Sunday, 3 January 2016

Adventure Awaits...

There's nothing like a New Year to focus the mind. It's a time for reflection and goal setting. So what happened in 2015 and what’s my goal for 2016?  …. Is anything important happening this year ;-) ?

So it’s New Year's Eve and Simon has surprised me yet again with a random final memory for 2015 – Viva Blackpool (How did I find a man as random as I am?)!  And randomly, who would have thought that the printed pillow in our B&B room would predict my 2016 goals so accurately?

profound and random pillow
Looking back, 2015 will be immortalised for me for two reasons - the year I qualified a place for my country at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and the year Simon and I got engaged. Hooray and Whoop!  Planning a wedding alongside training for Rio has proven to be my worst nightmare, so no wedding plans as yet, but it does give me something exciting to plan post Rio - watch this space!

Getting engaged on the beach in South Africa.

In fact qualifying a place at Rio was my only written goal at the beginning of 2015.  On the face of it this sounded like a reasonably modest goal. Modest because I was the current World Champion and world record holder, and all I needed was a top 6 placing at the world championships 2015 in order to qualify that boat for team GB.  But there is never any room for complacency, and this 'simple' goal very nearly didn’t happen.  I end the year as world silver medallist, and reflecting back I see this as a positive because I have learnt far more this year from my obstacles, challenges and failures than I did the previous year when I won gold.
Silver at the worlds and a whole lot of learning!
The first obstacle was the changes to the paracanoe classification system.  I have already written about this, (link) but it was easily possible that due to these changes I would no longer have classified as a para athlete. As it turned out I still do, but I had faced the real threat that my journey to Rio would come to an abrupt end. What I learned from this was how much I wanted to carry on. The commitment required to this journey is considerable and puts a real strain on me and my family, but I really love training and finding out what my body can do and what extraordinary levels I can achieve.  I realised that I love this adventure and it ending through being declassified, rather than because I had reached my potential or through injury, wasn’t the ending I wanted.  Sadly my squad lost 40% of its paddlers through the changes, which was truly horrible, and I feel for each and every one of them. The only positive I take from this time is that it taught me to appreciate and make the most of every single day of my journey.  It's very easy to see the negatives or to moan about life but I now choose to look for, see and savour all the fun things about my training, because who knows when it will end?  I want my memory of this journey, and of this adventure, to be full of the happy memories, rather than anything negative.

Some of the reasons I love paddling
Friendships, catching the sunrise and giving back.
2015 was also the year that my motion sickness got the better of me. I had tried to ignore it and paddle through it, because I and everybody else was convinced it was just mind over matter. However it became obvious through the year that I couldn't override the symptoms and it was affecting my performance. It came to a head at the World Championships in Milan with its strange bumpy water where I almost couldn't paddle.  Luckily I still managed to qualify a place for Rio and because I always try to see the positives I appreciated the experience of loosing this race.  Admittedly my ego took a bit of a bashing but It made me realise that I had to do something about my motion sickness prior to Rio, which being on a lagoon next to the sea is renowned for its wavy water.

The water isn't always flat in kayaking
For those who have never had serious motion sickness, it's horrendous. Imagine trying to stay upright in a wobbly boat whilst feeling like you have the worst hang over ever.  All your body wants to do is to keep absolutely still and sleep it off quietly, preferably with your face on a cold hard floor.  Apparently this isn’t the way to win races, so “operation sort motion sickness” became a priority.

There are two obvious treatments for motion sickness: Avoid being on the water or take medication. As neither of these are acceptable in my elite sport I ended up seeking out a variety of specialists, undergo all sorts of testing, and pulling together a treatment program that is actually re-programming my brain. 
It turns out I have a vestibular disorder (and I thought it was normal to see the world how I see it but apparently not!) This isn’t common at elite level (nobody else with it would be silly enough to take up a water based sport let alone continue with it!?!) So I have had a steep learning curve in pulling together advice from the experts in order lead my own treatment.

