By Nancy Heslin
The Early Birds Get The Swimrun Worm At ÖTILLÖ® Isles Of Scilly
The WomenHood founder Jess Rad takes on her first swimrun at ÖTILLÖ Island of Silly next week – and she is bringing seven friends along for the Experience.
SLM: First off, tell us about Jess Rad.
Jess Rad: I was never a particularly sporty as a child. Instead, music – violin, double bass and piano – was my thing and I played in the South Suffolk Intermediate Orchestra up until the age of 14.
I was active and have always been competitive but had never challenged myself physically before. I had never found that thing, or perhaps the motivation, to get started.
SLM: Then you gave yourself a cold-water swimming challenge.
JR: I began cold water swimming in September 2020 after a friend told me it had transformed her.
The cold is not something I enjoy, I’m not a strong swimmer and generally wasn’t really an outdoorsy kind of person but I got in the water the next day and absolutely loved it! I had chosen the right month to start: September is the warmest month of the year here in Brighton, averaging about 17.5 degrees.
Meeting some other women via the brilliant Salty Seabirds community, and as autumn began and a second lockdown engulfed us, those cold-water swims became a life line. The cold water immediately increased my stress resilience and improved my mood.
The connections I had made with the regulars in our little group became deep friendships. With many of us needing to juggle the demands of school drop offs and work commitments, we ended up creating our own group called the Early Birds, meeting at 6:30 am to swim, regardless of the weather, waves or darkness.
Those early morning winter swims really did change my life. Having also never been a morning person, I found myself getting up at 6 am several times a week, at times having to de-ice the car or wear two coats due to the bitter cold, to go and meet these amazing women in the pitch black and strip down to a swimsuit and face the waves, and our fears, lit only by the moonlight.
There was something quite magical about meeting these women under these circumstances. Time again, we showed ourselves and each other how capable we were. My mantra in my head each time was: “If I can do this, I can do anything. If I can do this, I can do anything”. And with those women by my side, I did.
SLM: You ended up taking swim lessons. Learning as an adult is never easy…
JR: When I signed up for the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun in Isles of Scilly, I could literally only do two strokes of front crawl before having to stop. I knew this was going to be a big, big challenge for me. My first swimming lesson was in October at SwimTrek with the very brilliant Andy White, founder of Ocean Set. I arrived full of tension and anxiety, and felt very vulnerable having to acknowledge how inexperienced I was. Having two young kids and a busy life, it had been a while since I had learnt something new as an adult, and particularly something physical.
Andy agreed to begin swimrun weekly training, beginning slow with a lot of land-based training, gently increasing our fitness levels, and meeting us all where we were at.
Having such an encouraging coach, this weekly routine and making this investment in myself has been absolutely life changing. I love to compete with myself. I love to be pushed to my limit. And this did that. Every week. I got to prove to myself I can do better, do more, get fitter, become stronger. Doing this alongside remarkable women I admire elevated this experience to new heights.
I’ve done lots of amazing things in my life and overcome many challenges, but for some reason going alone to do lengths in the pool alone… in the adult lanes … Gasp! Since November, I have overcome that fear.
SLM: You are heading to Isles of Scilly for the June 4-5 weekend. What prompted you to sign up?
JR: In January 2021 I discovered I was getting divorced from my husband of ten years. While I’m grateful this has been an amicable separation, and it’s the best decision for our family, there’s no doubt divorce is a great life disrupter. I was forced to imagine a new life as a solo mama of two kids and as a single woman at 38.
I’m very fortunate to have an extremely loving and supportive family and it was my Dad who forced me to think five years ahead. Very difficult, when you can barely see past the day in front of you.
As part of that vision, I wanted to attempt a triathlon. At the time, I didn’t swim, run or cycle, but I had always wanted a physical challenge, and emboldened by my cold water swimming feats, I popped it on the list and figured five years was long enough to not have to think about it yet.
To make a long story short, I heard about ÖTILLÖ and swimrun. My intuition told me this was something I needed to do. PLUS, you do say on the website “anyone can do this” – or at least that’s how I recall it! So I figured, “I’m anyone! I can do this!”
I set about planting the seeds among the Early Birds crew and to my delight eight of them decided to go for it! Kate, Jude, Hanako, Lucy, Bev, Nicky and Katie all signed up for the Experience and our superstar Susanna is doing the sprint with her brother, Ian. We’ve all entered as individuals, because being tied to someone was going to be a step too far, and for the last 6 months we’ve squished and squeezed as much training in as possible.
I have been bowled over by the courage of these women, the resilience and tenacity that runs through their veins. Between them they’ve been rising above the challenges of divorce, medical retirement, raising young children, heart break, grief, limiting beliefs, financial hardship, learning to single parent, career pivots, physically demanding jobs, supporting neurodiverse children and partners, creating businesses from nothing, being on call and more – just to be part of this event. And now long COVID has sadly put an end to our Hanako’s dream, although I know she will be back and rise again, and thank goodness she’s still coming for the ride for we are incomplete without her.
This event (and divorce, too) has led to me pretty much giving up alcohol. I turned 40 in March and I’ve decided to celebrate by doing 40 things across the year. Some for celebration and jubilation, and others for pushing me outside of my comfort zone. The swimrun experience on June 4 absolutely falls into that latter category.
It will still be a big challenge for me. But this hasn’t been about the day itself. As clichè as it sounds, it has been about the journey to get to this point. The challenges overcome. The new friendships forged. The investment in myself. The identity shifts. It’s all played a role in cementing that self-belief that there’s nothing I can’t do.
And this is just the beginning.
SLM: You founded The WomenHood and advocate for “1% change”. Tell us about how inaccessible change can feel to many women today and the support your community offers.
JR: The WomenHood began in 2019 and is a platform devoted to connecting and supporting women through the unspoken challenges of womanhood. Exploring a variety of topics – from women’s health issues to our financial wellbeing, and from perfectionism and people pleasing to the hidden realities of our relationships. It’s a wonderful community.
Live virtual experiences
We do this through live virtual experiences called The Unspoken Sessions, on demand content and a thriving community. The WomenHood at Work is also launching soon, which will enable employers to unite their teams to collectively find new ways to support women, while increasing compassion, solidarity and empathy amongst all staff via unspoken conversations.
I return to the subject of menopause regularly because it is the one unspoken challenge that every woman will encounter. I was diagnosed with premature menopause at 38 in 2020, so I know first-hand how destructive yet transformative this transition can be in a woman’s life. There is a Menopause Collection on the website and a new Menopause at Work offering for businesses to enable organisations to support their female staff.
SLM: How can people support The WomenHood?
JR: Thank you for asking! Sign up to the mailing list. Come to an Unspoken Session. Join the community on Insta and LinkedIn. Watch the Unspoken Women Lives on Instagram. Secondly, please help spread the word amongst women who you think would benefit from this type of womanhood support. Lastly, get in touch if you know of talented female experts, progressive brands or businesses that want to be part of this women’s empowerment movement.
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