Thursday, 21 May 2015

Not *quite* clinophobic...

Here's one you may not have heard of:

Clinophobia - fear of going to bed.
Now, if you know me well you will know that I love sleeping. I'm really hard to get up in the mornings (thank you EDS and POTS) and, living with lots of fatigue, I tend to enjoy the chance for an extra nap should it present itself.

However, throughout the last 10 or 15 years (maybe more?), I have intermittently suffered from an intense fear of going to bed at night. Being on or in bed during the day time isn't an issue; night time itself is not a problem; and I'm not scared of the dark. I'm scared of going to bed at night time and having to sleep.
There are various reasons why this may start to be a problem after a period of me not being affected. The first is if my head isn't quite right. When my bipolar was not being at all well-managed, I was constantly hearing things that weren't there. Sometimes these things were quite innocuous, sometimes less so - but to be honest, whenever you're hearing something that you can't explain it's usually quite worrying. During the daytime, I found it easier to ignore the voices and noises, but at night time there was nothing I could find to block it out. These days I listen to the radio or something as I fall asleep, which helps a bit, but back then even doing that didn't work, because the voices just mangled what I heard. Shutting my door and closing out the rest of the world felt as if I were imprisoning myself in a little cell, from which I couldn't be free until morning. Sometimes, to get away from this, I would go running through the night until I had exhausted myself enough to be able to fall asleep as soon as I got back. Other times, I would stay up late talking to the night owls until dawn broke and people started to move outside again, making it safe for me to collapse into bed. Bedtime was the part of the day I dreaded most, to the extent that I was sick to my stomach. I would cry at the thought of it, and start to feel panicky. I hated it because I felt so alone and so vulnerable. I would also hate it because I knew how desperately tired I was, but I was just too scared to lie down and try and sleep. Have you ever tried to lie in bed, keep your eyes closed and stay relaxed whilst you can hear your bedroom walls closing in on you, then crashing down, whilst voices shout and scream at you, alternately compelling you to save yourself and then yelling that you deserve to die and should stay there and be destroyed? However good your 'sleep hygeine' and your routine before bed, I would challenge anyone to be able to get a good night's sleep with that going on inside their head (but sounding for all the world as if it were outside).
That was quite a few years ago now, and I am relieved to say that (touch wood, fingers crossed!) I've been stable for a long time now and since then hallucinations of that severity have not troubled me at all. Now, it's different things that make me scared of bedtime.
One of the worst things about bedtime is that you have to be quiet. This is when doubts and fears can get the better of you, or when all those upsetting thoughts that you push away during the day can come and haunt you. After a lot of work, I am actually pretty good at shoving these thoughts away (or, even better, rationalising them then shoving them away). Sometimes, though, that just isn't possible. Sometimes things have been shoved down so deeply that when they do resurface they take you by surprise, and in doing so draw more attention to themselves. That makes it harder to push them out. The fact that bedtime makes me vulnerable to this can make me quite anxious, even though, again, I'm good at controlling my anxiety.
I'm not thinking about you I'm not thinking about you I'm not thinking about you
While bedtime is excellent for bringing up mental traumas, big and small, it's also a good time for my body to remind me of physical problems. Most people find that lying in bed brings relief to an aching body, but I don't. The only difference to my joints that I have when I lie down is that they now feel awkward and painful in a different position. Since there's less weight on them, this seems unfair, but there we go! Lying in bed is really painful for my back and my legs, and without my splints on my arms (which make me quite hot) my wrists really hurt too, and for some reason my fingers always hurt when I'm lying in bed.
I know how he feels.
As well as the aches, there's the one which is causing me the biggest problems at the moment - nausea and vomiting. When I lie down flat, I only take a few seconds before feeling very sick and having to sit up quickly (trying not to faint!) before I am actually sick. Usually I can address this by propping myself up with LOTS of pillows, but sometimes that isn't enough. At the moment, I'm finding this a lot - I have to sleep sitting up in a chair, which isn't very good on the joints and makes turning over much harder. Because it's not a particularly restful position, my brain takes even longer to switch off, which means I'm left with my thoughts for longer. I also have to be conscious of the anti-emetic medication I take, which stays in the mouth and doesn't taste great (although it is usually quite effective). If I don't do all this, the consequences are pretty severe. Nausea for me rapidly escalates into severe tachycardia/palpitations, sweating, vomiting, dizziness, etc... It sounds like a panic attack but isn't as bad because there isn't the intense fear. I know that if I let myself get frightened it would be like that, but as it is I know that it's just a set of phsyical symptoms which will happen but which will pass.
I am that person with loads of pillows - one for my knees, one for my ankles, one for my shoulders, two or three to prop my head up, a couple for my feet, etc...
A lot of this relative calmness I have to the severe nausea comes from my first year at university. Going up to university for the first time, one of my biggest fears (top 2 or 3) was what would happen if I were sick. Not sick with a cold, or EDS sick, or anything, but actually physically sick. Ever since I was a kid, I was severely emetophobic. I was absolutely terrified of feeling sick, and the mere thought of being sick reduced me to a quivering and crying wreck! I was very scared, therefore, when I contracted (mild) norovirus at the end of my first term. When, after that, I just didn't get better, and continued to be very sick every single day, it was my worst nightmare. My terror at being sick was compounded by being away from home - I felt that if I were at home with my parents I was somehow safer than if I were away, even if I were in a hospital. Eventually, that's where I ended up - after a few months, I still hadn't stopped being sick. I was seriously underweight (BMI <13) and very, very weak. I had endless blood tests and scans, with X-rays, a gastroscopy, a barium meal - all sorts - added in. Doctors had endless suggestions but couldn't find what was wrong. All they knew was that everything I ate either came straight back up or went straight through. I was living with constant and severe nausea and stomach pain. After several admissions (with one particularly memorable trip in an ambulance in which all my vitals were dreadful but they still had no idea why) they finally found out my severe lactose intolerance. The best thing of all of this? Exposure therapy TOTALLY works! I wouldn't say that nausea or vomiting are things that I enjoy, but they're certainly not things I'm scared of anymore - or rather, not in an irrational way. After 6 months of suffering, I had achieved one thing - I had kicked my dramatic phobia of being sick.
Take that, emetophobia!
Now, I'm so glad I did! Being sick is a part of life. If I don't eat enough at night, I throw up my pills in the middle of the night. It turns out that 'enough' is actually quite a lot, and I've thrown those pills up several times. Nausea is also a daily symptom for me. I don't like it, but I can live with it.

