Monday 4th February, 9 am. I hovered Over a button on my I pad, waiting, thinking-add to cart? This would be the moment of my biggest yes to date.
At 14 years old, I was diagnosed with adult onset stills disease, a debilitating rare type of rheumatoid arthritis. I was told it was highly likely I would be in a permenant wheel chair by the time I hit 21 years old and my life would be forever changed. It was. The path I have taken over the last 27 years has been a rocky one, full of twists turns and many bumps. But I’m not permanently in a wheelchair. Yes I use one when needed and also crutches or walking stick, but at almost 41 I consider that a win.
A solid win.
The next thing they told me at the hospital that day( and I remember it clear as if it was yesterday) was that I had to give up all my much loved sports- dance, hockey, football, badminton- never again could I play and participate or I would do untold damage to my body.
Overnight, all of my passions were gone. The devastation that followed is hard to put into words, but my mum reminded me last night of something I’d end up saying a lot in this period, in the most stubborn and grumpy of manners “ I’m GOING to do normal things, you can’t stop me !!”.
We both remember many times as a teenager when I’d tearfully and defiantly limp off to participate in an activity I shouldn’t. It most often ended in pain and tears, but I never regretted trying. To my mums credit, she never Said I told you so and got mad, just “you knew this would happen but you wanted to do it and this is the consequence…”. Then she’d get me my meds and to the hospital and my specialist would smile and treat me with a slightly grumpy voice but a sparkle in his eye and remind me to be careful.
The thing is that all along I’ve been a fighter. I simply won’t give up for any length of time- sometimes those spells of defeat last a few months, but I always pick myself back up and put my big girl pants on and get on with it.
Back to that cold February day. We had talked about doing a proper race for years at club wesup, going on a big group mission together for a mini adventure and this year, 2019, was the one we would do it. I clicked the button to sign up for the head of the dart, a competitive endurance race of 14km on a river in neighbouring Devon. It will be fine I thought, it’s not Til April.
Each winter I leave the water for 5 months.. although I am able to sup when my joints allow, the cold, wet windy Cornish winters are not ideal for someone like me, I struggle to even get my wetsuit on an off my body- this is my hibernation time, when I end up mostly in bed sick. But I had time..
Mother nature had other ideas.
Henceforth came 6 weeks of insane wind and waves- totally unpaddlable for even the most experienced. We live in a coastal town on the south coast, so had to just wait it out. Late March the weather broke and I had a week of being able to get on the water and racked up 10 hours training. Then the wind came back again. 1 single hour on the water was all I managed between the kids and being sick and the god damn wind before the big day.
As the days ticked down to Sunday 14th April, my anxiety grew.
Why the hell had I thought I could do this?
My knee was swollen, my neck, hip and lower back were a steady 6 rising to 8 on the pain scale on a daily basis. I was exhausted; life had been stressful and hectic for months.
It was with some trepidation that I loaded my stuff into the car to travel up at 6:30 am. My board had had a leak 2 weeks previously and that night I’d had little sleep. Me and my friend chatted for the journey up and decided to take it steady- we both had never done something like this before and decided to “smash it from the back”. I’d be happy with a time under 2 hours 30 and she wanted to Complete in under 3.
We spent the morning with our wesup team (who were alongside us racing the dragon boat sup) getting kit ready, eating, laughing and generally quietly getting more freaked out. It was extremely windy and conditions were going to be incredibly challenging. Everyone around us seemed to belong there and know what they were doing. The safety briefing terrified us and along with another 20 women, we raced to have one final nervous wee before we got on the water.
1:20pm I found myself on the water loitering behind the start line, wondering what the hell I was doing there.
1:29pm the minute warning sounded and I decided to get into some space so I didn’t start the race falling off like an idiot in freezing conditions.
1:30pm the horn sounded and I found myself starting – slow and strong, slow and strong I repeated. Don’t freak out just take it steady.
Thus began the hardest physical hour of my life, bar childbirth 4 times. I felt like I was barely moving as the wind literally howled into my face constantly, bitterly cold. I began counting in eights, my default mode when struggling on the water. I tell myself just do this eight strokes and swap sides, that’s all you got to do, is this next 8. Each time I looked up I felt like I’d gone nowhere. After a while a guy settled alongside me as we both naturally found our rhythm, as often happens on longer paddles- thank goodness he did as we chatted and that helped the last half of that hideous section paddling into the wind go much faster!
