The Unbirthday

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The wind was strong, my hair had come alive whipping around my face like Medusa and around us the coast roared like a dragon from its cave.  We had arrived…

Training and racing around the world gives little time for get togethers. Real friends are for life, not just for Christmas, or importantly not just for the highlights. I have some wonderful friends and quality time spent with them is rare and very precious. We are all so busy, life is busy, nobody seems to have the time, but it is important to make time. Make time for the important things, they might not even seem to be the big things, but special moments, conversations, laughter around a board game, or Jenga in our case, hugs with your best friends, those are the little things that mean the biggest.

I had decided I was well overdue some time-out with my closest friends. After London 2012 I had an awesome big party to celebrate everything that had brought me to that point, and to thank everyone along the way. Rio did not seem right for this, apart from the games themselves not being so memorable for me (well not in the right way anyway), I was totally focused on the New York marathon once I’d recovered from my illness last September/October.  Once the marathon was done, it was headlong into seeing what I could do on the bike, my goal was to earn GB programme selection and that meant giving absolutely everything I had, physically and financially to my handcycling training last winter.  It was a scary jump to make, leaving the track and athletics that had brought me to that point so far, but I had to leap, I had to see how high I could fly, I wanted to take the risk.

One year later, a few battle scars, a handful of tears, lots of smiles and a couple of international medals and national title jersey later, I am happy to look back and know it was the right decision.  My GB cycling journey so far has been a steep learning curve, and there is still so much to learn, but I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Great Britain Para Cycling Team since last May and I am really excited about the future, and very hungry for more as we work towards 2020, today in fact marking 1000 days to go to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Since this time last year, a good few milestones have been hit and a birthday had, one that I didn’t celebrate or get a birthday cake. It was a nice day, I took myself off for a sea paddle in the summer sun, and despite the £100 parking fine for my 7 minute car park stay, I was also happy with my alone time surrounded by the sea and rich coastal wildlife, but I was happy the next day was just another day to live life.  Birthdays always evoke mixed emotions, another mark in the sand of getting older, in sport even more so apparent as your track competitors coming in have yet to take their GCSEs let alone learn the lessons of life that is Sambuca and dancing in a fountain at 2am in front of the town council offices.  Yet at the same time a birthday really should be celebrated. Growing old is a privilege only granted to some, another year older is another page in the storybook, memories made and good times shared, so make those good times as often as you can and really really good.  Now the summer racing season was over it was a chance to regroup, breathe a bit deeper and keep that promise to friends to make time. And here was born the Unbirthday weekend.

I made it clear to my friends that this was not a birthday party, there was no pressure, it was about time together doing what we love, getting outside, but there was one very important rule.  The rule was, THERE MUST BE CAKE.

I had arranged for us to have a beautiful National Trust property for the weekend on the wild and wonderful Pembrokeshire coast.  I had not been there much myself but everything about it seemed just what I was looking for.  The house was for 10 people, there were 8 of us so I knew there’d be plenty of space but we weren’t planning on spending much time inside so even if it was cold and draughty, we’d wrap up warm and just make the most of getting outside and filling our lungs with sea air.

We all planned to drive up on the Friday.  Everyone was coming from a a different part of the UK; Derby, Essex, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, so we all made our way up separately, after work / horses / training.  My brother was also joining us, he came down to mine the night before to break the journey up and we drove up together.  He arrived at mine bearing the biggest unicorn helium balloon I have ever seen, which he had driven down with in his passenger seat.  That set the tone of the weekend to come.

Cars packed full with bikes, wet-suits, warm clothes, waterproofs, food, board games, party outfits (more on that later) and of course the giant unicorn balloon, we set off over the border into wales towards the West coast.  The sun was shining as we passed castles straight out of film sets, rolling green hills and glimpses of the coastline to our left, leading us on a very Welsh adventure.  We planned to stop en route for a drink, but by the time we finally stopped, we were only 16 miles from our destination, so after a quick toilet visit and coffee each at a ‘local’ traveller stop, where Welsh Yoda sat in the corner, we set back off on our way, following the sun, with a mission to get to the west coast to watch the sun set.

