Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Grandraid Nisramont; Unlimited horse power and donkey Dan's big day out

 If you would have told me 3 months ago that I would podium at the renowned to be tough Scott adventure race the Grand Raid Nisramont, in the Belgium Ardennes, I would have probably laughed it off. I don’t really like people who act surprised when they podium insinuating they have not trained for it and are naturally just super talented. At the pointy end of any achievement a lot of hard work is required. In my opinion it just does not happen “out of the blue”.

Karin and I signed up for this race barely knowing each other yet there was an immediate unspoken trust.  A 4km kayak, 28km mountain bike, 7km trail run, 18km mountain bike and 5km run/bike over very hilly terrain was waiting for us. On paper we weren't a great match for this race. Karin had been concentrating on qualifying for the trail running world championships having done minimal bike training. I had been concentrating solely on the bike after having only just returned to training still recovering from a back injury. On top of that Karin had 55km’s of trail running in her legs from the week before where she qualified for the trail running world championships finishing 2nd Dutch female and 8th female overall. That she felt a little tired was an understatement. Neither of us had been in a kayak for over  2 years. It was a recipe for disaster, yet we managed to climb on that last podium spot.
Karin not only winning the extreme Evergreen triathlon in 2016  but also the first woman to complete the course
The whole weekend ended up being magic. It started on Saturday when we supported Kim Mulder in her battle to qualify for the trail running world championships 3 months after she had survived kidney failure during a race spending a month in hospital. We caught her at a negative stage wanting to DNF but with a little encouragement she changed her attitude and turned it around with an impressive 3rd female overall making up over 2minutes on the second girl in the last 6km's finishing only a minute behind her. “I told myself to get over it” she laughed . A ticket to the world champs for Kim when she could barely stand upright 3 months prior to this event.
Kim already a proven champion
Kim had already a proven track record, she just had to trust herself that she could do it again albeit on a not so ideal race prep. Not much different from Karin and I leading into the Grand Raid, although we both had a lot of rest during the winter months and minimal training leading into the event. We both had done the mileage over the years even if it had been a while “You have to trust you have the endurance from all the years you have already trained” said my coach Rab to me when he explained he was not going to bombard me with a lot of volume in my training program. Quality not Quantity.
Karin not as well prepared as she usually would be
 “Even if I have to cut the mountain bike leg short, I don’t care” said Karin the day before the race. "it does not matter if we do not finish, we can still do the run and the 2nd part of the mountain bike leg and have a great day of training."  "I am technically really bad on the mountain bike and don’t want to jeopardise my trail running world championships by breaking something ” she continued. I realised that this race came at a very bad timing for her but that she was doing it for me, and equally I had jumped on the plane to Brussels purely not to disappoint her as I was not sure how good this race would be for my back. “Let’s just finish it regardless” I said “ it really does not matter if we come last, we don't have to be fast, just for the fun of it”  And a pact was made.

Post race smiles
Generally Karin would leave nothing left to the unknown going into an event, which made her so successful having won some big races already. When I arrived at Brussels airport and she was awaiting me at the airport in Antwerp it was quite clear this was not an A-race for her!!!
Very poorly prepared we rushed our way to the start entering the water with one minute left to go. It was the only stressful moment of the whole race!! The gun went off and a madness of thrashing paddles and crashing boats developed in front of us. “hang off the back” said Karin who had done the race a few times before “we don’t want to get hit from all sides by other boats” It was a glorious day and the colourfulness of the kayaks, paddles and people in front of us painted a beautiful picture.  SportEvents always attracted a very strong field and it was easy to see why. Everything was superbly organised and the volunteers all did a brilliant job. Extremely happy with ourselves we beat quite a few boats out of the water and jumped on the bikes having survived the kayak leg.  "Not last!!" we smiled at each other. We settled into a nice and relaxed pace on the bikes, on hind sight may be a little too relaxed but may be that is why we managed to finish as strong as we did. Karin being a little nervous on the technical descents yelled at me “Are we riding is??!!” heading down a steep and rough section “YES” I yelled back at her without giving her any option.
Karin having great bike skills from years on the road bike
Her bike handling skills were second to none, all she needed was a bit of confidence to ride downhill with purpose. I tried to pick up the pace a little on the descends to push Karin on a bit but at the same time tried not to  physically or mentally break her. As the race went on she became faster and faster riding like a true mountain biker and we had a blast. It was no surprise the girl could climb like a goat and we were making up a lot of ground the further we got in the race. Suddenly we could see a female team in front of us “let’s try and catch them” Karin said. What happened with "we are racing pure for fun??!! "
Whilst Karin strength was running, mine was the mountain bike and we managed to support each other on our weaker legs
As we rolled in transition onto the run we found out we were the 3rd women's team “oh no” I thought to myself, “now we are really racing!!” but Karin stayed cool "just keep doing what we are doing" she said and being the better runner she dropped slightly behind me so I could set the pace. I could not have had a more supportive team mate and there was no negative moment in the whole 5 hours of racing. It had been months since I had been able to push myself running and it was such an awesome feeling. We kept racing smart and in the final stages of the second mountain bike leg we passed the 2nd women's team with a flat tyre; which meant we were now in second place!! All I could think was not to crash, not to go crazy, ride in control to not puncture or break a chain. The last leg was a mixed mountainbike/run leg where one had to ride and the other run. Since I was not really allowed to run I stayed on the bike whilst Karin run her little heart out to keep us in 2nd place. What a feeling!! We could not quite believe we finished as 2nd women team in our wave!! There was a short but anxious wait to find out if we could hold our podium position with more women teams finishing in the 2nd wave. We were absolutely over the moon when it was confirmed we managed to place 3rd women’s team! What a day!!

