As an athlete, people are fascinated by my diet. ‘Are you on a special diet’ is always one of the questions I get asked and it never fails to surprise people when I answer, ‘no, actually. I’m just encouraged to eat what I want, and plenty of it’. Not the answer most people expect. You may be wondering about the title of this blog; well it is inspired by a rather fabulously delicious pistachio whirl pastry that I had one Wednesday from a wonderful bakery in bath, The Bertinent Bakery.
I enjoyed my pastry in the middle of the main shopping centre in Bath accompanied by the rather more traditional post-workout snack; a protein shake. As I sat there, in full, full kit wanker mode (GB plastered all over me) I thought people must be thinking I was ‘treating’ myself with the pastry, or wondering why an elite athlete would even make such a choice.
Just as I chose a pastry to form my post-workout snack, I also enjoy a hearty burger, fish and chips and dare I say, even the occasional beige meal of chicken nuggets and chips! This is not to say I don’t take my nutrition seriously, I do. And most the time I eat fresh, nutritious food which aligns with my training needs. Nutrition is one of my priorities and a major determining factor in my success on the sled.
Let me explain. I first missed a period (yep this blog is about periods, gotcha!) because of (most likely) low energy availability caused by stress in September 2016. The eighteen months that have passed since have seen, or rather not seen, a convincing menstrual cycle. I am on the pill so (so I have learned) not bleeding in the ‘pill-free’ week is not necessarily an indication of amenorrhea, however, I also lost body fat and weight, was fatigued and susceptible to dizziness and illness. Something was off-kilter.
I must emphasise that I was not consciously trying to lose weight or ‘shred’. If you look at many of the best female skeleton athletes in the world they are strong, powerful women. No thigh gaps here. I had nothing to gain by dropping weight or cutting fat – and not a lot to lose in the first place as I am naturally lean and light for my height. This story is not one of a girl striving to be lighter for perceived performance benefits as is so common in endurance sport, the dangers of which has been wonderfully highlighted by many female runners recently.
This story is the opposite. A struggle to put on weight, enough to allow my body to recover its menstrual cycle, find some energy and to regain some resilience against illness. I’ve probably lost a lot of you now. With so many people on a mission to lose weight it is hard to sympathise with the girl moaning about how hard it is to put on weight. Stay with me. We don’t talk about periods much. And we talk about not having a period even less. But it happens; and we shouldn’t turn a blind eye towards it.
I find my sport very stressful. It causes me a lot of anxiety which has a metabolic cost (ever lost weight because of stress?) as well as making my appetite non-existent at times. There are also specific challenges to appetite, including altitude and frequent travel across time zones. And on top of all of that, I am a fussy eater and European hotel food just doesn’t whet my appetite. Oh, and the cold, can’t forget the cold. And I’ve not even mentioned the energy expenditure from the actual training!
Fortunately, I am very well supported and have an understanding team of doctors, nutritionists and coaches that are there to help. Despite all the plans, the meetings, the measurements I failed to eat an adequate volume of food and pretty much lost weight all the way from October (pre-season) to the end of January. Losing 4 kg in total, muscle and crucially fat (of which I didn’t exactly have much in the first place). A compounding factor was my appetite disappearing because of not eating enough; talk about cruel. It would take me ages to eat a meal; I’d forget my snacks because life on tour is busy and every morning the scales would show a lower number than the day before. Which was stressful!
I was constantly teetering on the edge. If I got it wrong for just one meal, the knock-on effect on my energy would be huge. I’d want to sleep way more than usual, feel dizzy getting up from seated and everything was an effort. Not ideal for someone needing to throw themselves down a skeleton run at 70 mph a couple of times a day. I missed crucial training runs in Whistler, La Plagne and Altenberg; I was not managing my eating very well.
At the time, I thought I was doing my best to eat to the plan set out for me. Three meals, three (large) snacks. I had a meal replacement shake, could basically eat all the naughty food in the world but still wasn’t gaining. It took me the whole of February to realise I hadn’t been doing enough. Throughout the month, I had training camps in Germany and Norway. Camps are different from race weeks; they are more relaxed. Your time is less structured (or at least it was for me in these camps) and there is more ‘free’ time or eating time as I came to realise.
