A twisted lumbar facet joint and an iliolumber ligament strain is not actually as bad as it sounds, but it does mean several days’ inactivity and quite a lot of sharp breathing when sitting and standing. Apparently one of the spiky little bones in my lower back snagged behind Continue reading
I said from the start that I want to be one of those people who wakes up and wants to Continue reading
What’s 45 seconds? For me, it’s the length of a news report or soundbite, the length of time it takes to Continue reading
I’m off on a new adventure and I don’t quite know the way. I’d grab a map, but I can’t seem to find a grid reference. Menopause is something all women experience ‘at a certain age’ and yet I can count on one hand the number of women who have ever mentioned it to me. I’m now getting a taste of these life changes myself and I have a suspicion that I’ll be talking about it a lot!
No night sweats or massive mood swings as yet, but I’m definitely more scatty and forgetful than usual. My cycle is shifting and I got hit with cramps and illness that sent me back to bed last Friday and robbed me of a trip into the hills with the girls. Very annoying.
Realising that my body is changing, I hesitated before posting about it on Facebook. I think I felt embarrassed, I felt perhaps I was getting old. The notion lasted all of ten minutes. A few hormones didn’t ruin my transition from chick to hen, and they’re not going to stop me getting my butterfly wings.
I am glad I decided to talk about it. Within the hour, my friends on Facebook had put me wise about nutrition, remedies like red clover and vitamin B, and I had been put in touch with a very uplifting website called www.mysecondspring.ie. A site dedicated to supporting and celebrating women entering menopause.
I lost one day on the mountains, but that didn’t last long. I’ve had a wonderful few weeks; the 33k Walk The Line for Dublin Wickow Mountain Rescue, a beautiful full moon hike with MountainZone on Slievenamon, an 18k trek across the Wicklow Mountains with JuJu Jay and a lovely trot up Brown Mountain and Scarr with climbing buddy Vera Baker.
This beautiful sunny Easter weather has also served as a reminder of how wonderful Ireland is, and how beautiful our natural resources. I can’t feel bad with all those green rolling hills calling to me. Nothing like a brisk walk to reset a girl’s perspective. New shoes and a fresh new haircut didn’t hurt either! Control, Alt, Delete; that’s my reboot right there. Come on second spring; let’s be having you.
I’ll let you know how I get on..
If you’ve been big, like me, you probably have whole years of your life without a single photo reference. When I was writing my book, after escaping from the prison of my 23 stone body, I had to beg for ‘big’ photos from my friends and relations to document the ‘before’. I’d cleansed them you see, completely erased every large unflattering print of myself, to complete my denial that I was obese and getting bigger.
The Power Within…
Lately I’ve been bouncing out of my skin with delight at my growing fitness and strength. After a dodgy winter with the weight piling back on, I’ve been back out on the wilderness trail, climbing mountains and running; working hard to reverse the damage. Finally this week, the results began to show. I felt the power building in me, my lungs burning less when I run, my calves burning less when I climb. On Friday I joined a night-hike on the Sugarloaf with the Oldtown Road Trailbreakers. On Saturday myself and some old mountain buddies climbed Leinster’s highest peak, Lugnaquilla, with Ronan Friel from Irish Guided Walks, surprising ourselves by finding snow at the summit. I stayed overnight in Wicklow to join the mighty JuJu Jay from ‘Mud, Sweat and Runners’ for a beginner trail run on Sunday, and accepted an invitation to go sea-swimming at the 40ft in Dublin for St Patrick’s Day.
Then came the photo of a thousand knives. Casually taken and innocently posted on Facebook, it was a photo like the photos that had haunted my past. Caught at a vulnerable moment, legs akimbo, muscles slack, crudely placed limbs facing into the camera, and worst of all, a glimpse of pain and discomfort in my eyes as my rusty old joints complained at their treatment. A horrible image that burned into my heart and soul and poked open the scars on wounds considered long healed.
Lycra or Bust…
I am often asked how I exercise when I’m heavy, if I am embarrassed, or how can I bring myself to wear Lycra or a swimsuit? Yes of course there is an element of ‘cringe’. If I am out running and kids jeer me, it hurts; but I’m usually too out of breath to answer back! Besides, the best response is to just keep running.
