If you have read my previous blogs (I’m assuming you are all avid fans, and why wouldn’t you be?) you will know that paddle boarding has proved to be one of the things I enjoyed most when I did my own year of surprise experiences. I had been desperate to introduce my nnoodl adventurers to this fantastic pastime for a while, but of course it is quite weather dependent. As summer seemed to be finally showing itself a bit more consistently, I decided that June was the time for it. Now I know that this could be a tricky call as water isn’t everyone’s friend, but I reviewed the ‘what scares me’ section of everyone’s forms and was happy to see that amongst the fears of things like spiders and being in an underground in a confined space, this experience wasn’t going to freak anyone out. Next came the instruction that I had to give people in terms of meeting place and what to expect. I chose the beginners’ session at Kew Bridge and so instructed people to meet at Gunnersbury station. Yes, this was a 15 min walk to the location rather than 5mins from Kew Bridge, but I like to throw people off the scent a bit!
So what should they bring? Well the good thing about paddle boarding is that no specific equipment is required to do this in warm weather. You can wear shorts, leggings, or any sort of outdoors sports kit, and either some old trainers, or the company lend out neoprene shoes. So people would hopefully not have any idea of what they were about to do….
Of course the element of surprise is always a bit of a risky moment and the ‘reveal’ on the day is the part that makes me almost as nervous as the participants. Although I could have chosen the slightly easier version of paddle boarding along the Grand Union canal from Paddington, I don’t think anything beats the Thames, and especially this trip from Kew to lovely Richmond. As we gathered at Gunnersbury you could tell that people wondered what they might need their summer/sports kit for in this slightly industrial looking area.
As soon as we approached the bridge and headed towards the arches, murmers started amongst the group as they saw a sign for kayaking. One or two people had done this, but still seemed keen, but when our instructors came out with a paddle board, I could hear some gasps of excitement. Phew, so no-one wanted to cash in their ‘pass card’. There were, inevitably some people who felt a bit apprehensive, but our instructors quickly put everyone at ease, explaining that you didn’t necessarily even need to be able to swim to do this sport – just let them know if you can’t so they know to keep an extra eye out!
Our instructors gave us a brief overview of paddle technique whilst on dry land and before we knew it we were launching ourselves into the water. The group gathered near the shore, still on their knees, trying to get to grips with the paddling, and watching apprehensively as speed boats and pleasure cruisers went by, causing some small waves.
Although I am now quite a competent paddler, I decided to stay on my knees too until everyone got their confidence up. Once we were through the arch of the bridge, we took a little inlet down the side of the main part of the Thames, where the water was quite calm, and within 10 minutes, everyone was having a go at standing up. There were a couple of people in the group who, like me, are confident swimmers, and so they couldn’t understand why they were afraid of falling in the water. I told them how I had felt exactly the same and that I got over it by falling in, slightly deliberately on a nice hot day.
With that, I heard a splash behind me, as someone fell in the water. You have to try to resist the urge to turn around quickly as a beginner or else you will unbalance yourself and also be in the Thames. But as we checked our fellow paddler was ok, she surfaced giggling. This little incident seemed to put everyone at ease, as she assured us it was ‘lovely in here’. Our instructors reminded her to wash her hands before she ate anything, and to maybe have a Coke when she got out of the water. Yes, Coke kills all the possible bugs in your stomach. Well you have seen what it does to a penny if you drop it into a glass of the stuff...just saying..
We were out on the main part of the Thames now, and on such a sunny day, people were out in force enjoying the water. Suddenly, whoosh, a motor boat went past and the wake started to throw the group as small shrieks went up. But I was so impressed, as no one dropped to their knees. This happened a few more times (I couldn't help but think that the RNLI boat went past deliberately causing a wake to try and spice up their day!).
Everyone seemed to be really embracing the sightseeing side of this activity too. As we paddled past Syon Park, it really was idyllic. It’s a very sociable experience too as you paddle along with different people having a chat and comparing experiences. We were quickly approaching Richmond, and had to navigate our way to pull into a small inlet by the White Cross pub for a refreshment stop. I could feel the apprehension as people were out drinking by the river, obviously intrigued by these visitors, and watching us, and I’m always sure, waiting to see someone fall in. We had some snacks and drinks for the group as we enjoyed a 30min stop whilst we waited for the tide to turn. We heard about some new paddles that the company were offering, including some environmental events to clear plastic from the river, which I liked the sound of. By the return paddle the group were even more confident and really loving it. There was a short section where the wind picked up and it became a bit of a struggle to paddle against it. I could see a few people getting a bit competitive at this point, and then I think were quite relieved when they were advised to slow down to keep the group to together for safety. The group safely navigated their way back under Kew Bridge and managed to avoid cranky geese to get safely back to shore. Everyone seemed to be on a total high, comparing how shaky their legs felt, but how exhilarating this experience had been. Even the most apprehensive were already asking about other sessions they could join. Hooray, another nnoodl success!