So, if I can live with it, why am I still scared of it come night time?

I think it's just the fact that at night time other people are asleep and you're not meant to bother them if you feel rubbish. Night time can feel very long. I know that if I try to stay up to delay the inevitable, I just end up feeling even worse, because delaying my evening pills and being too tired are both things which make me feel really sick. I think I dislike the way that I am being pulled in all directions by body and mind. I dislike the way that everything is a compromise - from when I go to bed and what I eat beforehand to what position I try and sleep in. Every morning I rejoice in the new day because although days are hard and getting up is nigh-on impossible, nights are so much harder.
Nights have got easier as I've got better at dealing with nausea. They have got easier as my bipolar has become better controlled. They have got easier as I've got better at controlling anxiety and not letting worrying thoughts spiral out of control. They have got easier now that I live with my lovely (and long-suffering) boyfriend. They have got easier now that I have learned what things will guarantee a bad night and what things will predispose a good one.

The problem is that there is still a lot of inbuilt fear and I still find it difficult to overcome that sometimes. When I've had an especially bad day, or when the night before was especially bad, I'm correspondingly more afraid the next night. I have to use all my CBT powers to keep myself as calm as possible so as not to create problems merely out of anxiety. 

As well as the weapons mentioned just above, I have one talisman. It got me through those six months of sickness, where I went from terrified to resigned. It gets me through all the worst moments of whatever I'm doing - be it a difficult night or troubling hospital visits, or just a traffic jam or an hour-long erg! It helps me because I know, from experience, that it is true, even though sometimes my head wants to make me think otherwise. It is a double-edged sword, as you shall see, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing, and in times of trouble, it's the best. It comes in the form of a story...
King Solomon's Parable (possibly not actually anything to do with Solomon, but we'll ignore that for now!)
King Solomon was the wisest, wealthiest, and most powerful King the land had ever seen. One day, he decided to teach his advisor, Benaihah, a lesson in humility. He set him the task of finding a magic ring - a ring which would make the happiest man in the world sad, and the saddest man happy. Solomon did not believe that such a task were possible, but Benaihah left the palace and went in search of this ring. He searched for many months before finding an old man in a market place. He described the ring that Solomon wanted, and asked the man if he had ever seen or heard of such an item. In answer, the man reached into his pocket and extracted a gold ring. Without saying anything, he began to engrave words into the outside of the ring. When he had finished, he handed it to Benaihah. Behnaihah had been worried throughout all the months that he had searched for the ring - he feared that Solomon no longer trusted him, and he feared that this testing time would never come to an end. However, as he read what the man had engraved into the ring, a smile broke on his face. Thanking the man, he hurried back to the palace as soon as he could, and burst into the court were Solomon was standing. Upon seeing Benaihah, Solomon smiled a welcome, asking if he had found the magic ring. Benaihah handed the ring to Solomon, who turned it over in his hands and read the engraving. In that instance, his smile vanished, and he looked troubled. Then he looked at Benaihah, and said, 'I was wrong to doubt you. Come back and live in the palace again. What I have here is fleeting, and I will not send you away again.'
Cos this is totally what someone living in Israel in the 10th century BC looked like.
The words on the ring were those which make the happiest man sad, and the saddest man happy. In a secular context, they promise no eternity, no permanence of relief or of trouble. They merely promise hope: "This too shall pass."



Footnote.
But...I'm still scared.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Cost

ATTENTION - To avoid spoilers, read this and this first!

Those posts will explain why I had such a big weekend...
I knew that it would be a big weekend, and I knew there'd be a cost. This was:

1) wasn't really much use for anything else at all for a few days - FATIGUE!
2) tried to make a comeback into the land of the living by racing in the county athletics league on Wednesday night and had another seizure after it (although to be fair I did win the 800m first)
3) Existing problems worsened, including stress fractures in fingers, slipping of left knee, pain in both hips, instability in ankles, co-ordination in hands and arms, etc...
4) completely unable to train after Wednesday's race for nearly five days (basically just sat in bed, except for venturing out in my chair to graduate on Saturday)
5) Huge flare-up of pain all over my body, including weirdly stiff joints (weird for hypermobile me), muscle spasms and extra numbness and weakness, which hasn't calmed down yet
6) Increased headaches, sickness, feeling generally down about stuff, cognitive functioning gone...

BUT

I got these...
Four shiny gold medals.
 ...and these...

...and in particular, I'm going to this:
 'Hashtag worth it.'

Riding for the Disabled Association - East Region Dressage Qualifier

The day after the Eastern Region Disability Athletics Championships I travelled to St Albans with my mum to take part in the regional round of the RDA dressage championships. I was to do two tests - the Grades I-V Walk, Trot and Canter Championship Test and the Grades I-V Walk, Trot and Canter Freestyle Test. When I first entered we thought that it would be possible to qualify for the National Championships in both tests, but then it became clear that although there are Freestyle tests at nationals, only the Championship Test at regionals would be a qualifying one - the freestyle at regionals was ‘just for fun’. This meant that there was a lot more pressure on me to do well in the first test. In order to qualify for nationals, riders have to come first or second in their class AND they have to score at least 60%. It was by no means a given that I would come in the top two or that I would get over 60 so I was quite nervous!