Mostly I just breathe deeply and get on with it. Knowing the freedom of being strong enough to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, is worth the effort. But occasionally there are setbacks when it all seems pointless, when I see defeat looming and feel the temptation to lie down in front of that wave of sadness and just give up. This was one of those moments. In the middle of a busy, active, fun weekend; my heart leapt and my breathing caught as I fought to keep my eyes from watering. My personal ‘pity-party’ gathered pace as looking at this horrid image, my confidence disintegrated around me. Is this how I look in my unguarded moments? A ridiculous caricature of the person I see in the mirror. Chewing on my upset, a timely call from a good friend gives me a chance to vent my sadness. Heading to bed somewhat earlier than expected, I suddenly feel tired and old and foolish.
Waking up this morning in Wicklow where my soul usually soars, I started out for my run with JuJu Jay with a stubborn reluctance in my step. It felt pointless. ‘Fat people can’t run’ I told myself. Except a sneaky voice in my head insisted that if I ran, I’d feel better.
I got JuJu’d…
JuJu’s chirpy greeting and jokey instructions have me loosening up my joints and my mind, before I have a chance to bolt. Within minutes we’re running. Beginners trotting out into the woods, at different levels and stages. When my breathing gets heavy, JuJu’s practical advice cuts through my embarrassment, and before long my head is up, my pace has slowed and I’ve found my rhythm. Not fast, not slow, but just right. Like Goldilocks, I’ve found what works for me.
Sometimes life knocks you out of rhythm, and like trail-running up a hill through a forest, you need to tune out the confusion, focus on the stillness, give yourself a hug and learn to breathe again. Thank you for today Juju Jay, and for helping me to breathe again.
Dreams really do drive reality in the very best of worlds… My guest blogger, Flora “the explorer” McKnight had a dream, which turned a doctor’s diagnosis into an opportunity; and brought her to another place and time. Read on.
I woke up in a sweat after yet another restless night. “I wish I was in the Antarctic” I muttered to myself while jumping out of bed to rush to stand in front of the freezer.
I showed all the signs and symptoms in my early thirties for “the change” but no doctor would test me. One doctor eventually trusted my instinct and finally, at the age of 38, I was diagnosed with peri-menopause. Many women who have suffered through or are still going through “the change” will understand that the night sweats are unbearable at times. Give me the moodiness or forgetfulness any day but please, not the dreaded night sweats!
So that’s how the journey of a lifetime began for me. As the sweats increased so too did my dreams of visiting Antarctica and as if by magic, a Facebook sponsored story directed me to New Horizon Expeditions website where they were organising a special once off trip to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Excitedly I clicked on the link and was completely drawn in. I had goose bumps reading about it and not only that but the date of the trip co-incided with my 40th birthday! Immediately I registered my interest and as soon as the information pack came back I knew that this was it, now or never, go for it woman, be cool! Booked, deposit paid, no turning back.
I had a year and a half to prepare for my trip. Slowly paying off lump sums, purchasing base layers, mid layers, outer layers, gloves, hats, ski socks etc. I even went to Finland to buy an extra warm down jacket in case I might be cold there. (Heaven forbid!)
Wednesday 28th Jan 2015. I stood at the agreed meeting point waiting for my fellow passengers and group leader to arrive. Now I can be a little bit of a worrier and so obviously thoughts started to enter my head like “what if this is a scam?”, “yer man has legged it with all my money”, “may as well go home now and hide in the fridge for 3 weeks”. Finally I spotted our group leader waving at me from the check in desk; drama over, take me to Antarctica!
Long journey to Buenos Aires for a two day stopover then on to Ushuaia (The End of the World) for another stopover and this was where we boarded our ship “The Ushuaia”. The build-up of anticipation from the airport right to this moment is indescribable. We had all waited so long for this moment and could barely contain our excitement. I myself shed a few tears but put it down to the dodgy hormones! Our leader kitted us out in magnificent “Shackleton 100” body warmers and matching hats. We were the envy of the voyage, everyone wanted one! We felt so special to be part of this wonderful expedition.