All smiles all weekend
We could argue that this was a complete out of the blue performance for us, and who knows what we could have achieved if we had been physically and mentally better prepared going into the race. Although the result did feel totally unexpected, both Karin and I had a good few years of training and racing at high level in us and although we might not have been in good shape on the day, our relaxed happy attitude, well-paced race, and the amount of experience in our bodies lifted us up onto the podium. Sometimes all you need is a little trust that it will all work out and the rest will follow!!
                                                           "Hold the vision, trust the process"

Thursday, 16 March 2017

7 months and still counting

As we get further into the new year I witness fellow athletes starting their early racing season and some of them having big events already under their belt whilst I have only recently entered my base training phase. I have had to be very patient this winter and most of the time I have felt I was taking one step forward and 3 steps back. Close to tears I have entered my physio's treatment room week after week wondering if I ever would feel like half the athlete I was ever, again. He said to be patience as I  persistently carried out the exercises prescribed, trying to stay positive. The Swiss ball had definitely taken the boredom out of doing core work and to the entertainment of my dog Fynn I managed to fall of it frequently. He saw this as an opportunity to lick me back to shape! Reluctantly I had to cut my running down from running every day (40-50kms week), to running two, three times a week, (45 min) max as slow as I possibly could.
longing to run fast again
If I wanted to ride long with friends it meant I had to make sure I had a rest week at either end of the ride with no intensity allowed. It was certainly a challenge for my ego, as my friends sprinted off to chase strava segments and beat each other up the hill, I had to let them go and watch them disappear into small dots on the horizon. A steep learning curve in being patient.
Although I could not train over winter, adventures were never far away

Last week I walked into my physio's treatment room with the least amount of pain I have experienced for a long time. When Dave tested my nerve function and spine flexibility I got excited. There was a big improvement!! The pain was now very localised revealing a small musculoskeletal problem in my high hamstring but I could deal with that. Running was still a big cause of pain but on the bike I could now ride at a pace which would not cause me much discomfort. For the first time in a long 6 months I felt like I was finally getting somewhere and with the OK from Dave I was ready to enter the next and first phase of structured training, being allowed to do some tempo sets. Finally!
Ashmei team mate Owain and I after a social run
I have never been the most patient person, which is probably an understatement, I want everything achieved and  preferably yesterday. I like to work hard and am someone who needs to constantly be working on something to see that progress. Sitting back and watching it unfold is just not in my nature. I want to live, not just exist. Needless to say I don't do injury very well and I have always pushed myself through injuries and sickness never giving my body time to heal, trying to squeeze every little amount of energy out of it all year around. Until it broke.
Riding with the pure purpose of enjoyment

I think most of us athletes want to train hard over the winter, the off season is the time where we don't have to worry about tapering and recovering around races. The time to improve, time to put in the mileage. I certainly had that approach, believing volume was key in my development as an athelete and trained long hours week in week out- in crazy winter weather conditions. I did not care if I was tired or sore, I would battle on even if the legs were barely coping. Quantity was huge, quality not so much. This year had been very different for me, partly because I was forced to stop due to injury and partly because I started to learn more about what worked and did not work for me as an athlete. I read blogs written by international coaches particularly articles written by triathlete coach Brett Sutton who holds the believe that many athletes over-train in the off season. Needing 12 weeks to get race fit and only 8-9 weeks staying at peak race fitness, athletes are left more mentally and physically fatigued at a time it actually starts counting if they have put in the long hours over the winter months.
I trained endless hours during the winter months

I started talking to other people who burned the candle on both sides like I did and realised I was definitely not alone in my stupidity! I decided that since I was not allowed any volume or intensity it was a good time to book in a skills course on the MTB. Crazy to think that in the 4 years of racing at a descent level, I only ever had done one skills course ever before!
I teamed up with Rab Wardell from Dirtschool where we spent an afternoon on the trails of Glentress and with a few simple tips and bike handling exercises, he changed my riding significantly. Instead of gunning it down hoping for the best on the downhills, I was now much more in control -picking good lines and riding with purpose. We spoke a lot about training volume and the temptation to overdo it. This helped me in the decision that he would be the perfect coaching match to keep me in line.
Practicing what I learned from Rab!

