing his son devastated the self-esteem and confidence needed to compete and he lost all motivation. 

 

Jon didn’t make it through the season. “I was done!” asserts Jon. 

“No more cycling = No More Failure!”

The worsening PTSD and the use of alcohol and cigarettes to self-medicate prompted a medical discharge from the British Army after a successful 15-year career. As he describes, lazy, unfit, and alone, Jon returned to his hometown and the comfort of his family, and Becki.

The Loss of a Child is Devastating to a Marriage

Grieving parents exhibit anger as part of the normal reaction that they express as frustration and chronic irritation. In some cases, they direct feelings of intense rage at family members and the spouse in particular. (2)

 

Some estimates report the divorce rate of couples following the death of a child to be 80-90 percent. There is a great deal of variability across studies surveying divorce rates of grieving parents, but it is clear that all experience many common problems.

The Odds are Stacked Against Becki and Jon

There is often conflict and anger caused by blaming the spouse for the death seen as a coping mechanism.  Breakdown in communication due to avoidance and misunderstanding of the expression of feelings is a cause of marital distress. 

 

Husbands and wives cope with the loss in very different ways. Men control their emotions through solitary activities aimed at finding a rational solution for their grief.  

 

Women use emotional expression and grieve more openly, intensely, and for more extended periods.  One study reports as long as two to four years after the child’s death. (3)

Two Bikes Indoors

Becki and Jon Go It Together

They were going to get through this together now using the one thing they could both rely upon besides each other. Training, riding, and racing on Zwift!

 

Becki committed to a diet of healthy homemade meals consisting of “lots of fresh vegetables, salads, and decent meats,” and Jon got on board upon returning home and noticed her improvement.  

 

Becki went from weighing 78 kg and struggling to maintain 1.5 w/kg to a size 8, an FTP of 238 W, and competitive placing in the B category (Find Becki’s ZwiftPower Profile here).

 

“I joined the Zwift TFC team, and something inside me clicked,” excitedly describes Becki. 

“Zwift has helped me give up smoking, benefited my mental health greatly, and I am healthier now than ever before.”

Jon and Becki Are a Well-Oiled Machine

Jon’s innate talent for cycling and ability to “train like a machine” translated into steady improvement. With the support of Becki, he climbed out of the D category and the inability to hold five w/kg for 15 seconds.  

 

Consistent positive lifestyle choices and persistence paid off, and “there it was on ZwiftPower, Johnny Roden A Cat.”  (Find Jon’s ZwiftPower Profile here)  

 

Jon became fully immersed in the virtual cycling culture and even created a streaming channel called ‘LAST WATTS LIVE.’

Not a Fairy Tale Ending

Very few mental health stories end happily ever after and without the looming scepter of struggle, and Jon and Becki’s is no different.  Becki experienced a mental breakdown recently when the social isolation caused by Covid-19 robbed her of the ability to “keep busy to avoid the sad thoughts in my head.”  

 

Becki is back on track and credits the stability of her structured training plan and the support of her teammates in keeping her there.

“With virtual cycling, I have found that the complete support strangers give is amazing.”

Jon enjoyed competing in the A category for a short time but slowly drifted from his bike to focus on the commentary at ‘LAST WATTS LIVE,’ and before he knew it, seven months had gone by with no riding.  

“The fitness was gone, the strength was gone, the alcohol was back, and then LAST WATTS LIVE was gone!”

Jon and Becki Continue the Comeback

However, all is not lost for Jon now that Becki is at his side, and they have bikes to ride.  Jon is amid a comeback to be a competitive A racer again.  

“My wife took over the diet, limited my alcohol, and we knew we could do it together.”

At the time of this interview, the 7th of July, 2021, Jon is sitting at 4.3 w/kg, having gone from D to A in about six weeks.

Jon and Becki riding together

Becki and Jon Emerge From the Dark Together

“I am a man that suffers heavily with PTSD, depression, ADHD, anxiety and has been to some very dark places mentally but always had the drive to succeed,” Jon says proudly.  

 

The feeling is similar for Becki, who states, “Before I didn’t ever feel good about me, and now I feel so proud after every ride I do.”

Three Things About Virtual Cycling That Jon and Becki Feel Make Them Stronger Together 

 

Even though they are at much different ability levels, they can ride alongside each other and cheer one another on! 

“We lift each other up when we are down and push each other when we don’t want to go anymore.”

They both know what it is like to lose a child and feel the immeasurable sadness that you can only see if you are in their situation. 

“Knowing that we both know what the other is thinking makes us stronger.”

They know each other’s triggers and what causes them stress and anxiety. 

“We know what sets each other off, and we can avoid the stress and anxiety from getting worse and sending us to a dark place.”

.

Team Roden is Stronger Together

It is the rides that Jon and Becki do as a team that they are most proud of now, knowing that they are stronger in the race of life together.  They have created a fundraising campaign called “Tri For Tommy.”  

 

Becki and Jon will be competing in the IRONMAN 70.3 in Stafford, England, and dedicating the event to a celebration of life for Tommy’s 5th anniversary. 

 

I am confident they will honor Tommy’s memory admirably…together!

Jon and Becki smiling together

Give them your thoughts.

Have you used virtual cycling to get through a rough patch in your life? Comment below with your experience and helpful suggestions. As well as any well-wishes you can spare for Jon and Becki. 

If you enjoyed this story highlighting the extraordinary members of the virtual cycling community, please take the opportunity to read this Zom feature on another inspirational cyclist. 

Or this one I wrote about Jason Mutchler and his battle with PTSD I wrote for ZwiftInsider.  

Comment below.

Bibliography

  1. Sanders, C., Grief: The mourning after. 1989. New York: John Wiley & Sons (1)
  2. Bowlby, J., Attachment and loss: Loss, sadness and depression. Vol. 3 1980, New York: Basic Books. P. 472 (2)
  3. Murray J, Callan VJ. Predicting adjustment to perinatal death. Br J Med Psychol. 1988 Sep;61 ( Pt 3):237-44. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1988.tb02785.x. PMID: 3179246. (3)
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