Thursday, 24 September 2015

Avoiding responsibilities

Recently I've been doing two main things: trying to work out what to do about my PhD, and trying to find things to do when I'm not doing the first thing. This post is about some of the latter things!
I also met this gorgeous puppy (3 months, Shih Tzu x Jack Russell!).
Wheeling has been going quite well. We've had a good couple of sessions where we've put in some extra mileage in preparation for the Perkins Great Eastern Run on 11th October. This will be my first ever half-marathon (apart from the rowing one). I haven't yet covered the whole distance in my chair but I did go out yesterday afternoon to do a 10 mile trip on the busway (basically just five miles out, turn around, and come home). I'd hoped to do the full 13.1 miles but I'd set off a bit late for that. 10 miles seemed like a sensible distance as my longest distance in the chair by quite some way - previously I've not really gone above 10km, which is only 6.2 miles. I didn't try to push too hard or too fast - I just wanted to pace it really nicely, and I think I achieved a really consistent speed throughout. Annoyingly, I had to keep stopping to wait for pedestrian crossings, which brought down my average speed a lot, but it was quite good to have those enforced breaks and to have to find my way back into a rhythm again. I had a really nice time gradually pushing further and further away from the city, out into the Fens. It felt like a brilliant mental recharge and when I turned around to come home again I felt that I was ready to face the hustle and bustle - such as it is! - of Cambridge again. I can't wait to do even longer distances. My goal is to get as far as St Ives and back, which should be just under a full marathon. One to work towards!
RDA sessions have started back and it's been really good to see everybody again. Last week in particular I had a really nice long ride on Rolo, who was behaving pretty well. I had a lot of shaky spasm in my legs which made things interesting, but he didn't seem to bat an eyelid to me twitching about on top. This weekend things get even more exciting, as I will be taking part in the Thurlow Ride with Gillian (who has helped me a lot with dressage), Olivia (another RDA rider) and her mum, Heather. We haven't quite worked out who I'm going to ride yet - Rolo was suggested initially, but apparently he's been a bit naughty whilst hacking recently so I might ride Jola instead. I'm happy on either and will just do as I'm told! Olivia will ride Jacko and Gillian is planning to ride Dan, so it should be a nice day out for most of the RDA horses. Hopefully I'll found out what's going to happen when I go to the stables later today.
It's organised by the Thurlow Hunt - not that we'll be doing any hunting ourselves.
Another exciting development is that Kirsty has asked me to trial for the university novice team (I should also add here that Kirsty has recently won an award for being such a fantastic volunteer at the RDA - more on this another time!). Riding for a team would give me the chance to get extra tuition each week, and there would also be more opportunities to compete. I'm a bit worried about the trialling process but will just give it my best shot. There are two teams to aim for and although I would be happy on either I would certainly find it easier to ride in the better of the two, as the other team's training will clash with RDA.
Kirsty being congratulated by some of the group, and giving Rolo a cuddle :)
Rowing-wise, I've barely been in the boat since the Great Ouse and our trip down the Backs. However, I have spent A LOT of time working on the boat - getting it cleaned up and also beginning a new paint job. Cleaning took a lot of effort but the boat looks so much better for it now. It's had a thorough scrub, inside and out, and I've been really pleased by how much of the grime I've actually managed to shift (helped in no small part by industrial strength Cillit Bang!). It's also given me a chance to get to know the shell really well, so I know which bits could do with a bit of maintenance and which bits are still structurally pretty sound. I need to do some work on the slides and the saxboard, and some of the trim around the stern and bow canvas could do with attention, but these are pretty minor things and I'm happy that I can sort them myself.
I love clean things!
As well as this, I've started putting some new paint on the canvas. I really like purple so have used some paint leftover from spraying my chair to paint some new chevrons on the boat. I haven't quite decided on the final design (it may involve more colours) but it's a start. The only thing I really need to decide quite soon is the name! The boat has never been named and I have a few in mind, but I can't work out which one to pick. Once I've decided I will print out a large version of the name then use a scalpel to create a stencil, which I will stick on the boat and paint through. While I'm at it, I'll probably ask about getting it registered as a Peterhouse or St Radegund scull so that it can have a proper code on it (boats have a sort of number plate system, like cars, but I'm not sure how valid my boat's current number is).
Protecting the surrounding area!
I've been doing quite a bit with St Radegund's latest batch of novice rowers and coxes. We've taken them tubbing and have been putting them through some erging, and they seem to be coming along well. I also got to cox a senior but not very experienced men's four the other day. I'd sort of been warned that they might be a handful but they responded so well to the ideas I had and by the end of the outing they were really shifting the boat extremely well. Given that on their first stroke together (after a warm-up in pairs) the 3-man had panicked, not squared his blade, and just shoved his blade flat on the water because 'I thought we were going to flip', they made A LOT of progress. A lot of their trouble was not that they were impervious to coaching but rather that they had been taught something completely incompatible with good rowing and were, justifiably, continuing with this thing. Once I managed to persuade them to unlearn that and to try something completely different, we got the boat moving far better. It was really satisfying to cox them because they worked so hard mentally as well as physically, and were really patient with themselves and each other - and me! - in making these technical changes.
