MS Iron Challenge: putting Multiple Sclerosis to the test

There’s something about having Multiple Sclerosis (MS) that leaves me wanting to achieve more; to really put my MS to the test. With about three years of fitness training now behind me, I had come to realize that I do not tire easily and I am strong – two characteristics not often attributed to someone with MS. So what next?

The fall of 2008, my good friend MJ, who had previously convinced me to Dragon Boat, suggested I try outrigger canoeing. Unlike dragon boating, outrigger canoeing is a distance sport with races anywhere from 6 to 100 kilometres. I had proven to myself through dragon boating that I was able to train in the heat provided I was near water. So with water bottle in hand, and MJ’s support, I signed up for an outrigger program at Go, Row Paddle with Vancouver Island Va’a.

Workouts were 3 to 4 times weekly in a six man boat and lasted anywhere from 1 to 3 hours. Crew members were expected to supplement paddling with other types of exercise. I chose weight training and swimming – swimming has always be the foundation of my fitness program.

In January of 2009 I had my first race. It was a hoot! We tied two boats together to form a 12 man boat and paddle 6 kilometres through a thick fog in the Burrard Inlet in Burnaby, BC. I wanted more!

Next up: Brotchie Reach. This race was a little more challenging with a 6 woman crew paddling 10 kilometres. The race took over an hour; I had raced longer and harder than I had before. I could feel my endurance had increased. I wanted more!

A month later coaches Brent and Risa entered our club in Duel in the Desert, a 17 kilometre race in the Okanagan; temperatures were much warmer than in Victoria. With the support of my coaches, and club I paddled with a 6 woman crew and completed the race. I had officially moved into the iron class of races and was experiencing no complications with my MS. I wanted more!

We continued to train with both the intensity and distance continually increasing. Now paddling with a men’s crew, each month I participated in an iron race that was anywhere from 15 to 20 kilometres. And then came the last race of the season: the Vernon Freshwater Challenge, a 45 kilometre change race.

Change racing is a style of racing onto its own. Crews area made up of 9 paddlers and the boat an OC-6 (6 man ocean canoe). Throughout the race 2 to 3 paddlers jump out of the boat while and 2-3 paddlers who have been dropped off in the water by an escort boat climb in. There is a paddler change approximately every 20 minutes throughout the race. Even during paddler changes the boat never stops moving.

The race was in Vernon, BC, where summer temperatures easily reach up to 40C – a frightening temperature for a gal with MS. I had to seriously consider if I wanted to do the race. The distance alone was enough to keep the average Jill away – add to that the heat – it could be a recipe for disaster.

I reminded myself that I do not tire easily and I am strong. I spent several days thinking about how I had trained my body (and my MS) over the last three years. Everything had been done gradually, step by step, in a very calculated fashion.

I decided test my body once again and began heat training, spending a few minutes at a time in a steam room until I gradually became more comfortable with heat.

We paddled the race in 4 hours and 26 minutes that year. I continue to look for more challenges.

If you are someone using endurance training to manage your disease I encourage you to contact me so we can share your story with others.


> Read MS Wings: learning to fly with multiple sclerosis


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