I could make eating my priority. My appetite returned and I was robust in my strategies including how to cope when something I didn’t like (and absolutely couldn’t eat). Basically, I relaxed. Other factors played a part including a lower energy expenditure because I didn’t spend so much time warming up as I would in a race. And my weight responded! I was constantly full, I’d be ready for bed but wouldn’t go to sleep before my evening bowl of cereal or yoghurt. Dairy was my lifeline; hello blue milk! It took a lot of effort and discipline but I finished the season at the same weight I started it – 68 kg. And I felt so much better for it, no missed days of training in February, a happier and healthier athlete.
Once the season ended I could make some changes that would allow the medical team to better investigate what might be going on with my hormones (if anything). This meant coming off the oral contraceptive pill. We’ve all heard the stories about coming off the pill haven’t we? Gain/lose weight, painful periods, acne, moody, emotional etc etc. I have been pleasantly surprised; yes, I have felt a bit more up and down but this accompanied the return of a menstrual cycle too! YAY! It only took about a month for my period to arrive, and I have had another since suggesting that where I am now is a healthy place for my body to be. It’s taken a lot of worry off my shoulders too meaning I can just concentrate on getting my meals in and training.
Obviously, I will need to have some robust strategies in place for next winter; one’s that recognise the time needed for me to get the food in. I’ll also work on some failsafe back-ups in case I get faced with offel again (Sigulda). But for now, I’ll take my body as it is; healthy and strong.
My first time … Whistler
I started this blog the day after I crashed in the Whistler race. I crashed in corner 13 (of 16), and lost my sled around corner 14, travelling on my knees at 97 kph through the final corners of the track. I finished the blog on the plane to Calgary after the second race. I am publishing it in June (cough August) the following year.
I chose not to race today. I was hurt and at my limit.
So, today I am an observer rather than a competitor. It’s pretty weird, and I do have FOMO but mainly I feel relieved. I am in Whistler, Vancouver; home to the 2010 Winter Olympics track – the fastest in the world. It has a reputation – a reputation that is entirely founded unlike so many other tracks. It us my first time here; I have been here two weeks and raced yesterday in my first Inter-Continental Cup race. Rather like last year in Sigulda, I crashed on my second run. Unlike Sigulda I didn’t have a single run down this track prior to racing where it went okay. Right now, I feel despondent, useless and am wondering why I ever started this sport! Thank goodness for family, friends and teammates that have sent kind and supportive words my way the past twelve hours!
It has been my toughest camp to date in this sport. And I have had some tough camps which include concussions and almost broken bones. Let me explain. I didn’t expect it to be easy – this is Whistler. But I was optimistic that I was good enough to be here and have a go. This optimism has been very hard to maintain over the two weeks!
There is probably some unwritten rule that you shouldn’t really talk about the bad days. But, for me I don’t think that gives a fair representation of my experience doing this sport and that is what I am trying to give by writing this blog. Some people will think I am showing weakness by publically talking about things I struggle with in the sport but in my opinion it is what it is and I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Everyone always asks why I chose to do this sport. The answer is easy. It is an extraordinary sport which I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do. Not to mention the fact that is may lead me to an Olympic games on day in the future. However, in reality it is not so simple. It has taken me years to enjoy the sport; and if I am honest some days are still a huge battle. I think I was unhappy every day in Whistler; I cried more than on any other camp; mostly in the shower!
Day after day I struggled to execute my plan on the track, and in this sport failing to execute often ends in a bit of a calamity or at the very least some drama at some point in the run. It’s not like in long jump (my old event) where you can just try again if you mess something up. Me failing to execute this past week has resulted in bruises, crashes, painful hits and panic. Being out of control is not my favourite feeling in the world anyway but try being out of control with your face inches from the ice travelling over 120 kph headfirst.
I try to draw positives from every run; an approach that helps me focus on progress and helps build confidence. I found this nearly impossible on this camp. More often than not there were tears at the bottom, as the days wore on and I wasn’t making the improvements I hoped it became harder and harder to maintain the belief that it would improve. The tears weren’t just from frustration, they were from fear and pain too. I often crashed out of corner six and or corner 13. Not easy areas and plenty of other athletes were having difficulties here.
Sliding was exhausting – it always is but the added physical and mental strain the track was leaving on me made things quite bleak feeling at times. Of course, when you don’t achieve something you felt capable of your confidence takes a knock and just standing at the top waiting to go again becomes a huge task.
I think you get the idea. And just to clarify not everyone feels this way. I don’t know how other people feel or cope with sliding. Many athletes seem to be able to keep chucking themselves off the top, taking the hits, crashes and drama and just brushing it off; thrive off the challenge. Others click with tracks quicker and find that enjoyment quite quickly. I have experienced both scenarios and many in between too. This is just my experience during my first time sliding Whistler.
