It’s been a long road to wellness, and looking at me today one wouldn’t know that 12 years ago I found it difficult to walk more than a block. Looking at me today one likely wouldn’t know that I have Multiple Sclerosis. But I do, and this weekend my body decided to remind me in a rather painful and dramatic way.
About a year ago a friend, Marianne Pilot, asked if I would join her and 4 other women (Jenny, Rita, Patti & Colleen) on a canoe race in Hawaii; the Queen Lili’uokalani – the world’s largest long distance canoe race. I did not have a lot of time to devote to training as I had scheduled back to back 25 kilometre swims in the Great Bear Rainforest in June and a 35 km swim in 11C water across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in July. I was happy however to join in. The race was in early September which would give me close to a month to recover from my swims. Queen Lili was a race that I had completed previously. I knew what was required both mentally and physically.
On August 29th a group of about 35 of us, 5 full crews and a few spare paddlers, left of Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island. I was excited to make the trip and felt physically prepared for the race. The 29 kilometre course from Kailua Bay to Honaunau Bay was expected to take us close to 3 hours – a short event for me. We would start early in the morning when it’s a bit cooler to help manage the heat. I had 4 days to acclimate to my new environment.
Over the next few days I made sure to hydrate often and eat nutrient rich water-packed food. I managed how often I was in the sun, ducked into cool retreats when I could find them and made sure to get plenty of rest.
On Saturday, September 2 we were up by 5:00 AM and at the race site for 6:00 AM for the blessing of canoes. By 7:00 AM we were on the water joined by over 100 other canoes, each with 6 women. It was over 30 C (87 F), humid and overcast; I was ready to go.
There’s something rather magical about a canoe race with over 600 women at the start line, especially in Hawaii where outrigger is their traditional sport. The start line is so long that you can not see where it starts or ends. We had a Koa canoe on either side of us, both with teams from the Big Island, and one of which had lent us their Mirage canoe for the race. We chatted briefly as we awaited the start.
We had a powerful start. It was just as we had rehearsed. And for a good period of time we were able to maintain a fairly steady pace and stay close to the Hawaiian crews. The water was active with fairly large swells and plenty of back eddies coming in from the shore. It was in many ways similar to the conditions we often experience in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
It grew warmer and warmer as we made our way along the coast. I could feel the heat and was managing it by hydrating every 10 minutes. About 1 hour into the race I had a my first gel pack. We were about 10 kilometres in with 19 to go. The sun was still hidden behind clouds that were resting on the island’s mountains.
Over the next hour the clouds began to dissipate and the sun came out – it grew warmer and more humid. I could feel a change in my body so sipped water more often to try to help with the heat. My feet, legs, hands and arms began to tingle, one of the first warning signs that I am over heating and at risk of exacerbating my MS. I splashed water on myself as often as I could without disrupting the rhythm of the boat. I soon started to feel a general malaise throughout my body. My MS symptoms worsened as we continued to paddle up the coast. Patti was sitting in from of me in seat 3; I let her know something was going on and asked if she could take over calling the boat, a job that is typically the responsibility of seat 4.
I pulled my paddle from the water continuing to swing my body back and forth with the crew. I was looking for relief but couldn’t find it. Not wanting to be out for long I put my paddle back in the water and paddled lightly. I became dizzy and progressively weaker with each stroke. When I was able I applied more pressure on my blade in effort to help move the canoe forward.
We were close to 2 hours into the race. I looked at the coast line and could see boats were turning a corner. At first I thought (hoped) they were headed into Honaunau Bay but quickly realized that there were indeed on their final approach, and that approach was close to another 10km of paddling. I was deeply discouraged and continued to look for ways to relieve my symptoms, dipping my hands as far into the water as I could as I paddled. The water was warm and of no help. I began to cry. I could feel my body failing and didn’t know what to do. I wanted to continue to paddle but grew worse with each stroke.
And then it happened, my hands spasmed causing me to loose control of my paddle. It was excruciatingly painful. My fingers were tightening and bending in different directions. I had no control. I felt a jolt throughout my entire body – something I had never experienced before. I knew at that moment I was done.
I let Patti know I was in distress and needed medical attention. She singled to Marianne who was steering the boat. I could see the medical boat ahead and frantically tried to paddle toward it as it was getting away. My symptoms became worse. I yelled to my crew that I needed out. I desperately needed to cool my body.
Marianne confirmed I wanted out, stopped the boat and singled for medical assistance. I flung my paddle forward under Patti’s seat and then tried to get my water system off – my hands were not working right. After several attempts I managed to release the clasp. I could see the medical boat continuing to get further and further away from us. I was terrified. I crawled over the side of the boat and feel into the water. There was a brief moment of relief but it was fleeting as the water was too warm to cool me. I let me crew know I needed to be covered with ice as quickly as possible.
A team from Seattle was near by and saw that we had stopped. They were changing paddlers along route (officially a change race) and had a motorized escort boat transporting paddlers as they rested between their turn in the boat. Marianne signed them and they came over to help. One of my crew members let them know I have multiple sclerosis and needed medical attention and ice to cool me down as quickly as possible. They radioed ahead to the medical boat.
My body was still feeling out of control. I could feel it buzzing and found it so intense that I wanted to jump out of my body. I slowly made my way up the side of the boat toward the front knowing so I would be out of the way of the boat’s ama (pontoon) when the Sea-Doo arrived. I stopped by Rita who was sitting in seat 2. I asked that she tell whom ever was coming to get me to cover me in ice as quickly as possible. I was feeling more and more desperate to cool. The buzzing in my body was out of control and I needed it to stop. Rita asked if I needed her to hold onto me while we waited for the Sea-Doo. I said no, but she new that was the wrong answer and grabbed me by my shirt straps making sure I didn’t slip away from the boat.
Coming next … the rescue