Preparation for the day had been going OK, but not great. I knew the Championship test (which is a set programme) from memory but was having a caller just in case nerves got the better of me. I had practised the freestyle test with the music and was confident that it would fit OK. However, I did have a few reservations - I was to be the first rider of the entire day (which did at least mean that the number on my back for the day was ‘1’, which felt quite special!). This meant that I had to get there quite early and as early mornings are not my strong point I was worried about being tired after the drive (>1 hour) even though all I had to do in the car was sit and rest. I was also worried that Rolo might misbehave - he’s quite sparky and first thing in the morning I knew he’d be full of beans. He can be very strong and I sometimes have trouble holding him back. In our sessions before the regionals, he had generally been quite well-behaved but the last session we had together he’d been very spooky, had run away from several ‘scary’ things in the arena, and had generally been quite difficult to handle. I was worried about how energetic he might be and how any chances I might have of going to nationals would just trickle away.
We arrived at Oaklands College, where the competition was to be held, in good time. I got myself sorted out and was ready to ride well before most of the rest of the event had been set up! At that stage I really just wanted to get mounted and see how Rolo was feeling - and to see if I could calm him down a bit before the test. As soon as I saw him, I knew that he was in his version of competition mode - he was aware of how beautifully he had been groomed and how sparkly clean his tack was, but mostly he was aware of how exciting it was to be in a new place surrounded by lots of unfamiliar horses. His walk was so active that he was almost jogging (NOT good in dressage!) and as we made our way round to the warm-up area he was looking all around him and getting very excited: whinnying to horses in fields; batting people around the head as he looked from side to side; side-stepping away from invisible scary objects; all those fun little excited horse things.
So excited!
I have to admit I didn’t feel happy at all, which proved to be how I felt throughout my test. I didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel that I could ride well. I was trying to keep myself calm so as to keep him calm, but I was failing completely in that. Warming up in the outdoor school, I tried to keep him focussed on me and not EVERYTHING else, but he was so strong and skittish that I didn’t feel any better. The judge was a bit late so we had more time to warm up, but I didn’t use this time to get more settled (even though I tried) and instead just worked myself into a worry looking at the other people in my class. Although there were only two, they both looked so much better than me and so much more in control of their beautiful horses that part of me felt like giving up there and then.
Quick pep talk before going in - me attempting to smile through the nerves!
Anyway, eventually the judge and scribe were in place and I was allowed to go into the indoor arena where the test would take place. I walked Rolo calmly around the arena and got him accustomed to the presence of a small audience (including my mum and a few from my RDA group) as well as the judges. He was still walking quickly but coming in from outside definitely helped him to concentrate a little bit better. However, I was still feeling a bit uneasy. I wished that I had much more time to calm him down (and to calm myself down!) but all too soon they had rung the bell and I had to start my test.
The test begins with trotting down the centre line, without stopping, before turning left at C. I was glad we didn’t have to stop and salute because I don’t think I could have stopped Rolo for the life of me. I was trying to get his head up and to get him listening to me better but I just couldn’t stop him from tanking off. We stormed around the arena and I somehow managed to get him to cut across from F to H. We then trotted up the long side M-F and at this point I managed to get my left arm into the bar rein and give it a bit of a yank (not good technique AT ALL!) to bring his head up and hold him back a bit - I just couldn’t cope with the poor strength in my ‘good’ arm and needed a little bit of extra support. This, added to a couple of mini spooks around the arena, had me feeling quite anxious. Using my left arm a bit helped to get him nicely on a 20m circle at the A end. Halfway round the circle we went into canter and part of me just thought ‘oh thank God I can try and wear him out a bit now’. In our practice sessions, the canter had been difficult to sustain (it went halfway round the circle then almost all the way round the school) but even with only a moderate bit of leg in the corners he managed to keep it going nicely - unsurprisingly! We just about managed to return to trot at the right time, but going to walk was a lot harder. There was then a turn across the school to change the rein and then we started a 20m circle at the C end, again picking up canter halfway round. This time the canter took us around the edge of the arena to B, at which point he objected violently to something in the side of the arena and spooked out into the middle of the school. I wasn't expecting this but managed to stay on (even had a moment to feel slightly amused at the collective ‘ooohhh!’ of everyone watching) and even managed to return to trot and then to walk at the right point. After that it was a long rein walk across the short diagonal H-B, then medium walk, trot, and finally a turn down the centre line to halt and salute at G. I was terrified that he wouldn’t stop properly so I brought him down to walk very early - at about X - rather than just going for a smooth transition from trot-halt. He stood still nicely at G though and waited for me to salute. I nudged him forwards and we left the arena on a nice long rein.
The spook was like this, except I wasn't on the ground...

This was without doubt the worst dressage test I have ever done (in my own subjective opinion). I felt out of control almost the entire time, and I was so busy worrying about being in the right pace that I didn’t have time to think about making circles a nice shape, or keeping him moving straight, or making sure I was sitting nicely. I was just desperately hanging on the whole way round, and didn’t feel at all comfortable at any point. I even considered retiring after the first few moves, because I knew how badly it was going and I knew it wouldn’t improve. As soon as I’d finished the test, therefore, I just wanted somebody to take hold of Rolo, then let me get off and go and sit in a hole somewhere and cry. I still didn’t feel safe even when someone was holding his head and leading me. I remember being given a rosette as I left the arena, and although I managed to mutter a ‘thank you’ I was just trying not to cry - partly because I felt I’d ridden badly, partly because I was still scared after the test as a whole and Rolo’s big spook in particular, partly because I had seen the next girl go in looking really good and confident, and partly because I was certain that I had blown any chances of going to nationals, which had been my main aim of the day. I felt frightened, disappointed, angry and frustrated. I wasn’t looking forward to my freestyle test at the end of the day because even though I knew it would be a much better ride (Rolo would have had time to calm down) I also knew it wouldn’t qualify me for anything. I felt that I had blown it.
Disappointed bunny.