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This sounds like an inspiring week doesn’t it? So why was I dreading it?
Much as I love my job, and the sporting challenges I set myself, I sometimes think I wish my life away to get through the tough bits.
At the end of 2017, feeling at a bit of a loss after my Andes adventure, I had set myself the target of completing a half-ironman triathlon. What hadn’t yet been set in my calendar at that point, however, was the delivery of a major event (The Women’s Sport Trust ‘Be A Game Changer’ Awards) or taking part in a team time trial with my cycling club. In fact, about this time last year, having watched a time trial I remember categorically saying that “I will NEVER do one of those!”
The half-ironman challenge actually harks back to something that I put on my list of things to do in my 40th year, but had been scuppered by a broken arm (due to another 40th activity - learning to ice skate). And so this challenge had rolled into my 50th year. (Where did those 10 years go? Frightening). In fact, my first choice triathlon had actually been Marbella, which had sold out, as had the Cotswolds event. It seemed serendipitous that the event with places available was actually the one I was originally signed up to do in 2008. The curiously named ‘Swashbuckler’ takes place around Bucklers Hard in the New Forest and although not part of the ‘ironman’ brand (read: not ridiculously overpriced), had a reputation as a friendly triathlon. If I am going to half kill myself, I want to be around nice people doing it, thank you.
I threw myself right into training, wondering how long I could hang onto the ‘Andes effect’. I signed up with cycling/running coach Gareth Pymm who set me training sessions via an app called Training Peaks.
I (grudgingly at first) realised that I would need to invest in a turbo trainer to consistently train through the winter months. Here was another thing on my “I will never do that” list that I had caved into! I was also going to have to get back into my running big time given that I had laid off it quite substantially towards the end of 2017 due to a niggling hip injury. I love swimming, and am a member of a masters club, but how was that going to fit into my calendar with the other 14+ hours of training a week?
With factors like ‘The Beast from the East’ thrown into the mix, I ended up embracing (not literally) my turbo, and one day doing a 3 hour session on it, telling myself it was ‘character building’, not demoralising and boring as hell. Other low points included the Gravesend duathlon - surely one of the wettest, most miserable things I have ever done, and trying to squeeze in a 60km bike ride, followed by a 10km run before a friends’ leaving party (and promptly almost keeling over after 2 beers). But the high points were that I was feeling stronger, that I had managed to keep my running fairly consistent, and that I had a fantastic new wetsuit courtesy of my lovely LIV team cycling friends. Gareth kept me on track, as I experienced ‘Training Peaks Anxiety’ (fear of the training sessions not being completed and turning red!).
I would add comments into my training sessions along the lines of “Couldn’t wear my HR monitor today, it’s chaffed my chest”. At this point, I hadn’t even met this man yet…
But if there was one saving grace about now being in full flow organising the Women’s Sport Trust Awards, it was that it distracted me from thinking too much about the triathlon. In fact I hadn’t even booked my accommodation until 2 weeks’ before, and this was going to be essential for the 5am start!
My journey to the New Forest for my pre race briefing happened to be on the day of the Royal Wedding, which was an unexpected coincidence as the roads were clearer than usual. Bags packed with all manner of paraphernalia, including energy gels, talc, race number belt, wetsuit, spare goggles, hats, water bottles, inner tubes and goodness knows what else, I arrived at my B n B. One other key thing in my kit bag was my trusty pre-race breakfast of oatcakes, jam and peanut butter, as apparently they didn’t cater for a 3am breakfast. One of my LIV teammates, Gemma was also doing this race, along with her boyfriend Steve and so we compared notes nervously over our early dinner of fish and chips (carbs and protein, can’t be bad, right?) Then it was off to bed at 9pm.