That feeling when they GET IT RIGHT!
So, that's wheeling, riding and rowing! Health things have been ticking over. The last test I wrote about was the tilt table test. I won't have a chance to see my cardiologist until November so I don't know what to expect there. I've had quite a few instances of being sick at night, which is often preceded by a ridiculously high heart rate and very strong palpitations. I'd like to get a blood pressure/heart rate cuff on at these times but I'm always so dizzy and nauseous that I can't manage it. Today I had a different test - a hydrogen breath test (HBT) which was designed to see if I had extra bacteria living in my stomach. They give you a hideously sugary drink (it was literally sugar crystals in water; VILE!) and then measure the hydrogen in your breath with something that looks a bit like a breathalyser the police would make you use if you were driving erratically... The idea is that if there are lots of bacteria down there they will produce a lot of hydrogen when you drink the glucose drink. It's yet another fasting test and you have to fast throughout the test, not even being allowed water. Slightly surprisingly, the hydrogen in my breath didn't increase at all (in fact, it started really high and got significantly lower!) so that means I don't have naughty bacteria in my tummy. Hoorah!
The 'Gastrolyzer'! This is what you breathe into.
At the moment I'm trying to get used to my new AFOs (ankle-foot orthoses), or 'pirate wellies', as mine have been christened. After a bit of a false start, I now have a few pairs of shoes which fit them but not me (i.e. they are size 8 or something, which is wide enough but makes me feel like a clown - I'm normally size 3-4) as well as one lovely pair of boots which are specially designed for AFOs, and so are only one size too big (to accommodate a bit of extra length on the splint) but still wide enough. The new boots are very, very pink, which is unusual for me, but the other options were black and dark blue and I do like bright colours. I had to hunt around for them a bit because the first website I found only had lace-up versions, which I basically can't use at all with my useless hands, but eventually I found these velcro ones and I love them.
The good thing about this angle is that it makes my feet look a bit smaller!
The AFOs themselves are slightly more problematic. They tip me forwards a bit so that I can't straighten my knee (or rather, bend it back). I've spent my entire life standing with my knees locked out so I'm finding this quite difficult. I fall over a lot still and have very wobbly legs. I suppose it might be worth it in the long run! When I wear them around the house I take the boots off to be a bit more comfortable but my toes tend to curl up and round, which isn't great. It's because of muscle tension in my legs, I think. When I can get them not to do that it's really relaxing having my feet in the AFOs because it stops my ankles from rolling out (which they do ALL the time). It feels good to have my ankles supported more. My right ankle in particular has a tendon which subluxes constantly, but it's much harder for that to happen with the AFOs on, so it feels pretty restful to wear them even if they do dig in after a bit. I have another appointment in about 6 weeks to adjust them and make them more comfortable, after which hopefully I'll be able to do even more walking!
First proper steps of my life - apparently.
So, what with all this it's been quite easy to avoid tackling The PhD Question - although to be fair I have been checking my emails regularly to see if my supervisor has responded to my semi-panic email. I don't know what to do about that yet. Fortunately, I've got a 12 mile ride to think about first so I'll worry about that and think about the PhD later!

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Great Ouse Marathon a.k.a. rowing a long way not very fast

Eight days after my first race in the new boat (and nine days after my return to sculling!) I foolishly went to Denver in Norfolk to take part in one of the longest rowing races around - the Great Ouse Marathon. More accurately, it's a distance of around 22km which makes it a half marathon, but it was still the longest race I'd ever attempted. I had spurned the opportunity to take part as a cox in the St Radegund women's VIII in favour of attempting the entire course by myself. In the process, I hoped that merely by finishing I would set a new course record in the LTA-para category - as it had never been attempted before. That fact alone might have been enough to put me off trying it but I had told myself it would just feel like a long outing - so how hard could it be?
"Come on, Aragorn, it's just a walk to a volcano with some silly short people. I mean, how hard can it be?"
I should probably say at this juncture that before I ever do anything like this again I should a) have had more than four sessions (including a race) in the preceding 11 months and b) have prepared better for the loneliness of it all. I did survive it, but as happens so often with me it turned out that the things I had expected to find difficult were quite manageable, and the things I hadn't even considered were quite problematic.
Some 'cruel to be kind' advice to myself for next time.
As I've described here, I had finally worked out a way to get back in the boat without capsizing it. I'd even raced once, which had been a horrific experience! I hadn't done any especially long outings in the boat, though. I think the longest I'd done was a lock and a reach, which equates to about 11-12km, or roughly half of what I'd have to row on the River Ouse. I was pretty optimistic about it though, and thought that if I kept it going at a nice steady pace then my usual mantra in races would apply: 'Start and then keep going until someone tells you to stop.' My hands were usually pretty tough and didn't really blister up (they hadn't blistered at all during Bumps) so I wasn't worried about that. To be honest, I was looking forward to the event as a chance to get to know my boat a bit better. I thought my main challenge would be boredom.
Another little pearl of wisdom!
