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Adventure racing on a wonky brain

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

As I am sitting in bed recovering from the second adventure race linked to my Weird Wonderful Brain Fundraiser, I am reflecting on the impact that adventure racing has had on my brain this year. However, before getting into the bad and the ugly, I’d like to kick this blog off with the good.

First of all, I could not have done this without the tremendous support of my lovely, patient and super understanding partner in life. Greg you are truly one of a kind and every day I am so thankful to have you in my life. Then there are my 3 lovely team mates who year after year have supported me in more ways than they will ever know. Ladies, you believed I could do this at a time when walking to the dairy and back was still a challenge and I’ll be forever grateful for your unconditional support. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous effort of all 23 ladies that joined me in my effort to raise awareness of encephalitis & acquired brain injury, supported me and helped me seek donations going towards the Weird Wonderful Brain fundraiser that I initiated 5 months ago. Although these races are completed in a day, it was weeks and months of support invested by the ladies who took part to this initiative. Massive thank you ladies, you are all very special individuals.

Now comes the bad and the ugly...Since the main objective is to raise awareness of encephalitis, a neurological illness that I suffered 3 1/2 years ago and of acquired brain injury which followed this brain inflammation, I thought it might be advised to provide you with an insight of the array of Weird and not so Wonderful things that I had to factor in as those races went on.

As it is the case for many brain injury survivors, when fatigue sets in, the brain often starts shutting down parts of its operating system in order to keep the vital functions running. Adventure racing requires a lot of physical and mental effort so along the way, boy did some of those switches started being turned to off.

The first sign that this was starting to happen came more as a sensation, a feeling of being amongst other groups of women competing, but not quite realising everything that was happening around me. It’s a surreal sensation as if I am stuck in a thick fog that i can’t escape. Everything around me started to slow down and keeping on pace with reality became quite challenging. Then, my speech started to slow down considerably. Stringing words together and finding the right words required an absurd amount of mental effort. With my speech disappearing, comes a lot of frustrations and communicating clearly with my team mates becomes an additional challenge that we have to factor in. They kind of become mind readers as they’ll often gather from a few words what it is that I want to say or often finish sentences for me. Did I mention how awesome they are yet?

Not too long after that, I saw my cognition When I say cognition I refer to my ability to concentrate and pay attention, my ability to retain any sort of information and the speed at which my brain is able to process information and stimuli that are put in front of me. So here I am keeping track of distances on my watch, but incapable of remembering which number I had to start counting from. The next thing you know, we’ve overshot a check point. And then the vision issues gradually kick in. My vision becomes blurry, delayed, full of black spots and by the end of the race, my peripheral vision is now greatly if I had blinkers on. Anyhow, I keep clicking CPs away, but as I next hop back on my bike it doesn’t take me too long to notice that my balance and coordination have now also started to give way. Steering my bike no longer feels natural, maintaining my balance isn’t instinctive anymore and combined with a delayed, blurry vision, navigating the rest of a bike leg becomes pretty scary to say the least.

During the Whangarei race, I seriously started to doubt my abilities to complete the race. 17 CPs were yet to be collected before crossing the finish line and my brain was crashing at lightening speed. Once this process is initiated, there is no stopping it unfortunately. I knew my 3 team mates would have my back whether I decided to keep going or to stop, but most importantly, I also knew that I could count on them to pick up the slack as my brain was shutting down. So I told myself that I’VE got this, that WE’VE got this and decided to keep trying to put my best foot forward. My physical body was holding up, but it’s controlling system, aka the brain, made things pretty challenging. Anyhow on both races we ultimately proudly crossed the finish line and so did the 5 other teams that joined in on the initiative. We individually all had our inner battles to overcome throughout the race and I am incredibly proud of all those ladies for believing in themselves and overcoming those inner battles together.

When the race is over and celebration occurs for others, I am however facing days and even weeks of recovery time. I call this phase of my adventure race “payback time”. Where the muscles have long recovered, the brain is still trying to regain some of its basic functions. I am to feel physically and mentally worse before I start to feel better. Since this illness, my brain has never been able to get back to its pre-encephalitis levels, I’m forever operating with a “new normal”. It is something that I am still trying to get used to and that I am still struggling to accept at times. Therefore, the mental part of completing such challenges really kicks in once the race is over for me... particularly when I find myself being a week post race and seeing my brain not back on track with its “new normal” levels.

You’ll probably sit there thinking well if it’s so detrimental to your health, why are you doing this then? Yep, fair enough and it’s a question that I often ask myself too. But it is also a choice not to let encephalitis and acquired brain injury rule all my decisions and put additional limitations on what I can or cannot undertake. It’s part of my sheer determination and desire to move forward in a world that can often feel foreign to me since I was struck by this illness. My main motivation this year in part taking to both races was to raise awareness so others don’t get misdiagnosed like I was, so others get timely medical attention that is crucial in limiting permanent brain damage that often results from this illness and my deepest hope is to trigger change within the current medical system so encephalitis survivors are given adequate resources and support while recovering from this devastating illness. I am truly hoping to have shed some light on this illness and its long term effects.

Competing to both adventure race back to back has taken a lot out of me this year and it made me reassess some of my upcoming choices. I have therefore made the decision to hang my adventure race bib for a while...hopefully not indefinitely, but I’m keen to give myself room to explore other avenues that may tick the adventure box whilst being less taxing on my physical and mental health. I feel like I’ve truly given things a good go this year by combining adventure race and fundraising and hopefully some more donations keep trickling down until the end of April which is when the Weird Wonderful Brain Fundraiser will be closing.

If you’d like to read more about how encephalitis survivors are affected, I’d like to encourage you to read a few of my most popular blogs suggested below. I also compiled short videos to give others an insight of what recovering from a “payback” looks like for me following adventure racing. It is a compilation of the good, the bad and the ugly, but it is also drawing a honest picture of what brain recovery entails.

Until next time 💕

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