As soon as I had dismounted and made my way back to the riders’ area my mum and others from my group found me and told me I’d done really well - which of course I ignored because I felt I’d been so useless. I wheeled off by myself for a bit until I felt more like being sociable and less like crying (/until I’d had a brief cry, texted John and then told myself that I had to pull myself together). Then I went back and found the others, and settled down to watch others compete while I waited for several hours to pass before doing my freestyle test. I watched Olivia ride her Grade III test on Jacko. She’d had a seizure that morning but rode fantastically, and it was really good to see how well Jacko was listening to her and working from her - textbook really! I also watched Anne in the ID test with Jola, which was similarly splendid, with Jola really working hard and moving beautifully. After that I watched Rebecca ride in the Countryside Challenge with Jacko. After arriving a tiny bit late, she’d been quite upset and worried, but she overcame that very quickly and rode a stonking round on Jacko - she concentrated really hard throughout, and under her guidance Jacko didn’t put a foot wrong.
Anne's salute to the judges at the end of a beautiful test on Jola.
Around this time I also found out that results were out from the first few classes. This gave me the same sick feeling that I had when I learned that my Finals results had been posted outside Senate House - you desperately want to know how you did, but at the same time your certainty that you did terribly makes you want to run in the opposite direction. Feeling very sick, I went to check the results and found that, SOMEHOW, I had qualified for nationals, and with a pretty good mark! I was in second place with a mark of 67.6 - which was actually the same mark as the girl who won, but she had higher collectives. The next girl (who went immediately after me, and had looked so confident) had been awarded 60. I couldn’t think what it was that had made the judges give me such a good mark, but after gaping in disbelief I finally felt a huge sense of relief and instantly felt so much lighter and so much better - as if I could really enjoy the day now. I was pleased but not surprised to see that Olivia had also qualified, and although her mark was lower than what I had given her it was still enough for a shiny first place rosette and an equally shiny ‘Dressage Qualifier’ rosette. We were going to nationals!
Mine and Olivia's scores
Feeling MUCH lighter, I went into the dressage arena again to watch Eleanor. She was also riding Rolo, and after a couple of Countryside Challenge runs for him I was interested to see if he had calmed down at all. To my eye, Eleanor looked as if she were in perfect control the whole way round, although she also said afterwards that he felt very strong. Rolo looked a bit calmer and was listening closely. He didn’t spook at B either, which was a relief! At the end of the test, Eleanor looked a bit disappointed with her performance, but I knew she’d done amazingly well. As it turned out, she won with a score of 71 (VERY high) so that was three dressage riders going through to nationals :)
Eleanor in her Grade II test with Rolo.
I spent a bit more time after that watching some more Countryside Challenge people and watching the Eastern Region Dressage Championships, which are run separately from those classes which are qualifying rounds for the nationals. Cambs College RDA group was very successful in both of these events, with Craig winning his dressage and CC, Rebecca winning her dressage and coming second in CC, Anne coming second in CC, and a number of other high places for Claire, Lucy, Jodie and Emma in both events. Because of their wins/second places in CC, Craig, Rebecca and Anne will all also be joining me, Olivia and Eleanor at nationals! I should also add that Olivia also scored an enormous 71.5% in the Grades I-V Walk and Trot test (despite having a seizure at the same time…) and came second, meaning that she actually qualified for nationals twice. Eleanor also took part in that test and came a highly respectable third.
Rebecca on her way to first place in the Regional Dressage Competition, riding Dan.
Around lunchtime, Jodie and I went to take part in the horse care quiz. This was quite tricky, but we came in the top ten and were both given a prizewinners rosette at the end of the day. This competition was free to enter and was open to all, as were some arts and crafts competitions. I didn’t take part in those (felt a bit old…) but it was really nice to see prizes going to the siblings of riders. It’s just one of the ways that the RDA makes everyone feel involved and provides many opportunities for people to take part.
The horse care quiz prizewinners' rosette!
My final challenge of the day was my freestyle dressage test. Having had Eleanor and the CC riders wear out Rolo for me a bit, he felt SO much better when I got back on board. He was much more responsive and had clearly got over the excitement of the morning. We had a more fruitful warm-up together and I felt that he was listening to me much better. I think that, going into the test, my mum was more nervous than me - she was in charge of getting the music playing and was scared of making a mistake! I felt glad that I already had my qualification ‘in the bag’ and that I could now just enjoy the test. It was a big class, with lots of riders doing a variety of different approaches to freestyle, but I would just show what we could do and enjoy it.
This is Rolo looking eager and me looking serious first thing in the morning - it was the only time I got him to stand still!
I walked Rolo into the arena and took him past all the points that had scared him in the morning (the mirrors, where he suddenly caught sight of himself, the mysterious scary bit at B, the judges, the audience, the speakers, and so on). I felt SO much more confident running into this test than I had for the previous one, and I was actually quite looking forward to it. Evidently I looked a lot more relaxed too, because someone asked my mum if Rolo was my own horse - we looked as if we got on well. Clearly they didn’t see us at 9am!
Rolo and I are like THIS - sometimes...
When the bell rang I walked Rolo round to K, halted, then signalled to my mum to start the music (having checked with her that it wasn’t going to be scarily loud!). It started perfectly and at a perfect volume. This was our cue to enter at A and then halt and salute when the music stopped. I had fiddled around with the music endlessly (using all my Serious Musician skills) so that the dynamic levels were more even, the beats matched seamlessly through bits that I had added or removed, and that as far as possible the changes in the music were matched by changes in our dressage. After the halt, the first thing was a leg yield in trot to the left hand side of the arena. This worked OK, and then we trotted around to M to begin a three-loop serpentine. Coming out of the serpentine, we rode some shallow loops, still in trot, which were the closest thing I had to going around the edge of the arena. Rolo did get his head down a bit in these, and I don’t think they were particularly interesting, so I might try and change them to something more exciting in future (perhaps some more lateral work). After that, we trotted down the centre line to X to perform a mini figure-of-eight with 10m circles in the middle of the school (width ways). Coming out of that, we trotted to M (which I wanted to do as a leg yield, but didn’t have anywhere near enough strength in my left leg) before squeezing into canter. The canter took us on a half 20m circle with a change of leg at X then another half 20m circle in canter to A. We trotted at A and walked between K and E, before turning across the school on a short diagonal E-M to show a nice long rein walk. I didn’t steer him very well in that because I was feeling quite shaky (not nerves now, just body fail) but he still stretched down nicely. We picked up at M and went forward to trot. I moved to trot a little bit late which meant that our extended strides (H-F) didn’t really fit the music as well as I would have liked, but never mind. After that, we had a 10m circle at F in trot to calm Rolo back down from the extended strides, then went into walk, going round to D, then another 10m circle (this time left and in walk) at D, before heading down the centre line in a nice controlled walk, waiting for the music to stop and for our halt and salute. Although the extension strides didn’t match very well, Rolo did halt beautifully with the music at the very end, and I felt really proud of what we’d achieved and how much better I felt after that test than the first. I know, of course, that had I come third and not qualified in the earlier test then I would still have felt rubbish after a good freestyle test. It was nice, therefore, to have what I saw as a misplaced vote of confidence which enabled me to enjoy the rest of the day. We came second again in the freestyle against a much larger and tougher field, and with a score of 71.5. I was happy!
BIG grin of relief afterwards!
I now have to sort out everything for going to the National Championships in Hartpury, Gloucestershire, in July. I’m very excited about it and am mainly looking to learn a lot, have a great experience, and just enjoy myself. I know that some of the horses and riders that go to this event take it VERY seriously - the horses are worth thousands and thousands of pounds, and the riders train to the exclusion of all else. World and Paralympic Champions go to this event. I’m not going there to win - I’m going there to see what I can do with Rolo, who is ‘just a cob’. I’d like to prove that Rolo can take on the finer horses and still move nicely and stylishly. Mostly, though, I just want to go and experience the biggest para-equestrian event anywhere in the world. It should be fantastic and I can’t wait!
The day's winnings - and even though some were just for taking part, after the experience of my first test I definitely feel that there is value in something congratulating you for finishing what you started!
I'm sure the Nationals will be fun and inspirational. The regionals certainly were. I saw a blind ten-year-old ride a perfect dressage test (then had a lovely chat with her and her family afterwards), and people with intellectual and physical disabilities negotiate the complex Countryside Challenge course. I overcame my own inhibitions to compete in the first place and to get that all important second-place, >60 result! I also saw a huge number of volunteers helping the riders to take part. There are too many to name and I'm sure I'll miss some, but certainly from the Cambs College group I should mention Gay, Gillian (who gave me LOADS of help with my dressage tests), Katherine, Mavis, Kirsty, Anoushka, Lynne and Heather (Olivia's mum). Also thanks to my mum, Elizabeth, Wendy, Olivia's dad and in fact all parents and family for support and photography. Although John wasn't able to come along on the day he is endlessly supportive and gets me to and from the training sessions, without which I could never be competitive. There are so many more who came on the day and who help out during the week and all of us riders are so grateful to them for their unwavering support - there are people who've been involved with the RDA for donkey's years (pun only slightly intended), helpers from CURC and teenagers working towards D of E awards. They all contribute so much. Finally, of course, I should thank four special quadrupeds - they may not be able to read this, but it'd be very hard to do any of this without Rolo, Jola, Dan and Jacko.
This is what it was all for - the chance to go to nationals!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

