Blisters Eventually Turn to Calluses: The Ups and Downs (and Pukes)

When I step back and look at the last two days…I’ve had two amazing days. Tuesday I rowed my longest row yet, 28 miles from Port Washington to Sheboygan. Wednesday morning I got up and rowed 24 miles to Manitowoc. When I look at the big picture I feel positive and that things are going as planned. In a lot of cases things are going better than planned, including the press we’re getting and the continued fundraising and support coming in from all over the Lake.

I have to be honest though: yesterday was a really hard day. I left the Sheboygan harbor and headed north with a cancer survivor who paddled along side me in a kayak. Tim heard about my adventure and decided to come out and join me for part of my morning row, and he was a delight to spend my morning with. Tim started a program in Sheboygan for survivors to get them doing exercise together. He shared how they got started and even recently went zip-lining as a group. Much like the ROW program, their goal is to help people stay active as a part of their recovery plan. Having him paddle next to me yesterday was such a treat and inspiration. Somehow there’s comfort in knowing that there are other people out there doing the same (sometimes seemingly crazy) thing you are.

The winds started picking up yesterday, as expected. I knew they were going to pick up from the south and push me towards Manitowoc. I didn’t mind. I was going north anyway! I saw a few hazards on my GPS so stayed out further east (and deeper) than I usually row.

Then the winds really picked up. Liv was rockin’. I could still row through parts of it,but the waves were deeper, thicker, and more square than I had ever seen before.  They made me seasick in a matter of minutes. More seasick than I have ever been.  The problem with being seasick on Liv that I’m the only engine. So if I can’t row, then I can’t control the boat. And in waves like this it’s hard to control the both without being seasick. I was over 20 miles into the row, making great time, and I just got really depressed and low. I thought I was being cautious and smart by staying off the water in high winds, but the Lake was picking up, tossing me around, and making me so sick.  I broke down. I don’t know what it was — being nauseous, the heat — but I just started crying.  I whined. I tossed left and right, throwing up and having a pity party for myself less than two miles from shore. I began to wish that someone else could pick me up. “Why do I always have to be the one to pick me up?” I asked myself. “Why am I on this lake in this boat? Why am I doing this to myself?”.

But sometimes all a girl needs is a good cry. It must be the endorphins that come through that made my seasickness pause for a moment or two. I started rowing again, searching for inspiration in my ipod. I started feeling a little better and began making ground (or do I say water?) again. Brenda had called the coast guard earlier in the day to let them know I was coming north. When the coast guard started calling me every half hour to make sure I was ok, I knew the winds must be bad, and that I wasn’t the only one worried about me getting to a harbor safely. There was comfort in that. I actually thought it was really sweet. Then I remembered it’s their job, and that I’m really lucky to live in a place where people keep us safe. I told them I was all right and thanked them for calling.

Soon I was a mile away from the harbor and they called me again. I asked if they could help me get into the harbor safely because I wasn’t sure if I could navigate my way in with the winds. They were happy to help and I was so relieved I wasn’t “bugging” them! It continues to be hard to ask for help…but I’m learning. I tried to pull myself together before they got to Liv and I but I have a feeling they knew just where I was. I was seasick, but mostly just a big mess. They kept saying “this is our job, we want you to be safe, it’s ok!” and I kept apologizing.  I got into the harbor exhausted. While I rowed 4 less miles that day than the day before, I felt like I had rowed 20 more. All the anxiety and energy that goes into controlling the boat in high winds is unreal. I don’t even know where the energy comes from, but I know I’ve certainly used it ALL at the end of the day. I lay down and gathered my thoughts. I called to check in with my parents for the first time in a long time, and my mom was more proud of me for asking for help on Wednesday than she was of me rowing 28 miles on Tuesday. I understood what she was getting at but it still took me a few more hours to feel okay about asking for help. I still don’t really know how to feel about it. Sometimes I wish I did it without their help.