As a pre-race treat to myself, I had ordered a funky t-shirt from the endlessly wonderful company, 'Talking-T's', in Cambridge. I'm not being paid to advertise them, honest, but they are so friendly and helpful and I always have a lovely chat whenever I go in. Anyway, I was aware that I wouldn't be obviously a para-rower and as I've had some pretty close shaves with people not giving me as much space as I'd like on the Cam I thought that a top that screamed, 'BEWARE THE DISABLED PERSON!' would be a good idea - although in the end I just went with 'Para Rower'...
Just waiting for the modelling contracts to come flooding in now.
Having set up my boat and my race kit for the day, I had a few other bits of preparation on the list, such as:
- derig and load the boat onto the trailer.
- prepare a little pot with pills (especially PPIs) and some plasters, 'just in case', to take in the boat.
- print out the instructions and directions, waterproof them, and stick them in the boat.
- download some music onto my phone and make sure it was fully charged so that I could get endomondo going.
- redo the nail polish paint job on my tools so that I could keep track of them easily.
- because the nature of the race meant that it started in one place and finished 13 miles away, ring my mum and ask her to meet us at the finish with my spare wheelchair and some food!
Blindingly bright shoe; I forgot that it had a reflective thing on. Beautiful tools though :)
My minion pot of pills.
After doing all this, I felt that I was adequately prepared.

Ha!
We arrived in Norfolk at about 9.30am in time for a 10.30am start. I was due to be in the first ten crews to leave (out of 170) and then John (also in a single) and the Radegund women, with whom we'd travelled, would be going off about halfway through. They send crews off in reverse speed order so that there aren't stragglers left on the course for hours after it all starts. I'd initially been placed behind both John and the Radegund 8+ in the draw but had pointed out to the organisers that I was likely to be considerably slower, and had - fortunately - been moved up! 
My little boat is in there on the left with John rigging it, helped by Steve (in the bright orange jacket) from Champs.
Anyway, we arrived and went on a hunt for race numbers and our boats, which had been towed up separately with some Champs (Champion of the Thames RC) boats. Once we'd found the boats we needed to rig up, and at this point things began to get a lot more stressful, since there was a call for me and the other 'early starters' to boat as soon as possible. This call came through before 10am, roughly 25 minutes before I'd expected it, and I wasn't ready. We therefore had a bit of a rush to get me rigged up and boated, and the division of labour meant that John did most of the work while I went to the loo and took some more omeprazole!
John rigging my boat for me, helped by Steve.
I got on the water after several crews behind me but rowed straight past them up to the start (only a couple of hundred metres away) and just managed to sneak into the right position. However, I arrived with only about ten seconds to spend sitting around waiting (compared to the usual 10+ minutes), which didn't give me time to stop and take stock. The start was therefore something of a surprise!
Photos of the race and people at the start/finish were taken by David Boughey and are available here.
Almost immediately, I realised I hadn't started my endomondo (if you're not familiar with this, it's a handy app which tracks your workouts via GPS and can give you updates on how far you've gone). I considered backing it down to the start and asking if they could start the timer again, but decided against it on the basis that that would not ingratiate myself to them. Running a race on this scale is hard enough without idiot scullers like me causing trouble, so instead I decided I would just keep an eye on my watch and row for about ten minutes, then stop and turn it on.
Going off at the start.
The first part of the race passed without incident except for me getting a bit close to some lilies on bowside, which wrapped themselves around my blade and nearly flipped me in. After that little incident I vowed to be far more careful throughout the rest of the race (I don't think I'd even gone 1km at that point). After a little while, I reached down to my phone (which was looped into the boat in a waterproof case) and turned on endomondo. It wasn't much, but it was nice to have a little electronic voice that popped up every now and then telling me that I'd completed another kilometre.
Like having a cute and friendly robot spurring you on :)
In the first part of the race, a few crews overtook me relatively quickly. I wasn't in the least concerned about that - the crews behind are meant to be faster, and I was pretty sure I'd be one of the slowest boats on the day anyway. I just wanted to stay in my own rhythm and get to the end. After about 3km, I hit the point which I think is often the hardest - the 'OK, I'm tired now, but I've still got LOADS to do - why am I here?' point. I don't think it comes at any specific proportion of what's left. 3km just seems to be my limit of, 'now what?'. If it's a 5km race then that's easy, because by 3km you're more than halfway through, but in anything 10km or more you just feel a bit deflated by the knowledge of what is left still to do. I had exactly the same feeling when I raced the Grand East Anglian Run in May. It's the first point at which you seriously consider just jacking it in. It's the first point which is really mentally challenging.