That “special” feeling continued as we slowly made our way to The Great White Continent via the notorious Drake Passage. Sea sickness comes in waves… Great, big, 30 to 40ft waves!! Some were affected more than others but luckily I was upright in the bar by later that evening drugged up with ginger capsules and dunking Jacobs ginger snaps in to my ginger tea! I shared a small cabin with a lovely German girl who obviously felt the cold more than I did and kept turning up our little heater full blast. As soon as she was asleep I would creep out of my bunk and turn it down again. This saga continued throughout the whole journey with neither of us commenting or asking “do you mind?” It was just the way it was and we were both happy with the set up!
As we cleared the passage we gained confidence in our sea legs and all were upright by the time a call of “ICEBERG, STRAIGHT AHEAD” could be heard from the bridge. We all rushed out on deck and sighted our very first iceberg in the distance. We were well and truly on our way South.
We made several landings over the next few days. Penguin colonies at Gourdin Island – Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adelie. We observed them go about their business picking up stones and feeding their chicks. Brown Bluff on Antarctic Sound was our first Continental landing and pretty special for all of us. Hydrugga Rocks, where we saw our first Fur and Weddell Seals. We sailed through the Lemaire Channel with views of massive glaciers on either side of our ship. The most spectacular scenery I shall never forget.
Our most Southerly point @ 65.15 degrees brought us to Wordie House on Winter Island. The house of James Wordie, Shackleton’s geologist, is kept as a historical site for the Antarctic Treaty system.
From there we moved on to Vernadsky, a Ukrainian Research Station. The station first discovered the hole in the Ozone layer! The station had a wee bar where a bottle of whiskey was produced and a rendition of “The little pot stove” was sung by Frank Nugent. (Mountaineer & explorer and member of the Irish South Arís – Irish Antarctic Adventure team which attempted to sail a James Caird replica lifeboat named Tom Crean from Elephant Island to South Georgia.) We were privileged to have him along with us on our trip.
Pleneau Island saw us zodiac cruising through hundreds of icebergs of all shapes and sizes while being chased by Leopard Seals! At Paradise Bay (aptly named) we cruised through the calmest of sea gazing at the huge glaciers all around us. I don’t think a word was spoken from any of us other than the odd “wow” and you could almost hear the gulps as people tried to swallow the lump in their throat.
A visit to the Argentine owned Brown Base, named after Irish born Admiral William Brown (creator of the Argentine Navy), saw us climb to the top of a snow covered steep hill and slide on our bums back down! A truly unique experience and yes, this was the day of my 40th birthday. What a way to celebrate!
On Deception Island we climbed a black glacier covered in volcanic ash. Walker Bay gave us our first sighting of Elephant Seals. Pendulum Cove saw a few brave souls take the polar plunge which of course I participated in!
Antarctica is often imagined to be a quiet, solemn, white continent yet it is far from that. The thunderous echoes of falling glaciers, the barks from the seals, the nattering from the penguins, the blows from whales, the many birds swooping overhead, the clear crisp icy blue of the glaciers, the aquamarine of the sea at the base of each iceberg, the browns and greys of the rocks, the black volcanic ash, the red from the krill, the pink from guana (penguin poo!) all contributed to the amazing sounds and sights of this wonderful, beautiful, inspiring Continent.
I feel privileged to have spent time on this unspoilt continent. Privileged to have spotted Orcas, a Skua attack and kill a penguin chick, a school of dolphins play beside our ship at night disturbing the phosphorescent in the water which gave us a transfixing display that can only be described as the Aurora of the sea. Privileged to have met some amazing new friends and to have gained a small insight to the harsh conditions our heroes Shackleton and Crean endured.