The alarm went off at a time that I have usually only seen at that time on a Sunday when I have been coming home from a flamenco club. One thing I hadn’t packed that might have been useful I realised was a head torch as I tried to reassemble my bike in the pitch-black race car park. Surely I should be questioning my sanity right about now? As a sea of neoprene clad people nervously gathered at the waters edge we were advised that usually they would consider setting people off in waves, but due to the tide timings in this inlet, we would need to move swiftly and all 270 of us were set off at once. Now I love swimming, and have done my fair share of it in the freezing lochs of Scotland, but this was something else! Arms and legs flailing, I was kicked, hit and ducked for pretty much the whole way round the 1.9km. I quickly realised you can’t swear and swim at the same time and so dug in and got on with it. Cue a song at this point, and I drew on a song from my ‘Swashbuckler’ playlist which was ‘Girl from Mars’ by Ash which had the right type of crazy guitar beat to be the soundtrack to this leg. On the plus side, there was a PB time of 33mins – must have been the fear of death! A sprint (kind of) up the hill whilst trying to peel off my wetsuit and then it was onto the bike. As it was only just starting to get light, there was a moment of quandary…do I just wear my trisuit for the next 90km? No, best take that extra minute to pop on my cycling top too.
All suitably ‘Liv branded’ I was feeling quite good on the bike, and played a game of cat and mouse with a few riders until I surged away and set my own pace. The first 40k or so was quite an eerie experience as we cycled across the moors avoiding errant ponies and cows in the mist. It was after all still only 8am on a Sunday morning. I fuelled myself on my trusty jelly baby/malt loaf combo as I thought, “this would be a lovely weekend if I wasn’t having to kill myself out here for 7 hours”. Song time? Billy Idol’s ‘Dancing by Myself’, some Jesus Jones and bit of Embrace amongst others kept me going here.
There was a bit of a demoralising moment as I came towards the end of the 85km bike to see a number of people already out on the run. Oh no Denise, just don’t embarrass yourself and come last, was my aim at this point. Much as I had been moving on the bike for 3 hours, I realised as I changed into my trainers that I really didn’t have full feeling in my feet. Perhaps for the best as I set off on the 14mile (well that’s NOT a half marathon!) run.This was the biggest worry for me, after not getting a puncture on the bike. My running had been so sporadic that anything might happen. It was also now trying to get quite hot as the sun finally came out, and it was hilly (why do I continue to say I like the ‘element of surprise’ on events??). However, much to my amazement, I was actually overtaking people on the run, what was happening here? The only downside was that this was a double loop course, so at the end of the first lap, with a steep uphill run past the finish, I knew exactly what was ahead of me the next time. I was now starting to wonder what time I might do though as it looked like I might already surpassed my first goal of ‘don’t die’. My next goal was to try and complete the event under 7 hours. I didn’t have my watch on for the whole race, and so was trying to gauge my combined elements so far. I breathlessly shouted at a marshal “What time is it?” and when he replied 10.40am I started frantically calculating what sort of time I might do. What, I must only be a mile or two from the end…we started at 5.15am….what could this mean? I must be confused! As I attempted a strong sprint up that last hill to the finish (who was I kidding) I realised that I had finished in 5hrs 44mins!! And I actually didn’t feel like I was going to die or be sick, result!
I met up with Gemma and Steve who had both done amazing times and we did a sweep of the food and refreshments tent collecting all sorts of food that we didn’t feel like eating (who wants a chocolate bar when you have spent most of the morning eating sweet crap?). We gathered at the prize giving to soak up the sun and hear of the crazy times that some people had done. Fastest man? 4hrs 10mins!! But here is the real shocker, 2nd Female Supervet (don’t you just love that category name?) Denise Yeats! Wow, I was amazed and had to do a weird little roll in the grass to be able to stand up and go over to collect my funny pirate trophy. I was now reminded of two songs that I had in my head during the end of the run ‘Song 3’ by Blur (woo hoo!) and M People ‘Proud’.
We shall gloss over the 3 hour drive back from the New Forest that day as I move onto the next part of my inspiring week….
The #BeAGameChanger Awards are an initiative run by the Women’s Sport Trust, who I am proud to be a Trustee of. These awards showcase the irresistible nature of women’s sport; they highlight success stories, connect decision makers with one another and put a spotlight on inspiring role models.