I  also decided to get a proper bike fit which I felt was really important to minimize the stress put on my back and to keep my nerves happy. Through Rab I was put in touch with James McCallum and Morgan Floyd from Whatisyourmeta and booked in for a bike fit and a full performance and injury prevention screening. This involved lots of little strength tests of different muscle groups which really showed where my injury had affected the strength in my left leg. Encouragingly it also confirmed I was on the path of recovery. I was given lots of little tips to improve my position on the bike all with the aim of attaining maximal power output with minimal physical strain. Money well spent- and I wish I had done this a long time ago. But better late than never!!
simply enjoying the trails with friends

With a positive attitude I travelled to Aviemore to tag along Naomi Freireich in the (wo)man of porridge, a MTB orienteering event organised by the awesome Lee Craigee and the women behind the Adventure Syndicate. There were a lot of firsts going into this weekend, I had only met Naomi the week before after an Australian friend of mine tagged me in a blog post she had written. Since we were both in Edinburgh and had the same interests he thought we would make a great match and he was spot on!! After a pot of thee, many adventures were in the making of which the Bowl of Porridge was held the following week. My orienteering skills were next to nothing, and when I mentioned to my colleagues at work what my plans were for the weekend they said their goodbyes not expecting me to re-surface knowing I was capable to getting lost in my own office. It was not only my first race for 2017 but also my first real hard session on the MTB since June last year. All in all I was s little nervous joining Naomi having no idea how it would all pan out. The goal was to have fun and fun we definitely had!! I was surprised to find I had some power in my legs, and with a little endurance in my body it took 40kms to run out of steam (with only another 30kms to go)!! But more than anything my back was cooperating and my sciatic nerve behaved the best it had done for a good 12 months. Lack of fitness I could handle but I was super excited no other physical problems raised their ugly heads! Naomi and I did the worst job in orienteering but the best job in making up lost time by riding as possessed demons through the Aviemore woods completing slightly nutty tasks like climbing a rope tower multiple times and roping our bikes over angry rivers. We had a blast. A great way to celebrate my massive step forward in recovery, riding bikes with great people, lots of smiles on endless trails in the beautiful Cairngorms.
Happy days

 "Your not out of the woods yet" were the words of my physio meaning "don't go crazy" and I only have to go for a little run to know I am not fixed yet. But after having ridden in pain for a good 3 years to finally be able to put a bit of power down on my pedals without anticipating discomfort was such a huge step in the right direction,  the upshot was that it made me feel a little bit like an athlete again.
still dreaming off pain free runs but it will happen!

 I have spent the last 7 months without any structured training or volume, I was probably the least fit I had been in the last 5 years.   And at the same time was also the most excited I had been about getting back into training I in the last 5 years. Every little improvement was noticeable which was an exciting feeling. It felt like I was starting from scratch all over again. And even though part of me worried I would never be as strong as I once was, the other part was excited to see how much difference smart training could make for me. People often say "you will come out of it so much stronger" comforting injured athletes and for the first time I started to actually believe it. Over the last long 7 months I had the opportunity to go back to the basics. Taking racing, competition, power and pacing completely out of the occasion, I had to go back to where I started, go back to what made me fall in love with the sport in the first place.
Rob's big day's out always turned into an epic!
For me it had never been about the chase of the podium, and in the last 7 months I was reminded that I didn't need a race to be happy on my bike, during a run or swim session. What I loved about racing and training was the improvement I found within myself, becoming the best possible athlete I could possibly be. I probably learned more in the last 7 months minimal moving and surrounding myself with sporting souls on crazy adventures, than in the last 4 years training and racing with slightly OCD athletes. Don't get me wrong I am super excited I am allowed to become a little OCD with my training again and Rab will have to keep me in tow because it is a huge part of my driven personality.

 To sum up, if I could give some tips to my younger self on how to approach the winter off season it would be this

1.Work on skills rather than volume in all three sports, focussing on small details will make the biggest improvements
2. Work on core and get strong, as boring it might seem, it does prevent injury
3. Find out weaknesses (in all areas) and turn them into strengths
4. Learn about your equipment and adjust to perfection together with qualified people such as physio's, bike mechanics, coaches (your body is an tool also)
5. Knowledge is power;worse than doing it wrong is not knowing you are doing it wrong.
6. Last but not least, find your passion, go and venture with friends, without objectives, just for the simple joy of being outside with great people, it is what brings the fight back and heals the soul.

