26 September 2018

‘I didn’t realise I was having an actual heart attack’

At the age of 42, Michélle Booysen suffered a heart attack in the middle of a cycle race, yet she still made it over the finish line.

The 99er Cycle Tour and MTB Challenge is an annual event that takes place in Cape Town in February. I was training for the Argus, so I thought if I signed up for the 78km ride it would be good preparation, but not too hard.

Then this happened…

Twenty kilometres into the race, I felt a burning sensation from my stomach into my chest. I’m a type-1 diabetic so I assumed I was just a little dehydrated. I drank some water and carried on. A little over halfway, the burning sensation intensified, but I kept sipping water and ate a banana.

Read more: “I felt completely normal but my blood pressure was through the roof”

I passed two paramedic stations, but each time I thought, Just hang in there for the next 20km. It will get better. Eventually I felt like I had a raging fire in my chest, arms and hands. The last 10km I was holding my handlebars with my pinkie fingers. The only thing that kept me going was my determination to finish the race.

When I finally crossed the finish line, I did my glucose tests and asked a paramedic for a drip to assist with high ketones and dehydration. When I also asked for heartburn meds, the paramedic spotted warning signs and rushed me to the ER.

But how, when I was so healthy?

Tests confirmed I had suffered a heart attack. I couldn’t believe it. I was the fittest I had ever been and had been following a vegetarian, low-GI diabetic diet for almost 20 years. I didn’t smoke, wasn’t overweight and had just been for a health check-up. Yet my arteries were so blocked that blood flow was less than 20%! Doctors blamed a combination of stress, genetic high cholesterol and my diabetes. Fortunately, thanks to my fitness regimen, my body had constructed an intricate web of little vessels around my heart to compensate – probably what saved me.

woman cyclist outdoors

Read more: 3 major things your resting heart rate can tell you about your health

Over the months that followed, I had three operations, including a five-artery bypass. I’ve since completed seven Pick n Pay Argus Cycle Tours and a six-day cycle tour in the south of France. Through my company, Pétanque Consultancy, I also sponsor the “Last Lady In” prize for the 99er race because I believe that sometimes just taking part and finishing the race are bigger achievements than winning.

This article was originally published on

Image credit: Supplied


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