"A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to old dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
We came, we climbed, we conquered. It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves! Mont Blanc, what an experience, what a mountain. The mountain that just keeps going, incline after incline from rock climbing to pick-axing your way through ice and snow one step at a time. Pushing all your limits mentally and physically for 3 days in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius. It takes pure grit and determination to reach the summit of Europe's highest peak, standing at 4834m, surrounded by the best team. But wow, what a view.
Before I delve deep into my experience, let's look at some facts. Mont Blanc is located in the French Alps on the boarder of Italy. It is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. Although 20,000 adventurists climb Mont Blanc annually, statically 1 person a week can die trying to summit and only 1 in 15 actually reach the top per trip.
There are several routes up Mont Blanc; we took the Gouter Hut Route which is the classic and most popular route to climb Mont Blanc. Although sometimes referred to as the “normal route”, the Gouter route still commands respect, and requires fitness and acclimatisation as well as skills in scrambling and using crampons.
We took the Bellevue cable car from Les Houches and then the Tramway du Mont Blanc to the Nid d’Aigle at 2372m to get to the start of our trek.
This part of the trek is around 3 hours long. The path gets gradually steeper and more exposed as it zig-zags up to the ridge to our first stop Tete Rousse hut, where we stayed for the night. We had to cross the Tete Rousse Glacier to reach the refuge and the first snow we crossed - we knew I would be warm in shorts! Starting here on day two allows you to cross the Grand Couloir in the cooler temperatures of the night rather than in the heat of the day which is much safer.
Summit Day, Friday 13 July 2018
Our day started at 4am with coffee and breakfast before grabbing our equipment and setting off before sunrise. We were harnessed together in groups of 3 - they chose who paired by assessing our fitness levels and of course me being me wanted to be up front! This is when we started on a steady incline to the Grand Coulior.
This is the most dangerous part of the ascent to the Gouter hut which was our next stop, and serious rockfall accidents occur here regularly so you have to be very aware of your surroundings and listen to your guides.
Some of the path before the Couloir is exposed to rockfall too, with only the very last few metres before the crossing being sheltered. It is glaciated terrain and crampons are required to help grip the snow. We also had our walking poles and pickaxes with harnesses and ropes for safety.
It is essential to move quickly up to the Couloir, pause to check for rocks, and then move quickly across it. Although it is only 30 metres, it requires the most focus. After this you have a 700m vertical climb to the Gouter hut with risks of stonefall so its important to keep moving and aware of your surroundings. The view after this hard climb is incredible, standing at 3800m with the sun still low in the sky. A true sense of achievement!
If you were lucky and quick enough up the vertical climb you could have a second breakfast before the final part of the ascent.
The final ridge before summit, the Bosses Ridge, is an exposed ridge which requires concentration and good crampon technique. This route takes about 4 and a half hours to reach the summit and it really is the mountain that keeps going - you don’t really realise the immensity until the descent!
I had to dig deep and use all the mental strength I had to get me up one very small step at a time but it was 3 steps forward 2 steps back for some parts, with gradients steeper than black ski runs. This is why I train my mind harder than anything because what your mind believes your body will perceive, your body can achieve anything, it is usually your mind you have to convince. For me, my fitness wasn’t the problem it was the perseverance on a challenge that only gets harder as you progress.
This challenge was possibly my toughest one yet, but that only excites me because I’ve pushed limits and understand what I am capable of. The mountain has made a new woman out of me, and a more fierce one at that.
Aside from the immensity of this experience, it was life-changing and unforgettable, my lungs did not complain once. They did not struggle in altitude at all - trekking with Cystic Fibrosis is always a little more challenging with having to take all your medications with you on the mountain but I must say, all the times I have found myself at high altitude I have never felt fitter or stronger and my lungs felt clear and healthy. I believe for me it is these extreme challenges that keep me motivated and alive, thriving for more. After all, this is what I am most passionate about.