It has taken me a long time to post this blog. Partly because I didn’t want distractions as I tried to move on and finish the season and partly because it’s not easy to share my vulnerability. Fortunately, I bounced back in Calgary with the best performances of my career so far. I’m not afraid of Whistler, I’ve properly reflected on the experience and got a lot from that process. I firmly believe that your learn far more from failing; and fail I did! I’ll more than likely go back again over the next few years and that’s cool. It’s a challenge I look forward to, and I look forward to it being better and finding that thrill and enjoyment. And hopefully a new speed PB this time!
1879 – part III
Driving into the Austrian mountains was a huge breath of fresh air. Another long stint of driving, and this time I was the only driver for my car but it wasn’t so bad – for one thing my hire car was a BMW X1! How do we while away six hours of driving? We play walkie talkie carpool karaoke of course! My pick was the riff off from the Pitch Perfect soundtrack which I think Craig rather enjoyed.
As I said ICC had finished but there was one remaining Europa Cup race to go and GB had space for me to race to get some more sliding in (always a bonus, especially as we don’t have a track of our own). The track is in a small town called Igls and a very different character from Altenberg. I raced in Igls the year before and really struggled to piece together a decent run; almost ending myself out of Kriesel on the last run before the race. This was unexpected because it has a reputation of being a very kind track albeit tricky to get down fast. So, I was looking forwards to making friends with the track this time and tuning into my inner glider (a way of sliding doing minimal work to build speed on tracks with low pressures).
The weather disrupted training but overall I made good progress over the three official training days. I’d worked out the way I wanted to operate that week (different from Altenberg) and I was enjoying less rushing and the serenity of the track. We always stay with the same people in Oberperfuss (near Innsbruck) and it’s one of the best hotels on tour with GREAT food! I was pretty content; eating, sleeping and sliding well. It’s all pretty straightforward when things are going well.
Race day arrived as per usual and I was feeling optimistic. We had an hour delay because of snow which didn’t bother me; you get used to that in our sport. But it wasn’t to be for me that day. I didn’t slide well, plus an early start draw combined with a snowy track and warm ice meant that I was in 13th after my first run. Not somewhere I expected to be if I am honest. Although annoyed I focused on redeeming myself in my second run; only for it to be cancelled because of weather (snow). Whilst I praise the Jury for making a call (having potentially learned from the problems in St. Moritz) it was totally uncalled for seeing as minutes later blue sky appeared as forecast.
So that put an end to my race season. Hardly the end I was hoping for. I was angry at myself and at the organisers; I so wanted that second run. But at the end of the day these are the things we have to deal with in the sport so I need to get used to it and I now have a ton more experience sliding in poor conditions compared to last year which will no doubt come in useful in the future. Shout out to teammates Brogan and Ellie for placing 1st and 3rd in the overall EC standings!! They’ve both had fantastic seasons, with Bro winning even before the final race and Ellie holding 3rd with just 6/8 results due to a concussion, #goals.
I am currently back in Bath; I was so ready to come home on Saturday but I am already missing sliding and looking forward to going back out on ice next week. There are four more weeks of sliding (training) and I plan to make the very most of it using what I have learned this season so that I can go in to 2018-19 in the best possible way. Oh, and there’s a little something called the WINTER OLYMPICS to look forwards to watching! I am not selected (as expected, no disappointments there) but I cannot wait to watch Laura, Lizzy, Dom and Jerry go and represent in PyeongChang along with the rest of Team GB!
If you’d like to watch the skeleton it’ll on the BBC from the 15-17th February. Check out the trailer ‘The Fearless are Here’.
1879 – part II
So, bye beautiful Moritz and hello gloomy Altenberg. Well after a 10-hour travel day that is. We drove from morning to night and eventually made it to a place where the highlight is the kebab shop (they are pretty damn good). The track itself is an olden goldie; built in secret for the Germans to train on back in the day and now a frequent on all race circuits, known for its challenging omega and kriesel corners. It’s a track I respect and like so although I was dreading the food, I was looking forward to sliding.
Unfortunately, Altenberg didn’t live up to expectations or my rose-tinted memories from the previous year. That’s just the way with skeleton; despite the concrete structure remaining the same year in year out the way the ice is shaped changes even within one season as the ice grows and the track workers work on it. I sort of lost myself over this week. Not doing what I know works best when sliding to work it all out; instead getting caught up on one corner rather than what way maybe going on beforehand.
