Friday, 28 August 2015

'You will not glow.'

Today I went to the Nuclear Medicine Department at the hospital for a gastric emptying scan. This is an unusual procedure which I had mixed feelings about. It's not at all invasive, so I wasn't worried about the scans themselves, but you do have to fast and then eat a bizarre breakfast, then hang around for hours until they've finished taking scans. I was expecting it to be a really boring morning in the hospital, and I wasn't particularly looking forward to the less-than-gourmet breakfast that would be prepared for me there - cooked egg white mixed with a radioactive ingredient, two slices of white toast with jam, and a small cup of water. Yum!
Whoever ended up with this had far better ingredients than me. Can't have been on the NHS...
I was therefore expecting to be hungry and bored all morning, and because I had to get up early to get to the hospital in time, I was also expecting to be really tired. It got worse when I read that nuclear departments are often colder than other clinics. Since I get grumpiest when I am hungry, tired, cold and bored I was not expecting to be a lot of fun! I had a bit of a brainwave the night before which was to download some programmes from iPlayer to watch on my laptop, and I was also prepared with books and work. I knew that the scans would only take up about 5-10 minutes of each hour, and for the rest of the time I would be sitting around. I felt that at least I would get some useful stuff done. Anyway, I turned up for my appointment (slightly annoyed that I couldn't use a free Blue Badge space as I'd be there for more than 4 hours) and went through all the basic questions with the technician - no, I don't smoke; no, I don't drink; no, I'm not pregnant; no, I haven't taken the pills I wasn't meant to (and boy do I know it!); yes, I have fasted; no, I haven't had any caffeine; and so on. He asked if I had any questions, and reassured me, just in case I was worried, that I 'will not glow'.
I didn't think I would...
Soon, I was taken down in the lift to the 'Radioactive' section. There, I hung about for a moment whilst the nurses and lab technicians tried to work out what had happened to my 'meal'. This meant that I was just a random person sitting in a wheelchair looking confused and lost, which was disturbing for a doctor walking past who had to make sure that I was meant to be there... Anyway, soon I had my yummy eggs and toast and water. I'm incapable of eating neatly but I had to be extra careful with the egg as I wasn't allowed to touch it (in case it then got on my clothes and confused the scanner). Instead I just got really jammy. Immediately after finishing the meal I had to lie down and stay still on the bed whilst it raised up, the scanner rotated, the bed went in between two scanning plates, the top plate was lowered, and the image was taken. For somebody with bad reflux, lying down is difficult anyway, especially when you've had to stop taking anti-reflux medication and especially when you've only just eaten and drunk something. I spent most of it with my head up at an awkward angle so that it was a bit easier to swallow down the meal that kept trying to reappear. I just about managed to keep it down, which was good because otherwise I'd have had to do it all over again and I couldn't face eating those rubbery egg whites once more! As soon as the scan had finished the plates gradually moved apart and I was able to sit up a bit, which felt a lot better. I plopped myself back in my chair and wheeled out to the waiting area for the first of my 50 minute waits.
The type of scanner I went in - the Discovery!
I got out my laptop and started making some notes. I told myself that if I did a decent amount of work I would let myself watch some of the fun stuff I'd downloaded - European Equestrian Champs, World Athletics Champs, The Next Step (my homeopathic 'crap cures crap' remedy), and so on. However, soon I got chatting to a lovely lady who was in for the same test as me. She had had Hodgkins Lymphoma and been very sick, and although she was now in remission she had also been having problems with digestion. She was a lot of fun and the first hour disappeared really quickly! I was soon called in for my next scan, which followed the same procedure as the first one. It didn't take long and I was able to watch the scan on the screen alongside the bed. Obviously it didn't mean a huge amount to me but it was interesting to see big bright blotches where the scanner picked up the radioactive material. I was sent off back to the waiting room whilst the other lady had her scan, during which time I made about one paragraph of notes, then she returned and we continued our conversation. It was actually really interesting for me to talk to someone who has had a serious and long-term condition which one can actually recover from.
We also escaped at one point to get this photo. Upstairs for Reception, downstairs for the Nuclear Medicine Scanning Rooms and the 'Radioactive Patient Area'.
It's been a long time since I met anyone in this category, as almost all the sick people I know are permanently disabled, whether their condition is stable or not. A lot of her observations about being sick were similar to mine (particularly observations about how much fun and irreverent sick people and their doctors are!), but there were elements which were quite strikingly different. The two most different things are: 1) with cancer, you have a hope of improvement, recovery and remission. With a permanent disability, there is not this hope. 2) With cancer, you are facing a serious illness with very serious treatment. At the very least, the short-term (and often the long-term) is filled with unpleasant and harsh therapy which makes you very sick. With a long-term disability, you may have periods in which you are very sick, but in general you know that most of the treatment you need is not as urgent as cancer treatment (there are, of course, the A&E exceptions to this). Treatment is a long slog and is tiring, but it's not usually as frightening or as debilitating as cancer treatment. In my opinion, point 1) is a win for cancer, and point 2) a win for disability.
I don't know who the Good Guys are anymore.
Obviously they are both really tough things to live with but I think I would still rather have a condition in which I fall apart and my body hates itself (EDS), rather than one in which it is being violently attacked by tumours. Cancer is a scary thought. I think it's because you can't ignore it - at least, not if you want to stay alive. You have to tackle it and sometimes that's really difficult to do, especially if, like my new friend, your illness has come completely out of the blue after a lifetime of good health. One final thing that struck me was the fact that since recovery she has done a huge amount of fundraising for her local hospital - she is hoping to reach the £10,000 mark this year, which I think is phenomenal. We talked a lot about examples of the NHS wasting money in our own treatment, and about how depressing it is that even £10,000 doesn't go very far towards the kind of diagnostic test we were having done (a few thousand pounds for the radioactive ingredient, the scanner, the training of technicians - but not the quality of the meal!). Anyway, what with all this chat and some much more light-hearted chat in which I saw gorgeous pictures of her 9-day-old granddaughter (and she genuinely was a very pretty little girl!) it wasn't long until I went in for my next scan, which was as uneventful as the previous ones (a little less reflux this time as I was more careful about not sipping any water beforehand). When I returned, a new chap had arrived for a different test. He read a book for a bit whilst I made some notes and then just suddenly said, 'I don't think I've ever been radioactive before.' He had spotted this notice:
Didn't need to ask for clarification; I knew I was a 'Radioactive patient' :D
The time in between my third and fourth scans was uneventful. There was more chit-chat with the other patients, and I managed to write a few more lines of notes. I was beginning to feel a bit sleepy, to be honest, because the early start was catching up with me, as was the lack of caffeine/sugar! I couldn't let myself think about food since I didn't know when I'd be allowed home. As the young chap collected me for my fourth scan, he told me there was a chance I'd be allowed out after that one, although they might ask me to stay for one more hour. Thinking of both my stomach and the expensive fee I was racking up in the car park, I had my fingers crossed for an exit after Scan No. 4, but it wasn't to be - they reviewed my scans quickly and felt that the meal I'd eaten still hadn't been adequately 'emptied' so I had to stay for another hour. My companion was released after her fourth scan, and although I was glad for her it did make the last hour's wait rather lonely! I finished up my notes though and then watched an episode of The Next Step, which was perfectly timed to give me two minutes to pack up my stuff before being fetched for the final scan.
Luckily I was able to keep my arms by my side - I wouldn't have been able to get the left one above my head!
Finally, after the fifth scan, I was allowed home. They still weren't convinced my stomach had got rid of the food but they were only allowed to do a maximum of five scans. As I was having the fifth one I was asked if I'd decided what would be the first thing I ate when I left the hospital - and finally I allowed myself to think about it, but typically I then couldn't decide as, at that point, anything seemed like a good idea. After getting a discount in the carpark (ker-ching!) I went to Asda and got fresh ravioli, spaghetti letters (always useful to have in reserve!), 1kg of strawberries, and THIS:
It's a caterpillar cake!
Obviously I didn't eat the whole cake all at once but it was a really nice pudding after my pasta. Then I went to the boathouse and tried to attach some floats to a boat (that's a story for another day), did an erg consisting of two very short pieces (also a story for another day), and then went to watch Timon of Athens with John, which was being put on outdoors as part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. I barely ever go to see plays so it was a really nice thing to do, and a good way to end the day. Yesterday I had a long morning at the Citizens' Advice Bureau followed by an afternoon with my psychiatrist in Essex (another story for another time!) and on Saturday I'm meant to be racing so tomorrow will be REST. I can't wait! I have a lot of iPlayer downloads to watch...

