The This Girl Can Effect

It’s now been just over a year since I became an ambassador for This Girl Can Suffolk. I’ve been reflecting on what has happened in that time, because it has been one hell of a journey so far.

I remember seeing the advert at work inviting applications to Suffolk Sport to be an ambassador for This Girl Can Suffolk. At the time I’d only recently completed my first 5k run and was starting to get into cycling, but I was beginning to discover that my apparently fragile, good-for-nothing body was capable of more than I’d let myself believe. I’d been seeing the national This Girl Can adverts on the TV; they resonated with in me in a big way, having an instant goose-bumpy effect whenever I saw them. I wondered whether I should apply. They wanted women who had experienced physical or mental health barriers to getting into sport; having been living with Crohn’s Disease, the after-effects of spinal surgery and, more recently, severe anxiety, I felt that I fit the bill.

There was one catch though. Ambassadors would be expected to share their stories through social media. I did NOT do social media. Oftentimes I did not do social, full stop. I was your typical technophobic hermit: my phone could barely be considered ‘smart’, hashtags were like a foreign language and I’d never even seen an Instagram or Twitter account. Put the anxiety on top of that and there was no way I would ever feel comfortable posting my pathetic attempts at ‘sport’ on social media for the whole world to see. PAH! As if…I’d be throwing myself to the wolves.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague who worked in sport development and knew about the campaign. After explaining my reluctance about the social media element and whether there was any chance of doing it another way – and seeing his rather diplomatic attempt to not laugh in my face – he encouraged me to just go for it.

After much deliberation, I decided I’d have a go. What was the worst that could happen? I’d post one thing, everyone would laugh at me, and I wouldn’t do it anymore.

And I probably wouldn’t even be accepted anyway.

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So many amazing women

Cue surprise when I was. Along with what eventually totalled 70 or so other strong, incredible, inspiring women. From all backgrounds. All with amazing stories to tell. I soon found myself being inspired by those women and their stories.

I also soon found myself well and truly in the deep end where social media was concerned; it brought me out in a cold sweat and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But, I decided, I had a job to do. This wasn’t about me. It was about the women and girls whose lives we could help change for the better. And I’d signed up for this because I wanted to be a part of it. So be part of it.

Go big or go home. Sink or swim.

I dusted off my Facebook account, set up Twitter and Instagram accounts, and began learning the art of hash-tagging and @mentioning. Wanting to spread the This Girl Can Suffolk message as far and wide as possible, I also began to experiment with different approaches: I started a blog and, after getting an action camera and being inspired by a couple of female cyclist vloggers on YouTube, began a YouTube channel too.

I’d gone from someone who actively shied away from anything remotely resembling social media, to someone masquerading as the complete opposite. It was like this other person was now in charge. They were apparently this confident, outgoing, unafraid person, while the real me was still in the foetal position, rocking gently in a dark recessed corner of my mind, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

Little did I know that it was about to get a whole lot more unbelievable.

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Opening up about my experience of mental health…and bagging Ambassador of the Month 🙂

First it was being awarded Ambassador of the Month for December. Thanks to my newfound confidence, I’d just signed up to become a Time To Change Champion, and I’d written a blog about my experience of mental health and how sport and exercise had helped me to deal with some of those issues. Although I’d written about a very personal experience and it was now out there for the world to see, I realised that if it could help others to realise they are not alone then it was worth the self-sacrifice.

Then it was announcing my fundraising challenge to the world. Thanks to my newfound fitness, confidence and ability to raise awareness, I embarked on 6 months of challenges for Crohn’s and Colitis UK which saw me complete my first swimming event and first triathlons, as well as upping my longest ride to 84 miles.

Owing to the Women’s Tour coming through Suffolk in June, I had the privilege of being involved in promoting the Tour and This Girl Can Suffolk. First it was doing some bits for the local media with Councillor Sarah Barber, the then Mayor of Ipswich and fellow Ambassador. We appeared in the local paper and on the radio, and that was the start of the buzz that was to build around the Women’s Tour.

Next, I found myself on a media ride to promote the Tour, riding alongside Rebecca Charlton, former pro and now cycling presenter, and pro-cyclist Chanel Mason from Storey Racing who competed in the Tour, as well as many other cyclists from the local media and local cycling clubs. We were accompanied by one of the Tour cars and a police escort, and was without doubt one of the very coolest things I have ever done.

Then I got to work with some of my fellow ambassadors on a video for British Cycling to promote the Tour, This Girl Can Suffolk and women’s cycling in general. It was so weird seeing our videos being watched by 1000s of people over the social media channels in the hours before the Tour started.

I’d felt like a kid in a sweet shop over those few months. It was unbelievable. I’ll admit that as I sat in Christchurch Park on the day of the Tour, watching these cycling warriors racing past me, I was a little sad that it would all now be over and it felt a little anticlimactic.

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I’ve never laughed so much in one day 🙂

Fortunately, the Suffolk Aquapark came to my aid and cured my post-Tour blues. This Girl Can Suffolk were offered some VIP tickets to try it out before it opened. It would mean swimming in the open water and wearing a wet suit – both of which I’d never done before – but it sounded like fun so I put my name down. Despite a little last-minute anxiety over said open-water-swimming and wetsuit-wearing, I soon found myself laughing hysterically while we hauled one another up onto the inflatables. It was, hands down, the funniest thing I’ve done, and the most I’d laughed, all year.

But I think the most unexpected part of the whole year is the effect of putting myself out there, particularly on the YouTube channel. I was so incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera, although it certainly helped having so many cool things to document, and I began to find myself part of a wonderfully friendly and supportive YouTube community. When a couple of fellow vloggers and their subscribers came to Suffolk for a cycle ride, I decided to go along to meet them. It was very odd meeting people that I’d only ever seen from behind the screen on my phone; admittedly I was a little star struck.

But the part I definitely wasn’t expecting was for some of those people to announce that they were subscribers to my channel. And they watched my videos. I hadn’t really thought about it. Not properly. These people that liked and responded to my videos weren’t just names behind a YouTube account. They were real people. And they were standing right there in front of me. Telling me that they were inspired by my videos and to keep up the good work.

I mean, WTF?!?!*

The last 12 months or so have been a real sea of change. This body, which I’d openly said would never be capable of running, has got me around two triathlons. It has taught me to never say never. And this newfound confidence is helping with my anxiety, work, and life in general. I feel that being part of This Girl Can has played a big part in helping me put my mind back together again.

But some things have not changed. I still want to show that females can do sport. Be strong. Get sweaty. Jiggle. Run. Cycle. Swim. Race. Fight. Dance. And everything in between. Doing sport is bloody cool. It’s fun. It’s amazing. And we are so much more capable than we think we are.

I’ll admit though, this social media hermit still has a very long way to go. She is still inwardly terrified. And still gently rocking in the foetal position in that dark recess of her mind, still trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

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But at least she now knows how to use a hashtag.

*WTF can be used as a handy mnemonic for the essential things you need when you train indoors. Water. Towel. Fan.

I don’t know what you thought I meant 😉

All good things must come to an end

Well. I’ve reached the end of my 2018 fundraising campaign for Crohns and Colitis UK.

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The proud owner of the official C&CUK kit! 🙂

It all started at about this time last year when speaking to a colleague about her husband’s fundraising efforts, and specifically about the charity-branded jersey he had at the time. I remember saying that I really wanted to raise money for Crohns and Colitis UK, how cool it would be to be able to promote the charity every time I wore their jersey out on my bike, and wondered how I might get one of my own. She encouraged me to contact them with my ideas; a week or so later, I was in possession of my very own Crohns and Colitis UK jersey!

I was already on a journey of discovery where exercise and my body’s limits were concerned, and I decided that while I was able to, I would set myself a series of challenges that I’d never done before. I committed to at least one challenge every month between April and October, which included my first swimming event, first triathlon, first 10k run and longest cycle ride.

I remember back in May/June, after the first few events, thinking that maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew. My health wasn’t great and I was picking up infections and injuries. I’d always caveated my fundraising with it being health-permitting; nevertheless, I knew I’d still feel like I’d let sponsors down and wanted to try and avoid that at all costs. I wanted to achieve what I’d set out to do.

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It’s all about the bling

And, 271 miles, 17 hours and 32 minutes, 7 events and 6 medals later, here I am; at the end of my 2018 fundraising journey. There have been lots of sweat and tears and I wanted to give up many times. Not one event came easily and I feel I’ve earned every inch of these medals. And they’ve all been hard-fought in their own ways.

If I had to choose which was the hardest-fought, I think it would be difficult; they were all tough in their own way. Walking around the run leg of Stradbroke triathlon, with a hip injury and being on the verge of throwing up, while having the longest 3k walk of my entire life, is definitely up there vying for one of the worst moments. As was forcing myself to carry on cycling, a mere 10 miles from the finish line at Southwold, after having already cycled 70-odd miles in near 30c heat, suffering from heatstroke and feeling very ill, and crying as I pedalled along. Yes, that is also up there.