Did I fulfil my dreams? Absolutely. Did I fulfil my purpose? Absolutely. Well, if only for a short time during the polar plunge and sneaky behaviour with a cabin heater but never mind, life blows hot and cold ~
“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”. Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Guest Blog by: Flora McKnight (firstname.lastname@example.org)
My heart is bursting – and it’s only day one. It’s not bursting from effort, or exertion, or altitude or attitude – it’s bursting because I’m among friends, doing wonderful things, in a Continue reading
The alarm sounds at 0600 and I’m fresh out of my bed and off to make my porridge. It’s day one of my sásta bootcamp and I’m holding the tiniest paper sachet of oatmeal I’ve ever seen, but I’m determined to follow the rules. I’m here for a week and I want to see how my fitness levels improve and whether I lose weight when someone else is calling the shots. We’re training at 0800 and I need to have breakfast finished an hour before, to get the best value from all that carbohydrate. Looking around the kitchen I can’t see a microwave so I drag out a saucepan, and turn on the electric hob. I am used to gas, and the dull grey rings look uninspiring. Bored already, I add some water to the pot and leave the porridge to get on with it while I head for the shower. Twenty minutes later, I’m dressed for the gym and heading for the door – picking flakes of burned porridge from between my teeth as Continue reading
So here I am, waking up in the ‘Courtyard Apartments’ in Carrick-on-Shannon, where I’ll spend the next week relaxing and sleeping during training sessions; and cooking healthy meals under the watchful eye of Declan from sásta fitness. I checked-into sásta last night for a briefing, and learned the unpalatable news that my biological age is 64! Not great, when you’re a month away from celebrating your 49th birthday. Clearly I have some work to do.
I’m not a stranger to sásta so I have an idea of what lies ahead. I got a chance to try out the sásta training pod when I was presenting our fitness and lifestyle show ‘Get Off The Couch’ on Setanta TV last year. I really loved the workout and started nagging Continue reading
Real Adventure Starts Here
I looked at the icy slope leading downhill away from me and shuddered. I knew I could go no further unless I tackled my terrors right here. The snow was hard-packed, shiny and hardened into ice. I could see the imprint of the boots that had passed before me and wondered if my feet would hold as well. Smothering all thought of what lay ahead, I took a deep breath, forcing the thin air into my lungs. I reached forward and gratefully took our leader Pat Falvey’s hand, and like a child I slowly and cautiously followed him inch- by-inch down the slope. Terrified of the drop to my right and concentrating firmly on Pat’s orange down jacket, glowing like a beacon ahead, step by step, until we finally reach a makeshift platform. Pat leaves me here with a grin, and thankfully I hug him, assuring him I can take it from here. I step forward on my own into the dark of the drop-house and breathe a sigh of relief as the smell of human waste engulfs me, finally, I can go to the loo…
Why Climb Every Mountain?
I don’t know why people climb mountains. I don’t know why I do myself; and frequently when I’m climbing them, I promise I will never climb them again. Then I see clouds drift across a lofty peak or a movie with the hero stepping confidently in crampons across the rock and ice and suddenly my breath catches in my chest and I think ‘that’s me’. The reality is somewhat different. I stumble and slip in my massive insulated boots, I move awkwardly across the snow in massive down jackets, with freezing fingers squeezed into multiple pairs of gloves, trying to hold onto an axe and make it work in a way that will save your life. It’s not pretty, it’s not an average holiday, and yet we spend weeks of our lives to seek out high, frosty, deadly places to climb. Why? Perhaps in a world which is both easier and harder, the immovable presence of a mountain gives you a benchmark to pit yourself against, to measure yourself against the forces of nature and find out who you are and what you can achieve. As one of the lads said in the safety of basecamp last night “If I can do what I did, and go through what I went through up there and come out smiling, what am I capable of back down below in the real world?” Perhaps it’s that simple, mountains make me feel alive.