We found the farm track leading to the farmhouse that was to be our basecamp for the weekend relatively easy.  It was certainly remote, it was definitely wild, and that was exactly what we wanted.  I drove past the entrance and headed straight to Freshwater West beach at the end of the road, I wanted to get out the car and breathe in the salty air, I wanted to feel the wind around me, awakening my spirit and stoking my fire for adventure.  Tim, my brother followed me and quickly pulled up in a small car park opposite the bay. We threw on coats and woolly hats and got out to take in the beautiful site that greeted us.  I could say we were blown away, we literally were!  The wind was strong, my hair had come alive whipping around my face like Medusa and around us the coast roared like a dragon from its cave.  We had arrived, this was perfect.  The wide expanse of sand beneath us in the bay was in contrast to the rocky edges, lone standing cliffs, separated from the mainland by a passage of time.  Big boulders, smaller stones, rocks covered in dark seaweed.  The grey skies and white clouds seemed to mirror the grey sea, its white horses galloping towards the shore and crashing on the rocks.  The air excited me, and I couldn’t wait for everyone else to arrive to share this wonderfully wild place with them.  It was time to go find adventure HQ.

We followed the farm track down through green fields to a courtyard where we were met by Mike and his adorable retriever.  I had been speaking to Mike from the National Trust on the phone, he had been very helpful and it was really great to now meet him in person and thank him for his help.  It never gets any more normal when you’re greeted with “I’ve been reading about you” or similar, I always hope people are not disappointed with the real me, only yesterday in another meeting I was met with “you have make up on, I didn’t recognise you from your photo”, haha, the joys of racing images adorning the internet!  It was great chatting with Mike, we had some common ground and I loved hearing about the area and what it’s like to live here.  Mike then let us settle in to our weekend home and went on his way.  First mission, put the kettle on.

I had seen photos of the property which looked lovely but was keen to see it with my own eyes.  It was much bigger than I imagined, once the farmhouse, it had the iconic farmhouse kitchen, in its centre, a long wooden kitchen table and sat on it, the biggest tea pot I had ever seen.  This was my kind of basecamp!  Downstairs was totally accessible,  there was a boot / surfboard room at one end, and a wet room, through the kitchen was a cosy sitting room with wood burning stove and then onto the hall, with a large bedroom at the other end.  Up the stairs split to the left and right.  To the right was a bedroom and bathroom, while to the left lay a long landing with three further large bedrooms and bathrooms.  For such a large house it felt so very cosy.  The wind was roaring around outside, banging at the windows trying to find its way in, but inside was warm and so very homely.  I could have happily moved in there and then.  In true Goldilocks style, I methodically tried out every bed in every room, and then at least once more just to make sure.  The trouble was, they were all just lovely, my decision was a difficult one.  I opted for the bedroom at the end, it looked out towards the coast over the farmland, and although I couldn’t quite see the sea, I felt comfort that between it and me were simply fields and this window, the rawness of the Pembrokeshire coast was just out there and I couldn’t wait to get exploring it.

Tim and I made ourselves at home, unpacked the cars and loaded the fridge. We had found what we now call the greatest radio station of all time, Dragon Radio, playing in their own words, “Wales’s greatest hits”, in other words, eighties-tastic! We couldn’t have planned it better, while Dirty Dancing and Starship played in the background, the kettle was on and the giant unicorn balloon took pride of place at the end of the table.  We happily waited for the others to arrive.

One by one my friends arrived.  Some found us easier than others and once darkness fell, between the clear lack of landmarks to see to navigate and the lack of mobile phone signal at the farmhouse which resulted in one of us heading up stairs every few minutes to check the phone for SOS calls as that was the only place we had signal, one friend in particular (Lucie!) very nearly spent the night out on the beach in her van as tiredness grew and patience lessened.  We were both very pleased to see her finally arrive just before midnight and fed her the remains of the pizza and sweet potato wedges we’d cooked up earlier in the evening.  Those who hadn’t met before soon became friends, bonding over tea and Prosecco and chatting into the night sat along the huge farmhouse kitchen table, the heart of every family and friend-family.