And let’s not forget almost not completing the last event after being on the verge of a panic attack for hours and almost throwing in the towel because my anxiety was so bad. Or the numerous moments in training, when I really wanted to just sleep, where I seriously questioned my ability to see this through.

But there have been so many amazing moments too. Each and every time I crossed the finish line, obviously. Culford triathlon was definitely a high moment: out of all the events, that one was the only one where I felt good for the whole event and finally felt able to call myself a triathlete. It was still hard work, but I’d learned from my previous mistakes, proven to myself I could do triathlon, and caught the bug all at the same time. And every moment where the jersey got noticed and started a conversation (and occasionally attracted an on-the-spot donation); it’s certainly done its job at raising awareness.

Getting my first swimming medal without publicly drowning was probably a high point too.

But the highlight of the year – and the moment in which I was the most proud to be wearing that jersey – was Stradbroke triathlon. That event, although being one of the lows, was also the first time I got to wear my Crohns and Colitis UK jersey. And it was on World IBD Day: I was representing my fellow Crohnies on our internationally recognised day. During my walking-and-trying-not-to-throw-up-or-faint-or-give-up, one fellow competitor ran past me and shouted “come on Crohns, you can do it”. It jolted something in me. I forced myself to think about my sponsorship, my condition, everyone out there suffering with it. This was our day. Out of the whole year, and even though I was on the verge of collapse, that was the moment when I was most proud to be wearing that jersey. Thinking about it still gives me the feels.

There has been one fly in the ointment though: not getting around to doing that 10k run. It was meant to be October’s event, but the hip injury I’d sustained earlier in the year meant I had zero running form, the operation then put paid to any chance of getting any running form back in time for October, and then the event I had intended to do was cancelled anyway. It’s definitely something I hope I can get around to next year.

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So many amazing memories

But now, at the end of my journey and reflecting on my achievements, I am very proud. Proud of what I’ve proven to myself about what I am capable of: This Girl Can. She can swim. She can cycle. She can run (when she’s not injured). And she can do triathlon. It might not be quick. And it might not be pretty. But she is capable of much more than she ever thought possible.

I’m also proud to say that I’ve now raised over £500 for Crohns and Colitis UK: and hopefully plenty of awareness too. I’ve never forgotten why I signed up to this in the first place; I wanted to give something back to the charity that has given me so much. They work tirelessly to campaign for people who suffer every day with these life-changing and debilitating illnesses. When I was diagnosed in 1999 and didn’t know who to turn to, they were there. The treatments I’ve received, they helped research and develop. The dedicated IBD nurse I can now ring day or night, they made happen. The increasing social and political awareness, they are driving it. #notalldisabilitiesarevisible

So yes, 271 miles later and here I am. Including the training needed to get to this point, I spent 143 hrs 49 mins – just shy of 6 days – swimming, cycling and running a total of 2197 miles. I think that’s also worth a mention 😊

I want to thank everyone who has donated so far; each penny has helped me keep moving forward. Although I’ve reached my target, if you are able spare anything – no matter how small – towards this amazing cause, I’d be so grateful.

The one that nearly wasn’t

So that’s it. I’ve completed the last of my events in my 2018 fundraising campaign for Crohns and Colitis UK.

After my septoplasty operation I’d spent the last 2 weeks in September building back some fitness on the bike, which was mostly spent doing the Zwift Academy. So I’d regained a little fitness. But I’d barely ridden outside, except for a quick 10 mile spin; much less been in the saddle for several hours. So when I decided to do a local sportive at the end of September I was unsure of what distance I should do. I knew the 100-mile ride was out of the question. That left the 50- or 25-mile rides. The 25-mile felt like it wasn’t far enough. It’s certainly not to be scoffed at, but, based on the distances I’d covered throughout the year, it didn’t feel like enough. I knew the 50-mile was achievable, but I knew it would take me 4 hours to complete on a good day and I hadn’t ridden for that length of time for over 6 weeks.

But it felt good to know I could round off the year – and clear my conscience – with a final event. And another medal.

The day came around and I arrived at the event. I was feeling extra nervous because this would be the first ride where not only would I be riding without my other half, but he wasn’t even in the country and couldn’t come to my rescue if anything did happen. I reminded myself that at the very worst, I could call a taxi. And the event itself would pick me and the bike up if necessary. But I just couldn’t shake the anxiety. I knew I was forcing myself and putting a lot of pressure on myself to complete this final event; but I so badly wanted to end the campaign on a positive note.

I asked the organisers if it mattered if I signed up for the 50 but only did the 25. They said no. That’s the great thing about the event; the medal is almost for just getting out there and having a go. So, I signed up for the 50 miles and decided I’d see how I felt as I approached the point where the 25 and 50 mile routes diverged.

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Feeling vaguely positive…for now

So off I went. The sun was shining, the winds were light, and it was a lovely day for it. I really tried to enjoy myself and just experience the moment. The 50-mile route split came around and while I was still doubtful about the 50 miles, I felt like it was such a lovely day that 25 miles would be over too soon. So I chose the 50.

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Before the clouds ruined my fun

Not much further down the road, the clouds came over. A steady headwind appeared. It became cold and grey. I’d left my jacket in the car; rookie mistake. The doubts in my mind began to increase. I found myself on a seemingly endlessly long road in the middle of nowhere. I knew I was one of the last riders starting on the 50 mile route and there were no other cyclists to be seen for miles. I felt very alone and isolated.

My hold on my anxiety began to loosen. What would happen if I had a mechanical? What if I couldn’t get any battery on my phone? What if I just passed out on the side of the road? What if, when I got to the first feed stop, they’d already packed up and gone home? With every push on the pedal, I was getting further and further away from the safety of home. And more tired. Not having my 6ft-odd other half towing me along in front now and again meant that the headwind and the cold – and the anxiety – was constantly sapping my energy. Physically and mentally.

Much to my future-self’s frustration, I stopped in a layby just outside Framlingham, and decided I didn’t want to carry on. Not couldn’t. Just didn’t want to. I now realised I chose wrong. I should have taken the 25-mile route. I’d be halfway around by now; not a quarter.

I estimated that there were about 6 or 7 more miles before the route turned back on itself. I had three choices: follow the road I’d just come along in the opposite direction and take the 25 mile route; continue in the same direction until the feed stop in 4 or 5 miles, and then plot a path westwards until I rejoined the 50-mile route in the homewards direction; or just head westwards now. I suppose ‘call a taxi’ was also an option but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d been purposefully avoiding looking at my Garmin to see how far I’d ridden – it’s been a useful tactic to avoid anxiety on previous rides – so I didn’t know how far each option would be. My gut feeling went with going west now.

I switched on the sat-nav on my phone and plotted a route out of Framlingham. Although I now felt like a failure for cutting the 50-mile route short, I tried to make the most of the detour through the quaint and pretty little villages and enjoy the scenery. And the break from the headwind. Despite the guilt, I knew I’d made the right decision for me at that moment in time. I estimated I’d end up doing just a little over 30 miles which I’d still be happy with and which felt achievable in light of my current fitness; it was a good compromise.

It felt good to be doing something about my predicament. Nevertheless, I remember thinking that if I did need rescue now, the event control wouldn’t know where to find me as I was no longer on the official route. It was like my anxious mind had ‘won’ and it was getting cocky. I tried to laugh this off; even I couldn’t keep my brain happy. My brain could be a right arsehole sometimes.

I rejoined the official route and was relieved to see other cyclists around me. We are usually pretty good and look out for each other, even if we are complete strangers and not riding together. I also felt better that now, every pedal stroke was taking me back towards home and safety. However, it also meant that I’d now cut out the first of the two feed stops. I’d probably been in the saddle for approaching 2 hours, and although I’d been eating and drinking, I needed 5 minutes off the bike.

I found a good place to stop and stretch out for a few minutes and take on more food and water. I felt exhausted: I was following my usual nutrition strategy, although, in hindsight I wonder whether the adrenaline levels were sapping any energy I was sending towards my muscles. They didn’t feel great; they felt heavy.

By this point I still hadn’t looked at my Garmin to see my mileage. I wanted to figure out how far it was before the next stop – my bladder was starting to regret missing out the first stop – so I looked at the route map. Big mistake. It dawned on me that over a route which totalled about 52 miles, I’d only really cut out about 7. That put it in the low 40s. And about 10 miles longer than I’d expected.

Crap.

I got back on and decided that no matter what my arsehole brain was going to throw at me now, I just had to keep moving forward towards home. We had a bit of a tailwind now which helped. I chowed down a clif bar and energy gel and just concentrated on getting to the next stop in 10 or so miles.

It was going ok for probably about 7 miles. I felt a bit stronger. Began catching a few people up. But it wasn’t long before my enthusiasm was again sucked out of me by an increasing headwind. I knew I was on the road to the feed stop in a few miles, but it seemed like it went on forever. I saw a cyclist in the distance who looked like they were struggling as much as I was, and as I caught up to them I realised it was a relatively young lad. I decided to stay with him a while; we could work as a team and make sure the other was ok. We exchanged names – he was Kyle – and brief stories about our ride so far, and we got each other to the feed stop.