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Being amphibious

I am currently on holiday with my mum in the south of France. It's a beautiful place and the weather is gorgeous, but it does make a lot of things very difficult for me from a mobility perspective. We are in the foothills of the Alps, and even though they aren't quite the massive craggy edifices you'd find further inland they are still pretty challenging in a wheelchair - even with someone giving me a push. Going downhill is easier but terrifying and I've had to put pads on my wrists since I can't hold the pushrims tightly enough. The main issue with all this is that there's nowhere for me to go wheeling, nor are there any rivers appropriate for rowing, so getting meaningful exercise is quite a challenge - especially in temperatures above 40ºC [editorial note - we have since sunk below 30ºC each day, which is far more manageable]... I will hopefully be doing some riding while I'm here though!
I really need one of these to go downhill.
For the time being, I'm doing plenty of swimming. Fortunately the flat where we're staying has a shared pool and it's of a pretty decent size. I knew when I was at home that swimming would be my best bet for getting some exercise in whilst away. However, I'm not a particularly keen swimmer and I'm certainly not a 'good' swimmer - I can float and move about but not with any degree of alacrity! One of the reasons I am so slow, and one of the reasons that I dislike swimming, is that I find it really hurts my back. Swimming is meant to be good for joints and I've lost count of the number of times I've had it recommended to me on these grounds, but I've always found it so painful that, like I used to be with riding before joining the RDA, I have grown to avoid it altogether. However, I had enjoyed the tiny bit of swimming I had done at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, so I felt it was worth giving it another go, even if all I really did was wade and enjoy the sensation of not falling over as much! It was clear that if I were to get any real benefit from it (in terms of strength and fitness) I would need to rethink things a bit - and go shopping. :)
Blue Lagoon flashback <3
As well as buying two new swimming costumes (which are a bit harder to get into than bikinis, but much easier for me to wear and feel comfortable moving about in) I bought myself three other presents: a float to go between my legs, a float to hold onto with my hands, and a set of paddles to go on my hands. I considered ear plugs (I hate the water going in my ears) but decided that I would look strange enough already, and told myself not to be a wimp.
With my flappy hand paddles
Anyway, the first session with the paddles and the leg float was a success! Getting used to the paddles was a bit frustrating at first. I was quite good at pulling through with my right arm, not very good at pulling through with the left arm (to be expected), and absolutely useless at successfully getting my hands back to the starting position without either half-drowning myself, flipping over sideways, or creating huge amounts of splash and an odd belching sound from the water! With perseverance and practice, however, I began to learn to feel what angle the paddles should be at to return to a starting position, and was doing quite a passable breast stroke, all the while with my legs staying nice and still and holding the float up (well, the legs weren't quite still, because they flopped about on their own as the water passed under and over them, but I decided not to worry about that). After a little while I got bored of breast stroke and decided to experiment some more, and soon worked out a semi-efficient doggy paddle. I could definitely feel the muscles in my shoulders and upper arms working hard (good for wheeling!) so I was pleased about that.
Quasi-breastroke
I also felt a lot more freedom in my back than I had expected - far more than I ever have before when I've been swimming. I think this was because I wasn't using my legs at all - they were just drifting along behind me, with me neither holding them rigid nor actively engaging them in movement. It certainly wasn't the kind of swimming that would win races or points for style, but it was working my arms nicely without making my back tense - which was a win! Before heading out of the pool I also did a bit of work of arms only without the paddles. Although obviously I needed less effort to move my arms about, because of the reduced surface area, I was still working hard because I had to take about twice as many strokes in a given time period in order to stay afloat. I left the water feeling a bit achey in the arms but very happy.
Achieving buoyancy with leg float, paddles, and lots of tape.
The next day was more of the same, but I added a couple of new 'strokes' to my repertoire (building up on breast stroke and doggy paddle!), again all with the paddles on my hands and the leg float in between my legs, with my legs just gently drifting along behind. I discovered a gently twisting stroke that was similar to doggy paddle but had the hands pulling further back, then released from the water by twisting the body, before coming up just above the surface of the water ready to take the next stroke (whilst the other arm pulled through). This was quite tiring and very difficult for me to co-ordinate, although as with many things the less I concentrated on it and the more I relied on 'feel' (although I'm not sure what I mean by that!) the easier it became.
Corkscrew Doggy Paddle. My left leg looks like it's helping but actually it had just cramped into that position and got stuck.
The other strokes I invented were mostly backward moving ones, which I hope will help me to strengthen the pushing muscles in my arms as well as the pulling ones. There were two main variations: firstly, an inverted breaststroke/sculling type motion, which was surprisingly speedy, and secondly, an inverted doggy paddle (with me pushing away from my chest), which was surprisingly slow. The pool is quite busy so it's difficult to do much going backwards as I didn't want to bump into somebody's toddler or one of the strangely hairy old men drifting around like dead bumblebees, so I mainly stuck to forward motion. Again, I spent some time without the paddles on and some time with neither paddles nor leg float - this was a real challenge as I had to work very hard to keep myself upright with just my arms, but I hope that it'll be really good for fitness and strength.
Leg float but no paddles. Left arm AWOL.
On the third day, there was a big storm (the south of France is good at these) and, when the thunder and lightning had finally stopped, I headed down to the pool to find that it felt surprisingly warm and was completely empty. This meant that I had a good half hour session all to myself, and I took full advantage of it! Although I wasn't in the pool for as long as the other days, the fact that I could just go up and down without stopping in between and without worrying about getting in the way of others meant that I could really work hard the whole time. By the end of the half hour, I was quite out of breath and definitely feeling it in my muscles, which felt GOOD! I'm hoping there'll be another storm before we go home so that I can do this again.
The other side of the road during the storm. I've never seen rain as thick!
After a few days, my brother and his wife flew out to join us. Apart from it being lovely to see them, their presence in the pool also gave me more motivation to keep going and to try to keep up with them. They had a go with my paddles and floats so I had some time to work at a higher intensity but with the sensation of lower weights at the ends of my arms. I also spent this time working out how to use the blue float which is designed to be held with the hands while you kick with the legs - I popped it under my stomach, thinking that it would make life easier as I wouldn't have to work the core as much, then realised within two strokes that my core was working far harder with the float there than without, because stopping it from rolling to the side and up to the surface was quite hard work. Once I got the hang of moving about with leg float and a float under my stomach, I refined it so that I also held the paddles in between my stomach and my float, then so that whilst doing this I swam faster, and then so that the leg float (which is a funny shape for this kind of thing) was under my stomach. All this might sound really simple but actually doing it was quite hard work, because I had to focus so hard on making my movements as symmetrical as possible (which is NOT my strong point) and on avoiding unintentional movements (not a strong point either). It was quite fun though!
Concentrating.
A few days ago, something happened to make these swimming sessions even easier - we happened to bump into the groundskeeper on the way to the pool, and he let us into the pool area through a side gate which meant I didn't have to go up two steps, then across a bit of lumpy-bumpy grass, then down two steps; I could just wheel straight in and stay on paving the whole way. He also arranged to give us our own key, which we now have, so that I can come in through that gate every day, and he arranged a parking space for us near the pool (our flat is at the bottom of the complex, and the pool is at the top up either about 70 steps or a long and VERY steep slope which I couldn't manage at all in my wheelchair). This will make it much easier for me to come and swim so I am very grateful. It means I can now wheel right to the edge of the pool and also have my chair right there when I want to get out, without having to worry about shuffling in between with crutches and a mother to hang onto. It also means that after my swim I can just wheel to the car and don't have to exhaust my tired little arms on the lumpy-bumpy grass or my not-so-exercised-but-still-quite-tired little legs on getting in and out for the steps. Merci Monsieur Gardien! [edit - the parking space has since been taken away from us, not by the gardien, but because the people who lived there got sniffy even though the person who owns the space is dead. It's become a bit of a Big Deal amongst the residents here; most people support me and my mum and think the others are being ridiculous and discriminatory; the remaining people are being ridiculous and discriminatory.]
I searched for 'Merci Monsieur Gardien' on google images and found this. I'm not sure of the relevance but I thought it was a nice little moulin, so here we are.
Since then I have swum every day until today (meaning I've had 12 consecutive days of swimming). Some of those days have had to be very light because my left shoulder has been really rubbish, but other times I've managed to do some pretty decent work in the pool. I've developed another stroke: a sort of cross between doggy paddle and front crawl. The right arm attempts front crawl (i.e. coming out of the water), the left arm attempts doggy paddle (I can't lift it out of the water and I can only stretch it so far forwards, but it does move a bit) and the legs just drift along behind. This is reasonably speedy but the downside is I haven't yet worked out the breathing properly, so I tend to end up half-drowned if I try to go fast. I'm sure I'll figure it out sooner or later! Today I am having a day off as the old fatigue is definitely setting in and although on the other days I have felt better after a very gentle swim I know that today I just need to rest. It's frustrating as I feel that I am getting slower and weaker because of this, but I also know that it's the most sensible cause of action. That's why I've had so much time to find wifi and post on here, although I definitely didn't write all of these posts today - they've been in the woodwork for a couple of weeks!
Having a rest with Rosie dog.
So apart from some aching shoulders, what have I gained from this? Well, firstly and most importantly I've discovered a form of swimming that works for me - namely, that if I don't use my legs at all then it doesn't cause the agonising pain in my back. Secondly, I've learned more about the differences between my (relatively strong) right arm and my (pretty useless) left arm. Obviously I already knew that one was better than the other, but now I have another means of testing co-ordination and strength - which means I also have another means of trying to improve co-ordination and strength in each, which will be really useful to me in other sports and in day to day life. Thirdly, I've realised that when I get back home I want to do more swimming. The main thing keeping me away was back pain (and not being able to see once my glasses are off, and cost, and the effort of showering and getting dressed again, and so on) but now I've found a way to overcome that I definitely want to take advantage of it. Plus I'll be able to keep the old people company in the 'slow lane' and give them some realistic competition...

