Making waves for change

Pushing through the pain on a 2000-mile row around GB non-stop, Tamsin Starr finds out what this means for three Physios...

Physio Challenge
Physio challenge (left to right): Lia, Sophie, Jess Plail (non-physio) and Steph [Photos: Ben Lumley and Jane Allan]

Three physios aiming to break a world record by rowing ‘the world’s toughest race’ in the fastest time in history have an item on the Christmas list that sums up the perils of their challenge.

‘We’re all trying to source personal locator beacons,’ crew member Lia Evans says in deadly earnest, ‘so when we’re on the boat in really rough conditions at night in low lighting, if one person was to go over the side and the safety harness and buoyancy aids failed, they need to have a tracking device on them, so they can be found.’

Evans is part of a six-strong, all-women crew, All Systems Row, taking on the mammoth challenge of rowing 2,000-plus miles unassisted and non-stop (including all through the night) around Great Britain. Er, doesn’t that all sound rather terrifying? ‘I like a challenge,’ Evans deadpans. It’s just as well.

They will row around England, Wales and Scotland in a clockwise direction, starting and finishing at London’s Tower Bridge, rowing round the clock, in shifts of two hours, with three at the oars and the other three resting in the small cabins at either end of the boat.

At least they’ll be able to cope with injuries – Evans (22) is joined by fellow physios Charlie Cooper (22) and US-born Steph Toogood, who at 52 (turning 53 on the row) will be the most mature rower to finish the race. 

A fourth crewmate, Sophie Harris (36) is due to start on Plymouth Uni’s MSc pre-reg physiotherapy course next year.

Skipper Jess Plail, a physician’s associate, and social worker Andrea Harwood complete the crew.

Out of the comfort zone

Cooper, a band 5 at Solent NHS Trust, believes their profession gives them a head start on the competition. ‘Every physio I’ve ever met has always done something incredible, so by doing this, I feel like I can join the gang! Hopefully by seeing us take this on, more people will realise they can juggle a really stressful job and still do something like this.’

While first mate Toogood, a neuro physiotherapist at an independent practice, believes their training will enhance their

The physios will be rowing more than 2,000 miles around Great Britain

professional lives in turn. It is deepening their empathy with patients for a start, she says. ‘We ask people to get out of their comfort zone all the time, often when it’s going to hurt to push through the pain, the discomfort,’ she explains. ‘With rowing you have to push yourself even when you’re tired, you hurt and you’re fed up. In both cases, you just have to keep moving, and accept that yes you’re going to suffer, but you’ll get past it, though in this challenge I’m moving a lot more than I ever have!’

As well as negotiating ever-changing tidal flows, busy shipping lanes, waves that can reach 10ft high and treacherous weather, they will have limited contact with friends and family, the isolation factor heightened by being able to see land but never touch it. Oh yes, and they will be generating their own drinking water from desalinated sea water and relying solely on solar power.

‘I really am scared,’ Toogood confesses. ‘We know there’s the potential for danger. But if you don’t accept the fact you‘re going to be scared you’re deluded – it’s the first step to conquering it. And doing this really has been the making of me – I’ve pushed myself harder than I ever thought I could.’

If we achieve this, it will be incredible, because more people have gone into space than finished this race,’ admits Cooper. ‘I will definitely cry when we cross the finish line.

Winning the mental battle

Living on top of one another with no privacy, little sleep and a punishing regime of physical effort for 35 days straight will certainly put their mental resilience to the test.

‘We will be in such close quarters it will be like Big Brother – we will be all eating, sleeping, rowing, together on that boat for 40 days,’ says Harris who could become the first-ever amputee to complete the race. ‘You’ve literally got to put everything out there and just be you.’ She adds after a moment’s reflection: ‘I’ve been informed my prosthetic foot doesn’t make a good cushion!’

It’s perhaps no surprise that crew members have to undergo psychological profiling at the start of training, to manage the mental strain.

‘Part of the team building is to really understand each other and become vulnerable and work out how to support one another,’ Toogood explains. ‘In those moments when I see land, I’m exhausted, I’m sick of everyone in the boat, I’m fed up with peeing in a bucket, at least one among the other five will have the strength to say, “Come, on, dig deep, you can do it!” The biggest part is the mental challenge – having the strength up here to keep going is key.’

Evans, a band 5 at East Sussex Healthcare Trust, says graduating during the pandemic had already honed her mental resilience. ‘Nothing taught me more about mental resilience than working as a respiratory physio – I was straight on to ICU. It was a case of you had your close knit team – I didn’t even know what they looked like without their masks – but you got on with it. It took everybody’s individual strengths and personal types to make the best of each scenario. But we were very isolated during the pandemic, just as we’ll be in the ocean.’

The courage to endure

The physical regime is equally full-on, with five days a week rowing, including intensive heart rate zone training plus pilates and yoga to hone movement and foundation training, body weight and free weights for strength.

‘We’re all normally really competitive, and compete against one another,’ Toogood admits of their group training sessions, ‘But this training is different as we need to improve our individual endurance with heart rate training so it matters more that I stay in my own heart rate zones to get the best results, not worry about how fast the others are rowing – it’s good for the ego.’

If we achieve this, it will be incredible, because more people have gone into space than finished this race.

All Systems Row have no shortage of ambition. They aim to set not one but five new world records in the GB Row Challenge race – including ones for the oldest and youngest female rower and the only amputee to have achieved the feat. They also hope to beat the women’s finishing time record of 51 days by just over two weeks.

Despite the fact the race has only been completed six times, Harris is upbeat about their chance of success. 

‘I think we’re more than capable of doing it, 100 per cent. It gives you all the drive and passion you need, for sure, but ultimately completing that challenge is the goal – the world record is a bonus.’

‘The six of us are the type who would rather crawl naked over hot coals than quit, so that will help,’ Toogood quips.

And Toogood is passionate about the message her achievements send out. ‘I want to demonstrate that age is not a barrier when it comes to having adventures and tackling challenges. But when I think I’m the oldest person ever to have done this, I do say to myself, Damn, that’s not bad.” Although I may feel about 100 years old at the end!

Rowing for renewables

The rowers also hope to highlight environmental issues, using the race to raise funds for charity Renewable World, which uses clean and sustainable energy to improve the lives of remote communities.

‘I want to raise as much awareness as we can for sustainable solutions to climate change,’ Evans says, 

‘It’s all over the news that we now have three per cent more extreme weather and we’re going to be out in it – we’re at the sharp end of campaigning.’

Evans also has a more personal and profound reason for taking on the challenge. ‘Working on the wards during Covid-19, there were a lot of people not pulling through who were quite young. With some you felt you could have a real effect and make them a lot more comfortable. 

With others, even when you tried your hardest it just wasn’t possible, I thought if that were me, what would I wish I’d done? That’s why I’m doing this.’

All Systems Row is seeking sponsorship from companies or individuals interested in providing financial support in exchange for promotion and social media coverage. 

Further information

    Number of subscribers: 1

    Log in to comment and read comments that have been added