After a quick comfort break, munching a banana and some cake and refilling our bottles, we got on our way again. Kyle announced that he’d heard that it was only about 7 miles from the finish, which spurred us both on. Although we’d also got the 2 big hills to conquer first. But at least we were in single figures.

We spent much of the rest of our journey talking about what cycling we did. How we got into it. Whether we did any other sports; it turned out Kyle was also a keen runner and had done some triathlons too. And anything else in between. I realised that out of the two of us, I was the stronger one. Something in me stepped up. In hindsight, I realise the anxiety and doubts were now a million miles away. I’d be strong for the both of us.

We struggled up the hills – despite feeling tired, this is where I definitely felt the benefit of the Zwift Academy training and the strength work I’d done in recovery – and then pushed on for the home straight. It felt good to feel like we were going to make it, when an hour before we probably both felt ready to throw in the towel. We started talking about the medal, what it might look like, how nice it would feel to finally have it in our hands.

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Cycling buddies for an hour

And at last we crossed the finish line. Strangers an hour ago and now sharing a finisher’s photo. I love how sport can bring strangers together.

Kyle and I parted ways and after sitting for a moment and reflecting on my achievement, which turned out to be a respectable (and surprising) 44 miles at a not-too-shabby 15.4 mph – thanks again Zwift Academy – I soon got cold and made my way back to the car.

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In many ways the hardest-earned medal of them all

And then home. Via Burger King. Don’t judge me.

Especially not when I tell you I also had a Dominos Pizza for tea that evening. I earned the calories as well as the medal.

You did what?!

So I’m now trying to catch up on events since my Septoplasty operation in August.

I think where I’d left it last was something like “I thought my leg was going to fall off” in what I’d decided at the time was a potentially fatal blood clot in my foot. It turns out it wasn’t. Or at least I think it wasn’t. I don’t really know what it was. Except that this weird, numb, black patch on my foot gradually disappeared and I’ve pretty much forgotten about it ever since.

I spent most of the first few weeks after the operation in a bit of a daze. Writing blogs as a way of coping with what had become an almost out-of-control and permanently anxious state. But I was soon able to start getting out for walks, and then tentatively getting on the bike (although only ever at home on the indoor trainer, for fear that I might have a massive nosebleed somewhere out in the countryside and be found half dead hours later by some random farmer). Once I was able to start getting a bit of exercise, the anxiety calmed down a little. Helped by a few mindfulness techniques.

After a little blip with another sinus infection after about 3-4 weeks, I started to feel like I was getting back on track. And there was something I was keen to get back to….Zwift Academy.

Don’t worry. Most normal people with a life don’t know what it is either. I’ll explain…

Zwift is a computer program which, if you have the right technology, allows you to use your bike on a trainer at home to control an avatar online which cycles around different virtual worlds. The harder you cycle in real life, the faster your avatar goes. You can just ride around the game, ride in groups, complete structured workouts, do races; whatever you like.

In recent years Zwift have teamed up with the ladies racing team Canyon SRAM and have run a competition of sorts; complete a number of workouts, rides and races, and if your data shows you have potential, you could bag yourself a place on their pro team. Really. People have actually done it.

For most of us mere mortals, we’re not in it for the pro contract – although I definitely wouldn’t say no – but we just want to be able to connect with other like-minded women, train together, support and motivate each other, train using the same style of workouts the pros use, and just be part of this amazing community. If you complete all 16 of the required elements before the deadline, you have the pride of being able to say you graduated. And, I’ve since discovered, graduates also earn an as-yet-to-be-confirmed real life gift from Rapha – the providers of the Canyon SRAM team kit. Bonus.

Zwift didn’t even exist in my world a year ago, but as soon as I heard about the Academy, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Training with and being part of a community of loads of kick-ass strong women? Yes please!

It ran from 6th August to 30th September. So, I started as soon as it kicked off and did as many of the prescribed events as I could before my septoplasty. I’d had an absolute blast up until that point; it’s hard to put into words the camaraderie that existed within the group. Everyone was so inspiring and motivational. There were all ages, backgrounds and fitness levels taking part. We were all in love with the Academy and what it represented. I was in love with the whole concept of it – everyone had the This Girl Can spirit.

I had it all worked out: at the time I’d been told I’d need two weeks off to recover from the operation, so I’d expected I’d still have a month to complete the remaining workouts. Easy peasy. But I remember as I was being taken home from hospital, after having one of the most traumatic experiences of my life and being told I’d now need four weeks off, being on the verge of tears because I’d realised I’d only have two weeks to complete the Academy and I knew there was a good chance I might not do it. I was gutted. In fact, I’d practically resigned myself there and then to not completing it. I’d put in so much hard work before the op to give myself a fighting chance to do it and now it might have all been in vain. And I’d have to wait a whole year before they ran it again – IF they even ran it again!

And it wasn’t just about not completing it. It was also about not being a part of that awe-inspiring group of kick-ass women I’d grown to love and graduating with them.

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Completing one of the prescribed workouts

But, 4 weeks after my operation and still recovering from the latest bout of sinusitis, and with little more than a fortnight to go, I set up my trainer, loaded up Zwift, and got back on the saddle. I limited myself to a couple of easy spins at first, just to test the water. I knew I wouldn’t be able to give it the beans I was giving it before the op, but I wasn’t in the running for a pro contract so that didn’t matter (my pride was frustrated about it but that’s a whole other issue!). I knew I also needed to give myself plenty of recovery time between workouts, so progress was frustratingly slow. Although I hadn’t completely lost all my fitness, and I’d been focusing on core, glute and leg strength during my time off, it was obvious that the blood loss in surgery and the lack of aerobic exercise in that time had taken a toll. Everything just seemed that much more difficult. But, I plodded my way through the rest of the workouts. And eventually, with only a few days left, I just had to complete 2 races and then that was it. I would graduate.

I’d never really raced on a bike before. Certainly not in real life. I had tried it once on Zwift and it ended very badly. With me coming firmly last place. Not that I’d mind in the context of Zwift Academy – someone has to come last and you just had to finish for it to count towards graduation – but still, there is pride at stake. But I also knew that I still wasn’t in any fit state to ‘race’ and I just needed to tick them off the list.

I remember before the first race getting really nervous. It was a ‘crit’ race, where you race a certain number of laps around a circuit. In this case it was four laps of a 5.5-mile loop. It’ll be fine I thought: I can ride 20 miles! From listening to tips from the other women who had already raced, I knew you needed to start fast to try and stay with the main group for as long as you can. Zwift allows you to draft off someone in front – much like you can in real life – but once you lose that draft effect, you’re on your own and it’s much harder work.

So, I prepared myself to start hard, and immediately I knew I’d got a great start; I was at the front of the pack! For about 3 seconds. Then people started zooming past me. I tried to stay with the first group, and got dropped after about 10 seconds. A second group came past. Same thing happened. Then another group. Same thing. I soon realised that these women were WAAAAY out of my league so I should just need to treat it as a solo ride and just do my own thing – placing didn’t matter.

Much.

After a while I found myself in a group of four and we worked together for a while. But the stronger pair eventually dropped me and another lady who I later discovered was called Martina. We worked together, taking it in turns to go in front and tow the other along. But as I neared the end of the third lap, I realised I was done. Stick a fork in me. I eased off and let her go ahead.

On Zwift you can see what power other riders are putting out. You can also write messages to one another. Except that my messaging system wasn’t working, so I had no way of telling Martina I couldn’t keep the pace. Bless her, she eased off a little for me – I could see from her power output – and was sending me messages telling me to keep going and not give up. That right there is the spirit of Zwift Academy: even in a race where we’re competitors, we’re still teammates and we look out for one another. I felt so bad because I couldn’t reply to her and eventually watched her sail off into the virtual sunset, probably thinking I was a rude and selfish cow. I did contact her later to thank her.

That final lap was hard. I had no one else near me on the course so it felt weirdly lonely, which is odd because I was already alone in my house to begin with. But eventually that finish line came into sight and I sprinted as hard as I could. I’m not sure why. Maybe for some sense of pride that someone – perhaps the virtual reality spectators they have next to the finish line – other than me might give a crap. And as I crossed the finish line I sat up, threw my arms out and celebrated. The way the pros do in real life when they actually win. I came 29th out of 32, but I didn’t care. I felt like I’d won. And I was a step closer to graduating.

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Coming 29th but still feeling like a winner 🙂

The second race was a Time Trial. I specifically picked that because the alternative was a climbing race and I don’t much enjoy virtual climbing any more than I do in real life. It would be a 10 mile flat route where it’s just you against the clock. No frantically trying to stay with a group. Just me, my bike and my ability to dig deep.

As the race drew nearer I’d noticed from our Academy Facebook group page that due to some bug in the game, all the TT races that day were actually taking place on one of the climb courses. So rather than racing for 10 miles on a relatively flat course for 30 minutes or so, it was 10 miles mostly uphill. Because Zwift makes the game as realistic as possible, you go much slower up hill – as you would do in real life – so a race that should have taken 30 minutes would take a lot longer.

