Monday, 26 November 2012

GB Training Camp

It's not every day that you get asked how big your chest is by a man 20 years your junior. In this instance it was neither cheeky or pervy, Colin my coach was simply ordering my GB kit and as such didn't receive a slap! 
Despite being on a team GB winter training camp It was only at this moment, when uniform was being ordered, that it dawned on me I was actually part of 'team GB'. 

The winter training camp was the first camp for the new para canoe squad and  I was suitably nervous.  I had only been kayaking for 3 months and here I was amongst the best para canoeists in the country- in fact the world. In this squad of 20 there were 4 athletes who had won medals at last years world championships. Just a little daunted doesn't even come close to how I was feeling!
Looking around I was struck by the diversity of the group. Almost every demographic box had been ticked. All so different and yet united by some event in our past which had changed our bodies and our lives. We all sat there- some in wheelchairs, some with prosthetic legs, some with wiggling stumps, some with crutches but all athletes with an incredible mindset that anything is possible. We could all have decided after our injury that we were a victim of circumstance and put our 'glass half empty' down on the table. In contrast, everyone had raised their 'glass half full' up high, in celebration of what we yet could achieve. 

The week was divided up into water sessions, seminars, gym sessions and testing. 
I'm now getting used to the fact that I am constantly going to be tested to make sure I am improving. The first time I went to this gym was 3 months ago I couldn't even lift the bar without any weights on it - what a total wimp! 

I have spent considerable time down the 'other' end of the gym at home- No more am I at the end full of ladies in matching gym kit who check the mirrors regularly to ensure there is no makeup slippage or VPL. I'm now pumping iron in the smelly end of the gym. I am surrounded by men in baggy sweat shorts who's arms no longer hang vertically.  The sleeves are torn off their t shirts and they gaze into the mirror to ensure that their shiny biceps are getting bigger. 

My hard work has paid off, I manage a new personal best both in the gym and on the water!

My ethos is black and white, do it or don't. So when the coaches say give it 100 % -I do just that. By day 4, I couldn't even take my t shirt off as my arms were so stiff and sore- my core was exhausted and it felt more like wet pasta than muscles of a 'finely tuned' athlete.

Despite being in shreds, I had a brilliant week! My highlights were having a training session alongside the face of GB para-canoe and treble world champion. I had a - "ooo crickey, this is surreal! "  moment as we paddled down the lake together. 

The bigger highlight however was getting to know my team mates. What a fantastically brilliant, uplifting bunch of people. Everyone should spend time with a squad of para athletes in the hope that some of their spirit, determination and irreverent sense of humour might possibly rub off on them. 

Saturday, 27 October 2012

From Zero to 'hero' in 7 weeks. GB para canoe selection.

It felt very odd standing at the paddler briefing at the GB selection event. Lots of Team GB track suits and athletes who's faces I recognised. They must have wondered who I was, standing there in my cycling 'race team' kit ( I hadn't bothered buying any canoe specific kit yet). Only my boat shoes confirmed that I probably hadn't turned up to the wrong briefing! 

"Is everyone ok with the starting mechanism?" Steve Harris ex world champion and head of the para canoe program was asking.
I hesitated, then reluctantly put my hand up. There was an awkward moment when all the other Athletes eyes seemed to turn to me- the only one in cycling kit. "Im not sure how it works" I said. I had just admitted out loud to everyone that I was a newbie and that I had never been in a race.  

The day was precisely organised. Every athlete had to do 2 water 200m time trials, an ergo test and I, as a new athlete was to have my para athlete classification medical as well. 

It was time to head out for my water time trial - I wished my legs would stop shaking with nerves as I walked over to my boat. To my surprise, my coach had put my name in large letters across the bow making me smile which also seemed to calm my legs down a bit. 

Ready steady.... Last week I had capsized and frightened myself comprehensively by being unable to breathe in the freezing water as I struggled to swim to the shore.
This image was not helping! 