Getting my vestibular system tested

Part of this treatment program is a type of acclimatisation therapy, which has been both amazing in its results and horrific to undertake. The progressive exercises I have been prescribed have kept me in varying degrees of nausea since about October, but the progress I have made in coping with motion sickness has been remarkable. Not only has my motion sickness in my boat eased considerably, but yet again my journey has given me wider benefits. For the first time in my life I can now look at stripy shirts, go down escalators, go to loud concerts, watch 3D movies and be a passenger in a car without feeling ill. Apparently my driving has also improved, but we won’t go into that. ;-)

So back to Blackpool and New Year’s Eve.  I sit here looking at the printed pillow in our B&B feeling a sense of excitement for 2016. The pillow says, “Adventure Awaits”, and this is coincidently exactly my goal for 2016 - to continue to see and appreciate the adventure in everything I do - to turn the lessons from the challenges of 2015 into real positives.

2016 is going to be an incredible adventure for me. Wish me luck, but better still, reflect on your 2015, take your positives and plan your own epic adventure!

Seize the day and Enjoy your adventure!

Monday, 19 October 2015

That crazy treadmill of achievement...

Today I 'rode' my mountain bike for the first time in about three years.  At the start of the final training season, when I try to qualify for Rio, this might seem odd.  But I just needed to …
Me on my favourite bike
Three years ago my main reason for taking up kayaking was to make me smile again; to fill a void left by not being able to race my bike anymore. 
 Me learning to paddle - 2012 Photo by Phil Gunney 
 At the beginning my goal was simply not to fall in, then it became to make the GB squad, and now without realising it's happened my horizon is vastly different. Somewhere along this path it’s become all about achievement. I've ended up wanting to paddle as fast as possible, to win international medals, and to be selected to paddle at Rio. My whole life is about kayaking. It governs every day, where I am, what I eat, how I sleep, even what I can and can’t do in my spare time.  Most of the time I’m perfectly happy with this – I like the focus of achieving goals – but a few things happened this last week that questioned if this performance driven focus is completely healthy. 

Me qualifying a boat for Rio 2015
photo from bbc sport
About a week ago I had my 2015 season review with the GB coaches and performance directors. All of my data was reviewed, and each and every “check and challenge” question was focused on performance gains. No detail was too small, no area left out, and I left the meeting feeling completely exhausted but positive and focused about 2016.

Then a couple of days later I had an unofficial 'performance meeting' (aka a catch up over coffee) with good friends from my kayak club. They are the volunteer coaches who had taken me under their wing and got me into the GB squad in the first place and who have stuck by me since. This 'meeting' could not have been more different.  No data, no lists of questions, just a sofa and a cup of coffee (oh, and their adorable 4 week old baby cuddled up on my chest).  We went through my goals and my take on the last season and they got me to realise that at the end of this next season I want to be able to look back on four years of my life and genuinely smile - that I need to remember who I am, and to keep everything in perspective.  Will this final year be filled with good memories, happy and full, or will the whole four years be solely remembered on my performance at one final event? 

2015 -Loosing my world title Gold medal by 200ths of a second :-(
That got me thinking and we decided I would reflect at the end of every week on what had made me smile. If I hadn't smiled and enjoyed myself, I would change things for the better next week. This would ensure that, come the end of 2016, whatever the outcome there could be no regrets. I would stick to the training plan, but I would also try to see life beyond this. I like to think this is how I normally try to live my life; creating amazing, positive, happy memories, but maybe last year, caught up in in the tunnel vision of performance, I was either too tired or too distracted to have this perspective.

And then yesterday I was reminded how important perspective is…

Yesterday Jenn Hill died aged only 38 (link) Jenn Hill was an incredible woman who influenced and inspired many, many people in the mountain biking world. I don't think I ever saw her without that trademark smile on her face. In fact I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have considered 24 hour racing if I hadn't seen her nailing it while smiling for the entire duration of a 24 hour race, (with only 1 gear on her bike!) making me think it could be fun (and not too painful?!?).  So it was Jenn and her smile that started this whole crazy adventure for me… 

Her husband put this message on twitter yesterday and it struck me how great memories can be made up from the simple things, and that my adventure is not just about Rio or medals.

"Thank you for the kind messages and love for Jenn. Now go ride bikes, hug loved ones, bake, enjoy life xxx"

So today I did what Tom suggested.  I dusted off my bike in memory of Jenn.  It wasn't a long ride and I was really wobbly and spectacularly poor on the technical sections, but I smiled the entire time. I also realised that it didn't bother me that I can’t and won’t be able to ride like I used to, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying being on a bike. 