I debated changing my schedule to do a different race, but I’d planned my whole week around this particular event. I kept my fingers crossed that the bug would be fixed by the time my race came around. I got ready and hoped for the best. We set off, and it was all looking promising. Until the race took us around a different virtual corner and it soon became clear we were on the climb course. People started dropping out. Messages were popping up from others: “noooooooooooooo”, “wtf zwift?!?!”. At that point I began to worry. Was it really THAT bad? How long would this thing take? Should I drop out now

This is mean to be my bloody graduation race FFS!!

I decided I’d stick with it for a while. If it was clearly going to take me over an hour I’d stop and do it another day. I stuck it out to half way and then decided I might as well continue. Again it was a lonely road and slow progress. But after about 7 miles – and 45 minutes – of climbing, I realised the ascent was levelling out. I’d reached the end of the climb. I now had about 3 miles of descending and then I’d be finished.

It began to dawn on me that I was actually going to bloody well graduate, and I began to get quite emotional. So much hard work. So much time spent having resigned myself to not graduating this year. Such a rollercoaster couple of months. This didn’t just mean graduating for me; it meant I was finally recovering from my operation and I WOULD get back to being myself again.

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Never being quite SO pleased to see the finish line

I could see the finish line. It loomed closer. I pedalled as hard as I could. And finally, I crossed the line. After yet another pro-style victory celebration (I was 22nd out of 30-something), I cried. And laughed. And cried again when my email came through from Zwift confirming that I’d graduated. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was very emotional. And I’d just joined an elite group of 1000 or so other kick-ass women from across the world. One of whom would eventually be crowned a pro. And I was part of it.

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The confirmation we’d all been waiting for

I remember posting on the Facebook group – as so many other graduates had done before me – about how emotional I felt, what the Academy had done for me, how much self-belief it had given me, how much fitter and stronger I was because of it, the wonderful friends I’d made, and how literally nobody else outside of our bubble would get what it meant to us. I know if you’re reading this now, you probably won’t get it either, and that’s fine.

But it was still a truly wonderful moment.

Since beginning this blog, 10 semi-finalists have now been chosen. Needless to say, I wasn’t one of them, but hey, a girl can dream. But I’ve ridden with some of these women in the group rides and workouts. Chatted to them. Got to know them a little. And now they get the chance to compete to become a pro. Watching their progress towards the final gives me goose bumps. They are all superstars in my eyes. And in the eyes of the other graduates.

I just can’t wait to do it all again next year. But perhaps the best bit is that the camaraderie and support hasn’t stopped just because the Academy has stopped. We’ve kept in touch. Still ride together. Still support each other. Still motivate each other to keep being the best that we can be.

Now I can’t wait to find out what our Rapha graduation gift will be. And find out who will be crowned the best of the class of 2018 and go on to live our collective dream.

These girls can. And they bloody well did.

Nobody panic

I blame myself for thinking I was out of the woods. Over the worst. No longer critical. I tempted fate.

Less than 24 hours later I’m wondering why my right heel is totally numb. I take a look at it. It’s totally black. A horrible, my-flesh-is-dying shade of black.

Cue panic.

I sit for a moment wondering what this could be. I recall 24 hours earlier noticing that my heel was sore while I was getting ready to get in the bath. Like I was standing on something sharp, except that I wasn’t. I assumed it was my back – I get sciatica a fair bit – although I noted that this wasn’t usually where I get the pain. I got in the bath and thought no more of it. I certainly didn’t look at my foot.

As I sat on the bed now, staring at my black, numb heel I tried to give logic a chance. Had I done something to it? Banged it? Stood on a stone in the garden? Anything? I’d barely been on my feet all week, let alone been outside; on the rare moments I had, I’d been wearing my new rubber-soled slippers. So I’d ruled out injury.

I knew after an operation one is at risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis. I didn’t know much about it but I’d had enough experiences of surgical procedures to know that’s why they give you those fetching stockings to wear and send you home in to keep on for 24 hours. It’s also why they encourage you to be as active as possible in the days after the surgery. I knew I hadn’t been as active as I’d have liked, owing to feeling so weak and lightheaded for much of it.

No, I hadn’t been totally bedridden. But I had been in bed for the vast majority of the week.

My first reaction was to try and get some normal colour, and feeling, to the foot. I squeezed and rubbed and slapped it. I felt like this was just a blip and I could fix it. Nope, that didn’t work. I remembered my spikey ball is meant to promote blood flow, so I rolled the foot over it. Nope, nothing.

Shitfuck.

I tried not to panic, but it dawned on me that I needed medical advice. It’s Saturday so there’s no Drs surgery. Call the on call gp: no, it’ll be hours before they arrive. Ring 111: they’ll tell you you’re being silly and to stop worrying.

As I picked up the phone the panic set in. I could feel the tears coming. Great. I don’t need to be crying right now with my sinuses in bits. An operator answered. She asked me what seemed like an endless barrage of useless questions. What do you want to know my name for? I just want to know if I’m losing my foot!

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I had a septoplasty on Monday and I’m concerned I’ve got a clot because now my heel is numb and black”

“Sorry what operation did you have?”

“A septoplasty. On my nose”

“And now your lip is numb?”

(Ok, I can see why you’d think I’d said that)

“No, my heel is numb. You know, the thing on your foot at the end of your leg. I’m concerned I have a clot”

“And on a scale of 1 to 10 how bad is the pain?”

“There is no pain, it is numb”

(Listen to what I’m saying lady)

“And which symptom are you most concerned about? The numbness or the blackness?”

(Whatthefuckisthis?! Does it fucking matter??)

“Err, both. I am concerned about both”

“But if you were to prioritise one over the other?”

(Seriously??)

“I don’t know, I am concerned about both. I don’t want my foot to be numb or black! They are equal priority”

“Ok I’ll put you through to a doctor who will give you advice over the phone. Hold the line.”

In short I spoke to a very understanding doctor who, once I’d explained the symptoms again, told me a gp would come and see me within 6 hours. I told her straight: this was freaking me the fuck out and should I just go to A&E. She said that’s where the Dr might just send me anyway so it was up to me. I took the absence of her saying no as a yes.

After a quick grab of my things off we went. Luckily we’re 15 minutes away from the hospital so it didn’t take long, although it felt like an age.

The gravity of the potential situation hit me. Fuckety fuck. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ve had enough of going through life like this. I can’t cope with another setback. I’m done.

How quickly I can go from I’ve got this to life’s just not worth living.

I’d had visions of more operations to remove the clot. Possibly days in hospital. I’d have to tell work I’d be off for a while. Would I still have function in my foot? Would I still be able to run and cycle? What if I lost my foot? What if I lost my leg? What if I threw a clot and it got to my heart? Lungs? Brain?!

I knew, deep down, this was extremely unlikely. But I was scared shitless. As I walked up to the A&E doors I had visions of doctors rushing me off as an emergency. I explained my symptoms to the front desk and was told to wait with the 100 or so other people also waiting in reception. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t being made a priority. Didn’t they know what was at stake here?

Oddly, in the time I’d waited, the blackness had abated a little and the feeling had started to come back. My leg felt as though it had gone to sleep but was in the process of waking up. I took this as a good sign, although I still wanted to understand what was going on.

After 90 agonising minutes I was seen by the triage nurse. She didn’t say much or indicate what it might be but did note my heart rate was up. 120-something. I knew I was panicking so that didn’t concern me too much. She said I would need to be seen by a doctor so I was sent back out to wait some more. The fact that she didn’t dismiss it made me worry all over again. Cue more tears. And I’d just got my nose clear of the last lot. I was hoping the salt bath was doing my sinuses some good.

After another half an hour or so a kind-looking young male doctor called me through. He seemed to want to take what I had to say on board. He thoroughly examined both legs – leaving me embarrased at the week-old leg stubble I was rocking – squeezing to check for colour changes and feeling the pulse in my legs.

He asked me if I’d injured my foot. He seemed to think I’d stood on something. I explained that this was impossible: I hadn’t been anywhere for that to happen. But he reassured me that there was nothing to lead him to think it was a clot from the surgery or that the two things were related at all. He said that if there was a clot at all, it was from the injury, and any swelling or pressure on the nerves would lead to the numbness I was feeling. He seemed to be able to counter any challenge I threw at him (which I don’t do to undermine doctors; I just want to understand their reasoning about what’s happening).

He explained that he wanted to xray the foot to make sure there was nothing embedded, but if that was clear he was happy for me to go. I certainly felt better being reassured that I wasn’t about to lose my foot.

One xray later, he confirmed that there was no object embedded, nor was there a fracture. He advised to watch and wait but otherwise to ice and elevate it and keep as active as possible. And off we went.