I had been working with them over the past 4 months to project manage this event and just 4 days after my half ironman, it was the big day. The event had been held at the Troxy in east London for the past couple of years, and hosted some of the great and good in women’s sport, including Clare Balding, Tanni Grey Thompson, and Helen and Kate Richardson Walsh. This event really does belie the size of this tiny charity. Over 400 people gathered to celebrate some amazing award winners including footballer turned boxer Stacey Copeland, and double Olympian and Commonwealth gold and silver medallist Lorna Boothe. This also formed the launch of Sky Sports' #ShowUp campaign, encouraging people to show up to watch some of the amazing women's sport that is taking place this year. There were several really standout moments at the event for me though. One was when the Local Inspiring Initiative was presented to Crawley Old Girls (COGs), which aims to enable older women to learn to play football. The work they do in the community is so inclusive and life changing, but yet they were so modest about their achievements. I felt really quite emotional to see Sarah Williams’ reaction to winning the Media Initiative of the Year for her ‘Tough Girl Podcast’ series. She really is a woman after my own heart with her personal tales of challenge and endurance. I would highly recommend giving her podcasts a listen. The standout moment then surely had to be when the award for Outstanding Contribution to Women’s Sport was presented to former England captain and founding member of the Rugby Football Union for Women Carol Isherwood. There was a really moving build up to this award as various female rugby players were spotlit as they told of their personal connection to this wonderful woman. She was truly taken aback, goodness knows how we kept this one such a secret!
So yes, we are still in the same 7 days....
Buoyed, and knackered in equal measure from this week, I realised that I had previously signed up to take part in a team time trial with my Team Liv Giant Camden club mates. Although I had vowed just a year ago that I would never take part in such madness, well, what could I say to a new challenge? With just one day to recover from the Awards event (and six days on from my half ironman), there I was on the outskirts of Cambridge with seven of my teammates nervously registering as we observed some of the most expensive bike/aero helmet combinations I have ever seen. Oh dear I thought, I don’t even have tri bars - so much for aerodynamics! The amazing Amy who is our Liv Ambassador and all round cycling and triathlon inspiration was going to lead our team of four. “Am I in the wrong team...can I change?” I nervously whispered to her when we arrived. She confirmed that no, I was in the right team and couldn’t change.
I was to stick as close to her wheel as possible, with Kim and Eva behind me to push me on. I had been casually joking earlier in the week that this would be just like our Regents Park lap training…..but was about to realise that it would be NOTHING like it!
Our very precise start time for this 25miler was 2.06pm, with our other team of four starting about 20 minutes after us. There was a few miles to cycle to the start, and event before we got there I found myself shouting “gap!” at Amy to alert her that I was slipping off her wheel. This was not looking very encouraging! My next anxious moment came at the race start as I realised that the officials/marshals would hold our bikes whilst we were fully clipped in and then push us off at the start. The last time I felt in this vulnerable position was when I was four years old and my dad was teaching me to ride my first bike, and that ended up with my face in the gutter full of gravel. Suddenly though, we were off and I was determined to stick onto that wheel in front. Oh but almost immediately there was a bit of a hill, followed by some sharp bends, and once again I was shouting “Amy, gap!!”. Bless her, she expertly judged the pace, at around 35km/hr! Well you know how I love to have a song in my head, and this was definitely time for Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ as I had in my head the lyrics “I’m holding on for dear life…”.
The only upside to the headwind as we went one way was the tailwind as we turned the corner. I snatched a gel and downed it (I never take gels unless desperate, so you get the picture). It was a hot day, but not really an opportunity to grab your bottle and take on any water. One lap round and I had to tell myself I could do this, ‘only’ another 12.5miles to go! As we came round the bend to the final climb to the finish I was desperately clinging onto Amy’s wheel, with Kim behind me shouting ‘Go on girl!’ We all knew that we had to finish together for our time to count. And there it was, the finish. I was hoping for more I have to say than a chequered flag stuck in the ground. Surely a man should be in the middle of the road, triumphantly waving it, if only to herald the fact that I hadn’t died. As we slowed down I lifted myself from my drops for the first time in over an hour and realised how much my buttocks hurt! This was a weird pain like I had never experienced before, and must have been caused by this over-exaggerated attempt to get into an aero position (which you can see from the pic above wasn’t even successful). Ah, but it was worth it, as we cycled back to the race HQ, we realised that we were the second female team, coming in in a time of 1:09
(I would normally do about 1:19 for that distance!). Our second Liv team came in fourth, and so we were all totally chuffed. Especially when we saw our speedsuit clad competitors.
Sunday was definitely a ‘lying down, eating ice cream’ kind of day. But yet here I am arranging to have tri bars fitted to my bike in anticipation of my next triathlon on 8th July. What is wrong with me…..
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.