Why am I doing the Kirkstone Car Pull? Because I can. I’ve been thinking about my reasons and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is simply that. Because I can, and I didn’t think I would be able to say that again.

This isn’t the first time I’ve undertaken this challenge. I was part of the first reprisal of the women’s team in 2015, cajoled into it by my friend and fitness instructor Ursula Brendling. It was horrendous and amazing all at the same time! Such hard work pulling a vehicle up 3 miles of hillside, but surrounded by the most amazingly supportive women.

I couldn’t wait to be part of that team again in 2016, and try to beat out own record. Except that I couldn’t. Literally I couldn’t get up the hill, I was exhausted and the cramp was so awful that I struggled with every training session. I pulled out. Supporting the team from the sidelines instead.

So, it turned out that the reason that I couldn’t walk up the hill was because of a congenital heart condition that I never knew I had. As a baby they’d discovered a murmur but my parents were told that it was nothing. I just got on with life for over 30 years, thinking that my normal was just like everyone else’s.

About 6 months after the first car pull I fainted &andwent to the doctor for an MOT. He sent me for an echocardiogram “just to rule it out” and that’s when they discovered the sub aortic membrane and resulting severe aortic stenosis that I had been living with all these years. A sub aortic membrane is a piece of muscle which hangs down into the aorta (mine was just outside a valve) it causes a build-up of blood pressure in a part the aorta (aortic stenosis) leading to dangerous highs then extreme lows which can cause fainting, extreme fatigue and left untreated can lead to cardiac arrest. It is incredibly uncommon, not hereditary and if discovered in children now it is operated on immediately as it is life limiting (if left undiscovered, the average age of death is around 31 – I’m a medical marvel!).

There were months of further tests, at hospitals all over the North West – treadmills, bikes, bloods, ECGs, more echoes. Each time I seemed to defy the expected – my fitness had been masking the symptoms for so long I cruised through the exercise tests, I’d been able to give birth naturally to my daughter 3 years prior, I’d only fainted the once…it looked like something I’d be able to manage.

But unfortunately I was getting worse. I was permanently exhausted, I was struggling to walk up the smallest of hills, or to carry my daughter and I was piling on weight for no reason. The decision was made by the cardiology team in Manchester that I should have open heart surgery to try to remove the membrane from my aorta as soon as possible, and I was put under very strict supervision until then. No more strenuous exercise, no lifting anything over my head, no air travel, no excess stress.

The open heart surgery was scheduled for 3rd January 2017 at Manchester Royal Infirmary. The run up to the whole thing was manic, fixing things at work so that I could be off for 4-6 months, organising school and childcare, making sure I had help for when I came home, and to mentally prepare myself for what I thought was to come next. The operation itself took around 8 hours and was a success. The difference I felt after coming around was shockingly quick – I had energy like I’d never known! I was walking the corridors after a day and I was discharged home after 3 days.

I was the worst patient, playing rather loosely with the doctor’s instructions to do nothing and rest – I made a promise to my daughter that I would be better by her 4th birthday – 3 months away and that became the goal. Within a week I was pushing a trolley around the supermarket, 2 weeks in I was cleaning the windows and after about a month I was vacuuming the house among a multitude of other things. I slowly increased my 2 minute walks for a litre of milk to longer and longer ones, adding in a little run now and again. I began to phase back into working life within 8 weeks and started attending fitness classes after 3 months. I was craving the post-workout endorphins and wanted to prove that I wasn’t broken, that this didn’t define me, that I would get strong and fit and healthy.

Two and a half years on, I’m still recovering – not only from the physical effects of the heart condition and surgery, but from the effects it has had on my mental health. I suffer from anxiety, depression, extreme episodes of self-loathing and PTSD. Some of this is managed by medication, and some things I manage through cognitive behavioural therapy methods, but a lot of this is something that so many of us live with every day. As a working mum I have to keep going – I find exercise and being in the outdoors helps me to keep on top of things more effectively. A challenge like the Car Pull helps me to put in the time to help myself in recovery when life gets busy.

Exercise helped me in many ways. It was good for my mental state, it helped me keep a positive mindset much more than if I hadn’t continued to work out, and it kept me strong therefore able to recover better. I have the most amazing PT in the shape of Ursula – her motivation, positivity and support keeps me able to move forward and I will be forever grateful to her.

The power of the outdoors, exercise and the support of other women are things I hold very dear. It is transformative, building us up together rather than tearing us down. It enables us to move forward, it doesn’t hold us back. In these times of Me Too and the constant strive for equality alongside individuality, the chance for women to be together in a positive light, sharing problems, stories and life with each other is fundamental to our wellbeing and that of those around us. We may no longer all sit by the stream in groups washing clothes & raising children, but we need to embody those values of support, sharing and working together – what better way to do it than to pull a car up a big hill?

This blog was written by Jen before she was part of the team that smashed it! Beat the record, raised shed loads of money and came together as a green mean machine up Kirkstone Pass.

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