We’d missed our slot to collect the shopping – and with it our meal for the evening. I’d decided I hadn’t had nearly enough meat during the week, I was well overdue a burger and after the week we’d had we deserved more than a Burger King. So off we went to Byron Burger for a takeaway, eaten in the glorious setting of the passenger seat of my car on Ipswich Docks.

A good burger makes everything better

Back at home now and reflecting on the day’s events, I feel a lot more calm about the situation. But there is a small part of me that still doesn’t think it adds up.

I still don’t remember injuring it. I know I’ve been pretty out of it this week and drugged up to the hilt, so it’s possible I did something and didn’t notice. But really? Would I not notice impaling my foot?? And after a couple of hours of elevating it the normal colour and feeling had returned practically to normal. It came back a little after walking up the stairs to go to bed. Would a bruise come and go like that?

I know this is my anxiety-ridden brain still trying to be the merchant of doom; it’s still not convinced I won’t lose my foot. But I am also struggling with the logic of it all. To my mind it doesn’t add up.

I do know that all I can do is monitor it. Which doesn’t sit well with the control freak within me. At least I know if it does happen again it should ease off if I elevate it, and I should be able to keep it together long enough to see the gp next week. If I need to.

Facing fears – part 3

I knew it was going to be a long night.

Owing to the fact that I couldn’t breathe at all through my nose, and wasn’t allowed to blow it, I had to cope with breathing through my mouth. It’s manageable when you’re awake, as you naturally keep swallowing to moisten your mouth. When you’re asleep it is another matter. I would doze off, only to wake 20 minutes later dying of thirst and feeling like my drying throat would close up as soon as I tried to swallow. I’d take a sip of water and try to go back to sleep. I think the longest I went was an hour, after which I remember my tongue literally being bone dry to touch. Even when I’ve had a heavy cold I’ve always managed to get enough airflow through my nose to avoid having to mouth-breathe. I hated every second of it and had to keep reminding myself that this will pass. That each minute that passed was a minute closer to getting better.

Day 2: 24 hours post-op

I felt like utter crap. I was weak and groggy. My face hurt. My upper teeth, weirdly, felt a little numb. My nose felt sore and full of wetness. It was still completely blocked, and the bottom of my nostrils felt dry and scabbed up. I finally plucked up the courage to remove the bandage and venture a look at my face in the mirror. It looked like I’d come straight from a boxing match: dried and fresh blood mingled around my nose and completely plugged my nostrils. It was so uncomfortable and I felt the need to somehow clean it up a bit and hopefully make it feel a little better.

Thankfully I’d had the foresight to make sure we’d got some rubbing alcohol to hand, along with plenty of cotton buds. Slowly and very gently I began to clean around the edges of my nostrils. I was a mess, but it felt good to be cleaning it up a little. After a while I had it looking a little better, although I was clear it was still bleeding from my nose and down the back of my throat. I applied plenty of cream and another clean bandage, took more painkillers, and went back to sleep. I decided I would keep sleeping it off as much as possible. I was still plagued by not being able to breathe but there were points in the day when I must have been so exhausted that sleep just took over. And that was the sum total of my day.

Eat. Take pills. Clean up. Sleep. Repeat.

By the evening, whatever was hanging around in my nostrils and sinuses had started to move. It was disgusting, but at least it was coming out. And I realised, much to my relief, that I could finally breathe through my nose. Not much, but it was something, and I took it as progress. Although I was still being beset by worry; my nose was still dripping blood on and off and I kept re-reading the post op advice about what to look for and what to do should certain things occur. I teetered on the edge of ringing the hospital, but there was a part of me that was now worried that if they needed to operate again I’d have to go through it all again.

Because I could breathe more easily, I had a much better sleep that night. I still kept waking because of the strange sensation of the bandage under my nose, and when I did sleep I had the weirdest dreams. But it was worlds apart from the endless torture I had endured the night before.

Day 3: 48 hours post-op

I felt a little stronger. I still felt very faint, but it was coming in waves rather than permanently being there. I was desperate for a shower and to wash my hair. After some deliberation I decided I’d shower sitting down in the bath. It felt so good to get clean again. But it wiped me out. I went straight back to sleep for much of the day.

I began to notice that the dripping from my nose was less bloody and more fluid now, and I took that to be a good sign. Conversely, the pain seemed to be worse and my anxious mind tried convincing me that this was a bad sign. I reminded myself it was most likely the swelling inside my nose; it had nowhere to go so the pressure would build up.

I maintained the cycle of regular cleaning and medicating and started using the antihistamine spray; generally, my nostrils started to look better. Unfortunately, as they were healing they were also becoming uncomfortably dry and tight. Before bedtime I gave my nostrils a good slathering of cream and then applied a thick coat of bepanthen on the outside to keep the skin moist. I looked ridiculous but it worked a treat.

That night I slept the best I have slept in a good long while. I could breathe better. In fact, I could almost breathe better than I could before the operation, and noticed for the first time how open my right nostril felt compared to before.

Day 4: 72 hours post-op

My nose was still rather uncomfortable, but although there was still quite a bit of pain, there was not as much as before. Symptoms had become very similar to a heavy cold, with some mucous but hardly any blood now. Other than the nose and sinus pain, I was dealing with fighting the urge to blow my nose; something very much off limits for a while. I continued the regular cleaning regime.

It was the first day I hadn’t slept during the day. My thoughts were turning to making a ‘to do’ list – such as writing this blog. I still felt weak and didn’t leave the bedroom much, save from sitting in the garden for an hour, but I finally started to feel like I was out of danger. I began to look at the laundry basket, knowing I wasn’t quite ready for it yet but it might not be long. I managed to eat my evening meal downstairs and watch a couple of hours of TV. I finally started to feel like I was out of danger.

I did have a little shock though. I read back through the paperwork I’d been sent home with, including the copy of the discharge note that gets sent to the GP. I’d read over this several times since I’d got home but hadn’t previously noticed that it said “This patient may be at risk of re-attendance”. I’m very glad I hadn’t noticed this before then; it was enough to give me a flush of adrenaline there and then when I realised just how bad I actually was. God knows how I’d have reacted if I’d seen it the night I came home…I think I might have turned around and gone straight back there and then.

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Day 5: 96 hours post-op (present day)

I slept very deeply last night, although I was still experiencing some weird, vivid dreams. But on waking I immediately knew I felt much stronger. My legs feel more like my own. I know I’m not ready to go running any marathons and I still need to take it easy, but I certainly feel stronger. I managed to put a load of washing on, although bearing in mind I’d barely been downstairs all week, by the time I’d hung it outside I was ready to get back to bed. And that’s where I’ve stayed for much of the day, finishing this blog. I’m not pushing myself; just taking small steps towards normalcy each day.

Symptoms are very much the same as yesterday: mucous production, very little blood (although I know I am getting some down the back of my throat), a fair bit of nose and sinus pain and a lovely sinus headache. My left nostril is certainly in a better state than the right, which has blood-stained discharge, especially if I’ve been moving about too much; but the right-hand side had more work done to it so that’s to be expected. Light-headedness does still come in waves, but that also seems to come after moving a little too quickly. All good reasons to sit back and chill out.

I think the main thing now is being on high alert for any signs of infection. Being immune suppressed, I know that this is my next big challenge: to make it through the next few weeks without picking up an infection or any kind of virus or cold. Certainly easier said than done.

And, not that I’m contemplating exercise any time soon, I wonder what all this means for the rest of my fundraising challenge for Crohns and Colitis. Oddly, when I set out on this challenge, I hadn’t got anything earmarked for September. By coincidence, this operation probably means that I might have to write September off; the surgeon advised I would need 4 weeks off exercise, which would take me to at least mid-September. I do have ideas in the pipeline, but clearly my health comes first and I will make sure I am fit enough first before embarking on anything else.

My October event has also been cancelled, which is probably a good thing too as I wouldn’t have been able to train for it. I could defer the challenges until later in the year, or I could write the rest of 2018 off, get my strength and fitness back, and come back again in 2019 fitter faster and stronger than ever.

We will see!

Facing fears – part 2

The next thing I remember was crying in the recovery room. I have found over the years that when initially coming around, aside from serious shivering and feeling freezing cold (it is an effect of the anaesthesia), I tend to either act startled and try to get out of bed, or I get really emotional. This time it was the tears, which, given that I’d just had surgery on my nose and sinuses, was probably the last thing I needed.

I remember my eyes being so heavy – I couldn’t possibly open them – but was aware of people around me. Then I remember the searing pain in my face. And then the inability to breathe through my nose. At all. It was completely and utterly blocked. My throat and mouth were really dry, due to being intubated during surgery. Someone gave me a sip of water. Another came with some liquid morphine. Someone else was holding my hand and comforting me. Blankets were being piled on me to stop the shivering. The staff in the recovery rooms are always total legends and are so good at making you feel like you’re not alone in what is basically a scary-as-hell situation.

Once I could finally open my eyes I locked on to the clock. From what I could make out through blurred vision it was about 12.30pm. I didn’t know how long I’d been in the room for, or how long I’d been coming around, but at least I knew it was about an hour since I was put out. I couldn’t decide if it felt like more or less than that; anaesthesia really does have a weird effect on your sense of time.