The thing is that 3km isn't far. It's not even two miles! And in the context of a normal training session, it's only a fraction of what I'd cover - it would barely get me from the boathouses to the bottom of the Reach. There's absolutely no reason to want to stop at that point other than the fact that you know you are doing a fixed distance and you know that the only way to complete it is to keep pressing on - but already you're starting to tire and your enthusiasm is massively waning. You start questioning your motives for entering in the first place. You wonder whether you had an exaggerated opinion of your abilities. You wonder how much you'd hate yourself if you gave in. You wonder what the logistics would be of giving up - because of its length, the course isn't fully marshalled so you'd have to keep rowing in order to find a marshal anyway. You wonder if, after this is over, you should just give up rowing, because you clearly don't enjoy it. You wonder if you could face everybody else if you just gave up. You wonder if you could bear to tell them that you'd barely even started when you gave up. You wonder what excuse you could use - well, there is that pain in my hip (that's always there, nope, can't use that excuse), or there's the fact I can't hold the left blade (again, not a new thing, deal with it), my back is beginning to hurt (of course it hurts, you broke your spine, get on with it), I'm really tired (so's everyone else), this is only my fifth time in a scull since October (that's your problem)...you wish you were in a crew boat so that you had someone to share this with.
 
All of this is going through your head instead of thinking about rowing well, and before you know it you've done another kilometre. At the 4km mark things don't seem so bleak. 'Over a seventh of the way through!', I thought. Six more sevenths still felt like quite a lot but by this point I'd overcome one of the big mental blockades. I switched my focus to what a beautiful day it was. It was really sunny, and although the promised (and afterwards reported) tailwind felt suspiciously like a gusty headwind to all of us on the course, it began to feel good to be alive. I was warm enough (perhaps a bit too warm) in shorts and a t-shirt; I was powering a boat all by myself, the birds were singing, the sun was shining, the river was wide, straight and clear, and I was on the way to setting a course record. I spent a while looking up at the landscape around the river, and although from my position I was rather low down I enjoyed the view I had. We were racing deep in Fenland country and the landscape stretched for miles. It was so quiet, too! The only noises came from my blades and from the wildlife along the river, with only an intermittent and distant tractor engine belying the existence of the rest of humanity.
These pictures weren't taken on the day, and are actually from different parts of The Fens, but they still give an impression.
It was at this point that I was struck by a sudden fear. I realised that I hadn't seen anybody else, either behind me or in front of me, for some time - a good ten to fifteen minutes. I couldn't hear or see anyone on either bank. I was completely alone. Part of me rejoiced in that, but part of me suddenly wondered if I'd somehow managed to go the wrong way. I couldn't see how I could have done that, but where was everybody else?! The only thing to do, of course, was to press on. After a few more minutes a road ran alongside the river, and a few solitary cars pootled along it. This at least gave me some reassurance that I was not the last human left alive. After a few more minutes, I finally saw another boat - I think it was a pair. At first I rejoiced to think that I wasn't all alone after all. I rowed in front of them for some time until they were close enough to overtake. As they came past, I was suddenly hit with the knowledge of how alone I was in my little boat. Although I must have been one of the first boats they'd seen in ages too, they didn't return (or perhaps hear) my friendly, 'hello!', and just carried on chatting between themselves. As they rowed away from me, still chatting, it was as if I didn't exist apart from as an obstacle in their path. I suddenly really felt as if I would have loved a crewmate right now.
Is there anybody out there? Wait, am I even here?
It's funny, but I hadn't expected loneliness. Boredom, yes, but not loneliness. Normally, I really like being by myself, especially when exercising. This isn't to say I don't enjoy doing things as a team or a squad - I do - but I love the way that you can just drift mentally during exercise and be your own person for a bit. Because of this, it had never occurred to me that I would really, really struggle with feeling so very alone. For some reason, a whole load of negative thoughts began to wash over me, and they had moved way beyond the 'should I - shouldn't I' of giving up. I began to question everything I was doing in my life. Whereas before I had wondered if my boat and I were on the right course, now I was wondering whether my entire life was. I also began to think really negative things about myself. I wondered how long I could keep fighting EDS and bipolar. I wondered if I had it in me to restart my PhD, let alone complete it. I started telling myself that I was nothing but a liability and a nuisance to everybody. I asked myself what I could do in life to cause the least pain to other people, and I didn't know if that was living or dying. It even got so dark that I wondered if I shouldn't just drown myself where I was - nobody would see it. I felt incredibly detached from myself. I think it was because I was in so much pain, and I've learned to detach myself mentally from my body to try and deal with the pain (I'm not sure if this is an 'official' technique, but it seems to help deal with pain that just won't go away). I didn't really understand what was happening in my head, and I didn't know how to make sense of it. I had planned for many things during this race, but a major depressive existential crisis had not been one of them!
That sense of loneliness persisted for some time. The only way to deal with it was to keep on going. I think the rhythm of the stroke helped as it soothed me and felt meditative. After about 11km (I forget precisely when), it was slightly alleviated when I saw the Champs eight come past me - we'd shared a trailer, and their cox and I had shared a car on the way up with John and Rachael (one of the Radegund rowers), so I called a greeting to him and he heard and responded with a friendly wave and a shout of encouragement. This seemed to lift a curtain. I was recognised and reacted to! For some reason, after the Champs boat went past there were lots of other boats and I began to feel a bit more as if I were part of the race again.
It felt good to be ticking off bits of the directions too.