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

School work

Those who know me well know that alongside going riding and wheelchair racing and the odd bit of rowing (hopefully to be increased in the near future), I mostly do two other things: being ill, and studying for a PhD.
This is what it's all about.
Riding, wheeling and rowing are part of being ill, for me. They all count as physio and they all help me to manage my illness, both in terms of energy (because doing nothing is far more tiring than doing exercise!) and physically - it keeps my joints moving, makes my muscles stronger, and helps me to work on co-ordination. There is also, of course, an enormous psychological benefit. Whether I'm training by myself or with others, whether the sun is shining or it's bucketing down (or snowing), whether I feel strong and fast or weak and slow, whether I'm feeling fantastic or holding back tears, whether I win races or crash out, unable to see, fainting, being sick and having seizures - even when I'm in the back of an ambulance on the way to A&E! - I am ALWAYS better for doing something than I am for staying at home. OK, there are a few times when I can't leave my bed but even on those occasions I feel a bit better (if more exhausted) for having a stretch, trying to turn over, and crawling to the bathroom. Under normal circumstances, however, things are boringly normal and I just feel rubbish but then do some exercise and, without fail, feel better.
There's something really satisfying about training on your own in the rain.
So anyway, exercise is part of being ill. What are the other parts of it? Mostly, resting. Lots and lots of resting. Not necessarily always sleeping, but usually resting. Eating properly helps too, and is something I try to achieve and am greatly aided in by John and his lovely cooking (I hate cooking. It hurts, I can't do it, I make a mess of it, I end up too tired to eat, and yuck yuck yuck I hate it). Apart from resting and exercising, I also go to the doctors a lot. I see my GP regularly, and the physio, and the nurses at the GP surgery who can do blood tests and ECGs and stuff, and various other health professionals, and of course a whole raft of consultants at various hospitals in the south and east of England. Keeping on top of all these appointments and attending them all takes a lot of time and concentration, which means it takes a lot of effort, which means it uses up a lot of energy, which means I need to do more resting.
I especially like resting when I can combine it with a Rosie cuddle.
There are other time-consuming things about being ill. Getting prescriptions, having glasses made up (which should only take two weeks, but takes months when you factor in how long I put it off for!), the fact that everything takes that bit longer for you to do (e.g. getting around a supermarket), arranging wheelchair access to places I want to visit (e.g. museums and transport, if necessary, to get there), general 'self-care', monitoring my health (blood pressure, blood sugar, filling in the pain/symptoms/exercise diary), using treatments (e.g. TENS machine, finding and taking medicine, waiting for medicine to work), trawling the internet for the cheapest way to buy new things that you need (e.g. mobility aids, gripping aids, washing aids, etc.), and so on and so forth. Being ill does take up a lot of time. Everything takes you longer, and everything is exhausting, so you need to rest after it. When someone asks somebody else who is chronically ill, 'what do you do all day?', the answer is, 'well, I am a full-time sick person!'
TENSing my leg makes it quite hard to move about even in a chair.
Obviously this leaves not a huge amount of time or energy (which are basically the same thing) for that other thing in my life, the PhD. Fortunately, at the moment, I'm on sick leave, so I'm not expected to do anything, but I had hoped to keep going a bit so that when I get back into it it won't be such a shock. The problem is that the illness is never going to go away. I'm having a respite now, but it's not a simple case of 'I will go back to working properly when I am better.' I will never be better, so instead I need to think about how I will manage my energy/time better when I do go back. To address this, I've tried to take the following approach over the last few months:

1) Rest. Rest as much as I can.
2) See as many doctors as I can now and have as many tests as possible so that I have as many diagnoses as possible before returning so that I have as much medical assistance as possible.
3) Learn to manage my condition better.
4) Try to think up a way of managing time and energy long-term so that I can complete a PhD whilst also managing my health (including continuing to exercise).
This isn't easy as what I need is some kind of academic health supervisor who can help me to make progress in these areas. I have two very supportive academic supervisors and a huge range of doctors, some of whom - but by no means all - are very supportive, but ultimately neither supervisors nor doctors can really advise me on how best to make all of this work. It feels like I can't really have a rest right now because I'm so busy on 'Project PhD', which isn't in fact PhD work but rather addressing the question of 'how the hell is this even going to have a hope of happening?' If anyone has any experience in this field then please do advise me!
Anyway, I'm still keen for my PhD. Apart from being a 24-7 sick person I don't know what else I would do with my life right now (apart from the fantasies about being a zoo keeper, but I'd need a better body for that). I love music, history, theology, philosophy and languages, all of which combine in a big muddly heap to make my PhD. I get excited when I find a really interesting source or when I learn something new and amazing. I love reading, thinking and writing. I loved my Masters degree - in fact, the combination of lots of exercise, wonderful people and a truly brilliant academic course and environment made it one of the best years of my life. I don't want to lose that forever. I worked so hard to get to this stage but although it was hard it was also hugely enjoyable. I suppose the most important thing about not giving up the PhD is that at the moment the main thing that defines me is the fact that I am ill. I have very little in my life which is not linked to my illness. I don't want to be defined just by that so I need my PhD to carry me along a bit - I need my PhD to work for ME for a change!
I am a geek at heart.

So anyway, here we are. I have to start back in October, and will probably be going part-time in order to have time to be sick as well. But for people who wonder what I do, I think the most important thing to say is that here on the blog I tend to share the stuff that I think is interesting. The vast majority of the time I am really boring. My life is really boring. I do really boring things which are mostly rest, go to the doctors, and rest some more. Occasionally I get really miserable or angry and I write about that too - but the miserable/angry posts and the excitable/happy posts that make it look like I have loads of energy don't tell the full story by any means. They tell the interesting bits of the story, but the other bits take up far more of my time. Being ill all the time is essentially pretty dull and if you have any energy to spare it's because most of the time you do very little. I am, of course, concerned that replacing that 'do very little' with a PhD is going to be a nightmare, even if it is part-time. I'm going to spend a lot of time between now and October thinking about how it can work, because I so desperately want it to.
Still a geek.
For now - here's to the boring times! The times in which I recover a bit, the times in which I look after myself a bit, the times in which I wait for medication, the times in which I baffle medical professionals, the times in which I rely totally on John or my mum to keep me alive, the times in which I wait for an hour after a shower until my head has cleared and my limbs are strong enough to move, the times in which I just gaze into space trying to work out what I had to remember to do that day, the times in which I spend 45 minutes applying tape to my ankle and in the process destroy my hands and wrists, the times in which I attempt to prepare a snack and dislocate my fingers opening packaging, and the times in which I just sit down and do nothing. Those times are the times that take up the majority of every day. They aren't much, and they aren't as much fun as riding or wheeling or rowing or singing, but they're more my life than anything else.

National Paralympic Day / Anniversary Games

Recently, I received an email from one of the more senior members of my athletics club asking if I would like to go to the 'para' day of the Anniversary Games in London. He had two spare tickets which were mine if I wanted them. Of course I wanted to go! So it was that a few Sundays ago a slightly reluctant John and I embarked for Stratford and the Olympic Park (John became less reluctant as the day went on and even admitted, in the end, that he'd 'quite enjoyed' himself).
John and me with a famous bit of twisted metal in the background.
The athletics events weren't starting until the afternoon on the Sunday, so we had a relaxed start but still arrived in time to look around the rest of the Olympic Park. I hadn't realised (because I'd forgotten) that it was also National Paralympic Day, nor had I realised (becuase I hadn't read the information properly) that there would therefore be various things going on at the Olympic Park besides just the competition for elite athletes. Unfortunately, it was a very rainy day, so the events that were on were mostly cramped into large marquees so as to keep people dry, but there was still a really good atmosphere and plenty to see and do.
Me in my ultra-stylish black plastic bin bag (it was raining!)