This simple Twitter message reminded me that life isn't all about the crazy treadmill of achievement we can so easily find ourselves on, its about doing the things that make us smile; like riding bikes with your loved ones in the Autumn sunshine followed by tea and cake ... just because you like doing it. 
Post ride 'buzz' with tea and cake :-)

Thank you to Tom and to Jenn for inspiring me and for reminding me what’s really important. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

National Championships 2015

This weekend I had one job to do. I needed to qualify for the World Championships (which are the first qualifiers for the Rio Paralympics) at the UK National Championships in Nottingham.

National Regatta

I have never liked racing at Nottingham. I'm just not keen on the venue. It’s always very windy, making the water wavy, and its usually full of weed, algae, or lots of mess from the ducks and geese. Added to that, the need to race my own teammates for that single selection slot has never sat well with me.  As a result I rarely paddle that well - I usually scrape a good enough race to get through, but I never come away really happy with my performance.

This weekend I didn't have the same stress factor. This time GB paracanoeing was going to take two athletes per category through to the Worlds, so realistically the pressure of my race was off. I decided to use this as a test, and see if a change of pre race routine would help with my preparation and general feelings about at Nottingham leading to a better performance. 

So when the offer to go to Henley Regatta came along the week prior to Nottingham I accepted and spent a wonderful day chatting with some amazing people while watching the rowing at this most English of events. They explained the nuances of racing at Henley, including that it's bad manners to win by too much!! (That would never catch on in kayaking!) I was gutted to pass on the free flowing champagne and Pimms, but kicking back needed to have some limits… 
Henley Royal Regatta- with knees covered;-)
I also accepted an invitation to have dinner with my lovely girlfriends, who I don't see nearly enough of due to my training commitments and perpetual tiredness. An evening of laughter and excellent company (but still managing an early night) was a perfect distraction from thinking about kayaking, race plans and selection.
The final thing I decided to do was to spend the day with my son at a university open day which was on the way to Nottingham the day before the race. For anyone wanting a great day out I can thoroughly recommend borrowing a 'university aged person' and going to a university open day. Your potential student gets you full access to usually private areas of these iconic institutions including colleges, accommodation and lecture theatres.  Sitting in a lecture theatre in the department of engineering was a definite highlight, although not being an engineer I was much more fascinated by the lecturers large. black. independently sprung eyebrows than the subject matter...

I ended up having a great week and arrived at Nottingham thoroughly distracted and far less "pumped up" than normal.

So race day arrived and I started my normal routine. Something felt a bit strange. I had calmed myself down so successfully that I found myself on the start line feeling ridiculously chilled and not at all concerned about the goings on around me.  Was this a good thing? Nottingham could have been just as bad as normal but nothing about my environment registered. The only thing I was particularly aware of was the strong headwind.  Even the starter seemed to say "go" in slow motion, causing me to respond badly to the bucket start followed by what felt like a gentle amble down the course. I got to the finish line and was stunned to realise I was barely out of breath. Yes, I won that race; not by that much, but strangely it didn't seem to matter? At Henley winning by too much was seen as bad sportsmanship -was I just being a good sportsman? No I wasn't!! I had done such a good job of calming myself down that I just wasn't in the correct frame of mind for racing. 
Steady racing
 This made me cross but how was I going to get motivated?  I had still won, even if I hadn’t raced well…

"You need a different frame", Simon said, repeating the mantra one of the coaching staff had told me several times before when things get to me. "It's not just you that you are letting down its everybody - now snap out of it and put some effort in". 
I did. I scrapped the chilled approach, fired myself up for my second race and took three seconds off my time. Oh, and I was out of breath but also enjoyed the race. 

Off to the worlds.....
My next race will be the World Championships in August – another step on this oh so steep learning curve.

Lesson to self - Too chilled doesn't work any better than too nervous and put some effort in ;-)

Monday, 29 June 2015

Giving back and being James Bond

Do I look like James Bond?