Somewhere around the two thirds mark, a new problem began to develop. I realised that my left hand - which is my far weaker hand - was beginning to hurt quite badly. It took me a while to work out why. I had a weird pain I hadn't experienced before at the tip of my index finger. I also had a lot of pain further down the index finger, all down the middle finger, and in the little finger. I eventually realised - and this shows how confused the nerve signals in that hand are! - that I'd worn some nasty blisters. My right hand was almost unaffected, but as I looked at my left hand I could see the problem. In a sculling boat, you are meant to hold the blade lightly in your fingers (not the palm of your hand) with your thumbs over the end. This helps you to keep a nice secure (but loose) grip of the handle, and by pushing out with your thumbs you can also help to keep the boat nicely balanced.
Left hand post-race.
Because of the nerve problems in my left arm, I really struggle to co-ordinate my left hand. When it's especially painful, the pain signals seem to mask the control signals (this is not medical terminology!) which makes it even worse. Looking at my hands for the first time since the race started, I realised how I'd managed to get a blister on my finger tip - which is pretty unusual. I couldn't make my left thumb stay on the end of the blade. I kept trying and in the end paused for a moment to put it in place forcibly with my right hand, but I just couldn't keep it there. This was making me subconciously hold the blade in a really weird way, which had caused the unusual blisters. For the next 7km or so I struggled constantly with the left hand. I'd swing between thinking, 'No, I can make this work, I just need to leave it in place' and, 'it's fine, just reach the end any old way.' I simply couldn't make it work, so I went with option two, and cursed my silly hand.
When I got back, I realised I'd also spent quite a lot of time bashing my right hand with the left blade, which was now liberally smeared with blood!
As I got nearer and nearer the end, the hand grew weaker and weaker. I'd predicted this. I knew it would be hard, but I knew I just had to cling on somehow. Unfortunately, I hadn't predicted the blisters, and they were definitely making the job harder. Just after the '5km to go' mark, I decided I needed a treat. I had saved playing music until the end in case my phone battery ran out, but at this point I decided I had enough charge to run endomondo and Spotify at the same time. The few seconds I lost in stopping to get the music playing were definitely made up for by the enormous boost it provided. I had intended to make a special 'Great Ouse Marathon' playlist but hadn't got round to it, so what ended up booming from the inadvertent loudspeaker of my boat was a happy mix of classical and pop and everything between and out the other sides. Knowing the music well meant that I was able to relax into the different songs and use them to think, 'another three minutes down, we're getting there.' It was about this point that I started to mutter to myself...
I felt like this (^), but with my eclectic music tastes it was probably more like this...
The last major trauma on the course was a rather large power boat which came past kicking up rather a lot of wash (there'd also been one at the beginning, and the sculler in front of me had terrified me by screaming, 'NO!' at it). It came past just as a young sculler from the King's School, Ely, was coming past me. We shared a moment of 'oo-er' as our boats bobbed around, then powered down towards the finish line - or rather, he did, and I just limped. I had hoped to be able to sprint some of the last bit of the distance, but although I felt capable of that in my lungs, I didn't feel it in my legs, my hips, my back or my hands. The finish was something of an anticlimax. I crossed the line, then turned around to my hatch to retrieve my drink, having not had anything at all to drink during the race (before anybody goes on at me about dehydration I should point out that had I had something to drink I would only have thrown it up, which isn't great for hydration either). Here's a little video of me rowing very slowly just after the finish - I'm on the right of the screen (the only one in a single) and am not responsible for the music!
video
After a few sips - just enough to get me to the bit of bank where we'd pull in 1500m away - I replaced the bottle and attempted to take a stroke. Taking a rowing stroke goes like this. You start at backstops and extract your blades from the water. Then you put the hands away, rock the body over, and bend your knees so that you move the seat up the slide. You then place the blades in the water and reverse the process to take a stroke.
Just like that.
Taking a rowing stroke after a half marathon and then a 2-minute break goes like this. You sit about halfway up the slide, because that's a comfy position to be in to have a drink. You put your drink away. You go to backstops. You put the hands away from the body, then you lean over and - FIRE! FIRE! FIRE IN YOUR BUM! In absolute agony, barely suppressing a gentle whimper, you rock the body back over and take deep breaths for a moment. You look over your shoulder. The river is full of boats with people gently sobbing and massaging their cramping buttocks. You take another deep breath, and give it another go. This time, prepared, you grit your teeth and give your best attempt at moving up the slide. Gingerly, you place your blades in the water and attempt to push down with the legs, but your legs are shaking so much from the gut-wrenching spasm that has gripped your lower back, buttocks and hamstrings that the boat just wobbles from side to side and doesn't actually move in a linear fashion. Someone on a bridge helpfully leans over and tells you how far you still have to go. You briefly consider homocide.
In a world of pain.
Suppressing tears, you decide that there's only one way to do this. You can't control your back at all - in fact, a vast band of pain is making its way up from your knees to your neck - but you can just about control some of the leg drive. With the loosest possible grip in your trembling hands, you row with about a quarter of the leg drive and absolutely no back lean at all. The only way to do this is to keep moving, even though each stroke equates to the most incremental distance covered on the river. You scream internally at the decision of the organisers to make the race upstream so that you can't just sit and drift home now. You suppress the rising vomit and wonder if your legs will ever be the same again. Then you pass under another bridge - 400m to go now. 'I can do this!', you think. But there's a catch - you get round the bend and see that there is a queue to come in at the landing stages. That means more sitting still - which is the worst thing you could be doing right now.