Race day came around super quickly just like in St. Moritz; not helped by me missing OT2 due to some illness/lack of energy (the struggle to eat the food was real). My first race run went really well; my best of the week and I was happy sitting in 6th. However, my second may have been the worst of the week I almost flipped on the exit of four which is super common except it hadn’t happened to me all week. This then compounded down the track and combined with extremely poor visibility (and a tinted visor!!) meant that I dropped down to 9th place. BOO!! The conditions got so bad that the men’s second run got cancelled whilst our result stood (sound familiar?!).
As is with ICC we had a double race so I was hopeful to replicate run one twice on day two (following me?) and build on 9th. Race 8 (the last one of the ICC circuit) was hands down my worst performance of the year in my opinion. Unlike Whistler where I was trying my best and sliding despite every part of me not wanting to in Altenberg I just slid really badly! I finished 13th, and was pretty frustrated with myself as you can imagine. Obviously, it was not the way I wanted to finish my last ICC race but if I have learned anything in this sport so far it is that the bad days teach you so much more than the good. I took a lot away from Altenburg; and I’ll be a better slider for it in the future. A small consolation was that I finished 9th and top Brit in the overall ICC standings despite have two less race results than the rest of the field (Whistler DNF and DNS). All things considered I am quite proud of this result and it’s well within the target set for me.
1879 – part I
1879. The number of kilometres I’ve driven across Europe since the 31st December. Munich to St. Moritz (via Innsbruck), St. Moritz to Altenberg and Altenberg to Innsbruck. I left home on New Year’s Eve; no parties or kisses at midnight for me (sorry James). The aim was to be in St. Moritz for midnight albeit potentially building our sleds for the early morning (8am) New Year’s Day sliding session.
I mean, I can think of worse ways to spend new year’s than St. Moritz, watching a spectacular firework display over the frozen lake! But the weather had other ideas! Our flight from Heathrow was cancelled; so instead of flying to Innsbruck and having a two-hour drive to St. Moritz, we flew to Munich (on a delayed flight) and subsequently had a MUCH longer drive on the other side. Midnight approached as we neared the border to Switzerland and one of my teammates, Donna lead us to a gathering in a place called Pfunz (I think), where the locals had a bonfire and we were surrounded by firework displays. So, not quite St. Moritz, but a celebration of the new year nonetheless. The Germans don’t seem to be in to Auld Lang Syne so we used our car radio to do the dance and then went on our way. 90’s club classics the soundtrack to the final leg of the drive in a bid to stay awake! We eventually arrived at 2am, had a quick team meeting where we found out training was 10am and proceeded to try to sleep through the party downstairs with alarms set for 6am. Needless to say, we didn’t get up at 6am and build sleds for training; we were exhausted and went and watched training instead.
The week in St. Moritz was a blur. Instead of the normal three days and six runs of official training (OT), we had two days and four runs. Of these two were disrupted by snow. St. Moritz is a natural track and absolutely gorgeous part of the skeleton tour. However, the sun rarely made an appearance so it felt distinctly un-Moritz like for the most part – I didn’t even take a walk on the frozen lake! Race day came and with it SNOW! A skeleton athlete’s worst nightmare as the track fills up with snow and it makes racing very unfair. Despite protests and calls to cancel the race it went ahead and the coaches were designated to sweep between athletes; an unusual occurrence as your coach is usually at the block with you.
I was fourth off and unfortunately there was still a lot of snow in the track as the coaches hadn’t had much time to sweep a mornings worth of snow. It was still my best run of the week but unfortunately, not very fast. As more athletes came down (acting as snow ploughs) times decreased and I was sitting in 11th after run 1; a position that I did not feel I deserved. The men were off next and unfortunately during their heat an accident occurred in the track where a coach got hit by a slider because he stayed in the track too long*. This put an end to the day’s racing; demonstrating the huge health and safety risk of sweeping between sliders. My race became a one-run race and the men’s was cancelled and rescheduled for the next day. *coach and athlete are both okay.
The following day went with somewhat less drama. But with two men’s and one women’s’ race to run only one-run races were to take place. This time I finished 7th; falling out of the podium places during the last run of the race – gutting. A better result but I was still dissatisfied. St. Moritz was over for another year; six runs down the most unique track in the world is not enough!