I spoke to a number of people representing a number of different sports (both athletes and coaches), and spent quite a while discussing swimming with a lady who competes in Para Triathlon. I was tempted to try my luck against a male wheelchair athlete aiming for Rio (whose chair was set up on rollers and attached to a TV screen so that you could race him in another chair alongside over 200m) but when I saw the huge size of the other chair I decided that I probably wouldn't be able to reach the pushrims and probably wouldn't do myself justice! It was fun to watch other people though, especially big able-bodied men who weren't as good as they'd expected...
Nissan's wheelchair race.
I also found the British Rowing group, who had three ergs set out. There's something about rowers and ergs that none of us can understand - we moan about using them, but if you put one in front of us we cannot help ourselves - we just have to give it a go (this is, for example, the case at boat club barbeques where at some point a group develops upstairs in the changing rooms/erg room to chat, and inevitably they will end up racing each other on the ergs). So, I did a quick erg challenge but we only rowed for 30 seconds and I was wearing fairly unsuitable clothing and footwear so it wasn't wholly satisfactory from my very picky perspective! I should really have tried the fixed seat (when I turned up in my wheelchair it was offered) but I fancied using my legs so stayed with a sliding seat. Maybe next time I'll give fixed a go.
Riding Henry.
Another group represented was the equestrian group, and here there were RDA shirts and jumpers on full display. This was convenient, since I was wearing my Nat Champs hoody underneath my 'Cambridge Para-Rowing' soft shell, so as I unzipped my jacket in the warm marquee I was readily identified as one of them! In a way this was a bad thing, though; they were offering rides on a mechanical horse and most of the children waiting in the queue assumed that I was one of the volunteers because I had the same jumper. It may also not have helped me that I was about 4 or 5 times the age of most of the other riders, but I had spotted rosettes being handed out to everyone who rode 'Henry' and like any good rider I wanted a rosette. Also, I wanted to chat to the lovely people and have a go on Henry because mechanical horses are A LOT of fun - you have all the lovely feeling of loosening up your back and legs with none of the stress of worrying about them running off! I've ridden them a few times now and although I can't actually make them start or get faster by myself (my legs aren't strong enough) I'm usually very happy sitting there and enjoying it and can also, usually slow down. Slowing down is tricky because you usually have to pull quite hard on these mechanical horses, which you wouldn't do on a real horse for fear of hurting their mouth. When I commented on this, the lovely volunteers had plenty of experiences of their own to share about forgetting that Henry wasn't real, such as a need to 'hold his head', to talk to him or click your tongue, to give him a pat (which is my default thing when mounting), to look out for hazards that he might spook at...and so on. I was glad I wasn't the only one who was unable to switch off Real Horse Mode!
After I had successfully tried two sports that I already do, John and I made our way over to the Stadium to watch the competitive events. At first we found ourselves directed to the VIP area, and although I was happy to stay there anyway (since that was where we'd been told to go) John was nervous so we moved to our proper seats, which turned out to be even better. We were pretty low down in the stadium, which meant we were close to the track but still high up enough to be able to see all the way round. Best of all, we were really near the finish, so we had a great view for all the races. We saw loads of really famous people: Hannah Cockcroft, David Weir (who sadly lost to Marcel Hug), Jonny Peacock, Jade Jones, and so on. We saw some pretty young athletes competing at one of their first major events, and being astonishingly good. We saw lots of wins for GB and a couple of close defeats - but all the athletes were so good-natured that they were gracious in victory and defeat. We saw people with really tough disabilities do amazing things. We saw awkward missed French kisses on the podium and huge hugs with family in the crowd. We saw things being delivered in the field events on dear little remote control trucks! Obviously it was inspiring and exciting to watch such high level sport, but it was also really good fun. I began to feel even more deeply that what I was once told at a St Ives meet for the Cambs Athletics Association was true - that disabled athletes are every bit as competitive and determined as their able-bodied counterparts, but they are also (in general!) much better-natured and a lot more fun to be around, even at those moments of really top-level competition.
GB coming in first in the women's T12 200m
I'm not saying that it's a bad thing to be more sombre, but I do feel that it's possible to be competitive without having to feel that everything has to be deadly serious. I wonder if it's a case of perspective: to able-bodied and disabled athletes alike, winning is hugely important. But disabled athletes also know another alternative to not winning, which is not doing anything at all. They know that winning is everything to them, but actually there are worse things in life than not being the best, such as paralysis or amputation. I think that fighting against something like that to make your way to top-level sport gives you a sense of perspective that you don't get when all you care about is beating everybody else. This isn't to say that able-bodied athletes have their priorities wrong, or don't care about other people, or haven't had their own battles to face. I just think that it changes the way you act around other people, and the way you respect them and behave towards them. It's not just about sportsmanship, it's about shared experience and mutual respect. Disabled athletes also know that, contrary to the belief of so many in the media, it's not about 'overcoming' disability. Disability is permanent and cannot be overcome. Disability sport is about overriding disability, or working round it, or even celebrating it. There's a whole shared culture which isn't present in able-bodied sport.

Phew, this has all got rather serious! The main thing is, I had a great day, and I enjoyed not being the only disabled person at an event. I loved watching people succeed and cried a little bit almost every time... I loved seeing people enjoy it, and seeing the sense of achievement and excitement that even those coming in last were displaying on their faces. It was a fantastic day and I was so lucky to have the opportunity to go along. I cannot wait for next year's installment (hoping they do one in an Olympic/Paralympic year). More of the same, please!
GB bilateral amputee athletes responding to the home crowd.