How my body is holding up
It’s been almost two weeks. My body is good.  On a scale of 1-10 I feel like an 8. I’m wearing gloves but my hands are callousing and the layers are getting thick.  When I wake up in the morning I feel like I’ve got arthritis in my hands. It’s hard to make a fist or open them. I have some pain in my right heel but I’ve been trying to stretch it as much as possible at night. My right arm tendinitis is occasionally painful but if I don’t think about it I forget it’s there. My knees ache and are swollen. The only comfort in this is that I know I’m using my legs to row. The other comfort I find is Advil liquid gels for inflammation.

What my days are typically like
I wake up at 5am to check the wind and weather reports. I get the cabin in order, putting things away so that if Liv and I toss on my row then nothing will spill, get lost or broken. I usually can’t eat in the morning. I’m too anxious to feel hungry. I drink water all morning to make sure I’m hydrated. If I don’t have to go to the bathroom by 7 that’s usually a sign I need to drink a lot more. Sometimes I panic about staying hydrated. I worry and chug a few liters (or whatever my stomach will take). I get rowing and set my course for the day. I assess my goals with what the weather is letting me actually accomplish and communicate with Brenda. She knows I’m up and rowing. Sometimes I get in a zone and forget that three hours have passed. Other times the miles just won’t come and the time can’t pass fast enough. Throughout the day I listen to music and I try to eat. I’m not terribly hungry while I row but I know I need fuel because my body starts to get weak. I eat plenty of things: licorice, Luna bars, electrolyte chews.

I am hungry enough to eat a dehydrated meal but too anxious about getting the miles done or getting pushed back down the course while I take twenty minutes to prepare one. There’s really just a lot of anxiety (I’m realizing this as I feel like I’ve typed the word a thousand times). I always feel on edge. I want the perfect course…I want the perfect weather…I want my body to feel good and perform. But there are only so many things I cannot control on this trip, and so maybe I’m just death-grip clenching to everything I can. I’m not sure. I just know I’m tired. I’m emotionally spent and I need to get more rest.

It’s getting easier (or dare I say, “normal”??) — don’t get me wrong. But it’s hard, and I want to communicate that.  Not everything about this trip is going to be sunshine, rainbows, smiley updates on Facebook and happy times. Sometimes I get really depressed and I don’t know what to do. I just wake up and keep rowing because that’s what I need to do, not because I want to or it’s easy. Sometimes I fast forward to August and think about how good it’s going to be to get home. Eat normal food. Sleep in a bed that’s thicker than two inches of foam.

The only person I talk to is Brenda, and she is amazing.  She lets me know where I’m at for the day and how many miles are left. And the woman is just amazing. Can I say that one more time…is that all right? She’s amazing. I know she’s working a full time job and juggling life, and she’s still there for me. Even if I’m in for the night and seemingly fine, she lets me know she’s going into a movie and might not be available for an hour. Someone please win a free vacation for this woman. Please.

What inspires me to keep rowing

1. These amazing posts on Facebook (thank you, thank you THANK YOU!)

2. Steve Cannon-an Iowa man that is RUNNING around Lake Michigan for the Livestrong Foundation. He and I stay in contact and he sends me inspiring notes along the way-mostly that he is “clearing the path” for me as he runs around the Lake.  His friendship is so important to me on bad days…and good days. Thank you Steve.

3. The ROW team sends me emails, texts and love that keep me going.  A continued reminder that we are rowing for each other every day.  I really could not finish this without their support and inspiration…cheers to having an amazing cause to wake up and row for everyday.

Thank you for your continued support of ROW and this trip. Please consider sponsoring a mile of this adventure for $100 or making a donation online.




Posted in Uncategorized by Jenn. 4 Comments

Jenn and the Lake: connected with me

During Jenn’s trip we’ll be posting writing from various friends in Jenn’s life. Today’s post is from Lindsay Verstegen, a friend of Jenn’s. You can find her on twitter at @lindzsays

The waves crash onto the Lakefront path on an early morning. I giggle. It’s hard not to giggle when the Lake comes out to play on the sidewalk.

Biking into work every morning from my apartment in Edgewater, a “moment of zen” comes every day when I gaze at that Lake. Every Chicagoan loves the Lake. My affection, however, goes beyond love though to a need and a friendship with a body of water. The Lake is a constant in a world that feels crazy sometimes.