We had come up with a plan of heading to the beach in the morning, we didn’t care what the weather had planned, we planned hats and gloves, beach exploring and wet toes from a sneaky paddle for the braver (sillier) ones amongst us.  We all made our ways to bed, most people had their own rooms, with the only couple of the group taking the double room. Lizzie decided to bunk up with me in the end twin room, having gone through University with Lizzie and Lucie but hadn’t spend nearly as much time together as we’d like to these last few years, we decided we’d have our own Hartpury reunion and camp out together, for old times.  Lizzie had even demoted herself to the camp bed in the room so Lucie could have the second twin, it was only a small futon style camp bed and we both spent best part of half an hour trying to work out how the bottom half matched up with the top without the step down we could only manage.  In the end having been defeated by the futon and giving it a Princess and the Pea type test, Lizzie was happy to give it a go, afterall as I told her, she’d hardly reach the bottom half anyway so it should be no bother!  She didn’t wallop me.  Lucie however had other ideas and after cracking us all up stating very sternly that no-one should make any noise at night as she will hear it and that she must only sleep in a double bed, with ear plugs, in a cold room, she was happy to be directed to the last empty room once we convinced her that we could push both beds together just fine and I’d try really hard to refrain from needing a midnight wee and waking her up coming down the landing clicking my crutches. Yeah, we all know how that’s likely to go.  Lucie headed up the stairs first, laden with enough kit for a full on mountain expedition.  About 2 minutes later she came back downstairs with a worried look on her face.  “There’s a problem” she says.  “There’s a spider in my room!”  Lucie doesn’t do spiders.  Em goes to her rescue, complete with an empty glass.  Only Em doesn’t do spiders either!  This I had to see.  At this point, Alabama, my brother and Lizzie had already gone to bed, Nick and I followed the girls into Lucie’s room to check out the situation.  There was some squealing from both girls but I was actually quite impressed with their bravery and spider catching techniques.  The next step was to release said spider out of the bedroom window.  Now here lies a little problem that soon became apparent.  I had earlier found out about the flies.  Being on a working farm, bugs and flies are all part of the environment and as it had gotten colder, the sleepy flies were looking to get inside the warm where they could.  I had already caught around 8 of them since arriving in my bedroom, using the slow, gotcha method I find most effective.  Standing in Lucie’s room watching was happening, I knew we were heading towards flymageddon.  Nick opened the bedroom window, Em and Lucie screamed as the spider rattled around in the upturned glass, neither of them knowing how they were going to release it without losing it back into the room, or worse, upon themselves.  Meanwhile in they flew. Em, Nick and Lucie oblivious, me “erm guys.. erm, did I mention the flies..? We seem to have another problem.”  The girls were proud of their spider evacuation achievements, as was I, that was until everyone saw what we had next to deal with.  To be honest, there wasn’t loads of flies, a handful, and Lucie did even say she’d just ignore them.  But this is Lucie!  She’d hear a mouse walk down the landing, in slippers!  I know just how annoying the buzz…. buzz of a single fly at night is, let alone multiple.  It was no good, they had to die.  Lucie was still working out the logistics of getting the beds together now the spider had moved out, she shoved one to the other with great vigour.  The only problem there was, I was standing between the two on my crutches, I can’t move fast, and I can’t step out of the way, so as the bed hit me at my shins, down I went onto the other bed behind me, half shouting “Lucie!” and mostly in a heap of laughter.  If anyone had been watching the three of us in there I swear they’d have thought it was a scene from a comedy film, and it was only going to get worse.  Once I’d been helped back up and out of the crack between the beds, we started to deal with the fly issue.  I went with my proven technique of stealth grabbing, silent but deadly, while Lucie opted for the ‘hit them as had as you can with a packet of baby wipes’.  By this point I couldn’t see how anyone else in the house was asleep, despite my best efforts of flymageddon management.  What I said next I clearly did not think through.  In my head it made sense, as things often do, but I said it and the others did it.  “If you turn the light off they’ll move away from the bulb!” …… We all stand there in pitch blackness.  A second of silence until complete hysterical laughter breaks out.  “Now what?!”  With the light back on we clear up the last remaining baby wipe beaten beasties and head off to bed, still laughing.