I was eventually wheeled back through to my room on the ward. The nurses were coming to check my obs every now and again but for the most part I tried to sleep it off. I don’t remember being quite so groggy from anaesthesia but in a way, I was glad of it; they told me I’d got packs in my nose which would have to stay until 7pm so, knowing I was in for the long haul, I decided I’d rather be unconscious for as much of it as possible. The main flaw in my plan however was not being able to breathe through my nose. I have always hated breathing through my mouth (except when exercising), and it meant I couldn’t just slip off and sleep through it.

It was also the bit about which I had been most anxious of all: the feeling of not being able to breathe. I was doing my best to remain calm while knowing I was always on the verge of a panic attack. I was stuck in between the desperate need to not be awake and aware, and the need to keep sipping water and deal with the dryness in my mouth.

The packs themselves were like (sorry boys) massive tampons shoved up each nostril, with their little mouse-like stringy tails taped to my nose. Under my nose was a bulky gauze taped to each cheek. When I finally dared to look at myself it was quite comical. I expected to see a lot of bruising but I didn’t think I looked too bad, considering what I’d been through and how I felt – which was like having been kicked in the face by 1000 horses. I soon discovered I couldn’t smile – or make any facial expression for that matter – for the camera and I imagined that was what having a face full of botox felt like.

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The closest I could get to smiling

Gradually I became a little more alert and I was brought some toast and marmalade. I didn’t particularly feel like it, but this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo and I knew I needed to eat to build my strength. This is where I found my first challenge. Because of the dressing under my nose, I soon discovered that if I ate the toast the traditional way (ie marmalade on top) I found I would get marmalade all over the dressing. I had to turn it upside down to avoid this. It was also very difficult to open my mouth to put food in, let alone chew, without making my nose feel worse or putting marmalade all over my chin.

And don’t get me started on swallowing. It’s one of those many things we take for granted about our bodies: when we swallow, air moves through our nasal passageways. Of course, when it’s all working fine we don’t tend to notice this. When they are completely blocked, the pressure builds up and needs to go somewhere. I could hear fluid moving around inside my inner ears. And of course, when you are also reliant on your mouth to breathe, chewing and swallowing get in the way. It took a surprising amount of concentration ]to not get them mixed up.

Needless to say, I’d eventually soaked the dressing with marmalade, water and coffee, and had almost choked on my toast a few times.

At one point quite early on the surgeon came to see me. He explained that the operation went well, but asked me if I tend to bleed a lot if I get a cut. I said no, clearly not knowing where he was going with the question. He explained that I had lost a lot of blood during the operation, and sauntered off.

On the list of things not to say to someone with anxiety when they are in post-op recovery and already feeling anxious, is that they’ve lost a lot of blood.

Of course, my brain started to fixate on that. It’s hard not to when you’re just lying there staring at walls for hours on end. I tried to reassure myself that I felt woozy because of the morphine, codeine and anaesthesia; not necessarily blood loss. But as the day wore on I began to worry about having the packs removed. The point of them was to help stop the bleeding from the operation, and within a few hours had all but convinced myself that when they took them out I would bleed out there and then.

Thankfully I did have one thing I could use to distract my worrying mind. The nurses were bringing me rubber gloves filled with ice to place on the back of my neck and on my forehead to ease the blood flow and swelling. Probably due to my morphine-induced delirium, I soon found these to be a source of amusement; especially once the ice had melted and I discovered the watery hands were posable.

But, despite my distractions, the big moment drew nearer. Usually after any procedure I can’t wait to get out of there and I’m climbing the walls as soon as I’m able to sit up. In any other situation I’d have wanted those packs out so I could be on my way home sooner rather than later. On this occasion I was certainly in no hurry. I’d decided if there was going to be a complication then I was in the best place. I tried to remember how much I’d hated being kept in overnight on previous occasions but I’d decided I’d put up with it if only to make sure I didn’t bleed out at home overnight: in my mind, that was the only obvious conclusion.

The nurse came through at 6.30pm and asked if we could get to it. Cue cold sweat and clammy hands. I felt like telling her we had another half an hour before they could come out, but I knew we needed to get it out of the way. She removed the dressing, removed the tape from my nose holding the strings attached to the packs, and started trying to remove the left pack.

I could feel that it was well and truly stuck to the inside of my nose. She said she would try wetting the pack with a syringe. I assumed it would be sans needle: imagine my surprise when I saw her coming towards my nose with the shiny sharp object and inserting it into the spongy material. I remember thinking I bloody hope you’ve got steady hands.

I could feel the cold water going into my nostril, but when she gently tugged the string, it still wouldn’t budge. She said she would just have to pull it. I wondered if that was a good idea; I was quite happy to live the rest of my life with it up there. She asked me to hold a bowl under my chin, and I knew it was going to be messy. She grabbed and pulled. Despite my mental preparation, nothing could have prepared me for what came next.

First was the sensation of this thing coming out of my nostril. I had assumed it wasn’t that big; it just felt big shoved inside my nose. Turns out this thing was huge. It just kept coming and coming and coming. I didn’t catch a good look at it but I swear it was at least three inches long. It came out, quickly followed by what seemed like a tidal wave of red. Shit, we still had another one to do. I steeled myself. The right one came a little easier but felt just as horrible coming out. I remember a split second of having completely free airways and savouring a good dose of air through both nostrils before the surge of red falling from my face took over and blocked it up again.

The nurse mopped up and placed another dressing under my nose. She told me to sit up and rest until it settled down, and avoid swallowing it at all costs. I told her I was feeling very anxious about the blood loss, especially after already having lost a lot. She explained that at worst I would have to stay overnight under observation but to try not to worry about it. She obviously didn’t know me. I know she was trying to reassure me, but my anxious brain took it as affirmation that I might actually bleed out and it made me want to stay in overnight all the more.

She came back every 10 minutes or so to check on me. I could see the bandage at the end of my nose getting redder and redder and after half an hour or so another nurse changed it for a fresh one. By then the blood had started to clot; good for the bleeding, not good for the breathing. Thankfully the second one didn’t fill up so quickly. In fact, only a little spot had formed on the bandage after an hour or so, so they were happy to discharge me with a bag full of pills and potions and instructions. I tried to be positive about it. It was difficult.

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Trying my best to keep positive.

Mark collected me to take me home. I felt very weak. I sat in the living room and drank soup through a straw. It was all I could manage before wanting to go straight to bed. But not before asking every 5 minutes what the state of my bandage was; I’d noticed that the red was spreading again and it was making me worry. A lot. I put on a fresh bandage before going to bed, gave Mark all the telephone numbers he might need to ring and tried to get some rest.

Part 3 to follow tomorrow…

 

Facing fears – part 1

I know, I know. I’m overdue another blog again. I’d always planned to do at least one per month, and my last one was 17th July. Today’s 23rd August, so I am on track really. Except that the last 4 weeks have been another whirlwind of activity and I was playing catch up on my last blogs, so there’s still plenty of catching up to do!

If it seems like I’m rambling (more than usual) then I apologise in advance. There will be plenty more where that came from. I’m currently experiencing the effects of codeine, which isn’t the most conducive to clear, structured thinking. There’s a reason for that, which I’ll come onto shortly.

The last blog was about the WoW cycle event on 8th July. So, I’ve still to catch you up on the cycling holiday to the Isle of Wight (where I got to learn about proper hills) and the Crafted Classique sportive on 12th August. I will get to those, although that’ll be in a later blog; I anticipate plenty of spare time coming up to write those. I currently have a different experience to share, and the reason I’m lying on my bed during the daytime on a week day, affected by codeine, and not at work.

Although now having written most of it, it’ll have to come in instalments over the next few days. I didn’t quite realise how much there was to share…

A little over 72 hours ago (at the time of writing), I was coming around from a general anaesthetic following an operation. It was a septoplasty and outfracture of inferior turbinates. What the hell is that I hear you ask…

Well, one has a septoplasty to straighten a deviated septum, the cartilage that runs in-between your nostrils. Not to be confused with a rhinoplasty, which is to change the external appearance of the nose. My septum was deviated to the right, partially blocking the airflow through the right nostril. It happens either due to injury or is something you’re born with. I’m assuming the latter, as I don’t recall an injury and my maternal grandmother had the same operation for exactly the same problem 20 years ago.

The inferior turbinates are basically fleshy curtains inside your sinuses that heat air passing over them on the way in, and transfers heat back into the air as you breathe out. They are basically clever little heat exchangers. The ‘outfracture’ of these is as wince-inducing as it sounds: they break the little bone inside the flesh and move it into a different, less obstructive position to improve airflow.

Yes. Ouch.

For most people, this all works ok or, if there is a deviated septum, it causes no issues. It has been that way for me for most of my life too. I always knew the space in my left nostril was larger than it was on the right, but it caused me no issues so I just put it down to one of my body’s little quirks. I even recall back in 2010, after a head and spine MRI to investigate sciatica (I purchased the images as I had just started my psychology degree and was a big enough geek to want MRI images of my own brain), looking at the images and noticing this weird bend in my nose and wondering if it was normal.