The bucket start mechanism released the boat and I plunged the paddle into the water. All technique seemed to go to pot ( frog in a blender comes to mind) as I furiously splashed my way down the course.  I vaguely remember going cross eyed as I pushed to my maximum. At about 150m everything was excruciatingly painful and it felt like my eyeballs and core muscles would pop. How can a minute or so of exercise be so hard? I told myself to "get a grip, it was only temporary" I put the pain out of my head, went more cross eyed, hoped nothing would burst and pushed harder. I had worked incredibly hard over the past 7 weeks, this was a one chance opportunity and I had put everything into it. I had been coached at Wey Kayak club 3 times a week under the critical but encouraging eyes of Claire Gunney. (ex team GB and marathon champ) We practiced until my body felt like a rag doll and my hands bled. I had travelled to Nottingham once a week for more torture. I squeezed in daily gym sessions which focused on changing my strong cycling core into a kayaking core. I worked on facilitating the strength I already had into specific kayaking patterns. ( being a physio is really useful sometimes and this is the kind of work I specialise in.)

At the end of the time trial I was too out of breath to smile but I knew I had done my best. I was really pleased that  A. I hadn't fallen in and B.despite being cross eyed had managed a vaguely straight line (not as easy as it sounds) I also felt it was a decent time. But was it good enough for the team?

My coach was grinning, he had been right. That games-maker he met in the coffee shop 2 months ago was a para-canoeist (even though she didn't know it yet). I had posted the fastest time of the day out of all the girls, including those already on the GB team! Yaaaaaay!

Not only that, I had received my official para classification enabling me to be a LTA classified athlete. I had had mixed feelings about putting myself forward to officially classify my 'disability' Admitting to this disability, in my mind was a failure. I had struggled on in denial trying unsuccessfully to race my bike, becoming increasingly frustrated and depressed with my weak leg limiting me. I was really very down about it until I was given this opportunity to do something completely different. It was as if a light had gone on in my head and I had something positive to work towards again rather than standing at a dead end trying to 'ride my bike through a brick wall'. One door closes but another one opens, and classification (despite being something I didn't want to be true) was the key to that door. 

I had made it! In seven weeks I had managed to achieve the squad selection time!

The official email followed welcoming me onto the GB squad with a list of dates- including the world champs 2013- to keep free.. 

I keep having to re read that email just to make sure. It doesn't seem possible that a chance meeting in a coffee shop at the Olympics (see my olympic legacy post) would lead to this. I still can't believe that I made it onto the GB squad never having raced a canoe and having spent nothing on canoeing except petrol and precisely £ 6.99 on a pair of boat shoes! 

It just goes to show that anything is possible if you are open to change, want it enough and have the correct support around you.
I could never have decreased my time to get squad time without the coaches at Wey kayak club and of course Colin the Games-maker/GB coach who saw beyond the lopsided cyclist. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

My Olympic "Leg"acy

This is not a normal Monday morning. I am sitting in a logo'd "team GB" race canoe and I'm using an uber bling carbon fibre paddle to splash my way furiously up the 200m sprint course at the National waters sports centre. ....

The Velodrome at 2012 Olympics
Working at the Olympics had been an amazing experience, but not for any of the reasons I could have predicted. A chance meeting and a casual conversation in a cafe with a random fellow gamesmaker turned into an invitation for me to try out for the GB squad para canoe team.


All gamesmakers have a real life job, and his job was GB paracanoe coach. In between sips of coffee he was explaining that he was searching for suitable athletes to train for Rio 2016
"you can have me if you like" I said
This was meant as a joke but his coffee was soon forgotten as I received a fast and furious Q and A session about my back injury, my weak leg and my bike racing history.

He left me feeling slightly giddy with a date in my diary to be assessed for suitability to join the team.  In the time it had taken to eat half a muffin I had gone from frustrated endurance cyclist with a dodgy leg to a possible GB para sprint canoeist. 

