From Etape Loch Ness Volunteer to Globe Trotting Cyclist
Pictured: Christine Graham was so inspired by her time as a volunteer at Etape Loch Ness that she’s taking to the course herself this April.
A chance text message was all it took for Inverness’ Christine Graham to embark on an unexpected journey of a lifetime.
A group message looking for volunteers to marshal at Etape Loch Ness, a 66-mile cycle sportive in the Highlands, sparked an interest in cycling that later this year will take her to India for a 1,500km ride along the River Ganges with Paralympian Karen Darke.
But back in 2016, when that fateful message was sent, Christine’s adventure was almost cut short before it even began.
Christine (49), who has lived in Inverness for nearly 30 years and originally hails from Alexandria near Loch Lomond, said:
“I have a neurological illness that came on nine years ago – a singular episode of what causes MS – and because of this I used a walking stick.
“I had chronic fatigue syndrome and was forced to give up work.
“I couldn’t overcommit and was hesitant to make plans; I plodded through my days doing my own things.
“So, my initial reaction to volunteering at Etape Loch Ness was that I couldn’t do it.
“Five minutes later, though, I was thinking about it.
“My friend Karen was going to Rio for the Paralympics and I was joining her to support her. “If I could travel across the world to support cycling, I should be able to support it in my local area too.”
After helping to pack the participants’ goody bags, Christine was allocated a spot marshalling in Inverness.
“There was a real camaraderie between the volunteers.
“It was brilliant seeing all the participants coming through, too.
“We were stationed in the last few miles, so everyone was flagging a little and the moral support really spurred them on.”
For Christine, marshalling was a real eye-opener – far from the elite sporting event she thought it was, she discovered that the Etape Loch Ness was accessible to cyclists of varying abilities.
And despite not having ridden a bike since she was a teenager, her interest was piqued.
“I thought it was all going to be pro cyclists, but I didn’t realise that ‘ordinary’ people took part as well.
“I saw people I know cycling and realised that I wanted to give it a go.
“I decided to aim for my 50th birthday – which is this year – as it gave me two clear years to prepare myself.
“I went out and bought a hybrid bike and started to cycle a little bit.
“Then I went to Rio and saw all the Paralympians winning medals – including Karen winning a gold medal in her hand-cycling time trial race.
“I’m not a sporty person – I hated PE at school and didn’t like putting myself out of my comfort zone – but I was determined that Etape Loch Ness wouldn’t defeat me.
“I came back from Rio and bought a road bike.
“I followed a couch to 50k plan from British Cycling at the end of 2016 and realised that this wasn’t going to be an impossible challenge after all.
“I’m determined to get that finishers medal!”
Christine plans to tackle Etape Loch Ness with her partner, Kevin, who she volunteered with in 2016.
“Kevin thinks I can complete the course in around five hours.
“But really my ultimate aim is to complete the course – that will be an achievement in itself.”
And following Christine’s Highland sportive, she will travel across the globe to take on a whole new challenge: a mammoth three-week cycling through India, accompanying Karen Darke on one leg of her Quest 79 Adventure.
“In October, Kevin and I will be joining Karen on the Sacred Way part of her Quest 79 journey.
“It’s a four-year project for Karen, including nine rides over seven continents.
“We’ll be joining her for 1,500km along the River Ganges in India.
“The trip is all self-supported – we’ll be carrying our own kit and cooking for ourselves.
“It’s just us and the open road ahead of us.
“We’ll be riding touring bikes, carrying our kit in pannier bags so I’ve been practising with them to get used to the extra weight.
“We’ll also have a trailer with kit and Karen’s wheelchair in it.
“Kevin will take that for most of the journey, but I hope that I can help him out with it a bit too.
“It’s really going to be a team effort.”
This global adventure is a far cry from what the usually sports-shy Christine is used to, but it’s all part of her plan to commemorate her 50th birthday in style.
“For the last 50 years, I’ve lived a normal life.
“So, for turning 50 I’m going to step outside of my box; I’m going to be the real me and the best of me.
“I’m fit in a way I never have been before, and I’m embracing my grey hair!
“It’s actually really working, and I’m looking forward to turning 50 this summer – I’m not dreading it at all.
“I’m just an ordinary person, with until recently a low level of fitness and a neurological illness
“But I’ve been inspired by the Paralympians I have seen and the participants I have got to know at Etape Loch Ness.
“And if I can do something like this, taking on the new opportunities coming my way, somebody who is volunteering this year can do it too.
“If we want something enough and work towards it, anything is possible.”
Beginning in the Highland capital of Inverness, the stunning Etape Loch Ness route follows the A82 along the northern side of the loch, before passing through Fort Augustus onto the south side.
The route then continues around the southern side of the loch before returning to the event hub at Eden Court in Inverness.
The event takes place on traffic-free roads, giving riders a unique experience.
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