East Region Disability Athletics Championships

On 9th May five intrepid wheelchair athletes from Cambridge and Coleridge AC made their way to Chelmsford to compete in the Eastern Region Disability Athletics Championships. There, we came up against athletes from across the East of England across a range of distances. For all but one of us, it was the first time we had taken part in an event like this so it was a fantastic learning experience as well as being a fun and lucrative day out!

For me, going to Chelmsford was a bit bittersweet. I went to school in Chelmsford for 14 years, and spent a considerable proportion of those years training and racing at Melbourne Athletics Track, where the Eastern Championships were held. After I fractured my spine in a gymnastics accident aged 13 and took a good chunk of time out of sport, I got more heavily involved in athletics, which felt like the activity which aggravated my sore back the least. My high school squad was very successful, and our training sessions at Melbourne were intense but fun. I enjoyed getting fit again after a long period of inactivity, and developing my skills in long jump, triple jump and sprints. Along the way, I also tried pole vault and hurdles but a distinct lack of height held me back from becoming very successful here! Anyway, I remember being at Melbourne for primary school sports days, for successful district and regional competitions as a 300m runner and long jumper, and as a coach for younger athletes when my body started giving up on me. I remembered how it felt to have all my kit eternally covered in sand from the long jump pit, to spend long evenings in the winter training and joking inside, and to feel the satisfaction of running freely in the sunshine for lap after lap of the track, building up endurance, loosening the joints, and enjoying the warmth on my arms, my legs and my back. 
Me at Melbourne, aged 6, with the cup our relay team won!
I also remembered the frustration of gradually losing speed and fitness as pain and weakness took over; of finding it increasingly difficult to co-ordinate my movements, first in field events and then track; of becoming less and less competitive until eventually I was hospitalised and deteriorated so much that, until January this year, I had only returned to an athletics track for one brief and underwhelming performance representing my college at university. Melbourne was the last place where I regularly trained and competed before becoming very ill aged 16, and before stopping all sport completely for years aged 17. I therefore had some mixed feelings about going back, even though I was excited to be making my reappearance in a new guise.  
With a silly hat and a sillier grin!
The first race of the day for C&C athletes was the 1500m, which I had decided not to enter in an uncharacteristically sensible moment bearing in mind that I would be spending all of the next day travelling and competing too (see future post on RDA regionals!). I arrived in time to watch the other four going off. With three women and one man racing, the club came home with two golds, a silver and a bronze, and I was really impressed by how all my friends pushed themselves hard in their first race of the day. Once their race was over and I had collected my numbers and taped them onto the chair, I headed out onto the track for a bit of a warm up. A friendly marshal helped me to work out what lane I would be in for my first race (the 400m) so I spent some time making sure that the compensator was set up correctly for the bend as well as for the straights. My steering mechanism had worked itself quite loose and wobbly, so I also tightened up all the bolts to hold it in place a bit better so it would resist the extra force going through as I started on the first bend.      
Claire, Becky and Naomi coming through for the last lap of the 1500m.


I was quite nervous leading up to the first race and even feel a bit sick about it now! I didn’t really know how I’d do over the distance, and it was the first opportunity to race the distance against not only those from other clubs but also the C&C athletes. I knew (from a bit of internet reconaissance) that there was a young girl (11 years old!) from a Herts club who was very quick, and although we weren’t competing for the same medals I didn’t want her to beat me (something about being more than twice her age…). I was also nervous because I didn’t really know how to pace myself in a 400m wheelchair race. When I was at school I used to run the 300m/400m and I had a nice plan which always seemed to work - go out hard, stick with the pack until the second bend (or the first/only bend in the 300m), then start to make a move through that bend so that you come out on the final straight ahead of the others almost without them realising it until it’s too late. In a chair, though, and knowing very little of the field, I almost felt that any tactical manoeuvre would come a poor second to the plan of ‘just push as hard as you can until you stop.’ 
 