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Normal on the outside, bendy on the inside: a view of my skull looking from the bottom upwards.

However, if one ever develops allergies or for some reason has inflamed sinuses, everything becomes swollen and blocks up what little space is left. For me, the inflammation in my sinuses started probably 3-4 years ago, for no apparent reason (although it is now suspected to possibly be linked to Crohns), leading to my turbinates becoming enlarged and, along with the deviated septum, almost permanently blocking my right nostril. The inflammation leads to more mucous production, but because the space is blocked, it can’t drain normally. This build up then leads to infection, which my body can’t fight because of the immune suppression medication I take to control the Crohn’s Disease. It’s a vicious circle involving infections, antibiotics, then more infections, and so on. The infections were also starting to affect my inner ear which affected my balance at times too. It was all becoming ridiculous.

After over two years of trying to manage it conservatively with sprays, creams, nasal rinsing, steaming, antihistamines, antibiotics and god knows what else, I’d had enough. I was getting an infection every 6 weeks. Sinus headaches are a bitch and I had one almost permanently. It was affecting my exercise too, having to blow my nose seemingly every 5 minutes as soon as I got my heart-rate up, and not being able to suck in enough air to cope with the demand. It was gradually taking its toll on my general health and my sanity; it is hard enough to keep going with a chronic illness such as Crohn’s, spinal issues, mental health issues and the like, without having this to deal with too. So, I was referred to ENT who eventually agreed it would be best to operate to fix the deviated septum and reduce the size of the turbinates.

They were clear that it wouldn’t stop the inflammation or the mucous production, but it might reduce the risk of further recurrent infections.

So that’s what I had on Monday.

I admit I was feeling rather nervous about the whole thing. I’ve had plenty of experiences with operations before, and for the most part all have been complication-free; although my last experience was marred by post-op infection and a 1-week recovery turning into 3 months. I just did not know what to expect. I knew I just had to go along with whatever came my way, but the anxiety-ridden control-freak within me was on the verge of meltdown.

I arrived at the hospital at 7.30am, being told beforehand that my operation would be between 8.30am and 12 midday. On arrival I was informed that I was last on the list, so I had all morning to sit and fester over the whole thing. Not the best for someone who errs on the side of anxious a lot of the time. I’d taken my headphones so I could do a few guided meditations on my phone app (Buddhify – highly recommended) to keep the nerves in check. And a good book. It helped, if only a little.

At about 10.45am a nurse came through and told me the man before me on the list was now going down so I could get myself ready. I donned the fetching theatre gown and compression stockings and awaited my fate.

Finally, at just before 11.30am, the theatre nurse appeared. For all my waiting, suddenly I didn’t feel ready. I wanted the loo. I wanted to text my other half. My hands were clammy. I got on the bed and thoughts of all the things I wanted to say to my loved ones in case I didn’t make it raced through my mind. Overdramatic much? Yes, probably.

I was wheeled through to what I like to think of as the pre-theatre room. I’ve found over the years there always tends to be one. It’s where they insert the cannula. Ask you the same questions over and over. Maybe give you something to make you feel a little drunk (I was looking forward to this bit the most – alas they didn’t indulge me the pleasure this time). The anaesthetist took my anxious looks as being scared of needles and I remember laughing. Of all the years having blood tests and numerous procedures, even if I had been scared of needles, there was no way I could be now. No, I told him I was anxious about the whole thing.

I tried to remind myself that I love the experience of anaesthesia. I know it sounds weird, but my absolute dream job would be as a neuroscientist researching consciousness and investigating the effects of different levels and types of anaesthesia. Despite trying, I can’t get my foot in the door, so being a patient on the receiving end is the next best thing. Consequently, I’ve always been thankful for all my medical procedures as they allow me to do my own little bit of citizen science. So, I tried to forget why I was in the room as they wheeled me into the theatre and focused on the experience of being put to sleep. I noted the time: 11.37am. I always try and figure out how long I am under for, given that when you are out it can feel like seconds or days but never the length of time it actually has been.

They wheeled me next to the operating table, put something under me and shimmied me onto it. Suddenly there was a hive of activity. Arms from all angles. Putting things on my chest and my fingers and a blood pressure cuff on my arm to monitor my heart. I remember hearing the beeping of my heart beat through the machine and thinking it sounded fast for me; my resting heart rate is now at about 55bpm but this sounded like it was more like 80 odd. I’d got a lot of adrenaline. The anaesthetist put something into the cannula. He said it was penicillin, and I remember it felt very cold as it went up my arm.

Still no damned happy drugs to help calm my nerves.

Then a nurse appeared and placed a mask over my face. The anaesthetist explained it was oxygen and told me to try and breathe normally. I felt his hands on my cannula as he explained that he was now going to administer the anaesthetic and it might sting a little. I knew it probably would, it has done in the past. And in it went. At that point things got weird. I expected to be out quick sharp; usually I feel myself go quickly. Like being submerged into darkness. This was different. I felt my eyes get heavy, but they were still open. I was focused on the mask in front of my face. I could feel my body going numb, as if it were becoming detached from my consciousness. Then my eyes closed against my will, but I was still conscious – albeit not totally with it – but thinking that this was pretty cool. I could see light behind my eyelids, as though a bright light was being shone at my face. Thinking about what they were about to do, there probably was. That moment seemed to last forever, being in this half-conscious state; not being under, but not being conscious either. And then I was under.

Part 2 to follow tomorrow…

Resetting the bar – part 2

My second medal in two weeks, and medal and challenge #5, was the Women on Wheels ride in Bury St Edmunds. It was ‘only’ a 50-mile cycle event, which was really quite sedate compared with the rides I’d been doing of late; however, this was a ride I was doing on my own. It would be the furthest I’d ever ridden on my own, even in training.

The WoW events are female-only mass-participation cycling events which are aimed at all ages and abilities of female cyclists and take part all over Suffolk throughout the summer. I did my first WoW event in Debenham last year – a 34-mile ride – but Bury St Edmunds, which was their flagship event, was celebrating its 5th year with a party in the park afterwards, so I fancied giving that one a try.

The event took place exactly one week after the Tour Ride event. In hindsight, I think I probably did have a touch of heatstroke towards the end of the Tour Ride. I remember definitely struggling to cope with the sun and heat a little throughout the following couple of days. I am a sun worshipper so it was certainly out of character for me. I began to grow concerned that the forecast for the WoW event was meant to be even a couple of degrees warmer than it was on the Tour Ride. And would be further inland, well away from any coastal breeze. The wind would be lighter but I honestly didn’t know whether or not that was a good thing.

All I knew was that I didn’t want to have another dizzy spell or panic attack and/or be stranded somewhere in need of rescuing with no shade or no water or…the doubts went on and on.

I actually considered the 70-mile route but given the conditions I settled for 50. It was again an early start. I don’t ever think I will enjoy them or get used to them, but, as it was going to be another hot one I didn’t mind. I just wanted to get going so I could finish.

On arrival I registered and got my bike and myself ready. I wasn’t having a great morning Crohns-wise so there were one or two visits to the porta-loo which I think was nerves more than anything. I saw a couple of my ambassador colleagues who were also doing the 50 with a couple of others so I thought I might tag along with them for a while and see how it went. However, after yet another porta-loo visit, I thought I’d missed them at the start; it later transpired they had been a few groups behind me, so I didn’t get to ride with them in the end.

Off we set to yet more cowbells and cheering in a group of 20 or so, and I decided to just go along with the flow. I found myself going at a similar pace of another girl, who I later discovered was called Claire, so we naturally seemed to stick together. We eventually got chatting about cycling, running, swimming, triathlons, the endurance runs Claire had coming up, and anything and everything in between. It was a nice fast-ish pace which was a good balance between limited exertion in the soaring temperatures and getting around and finished before it got too hot.

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Trying to look like I’ve got this…but I’m busy fighting back the anxiety

We reached the first stop at about 25 miles in, and although I didn’t admit it to Claire, I was feeling nervous. I think it was the heat, lack of shade, being in the middle of unfamiliar countryside, and anything else I could think of. We only stopped for long enough to use the facilities, have a bite to eat and top up the water, and decided to get going again. I started to douse myself in water in a bid to cool my core temperature down, and just feel like I was doing something to control the heat and the impending panic attack that, in my mind at least, would inevitably follow.

Eat. Drink. Douse. Rinse and repeat.

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Finally settled in and enjoying myself under a bit of much-appreciated cloud cover

Thankfully after about 35 miles there was a little cloud cover. Not much but it helped. We approached Rattlesden and the second stop with about ten miles to go. We didn’t really need to stop as we were on a roll but decided it wouldn’t hurt to get more water. I’d doused myself about 5 minutes prior to arriving at the stop, not realising we would be stopping shortly, and on sitting down in the little village hall with the kind ladies putting on the spread for us, I began to drip. Everywhere. Profusely. The poor unsuspecting ladies must have thought I was sweating inordinate amounts, and part of me felt the need to explain that it was (mostly) water. I decided that whatever it was, it was probably quite rude to continue dripping all over their carpets and chairs so I waited outside where I could drip on the ground until we got going again.