Returning to my watery roots

A few weeks ago I actually did some rowing. Apart from one subbing episode (and some coxing, which I don't really count) this was the first time I had rowed since December 2014, which in turn was the first time I'd rowed since October 2014. This is quite a long hiatus given that I started this blog as a rower, although it's not as if I was doing nothing in the meantime.I had done a fair bit of erging, a fairer bit of coxing, and the teeniest tiniest bit of sculling (i.e., I sat in a single, took one stroke, realised I didn't have any control of my arms or legs, and stopped). I wasn't particularly 'rowing fit' and I had no idea how I would cope in a race situation, except for probably not very well. I'd only rowed sweep oar twice in a year, once on each side, and neither time for very long. So, when I received an email when I was in Iceland from the captain of Cambridge '99 RC asking if I wanted to row in Town Bumps, I typed my response, clicked send, thought better of it, clicked 'undo send' (thank you gmail for this extraordinary feature!), saved the response, had a shower and a think, then came back and sent it anyway.
Downing W2 in the college Bumps, 2008
My response, as you've no doubt guessed, was along the lines of, 'yes, I'd love to! Either side is good. Preferably rowing with juniors' (a women's crew had also been offered, but I thought the juniors would be fitter and more technical, and I was right). Soon an enthusiastic response came and I was being arranged into outings, with the one slight problem that, because of being in Iceland and then competing at Hartpury, I would not be in Cambridge until the day of Bumps itself, meaning that I could do absolutely no training with the crew beforehand. This meant that when I turned up at the boathouse for the first day of racing, I only knew the coach of my crew and none of the rowers or coxes (we had two who swapped in and out over the four days of racing). We were swiftly introduced, then found our blades and identified our boat amongst all the others. Unfortunately the junior girls were racing in the biggest, heaviest shell, but we had help getting the boat in and out and we surprised ourselves at how beafy we could be when manoeuvring the shell! I learned that there was one other 'sub', who would sit behind me (I was at 6 and she was at 5, and our job was to pass stern pair's rhythm to the rest of the crew sitting in bow 4), and apart from us, only one of the junior rowers had done Bumps before.
How heavy our boat felt.
 At this point I should probably just explain Bumps racing to those who haven't heard of it, seen it, or done it, because it's a pretty amazing and special type of racing which is largely insane but also a huge amount of fun. Basically, the idea is that you are racing those crews nearest you in the draw - your aim is to catch the crew in front before the crew behind catches you. Each crew (18 in a division) is set off with a distance of one-and-a-half boat's length of clear water between the crews. The crews are pushed out with a giant punt pole into the middle of the river, with the cox holding onto a bung which is attached to the bank via a chain (the purpose of this being to make sure that no crew has an unfair advantage at the start). A cannon fires to signal the start, and all crews race hell for leather.
These are the cannons and the little man that fires them!
The aim is to make physical contact with the boat in front (blade on blade is acceptable, but in the narrow water of the first half of the course, most contact is bow on stern). The cox in the slower crew then concedes the bump, and both of those two crews are out of the race for that day. The next day, they swap positions. Technical bumps can also be awarded and a cox can concede before contact is made if they feel a bump is inevitable and they want to prevent damage. You can also overtake to make a bump - for the first half of the course, a bump is called if the bowball of the chasing boat passes the cox of the boat in front; in the second half of the course, the bowball must pass the other boat's bowball (i.e. pull up alongside and just get the nose in front). Boats that manage to bump in each of their races are said to have won their oars, or to have 'got blades' (there are individual rules from club to club; the rules I have always had to follow are some of the strictest, and state that you must bump on each occasion, not merely go up 4, which could, for example, be achieved by an overbump, a bump and two rowovers). Winning blades is difficult not only because you have to be fast but also because everything has to line up for you in terms of the crews around you - hence the epithet, 'good crews go up 3, lucky crews get blades.' Winning blades is very exciting for the cox as you get to row all the way home with an impractically large flag!
A very happy Clare College cox with his flag and greenery!
This all sounds quite straightforward, but on a river as narrow and twisty as the Cam there is enormous potential for cock-up. Boats crash out frequently (especially on the lower divisions) whether they are under pressure from behind or not, and this can cause major pile-ups. Even in the top divisions there are frequently nasty crashes and because the boats are moving so much faster (and the boats are much more valuable) there can be some really expensive damage done. This form of racing isn't really very safe even if people aren't crashing all over the place - coxes and rowers at the stern end of boats frequently get gouged or walloped by bits of boat and/or blades, and I've even seen people catch 'ejector crabs', which is where you get your blade caught in the water so violently that the handle flips round and throws you off your seat, out of your shoes and into the river (I once umpired a crew where that happened. It was very exciting - I got to stop the race!). The act of bumping is even more dangerous when you consider that you have a fast-moving crew ploughing into (by definition) a slower-moving crew, who will probably be more exhausted. The rule is that the crew that has been bumped should keep rowing (although they can wind down) until they can pull in safely, whilst the crew that has bumped up must immediately hold it up (like an emergency stop). In practice, what often happens is that the crew that has been bumped is so exhausted that they just collapse, and the crew that has bumped up is so excited that they forget to hold it up, which at the very best makes things a damn sight harder for crews behind to get through. If you happen to be the first crew behind and you get impeded you have to battle through anyway, because unless you are VERY severely impeded (usually you have to be right on their tail) you will not be awarded anything like a 'technical rowover' if you just stop.
This bit of carnage in college Bumps resulted in a re-row...
So those are some of the safety elements of Bumps! The racing also has the potential to be extremely disappointing and annoying. For example, you could be considerably faster than the crew in front, but you might have an amazing crew behind you, so you could still get bumped even if you're close to bumping up yourselves. Alternatively, you could have an amazing crew in front which easily rows away from you, meaning that two boats in front of you bump out and you have to row into a very large gap. In this situation you can either go for a rowover (where you row the entire course without either bumping or being bumped) or you can go for an 'overbump' (where you bump the crew that started three ahead of you). Overbumps are difficult to achieve and usually rely on you being lucky enough to have a crew which is particularly slow, relative to the rest of the division, ahead. When you do get an overbump, you have to be careful the next day, as you will be chased by a crew which rowed away from you the previous day. Bumps is very unpredictable, especially in its town variety as opposed to the Cambridge college bumps. Very often in town crews you have people who haven't trained with a club all year being dropped in at the last minute (like me!) and it can be difficult to know if crews are truly entered in speed order. For example, this year I rowed in 99s W7 (women's 7th eight) which was their lowest crew. We bumped 99s W6 on the second day (which was a bit naughty of the club really as you should be entered in speed order!) and almost got W5 the third day. In the lower divisions, though, as we were, the crews don't tend to be very consistent. You're more likely to find someone catching a crab, or a cox taking dreadful lines, in these divisions. One day a crew may have a great start, the next it may be awful. As you can read below, these mixed fortunes certainly applied to my W7 crew!
Some of the interesting criss-crossing to be found at the bottom of the men's races in this year's Town Bumps.
This whole experience is a cacophony of noise. I mentioned the cannons above; cannons are important in Bumps as they allow the whole thing to run smoothly and reasonably fairly (at the start, at least - after that it's something of a free-for-all). There are three cannons: four minutes to go, one minute to go, and GO! At the four minute cannon, you make sure your footplate and gate are tightly done up, and that your seat is sliding smoothly in the runners. The cox makes sure the volume on the cox box is OK, and you exchange a last 'good luck!' with the rest of the crew. You start to feel sick and nervous; the crew chasing you looks awfully the close and the crew you're chasing look awfully far away, but you concentrate on getting in the zone... At the one minute cannon, I always feel that the race has effectively started, because everything that happens from here on in has an effect on the outcome of the race. Someone with a stopwatch counts you down from 30 seconds, which is roughly the time that someone with the giant punt pole pushes you out. They push you out as far as they can into the river, and bow pair take little taps to position the bows until the cox is happy that the boat is lined up for the start. Bow pair also take taps to move the boat forwards, so that the chain is as tight as possible between the bung in the cox's hand and the bank (although not so tight that it makes the stern swing into the bank and the bows swing out). At 10 seconds, you're at front stops ready to go, and at 7 seconds your blades are squared and buried in the water. At 4 or 5 seconds, the timer stops counting the seconds and there is an eerie silence as you try to remember to breathe. Suddenly - and sometimes it comes sooner or later than you expected, depending on how accurate your timer was - the cannon sounds and you're off!
The start at Town Bumps 2012. I'm in the foreground, coxing the crew with red and yellow blades. Photo credit to Jet Photographic!
This is where the noise really starts - the cox is calling the start sequence, and people on the bank are scrambling to drop punt poles and start pedalling like mad on their bikes. The blades are invariably a bit splashy and if you're near 'the motorway bridge' there is the roar of traffic overhead. If you're lucky, you start to hear whistles from the bank. These are the coachs' way of telling coxes how close they are to the crew in front - although obviously you want to hear them in relation to your bows and their proximity to the boat in front's stern, not your own stern! One whistle means you've moved to a length of clear water (from a length and a half). Two whistles means you've got half a length of clear water left. Three whistles means the distance between the two crews is down to a canvas (a distance equivalent to that between the bowball and the start of the cutaway part of the hull in which the crew sits; in other words, a few feet). When you start to hear continuous peeping or one long blow, you know you're on overlap, and the bump (hopefully!) is imminent. Sometimes coaches will vary these whistle signals - they aren't in the rules, so you can do what you like as long as it's a whistle that is used and not something like a megaphone or air horn, which could be mistaken for an umpire trying to communicate with the crews. Normally, though, you know the drill, and you listen out for those whistles like a lifeline when you're rowing as you have no idea of what's going on behind you. Of course, the cox can see a bit of how close they're getting to the crew in front, but it's very difficult to gauge from the cox's seat (which is roughly 60 feet away from the bowball) which is why people on the bank have whistles. Being on the bank is a lot of fun. It's hectic - especially when you go past crowds of spectators 1km or so into the race. Each crew is allowed up to four people in their 'bank party'. The bank party's job is to do all of the pushing off and counting down at the start, and then to cycle alongside, shouting encouragement and advice throughout the race. It's always a bit of a melée, as there are also umpires cycling along with the crews, whose job it is to see that the racing is safe and fair, and that the right results are recorded. Where a bump happens, therefore, there are usually eight people on bikes officially with the crews, one or two umpires, and often a bunch of people who've started to run alongside shouting at the crews, even though they're not supposed to! Usually they are followed not far behind by the bank parties of the next crews coming through. When a bump is called, therefore, it isn't just the two boats (each containing 8 rowers and 1 cox) that need to clear the river quickly, but also all of those people on the bank, who may be just as excited or demoralised as the crews themselves. It doesn't help that a lot of bumps happen on corners (where one cox finds an advantage for their crew if another cox takes a poor line, for example). Coxes of VIIIs have very poor visibility and need people on the bank to tell them if a corner is blocked, as they need to adjust their line well in advance so as not to crash. It's all part of the fun!
The problem with bumping on a corner...
Once you have successfully bumped up, and held it up, and pulled in safely to the side, it is time to celebrate. In Cambridge, for some reason, it's a tradition in both town and college bumps for crews who have bumped up on any one night to collect 'greenery' or 'willow' (although in reality any shrub will do) immediately after their bump. This is another job for the bank party! They hand these laurel wreaths down to the victorious rowers and cox, who thread their winnings through caps, hairbands and unisuits. There's time for three cheers for the bumped crew (usually reciprocated) then, when the river is clear behind and the racing has moved past, the crews can push off and row home, with especially big grins if they happen to be wearing greenery. It's really nice having this visible symbol of success because it means that when you pass crews from your club on the way down to the start of their own division they can keep a lookout for you and they know whether to cheer extra loud or not! Of course, not wearing greenery doesn't necessarily mean you got bumped - it could mean you rowed over, or that you have a particularly conscientious (re the environment) bank party, since it is by no means compulsory to dress up as an ent on the way home.
Me on the row home with my Radegund ladies, all of us decked in greenery, in 2012. PC David Ponting.
All of this ridiculous rigmarole takes place every single day for four days in a row (five days for the Lent set of college bumps, although most crews only race on four of those days). If you're lucky, you stay in one division throughout the week, because if you are on the cusp of a division you may have to row twice. Each division has a sandwich boat at the top (or at the bottom, if it's the first division). Sandwich boats first have to row over at the top of their lower division without being bumped by any other crews. If they do this successfully, they wait around for the next division to race (because the men's and women's divisions are staggered), then row down to the start again and race at the bottom position of the next division up, giving them a chance to bump the crew in front of them and gain a permanent place in the higher division. It's a time-consuming escapade and it makes you feel sick all day in a way that is never matched by any other type of race (with the possible exception of rowing a single at Nat Champs on the lake at Holme Pierrepont) - but it is a lot of fun and, without wanting to sound too pompous, it is quite a privilege to be able to race in this way, since there is no other place in the country (and probably the world!) where non-university students can do this race. Oxford has a similar event, but it is run entirely in 4s (not 8s) and only on one day. Also, we all know that the river at Oxford is boring to race on as it doesn't have a proper 'Gut' like ours with ridiculously tight corners and a very narrow strip of water. The Cambridge Town Bumps regularly sees coxes and rowers who are still at school (usually aged 15 up), rowers who have recently left university and are now pretty experienced, ordinary men and women who live and work and row in Cambridge, retired people still enjoying the river, and even Olympians and successful international oarsmen. It represents people who train daily, year-round, and people who have only got into the boat with their crew for the first time on the first day of racing (like me!). A huge cross-section of Cambridge society is represented in the Town Bumps. Some estimates have put it at 1% of the city's population (excluding students), which may not sound like much, but does come to around 1000 people competing in any one year. Taking part in Town Bumps isn't, therefore, a privilege because only the best people get to do it, but because it is such an extraordinary event that it is a privilege to be a part of it.
Don't they look like they're having fun?! X-press bumping Rob Roy.
The first day my W7 crew had an excellent result. We were chasing X-press W3 and, having glimpsed them a bit on the way down, we felt confident that our youthfulness could prevail over their age and size. We don't really know what happened (apparently someone in X-press W3 caught a crab, which, given that we were in the bottom division, wouldn't surprise me) but we achieved our bump within about twenty strokes (about thirty-five seconds). From the second stroke we were already hearing our first whistle. After that, it was just a few scrambled and messy strokes to go until we had achieved our first bump, and the cox was calling us to hold it up. It felt good! The younger members of the crew were particularly excited and had to be calmed down for the row home ;)
Rowing back with rather sparse greenery, but greenery nonetheless! I'm looking dreadful but happy at 6, just above the second 'o' of Photographic - PC Jet Photographic!
When we arrived back at the boathouse we were all still quite energetic, having barely raced at all. We discovered that W6 from our club, who had started three spaces ahead of us, had been bumped down, so we would be chasing them tomorrow. To their credit, none of the junior girls were even the slightest bit fazed by this - we'd had a good row on the first day, and they expected a similar result the next day. A group of the older and more experienced (/cynical!) members of the crew took it upon ourselves to be the voice of reason and to warn the younger, excited members that Bumps wasn't always that easy, and that tomorrow would probably be a much harder race. We'd have to be prepared to work much harder for the bump on the second day. Despite this, we were swept up in the excitement of a good race and we went away quietly confident that the second day could result in a bump if all went well, and also a really hard-fought race.