I edged my way closer and closer to the landing stage, looking desperately for my mum and Rosie with my wheelchair. Some lovely race marshals on the bank helped to pull me in, although I warned them that I would need a lot of help. This became apparent to them when they said, 'If you just hop out we'll get someone to deal with the boat,' and my expression at the phrase, 'hop out', was accompanied by a slightly hysterical cackle. Anyway, they helped lift me out of the boat and then carried it off somewhere for me - at that point, I knew not where! They left me to sit on the landing stage for a bit whilst they found my mum and my chair. I don't think I've ever been so glad to see Sopwith! The landing stage was a little way down from the main bit of the hard, so two strong rowers grabbed me under the arms and hauled me up the bank, then deposited me gently in my chair. Rosie was of course beside herself at my unexpected presence in her life and flung herself upon me, very rapidly being brought up into my chair with me in her favourite position.
Here she is on my lap on holiday in France.
I had spotted John coming in not long after me so was able to be with him straight away, and St Radegund followed shortly after. I vaguely remember John saying something like, 'Wave to the Radegund!' as they had all spotted me on the bank, and I vaguely remember giving a rather feeble gesture which was unintentionally a remarkably convincing royal wave. They looked happy, as if they'd enjoyed their row, which I was very glad about.
St Radegund rowing away at the start.
Moving about on the hard in my chair felt like such a luxury. I wasn't strong enough to push myself by that point but I also wasn't really 'with it' enough to care. I just enjoyed sitting and watching the world go by! After boats had been sorted (wiped down, derigged and loaded) we availed ourselves of the barbeque and various snacks my mum had brought. Rosie attracted a lot of attention on my lap, and I considered having a massage from the professional masseurs, before deciding upon the presentation of a sheet of paper saying, 'do you have any of these symptoms or conditions?' that I might be more effort than it was worth for them. I also convinced my lovely mummy to buy 'yet another' t-shirt (thanks to the nice lady who said, 'She's just rowed 22k! She definitely deserves a t-shirt!' - a woman after my own heart) and by this time some results were coming in.
Team Radegund at the finish - my mum on the far left in the light blue shirt, then Gabriel (stroking Rosie's head), Rosie sitting on my lap (my wheelchair somewhat buried under towels and bags!), John with a grey hoody, and various Radegund rowers in the background.
My time was 2:14:17 (to clarify, that's two hours, fourteen minutes, seventeen seconds). I hadn't really had a specific time in mind, but I'd hoped to be a bit closer to two hours. That said, I was just proud of having completed it. The Radegund ladies, on the other hand, had been racing for a new course record. The previous record in their category (Women's Masters C Eights) was 1:47:36, set in 2013 by Loughborough. I'm proud to say that they absolutely smashed that, setting a new record of 1:41:46. What an achievement! John came second in the highly competitive Novice 1x category. As a previous winner and record holder in this category, he was a bit disappointed, but I was still immensely proud of him.
John going strong off the start.
Later on I worked out that I should have been a bit more pleased with my time. Two other para rowers had completed the course before, although both were in different categories to me. I worked out that when the times were adjusted to make the categories comparable I still had the fastest time by some margin. NB - the time adjustments are based on USA Para-Rowing guidelines for races over a distance of 1km. They haven't been tested over this kind of distance before - but then, neither had I!

My LTA time: 2:14:17
Record TA time: 2:39:24
Record AS time: 3:09:28

Adjustment for TA time = 25.5 seconds per km, or 550.8 seconds for the half marathon, which is 9:12 (minutes:seconds).
Adjustment for AS time = 95.4 seconds per km, or 2060.64 seconds for the half marathon, which is 34:20.

Adjusted times, taking mine as zero:
LTA: 2:14:17
TA: 2:30:12
AS: 2:35:08
Me and the bathroom door modelling my new t-shirt.
So, yeah. It was a good day and I learned a lot. I also destroyed my hands and realised that if I want to row regularly in the future then I seriously need to sort out my left arm. I learned that sometimes the most powerful thing keeping you going can be fear of failure. Elisabeth, St Radegund captain, said that she was in awe of me for doing it all on my own. My response was, 'It would have been harder to have given up though. I would never have forgiven myself.' I have mixed feelings about whether or not fear of failure is a good thing to use to spur yourself on. I watched a programme the other day about US Navy Seals, and they came out with things like 'What's fear? It's a choice', 'Die before you quit,' and, 'the ocean makes cowards of us all.' Now, the last two of those are straightforward and make a lot of sense here. But what if you only actually have two options - both of which are fear, but only one of which is quitting? What if the harder option is to quit? What if the easier option is to keep going? I suppose they'd say that the challenge isn't hard enough if continuing is the easiest option. I suppose I made the right decision not to give in at all those points I wanted to during the race. I have so much experience in not wanting to be somewhere only to end up doing quite well out of it. I do wonder, though, if in the long run I'm doing myself any favours by being so stubborn. Maybe I'm too afraid of the wrong thing and not afraid enough of the right thing.
