How this Dubai resident made peace with his pacemaker to become an endurance cyclist

Matthew Butterworth on the turmoil of living with a pacemaker

By Areeba Hashmi

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Thu 16 Nov 2023, 7:51 PM

Last updated: Sat 18 Nov 2023, 10:51 AM

Matthew Butterworth pulls down his shirt and reveals the indentation of the metal pacemaker over his chest. “I feel like I could go in here and rip it out. I’ve got a metal implant, and I want to rip it out because I have a foreign body in me, and it doesn’t feel natural. You can feel it above my shirt, and it’s metal there. It’s about as big as a table tennis ball, and it sits around the heart, lodged,” he says, showing the incision that is keeping him alive.

“I think that the mental toll it takes on you is quite hard. It's not really the physical. The physical you can get over, but it's more the mental thing of having a pacemaker. At 51, my heart's okay, I'm an endurance athlete. But something's not right.”

As a child, Matthew loved cycling. He used to do racing as a young kid. Then, after college and university, he stopped. However, he always had a passion for sports. “I raced at a decent level as a junior, I didn't feel like I would ever be able to compete again. And then work gets in the way, and you get married and have children and everything else,” Matthew said, looking back at how sometimes you must stop doing what you love.

The great return

But if you genuinely love something, you will find a way to return to it. When Covid hit and the world stopped running, shut behind the walls of his home in Dubai, Matthew found an opportunity to get back to what he loved — cycling.

Matthew got himself an indoor bike, then a road racer, and then after a while, a coach. Getting a coach helped him find a way back to his loved sport. “The next thing you know, because I've always liked challenges, I entered the coast-to-coast.”

“And they say once you get back, it becomes a bit of an addiction, which it is. So I train six days a week and then do long rides at the weekend.” Matthew would climb mountains in the UAE every morning from 2am and then go to work around 8am. His full-time job as the Regional Managing Director of MullenLowe MENA demands the time of his day, and he can only cycle at night.

It’s quite challenging, juggling two important jobs, and he has the healthiest work-life balance, which is enviable. “I think when I had my pacemaker as well, it gave me a different perspective because I was like, 'you know what, not everything is about work. Things are about what I should enjoy and do in life and my aspirations that go beyond work.'”

Resilience that worked like charm

The drive and dedication in Matthew’s words were inspiring and it was evident that he loved what he did. When asked what it is about cycling that keeps him going, he said, “Cycling is the hardest sport in the world for me because it's tough to explain what it's like to be an endurance cyclist when you're cycling against others. Imagine you have a bag of sand. Your job all day or week is to preserve that sand. The moment you start an event, someone's poked a hole, and the sand is creeping out. The moment you go up a hill, and start to work harder, more sand keeps coming out. You eat a bit of food, and the sand slowly stops again. The whole purpose of being on the bike is to try and keep as much sand in that bag as you can. In the end, it’s about being disciplined and about how you manage that.”

Four weeks after he underwent the surgery for the pacemaker, Matthew had an event in Cyprus, and despite the strong disagreement from his doctors, he was adamant about participating in it.

“I kept praying the entire time for him. I was so worried,” said Dr Syed Sakib Nazir, a specialist interventional cardiologist at Fakeeh University, reminiscing about the incident with Matthew. The way Dr. Sakib described it, it's like having wires stitched into your heart. Imagine a piece of meat that's raw and imagine stitching something in. It’s fragile so it needs to heal over time. The moment there is any movement, it can tear. During the event, his wound reopened, and he was bleeding, but despite that, Matthew finished the event with second place in his age group.

Laurels after the lull

Since returning to the sport in the past few years, Matthew has won multiple awards and attended various cycling events worldwide. It’s a miracle feat with the pacemaker in his heart. His wife has also got into the sport and climbs mountains with him.

Matthew volunteered as a caddy for one of the Olympians during the Abu Dhabi Paralympics in 2019. Over the two days, he witnessed the passion and excitement and people of different levels with different mental capabilities coming together in one place for sports. “It was one of the most humbling experience that I've ever had as a human being. It was absolutely amazing. And so when it comes to sport, it doesn't matter who you are, or what challenges you have.”

“You would think my inspiration is the younger kids, the pros. They're not my inspiration. My inspiration is the guy who’s 85, who just won the Gran Fondo in Cyprus last year, who gets up on the podium and is still doing it. And that is my inspiration because that, to me, is amazing. If I'm doing that at 85, I will be a very happy man because that's somebody who's living their life, really enjoying it, and still aspiring to do better things. And for me, that's what your life is about,” Matthew answered with a smile to the question, "What inspires you to keep going?”

More news from Lifestyle