Saturday morning arrives and some are more keen to get up and out of bed than others.  Lizzie and I were chatting into the small hours and laughing at the nights exploits, we were both really tired but it was so fab to spend time chatting mainly rubbish, just like we used to.  I hoped I had not woken Lucie in the night, but more importantly I hoped I had not given Lizzie a partial moonie as I attempted to creep out through the bedroom door down to the toilet.  I say attempted to creep, the doors were heavy and noisy and we all know, as much as you try and make no noise, exactly the opposite happens.  Lizzie’s bed was nearest to the door and I had gone to bed in my T Shirt and pants, that was fine, it was dark, that was until I opened the noisy bedroom door to a shining beacon of light that was the landing light we hadn’t switched off, immediately illuminating my bottom.  I just preyed Lizzie didn’t open her eyes else the spider would have seemed a far less frightening night terror.  I asked Lizzie this in the morning and to my relief she hadn’t woken up.  That night I promised to switch off the landing light AND wear better covering bottoms.  With that, we were up and heading for a hot cup of tea and breakfast.

We were all wrapped up and out the door just after breakfast, all excited to get to the beach and have a good walk / push along the way.  When we woke, the wind was howling from the west through the end window, it was raining too but we weren’t put off.   That and the fact that the strong winds had caused a power cut at the house which resulted in me cooking Lizzie’s eggs in my camping stove on the kitchen table.  We had lost our weekend soundtrack of Dragon Radio in the storm so we headed out to make our own music.  Everyone layered up, boots on, best adventuring foot forward.

The farmhouse was part of National Trust campsite on the farm, the site was closed as the season finished so it was just us to explore this wonderful place.  Out the back of the house was a fire-pit, this looked ideal to sit around toasting marshmallows and singing songs, we all said how we’d love to come back in the summer, it was quite the magical place and a feeling of being far enough away to feel like you’d really escaped, yet a feeling of home in a comforting wild nature kind of way.  After our first group selfie of the day and once we’d all agreed on our direction of travel, we headed off over the fields and followed the track down to the coast, guided by the sound of the sea and the westerly winds.

The weather improved as we neared our destination, the rain cleared and even the winds seemed to lessen once we’d got outside.  We might as well had skipped our way to the bay, we were all very excited to be out on our first mini adventure.  The tide was much higher than when Tim and I visited the night before, the sandy beach was nowhere to be seen, as if someone had come and stolen it overnight and left a dark stony covering as far as we could see.  I slowly pulled myself across the stones on my crutches, not easy on a moving stoned floor especially with the added wind knocking me sideways.  Everyone began exploring and searching for treasures, photos were a plenty, landscapes, each other, group pictures, sea selfies, all memories collecting to look back with a smile of those magic moments.  We ventured towards the sea, I certainly felt its calling.  I can never resist the lure of the sea, wherever I am.  I was intrigued to see how cold it was so I took off my boots and socks.  I dabbled my toes of my right foot on the edge of the surf, it was surprisingly not that cold.  This only made me want more so while leaning on my friend, I awkwardly pulled up my waterproof trousers, tracky bottoms and thermals to just above my knees and pulled myself back towards the sea.  At this point I was the only one sea-bound,  everyone else perhaps had the better idea of watching from the shore, cameras at the ready of course.  The lapping waves were temperamental, they didn’t seem to come up as far every time and I found myself having to go further towards the breaking water to actually get in the sea.  I quickly learnt this was Mother Nature having a good chuckle at me and the error of my ways.  I saw the sea coming at me at pace, I tried to pull myself back to the beach in haste but the pull of the surface water from the beach was strong as I tried to balance precariously on the sodden sand on  my crutches.  With that I was hit from behind with an almighty splash, the wave crashed up my legs, hitting my bum, to my high pitched yelp and doubled up laughter, as soon as that one hit along came another, double barrelled!  I was laughing so much, as was everyone else watching me, cameras poised hoping they got ‘the shot’.  Now pretty soaked I got myself back on the stones with a little help from the others, when again we were hit by the fast shallow water sneaking up and overtaking our escape.  Now I wasn’t the only one with wet feet.  My boots and socks went back on despite being wet and covered in sand, Lizzie had taken to walking through the waters edge in her trainers having already gotten soaked and we all ventured further up the beach towards the larger rocks in search of rock pools.

The different colours and texture of the rock were incredible, so many patterns, shapes, smooth, rough, pitted like cheese, striped deep red straight edged rocky spurs, and amongst it all small shells so delicate and beautiful.  The bay floor was a storybook in itself, we all longed to know its tales of centuries gone by.  We made our own stories, sitting at the back of a cave in the cliff face I imagined pirates coming ashore at night to hide their loot amongst the rocks, or young men during the wars hiding out in the safety and secrecy of the cliffs caves before making their way to a nearby farmstead.

