Samantha Clark brings us the latest on the amazing exploits of Claire Lomas, a British event rider who was paralyzed from the waist down in a cross-country accident five years ago.
Top photo: Claire Lomas flanked by Mark Todd and Bettina Hoy (photo used with kind permission of Peter Atkins)
When the Paralympic flame is lit in Trafalgar Square, London on Friday doubtless many eventers will spot a familiar face holding the torch–Claire Lomas will be in her robotic suit, fondly christened Fred, and back in the city whose pavements she pounded for 17 days this Spring on her way to completing the Virgin Marathon, despite being paralyzed from the chest down in a freak cross country accident at Osberton five years ago.
With the total amount raised for Spinal Reasearch currently over 200,000 GB pounds and still growing, and considering that the daily conditions were generally agreed to be appalling–pouring rain on every day except for the first and last–one would expect, and hope that Claire might still be relaxing, taking it easy, recovering gently–No such chance!
“We had such a laugh with the marathon, we got to know everyone so well over the 17 days and I was quite sad at the end thinking I would miss everyone and all the action, but it’s not been like that at all because we’ve started planning the next adventure straightaway!”
The next adventure is a Paris to London bike ride on an FES bike (Functional Electrical Stimulation) which works via 16 electrode pads on Claire’s legs, ”It’s just as hard as anyone else doing it–basically the electrical stimulation acts as your spinal cord, if you were pedaling you’d send your signal from your brain down your spinal cord and then your leg moves, like everything you do in life it goes brain, spinal cord, and then the movement, but with me because of my spinal cord damage the electrical stimulation does what the brain and spinal cord do, which is tell the muscle to move. I’m still powering the bike, it’s still my muscle power, it still makes me puff and blow, it’s still like a workout and I need strong legs, everything’s the same really.”
Charlie the Coffee Man will plan the route once Claire takes delivery of her bike, “The company are making me a special bike–they’re going to put as many gears on it as they can, and keep it as lightweight as possible. It’s never been done before, which is what makes it special. The electrode stimulation will only work so long as my legs are strong–once they get tired they don’t keep going. That’s why my training is so important. I’ve got a really good bike physio and quite a detailed training programme from six months out so starting November, even though I’m training hard already, it’s a bit like interval training a horse what with all the hill work and everything.”
Tentative plans are for next April, but fundraising has already begun and you can donate here; and Claire is also noticing the advantages from the training, although she told me she’s been using her static bike and hand bike ever since the accident, “The health benefits from biking are huge–the circulation, the muscle mass, the bone density. My legs don’t look wasted. When I was in hospital they said to me my legs will waste away but it doesn’t matter because they’re no use to me anyway–well, my legs aren’t wasted, and I don’t really want them to be in case Spinal Research come up with anything or if I just keep improving, I’ve got good strong legs.”
Claire and Dan enjoy biking together, and once their daughter Maisy, now one, is older, it’s something they’ll all be able to do as a family–if they can keep up with Claire, who likens her outdoor bike, “low and zippy” to a sports car! Skiing is another passion of Claire’s which also does her good she explains, “my arms are quite light when I ski, I don’t have to use them a lot, it’s more core and using my hips a lot so it’s actually really good rehab, plus it’s very symmetrical as well which is brilliant.”
If you’re lucky enough to be in England during the Blenheim Horse Trials this September you can have a delicious lunch with Claire in the Members tent, and a portion of the price of your ticket will be donated to Spinal Research, but book your ticket quickly- Claire has a veritable army of admirers, inspiring everyone who hears her story, including famously Sir Richard Branson who made things right when he discovered the Virgin London Marathon could not technically award Claire a completion medal because it would take her longer than 24 hours to finish the course. (“I was never doing it for the medal; when I first heard I wouldn’t get one it was quite a while before the Marathon and I thought it was a shame for about a second or two, but that wasn’t the reason I did it, I was doing it to raise money for Spinal Research.”) Sir Richard awarded Claire the Virgin Trophy for amazing acts of bravery to add to the 18 completion medals of their own that other runners had given to her, and he also treated Claire, Dan and her parents to dinner at his Babylon Gardens restaurant in Kensington a week later.
Claire was at the Olympics this summer supporting Team GB in the eventing and recalled fondly her Marathon day walking in Greenwich with Tim Henman and his wife Lucy, a keen eventer, as well as so many other people along the way, “Clare Balding came about three times and she was just absolutely lovely, and Matthew Pinsent came about three times, Dan Lobb who presents Daybreak came and spent about half a day and then came back on the last day, footballer Matt Holland–he was quite nice to look at too, he brightened up the day! It would be impossible to single anyone out, everyone was so much fun and so generous with their time.”
Claire told me she had no expectation for the next adventure, “Whatever I can raise is a bonus,” and when I wondered if Dan ever felt like having his wife back to himself, she laughed, and shared that they couldn’t actually remember whose idea the biking was, his or hers, but that originally Dan had suggested Claire bike around the world! Claire had told him “bollocks to that,” but “Dan’s always encouraging me, I think he’s glad it keeps me out of trouble!”
We’ll be bringing you regular updates from Claire as she continues to train, and raise money for Spinal Research, and you can hear more of my conversation with her on this weeks Eventing Radio Show, online Thursday. Go #clairescycle and Spinal Research and Go Eventing!