Rowing down to the start on a lovely evening. I am at 6 (i.e. third away from the cox)
At this point, I had another race to come, as I was coxing a crew from another club in the women's first division. They are a crew with whom I achieved blades two years ago, when we achieved an 'up 5' result by going up from second division to first division. However, we weren't particularly confident this year. Last year we had held our place in first division despite far-from-ideal training by going down just one over the week, but this year training had been even more disrupted and the crew had barely had any outings together, and no race experience. The challenge for the week was not to fall into the second division (or sandwich boat), which meant we could only really afford to be bumped once. If we were bumped twice, we would become sandwich boat, and if we were bumped three times we would be starting next year's races in the second division, with implications not only for our own self-respect but also for the club's second women's boat, who were hoping to break into the second division too and might have been sharing equipment. The first night was a little bit frustrating, but we left the boathouse at the end of the evening feeling reasonably positive. To cut a long story short, we rowed over, although we did close the distance between us and the crew in front. In the first division, rowovers are far more common than lower down the river, since crews are more matched in speed. A rowover becomes a really solid result, and also gives you a chance to row the entire course as a race, which is a good experience and although it can be very tiring (especially if you're close to another crew, either in front or behind!) it is also a nice mental block to have out of the way for the rest of the week. We felt we'd rowed OK but that there was more left to be teased out technically, which might help us make the difference up another night.
Our rowover on the first night - here, we're trying to take a tight but safe line around a City crew pulled into the inside of First Post Corner.
 On the second night I arrived at 99s for my race with the W7 girls. There were three boats from 99s in our division, including us, and the atmosphere felt a different on the second night to the first night, as two of those boats were now in direct opposition! We decided to get boated and get out of their way quickly so that both crews could settle and concentrate on their own rowing and their own race. We had a new cox in for the second day who was far more confident than the boy on the first night, but perhaps also a little 'gun-ho' and very, very chatty, mostly about anything that wasn't to do with our rowing! We ended up being a bit late down to the start as he was a bit distracted by everything around him, but we managed to spin and pull in before any cannons were fired. So, we sat on the start line feeling nervous. Or at least, I did - I knew that this would be a much tougher race than the day before, and I was just hoping that we could hold it all together and row efficiently. Anyway, the 4 minute and 1 minute cannons were fired, the countdown started, bow pair took taps, and the rest of us sat at front stops ready to row on our cox's command. The cannon was even louder on the second day as we had moved one station closer to it - we nearly leapt out of the boat! After about 45 seconds of rowing we had settled into something like a rhythm, then we heard our first whistle - we were closing! Unfortunately, this was interpreted as 'KILL!' by the cox (something you only really want to use when you're a couple of feet away, not 60 feet). We assumed that this was because the W6 crew was also closing on the crew that had caught them the day before (this can happen). We therefore went hell for leather, so just as we were meant to be settling into a rhythm to take us over the course we found ourselves bashing along at rate 40, pushing with all our might. We would have been better staying in a decent, sensible rhythm, because although the second whistle came quite quickly it then took a very long time for us to get any closer - however, this was the first time the poor boy had coxed a Bumps race so we just about forgave him afterwards, on the condition that he never do it again!
KILL!
We raced into the Gut at a distance that averaged two whistles. There are three big bends in the Gut - a strokeside bend, a bowside bend, and a strokeside bend. We went quite wide around each one but we were still going for it. After the bowside bend I was beginning to feel that it was all I could do to get my blade in the water at the same time as everyone else, let alone actually put any pressure down onto it. We rowed past the pub called The Plough, where there were already lots of spectators cheering on the early divisions. By this point it was very noisy, and we could hear that we were getting close to W6 - but they just didn't seem to be folding! Soon we were moving over for the final corner, Ditton Corner. As a strokesider on this occasion, I put everything I had left into this corner. We still went round very wide but I suppose we could have crashed if strokeside hadn't been nearly killing themselves so it could have been worse! The worst bit of coming around Ditton was that I knew there was barely anything left of the course, and, although we were tantalisingly close to W6, we still hadn't caught them. I was gasping for breath and could hardly keep my head up. I was vaguely aware that any pictures taken of me at that time would have been deeply incriminating for any crew I ever coxed after that - I had well and truly blown up and was rowing very, very badly. My legs were burning and shaking, I couldn't feel my hands or hold the oar, my arms and shoulders were in agony, I couldn't hold my neck straight, I couldn't hold my chest up, breathing hurt like hell, and even the 'recovery' was a huge effort. I could taste blood and I couldn't even keep my eyes open anymore. There was more and more noise, and our cox was still screaming, 'we're SOOOO close!' (as he had been for most of the race!) and now we were inclined to believe him, because we could hear their coxes too, and all we could hear from the bank was a commotion of shouting and whistles. However, we expected the course to run out at any moment, meaning that W6 would be safe; they would have rowed away; and we would all have to repeat the whole thing the next day...Finally - the cox shouted 'hold it up!', we held it up, and as I collapsed over my oar I couldn't believe that we'd actually bumped. I thought we'd just reached the end of the course and he wanted us to stop quickly because W6 had stopped already. I hadn't felt any contact being made, but our cox assured us that we had definitely hit them, before the end of the course, and their cox had conceded. Still desperately sucking in air, we looked towards the bank and saw our coach doing a victory dance and our other cox busy collecting greenery for us already. Perhaps it was true! Even our cox was exhausted (although not so exhausted that he couldn't still talk at nineteen to the dozen), and we drifted lightly at the side of the Reach as we tried to straighten our shaking limbs and gulp in more glorious oxygen.
We totally looked like this.
Before rowing over to the towpath side so that we could collect greenery, I briefly dipped my toes into the water and looked at the little fish swimming underneath the boat, close to the surface. I wondered what they made of it all. Once we had been suitably crowned with our wreaths we began the row home, which, despite being done at a very light pressure, felt as if we had wings attached. The other girls in the boat now realised what we meant about a 'proper bump' - we had really, really worked for this one, and it felt so much more satisfying than the previous day's race. We rowed past a 99s mixed crew on its way down for its own race in the men's division, which contained a female rower who coaches the juniors - her jubilant and triumphant cheers when she saw our greenery rang in our ears all the way up the Reach!
When we arrived at the boathouse it was a bit awkward, as you can probably imagine. It turned out that one of the girls in our boat had actually managed to bump her own mother (she'd kept that one quiet)! Fortunately, W6 didn't seem to be too distressed by their defeat, and after a few jokingly threatening words ('we'll be after you tomorrow!') all was fine. All, that is, except for our bowball, which had broken off at the point of impact and was now sticking out at a lovely jaunty angle. This actually made me feel really good, because it wasn't until that point that I believed we had genuinely bumped. However, there's no arguing with the material evidence - we'd definitely given them a wallop! The best thing of all was that the bowball (which had already been held on with duct tape) was now deemed unsafe for racing, so the next day we had a still-huge-but-lighter shell to use.
The bowball is the rubbery ball right on the end of the bows, and is pretty crucial in an event where things like this happen.
Feeling pleasantly knackered, I wheeled down to find my crew for my next race. Sadly, it wasn't our day. We rowed quite well, but we were bumped. C'est la vie! Nobody was too distraught, so we stopped off at the Beer Tree (an excellent instutition of Town Bumps; essentially a tree at which beer is served, with proceeds going to charity. The Beer Tree is run by St Radegund BC, the club I cox). Here, I amused people by being completely unable to walk because my legs were completely shot. They kept shaking and I couldn’t make them stop, and I certainly couldn’t put any weight on them. Fortunately John was around to carry me and for once I actually let him do it, because otherwise there was no way I would make it from where we’d left the boat to where everyone was standing around imbibing. We hung around to watch the last remaining division of the day race (the men’s first division), then had a good row home, focussing on what we would need to do in tomorrow’s race.
At the Beer Tree with John, Klaudia and Elisabeth; my fifth attempt to stand up. I don't even drink, honest!
Day three! I arrived at 99s and found the rest of W7. Having dispatched W6 yesterday, today we were chasing 99s W5, who had been bumped down the previous two days. We knew that they would be a much tougher match than W6, as the W5 girls were fitter and more experienced; younger than W6 but older (and bigger) than us. Since we had only caught W6 by the skin of our teeth we didn’t know how today would work out, but on the other hand W5 had been bumped by two other crews so far, so they clearly weren’t having the best of weeks. We wanted to get the boat out really quickly as we had been told to use a different shell, so we wanted to spend as much time on the water and getting used to it as possible. Unfortunately there was quite a lot of faff on the part of some of the powers that be ('yes, you're using this boat' - 'no you're not' - 'yes, you are', and so on) so by the time we had started to make our way downstream we were already a little bit behind. We went all eight quite quickly which was probably a good thing as the new boat was a tougher one to sit (balance). We did our normal burst at the top of the Reach and finally began to get the boat moving nicely, then found that we had to row almost full pressure all the way down because we were so far behind. Although this wore us out a bit, it did help to cement our rowing and we relaxed into the new shell with every stroke we took. We stopped outside the Plough for the customary practice start. It was a bit scrappy but not too dreadful, and it definitely felt nicer doing it in the (relatively!) sleek new shell instead of the very big and heavy boat we'd used the previous two days. We rowed down to our station, spun the boat round, pulled in, and prepared to race.
