I have always visualised my year as a square with three months on each side. This winter, like all others, I was looking forward to turning a corner into the new year. 2016 had been etched in sharp relief, with deep, dark canyons and soaring peaks. Emotionally and physically, it had felt like something of a gauntlet – I was glad to have survived but was hoping for a less challenging 2017. Plans for training and travelling, for time away and time at home, for projects and for doing. Having worked hard through the autumn on sorting out my headspace, I was excited to be feeling more or less on form again. Physically I felt ready to start tuning myself up into Sarah 2.0.
Somewhat to my frustration, my body seems to have had other ideas: we are already well into the second side of my ‘square’ year and I am still struggling to maintain and claw back my health. Repeated colds and chest infections exacerbated my asthma in the winter. Steroids and antibiotics dented my immune system further. My periods have been running amok for months, literally draining me. January’s plans for being away on the Girona Training Camp with the Adventure Syndicate were scratched, as was my ambition to race the Strathpuffer. Much of January and February was spent clocking twelve hours of sleep in every 24 and sometimes more. And yet still I was tired.
Having spent many months and thousands of miles on solo expeditions in extreme weather conditions, my progress regularly thwarted by elements far stronger than me, I thought I had the perspective thing nailed. I thought I was good at letting go of frustrations and finding positives in gloomy times. So January’s dip in mojo felt like something of a surprise – I should be good at this! As my health rebelled and my immune system was rocked, pinning me into fatigue and burnout, I wrestled with my frustrations. Almost into May, I am still working on it, tracing an undulating wave of dipping below my target line of calm and acceptance and then bobbing up again. One of my aims was to focus on gratitude: for having access to great healthcare, for being self-employed, and for being able to use this enforced downtime for other things. I revisited the trick I often use while on expedition: finding ‘Good Things About Today’, whatever they might be. Nothing lasts forever, I have been reminding myself regularly, even if I later forget it.
Heading up to Scotland at the end of January to support the Adventure Syndicate teams in the Strathpuffer 24-hour MTB race, I did my best to focus on what I could do, that is, being the best rookie pit crew that I could be. Having always been the athlete, I had never supported anyone else in a big race before. Arriving after the start gun (following a lengthy, hilarious and excruciating detour due to satnav error) I couldn’t stop grinning as I made my way up into the forest, taking it all in…
A buzz of spectators all togged up in wellies and warm gear. Bikers flying down the final straight into the docking bay, ready for a rider swap or simply to turn around and start twiddling back up the hill. Cowbells tinkling, generators humming, fires twirling smoke, bikes being sprayed down. The part of me that longed to ride settled down as my lungs heaved on the walk up the track to the Adventure Syndicate tent – not racing was definitely the right decision for my health and my team mate, Emily. However it now meant that Em would be riding solo. (Which she did in true Chappell style and, it turned out, with a neat victory as lead solo woman).
I had spent much of January feeling incapable and pathetic, so the energy of being a part of a team with clear goals, and the feeling of being useful in my roles of Tea Maker, Feeder, Blanket Coverer and Water Filler were refreshing and uplifting. I was happy for the riders, and watched them pushing themselves as hard as they could, bantering and egging each other on. The whole spirit of the race was the same – that shared sense of everyone on that site working towards the goal of getting the riders back to base safely and/or speedily was tangible. Strangers cheered each other on. Riders came back with tales of helping fellow racers who had come a cropper on the course.
As if wanting to prove their worth, my lungs roared and sang at as many riders as I could, cheering them on and coaxing smiles out of them. Having pushed through many a burning mile of sleep-deprived, weather-beaten, screaming pain myself, I know the difference that a few words of encouragement can make and was glad to do my part. Talking to other riders and crews about their stories past and present, and seeing some riders drop out due to injury to themselves or their bikes, reminded me that my enforced pause this year was just that – only a pause, and definitely not the end. I loved being pit crew, making sure our riders were as warm and dry as possible, that their preferred food or drink was ready for their next lap. And I also loved learning the tricks and turns of the crew, feeling a part of something bigger than the nagging voices in my head that had kept me company through January. For all of that and for being able to play a part in getting Em to the solo win and the others to their own victories and medals, I am glad that this is the way 2017 turned out. It may not have been as I had imagined but then again, my journeys have shown me that most of the best stories never do follow the plan.
I may not have enjoyed the peaks and troughs of illness lately, but I am glad of the lessons: listen to yourself, be kind to yourself and don’t rush recovery.