Should I be worried that I've had no feeling in half of my index finger for the last 10 days? Probably...but I'm not.
Anyway, enough of that. However I 'should' feel about it, I'm proud I did it, but I have a big support crew to thank for helping me to get there: John, all the Radegund women (especially Kelly, Rachael and Elisabeth, who helped us unload the trailer that evening), Rachael for giving us a lift to Norfolk, my mum, Rosie, race organisers at Isle of Ely Rowing Club, the Champs crews for letting us use their trailer, and probably some others.
The Fort St George (pub) seen from Peterhouse boathouse - the Radegund ladies who were outside spotted me and John and came to give us a hand. Thank you!
So many times throughout the race (and after it) I thought, 'never again'. But the thing is, I probably will do it again. I now know that after the finish you should just KEEP GOING. I know I need to sort out something better for my left hand. I know to get endomondo going early, and to prepare for being alone and a bit too introspective. In any case - I have a record to beat now!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Sculling the Backs

One of the most famous parts of Cambridge goes along a stretch of the River Cam and is known as 'The Backs'. It's a portion of the river which flows past several colleges: Magdalene, St John's, Trinity, Trinity Hall, Clare, King's and Queens'. These are all quite old colleges (not quite as old as my college, Peterhouse, which is the oldest!) and they are very pretty. Going along this bit of river is therefore a good way to see some of the most picturesque landmarks in Cambridge. This is one of the most famous views:
In fact, it's deemed to be so recognisable and representative of the city that it even forms the City Council logo!
Usually, this section of the river is blocked up with punts. Going punting is a good way to see all the sights if you don't mind going very slowly. You can take a tour with a professional 'driver' or you can hire a punt and have a go yourself. This is me punting in a previous life when I could still do that kind of thing - although a dodgy knee is evident even then!
The problem with letting people punt themselves is that not all of them are as good at it as I was (ahem). Punts go as far as Jesus Lock, which is where the river widens out, and where you find rowing boats and houseboats. On this bigger bit of the river, with some boats travelling at a much higher speed, it is really important that people obey the laws of navigation. Novice coxes are taught all about these laws just as learner drivers are on the roads. 
Especially if they're trained by me.
However, it is a bit of overkill to make people go through a full training programme when they only want to hire a punt for an hour. The result of this is that you have a bunch of people who don't know how to steer in a straight line, all of whom are taking part in something of a melée on the river with nobody having right of way or knowing which side to be on. To be honest, the completely disastrous chaos of it all is what makes it fun! Punting would be a lot less fun if you had to stick to the right hand side, or had to call 'come by' every time somebody incompetent in front of you was slowing you down, or if collisions became a thing of the past. I certainly don't want punting to change what it is. Watching people crash into trees (and sometimes colleges);watching them get the pole stuck in the mud and then see them wriggling in mid-air as their punt passes away from them, before splashing down into the river; watching two punts slow but inexorably set out on a collision course with each other despite all the best attempts of the boats' occupants; watching plastic champagne flutes get spilled over and Pimms go in to feed the ducks - it's all part of what it's about, and it's part of what makes the river upstream of Jesus Lock the 'fun' part, and the river downstream the 'serious' part.
Tree in face = occupational hazard of punting.
The problem, of course, is that it means that rowing boats can't get to go along one of the prettiest parts of the river. To be honest, there isn't much incentive to anyway - there are lots of bridges with very narrow spans, and you can't really get any decent training in. You wouldn't be able to get a sweep boat down there at all (because they have longer oars than sculling boats) and although a single is reasonably straightforward, anything bigger than a double is just a nightmare. Given that colleges predominantly train in 8s and 4s (both of which are sweep boats) there is no way you could get most college boats down there. Sculls, on the other hand, can get down there (just!) but you wouldn't want to go at the same time as punts. Sculls are a lot faster than punts, but they're also a lot less stable. Given the navigational skills of most people propelling punts, the chances of being hit by one (and therefore capsized) are pretty high. Also, you'd just be stuck behind a bunch of boringly slow people all the time. The solution: go out first thing in the morning before the punts have made it on the river!
Me with the Cambridge City Council logo!
Getting up early is not my strong point. In fact, I'd say it was one of my greatest weaknesses. It's partly because I don't sleep well and partly because, before going to bed, I take a whole load of drugs which have a strong sedative effect. Sculling the Backs, though, is something I've wanted to do for years, so when I woke up a few days ago and felt like death, I just put on as many warm clothes as I could find (long sleeve fluffy top, t-shirt, soft shell jacket, long leggings, long socks, leg warmers, hat, neck buff) and limped out into the cold but bright early morning.  
Misty, chilly, wonderful.
This was by no means a strenous outing for our little group of adventurers (four singles, including me, and one double). We had a short paddle up to Jesus Lock, then carried the boats over the lock.
Boating upstream of Jesus Lock.
This was probably the hardest part of the whole session for me (with the possible exception of waking up!) but I managed to stay upright long enough by leaning my weight onto the boat a bit when I was carrying it - with John's help.