How it ended up was like this: I sat on the start line, having confirmed with the marshals what the procedure would be (I’ve spent so long only doing rowing races that I don’t know how athletics works anymore!). At ‘on your marks’, I wheeled my chair up to the line, checked that my compensator was on, and checked that I was sitting where I wanted to be in my lane and pointing in the correct direction. At ‘set’, I rested my hands on the push rims and focussed on taking some good, deep breaths. Through a combination of my crazy body and sheer nerves, my arms were really wobbly, to the extent that it took quite a lot of concentration to prevent my hands from falling off the wheels! Finally the gun blew (LOUDLY!) and we were off. I focussed on having a good solid start and was vaguely aware that I was moving away from the field. By the time we came out into the first straight, I could feel the 11-year-old athlete quite close on my inside, but had no idea where anybody else was. Coming into the second bend, I managed to get the steering so it was almost perfect (a first time for everything!), but by this time I was thinking alternately ‘I’m getting tired now’ and ‘just keep going and don’t screw up!’. Coming out of the second bend, I felt that I’d extended the lead and now all I needed to do was keep pushing, quickly but smoothly and powerfully, to the line. I crossed it first, whacked the compensator back on and glided round the bend again, breathing heavily but feeling good. One down, three to go!
At the finish of the 400m, with 11-year-old Courtney Daly in the left of the picture.



My next race was the 200m. I was in a different lane, so headed out early again to set up the steering. In this shorter race, getting the steering right at the start would give me the maximum chance of success, whereas getting it wrong would really hinder me. I checked my straight steering as well (always a bit of give and take with it) and then headed round for this shorter sprint. Again, my main competition was the 11-year-old Courtney, although again she was competing for junior medals and I was racing the other seniors in my race. It says a lot for her talent that she beat all the other seniors in each of her races, and has apparently been doing so since she was 9! There was also a chap in my race but one look at him told me that I didn’t have to worry about trying to beat him - he would definitely be faster! This didn’t really bother me; my main aim was to put down a good time for myself and to come in with another gold medal.
I don't have a picture of the 200, so here's a bonus one of the end of the 400. I was tired!
I felt much more confident going into this race, because I had eliminated part of the fear of the unknown. That being said, unlike in the 400m, there was only one other C&C athlete in this race, so I didn’t really know how most of the field would race. My plan was simple - it’s a short race, so start hard, go hard in the middle, and finish hard. Obviously it’s a little bit more complex than that - do some good short and sharp starting pushes, then lengthen out, then keep up the rating and the power until you cross that finish line. Simple! Another good race with Courtney hot on my heels again, but I came across as the first lady and another gold.
The medal haul at lunchtime!
After that we had a lunch break, which was very welcome even though it was still quite early. I don’t really like eating at competitions in case I feel ‘heavy’ or sick afterwards, but I managed to get a sandwich down me and plenty to drink (and I did make up for a small lunch in the evening with a massive curry!). My first race after lunch was the 800m - my longest race of the day. Again, I was in a different lane, so again I spent some time setting up my steering and gently getting my shoulders moving after some stiffness creeping in from the morning’s racing.

Sharing a joke at the start...
The 800m was an all C&C affair - four of us competing (this time) for three medals. You wouldn’t really know this on the start line though - although we are all quite(/very) competitive, we all get on really well, and we had a good giggle at the start, as per usual, even though I can’t remember what we were laughing about. We all checked several times about the protocol for being in lanes - unlike in the shorter races, in the 800m we were allowed to leave our lane, but only after crossing a green line in the track (so as to make the staggered start on the bend fair for everyone). The precise location of this green line was made more obvious by a helpful marshal with a flag!

So many lines!
My plan for the 800m was even more vague than for the 400m. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sprint the whole thing like I had in the 400m, but I was also aware that if I tried to settle into too gentle a rhythm I may have the others overtaking me, or I might run out of distance in which to post a good time. It’s that strange thing where two laps of the track feels, from the sprint perspective, enormous, and yet from the alternative perspective it feels worryingly short. As this was my first competitive 800m (rather like the others had been my first competitive 400m and 200m!) I decided just to try one idea, see if it worked, and maybe refine it for future races. My plan was simple and based on rowing - a good, fast, powerful start, making sure that I was ahead by the 100m (‘green line break point’) mark, followed by settling into a longer rhythm between 100m and 200m, and maintaining this rhythm all the way around the next 400m. Hopefully by the 600m mark I would be well ahead and could then just rely on the rhythm to keep me going across the line, but if necessary I knew that I could push myself on for the last 200m if a battle was required. This all seemed to go to plan; I got myself to the front by the green line so didn’t have to worry about getting round other people, and as I went through 400m and they rang the bell for my last lap I started listening out for the next person behind me. The bell didn’t ring for a good few seconds so I knew, going into 500m, that all was going to plan so far. Around 500m I began to get tired and had that naughty little voice in my head which says, ‘why are you doing this to me?!’. However, having done the work in the first 500m I was determined not to give in to it, and instead I started mentally chanting the two mantras that get me through these things - ‘prove it’ (which is particularly helpful when you’re in pain and can only deal, mentally, with something very simple) and ‘start pushing, then keep going until you finish’. The latter may sound obvious but it’s sometimes useful to remember that actually racing is incredibly simple - all you have to do is start and finish. Once you’ve started, you’ve done half the work, and as long as you just keep going you will eventually reach the finish. I know some would argue that there’s more to it than that (which of course there is) but simplicity cannot be overrated! Anyway, I managed to battle through the 500-600m mark in my head and then just had to hang on for the last 200m. As I came down the final straight I heard various people along it calling out my number and cheering me on (as we did for all of them), and although I was definitely VERY tired after crossing the finish line I also felt pretty pleased that it was a successful race.
The end of the 800m.
The final race of the day for me was the 100m, which felt ridiculously short after the 800m and barely worth bothering with after the previous weekend’s 10k! I got there in plenty of time because they managed to speed up through the preceding ambulant races, and I didn’t want to miss it by mistake. This gave me the chance to make a couple of friends from other clubs at the start line. We had quite a full race in the women’s wheelchair event, although I was the only racer from C&C. I managed to have a good start and kept the chair straight until about 60m, where I suddenly noticed I was veering right, and gave myself a good hop over to the left so that I could concentrate on pushing hard for the remainder of the race. Another gold!
The end of the 100m.
The other C&C ladies still had a 3000m to go, and our one chap, MJ, was racing the 100m after me. I watched his race and then we all had some photos together. I had thought I’d watch the 3000m but since that would have required hanging around for another hour and a half we all decided that it would be better for me to go home and get lots of rest before the next day’s riding competition. Although I’d have enjoyed cheering on the others, I was definitely feeling in need of a lie down and I think it was the right decision to get that bit more rest.
The C&C group - L-R Becky, MJ, me, Claire, Naomi.
Here are my times from the day:

