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Coast to Coast with Gee Jackson: Part 1

Posted by Lydia Burdett

by Gee Jackson @geeadventurous

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” So, stick with me on this one, because never have I felt this so strongly throughout my life than when I solo paddled 268km coast to coast along England’s incredible canals and rivers in just 5 days. With practically zero training (do as I say, not as I do!), and on a borrowed sample board I’d only ever used once.

I’ve always liked a challenge. Poor mental health and tough life experiences have plagued my family for generations, and I am no exception to that rule. Throwing myself into hardship, attacking things that others doubted I could do with pure grit, determination and doggedness, breaking that cycle of pain, suffering, and stagnation, has since become my comfort zone as a result of wanting something better for myself. Growth through pain is the only thing I can hold onto to convince myself that any of this is worth it. I believe in being passionate about and committing to everything that I choose to do - and consciously. So, when a friend asked me to join her in her dream of cycling England’s famous C2C route in just one day, I said yes.

I was not a cyclist. I had not ridden a bike in approximately 10 years. But the world had suddenly been thrust into unprecedented times with the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t need to explain how hard this has been. You know exactly how hard this has been, and probably then some. So, I also know you’ll understand me when I say that the challenge of cycling 223km and almost 4000m of ascent, on a second-hand gavel bike with only 3 months of training was something that my persistent brain could really get behind. I know how to handle myself and I'm no stranger to sports and the outdoors. But opening that can of worms, as I’m sure so many of you reading this will also have experienced, meant that upon dipping my front wheel into the sea on the opposite side of the country to the one that I had started on barely 16 hours previously, the single, loudest thought that filled my mind was this: What’s next?

This was actually reasonably easy to answer. For a while I’d been wanting to try my hand at more endurance sports, because it’s on the edge of life that you really find out who you are. Only by pushing yourself do you truly find your limits. And it’s at your limits where transformation begins. Life is won and lost in the everyday - in the little things. In appreciating the feeling of sunshine on your skin, making a loved one laugh, a stranger offering you in front of them in a queue. Endurance events (regardless of what that event may actually be,) have a way of bringing communities together like I have never seen elsewhere. A common cause to rally around. A way for people to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. I’d fallen in love with the idea of the journey, of spending life trying to live on the boundary as much as I could. To fill my days with the little things - a million moments of wondering and wandering.

It was decided. Using England’s national trails, I was going to traverse the country three times, using three different human powered disciplines.

With the cycle part of the adventure triathlon already ticked, I decided to stick with what I knew and complete the run. Never was I a long-distance runner but running had been somewhat a constant in my life. Hadrian’s Wall path was on my list of trails to travel for a while, as the idea that my feet were walking in the footsteps of those that had walked before me over the last two millennia just blew my mind. All those people with their own lives, their own experiences, all connected throughout time and space. With just 6 months of training, I completed 140km and almost 2000m ascent, fully self-supported (approximately 13kg on my back,) on foot and in just 3 days.

By this point you’re probably wondering when I get to the SUP part of this story. Well, here is where things really started to change. A month after completing Hadrian’s Wall, I picked up my first ever injury - a partial tearing of ankle ligaments in both feet. I was prescribed 3 months of total rest, something that for someone who's coping mechanism mainly revolved around being active was utterly destroying. Being outside, active in nature is pretty much the only time that my brain is quiet. It’s the only way I know how to properly push the reset button - when the muscle memory of repetitive movement takes over and allows my mind to process all that has come before, and all that may be still to come. The knowledge that partially tearing a ligament is probably worse than breaking a bone or fully tearing a ligament (since ligaments scar, not heal) was weighing on my mind too. Nevertheless, I persisted, and my grit, determination, passion, and advocacy for barefoot living (which likely led to my ankles being so strong that the injury wasn’t a break or a full tear in the first place), also meant that in less than a year I was back to running trail marathons at the same pace I was pre-injury.

At this stage I was fairly smug in thinking that I understood what enjoying the journey - the process and not the destination - looked like. I’d been through a lot to get where I was, I’d done a lot of personal growth and reflection, and I’d achieved a lot of fairly impressive things too both in my personal and professional life. But as with anything, there is always more to learn.

In a quick succession of events, I lost my best friend and long term partner, I had really high job dissatisfaction and was negotiating roles and contracts, I had sold my house which was my only means of security with no plans of where I would then live, and I was still trying to keep up appearances of being a good friend, family member, and citizen whilst remaining sane and carrying out basic functions which can be difficult even on a good day. My life had totally reset once more and, whilst I was starting from a different platform this time, I was still starting again. But I was determined to uphold the commitments that I had made before all of this happened, which included finishing the final leg of my English national trail coast to coast adventure triathlon. Liverpool to Goole: 257km. 1000m ascent. 1 girl and a paddle board. 7 days.

The date for setting off from Liverpool at the start of the Desmond Family Canoe trail - what I believe to be the only official national coast to coast trail in England by water - had been set 6 months prior. During those 6 months, I had managed a maximum of about 10 sessions on a paddleboard on local canals and rivers, with not one of those sessions lasting more than 16km, and barely any successive days of paddling. That I could not control due to various reasons, but what I could control, was that I had researched the route, planned out my options, and bought (and knew how to use) any extra gear (particularly safety equipment) that I didn't already have that I knew I would need. The thought had crossed my mind to postpone the challenge still, but I was fighting internally with the probability of then never finishing it, and that was something that I didn’t think I could really forgive myself for.

A month in advance of my set start date, a very kind friend put me in touch with the incredible team at Red, who invited me to one of their infamous Ride Outs. The theme for the weekend was around challenges in the outdoors, specifically around the issues that women and those that identify as women face. I was nervous and didn’t feel like I deserved to be there, but at the same time it felt serendipitous. Upon hearing my predicament something beautiful happened. As has occurred so many times in my life before (but not without hard work and dedication to the cause), everything started to fall into place. The team at Red offered to loan me one of their amazing sample compact boards and some accessories to help with my challenge. Women who were brought together as part of that community from all over the country were offering their support and companionship, and each cheering me on in their own way. I was listened to, and I was truly heard, and I was loved for being just me. Time spent as a team out on the water reassured me that my skills and know-how was sufficient to some extent.

Suddenly what felt like an impossible challenge on top of everything else I was trying to process and prioritise in my life, became possible through the support and belief of a handful of individuals I had known for just a few short hours.

Read Part 2 of Gee's Coast to Coast Adventure

Follow Gee on Instagram @GEEADVENTUROUS