I came here to give something back, but once again I was getting more than I was giving, and having loads of fun at the same time

As a UK Sport and National Lottery funded Athlete I am required to do a several 'inspire' voluntary appearances. each year. One of these was a talk I had been asked to do at Whitehall, which sort of explains why I was on their roof pretending to be 007but I'll get back to that later.
On the roof at whitehall

Being an eliteathlete can be selfish, introspective and very "me me me" "take take take", so I really look forward to volunteering.  For me its a chance to redress the balance in my life, not only by giving back but also by widening my experiences and meeting inspiring people.  I've had the opportunity to do some really great things, some truly bonkers things, and some incredibly humbling things, and without a doubt they have all, without exception made me smile a lot. Heres just a few

My latest was just last weekend where I was a VIP guest at the Proctor and Gamble Surrey Youth Games. Surrey County Council runs this event to help get kids into sport. It is aimed at all those children who are not County level but who want to take part in a competitive and yet fun arena. Apparently over 50,000 children have taken part over the years since the event was started, and it was absolutely fantastic to see children running about and having fun enjoying competitive sport.
Proctor and Gamble Surrey youth Games
 I met some amazingly inspiring people and sponsors who make this happen, not only believing in the benefits of an active community, these people are actually doing something about it.
Having fun at the games with the inspiring sponsors and organisers. 

Another recent appearance was at a request from my local council gym, who asked if I could be there for the official opening of the refurbished changing village and bubble pool.  I was even asked if I would get in the pool with the leisure centre management for press photos, which I politely declined, instead taking the time to meet as many people as I could.  I really enjoyed meeting all the kids on a busy Saturday afternoon and they all wanted to chat and hold my world championship gold medal.  I forget sometimes that, despite still being 'just me', wearing a GB tracksuit and hanging a gold medal around my neck I become someone who can influence, motivate and maybe have a little impact. It took a little while to clean off the tomato sauce and sticky finger marks from my medals after a 'meet and greet' in the centre café, but I was given a large helium balloon to take home (yay!) and there had been lots of smiling kids keen to tell me about how much they loved their swimming, so it was worth it.
everyone like wearing a gold medal!!

Possibly the most deferential was a Regatta for the Disabled where an incredible group of people organise bell-boat racing for children of all ages with varying abilities/disabilities. It was awe inspiring seeing kids struggle with independent mobility on dry land but then transform into confident paddlers working as a team to propel the boats down the course. It was simply magnificent to watch and I felt honoured to actually be asked to paddle in the boats with some of the children. We had so much fun together and, if I'm truthful, the medal I received for taking part at this regatta gave me as much, if not more pleasure than my world Championship gold medal. They now hang side by side in pride of place at home.
Me padding a bell boat and handing out prizes
So on to WhitehallI was asked to talk at a small conference on personal resilience. I was unsure what I could add of value, but the organiser had heard me speak at another function, and wanted me to talk about how I managed to overcome some pretty big hurdles and achieve what many people might have considered impossible. I hoped that my personal story of failures followed by success, and some lessons I had learnt along the way, might help this office audience see that their own 'something' is also possible if they can see how to put their minds to it. The talk was to be at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and in my ignorance I thought Whitehall was a building, not a road, so felt a bit of an idiot asking a policeman how to find it when I was actually walking along it!!

After my talk, which thankfully was enthusiastically received with lots of excellent questions, I was given the tour of the department and up onto the private roof where a scene from Skyfall had been filmed. They(I ) wanted to get to stand in the same place and at the same angle that Daniel Craig had posed in, looking over the London skyline. Clearly the only difference between us was that he was dressed as 007 and I was in my red GB canoeing jacket;-) This was definitely a money-can't-buy moment.  I wasn't given a helium balloon this time but I floated home nonetheless.

Me and Daniel Craig both trying to be 007
So whats next? I am about a month away from this years Worlds, and if all goes to plan, a little over a year to Rio (gulp). My training is hard, with constant pressure on me to perform to the highest level possible. But what I really enjoy is the part of my role as an elite athlete which allows me to give back. I look forward to these events and only wish I had time to do more

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the sameAs we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. .~Marianne Williamson (teacher and author)

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Smile Laugh Sparkle :-)

As I walked around Prague the day after I had finished racing at the Europeans, attempting to be a tourist, I felt in a bit of a daze.  Normally I'm buzzing with excitement after a race, but today I was full of a strange mix of emotions which I couldn't make sense of. 