The rock pools were vast.  Though in complete contrast to their neighbouring sea, just the other side of the rocks.  The sea crashed around us, spray reared up the rocky faces and choppy waves crashed into each other out in the deep.  The pools were practically still, almost millpond-like. They were deep, none of us tested quite how deep apart from me sticking one of my crutches down as far as I could, Lucie and I did say we wished we’d had our wetsuits with us that morning as we’d been tempted to by the glass-like mermaid pools within the safety of the rocky boundary.

Thankfully none of us got any wetter during our morning’s beach adventure and after we’d all re-grouped from our walks, stone skimming, cave exploring, rock scrambling, shell searching, we were happy to see the tide had not come up much further so could still take the better exit option of back across the shore from where we had come.

We found our way back to the house, all a bit red faced and wind battered, and settled around the big kitchen table, power back on and with it Dragon Radio, to the giant teapot full of hot piping tea and a slice of well earned fruit cake for everyone.

… Saturday afternoon took us out through Pembroke and over to Freshwater East where we’d been recommended to check out for some sea kayaking.  We’d been told that Freshwater East was a much calmer bay as protected, as long as we didn’t venture out of the bay to the left, as we’d likely find ourselves being pulled down towards the Severn estuary.  Right was fine if we so fancied, but to stay away from the left.  This bay was indeed a lot calmer than over in Freshwater West where we were earlier, it had quite a different feel to it, compared to Freshwater West where there are no houses, no cafes, no shops, no anything, just wild, here was more like a small coastal tourist area, there were benches for people to stop and take in the views, a small holiday village and a scattering of houses coming down the steep road to the bay. The holiday village was clearly out of season and as the cold wind whirled around us all outside, we were glad to head inside to the bar to a hot drink.  We warmed up with our hands around hot chocolates and coffees and made plans for our kayak trip the next day.

… Back at base, Saturday night was party night.  I’d offered to cook, spaghetti bolognese and a veggi version for me, Nick lit the fire which instantly made the house so toasty and everyone got changed into their party clothes.

Of course this was an Unbirthday, and everyone between them had gone along the theme of such celebrations.  That theme being unicorns.  Every one of us re-emerged from our magical lairs, dressed in our very best unicorn.  Lizzie and Alabama were both rainbow unicorns, Tim wore a very fetching pink unicorn hat, Ems and Nick wore matching purple unicorn onesies in true Mr & Mrs unicorn style, I opted for the traditional white unicorn with pink mane, tail and tummy and even glittered up my unicorn make up for full effect, while Lucie wore unicorn leggings, a unicorn t-shirt and was part of a giant white wearable toy unicorn, complete with bridle and reins.  I’m not sure if Lucie had ‘borrowed’ this from her daughter but in my opinion she did win the contest for the best party outfit of the night.

My wonderful unicorn friends had bought me gifts, and all of course wonderfully unicorn! I have a new lucky charm to add to my collection that comes all around the world with me racing, of a little unicorn with the words ‘follow your dreams’, from Em & Nick.  From Lizzie I have some new marathon race leggings, of course they have unicorns on them! And a new mug for my tea.  Lucie got me a every girl’s shower staple, a shower cap, that is a unicorn!! some funky pink Unbirthday glasses and a pink unicorn headband, sporting what can only be described as ‘the Katy Perry fringe’.  I loved this, it went well with my unicorn onesie, especially as I was finding it difficult to wear the unicorn’s face which was the hood of the onesie as being quite tall, pulling the face over my head gave me quite the unwanted wedgie.  Apart from saving me from certain discomfort, I became quite attached to my pinky purple fringe, my friends thought I should request this from my hairdresser, I did that today in fact, she was not in favour, sorry girls.  So unicorns did what unicorns do on party nights, we danced to Dragon Radio, snap chat filtered each other and played Jenga in front of the fire.  But there was one thing missing from this Unbirthday party that Nick was very excited about even more than me. Alabama had made a cake! AND a unicorn cake at that.  It had rainbows and mini unicorn heads on it with pink icing.  Inside was carrot and nuts, with a jammy filling between the layers.  Now this was an Unbirthday party, and the greatest Unbirthday I have ever had!  I didn’t plan for it, this was just my wonderful friends making it happen, and making it one to remember, unicorns forever.