It is true to say that a mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to old dimensions. If you have the courage to find a challenge that pushes your limits then do it because your life will be changed for the better, not only for the experience itself but for what you gain! You will know what you are capable of, who you are, what you want out of life and most of all no feeling can beat achieving something that tests everything you’ve got. Trust me when I say, do it once, you will be hooked on finding more.
I am a true believer that we are here for a sole purpose and mine is to leave a legacy behind by being happy, defying odds and living outrageously. I love adventuring despite what others think or what I am told by doctors because of my Cystic Fibrosis and doing extreme challenges such as climbing Mont Blanc which push my mind and body to grow.
I feel so happy, grateful, and lucky to not only have had this experience and stood on the summit that only 5% of the world will see, but to have been able to connect with my inner soul in the mountains with some amazing friends and laugh a lot and it’s only added fuel to the fire and my burning desire to keep adventuring and seeing what I can achieve.
Fill your life with adventures to have stories to tell, it will fill your soul with so much depth, connection to the earth, happiness and love and strengthen your mind knowing you can achieve anything you put your mind to.
About the author: Sophie Grace Holmes was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis as a child, a condition that affects the lungs and leaves most sufferers with a life expectancy of only 37 years. She is an inspirational speaker, trainer, and blogger and continues to show the world that through hard work and determination, you can defy the odds and prove that anything is possible.
Cycling can get a little scary at times, especially on busy roads or technical race courses. If you find that your training and racing is being hindered by a lack of bike handling skills and nervousness on the roads, we're here to help.
Practice your bike handling skills
This is something that all cyclists should be doing in order to improve their training and racing. If you lack proper bike handling skills, you will find that technical courses are a nightmare and that unforeseen circumstances like bad weather could mean a premature end to your race.
Skills such as riding on loose gravel, on wet roads, down steep descents, and round sharp bends are things that come with practice. Start off slow and somewhere you know well and build yourself up; the more you practice, the more your confidence will grow. Other skills such as single-leg riding can be practised indoor on a Wattbike, turbo trainer, or even just a stationary gym bike.
Ride in a group
They say there's safety in numbers, and this can certainly be true when cycling. When cycling in a fairly large group, you'll find that hazards become less scary as you can watch those up ahead tackle them first and motorists should give you more space.
Of course, that's not to say that cycling in a group is always safer and that you're guaranteed not to have run-ins with cars. However, working together as a team to overcome tough conditions can really help with your confidence.
Other skills to practice when riding in a group include making contact with other cyclists and riding very close to others. Your instinctive reaction when touched by another cyclist will be to look around at the person you've touched, but it's important to stay looking ahead at where you're going. Practice making quick contact with a friend or fellow group rider and then move on to practising keeping your hand on their shoulder as you ride. Skills such as this can improve your confidence in mass start events and will mean you know what to expect.
Get comfortable in the saddle
Receiving a proper bike fit from an accredited bike store can make a huge difference to your cycling, and it doesn't have to be expensive. Unless you're looking to really maximise your power output and aero position for serious racing, a basic bike fit can be inexpensive or even free of charge.
If you're comfortable in the saddle and your position over the handlebars feels good, you will feel much safer on the bike. If you constantly feel like you're over-reaching for the handlebars and brakes or that your legs are overstretched and you can't reach the ground comfortably, you might feel more nervous on your bike. Once you feel secure and like the bike is an extension of yourself, you will be able to handle it much more confidently and co-operate better together. Make sure you're in control of the bike and not the other way round!
Do a sportive
If you're nervous to ride on busy roads or in places you don't know well, it's a good idea to ride an organised race or sportive. These will always be well sign-posted so that you can't go the wrong way and you will be forced to face any challenging conditions that you'd usually avoid on your own.
This will be a great way of getting out of your comfort zone by riding somewhere unknown and having to face challenges head-on.