Life is made for good friends and great adventures

Photo credit : Charlie Lees

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Home is where the heart is; the art of chasing dreams

When I was 14 years old I made a bet with my father that I would make it to the Olympics as a show jumping rider for the Dutch Olympic Equestrian team. Told by coaches I had what it takes, I had my Olympic dream all worked out, I followed the show jumping closely, studying blood lines of show jumping horses  to find the best of the best and learning to spot a good horse from people in the industry. I figured the only way to be able to afford a talented horse which would take me to the Olympics would be buying it as a foal. I came as far as buying a beautiful grey filly in partnership with my father who was bred from the right family to make it to the highest level. Circumstances I had no control over stood in the way of realising this dream, life happened. For every dream, which turns into a reality, thousands of dreams get crushed, plans demolished, hearts broken, an amazing amount of hard work and determination lost in disappointment. This was one of my big dreams. And as I was told my father sold our filly for big money, my heart broke.

My ambitions of being a top show jumper preceded my dreams of becoming a top athlete 
“I am a dreamer through and through and even if all my dreams and aspirations disappear into thin air, the chase is worth the journey” I wrote this after quitting my job and moving back to Europe from Australia in 2013 to chase my dream of becoming a professional athlete. Although I have always had an enormous believe I could turn my dreams into reality and would happily give anything a go, at the same time I have also always suffered from a debilitating anxiety, a fear of failure which would leave me stunned at times it counted the most. People have told me many times again I am hard on myself when I say I failed in achieving my goals since I have competed at elite level and have represented my country at European and World championships as an elite athlete, still in my mind I never managed to reach my full potential. I am someone who dreams big and sometimes these dreams might be unrealistic as I simply do not have the platform to make it all happen and still believe I can without having the support needed. When you look on social media it all looks so easy and amazing the life's of the people who pursue their passion, not portraying the amount of hardship and disappointment which comes hand in hand with trying to follow your dreams.
In the last year, I forced myself to be more realistic and in a way, give up on my dreams, I know in my heart that the move to Edinburgh and the change in direction of my athletic ambitions were the right things to do, but at the same time I found it something very difficult to deal with. Letting go.

I have always gravitated towards people who have a passion, I find it very inspiring, someone who is determined to achieve a goal. People who are prepared to work hard, who see failure as a motivation to try harder rather than to give up. I have found that those people are not necessarily the most talented, fastest or smartest people in the world. But they have an inner strength, people who don’t take no for an answer, even more so, when they get told they can’t do something it will make them more driven to achieve it. I recognise their inspiration and I find their energy addictive. They might have a disease to conquer, a life changing experience they had to adjust to, a dark past they escaped. People who managed to turn something negative into something positive and use their shortcomings as a weapon, turn their weakness into a strength. Those people made me aspire to live my life in a similar way, to not ever give up.
Catching up with Karen after 10 years was just like I had seen her yesterday
A trip to Utah to catch up with my Uni friend and old flatmate Karen meant that for 10 days I was surrounded by people who lived their passions. And who also, openly admitted to the difficulties of their lifestyles. It was refreshing and energizing listening to their stories of struggles and success.“you can have everything you dream of” Karen said to me whilst we were ploughing through the snow on one of our run’s through the mountains.
The hearts content
How could I feel so at home in a place I had never been? I wondered for a moment taking in the amazing scenery. My heart was content.  “believe you can, don’t be so hard on yourself and get your act together” Karen continued. It all seemed so simple. Just make it happen. And as I spend the days skiing pure powder, mountain biking with breath taking views and moving through the mountains in the simplest of forms experiencing pure joy I felt the happiest I had been in a long time and my body responded by feeling the strongest it had been in a long time.
Mountain biking with amazing views over Ogden
I travelled from Utah to Minnesota to catch up with my sister on the way back to Scotland. Seeing her always felt like coming home to me, no matter what had happened in our lives in between. She was my whole entire family and she had always been more than enough for me. Now with 4 little (and not so little) ones of her own between the age of 4-13, it was so nice to live her day to day life as if I we had never been apart. Listening to her husband’s stories about their years living in the Ukraine and my sister giving birth to her 3rd son Joerie in an old, almost ruin like Ukraine hospital, I realised that my sister regardless of how fragile she might appear, with her small thin physique, was one of the strongest people I had ever known and not unlike me, had bulldozed her way through life dealing with whatever was thrown at her with her head held high. The art of chasing dreams; staying true to who you really are.
My sister and family
“You are Nienke Oostra, you are the most beautiful and strongest person in the whole wide world” words my sister said to me from a very young age when we battled through tough times together as children and words she still says to me now. “You need to believe in yourself, dare to be you, find out what you really want and it will happen” she whispered to me in our goodbye hug. “Be happy”
My family
Me and my sister were both born with the ability to purely enjoy the great things in life. The ability to find calm in the sound of beautiful music, to become lost in any form of art, a touching movie or the colours of a captivating painting or most commonly to feel alive when standing on top of a mountain or on an empty beach. It had been our survival mechanism through the darkest of times. Similarly, we were born with passion. born with drive and determination. The ability to laugh, love, and dream in any given situation was our strength.