Sleeping My Way To The Top
We all spent months preparing for this trip, all in our various ways. Hiking at home, cycling, running, swimming, gym work. All trying to be fit enough to justify our place in the team. You don’t just sign up for a couple of weeks on a mountain, you sign up for a six month campaign of attrition. My own preparation was a nightmare. I travelled to Scotland in January to practice ice skills, shot off to Norway in February to get a taste for how to dress against the bitter cold, I ran, swam, cycled, and then I fell, badly. I needed 14 stitches in my knee, two month’s rehab and then 6 weeks frantic activity to try and get my weight down and my fitness back. In doing that, I pulled a lateral Meniscus in my ‘good’ knee. I’d blown it – I was heading off to the mountain overweight and with both knees in braces. I was feeling weak and feeble as we went through our
acclimatisation walks and ice-drills on Elbrus, waiting for the moment of truth. I had massive doubts. But I knew others had concerns too; there were worries about altitude sickness from the light air, lack of energy, reaction to food, concerns over gear, how cold or warm would we be on the mountain. We all had our niggles and worries, and the team pulled together and reassured each other as best we could. Finally summit day approached with Pat our expedition leader and Artem our Russian guide locking heads over weather patterns and forecasts for the days ahead. The weather was difficult and local knowledge vital for interpreting conditions on the mountain. But we had worked hard as a team and acclimatised well, with walks up to 5,100m, and sessions practicing ice skills and ice-axe arrest techniques on the surrounding slopes. We were strong and we were ready. Despite a storm blowing with thunder and lightening just minutes apart and wind shaking our flimsy hut, we finally got the word that we’d go the following morning. Maybe.
We checked our gear and then prepared for an easy day. I slept. I ate breakfast, prepared my pack and clothes for the summit, and went back to bed. We had lunch in the communal hut and discussed the weather and the chances of going and then I went back to bed and slept again. We had our ‘last supper’ together as a team and I went back to bed, rolling into the row of mattresses that I was sharing with 7 other people, and slept again. I knew I had trained all I could, eaten all I could, hydrated all I could, doubted all I could, prepared all I could, now all I had left to do was rest all I could. In my mind, I was ‘sleeping my way to the top’.
“At 4am with temperatures of -20 and 35k winds, when the cold punches through your ‘top of the range’ down-jacket like a bullet through paper – you know just how fragile you are.”
2am had come and gone and the team thought the trip was off. But two hours later the call went up. With remarkable skill and daring, Pat and his local experts had spotted a weather window and the game was on.
Tumbling out of the heavy sleeping bag and silk liner, pulling on my extra layers, my ice-breaker vest, and favourite Columbia Teflon top and leggings, I add another precautionary Blisteze patch to my heel, before powdering my feet and double socking. Next my heavy double-boots go on, with gaiters to keep the snow out, Gortex waterproof layers, down jacket, balaclava, hat, gloves with liners under mitts, goggles, head torch, hiking poles, ice-axe. Moving heavily I tie on my 12-spike crampons and finally swing my rucksack onto my back, with food and nearly 2 litres of water. I’m ready to follow the team out into the darkness, into the weak, golden pools of light from our head torches, as we leave our camp behind.
Magic Peaks Around the Traverse
At 5,100m the air is light and my lungs screaming for oxygen as we begin the long traverse under the East Summit of Elbrus. I wonder if my mind has been playing tricks because I’m sure someone said this was a gradual slope. Nothing felt gradual about the incline pushing up against my feet. But in the cold, against the wind, and with the effort of each step, I’m suddenly reminded of another reason I love mountains. The life giving sun begins to dawn, casting pink fingers across the waves of frozen landscape, merging with mountain and clouds and me. The incredible beauty of nature. Off in the distance across the deadly slope I’ve been trying to avoid noticing; the shadow of Elbrus is cast pyramid-like against the surrounding mountains. It’s like a scene from the movie ‘The Summit’ when the awe-inspiring and deadly K2 casts it’s shadow across into China. I thought views like that were only for the silver screen and now I’m seeing the same effect here, with my own eyes. The sweeping beauty all around embraces me and warms my soul as the team push slowly forwards against the spindrift as the 35k winds throw surface snow against our faces, driving temperatures as low as -20.
We reach the ‘saddle’ between Elbrus’ iconic twin peaks and the game changes again. The sun’s up and blasting us with her fiery UV rays as the cold winds continue to hammer us, trying to steal fingers and toes. We rest briefly, then rope up in groups of 4, before tackling the next steep incline. The hardest part of this gruelling challenge is before us. The grail lies ahead and nothing between us, save this icy slope. “It’s a hill” I tell myself, as I push my shoulders forward into the wind. Ice axe in one hand, walking pole in the other, inching forward. I ignore the cold, the wind, the sun. I’m telling myself I’m in the Galtee Mountains back in Ireland with my training buddies Tony Nation and Karen Hill. It’s my pace and we’re pushing up Temple Hill. One foot in front of the other.