On the face of it I should have been elated. I had been classified into the new system as a KL3. I had gone on to win the gold medal in the first ever KL3 race. So all was good, and yet I couldn't help but feel empty.

Going through the classification process had made me really sad, and also annoyed. Sad that I had been forced to look back and think about my injury, re-opening the mental scars which I've worked so hard to heal. Sad also, bizarrely, that despite training so hard and getting much stronger I still have a significantly weaker leg, which classifies me. (Why does this make me sad ?!?!?) And annoyed that Para Sport at the top end isn't inclusive at all. It upset me so much seeing disabled athletes being scrutinized and challenged for simply falling outside of a classification boundary. I was also struggling with the concept that Para Sport is contradictory. It's confusing that you have to be bad and good at the same time. You have to have something wrong with you - and not just any something, you have to have the correct type of 'something wrong' to make it into a "level playing field".  Having ticked those boxes you then try to be as good as you can be by minimizing the impact of your disability, with clever, personalized training and specific boat adaptations.
GB para-canoeing is fortunate enough through National Lottery funding to be able support and invest in us, but what about all those paddlers who don't have funded programs? How is this now a level playing field..?

The thoughts in my head just kept on coming...  Was all this heartache really worth it? Half of me wanted to just stop and go back to a normal life. To have normal holidays and spend more time with my family and friends....

I had shared some of this angst with our team phsych earlier that week and he had talked me through how you can choose to frame things. "Things happen to us which are out of our control, but it's our choice as to how we feel about them. If we don't like how something looks or feels we have the ability to choose different ways to frame them". Great in theory, but I was still struggling.
focusing during my race
As I wandered the streets missing half of the tourist attractions, I tried to make sense of these random and contradictory thoughts.  I was thinking so hard that I barely noticed that it had started to rain  and in fact rain quite hard.

Just in front of me a little girl aged about 4 squealed in delight as the rain drops started to fall. She pulled a small plastic umbrella out of her dads bag and put it up. She then skipped and splashed in the newly formed puddles as she laughed her way down the road. Her umbrella was very pink and glittery, and on it were the words "smile, laugh, sparkle".  Looking around I observed that she was definitely the only person following this adviceThere was definitely a lack of tourists skipping through the puddles! Most of them, like me, were sheltering in doorways trying to keep dry.

I then smiled. It occurred to me that this umbrella was surprisingly profound. Smile  laugh sparkle was a new frame. The rain was the same for everyone and everyone except this little girl was getting annoyed by it. How could I frame the last couple of days differently? Could I put up my own metaphorical umbrella?? 

So instead of sadness I decided I would see things more positively. 

I worked out that I was actually relieved that I still have a weak leg and that I'm still able to classify and be part of the GB squad. I am loving this journey and the adventure it brings, and I am not having to face up to an abrupt end to that journey through not classifying. I am perfectly aware that I might still not make Rio, but that will be decided by training and by racing, not by a rule change

GB paracanoe Race HQ
could replace annoyance with pride. I am immensely proud to be part of the GB squad which has worked tirelessly to support us so well. Actually pride that despite all these distractions and emotions I had pulled myself back into race mode, followed my race plan and this process had won Gold for GB

should stop being critical about para-sport at the elite level being exclusive and contradictory. It showcases the elite and that's how it can inspire. In fact this is what provides me with focus and what drives me to train every day: The hope that performing on a world stage will inspire others, (abled or disabled) to believe they can do something despite all logic saying it's impossible.

Because this is at the core of what para-sport is all about. People pushing the limits of possibility, moving on from whatever tragic event changed their lives forever and having a go at something new. Being innovative in finding solutions that play to personal strengths despite a risk that it might fail. Eternal optimism that repeated failure won't stop them in their quest to be the very best that they can be. 

So on that rainy afternoon in Prague I built a new frame. I decided to remind myself to smile, laugh and sparkle at every opportunity and to metaphorically skip through the puddles rather than grumble at the rain. 
My awesome coach Griff and his athletes.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Classification changes in Paracanoe

This is not a happy or even a particularly positive blog. The world of para canoe is going through change less than 18 months from Rio. Because of these changes a lot of people's hopes and dreams are being shattered.  I understand the logic behind the changes, and in the long run it is in the best interests of the sport, but to choose to do it all now is awful. 