I was trialling for team GB in a sport which I had never done- did I mention that bit?- I've never actually been in a canoe.

I arrived at the water sports centre and met the gamesmaker who was now wearing his team GB coach polo shirt looking very official. He was talking to the other athletes and suddenly I felt like I was in the wrong place. They were all in wheelchairs and I couldn't help wondering What the hell was I doing here? My legs 'work' and I can't canoe!! 

GB paracanoe bay 
It was explained that there is a spectrum of disability classification for each sport and I am at one end, having reduced use of my leg, whereas they are at the other end having use of just arms. 

First things first-to learn how to 'paddle'. I had a swift half hour session on the ergo (dry land canoe) - I had no idea how complicated it all was.  "right, let's see what you can do. "

As an endurance cyclist I'm all slow twitch with weedy arms so a 200 meter sprint  at full pelt on the ergo put me into a whole new world of pain. 
Despite my time putting me 17th in the world for my category which I was actually ok with, it was a 'disappointing' time. In order to make the team I would have to be within sniffing distance of a medal on the world stage!

Race Lake at Holme Pierepont 
Then moment I had been dreading- actually getting onto the water. 

 The other athletes had made it look so easy! I scramble into the boat and wobble. One girl says "you will fall in - we all do in the beginning" ....thanks:-) 

I start off down the lake and massive a smile spreads across my face, I  work!! My arms, unlike my legs are equal and for the first time since my accident I don't have to struggle or concentrate on walking. I feel free, I feel like I'm flying!  whoaah! Plop!

It was 7 weeks ago that I was given the challenge by the GB coach to turn myself from slow twitch sloth into a fast twitch cannon with guns of steel. I was told that I had to drop a considerable number of seconds to be any where near the selection criteria.

 So much has happened in the last 7 weeks. I have been training, paddling, working and sleeping and not much else. I have open blisters on my hands, aching shoulders and quite scary looking biceps. I have learnt the difference between a Kayak and a canoe and stopped mixing up the words paddling and peddling!

This weekend is crunch time. I have a total of about 2 minutes racing time and a medical to determine my path for the next 4 years, and whether Im going to be paddling towards Rio.

Nervous? Me? hell yes! 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Please don't try this at home...........

......The SouthDowns Triple

Richard on the 'south downs triple'
"I want to be the first person to cycle the South Downs Way triple, what do you think? "
Richard looked at me earnestly. Inside I was struggling to know how to respond Yer yer funny joke. Only 25% of people who attempt the double have achieved it and Richard isn’t your normal elite athlete.....
He was still looking at me intently and I realised he was being serious – and he wanted an answer. 
"Really?" I said “Sure – why not!”.  He smiled and I realised that he had already decided he was going to do it. He was just testing me to see if I would be there for the journey.

The rulebook for the South Downs double hall of fame states that there are 2 categories - supported or unsupported – yes some people do the 200-mile double unsupported. Riding 300 miles off road in one go? Slightly crazy in its self, but to ride it unsupported would be crazy verging on dangerous. As the team came together we all wanted Richard to achieve his goal, but understanding the seriousness of his challenge we wanted to make sure that no one got hurt in the process – neither Richard, who was clearly at risk, nor any of the crew, who would also be getting fatigued driving for 36 hours on public roads. This was going to be a supported ride and, having some experience of 24 hour endurance racing and some personal experience at things going wrong, I volunteered along with Simon to coordinate the support.

Support riders rode behind and allowed Richard do all the gates
That conversation was 15 months ago and last weekend he set off from Eastbourne to attempt to ride the South Downs Way three times in one go - 300 miles nonstop, including 30,000 ft if climbing, in a target time of 36 hours. 

check point info
Richard is a planner, dare I say the spreadsheet king. He likes to know everything in advance to the minutest detail. Over the next 15 months he updated his massive file from his previous double achievement with information on the challenge. Photos of every gate and junction from both directions, average prevailing winds, every checkpoint with an aerial view. The location of 24hour supermarkets for emergency supplies for the crew or for if things weren’t going to plan. Each check point had instructions of what he wanted, his nutrition, his clothing, his desired average mph – even when to text his wife! Every situation and possible problem had been thought through with contingencies being planned.  Everything and I mean everything was in that file. 