100m - 25.72 (Gold; Silver was 32.84)
200m - 51.46 windspeed -3.0 (Gold; Silver was 1:07.01)
400m - 1:38.67 (Gold; Silver was 1:54.71)
800m - 3:26.92 (Gold; Silver was 3:45.85)
This was the first time I had times for 200, 400 and 800 so technically it was a PB in them whatever I got! However I did get a proper PB in the 100 (my previous PB was 29.2).

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A very wet but really fun first 10k

(Photos in this article are my own, or taken from google image searches, from the GEAR website/facebook page, or from the official race photographer - they are included with copyright watermarks intact.) 

This year, I had elected to spend the early May Bank Holiday weekend attempting to be ridiculously energetic by entering my first ever 10k wheelchair race: the Grand East Anglian Run in King's Lynn, Norfolk. My mum and I drove up to Norfolk on the Friday evening so as to make a weekend of it. Saturday was a beautiful day. We went to visit a farm which was in the midst of lambing, and as it was the same day as the birth of a new princess the village church was ringing a long peal of bells. 
How could you resist that little face?!
We wandered around, playing with piglets, lambs and goats, enjoying the sunshine and the lovely noises from the church. It was idyllic! 
Meeting a goat (suspicious sheep, who had run away from my wheelchair, in background)
Sadly, of course, the good weather was not to last until my race on the Sunday. In fairness, it was forecast to be chucking it down, but there was still a little part of me that had hoped that God would spare me the misery of a long race in the rain. On waking up, looking out of the window, and checking the weather forecast on my phone, it became apparent that I would just have to grin and bear it. 
Well, it was wet.
Early morning race preparation was slightly disrupted when my mum suddenly realised that we were an hour behind, as she had misread her clock (this is the last time I will go to bed saying, 'I'm not going to set an alarm, you can wake me up, can't you?' - never mind!). This meant we didn't have time to go to breakfast, but - ever resourceful! - I had packed rolls and peanut butter, so after a very hasty packing of the car and returning of the hotel keys, we made our way into town and I did my best to avoid scattering crumbs all over my mum's nice new car. 
Driving into central King's Lynn, the rain worsened and worsened and worsened. It got to that stage where you can't actually hear anything above the noise of it hitting the car... I vaguely remember my mum shouting that I didn't have to do the race, and that nobody would mind if I backed out. I distinctly remember telling her not to be so silly and that *I* would mind if I backed out. Once we made it into the centre of town, it became obvious that I was not the only one unfazed by the weather - it was busy and full of people in running kit! Fortunately the joys of blue badge parking saved us a lot of time as we managed to skip a very long queue into the main car park. We decided that Rosie would be better off staying in the car with the windows down - she HATES being wet and would just have been miserable outside, whereas inside she gets to do one of her favourite things (sleeping). (Sure enough, when we got back to the car a couple of hours later it was to a VERY sleepy and yawny little dog). 
She was very tired on the way home after her busy morning asleep.
Weaving through a busy town centre with a racing wheelchair is not easy. I was in my normal chair, but my poor mum was pushing the racing chair for me, and was beginning to realise just how difficult it is to steer those things even when you're not sitting inside them! Eventually, after only taking out a few hundred people, we made it to the market square where the race would start and finish. 
My mother inadvertently getting caught up in the race with my day chair...
I must say at this point that everybody I encountered in connection with the race was exceptionally helpful and very kind and encouraging. I had marshals running all over the place in their attempts to help me and to make sure I knew where I was going, where the disabled loos were, where I could leave my day chair, and so on. They even waited patiently as we (/my mum, because my hands aren't strong enough) painstakingly applied klister to my gloves and the pushrims of the racing chair. (Klister is unbelievably sticky stuff without which pushing in the rain simply isn't possible!)
Sticky, stuck, get it?
One of the advantages of running a bit late from the moment I woke up was that I didn't have to wait around too long in the rain. Once my wheels and gloves were klister-ed, we headed over to the place where the wheelchair racers would be gathering before being set off ahead of the runners. Here, I met a chap called Gary Donald, who holds the current record for wheelchair racers aged 50-59. Despite only having been wheeling for a few years, he is very experienced in these events. I was coming into the 10k thinking it was a long way; he had spent the previous weekend completing the London Marathon (42.2km!). Gary was really friendly and we had a great chat whilst waiting to see if any other wheelies would come and join us (they were there somewhere, but didn't start with us in the end).
Final 'Good luck!' before the start...
After sitting in the rain a little bit more and wondering whether I should have 'de-kitted' so early, we finally were called to the start line. This was the point at which Gary informed me that we were 'expected to showboat' (it's 'what the people want!') and that doing so would ensure lots of photographs of us. I must admit that he was rather better at this than me; my early attempts to enjoy the crowd were marred by the sure belief that my athletic performance would not match my confidence! 
I gave it a go, awkwardly...
...then vaguely remembered to try and make my left arm work, and was a bit more successful!
Eventually, we finally got going. Gary sped off ahead of me, as expected, and I just aimed to have a good strong start then settle into a good rhythm (just like rowing!). The early part of the course was a doddle - there were so many spectators cheering us on that I think I grinned all the way along! There were quite a few enormous and deep puddles, but fortunately I was so soaked through that I didn't feel the need to steer around them. After getting out of the main part of town, I eased off a little bit from the pressure and settled in for the long haul. 
Just after the start - photo from epicactionimagery.com. Looking at this, maybe 'grimace' is a better word than 'grin'...
It's a very strange thing to do a race in a town that you don't know at all and on a course for which you have seen a map, but hadn't really taken in how far away everything was. It almost felt as if I were racing blind - I had no idea how far through I was. I knew that I was beginning to get tired already, but the numerous wiggly turns backwards and forwards through the town had really disorientated me. I had no idea how long I'd been pushing or how far I had gone. If ever there were an argument for a trip computer this would be it! I knew that there would be markers for each kilometre, although I felt sure that I must have missed a few already. From my vague memory of the course map, I began to feel that I must have passed the halfway point.
Making my way out of town
Then I saw a sign saying '3km'. 
...and a photographer caught the moment.
3km! I wasn't even a third of the way through! This sign was quickly followed by a steep but brief incline (the main incline of the entire course; I remembered this now from the race information) which in turn was followed by a pretty but narrow path along the estuary which eventually leads to The Wash. The path was quite hard work - not because it was sloping, but because at this point I was in the midst of a lot of the runners that had been sent off just one minute after us wheelies, and on a narrow path which was just slightly wiggly I was having my work cut out not to get in their way. By the end of the path, my hips and back were aching enormously from the minor adjustments that I kept making to my steering. The worst thing of all was that by the time I had reached the end of the path, I had only just gone past 4km. Not even halfway!
Elusive.
Because of the danger of knocking someone down a steep bank into some very cold water, I hadn't really enjoyed the waterside path as much as I had initially anticipated. I therefore took full advantage of the section between 5km and 6km - a bit that I actually recognised from having driven along it earlier in the morning. At this point, you go through an old gate into the old town, and it feels really fantastic to be powering along down the middle of quite a wide and entirely traffic-free road. (I say 'powering', in truth I was assisted in no small part by a gentle downhill gradient...)
Through the pretty gate and down the welcome slope!
The next meaty part of the course went through some very picturesque gardens, but again, I found it quite hard to enjoy the scenery whilst also staying out of the way of runners (it was also quite hard to see through the rain). As we were now coming back into the main town centre, the number of spectators doubled, then tripled, then there were just so many you couldn't really hear anything but general encouragement, cheering and clapping. It was amazing how they kept that going for all 2000-odd people to go past! This was also roughly the point at which I realised that my copious amounts of klister were being worn off the wheels. Quite a lot of it had worked its way onto the steering mechanism, and as a result it became increasingly difficult to remove my hands from the 'handlebars' every time I steered! Given the amount of rain, though, it was pretty good going that I got 7km through before really thinking that I was struggling in the conditions.
Shortly after 8km you re-enter the market square, and at this point I began to think, 'oh, only a short loop round until I'm finished!'. You could hear the commentators shouting out times, and I began to think I'd get an amazing time.
What I had forgotten in my enthusiasm, of course, was that I still had roughly 20% of the course left. The last little bit was quite hard - it was uphill, on a vaguely cobblestoney surface, and on a bend. It's very hard to steer with the 'handlebars' whilst going uphill, because they suck out so much of your speed that you eventually just start rolling down again. I struggled a bit on that last big push, but other competitors from all around me were shouting encouragement (this was something that happened throughout the race, from members of my own club and from complete strangers - such a good atmosphere!). 
Finally, we had the last push into town and towards the finish line. Having had no idea how long it would take me to finish, I had vaguely hoped to be done in under an hour. I ended up under 50 minutes (48:36) so was very happy! Going across the line, I must have built up some speed, because despite doing my best to stop the chair as quickly as possible I did manage to crash into a couple of runners who had just stopped after the line and had not heard me shouting 'Please move I can't stop!'. Fortunately, I managed to steer between them not into them, and they didn't seem to mind too much...
After that, we were funnelled through to collect our goody bags and finisher's medal. This year's race was the 10th they have done, so they had invested in a particularly impressive and weighty medal.