Some of my dreams had been crushed in the last few years and my heart had been aching. This holiday made me realise it was time to stop beating myself up over it, I was very lucky even with my current injury that I still had my health and my fitness to be able to do the things I loved doing and chase the things I felt passionate about. Time to start making new plans, follow new dreams and work towards what really made me happy. Life was too short and too precious to be wasted on what could have been.

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace & gratitude.” – Denis Waitley

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

"Injury makes you wise" : A new year of rebuilding a stronger me

Friday the 13th is upon us again and is considered by many of us as one of the unluckiest days of the year
Overall I am not a superstitious person, or at least that is what I think! When I do something bad like little white lies, or when I have been mean to someone, I feel like it is bad luck. I worry that something horrible will happen to me, which is probably not a bad way to be as it makes me quite an honest person! Bad luck is thought to be associated with certain anecdotes like walking under a ladder, the number 13, Friday the 13th and often have Biblical origins. Generally I do not let those affect me in my general behaviour or plans nor do I blame them for bad races or broken body parts. The fact that I am injured at the moment is not linked to any superstitious believes or bad luck. Although I do think a negative attitude towards it all has spiralled me down even further. But no avoiding Friday the 13ths, black crows, black cats, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors could have kept me healthy last year.
When it comes to race routine  though there is one thing which I insist on for good luck on race day.  I wear my favourite perfume, a scent which I have been using since I was 16. One time my perfume bottle got confiscated at the airport on the way to a race in the Philippines, I was irrationally upset about it and had to buy a new bottle when we got there. So may be I am a little superstitious after all.

Background :

In my day to day life I work as a veterinarian with high level performance horses.  One of the most frustrating things for a veterinarian is to get owners to rest their horses when it is really needed. There is always a race to be won on the horizon. As an elite mountain biker and multisport athlete, I learned over the last couple of years that I am not different to my clients who I have had to convince that more often than not, less is better than more.

Since 2013 I have been pushing my body into a downward spiral. I was struggling with overtraining and chronic lower back pain  which in 2016 ended up as  severe sciatic pain down the back of my legs.  The net of this was serious reduction of power in my left leg
With support from ashmei and Big Bobble Hats its easier to face Scottish conditions!

                                                                     On the side lines:
I have been really struggling with not being able to train the amount of hours I am used to at the intensity I know I am capable of. I know it is the best thing for my body and I am already starting to notice that I am beating the overtraining syndrome - with my heart-rate finally returning to normal zones. But as an endurance and outdoor athlete I miss the time spent in nature, running and riding in the beautiful Scottish hills. It gives me a feeling of freedom and satisfaction which is now lacking from my life. It is a true feeling of happiness which is hard to replace. On top of this  I love setting myself challenges in the form of races - pushing myself to the absolute max and doing this, often with like minded people in the most amazing places. It is difficult to watch it all pass by without being part of it.

 love challenging myself over extreme remote courses
                                                                                                       Own it:
I have teamed up with a great physiotherapist, David Ryan, who understands the frustrations involved with injury. And also knows how to handle my obsessive personality! Under his guidance, I am working hard on getting the flexibility back in my spine through physio, specific exercises and a lot of core and skill work. Over the last six months I have had to really change my attitude and instead of seeing this as time off the bike and  not doing any training, I had to start seeing it as the most important part of my training program as it would ultimately be the best path
to my recovery.

                 with 2017 being bike focussed I am sure there will be more bikes adding to the ever growing collection!
 In order to be able  do this it has been very important for me personally to surround myself with people who fundamentally understand what I want to achieve and help me get there. Something which I should have done years ago. I have now got a few people  around me with whom I am working closely. They have a broad knowledge on the type of injury I have got, what I can and cannot do and how to help me reach my goals. And these people are all on the same page when it comes to what is the best for me. That would be my biggest tip to any athlete. Choose your support group carefully, trust them wholly and take their advice as gospel. I have been too stubborn in the past and it has lead me nowhere.
                                                              Signing up with a new bike coach, Rab Wardell from Dirtschool

So aside from working with a physio, I have also signed up with a new coach, Rab Wardell from Dirtschool, now my year will be bike focussed with minimal running I thought Rab would be the perfect person to ask advise from. A day spent on a skill course with Rab has already showed a huge improvement in my technical riding and I simply like the way his brain works. Together with Dave and Rab  I am working on a training program  which will guide me into recovery. Training smarter, not harder. I refuse to give up. Don't die wondering.