Planning didn't stop there, Richard, despite having a full time job and a family, found time to train efficiently and intelligently - it wasn't just about the miles and the hours – it couldn't be. He enlisted my help to work with him on his core, and to help correct muscle imbalances we picked up in his core assessment, as well as Kate Potter from AQR coaching to work on fitness, skills and (between us) on bike fit.

The dynamic core assessment revealed issues which would have led to injury, either as he ramped up his training or as fatigue set in on the ride, if left unchecked. Working with Kate, Richards training involved specific exercises to rectify this as well as to develop a strong dynamic core, to help with performance and efficiency. Kate devised a specific training program both to deal with the specific challenges of the triple as well as to take into account Richard’s work and home life commitments. 

the support van
So on to the support plan.  Both Simon and I know 24 hour racing, but 24 hours with a fixed pit is easy.  36 hours with a demanding, moving pit was a completely different challenge. Enlisting support from the other half of AQR’s endurance race team, Ant and Rach both being experienced in 24 hour races, meant we could plan to work in 2 overlapping shifts, to make sure we didn’t get too tired.  I was also particularly conscious of the potential for something to go wrong medically and although I am reasonably well trained, I am no sports doctor.  We consulted with numerous experts as to the possible problems we might encounter and done everything we could to minimise risk. The final team was made up of a support van, a camper van, 4 support crew, a Physio (me!), a sports med doctor, and a team support riders for the last leg – to make sure this crazy idea was as safe as possible. 

With all this meticulous planning a date was set – Sunday the 3rd to Monday the 4th June - what could possibly go wrong?

The weather. 

A surprise storm coming in after 2 weeks of dry weather meant that the South Downs Way would turn from being perfectly baked to being treacherous, slippery and gloopy. As the forecast firmed up Simon, in charge of logistics, calculated that the best weather window meant pulling the whole thing forward two days – this was on the Thursday morning, which meant we had to go tomorrow. A few phone calls later and it became apparent that a Friday start meant that more than half the team physically could not make it. 
15 months of planning thrown up into the air - panic! 

I frantically looked through my contacts to see who might be able to stand in. Bingo! Judy and Roy from Dark Star Brewery’s endurance team. They were local, also knew the endurance scene and amazingly they were free.
The crew left to right Roy, Judy, Dr Jerry and Anne
(thanks to Mike Anton for the photo)

We scrabbled round trying to get more support riders who were free, but with this little notice on an extended bank holiday weekend it was proving a struggle. 

Almost sorted and then another phone call from Simon. "We are also changing the route” The normal prevailing wind is from the West, but the storm coming in was bringing in a strong Easterly wind for the final leg, which didn’t make sense to ride into on the final leg, so all change to as Eastbourne start rather than Winchester argh!!! By the end of the day my hair was pulled out and lying in a heap on the floor and my byro chewed down to the nib. 
trying to sort out logistics 

37 hours after the start, Richard cruised into Winchester. 15 months after that “innocent question” he had done it; The first person to ever to cycle the South Downs Way three times in one shot. The last 37 hours had been utterly brilliant, incredible, scary and exhausting and Richard had been absolutely amazing.