Then we had a gentle paddle down to The Anchor, where there is a large mill pond. It was quite tricky steering-wise because of the narrow-arched bridges and all the punts tied up, ready to be used later, which made the river much narrower. I had to do a couple of handbrake turns where I realised I'd slightly misjudged the angle I needed (or hadn't spotted a hazard on the other side of the river), but each of the college bridges was just wide enough to be able to scull through carefully with a bit of space on either side of the blades.
Someone bravely taking a houseboat through Clare Bridge - bear in mind that this is narrower than a scull when blades are taken into consideration...
The only thing that happened of note - apart from enjoying the lovely view! - was something to add to my list of 'unusual things that have happened to me in a boat'. Just as I was coming past St John's College, I felt something in the water bashing at my stern, then heard a scrabbling sound - then I saw a very wet and bedraggled small furry creature scramble out of the water and onto my stern. The only other small furry creature I've given a ride to was Rosie, and this one looked about as happy as she does when she's soaked through. From the fluffy tail I realised it was just a squirrel, with the grumpiest expression I've ever seen - glaring at me as if it were my fault that he was in the river. Sadly, he leaped off again before I had a chance to take a photo, but it struck me as a particularly uncommon thing to happen to a sculler. (Previous odd things have included a fish leaping out of the water and slapping me in the face whilst coxing, a swan leaping on the back of an 8+ I was coxing and attempting to kill me, and watching a woman in a nearby boat during marshalling for a race fall into a bunch of stinging nettles, then the water, dressed in a silk scarf and very fancy sunglasses - not typical rowing attire!)
I know this isn't a squirrel but the expression is accurate.
Once we got to The Anchor, there was only a little bit further that we could row without getting the boats out of the water again. Those of us in singles decided to attempt the final stretch - a very narrow bit going past Darwin College and as far as The Granta. Because of punts pulled up along one side, this was so narrow that it wasn't possible to scull normally at all. I got through by a combination of pushing off alternate sides and sitting at frontstops, rowing the first few inches of the stroke (meaning the blades weren't pushed out as far from the boat as they would be halfway through a normal stroke).
Sitting outside The Granta
After we had made our way back from The Granta to The Anchor two of the single scullers went back and Elaine and Louise (in the double) and John and I hung around a bit longer to have a very relaxed row back and to take some pictures on the way.
Outside Darwin College
Here's another famous landmark, the Queens' Mathematical Bridge, which is Grade II listed. The story goes that when it was first built - by Isaac Newton - it was held together without any nuts and bolts, but that it was dismantled by students and fellows who were then unable to put it back together again without bolts.
Sadly, this nice little story isn't true, and bolts were inherent to the design from the outset. In addition, it wasn't even designed by Newton but rather by William Etheridge (then built by James Essex) in 1749. Given that Newton died in 1727 it's surprising that the story has survived so well, but then everyone likes a good story.
Underneath the Mathematical Bridge (official name just 'The Wooden Bridge') with Elaine and Laura.
There are some more interesting and historical bridges along The Backs. Clare Bridge (pictured above with the houseboat) is the oldest surviving bridge in Cambridge, having been built in 1639-40 by Thomas Grumbold. Many others predated it, but they were all destroyed by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War years to make Cambridge harder to attack and easier to defend. The bridge is famously missing a segment of one of the spheres that decorate it. Nobody really knows why - one explanation is that the designer was not paid in full, and this was his way of taking revenge; the more likely but less interesting explanation is that it simply fell in the river after a botched repair job.
This calf - enjoying the early morning sun on the opposite bank to the colleges - may have been a witness, but he's saying nothing...
On the other side of the river to these cows stands one of the most famous buildings in the world - King's College Chapel. No visit to the Backs is complete without a photo of it, so here's one from our trip:
Bloomin' King's College thinking they're so much better than everyone else...but seriously, I had some better photos there too, which appear elsewhere in this post!
The Trinity College bridge is similar in appearance to Clare Bridge (having three narrow arches) and, like the Mathematical Bridge, was built by James Essex. Another beautiful old bridge, heading further downstream, is the St John's College Bridge of Sighs. The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1831 and was designed by Henry Hutchinson. It is based on a bridge of the same name in Venice, although there isn't a huge degree of similarity between them. Another bridge of the same name can be found in Oxford, but is of course inferior to the Cambridge version because it goes over New College Lane rather than water! Sadly the bridge is currently shrouded in scaffolding but we did get an OK photo anyway.
The double (Elaine and Laura) on the left, me on the right, and John's stern in the foreground!
After that it was time to make our way back to 'our part' of the river. We hadn't been gone for very long, but already the traffic over Magdalene Bridge had picked up noticeably since the time we had paddled through going upstream, and there were far more pedestrians out too. We paddled down to the lock and carried our boats over to the wider and faster section of the river. It felt a bit like business as usual, but it was nice to think that we didn't have very far to go to get back to the boathouse!
Back downstream of Jesus Lock.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, it had felt really nice to go and enjoy such a location which is well-known across the world from the privileged position of the river, and in the company of a few friends, the odd college porter on a bridge, and nobody else. How lucky!
Enjoying the sun and inventing a rowing 'triple', with St John's College in the background.