I have lost loved ones to cancer and have gone to that Lake time and time again to feel comfort, solace and connection to a world that is huge and inspiring. Last year, I lost my Grandma Rosie to cancer and the loss hit me hard. Although I was aware the time would come when she would no longer be able to fight, it didn’t stop the fact that in those moments I missed her like hell and couldn’t make sense of her passing.

I didn’t have answers, but I did have the Lake.

Through the Lake, I felt connected to her and when I heard the waves crash, I would hear her voice and feel her spirit. I don’t care if that sounds crazy or sentimental, I believe I can feel those I have lost by visiting that beautiful Lake.

I love when the water gets crazy and crashing. Like a massive bowl of soup carried by a server with a serious case of the shakes.

I met Jenn Gibbons when I was a server over 9 years ago at the breakfast/lunch spot, The Wishbone. I met a lot of people through my work there but when I met Jenn I knew she would be a longtime bud. Even then, her energy was contagious. We connected over our love of outdoors and, at the time, we lived in the same neighborhood so I would hang out with she and her dog Sam from time to time. We identified with each other because we both were midwestern transplants to Chicago (she from Michigan and I from Wisconsin), we both believed in the power of positive thinking and the power of hard work and kindness. Even now, we reconnect from time to time to have lunch and dream up ideas for a book we would write together to articulate some ideas and thoughts behind this feel-good friendship.

Jenn and I aren’t the type of friends that hang out every week or even every month (we are both victims of ridiculous schedules, I’m afraid) but she is constant in my life. A constant source of inspiration, comfort, compassion and strength. Nine years later, we both have grown up a lot since the days at the Wishbone where we made things fun for each other by reading horoscopes daily and concocting new coffee drinks in our spare time.

I shouldn’t be surprised that Jenn is now daring to do something that others would think impossible. For awareness. For the dare. For the challenge. For the love.

This morning when I biked down that lakeshore path and the waves crashed into shore, I giggled as I always do when the Lake comes out to play but I also thought of Jenn and this trip. Somewhere, out there, way out there, she is rowing as I ride. We are connected though we are apart.

Jenn as a friend: constant. inspiring. comforting.
How fitting that she set off on a journey that would take place on a body of water that fits those same attributes. Lake Michigan and Jenn: friends forever.

We are all connected by a lake and by a cause and a history of friendship and support.

And when those waves crash I will feel comfort and I will feel my Grandmother and I will feel full of gratitude to have such abundance in my life. My dear friend, in a remarkable boat, setting out to make the world a better place.

Thank you for your continued support of ROW and this trip. Please consider sponsoring a mile of this adventure for $100 or making a donation online.

Posted in Uncategorized by Brenda. Comments Off

Leaning On My Gibby Girl Strength: Week One Complete

It’s been a full week since I left Chicago for this journey. Sometimes it feels like the time is flying, sometimes the minutes feel like hours.

I have been so fortunate to meet so many supporters on this first leg of the trip. The Racine Yacht Club graciously hosted Liv and I while the high wind weather passed. On Wednesday night, I got to meet a group of breast cancer survivors in Racine who use dragon boats to stay active. “Pink Paddling Power” surrounded Liv and I with pink shirts and adoration. They hugged and kissed me and said “thank you” for doing this trip. They reminded me so much of the ROW women – using exercise as a tool for recovery. It made me miss the ROW team and Chicago so much. I spoke in front of the Racine Yacht Club members and raised over $1,300 for ROW by passing around a donation bucket. Amazing.

Yesterday I rowed from Racine to Milwaukee. It was 22 miles and it took me 11 hours. Even at 5:30 am the winds were blowing Liv and I around in the harbor. My stomach turned as I made my way to the entrance of the harbor, the same place I nearly crashed into on Monday. My rudder wasn’t straight and my heart raced as I left the dock, fumbling to get around sailboats and steer. We got out onto the lake and there was a beautiful sunrise and southwest wind to greet us. When I got out of the harbor, my body relaxed a bit. Monday’s entrance produced more lingering trauma than I thought. I took a moment to remind myself that I could do this…I would do this…and that I had nothing to be afraid of. I learned my lesson and I was better for it. With that, my capable body and boat were back on my watery road forward. No reason to be scared.