Richard at a checkpoint receiving physio and food.
(photo by Mike Anton) 

The crew at a checkpoint at 5 am waiting for
richard to appear through the mist
The hours and months of preparation and planning had been worth it. For sure Richard had ridden into the record books, and I don't know many people who could have done that, but the pit crew had been kept busy and not everything had gone to plan.  In the end there were seven core members of the support team as well as support riders making sure he was safe.  Every single member of that crew contributed and just about every “what if” scenario came into play.  

 quick medical check

in particular I would have hated to have been the one to take the call on whether to stop Richard from continuing when he started to waiver with 60 miles to go. A professional sports medic performing a medical exam and testing for cognitive reasoning confirmed his body was functioning normally despite being exhausted, is just the kind of reassurance we needed; and a fresh set of crew with fresh brains to take on driving duties and question decisions was invaluable towards the end.   

The team plus supporters at Winchester after 37 hours 4 minutes

Richard and Simon at the finish-
both looking exhausted!
So a marker has been set and no doubt someone will try and break it. I know Richard is in many ways an ordinary bloke who has achieved an extraordinary thing, but please don't be temped into thinking it is easily achievable. If you, like Richard, wake up one day wanting to ride a long, long way without sleep, please grab that thought with both hands and say Yes, but also be aware of the dangers involved. Plan ahead, make your body the best that it can be, get yourself a crew who can look after you, and plan for everything!

Remember, it’s about breaking a record, not breaking yourself… Good luck! 

head wind

Richards own blog about his ride is here:

Judys blog is here to give you the other side of the story. 

Thanks to:
 Pete from Kiss training for his in depth outdoor first aid advice

Dave Buchanan: guiness record holder for endurance mountain biking for his advice on what happens to your body after 24 hours riding

Jerry Hill - Sports Doctor

Dave Brothers, main support rider who changed his weekend plans umpteen times in order to help us

Judy and Roy from the dark star brewery endurance team who dropped everything to help us - they were absolutely awesome!

Mrs Sterry for a truck full of cake

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Solo 24 hour racing-team or solo sport?

AQR teamwork

Sorry I haven't updated my blog for ages! The last few months have simply been too hard to put down on paper... Injuring my back last summer changed everything for me. As a physio my aim is to heal other people and help them reach their goal - but now I feel a bit of a failure because my own goals are so far out of my reach...
Dormant race shoes

The injured nerve in my back has left me with a numb foot and weak leg muscles. Mother nature has her own healing time and frustratingly I know there is nothing I can do to hurry this healing process. I have had to bury racing goals along with my new, unused race shoes in the bottom of the cupboard.

I have tried to be upbeat about it because in the great scheme of things I am fine - at one point I was worried that I might not be able to walk at all. So the fact that I am mobile, back at work and even riding my bike (albeit in variable straight lines with unpredictable steering) is brilliant.

Seeing other people around me training and racing has been hard. Forced to stay at home while my riding buddies thrash their bikes around the woods and listening to their excited banter when they come back makes me feel like an an outsider. How was I going to pull myself out of this dark, lonely place called injury?

UCI world cup 

Two months ago I was lucky enough to work as track side physio at the Olympic test event at the London velodrome. The event was incredible!
To see a rider in pain one day, then racing around the track and even getting a podium the next gave me a massive buzz.It was after this event that I started to look at my race shoes without the same pang of sadness. I wasn't racing but for some reason I was still getting a buzz from other people's race...

Since joining AQR's race team, the Exposure 24 Solo Championships have been a key event for me. Being the only event dedicated to my particular discipline it has been the highlight of my calendar. Sadly, this year, I wasn't able to race.
My AQR endurance team colleagues and close friends Ant and Rach were both entering, and I had also persuaded Simon (who normally supports me) to enter the 12 hour with me repaying his support. But I wasn't really looking forward to it.

This was partly because it is my favourite race and I wouldn't be on the course, but it was also because I am rubbish in the pit - or at least I was the last time I supported Simon. In fact I was so bad he ended up grabbing his own bottles and gels!