Sometimes when you are caught up in the middle of a change which you are physically and emotionally invested in it is very difficult to see the bigger picture. It is easy for your focus to spiral inwards, taking all rational and logical thought processes with it. This is how I have been feeling about the changes to paracanoe as announced recently by our governing bodies. 

paddling at the worlds 2014

The changes are drastic. Half way through an olympic cycle the original classification adapted from para rowing has been abandoned and reinvented. This means that all the para canoe athletes who were classified at the beginning of this cycle, who were confirmed internationally, who have trained daily for more than two years, and raced believing they are an A, TA or LTA have had their classification removed. We are all having to be reclassified under a new system before we can race internationally again. Worse than that, many athletes who were classified before are no longer even eligible to attend classification. Paracanoe no longer accepts athlete with any arm or hand impairments, nor any athlete with a neurological condition such as cerebral palsy. 
The first paralympic qualification race for Rio is less than 4 months away and at this moment in time there are no classified athletes and no one knows for certain what their new (if at all) classification will be. We are to be reclassified under the new system, which for me will hopefully be at the Europeans in the Czech Republic in May, by the newly trained classifiers. 
My team mates
This decision was made in an office somewhere by people thinking long term, but has affected real people on the ground now. It's not just the athletes who have been affected - our coaches and staff in support programs are all feeling it too. Real people have given up jobs, moved house, neglected personal relationships and invested their own money and time in a system they thought would be in place through to Rio. Yes I understand that elite sport is unpredictable and unforgiving, but most of the time if you don't succeed you can say, "I trained hard and I did my best - I just wasn't fast enough", or "I was injured". But to be thrown out of the running half way through a cycle because your disability doesn't fit the new classification system is terrible. 

When I put my logical head on I truly get why this had to happen for the long term good of the sport. The new classification is evidence based and has been created through good science. An extensive research project analysed all the different paddling styles of kayakers and paracanoeists with motion sensor technology and EMG back up. The data put paddlers into clusters which became the new classifications. KL1, KL2 and KL3.  The system is is now unique to paracanoe, rather than adapted from para rowing, and it focuses much more on what athletes can do functionally in a boat, not by a relatively simplistic assessment of disability diagnosis,  so I can see how it will be much fairer moving forward. But although the old system wasn't perfect it was the system in place for this paralympic cycle and changing it mid cycle is going to hurt lots of people.
On a personal front, it looks like I am ok, but like the rest of the world I find out for sure in May. I then have to have another classification in August to confirm it. But some of my team mates already know they don't fit the new classification system, and I know that people I have raced against and deeply respect will also be having their hopes and dreams shattered.

I crave the feeling of gliding through the water in beautiful places.
I am coping because for me it was never just about Rio. I paddle because I love to paddle, not just to win medals. I love training and despite it being hard and at times painful I never take for granted that it gives me freedom to forget about my wonky leg. The governing bodies giving my disability a new name can't take that away. I crave the feeling of gliding through the water in my boat in beautiful places and I love learning how to paddle at my best. 

The name of my classification might change, but it will never stop my enjoyment of my sport. It would be a shame if for some reason out of my control I could't stay with the program, but the journey to Rio is an adventure, but it doesn't define me.

Paracanoe will definitely be stronger for the changes we are going through. But for now, in April 2015, the year before the Rio paralympics, everyone involved is hurting. My heart goes out to all athletes and support staff involved, because these changes right now simply suck.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bushcraft in November…. are we mad?

A weekend of wild camping and bushcraft with my mates in November seemed like a fabulous idea…... in sunny July.

I don't get a lot of spare time, but when I do I like to fill it with different things, adding sparkles of excitement and adventure to break up routine. This summer I coerced 4 of my most 'up for it' friends to join me for an adventure, and a weekend of bushcraft was booked for our inaugural foray into the art of surviving in the woods...  Between us, we had ladies who had never slept in a sleeping bag or a tent, used a lighter, chopped wood, or even owned waterproof trousers.... What could possibly go wrong?!? 
With much trepidation we arrived in total darkness on the Friday night in the middle of nowhere to meet Gary, the owner of Jack Raven Bushcraft, and our fellow bushcrafters. Every pastime or sport has it's uniform and it turns out that bush-crafters are no exception. We stood staring at each other - them in earth colours with well worn, checked woollen shirts, carrying just a small rucksack - us ladies standing there in our brightly coloured coats, pink hats, cashmere scarves and carrying very large bags… it was clear to all that we hadn't done this before.
We set out to find our camp. "Bushcraft is about living like our ancestors in the forest, Gary explained as we walked up the hill through a muddy field and into the woods. I was tempted to comment that my ‘ancestors’ had actually originated from West Ham, but chose not to, given that they were clearly worried enough about us anyway. 