Getting in cold, open water can hold fear or confusion for many athletes, or others just simply don’t enjoy it. Whatever happens, it’s good to be prepared; follow these tips for preparing for the open water.
When you get in open water, take time to familiarise yourself and if you can't get comfortable, at least get acclimatised. The number one issue for panic is people setting off too quickly, either just to get on or to get warm. This spikes your heart rate and your breathing and will likely set off any anxiety that will become more difficult to control. Let your wetsuit float you up in the water and try to relax back so you can float on your back – and then on your front too.
Identify the struggles of swimming in open water
Going off course. Panicking. Swimming into people. Letting your form collapse. Maybe you’re not being used to swimming in a wetsuit. Unforeseen conditions like strong currents and surf/chop.
The number one remedy to the majority if not all of the above is practice, practice, practice.
It's true that it is hard to get a lot of practice in open water because of schedules, weather conditions, and other commitments. So continue to swim your regular sessions every week. But as the race approaches take one or two of those swims into open water, whether it be a lake, estuary, or ocean. Make it as high a priority as possible.
Swimming in the pool is not completely different from swimming in the open water – but it does have its own vagaries. So to get faster at the latter, you need to do it more. And not just on race day.
Use these swims to test your wetsuit, practice sighting, get used to not seeing the bottom, and practice with others. Also, work on longer intervals at race pace. Some people will benefit from maintaining a more constant rhythm – others will need to readjust from having a rest and a push off at the end of every length!
Prepare as much as you can in the pool
Swimming in the pool still has its place. Even though you race in the open water, you should still keep up your regular weekly pool sessions, especially if your form is still weak. Of course, you can work on technique in the lake or sea, but it becomes more challenging. Pool swims are important to develop speed and improve technique without the distractions that open water provides. Use the pool to focus on your form and drill work as well as a few race pace speed sets for time so that you can monitor your splits.
If open water is simply out of the question, simulate the chop, surf, and congestion by trying to swim in a lane with three to four other people at the same time. It is tough but it will mimic that race start well. Also, close your eyes while swimming to mimic losing your ability to guide yourself with the black line (obviously only do this if you have an empty lane!) Turning before the wall is also a great way to simulate the stop-go of open water swimming, and not resting between lengths.
Swimming in open water – at least with a wetsuit – should be quicker than swimming in the pool. So make sure that you are prepared for swimming in open water. Practise putting your wetsuit on so that it fits properly over your shoulders. Get yourself comfortable entering the water so that your heart rate doesn’t take such a shock to the system come race day.
Read more: Tips For Swimming In Open Water
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and Sundried ambassador.
Once you’re comfortable in the water and swimming further and easier than before, the next challenge is to get quicker! Either because you want to beat your friends, set personal bests, finish further up the results, or potentially even qualify for age group teams.
There are three keys to getting faster at swimming:
- Reducing frontal resistance to the water
- Pulling/kicking with purpose
- Not rushing your stroke
Reducing your resistance to the water
This will mean that you can move faster and further with the same level of effort and this is a real foundation to strong and fast swimming. If you are able to focus on good posture in the water – i.e. looking down, lengthening your spine and engaging your core, then you’ll be in a really good place.
A simple trick to focus this is to streamline when you push off the wall every time. This is not cheating – a comment that I get from many athletes! This is a skill that will help you travel faster and with better form, improving the quality of your swims. Imagine it like a squat jump. When you push off the wall, if possible, squeeze your ears between your biceps with your hands together above your head. If shoulder mobility doesn’t allow this, just keep your arms in front of you but still aiming to tuck your chin down toward your chest.
All this will help lengthen your spine and keep your head in the right position – it’s your reset point every length. Finally, when you push off, you will automatically engage your core – meaning that your first few strokes will be among your best ever. Your challenge is then to try and maintain that as far down each length as you can!
