Dr Karen Weekes is perhaps one of the more remarkable adventurers you’re yet to hear of. Karen boasts an impressive CV of endurance feats, having sailed across the Atlantic, cycled across Canada and kayaked around Iceland.
And she's now aiming to become the first Irish female to row solo, 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
Whilst preparing her nutrition and hydration for up to 90 days at sea, Karen was introduced to Precision Fuel & Hydration by Irish Rugby’s Head Nutritionist Ruth Wood-Martin
So, we caught up with Karen to find out how Precision Fuel & Hydration and her role as a Sports Psychologist will help her bid to become only the 20th female to ever row an ocean solo…
Hi Karen, you’ve worked with endurance athletes in your role as a sports psychologist. How will that help you as you embark on your Atlantic challenge?
During my studies, I wanted to see how the minds of endurance athletes work. And I guess in some ways I was being quite selfish as I wanted to get an insight into the cognitive techniques of these athletes, whilst also learning from them to help inform my own sporting challenges.
So, I did my Masters degree on Deca Ironman athletes, who swim 24 miles, cycle 1,120 miles and run 262 miles. And I went off to Pakistan to live with mountain climbers for part of my PHD, during which I also interviewed 100-mile runners. They remind you that it’s amazing what the human body can do.
I wanted to test out their cognitive tools and see how they worked for me. I figured then at least when I'm working with elite endurance athletes, I’ll know what I'm talking about.
I didn't want to be a sports psychologist that talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk.
Learning from their experiences and their knowledge has really helped me.
For example, there are ultrarunners who do 24- or 48-hour races, and they’ll start coughing some black stuff up at some point. And the first time that they do that, they're freaked out. But the next time it happens, they go, “oh, yeah, here we go. So I've gone past this before, so I'll keep going.”
They’ve learned that it’s normal and not a big deal from past experiences, which has helped inform them in future.
When it comes to the ocean, there will be a lot of stuff that I won’t have experienced before and will scare me, but I have to try to learn from that as I go. I've worked on visualisation over the last few months and I think that will be helpful.
I’ve sailed the Atlantic a couple of times, but obviously a row boat will be very different. I totally trust my boat, Millie, though and as long as she’s not run over by a ship, I should be fine.
It’s difficult to replicate the challenges you’ll face on the ocean, so how have you been preparing yourself physically for 3,000 miles of rowing?
My focus has mainly been on the gym, so weights, strength, conditioning, and a lot of core work.
I’ve also made my own training equipment; I’ve soaked battle ropes in water so that they’re heavier and I’ve been using those wrapped around a tree in the garden.
I'm also hauling three tyres on a narrow rope and that’s serving a physical and psychological purpose. So, if the retrieval line on the parallel anchor on the boat breaks when I’m out in the ocean, it's really hard to pull in.
Practicing with the tyre helps me build up my strength and also helps me mentally prepare for the challenge of pulling the anchor back in. So, it’s effectively an imagery technique where I’m visualising pulling in the parallel anchor during training sessions.
Sounds brutal! How many hours a day have you been training?
I have this philosophy that I'm not telling anyone how many hours I’m doing. I'm working hard but I won’t put a number on it because I'll always upset someone. I can’t be bothered with listening to people going on, saying “you’re overtraining” or “I don’t think you’re doing enough”.
Ultimately, it’s the quality of the training. Some people can go into a gym for three hours but really they’re only productive for maybe 40 minutes.
So, I keep saying to people, “I'm just chipping away”.
Spending around 70 days on the ocean on your own is obviously going to be a massive physical and psychological challenge, so how will you break the journey down?
I'm quite a sociable person. And people have asked me, “won’t you feel isolated?”. I’ve worked with and spoken to other rowers and, from a sports psychology perspective, I think I just need to relish those 70 days on my own, and try to enjoy it as much as I can.
In terms of breaking the journey down, I’m aiming for about 16 hours of rowing a day. I’ve sailed across the Atlantic a few times and I know from those experiences that I get my deepest sleep between 1am and 5am generally, so I think that will be my sleeping time. And then I’ll row for a few hours, enjoy the sunrise (hopefully), which will be a welcome distraction as well.
When I'm not rowing, I’ll be navigating, hydrating, eating, blogging, sending information home, looking after the boat, and then sleeping. So yeah, it's gonna be pretty intense.
But I just have to just focus on the 70 days, or however long it takes - I’ve got enough food for up to 90 days.
You’ll be completely self-supported, so how have you managed the challenges of organising your nutrition and hydration for such a long period of time?
Ruth Wood-Martin has been a massive help on this front, so she’s helped make sure I have a pack for every single day for 90 days on the boat. I'll take out a pack every morning and that includes a 300 calorie rehydrated meal, as well as nearly 2,000 calories worth of snacks.
I have a solar-powered water maker on board, which means I’ll be able to get some fluid to add to my Precision Hydration tablets, which have been amazing by the way.
Good to hear! How will you celebrate when you’ve completed the 3,000 miles?
Once I get to Barbados, I’m looking forward to shooting the breeze with an alternative form of hydration…!
And finally, what motivated you to take on this challenge?
I've been following the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge for about seven years now and I've been working with a few rowers during that race in my role as a Sports Psychologist. And so it's been in my head that I was going to do it and, having done various other endurance challenges, it feels like the next step for me.
I genuinely don't give a ‘rats’ about records, I just want to get over safety. The fact that if I’m successful I’ll be the first Irish female and only the 20th woman in the world to row an ocean solo is massive, and hopefully that helps raise awareness of the She Can Do campaign, which aims to encourage females to push themselves outside their comfort zones, as well as bring awareness to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.