Friday, 22 April 2016

Curve balls and Tandems


3 - 2 - 1 GO!!.... No this wasn't the start of a race. It was Simon - the pilot - tying to coordinate with me - the stoker - as we pedalled off on our debut ride on a tandem bicycle.   This may seem like an odd thing to do in the middle of a training block in the run up to Rio, but I'll get onto that later... The bottom line was that I was in a forced break from training, and I had also been missing riding my bike -a lot.
A forced break from training-My coach and an empty boat...
We had headed up north to the Yorkshire Dales for a mini break, to visit a tandem shop that had been recommended to us.  In my mind we were just going to look, and maybe take a spin around the block, but before I knew what was happening a trial off-road tandem had been picked out for us and we found ourselves in the car park, wearing bike helmets, and receiving instructions on how change gear, how to dismount without Simon tipping me onto the floor, and (most importantly) how to get to a good café a couple of valleys over.  I was really curious to see how the two of us would get on. 
learning how to brake safely 

It's worth mentioning here that both of us have the ability to be quite headstrong and we have very, very different approaches to bike riding. Simon likes taking short cuts at speed, seemingly without caution (in a "who cares about broken ribs and a punctured lung" kind of way- see my Mongolia post.  I on the other hand am much more deliberate and I like to be in control, so this experiment where I couldn't even see where I was going was going to be 'interesting'. Potential arguments and accidents aside, I was really excited to think that we were going to be out cycling together on a crisp, sunny, spring morning through amazing scenery in the Yorkshire Dales, to a café for tea and cake!! It had been soooo long...


cycling and cake...
I won't say we were slick through all the gear changes, and some of the dismounts were simply hilarious, but amazingly we had no arguments and had an absolute blast. Admittedly there were some moments when I wished I had control of either the brakes or the steering, but these were fairly minor negatives compared to the absolute exhilaration I felt in being able to ride a bike at speed again without the worry of my weak leg letting me down. The very best bit was that anytime I needed a rest I just stopped putting in any effort and Simon (who is much stronger than me) just put down a bit more grunt.  The added bonus for him was that he had a great workout without having to wait for me to catch up. (couples who ride bikes will understand this). There were many other added bonuses besides, including the benefit for me of being able to take in all the views rather than just focusing on the trail and for him being 'entertained' by my constant chatter. Most importantly we made it to the cafe without getting lost because (according to Simon) I wasn't in charge of steering or navigation. So all in all a huge success and we can't wait to order our first tandem.
We made it to the cafe!!
But back to paddling and the road to Rio... As I mentioned earlier, this may seem a slightly odd thing to be doing in the final season before the Rio Paralympics, but things don't always go to plan.  One of the lessons I have learnt in life is that it's the curve balls which, although really tough to deal with at the time, can often give unexpectedly positive twists and turns to your journey. I'm not sure I ever feel as if I have genuinely achieved something or had  that massive adventure if everything has always followed the plan!!



I had picked up a virus, which hadn't seemed so bad, but it left me completely exhausted. Having seemingly shifted the virus the exhaustion remained and I wondered if I had turned into a hibernating bear.  I found myself falling asleep in the gaps between daytime training sessions, and yet I still needed 12 hours sleep every night. I slept so much that I thought the pillow creases in my face were going to become permanent! Initially I thought the exhaustion was a normal part of training so hard, and even getting in from training and  not making it past the first step in the hall didn't seem that odd to me. I would just sit down and fall asleep -right there - until my son would come home from school waking me up with the offer of a cup of tea.  
Bullishly carrying on...
My coaching team was getting worried.  My heart rate wasn't slowing down properly and my resting heart rate was up- a sign that my body wasn't recovering properly.  I couldn't even go through a gentle warm up without my heart rate shooting through the roof. Any normal person might have had a week in bed, but I didn't want that. Training makes you faster, right? So I bullishly carried on, pretending to everyone that I was OK, and deluding myself that everything was going to get better. The team doctor didn't share any of my optimism, and in a very blunt conversation said that if I carried on like this I wouldn't be able to train... at all... ever.  She banned me from all training and sent me home with instructions to rest and keep my heart rate below 120 at all times until my resting heart rate returned to normal. 
 I hit a bit of a low, but if there's something I've learnt along the way is that if you can't do one thing, don't be miserable, just do something else! So when Simon phoned me up on my second morning of 'house arrest' saying  "You know we have been talking about getting a tandem after Rio well how about we go and look for one??..."   Well my bag was already half packed!  
Waking up in the dales...

And this kind of explains how we found ourselves on a tandem in Yorkshire. It was an opportunity to get away from the stresses of being at home but not being able to train.  I could get some gentle cross training exercise in whilst keeping my heart rate well below the designated 120 (so me not peddling hard was actually Dr's orders, not just me being lazy).  But most importantly it gave me the opportunity to change my focus and to see opportunities beyond Rio - an exciting opportunity to get back into riding bikes together, which is something we haven't even been able to imagine since my injury. Having proved tandem riding was possible and fun, I allowed myself to dream about all the incredible adventures we could have and the places I could see from the back of a tandem. This change of focus made being forced not to train much less stressful and almost certainly lifted my mood which then no doubt helped me to recover quicker.
Some cross training.
Returning back to the "now" I am happy to report that I am back in training, which feels amazing. OK my lungs are now hanging inside out, my muscles feel about 2" short for my body and I still have a way to go to get back up to full strength. But the good news is that my heart rate is back to normal and I can easily stay awake until a grown-up's bed time! 
Back to Training!! whoop!

It scares me quite a lot that that I'm going to the World Championships in 4 weeks, when I'm not convinced I will be anything close to race ready. But race ready or not, it will give me a great opportunity to practise all my racing processes, otherwise GB Rio selection (two weeks later) would be my first race of the season, which would be less than ideal.

This last three and a half years have not been easy, with some really big curve balls, but I'm definitely having an adventure, and definitely getting the opportunity to practise my resilience skills at the same time, which is never a bad thing!


 Beautiful Dorney lake on a winters morning
So my favourite coaching quotes, which have helped keep me motivated despite knowing I was falling behind, have been:

"If you cant paddle fast you may as well paddle perfectly slow"... Hours and hours of slow paddling could have been frustrating, but we have used the time as an opportunity to work on some technical areas I have been struggling with.  I'll say it again, kayaking is the most technically difficult sport I've ever been involved with.

"Don't look at how far you have to go, just see how far you have come"... Each session we would look for improvements from the week before, not just stress about where I might have been if I had not been ill so keeping my perspective positive.

I also feel very lucky because I've been given something to get excited about beyond Rio. I have found that there is a way for me to safely ride a bike at speed without fear of damaging myself despite my wobbly leg. 
Happiness is....
 I know the World Championships are fast approaching, and Rio is just around the corner, but the question that I find myself thinking about in idle moments is not, "I wonder how I will get on", but, "Which tandem do we want and where shall we go first?"


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)