We thought we saw the turn buoy twice, but found ourselves turning yet another corner and into a final into the wind hell on earth straight , the gusts must have been 30mph and each time I looked up the buoy was no closer.
At this point I noticed the paddlers coming towards me that had already turned the buoy- there weren’t many! At the time of writing I have no idea where I came but I estimate there were 30 people ahead of me of which 6 were women, in a fleet of 131.
I was doing well!
I said to my new paddle friend, I’ve just counted the ladies and I think I’m the 7th girl! I think I just found my competitive edge, I don’t want to slip back. “You can take those 2 ahead for sure” he told me, so that became my mission. I left him to paddle and chat with his friend as I pushed harder to close the gap between me and the lady in pink and her buddy who had been ahead of me the whole race.
It took a good 20 minutes but I caught the first one on a bend and pushed past her.
I was exhausted , my back hurt, I couldn’t feel my feet they were so cold, my knee was shaking and my shoulders man, they were so sore. I cant explain, how much I wanted to cry and I still had at least 4km to go. I got my head down, caught up with pink lady and started to draft behind her; I joked to her, I won’t do this for long although I’m shattered (in race rules, apparently, you are only allowed for 10 seconds) and we chatted a couple of minutes as I moved alongside, about how we hoped the worst was over once we were headed back upstream. Yet somehow the wind had swung against us as again and we were also paddling against the tide now too. It felt like paddling through sludge, sticky and slow. People tell me this course is beautiful, but I can’t remember, I was so focused on not giving into that bloody wind.
Somehow I pushed past her and kept going.
I rounded the final bend and at that point I’d guess it was a 1 or 2 km straight shot to the finish and it was at this point that I wanted to give up.
The line wasn’t getting any closer and both legs were now shaking. I could barely lift my paddle out of the water- I have good techinique and I paddle deep and strong, which is tiring but allows you to get more bang for your buck. I started shouting at myself out loud, dig deep, stop bloody moaning, you can do this. I started counting out loud 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-1-2-3-4….then on my left should I felt someone. I thought oh crap the pink lady is going to catch me up! I dug in harder to shake her off, too scared to look back. Then I heard someone start shouting to me , keep going, dig deep, you’ve got this; repeating all my mantras from earlier at me, was my new Sup buddy James. For the next 10 minutes, he encouraged me the whole way to the finish line.
I bloody did it!
As soon as I crossed the line my legs collapsed and I fell to my knees and had A few tears. Not a single person had overtaken me from the start, apart from my new buddy who crossed a second before me.
I had done it in 1hour 42 minutes.
I left the water and thanked the two young guys behind me for not taking me out at the end and they told me they were trying and couldn’t! What a feeling that was. I dumped my board and saw my friends walking towards me from town; we had massively underestimated how long it would take me and they all missed me finishing- but loads of excited screams of how fast I was ensued. We quickly walked along the tow path to cheer in the rest of team wesup and I couldn’t believe how many paddle boards were still on the water.
It was absolutely overwhelming.
I still can’t believe that me, disabled mum of 4 at 40 years old smashed it. I’ll check later but I’m going to guess that I’ve come in around 30th and I really hope 6th or possibly 5th lady. It’s impossible to know as I was so focused -did I miss a load of people ahead of me?
Today I lay here in pain and gritting my teeth. I won’t bloody moan though, as yesterday I lived the dream and did something I never in a million years dreamed possible.
I had no idea when I clicked that “add to basket” button and said yes to this big adventure, that it was even possible for me to compete that race, even less so when we saw the weather report. To have done it so fast and strong, massively exceeded any expectations I had of myself. I absolutely couldn’t have done it without everyone else having absolute faith in my ability- my partner Sean, kids, parents, siblings, friends and of course my incredible wesup family. They put up with a whole lot of self doubt from me, which comes from years of being told I can’t and am not good enough.
Today I proved all those people who believed in me right. And even more importantly, I showed myself who I really am.
I can and I am good enough.
I am worthy.
I did belong in that start line.
And Maybe, just maybe I can even call myself an athlete again.
EDIT- I came in 16th overall and 4th woman in my fleet of paddlers. Had I been brave enough to enter the N1SCO series or the ladies ages race- I would have come 2nd and 3rd respectively with that time.