Drenched, tired, but happy - this time I really was grinning and didn't stop for ages!
After gently extracting myself from the shell of the racing chair, I plonked myself down in my day chair with some relief and put on as many warm and dry layers as I could manage. My lovely mother had been to Primark to buy me some spare dry clothes, which were very welcome! Next it was the presentation ceremony. As the first female wheelchair finisher (and possibly only? Who knows?! Since Gary and I started separately from the rest of the field, I don't know what the others did) I had won a trophy and £30!
Even if there weren't any other female wheelchair entrants, I felt justified in receiving a prize - the times read out for the other male wheelchair entrants meant that I would have come second, after Gary, in the men's race. I was also only 4:23 behind Gary, and the difference between me and the next man was 34:43!
Celebrating (and drying off) with a rather nonplussed Rosie.
One thing which was a bit of a shame about the weather was that I had hoped to go round all the stalls in the market place, but by the time I had finished and had recovered a bit they had all packed up. I was hoping to look out for an RDA stall (having been very excited when I saw a sign for the centre out of the car window on Friday evening!) but didn't have a chance. Instead, after the presentation, we headed off for a big and warming lunch and then made it back to Cambridge just about in time for my rehearsal for Evensong. A very busy day and I had a very early night after it!
I was raising money for the RDA - you can donate here.
All in all I had a fantastic time and really enjoyed my first 10k. Here is a list of people I should thank for helping me to get there (both figuratively and literally):
  • the coaches and fellow wheelchair athletes at Cambridge and Coleridge AC. They have taught me a lot in just a few months, and although I still have a lot to learn it's amazing that, because of their support, I've been able to do my first big event already. Thank you to Neil for helping me to fit some extra sessions in and for supporting me so much.
  • Sport England, for funding the purchase of C&C's racing chairs in which we train, and one of which I borrowed to do the race.
  • John, for getting me to and from the training sessions.
  • My mum, for getting me to and from King's Lynn, and providing a lot of practical support on the day - and Rosie, for cuddles!
  • Everyone involved in the organisation of the Grand East Anglian Run, for their help in the run-up to the event and on the day itself.
  • All spectators and fellow racers for encouragement, and in particular Gary for all his advice and friendliness.
  • My physio team for not being draconian and stopping me from racing when I got stress fractures in my fingers.
  • My friends back in Cambridge (wheelies or not) for all their support.