So here I was, supporting three of my closest friends in the pit feeling immense pressure to do a good job.
Team AQR at the start
One thing I haven't mentioned is that, as part of the AQR coaching setup I provide tailored physio support and that two of these riders were still under my wing...
Rachel had fractured her pelvis last year requiring physio alongside her training to enable her to push hard while keeping her body repairing properly. Her goal was to race at the 2012 24hr champs and give it her best shot. Simon fell off his bike (road riding is so dangerous!) 4 weeks prior to the race hurting his back and knee making walking painful let alone cycling for 12 hours. He ended up spending more time in physio than riding his bike on the lead up to the race and his goal had become purely to get a top 10 finish with a smile on his face. Both their goals were a long shot but I was determined to help as much as I could. 
The race day arrived and I was a bag of nerves just as if I were going to race! Getting to the start of the race in a minibus shuttle rather than on my bike and standing at the start holding a camera rather than a bike was a stark reminder that I wasn’t racing - so why was I still nervous and still needing that 'pre-race panic' toilet stop!?

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Exposure 24 2012

Back at the pits I kept checking and rechecking the riders race instructions. From a riders perspective I knew how crucial it was that I didn't get anything wrong. One, two, three successful pit changes. I started to relax and enjoy myself.

Jolly Pits
I may be a pit monkey newbee but from the racing side I always appreciated passing pits that were loud, supportive and bright. I'm not sure how many people truly appreciated my fairly lights, flags and cheesy 80s play lists, but I did smile (a lot) when I heard several people the next day singing Chesney Hawkes - 'The One and Only' as they dismantled their camps...
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Bright pits

Several Non AQR riders passed our pit through the night struggling. Understanding their goal, we would always ask if we could help with their bike or a cup of tea. Some riders at Newcastleton had a surreal moment while I, a total stranger, worked on their legs/back/shoulders to ease their pain or Ian fixed a problem on their bike. Seeing them return smiling lap after lap saying thank you made the fact that I was in the pits, not on the course totally worthwhile. (despite having Chesney messing with my brain - how come he was on every random play list!?)

Simon arrived at the pit after 6 hours looking really sore. A dose of 'physio magic' and he was back on course, flying with a grin on his face. He managed his top 10 position with a smile - something which had seemed impossible 4 weeks ago. I also nailed every single rolling pit, having actually read and understood his race plan :-)

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Rach, Ant and Simon 

Rachel rode her socks off. We had talked at length during her rehab sessions how she was going to ride this race with her recovering back and pelvis and it all went to plan. Some fairly interesting pit stops through the night involving a lot creative tape application to support the areas we are still working on helped Rachel to finish well ahead of all the competition. As she crossed the finish line as National and European Champion I couldn’t have been more elated.

As I stood there and watched our riders stand on the podium I felt an immense sense of inclusion and pride (Ant had come 3rd in the U.K). Solo racing done well is very much a team race. What I learnt that weekend was that just because I wasn't racing didn't mean I couldn't be a valuable part of the team.
If I had raced - only one person might have had a successful race. Being race physio and Simon's pit monkey meant that I was part of a team that helped several racers over the finish line.

It felt amazing to be part of the winning AQR experience and I finally dont mind about my injury anymore. (well,not as much!)

The AQR Exposure 24 hr team 

Aqr ridersfor incredible racing - (Rachel Sokal 1st European 24, Ant Jordan 3rd  UK24 . Simon Usher 9th European 12),
Coaches Kate and Ian Potter for all their hard work before the race with coaching, skills tuition and performance bike fit.
Pit Crew Carole, me and Ian B for bike washing, chain lubing, tea making, and cheering and and.......
Mechanic and bike fit Ian Potter for making racers fast and all the bikes run sweetly
Bikes Cy at Cotic for making bike that you really love riding for 24 hours
Physio Anne Dickins for keeping those bodies performing to their potential
Cheerleaders and Bell ringers Kirsty, Matt and Katie- other AQR riders who came a long way to support us.
Music-Chesney Hawkes for being that gift that carries on giving...I am the one and only la la la la....