My plan was to row to Wind Point and then try and hug the shore between Racine and Milwaukee. The west wind could quickly put me out to the middle of the lake if it picked up so I played it safe. Hugging the shore added miles and hours (thus extra energy) to my trip, but it meant that I’d always be able to control the boat (something I am beginning to value more and more).

As soon as I got to Wind Point I saw a storm coming in from the west. The winds picked up and tried to pull us out, but Liv and I fought to get back closer to shore. The turn at Wind Point felt like it took hours. I grabbed for my rain jacket and locked down all my gear. The rain lasted for a couple hours and winds that came with made for an even harder turn at Wind Point. Once the rain stopped a sheet of fog began to come out towards Liv and I from inland. The waves stopped, the sun began to say hello, and we rowed on past the power plant and into Milwaukee.

The city skyline started peaking over a bluff and I knew I was close: 5 more miles until the entrance of the breakwall and another 2.5 to get to a dock. I knew I only had a few more hours of rowing and for the first time since the trip started, I really dreaded taking strokes. My hands were blistered and sore and my knees ached (the same overuse ache you have after a marathon). Your body just wants to rest…and suddenly I just felt everything. I thought about how far I had come, that today was a good row and that I needed to just a couple more hours to hang on. I stood up and stretched once we were inside the wall, which really helped. After sitting for 10+ hours/day, my bum gets sore and my skin is irritated (not only in places people can see). If I can remember to stand up for even a minute, it really helps in the long run.

I got into the harbor and all I could think about was laying down. Since there’s no back to my seat on Liv, laying down is what I look forward to most at the end of the day. I have to be really careful when I lay my head down, though. The moment I lay down, I can’t be trusted to do anything for the rest of the night. I just fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I’ve never been this tired. Yes, physically this venture is demanding, but it’s also extremely exhausting in every other way imaginable. I am on edge all day long. My nerves are shot by 7pm and I can’t even think straight. I’m in survival mode 300% of the time. “Where’s the anchor pulling us right now…is the rudder taught….did I lock the back cabin?” It’s very hard to get to the point where I can relax. But when I lay down, it’s a done deal.

Since I’ve been in Milwaukee I’ve had some great guests, including members of the Southshore Yacht Club, press from the Milwaukee CBS and FOX affiliates, and a group of sailing students. They are all curious about Liv and the reason I am rowing around the lake.

Speaking of reasons to keep rowing, I found out some very sad and tough news today. My Grandma JoAnn has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. JoAnn is an amazing
woman that I am very close to, and much of the reason I love Lake Michigan and chose to do my trip on this body of water. My mom called me in hesitation, knowing that I would be alone with the news and my thoughts on the Lake. I’m glad she called me, but am obviously upset. I don’t really know how to process this right now, but I do know that I am very lucky to have had such a special person in my life.

My Grandma Clem lived in South Haven, Michigan for years. While there, she started a beautiful tradition with me and all of my girl cousins. “Gibby Girl” get-togethers began when I was in elementary school. All the Gibby Girl granddaughters would spend a week with Grandma Clem. We spent many days at the beach on Lake Michigan: learning how to bake, cook, quilt, sew and stitch in between sand castles, giggles, and sisterhood. We’ve all gotten older and a week isn’t possible anymore, but we still meet for a weekend (or weekends!) and make sure Grandma is part of a breakfast and in on the festivities. I know she did this to keep us together…and in between all the activities the real treasures we find and we cherish now is that we get to learn from, share and enjoy each other. Every single cousin is different and beautiful, and I am thankful to have all of them in my life

My grandma recognized this…all those years ago. And now I lay here in this boat with this news and ache to be with them. I know they understand that I’ve taken on this challenge and we all have to be strong for each other, especially for a Grandma that has given us so many wonderful memories. Grandma: hang tight and keep fighting. I’ll be home as soon as I can.

Posted in Uncategorized by Jenn. 8 Comments