Training in Scottish type of conditions requires good kit
Training in extreme Scottish conditions has definitely taken its toll on my body so this year I have also decided to invest in some really good gear. Thanks to the help of  Nicholson Cycles, I will be riding a Specialized Full Suspension bike which will be much easier on my back. Through my involvement with team ashmei I have access to some amazing kit and I can honestly say the brands winter kit is second to none. It has kept me warm and dry during some extreme conditions where other products failed me in the past. On long rides I wear ashmei cycling bibs of which the compressive nature of the fabric gives good lower back support and make my legs feel less fatigued. 2017 will be all about recovery!

 What it means for 2017

It will be a long process before I am back to my old self, because of the time required I have decided not to do any endurance triathlons or trail run races this year. It is almost like I have to re-build myself as a brand new athlete. But when one door closes another one opens and part of me has always wanted to see how much I would improve on the bike with a solely bike focus, therefiore I will be concentrating on the bike as much as my back (and physio) will let me. My main goal for 2017 is racing an 8 day MTB stage race in the Himalayas. 650km and 17.000m of climbing which will be a really cool challenge to have and I can’t wait to experience it! It is staged in September, which means that I will have no pressure on performing in the early season and plenty of time for recovery - as much as I possibly can for this race.

Although it has been hard letting go of some of my goals and plans for 2017, changing my attitude and building on new dreams. I am very excited and keen to work hard, turn my weaknesses into strengths this year whilst supported by some amazing people around me.
And at the end of the day there will always be ice cream!

"The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger at the broken places"

Sunday, 4 December 2016

A head full of dreams; Christmas is almost here with new plans for 2017

Many years ago, whilst I was finishing my 3rd year veterinary medicine at the Belgium University in Ghent, I decided to take my future in my own hands and follow my dreams to move to New Zealand and finish my veterinary degree there. I remember watching a program on New Zealand and falling in love with the green hills, the amazing glaciers, beautiful beaches, and the promise that my life would be better on the other side of the world. I was 20 years old. And as many people were trying to talk me out of this insane idea of mine that I could transfer my veterinary studies to Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, lecturers at the Belgium University telling me I would be throwing my future away, friends not quite understanding what motivated me to leave all I knew behind, my persistence that this was going to happen regardless of what everyone else thought grew stronger with every objection I got. When I look back on my veterinary career and the way my life has panned out, it was the best decision I ever made. “why can’t you just be happy with normal” I have heard these words from frustrated friends and people close to me many times when my restless existence pushed me to chase another goal or dream requiring me to leave all familiarity behind once again. Change. Chaos. Challenges. Chasing the impossible, searching. I hardly ever see a reason not to attempt something I really want to do, pushing boundaries, feeling a little scared at the thought of the possibilities. It gives me freedom. It is what drives me. It is who I am.
I have always raced in such a way that everything is left out on the course, and not much is left of me at the finish line!

It has been 3 months since I decided to concentrate again on my veterinary career by taking a job at the Dick Veterinary Equine Practice at the Edinburgh University and let go of my elite athlete dream. As much as I loved working at Thrums, I had not realised how much I had missed being in proper equine practice.  When it comes to career goals, my job at the vet school has so many endless possibilities that I can see myself working here for a very long time. And although every job has its downsides, I feel like I have reached a point in my veterinary career at which I am very happy with where I am at.  (big statement from a gypsy like me)

Before I discovered bikes there were horses

There is always another side of the coin however and for the first time in a good 6 years I had absolutely no athletic goals for 2017. No plans on how to improve, no coaching programs, no calendar with races scribbled all over it, no crazy challenges. And as much as I tried to convince myself that this was exactly what I needed, I also started to feel constricted, as much as my body needed to recover from the 3 years of bashing I put it through, mentally I started to feel more than recovered from all the pressures I had put myself under. It is funny how “never again” post-race turns into “what's next?” pretty soon after. With the end of 2016 fast approaching the passion to be working towards something for 2017 started to take over most of my thoughts.