I just found this. I promise I didn't make it.
This race was long. We never really got very close, and because we were hoping (/expecting?) to bump, we never really settled. We got one whistle on them, proving that we were the faster crew, but we didn't get close enough to put them under any real pressure. The coxing wasn't great because the lines were very wide and the calls weren't appropriate, but we didn't row well either. We never hit a good rhythm and we never really believed that it would be possible. When we finally crossed the finish line I felt really frustrated. As a crew, we hadn't rowed well, and we could probably have had a much better chance at bumping them if we'd relaxed and hit a strong, powerful and consistent rhythm. I was annoyed at my own rowing as much as anything else, and I felt that this race had showed up our lack of experience both as a crew together and also as Bumps rowers - two things that I should have been more experienced in and should have been able to help with more, but hadn't been able to.  I felt I should have done better, and I felt that I should take more responsibility for the crew as a whole than the rowers who were far less experienced. On the other hand, W5 had not bumped up and were there for the taking tomorrow. We had heard them cheer triumphantly as they crossed the finish line, so clearly they had actually felt some pressure from us and were proud to have hung on. I really began to understand the meaning of hearing a sound 'ring in your ears' - I hear those cheers even now and they made us all want to bay for blood!
I'm running out of sensible photos.
We arrived back at the boathouse and put our new shell away, before having a quick discussion on whether or not to use it tomorrow (when the old one might be serviceable). Fortunately, the majority decision (and I think it was unanimous in the end) was that the new boat did present new challenges but was far nicer to race in, as you didn't feel quite so exhausted from the very first minute. We'd all found that night's race much easier to pace ourselves through, and we attributed that to the lighter shell. The cox felt that it was harder to steer, but since the steering hadn't been great from either cox in the old boat anyway we vetoed his suggestion that the next day (with a different cox in any case) we should try the heavy boat. Although the girls were a bit disappointed that their chances of blades had now disappeared, the row home had helped to put some perspective on our achievements thus far, and nobody was too disappointed. I left them washing the boat and rejoined St Radegund W1 for our next race. We were now close to sandwich boat position (in fact, only one above it) so we wouldn't be sure of the crew chasing us until we got further down the river, since the sandwich boat's previous division hadn't raced yet. We were confident that if yesterday's sandwich boat - a Champs boat - hung on then we could row away from them, as we'd felt much faster the previous day. We got the boat and blades out, got everyone settled in the boat and pushed off, working quickly through the warm-up so as to have plenty of time at marshalling to get out, stretch the legs and have a chat altogether. At the marshalling point we discovered that Champs had held their sandwich boat spot and would be chasing us. This gave us some confidence - although we were unlikely to bump up, we were also unlikely to be bumped by them unless something went wrong. What was more, the crew two ahead of us were likely to be bumped by the crew that caught us on day 2, meaning that on day 4 we would be chasing them. They were the same people we chased on day 1 (and had closed on) so we felt comfortable that with an adjusted race plan and a better rhythm we could catch them on day 4. Are you still with me?!
You'll either get this or you won't. Meta.
 Anyway, sadly it wasn't to be, and instead we had a good lesson in 'the best laid plans' and in general bumps luck. The crews in front bumped out quite early on (as we had expected them to) and we were comfortably rowing away from Champs W2 behind. We had settled into a good rhythm and had made our way around First Post Corner and Grassy Corner. As we powered down Plough Reach, we knew there was still quite a lot of course left, but only one big corner, and (a quick glance backwards over my shoulder confirmed it) we had moved away from Champs. We were rowing our own race and it felt strong, powerful and confident. I even remember calling, 'tomorrow, we are chasing Robs. We will get them tomorrow. We are going to bump up tomorrow!'. A part of me felt a bit nervous saying that as I don't like tempting fate (we hadn't yet rowed over, and we did still have a crew behind us) but I felt confident in my crew and I told myself not to be so superstitious, and to share my confidence with them. Only about thirty seconds later, we had a bit of a catastrophe - one of the girls caught an enormous, near boat-stopping crab. This was right outside the Plough, and the cheers that had come from there suddenly turned to a brief moment of relative quiet followed by a renewed intensity of shouts and screams from both sides on the bank, as people picked a crew to back - St Radegund or Champion of the Thames - and yelled for all they were worth. There was nothing I could do but watch as the poor rower in question managed to release her blade, and then we immediately started rowing away. The blade had been stuck in the water for what felt like a minute but can only have been 5 to 10 seconds. It was enough. Champs, behind, had caught up enormously and now they could smell blood.
At this point, I was still confident. The year before, we had rowed away from a much more intense situation with the very same Champs crew. There had been overlap, almost at this very point on the river, but we had stayed calm and strong and we had pulled away in what was probably the most exiciting, exhausting and exhilarating race of my entire life. This year's crew was almost exactly the same as last year's crew, which had pulled off that tremendous feat. I reminded them of this as we entered Ditton Corner. Sure, Champs were close, but we'd pulled away from them before and we could do it again. I wasn't worried. As we went round the bend, it was clear that Champs had put in an almighty push. They had closed up even more distance despite our big move as well. The distance between the two boats was very close to overlap. I had the nasty job of trying to get round a corner with a nice tight (so short) line, whilst also wanting to move the stern out and away from the corner so that we had a hope of escaping Champs' bows. I could, and probably should, have moved our boat over sooner, but the difficulty is that in moving the boat to strokeside (the left), I would have had to put the rudder on in such a way that the stern would swing right - i.e., towards the Champs boat's bows. It would also have made it harder to get around the corner, and I wanted us to be around most of the corner before I started to move away, or we'd simply have Champs row past us on the Reach. In any case, I realised eventually that it was a lost cause. Whatever I did with the rudder, there wouldn't be enough time or space for us to row away. Champs had really made an extraordinary effort, and they were close to us not only longitudinally but also laterally - their cox had done a good job. I saw their bowball shoot past me, and I knew that wasn't quite the end - there was still time... - but then I realised that their bows would be ensnared in our blades and riggers on bowside. I didn't want either boat to suffer damage, and I certainly didn't want my rowers to be injured. With huge regret, I stuck my left arm out in concession, and, with my right arm, pushed their bows gently to the side so that they wouldn't get stuck on our boat. We wound right down but continued to paddle a bit further up the Reach, where we pulled in and took stock for a moment.
After I had made sure that the boat was safely pulled in and that everyone was OK, I turned the cox box off, slipped off the headset, and accepted some help to scramble out of the boat. I staggered down to the seat where our poor rower who had crabbed was sitting. She was crying and almost inconsolable. I held her hand and told her, forcefully, that nobody was going to blame her or be angry at her, that accidents happened, that any one of us could have made that mistake (or, in my case, a different mistake - but there is still plenty of scope for mistakes as a cox!), and that we accepted this every time we got in the boat as a crew. We took responsibility for each other as well as ourselves, and we accepted whatever happened. I was far from alone in saying this - everybody else in the crew was nodding and telling her that it wasn't the end of the world; that we knew we were faster and we could bump them back tomorrow; that even if we didn't we still loved her and cared about her and that she was far more important than rowing; that we accepted good times and bad times as a crew because that is what rowing in a crew is about; and that if she didn't stop saying how dreadful she was and how much better we'd be without her then we'd throw her in the river (or words to that effect). Soon, she was feeling a bit better. We called three cheers to the other crew, who rowed past looking indecently if understandably pleased with themselves. I got back in the boat, got everyone ready, and we pushed off and rowed home.
Teams pull together even when they're defeated.
