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GB physio embarking on 8446 mile row across pacific ocean

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Coxless Crew

31 October 2013

In 2013 the world of athletics has seen a number of athletes complete astonishing feats, with sprinter Dwain Chambers scaling Mont Blanc and Paralympic gold medallist and double amputee Richard Whitehead completing 40 marathons in 40 days. The mental and physical punishment is enough to make anyone think why would you put your body through it?

Fast forward six months and British Athletics Paralympic Lead Physiotherapist Laura Penhaul is embarking on an 8,446 mile row across the Pacific Ocean. Natalie Miles, Ella Hewton and Emma Mitchell will join Penhaul on a quest to break three world records on the way-  first all-female team to row the Pacific Ocean, first ever team of four to row the Pacific Ocean and fastest ever Pacific Ocean row.

Leaving from Long Beach, California in April 2014, the group of girls are hoping to reach Cairns, Australia, their final destination in five to six months. The flight distance equivalent of their route is relative to London to Papua New Guinea, so what made the group take on this challenge?

“Our main charity for the expedition is Walking with the Wounded, which looks after wounded servicemen and women hoping to lead a normal life after severe injury.  Breast Cancer Care is also a involved as a partner charity and something that most people have a personal connection with. Around 55,000 people are now diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year, with about 400 of these being men. That's one in eight women.

However, before the embark on their challenge, the girls will have to raise a significant sum of money to make their aspirations a reality.

“We’ve still got over £80,000 to raise just to get to the start line, which is why we’re doing buy a mile. This would mean you’re a part of our journey and on our inspiration wall inside the cabin, which acts as inspiration in tough times.”

On a personal level, Penhaul has worked with the elite Paralympic setup for the last six years and has taken inspiration from a number of athletes especially Richard Whitehead, who became the first double amputee to run the length of the country in just 40 days.

“From a personal point of view the inspiration is to mentally and physically challenge myself. Doing marathons and triathlons as a hobby has never pushed me on a mental level. Working on Paralympic sports over the last six years, I’ve always admired the people that have overcome the mental challenges that they’ve had to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I like to relate to my athletes and although I’m never going to be an Olympic athlete, I just want to push myself to get some sort of understanding of what it’s like to push yourself through big challenges.

“I went and supported Richard on a few of his runs and met him at the finish line and he’s a huge inspiration as he is for the Paralympic team as a whole. That was his pinnacle in terms of pushing himself on a mental level. His feedback and input of what he learnt himself in terms of how he got up every morning was a massive learning curve for him. He said that it’s surprising how much your head space will give up on you, but your body will keep moving. There were some really tough times, but he was able to power through. Knowing that and knowing what he’s gone through is massive inspiration to me to not walk away from this.”   

Open water rowing can throw up a number of dangers and challenges, but what is Penhaul, who will be providing medical support on the trip most worried about?

“We’re lucky from a strength and conditioning point of view that we have Alex Wolf, the lead coach for GB rowing writing our programmes to help us increase our lean body mass (Penhaul will need to add an additional 12kg of muscle mass) and getting us fitter and stronger. The main areas that we need to address are low back injuries and rib stresses and alongside that, you've got medical risks of infection, fractures and concussion are the top three things you want to eliminate when you’re out in the water. In addition to that, we’ve got Imperial College supporting us with our rowing technique and we’re also drawing on knowledge from previous ocean rowers who are supporting us.

“The biggest dangers are managing things through a storm - the boat is pretty resilient, but we’ve got to be well prepared. Another thing would be losing communication, but you’d have other ways of mapping your journey. You calculate all the risks and put things in place to minimise those dangers. If someone falls overboard, we’re always lynched to the boat anyway so we won’t drift away. If someone gets injured or ill, there needs to be a plan in place to know where to get picked up from.”

With a substantial period spent away from loved ones and only a small area to manoeuvre themselves on the way to complete their eye-watering journey, a number of coping mechanisms will need to be taken into consideration.

“There are a number of strategies, but we’re lucky to have a sports psychologist supporting us and teaching different techniques to help us. But it’s all about enjoying the experience and keeping it light hearted. Simple things like having pictures of our family and having the opportunity to speak to them via satellite phone once a week will be a massive push. The fact we’re stopping in Samoa and Hawaii means that we can do Skype calls when we arrive which is a bonus. The biggest thing is if we can link to Twitter and blogs and see what their feedback is, then that will be huge – they can almost travel on the journey with us. We’ve also got an on board music system, which will depend on how much solar panel energy we have to power it. That will help keep us mentally active, even if that’s just for an hour.

“On the boat there are two cabins and our routine will be two hours on two hours off. In those two hours you’ve got to eat, sleep, stay hygienic and do any first aid and boat maintenance. Technically during the night we’ll probably only get one hours sleep but then we might change that routine when it gets to our weekend day. It’s important to keep a structure and a routine – everybody might stop for an hour to have lunch. It’s all about creating variability around a structure.”

The burning question many readers will have is how will they go to the toilet?

“Bucket and chuck it.”

'Follow their journey and recent events at http://coxlesscrew.com/events/