Pulling and kicking with purpose
With resistance reduced, you can look to engage with the water more rather than moving your arms and legs just for the sake of moving them. Kick drills can teach you to kick smoothly rather than panic splashing your legs around. You can kick streamlined (see above), on your front or on your back, or do side kick to work on body roll – in any case, make sure that your legs are pushing against the water.
With your arms, you can do sculling drills to get used to feeling pressure of the water against your hands and forearms – and transferring this into doing your full stroke. Swimming with fists can have the same effect. Whatever drills you end up doing, mix them into doing full stroke so that you can feel where the drill is trying to work on in your stroke. Focus on each kick or pull having some purpose rather than trying to just do things for the sake of doing them!
Not rushing your stroke
Finally, with regards to swimming faster I like to think of the phrase "less haste, more speed". If you look at the top athletes in most sports – Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter in rugby, Messi or Ronaldo in football, rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, swimmer Katie Ledecky etc – they never look like they are rushing, even though they are doing things at incredibly high speed.
Some of this comes down to the fact that they are very well practised. On top of this though, they know that they have all the time that they need to undertake the skills that they are doing. There is no rush. In the case of Glover & Stanning, or Katie Ledecky, their stroke rates are incredibly high – but they don’t look like they are rushing things. Again, think about connecting with the water and pushing – rather than just trying to throw your arms and legs around aimlessly to go quicker. Effort does not necessarily equal speed!
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete, triathlon coach, and Sundried ambassador.
Getting in the water can be incredibly daunting for some people. 20% of the UK’s adults are scared of the water or can’t swim. A lot of people doing triathlon or contemplating doing one don’t enjoy swimming or are new to the concept. So, starting out can be a tense process.
There are 3 main steps when getting started with swimming:
Putting your face in the water
This will make your life easier and you won’t then get a horrible shock if you get splashed.
Learning to float
Most humans will naturally float to some degree. Maybe not perfectly (men especially), but if you can learn to trust the water to support your body weight, you can learn to allow your body to relax.
Frantically trying to kick and pull will spike your heart rate and breathing rate, which are counter-intuitive to feeling that calm and zen feeling that being in the water can give.
My go-to when teaching to swim is to get people floating on their back – aiming for some sort of starfish type position. It takes some confidence that you might not entirely have, but the trick is to try and stay still and fight the urge to kick or pull to keep yourself stable on the surface. These things will lift you in the water, but then you will sink again to your starting point so there is no real gain. Once you find that you can trust the water to support you, you’ll be a fair bit calmer!
The second thing to do when getting water-ready is to do some sink downs. Take a big breath of air, sink under the water/push yourself under and breath out – then stand up. Simple! In practise, if you’re not so comfortable it can be a little challenging to start with, so really force the air out of your lungs. When you come to swim this will be key, as it will allow you to breathe in efficiently when the time comes.
The final stage to getting started in the water is getting comfortable on your front. My favourite drill to teach this skill is the dead man float.
Start face down, completely relaxed and floppy. You should feel your legs and arms hang down (for the vast majority). Then repeat the float but with 3 distinct changes:
- Lengthen your spine – pull your ears away from your shoulders, keeping your neck neutral
- Lift your arms up in front of you so that your ears are between your biceps (keeping your hands in the water)
- Engage your core – pull your belly button toward your spine, and squeeze your glute muscles.
For the most part, people should feel their legs raise up toward the surface – if not completely then at least in part. This gives us a starting position to work from in the water. From here, you can practically do anything with your arms and legs, and you should get smooth forward movement.
One point to remember; swimming is incredibly counter-intuitive. Human nature is to want to look where you are going – but this will drop your legs in the water and make it harder to pull and to breathe. Survival instinct is to want to lift your head to take a breath – but the same thing happens. Your brain will tell you to frantically kick your legs to keep you afloat and moving, but a smooth relaxed and slower kick will be far more productive and less energy-sapping. If you can overrule your panic and discomfort reactions, it will make your life in the water far easier.
About the author: John Wood is a triathlete and triathlon coach.