Day 4, the final day of Bumps, was one of those days where nothing really went to plan. Just to remind you, the plan had been: 99s W7 would settle into a rhythm, feel really strong, have tighter corners, and would bump 99s W5. Radegund W1 would row over happily at the top of the second division as sandwich boat (with a different cox, as I wouldn't be back in time), then race at the bottom of the first division and bump back the Champs boat who had hit us yesterday. None of it would be easy - it would all involve rowing that was both clever (technical and tactical) and strong - but it would all be achievable. As it happened, none of that went the way we wanted it to! The start of the race with W7 was a disaster. Far too late (i.e., as we pushed out), we noticed that the chain connecting the bung to the bank was all tangled up and was therefore considerably shorter than usual - less than half its normal length. This meant not only that we didn't get as far forward as we wanted to, but also that very quickly the boat started to swing out to strokeside, pointing at the opposite bank. Having never been in this position before, the cox panicked and kept asking bow to take strokes, when he should have said 2, meaning that we were getting further and further away from where we wanted to be with the countdown inexorably marching towards zero! I yelled at the girl in front of me, sitting at 7, to back it down to try and straighten us out, but it was too little, too late. The cannon went and we just had to start. We were still pointing into the opposite bank, and although all of us on strokeside did our utmost to heave us round, it wasn't enough, and we grazed the opposite bank. We were saved from a full-on crash at this point by the fact that a girl on bowside had caught a crab, which swung the boat towards the right direction again, but then, with the crew behind us bearing upon us, we had a scrappy restart and managed to wedge ourselves firmly in the bank just as they came past us to take the bump. We'd 'raced' for about 15 seconds and had progressed barely any distance up the river - although we had gone all the way from one side to the other very quickly! As the crew's token veteran of these things, I wasn't too fed up. It was a disappointing result, but these things happen and the main precipitating cause had been almost entirely out of our control. Sadly, the girl who caught a crab was very, very upset and cried all the way home. When we got back we all gave her a hug and I told her about my experience with Radegund the day before - message = these things happen, even at the Olympics! We also pointed out that her crab had pointed us back in the right direction so, if anything, she had helped us, and although she remained unconvinced the fact that we were all perfectly happy about the whole thing seemed to help.
2011 World Championships - German sculler catches a crab. It happens!
I couldn't hang around too long at 99s, as I needed to get back downstream of the boathouses to find the Radegund women. They were being coxed in the second division by Gabriel, a chap who came to Peterhouse this year as an Organ Scholar and got into coxing too. Despite only getting into a boat for the first time in October, he's learned a huge amount and is a seriously good cox. I trusted him completely and knew that he would give them a really good race. He is technical and also has a lot of drive, enthusiasm and attack which come across just right in racing - something that not all coxes can combine. I would have been more than happy for him to cox both races that day (or any of the previous days) but his Organ Scholar duties meant he had to get back to college for a wedding rehearsal and wouldn't be able to do the second race. Before heading down to the finish at 'the P&E', where I had agreed to meet them, I decided to pop into our flat quickly for a change of clothes. The flat is enroute to the P&E from the boathouses so it wasn't a massive diversion, and given that on this fourth day the glorious weather of the previous days had been replaced by absolutely torrential rain I felt I would be far more focussed on my upcoming race if I changed out of my completely sodden kit and picked up some more waterproofs. It was the quickest change of my life, but soon I was nice and cosy for the first time in two hours, and I felt much better prepared to go out and face the cold and the rain.
My kit is a bit like this except red. If I remember when I get home I will get a photo of me in it and put it in place of this one so you can see how ridiculous - but dry! - I look.
I rustled my way into the car, feeling a little bit overdressed for driving, and popped down the road to the P&E. When I arrived there was no sign of a sandwich boat at all and although I hovered around the Control Tent eavesdropping I couldn't hear anything useful, so I wandered down to the Beer Tree to see if anyone had any information about what was going on. There, I found some Radegund people (the Beer Tree is run by them after all) who told me that they thought that Rad W1 had been bumped, because 'someone came off their seat, or something like that.' Coming off a seat in a rowing boat is a really difficult thing to correct. The seats slide back and forth and can come out completely, if you've come off them with enough force. It is almost impossible to get them back in whilst the boat is moving at any speed, and even if the seat hasn't come off the runners it's still difficult to get back on your seat and get back in time with the crew. In the meantime, a lot of boat speed is lost through having one person and their partner drop out, and because it tends to mean that the blades can't be moved in time so the rower two in front will be hitting the errant blade at the catch, and the rower two behind will be hitting it at the finish. It can be a bit of a catastrophe. I thought it was unlikely that this had happened, and felt that they must be talking about yesterday when we had a crab. I said so and this was met with some dark and knowing looks. I hung around a bit longer. Crews started to come back, some with greenery. I wasn't worried yet - if Radegund had rowed over at the head of the division, they might then have pulled into the bank for a breather, then got caught behind all the other crews coming back. I was sure they'd be along in a minute.
Font of Bumps Wisdom.
However, I did begin to get more and more anxious as more and more crews came back. My eyesight isn't great (just what you want to hear your cox say!) and I was struggling to make it which crew was which at a distance. Eventually I saw them in the distance, and then, cycling somewhat ahead of them, I spotted our coach, Mike, on the towpath. I went over to him to find out what had happened, and discovered that the gossip I'd heard earlier was correct - someone had come off their seat, and the crew had been bumped. Even worse, the girl who'd come off her seat was the same one who crabbed yesterday - probably because she felt she had to make it up to us and had a lot to prove, neither of which things was true. Usually people come off their seat when they're simply trying too hard, and push too forcefully with the legs. We weren't worried that she had let us down, or anything like that, but rather that she would be feeling truly terrible, which we didn't want.
How to reduce the risk of coming off your seat: row on pebbles.
They rowed past us and I went down to meet them. I went straight to Elisabeth, who had fallen off her seat, and although she looked pretty bummed out she was far, far better than I had expected and feared. I think she was feeling a lot more philosophical about it today. It also helped that the weather was so foul that people didn't mind not having to hang around for another race! Instead, we stayed at the Beer Tree for a little while and then the crew headed back to the boathouse (I forget who coxed them; it wasn't Gabriel and it wasn't me) while I went home, took off another load of clothes and got changed again to go out again to our namesake, the smallest pub in Cambridge - the St Radegund.
The men had rowed with these funny little windmills in their hats. I got hold of one and was very amused by it.
So, it wasn't a perfect week. But this is the point with Bumps. Some years you'll have an amazing time and go up 5:
That was a good year.
Sometimes, you're this close (and then closer) to a bump, then get bumped yourselves...
That's us in 2014. We chased them to the next corner and nearly hit them before being bumped. I have a feeling that the cox in the boat we are chasing is the same cox from Clare with the flag much further up this post.
Some years you just don't have the luck you want. That's what happened to us this year. But at least we didn't get spoons! (Spoons = opposite of blades. Not great.) This may sound very trite but the main thing is that we didn't at any point start accusing each other of letting the side down. Everyone in both of the crews I raced with made mistakes at some point. We none of us are perfect. Doing a team sport means accepting successes and failures together, and if you can't do that then you probably shouldn't be racing in Bumps.
Taking the good with the bad.
I was really proud of both the crews I raced with. 99s W7 learned a lot about racing and about the luck of Bumps. They learned about how good it feels to succeed and how disappointing it is to fail, but also that success isn't the be all and end all and failure isn't the end of the world. The Radegund crew learned a lot too. I made them do a hefty programme of land training in the two months leading up to the Bumps. Some of them really went at this with more enthusiasm than I could have imagined, completing difficult erging and cross-training challenges. I decided to award some medals based on this. There were medals for the top 3 most impressive records of cross-training (which went to people who completed lengthy runs in black tie, who did boxing, and who regularly did volleyball) and then to the top 3 scorers on the ergs. Unsurprisingly, of course, the top 2 erg scorers were the ones who had completed every session, and the third scorer had completed the most out of everybody else. It wasn't just that they were fit and strong and beating others at every opportunity - it was that they turned up and did the training. Simple! I presented the medals at the 'Hair of the Dog' party hosted by Kelly and George the day after Bumps finished, where the new and rather more tasteful Radegund blazers were on show:
Kelly, Elisabeth (with medal!) and Alison
Just to give you an idea of the other Radegund blazers, this is me wearing one that belongs to Craig (a much larger human than me!) when we won our blades. It looks especially good underneath a life jacket.
It's such a dreadful blazer it deserves another photo.
Anyway, I got a bit distracted there. The point is that I was going to put down, for the record, who won medals:
Erging: Cecile (Gold), Alison (Silver), Elisabeth (Bronze)
Cross-training: Klaudia (Gold), Kath (Silver), Cecile (Bronze)
Booby prizes: Rachael and Josie :) 
Hair of the Dog party. Spot me! 'Pretend' it's Where's Wally. Just look for the wheels...
So, we raced. We didn't really do as well as we'd have liked - but it didn't matter. We still like each other, and will keep trying. Next year we will be in a better position than we were this year. Next year we will train properly. We will be stricter and tougher. We will remember what it felt like to win blades, and we will remember what it felt like to be bumped down a division. We will make a plan like other clubs do, and we will use the plan. In other words, we will train as if we want to race and win, not because it's just something nice to do. We will make the other crews scared. We are a pub crew with very limited funds and resources, but you should never underestimate the underdog.