The best part of my sporting aspirations are the people I have met through sport; Ashmei team mate Owain and me after a run

I decided that if I did want to challenge myself in a race again at some competitive level or on extreme courses, I needed to go and see a medical professional and deal with my injury properly instead of being stubborn about it and ignore all serious symptoms. I went to based on great feedback I had received from fellow athletes and considered myself lucky to be teamed up with David Ryan, an experienced Sports Physiotherapist with a very black and white approach but who also understood the frustrations of a side-lined athlete. I am not sure if the feeling of luck being teamed up was mutual since I have probably become one of his most demanding clients.
There is something incredible liberating about pushing yourself to your limits
As frustrating as it was to cut back my running and cycling and being given a sporting budget, it was good for me to hear from a professional that if I kept pushing myself, the damage to my sciatic nerve would become irreversible and I would never get the power back in my legs. He also made me see that I was not "doing nothing" as I put it, but that I was working on a long term plan of getting injury free. So instead of interval sets at certain wattages or speeds, I was doing physio and strength exercises which were equally as important.
By talking to Dave, I also realised that it was not just the physical activity I was missing, or that the lack of goals was the issue. I was also missing the whole world that surrounds being an athlete, the one on one attention from a coach, chatting to fellow athletes about dreams and aspirations, being understood by people with a similar mind set, and all the friendships I had made along the way. By having taken a step back, I felt so distanced from what was not that long ago all I lived for.
Sharing the amazing feeling of achievement at the finish line with Jantiene
I have always felt torn between my career as a veterinarian and my dreams of being an athlete. The thirst for knowledge and science in my veterinary career and the desire to be pushing myself out of my comfort zone as an athlete, travelling to remote places whilst physically and mentally achieving the unachievable. There is something so incredible liberating about running, cycling or climbing over amazing mountain passes in search for your absolute limits. Both passions are such a big part of my personality and more and more I have come to realise that I don’t feel quite myself without one or the other.
Trying to perform at elite level whilst maintaining a full time job as a veterinarian took its toll on my body
So here I am, leaving an emotional 2016 behind and standing at the beginning of a lot more stable 2017. Whilst working with the physio I have enabled myself to dream a little again, it will all still depend on how I recover from injury but in the last month on our wall calendar in the kitchen a couple of races have appeared in pencil. The first one is an adventure race in March with the lovely speedy Karin Sloove (she will probably have to attach a lifeline to me in order for me to keep up!) which I think will be a giggle from beginning to end and I am very much looking forward to a weekend of craziness!!
Thanks to Nicholson cycles I am ready for what 2017 throws at me with a brand new bike!
The other one is a bigger project, an 8 day Mountain bike stage race in the Indian Himalayas, 650km with over 16.000m of climbing. The thought of a race like this, the preparation, the training, the travel and adventure has caused such a fire in my belly that I had forgotten what it felt like to be really inspired by a race. For me it will be a bucket list adventure and something I have been dreaming about for a while. I have 9 months to prepare. I will be ready.
The ability of Michael to dream my dreams with me makes us strong
It will be my 3rd Christmas in Scotland, how time flies. I am endless in debt to a few people who have been by my side through some roller coaster times. Biggest thanks to Nicholson Cycles especially Colin Murray, for supporting me no matter how bad my results have been and making me feel like all my Christmases have come at once lately with my new Specialized full suspension MTB. Big Bobble Hats for always making the Scottish winters (and summers) a little warmer for me. Aloha racing for always inspiring me to be the best athlete I can possibly be. Nico and Alex from Organicoach for having an incredible believe in me. Jantiene from Altijd Sporten for keeping me honest when it is necessary but always being there to dream of the impossible.  Finally, Michael and dog Fynn for completely accepting me for who I am and support me in whatever I would like to achieve, even if it is a little extreme. Here is to 2017! Never stop dreaming!!
"I'd rather lose myself in passion, than lose my passion"

Monday, 17 October 2016

Limone Sky running Extreme, a world series race counting as the Dutch National Championships

3 Months ago I decided to turn my back on racing at elite level and take a more laid back approach. With that in mind one might wonder what I was doing on the start line of a World series sky running race which counted as the Dutch National Championships Sky running. I must admit that I was asking myself that same question over the weekend whilst enduring heavy rain, lightning and thunder racing up a mountain and fearing for my life on multiple occasions scrambling over rocks as fast as I could at insane heights above the beautiful blue waters of lake Garda in Italy.
I had plenty of time to give it a lot of thought during the sky race which took me a good 6 hours to complete out of  which I spent probably 99% entirely out of my comfort zone pushing myself to limits I had never been before. And it was that exact reason that gave me the satisfaction when I crossed the finish line within the time allocation at the highest level of this to me new sporting discipline. I realised no matter what I do, racing or not racing for a podium, I would never stop reaching for the stars and that I'd rather be a little fish in a big pond than a big fish in a little pond. Someone ones told me, if you want to better yourself you have to surround yourself with the best and you will improve beyond your imagination.