Falling Off The Edge Of The World
I’m kicking into the snow and ice with my crampons. I’m
thinking of technique, thinking of efficiency. I feel like dragging my feet forward but know if I don’t use the spikes to connect, my foot will slide and I’ll have an energy sapping jerk, pulling at my sore knee and forcing me to take the step again. So it’s slow, steady, and precise. The familiar mountaineer’s step. One clear stride, resting on your straight leg before kicking forward again with the alternate foot. One of our guides, Sasha, had been talking to me about pressure breathing. Forcing air into your lungs at altitude, without shallow breathing or hyperventilating. So again I concentrated. One step, one breath. Although I felt I was double-timing. Breathing two deep breaths per step. But I wasn’t stopping. I was still moving forward and that was the key. You eat these mountains bite by bite and step by step. I was up front in a line of 4, and occasionally, I’d shout back down the line “lads we have this, lads this is ours , we’re not going back now” and the shouts of encouragement coming back up the line gave me new energy to push harder.
Finally the slope evens out to one last platform before the final summit up ahead. So close I feel I can reach out and touch it. The rest of the team are already there, spread out in bunches of four. Either back in the dip or just dropping down from the summit. There’s breathless congratulations and high fives and reassurances that the summit is just 10 minutes away. The ropes are off, rucksacks abandoned, and we four are on our own again for one last pull. I’m last, but I don’t care, I’m exhausted but I don’t care, I’m sore but I don’t care. I’m having this. I’m taking this. There is no way I’m not going to reach out and grasp this now. Crampons in, 12 points in, push and breath, breath and push. Step after step, lungs screaming, legs screaming, soul soaring. I’m steps away from the summit and I hear some of the team shouting encouragement across the wind. I find new energy and double-time my steps as I pull myself up to stand at the top of Europe. Against clear blue skies, in bright sunlight, I turn around 360 degrees to take in the view, and with a catch in my throat, I slowly realise that TeamElbrus have made it. I’ve made it. 5,642m (18,510ft) the summit of Mount Elbrus.
Never Say ‘Never Again’
Later, much later. We’re eating lamb kebabs, drinking local beer and reminding ourselves of the journey we’ve made, both alone and as a team. I’m making my new buddies promise to remind me, never to do this again. So hard, so tough, so demanding and time-consuming. I’ve had it with mountains. I’m no adrenalin junkie, I know when I’ve had more than enough. I’m off trekking in Spain in October with Travel Department but that’s not about endurance, that’s a holiday. Gorgeous 10k walks in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains before heading back to a lovely rural hotel to cool off in the pool. Now that’s civilised. I’m looking forward to walking in Spain. I’ve never done that before. Of course I’ve been walking in other hot climates so I know what to expect and what to wear. I loved hiking in Africa. I climbed Mount Elgon in Uganda before cycling a couple of hundred kilometres over to the Nile to kayak down some white-water rapids. Phyll and Joe from TeamElbrus, they love Africa too. They’ve climbed Kilimanjaro – an amazing mountain they tell me. You know, after Elbrus, and Spain in October, I’d be well fit by next year. Kilimanjaro huh? well maybe just one more mountain….
William ‘Wildfire’ Shorthall
Mick ‘The BIC’ Byrne
Brian ‘Lazarus’ Gallogly
Joe ‘The Snapper’ Byrne
‘Doc’ Phyll Blake Byrne – (My Little Star)
Paddy ‘The Hat’ Lonergan
Noel ‘The Beard’ Garrahan
John Paul ‘Glow in the Dark’ Murphy
Shane ‘I can’t breathe but I’m still coming’ O’Toole
Teena ‘Never Again, Maybe” Gates
Guide; Irish & Worldwide Adventures’ Pat Falvey
Chief Russian guide; Artem Rostovtsev