Considering how quickly the first forty miles went, the final ten or so went very slowly. I think because I didn’t know the roads I didn’t realise how far away I still was from the finish. Around every corner I expected to see the entrance to the park. Eventually it did come and we sailed into the finish amid more cheers and bells ringing. We’d made it. Somehow. And I’d now reset the bar on my solo riding distance.

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I think the faces say it all…relieved to be over the finish line

I was elated to find we had earned ourselves a medal. I didn’t realise prior to the event that there would be a medal – there hadn’t been one at Debenham the year before – and it was a nice one too; they’d clearly made an effort with it. Medal #5 was placed around my neck and I gave myself a pat on the back, before tucking into a hard-earned burger from the barbeque stall under the much-needed shade of a tree.

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Getting an unexpected medal

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And…relax

It was great to be part of a female-friendly atmosphere. There were lots of women who took part who wouldn’t have done so otherwise, because they didn’t need to feel self-conscious in front of male cyclists; many women who didn’t usually ride their bikes but who had made new cycling friends and who had enjoyed themselves so much that they would now get out on their bikes more often. It’s why I love the events so much. There are more still to take place in Sudbury and Debenham in September – check out their website for more info.

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Congratulating myself on a job well done

Less than a week later my bike and I were heading off to the Isle of Wight, with my other half of course, to discover what a real hill actually is…but I will save that for the next blog. The next challenge in aid of Crohns and Colitis UK will be the Crafted Classique sportive, although I still can’t decide whether it will be the 100km or the 100 mile….

Resetting the bar

Before I begin, I must apologise that this latest blog is yet again quite overdue; it has been quite a busy time recently! So much has happened that it’s going to have to be another two-part blog!!

Without further ado, let’s get down to business…

Two medals in two weeks. Not bad going. I’m now at a tally of 5 medals and 5 challenges and officially over half way through my 6 months of challenges in aid of Crohns and Colitis UK. When I embarked upon this endeavour it felt like quite an undertaking – 6 months of doing things I’d never done before – and it still does, but I can’t quite believe how quickly it’s going.

After finishing the ‘triathlon phase’ of my challenges at the beginning of June, all my training was focused on the ‘cycling phase’, the first of which was an 80-mile sportive. Training was all about getting in increasing amounts of Time In The Saddle (the acronym was recently pointed out to me by one of my fellow This Girl Can Suffolk Ambassadors!). Before then, I wasn’t doing much more than 30-mile rides for fear of injuring myself before the triathlons, but once they were done it ramped up…40, 50, 60 miles… It would have been 70 miles had I not miscalculated the number of weeks I had left before the first event!!

As well as improving my endurance in the saddle, much of my training has been about practising eating and drinking while on the bike. And by that I don’t mean the physical act of eating and drinking while riding, although they do take some practice; but learning what types of food and drink I can get away with consuming that a) give me enough energy and b) don’t poke the Crohns bear.

That, and figuring out how frequently I need to eat and drink to keep me going, but without needing the toilet every half an hour. It turns out that it’s a really fine art.

In the main, the training rides went really well and helped to boost my confidence. I tried to make sure I was having a mouthful of food and drink every 15 minutes or so and found that I was able to cycle continuously for longer distances. Of course, being on the bike for longer periods of time had its own repercussions; it was aggravating my spinal injury and causing some sciatica and numbness (as would being in any fixed position for that length of time). Thankfully this subsided once I was off the bike.

I also found that not looking at my cycle computer to see how far I’d ridden helped a lot with the psychological battle. If I just kept eating, drinking and pedalling, I was ok.

But food was the least of my problems. Over the last few months I’ve been experiencing health-related fatigue more frequently and more intensely. My last training ride before the 80 mile event was on a really bad fatigue day. Under other circumstances I’d have given in and stayed in bed (ok, I’d have probably still gone for a ride, but just a short one), but I had an event to train for! It was a long and difficult day – the legs feel as though I’d already ridden 80 miles before I’d even got going – and it concerned me how I would cope if I felt like that on the day of the events.

The first event was the Tour Ride Sportive which started and finished in Southwold and followed some of the route took on stage 1 of the Women’s Tour. My longest ever ride had so far been 63 miles (100km) which I did last year in the Crafted Classique, so this was going to reset the bar by 17 miles. Three days before the event the organisers announced that the 80-mile route had been extended to 84 miles because of a road closure on the original route. I now had to find another 20 miles on top of the longest ever ride, and 24 miles on top of the longest training ride!

And along came the day in question. The forecast was for full sun and temperatures in the high 20s. I was quite concerned about how I would cope with the heat, especially given that we are used to worrying about whether to pack waterproofs, not sun cream and extra water. The route followed the coast southwards so we’d have the coastal breeze for the first 25 miles or so, but after that we’d be heading inland, into the heat and away from the cooler coast, as midday and the afternoon approached.

On arrival at Southwold there was a great atmosphere and air of anticipation and I noticed that there were many women of all ages, sizes and abilities taking part – it was great to see. They queued us up at the start to set off in waves and we crawled closer to the start line amid a buzz of excitement. At that point I was just hoping I wouldn’t fall off my bike when we set off in front of the crowds of spectators and fellow cyclists.

Tour-Ride_Start_JC119471-1024x684And off we went. We found ourselves in a relatively pacey group sitting at around 17mph average, so we stuck with them. Usually on rides it’s just me and Mark, my other half, so it made a nice change to be riding with others, chatting about bikes and taking our turns at the front of the group. It certainly does make a lot of difference riding in a group – the aerodynamic effect of being behind others means you certainly get more bang for your buck. I stuck to my plan of eating and drinking regularly and not looking at the miles, and before we knew it we were at the first stop in Snape, 25 miles or so in, and feeling good.southwold.png

We set off for the second leg of the ride, although by then we’d lost our group so it was just us. By the time we got to the halfway mark we were temptingly close to our house. It was a good job we’d left the house keys in the car at Southwold! We headed north towards Framlingham and to the second stop, 50 miles in. Again, it seemed to come along quickly, and I was pleased about how good I felt considering how far we’d ridden. I was feeling confident about the rest of the ride.

At the stop we’d spotted a group of ladies who looked quite strong so we planned to leave with them and tag onto their group. This helped a lot, as we were soon to turn into a soul-sucking 18 mph headwind and we were grateful for the wind-breaking effect of the group. We were now well away from the coast, in the heat of the midday sun, and despite the headwind it was getting seriously hot. We passed one group by the roadside who were waiting for paramedics for one of their party who were in the recovery position by the roadside. We didn’t know what was wrong with them but my anxiety-prone mind decided it must be heatstroke. I tried to shove the thought that it might happen to me back down and keep going.

I felt ok until we got to the last stop, at mile 75. But as soon as I’d stopped I felt a little unsteady on my feet. One of the ladies manning the stop came over and offered to take my bike for me – I think she noticed I was a little wobbly – and I heard her say to a colleague that I really ought to sit in the shade for a while. That was enough to provoke some more anxiety. I suddenly realised I really didn’t feel great. I was hot, dizzy, and suddenly felt very sick. Then I could feel my bowels twisting and cramping and realised I needed to get to a toilet pretty quickly. They were in the nearby pub a short walk away across the car park. Thankfully I made it there without falling over. Thankfully I wasn’t sick either, although it could have gone either way. I spent the next period of time (I’m not sure if we were there for 10 minutes or an hour) back and forth between the toilets and the shade where I was pouring water over myself in a bid to cool down.

I started to cry. I felt a long way from home and could feel a panic attack coming on. I didn’t think I’d be able to finish, even though we were just under 10 miles from the end, and that frustrated me. I just didn’t know how I would do it; I was convinced I’d faint on the bike and get run over by the traffic. Or be stranded on route. I couldn’t quite believe how I’d gone from feeling strong to completely useless in a matter of minutes.

I admitted to Mark that I didn’t know if I could do it. He told me there was no way he was letting me give up so close to the end and I knew I couldn’t let myself down either. I eventually started to cool down and get a handle on myself. We decided to set off but just take it very easy. I spent the next 5 miles alternating between a stubborn desire to finish and a sobbing, blubbering wreck.

But at last we reached the long road back to Southwold. It’s 3-4 miles long and very undulating, but once we’d reached that I started to feel stronger. The nausea had abated and my legs came back to me. Perhaps it was the cooler coastal breeze, or just knowing I was nearly there, but we started to pick up the pace and attack the remaining hills. We made it back to Southwold and followed the final few roads back to the cheering crowds, cowbells ringing, and awaiting photographers and medal givers.

Tour Ride.pngWe had done it. We had also now reset the bar on our longest ever ride to 83.83 miles. And I had completed challenge #4 in my 6 months of challenges.

Watch this space for part 2 and an update on medal #5 very soon!