After the MTB World championships I admittedly fell in a bit of a hole, I needed a lot of recovery, sorting out my back but the questions "what next, what now?" kept on popping in my head. The Evergreen Triathlon 2 months after worlds was an amazing experience and I felt my body had something to give for the first time in a long while. Through Jantiene I learned about the Dutch National Sky Running Championships and I immediately thought that it would be the perfect challenge to finish a roller coaster racing season. I was put in contact with Alke Staal who was the organiser of the Dutch team, a lovely guy with a contagious passion for the sport and before I knew it I was all signed up and my flights were booked. Now the only thing I had to do was learn how to run technical terrain down hill fast!!
Fynn enjoying my focus on running!
I met my fellow crazy Dutchie Jantiene at the airport in Verona from which we rented a car to Limone, in the last 3 years I have had to squeeze my bikes in small tiny cheap rental cars all over the world and never once I got offered un upgrade. Of course this time whilst we were travelling only with a pair of running shoes we got offered a nice roomie car which would have fitted a descent number of bikes quite easily!! The irony of it!

Both Jantiene and I had only one thing on the agenda when we arrived in Limone which was sleeping!! I had had a hectic month behind me, packing up my life in Kirriemuir, selling my house in New Zealand, buying a house in Edinburgh and starting a new job whilst Jantiene had her own personal reasons to feel exhausted which included the decision to immigrate to France. So sleeping we did, and a lot. Luckily the weather was horrifically wet and windy so we had no feeling of guilt hiding under our blankets in our hotel room. The thought popped in our head that may be the weather would end up to be to extreme and this crazy running holiday would turn into a nice and relaxing sleeping trip. Nothing could have ended up further from the truth!!

A rather stormy Limone

My mind had not been on this race at all and I had forgotten almost everything there was to forget for a trail run race (except my shoes) including race nutrition!! Suddenly we were standing in the dark on the start line ready for our vertical km race which entailed a 6.5km run up a mountain with 1200m of elevation gain. And with all this focus on sleeping we realised as we were about to set off that we had lived on one yoghurt all day. Oh well to late to do anything about it!!

I felt quite happy on the vertical km and after many months running with shooting nerve pain down my legs I felt comfortably pain free. Absolutely saturated and muddy I reached the top in one of the coolest mountain huts I have ever been in. I am not sure if this was because it was filled with cookies, cake and hot tea which was perceived like an oasis for my very hungry body!! 6th female in Dutch Vertical KM Championships made me extremely happy after so many months of struggling with injury and not having been able to really push myself. Jantiene finished not long after me and satisfied we made our way down.

The vertical km took a bit longer than planned as we never gave it any thought that the 6.5km we run up we also had to go down and to save our legs for the sky race the following day we easily jogged back. We arrived back at the hotel at 10pm and there was no food left. All we really wanted to do was sleep (which had become a recurrent theme on this trip) so after a hot shower, a few more yoghurts we turned out the lights.

We seriously paid the price for our own stupidity of not eating the next day during the sky race!!! My garmin told me my recovery was poor in the first 10 minutes of the run, not ideal! This was going to be a long day out I thought to myself. Without carrying any race nutrition I was hallucinating off giant burgers and pizza's between feed stations and turned into some sort of an octopus grabbing as much nutrition I could, filling up my pockets in a minimum amount of time staggering through the areas they offered food. I had done some pretty extreme things in my time but this race was absolutely insane, I felt utterly alive with adrenaline flowing through my veins whilst having to focus every second of this 6 hour long adventure making sure I would not disappear off the steep cliffs. " I was thinking about you a lot during the race" my coach Nico said afterwards "the crazy downhill's and traverse ridges, Nienke is going to really suffer!!" he laughed. It was one unbelievable experience! I run up and down things I never thought I was capable off ignoring the thoughts in my head that a slight mistake would end up in a visit to the hospital.

 Jantiene and I crossed paths the whole length of the race with me catching her on the climbs only for her to pass me again on the descents!! with 10km's to go I was sent in the wrong direction by a very friendly smiley Italian which added a very unwelcome climb to an already very hilly race, after which I had to really push to reach the cut of times for this race designed for world class sky runners!! After 27km and close to 2600m of climbing it was one of the most satisfying finishes I had had in a long time. Jantiene who crossed the line just before me welcomed me with a huge smile. "Apparently it does not get much more extreme than this" she laughs, what an introduction to sky running!!
Proud of our well deserved medals!!
Although we had big plans to take the dance floor by storm that night, our legs had very different idea's and there was not much more energy left than for eating pizza and recapping the adventures of the day with great friends.

A big thank you to Alke Staal for impeccable organisation of the Dutch Sky Running Championships, and everyone else involved creating another unforgettable weekend!! I am quite looking forward to build on my MTB mojo over winter but who knows, I might be back next year!!

"Dream the impossible dream, fight the unbeatable foe, strive with your last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star"

Enjoying some relaxation at last!