I'm not sure what we were expecting that warm July when we agreed that sleeping in hammocks in the woods was a good idea. Much hilarity followed as we were given a quick lesson in ‘mounting and dismounting’ a hammock. In true cartoon style we swung uncontrollably in the dark and performed numerous accidental dismounts in various orientations and with different degrees of elegance. I apologise to my friends for not helping much at this point, I was on the floor laughing. 
Curled up asleep in the hammock
The loo was described in the brochure as a self composting toilet. It was "hidden" in large camouflage shed at the edge of the camp and consisted of a raised wooden box inlaid with a toilet seat. Next to it was a metal bowl for lighting waste paper and some sawdust for 'flushing the loo'. Posters around the wall supplied ample entertainment and to my surprise I found myself staying in there longer than necessary in order learn about animal tracks and droppings. 

The next morning we awoke at dawn and pottered bleary eyed over to the main teepee, where we filled our mugs with hot tea from the massive iron kettle hanging over the fire. Bleariness quickly vanished as we set about out first task- using sharp knives and saws to make a honey spreader out of a log. If I was stuck in the woods I'm not sure how essential this item would be, but I really enjoyed the carving process none the less. The final object looked more like a cross between a wonky ruler and a helicopter propeller, but despite being terrible I was still very proud of it! 
chopping logs
The next task was making a flame and, being a non smoker, I soon realised that I had never grasped the art of striking matches outside in the wind. Thankfully matches wasn't the only option and we had a fantastic afternoon 'playing' with fire. There must be something deep in our code which aligns us with fire as I felt compelled to try every firefighting option from wire wool to vaseline to bark shavings, with flints and fire starters, gaining immense satisfaction when the combinations worked. 
making fire!
Next came shelters and we followed Garry into the woods to learn how to keep safe, warm and dry using the forest around us. He assured us that the debris shelter resurrected from damp leaves would be toasty warm even in rainy November. We decided that it felt more like a coffin and not half as fun or exciting as the swinging hammocks which the girls were excited to return to.
Debris shelter
Having been up at dawn, I returned to my tent exhausted for an early night - Confession time, being in the middle of a big training block I had chosen a tent over the hammock (coaches orders). I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, belly full of delicious chilli with earplugs stuffed in my ears to block out the noise of the rain and fell instantly asleep. Apparently it rained a lot in the night and everyone was a bit damp come morning. But no one seemed to mind- it all added to the adventure and hilarity of the weekend. Luckily the fire was roaring and the heat from the fire cooked comforting bacon butties and also dried us out and warmed us up. Foraging and tree identification had us traipsing after Gary, hanging onto his every word. There is something deeply satisfying about having to search for and spot a half hidden edible leaf or fungus (Shopping in Waitrose will never be the same again as all their food is just so obvious!). My anti doping catalogue doesn't have a section for "brown mushrooms that look like rubbery ears" or "leaves with stimulant effects", so I stuck to bananas foraged from the fruit bowl, just to be safe.  
Mushrooms that look like ears
The last challenge was to make a fire from nothing except the rather damp contents of the Forrest around us. It felt a bit like a reality TV show as we all dashed off into the woods to find suitable tinder and logs as Gary had shown us. Much to my amazement I actually managed to construct a fire which worked - as did all the girls.  I glanced around at my friends who somehow had lost the bright colours and cashmere. Somewhere over that short weekend we had turned into a group of earthy bush-crafters with knives hanging from our belts, looking slightly disheveled and tending our fires, happy and at home in the woods.  
Girls make fire!
We all agreed that, despite the weekend being off the end of our comfort zones, we had all had a brilliant time. Yes it would have been nice to do in the summer, but that would have been way too easy;-)
The Team