Karen Darke tests life’s limits to the max

This is Karen climbing El Capitan, one of the hardest climbs in the world...

This is Karen climbing El Capitan, one of the hardest climbs in the world…

By her own admission Karen Darke has a split sporting personality. Describing herself as part adventurer, part elite athlete, she can now add one part endurance athlete to the mix too after taking on an ironman event in the summer of 2014.

That’s a 2.4-mile (3.86km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25km) cycle ride with the cherry on the top, a marathon to finish, that’s 26.2 miles (42.2km).

Oh, and she’s paralysed from the chest down.

A documentary of the attempt premiered at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival in March 2014 to great acclaim. The name of the film? ‘Impossible.’ Quite.

Obviously I’m tip-toeing around whether Karen made it or not, but that’s not really the point. The crowdfunded film, endorsed by the likes of adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and four-time ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington, can be viewed by us all about testing our own limits on what we believe is possible; these can be just the small challenges of every day life but for Karen, the desire to test herself beyond what appears possible given her perceived limitations is what drives her.

Karen broke her back after falling while climbing when she was a teen but since then has scaled one of the world’s most difficult rock faces, El Capitan, gone on a girl’s holiday cycling through the Himalaya, and you may remember her from the London 2012 Paralympics, crossing the line of the road cycling race holding hands with her friend and team-mate Rachel Morris, although it was Morris who officially pipped her to the bronze medal. Darke is after gold though come Rio.

I chatted with the London 2012 Paralympic silver medalist after her fantastic talk at the annual Buxton Adventure Festival. If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, go. Articulate, funny, self-deprecating and full of stories, Karen is just thoroughly entertaining.

Here’s what she told me about the lead up to the ironman, and who on earth it was that inspired her during the event.

“I can honestly say that I was in no good mental state to start the ironman. I’d just flown in directly from the para-cycling road World Championships and every thought in every cell of my body wasn’t up for it. I was really aware I was dreading it.

I’d never done one. I’d done a half ironman, which was quite tough and I’d done it with a friend on a tandem bike, so the thought of putting my body and my shoulders through that amount of work… I was quite scared about it.

It just seemed completely crazy and impossible but the guy who had inspired me to do it, Mr Impossible 365, was Jose Manuel Lopez Martinez who was trying to run as many ironman challenges as he could in a year, so it was his 90th!

Karen takes to the road for the final push... a full marathon

Karen takes to the road for the final push… a full marathon

I’d met up with him at a radio station the day before in Mallorca and you just have to give yourself a talking to when you’ve met him.

He’d done something like 86 up until the week before and he wanted this to be his 90th so he had something like four days to squeeze in three ironmen just before I arrived on the Saturday – and that was while working full-time.

So you kind of have to say to yourself, ‘Okay, stop complaining, woman-up and do it’. So I remember cycling to the shore that morning at half six and there was nobody there and it was pitch black.

My friend who’s based there said she’d be there at half past six and we’d get ready but they didn’t appear until one minute to seven and we were supposed to start at 7am.

It was still quite dark at that point and I remember just stripping off and sitting on the jetty at the edge of the sea just filled with dread and thinking, ‘Oh god, what am I doing? This is stupid’.”

Stupid maybe but impossible?

By Jo Gunston

Further contacts
Contact Karen for details on how to watch the film.
Karen Darke @kdarke
Sheffield Adventure Film Festival @ShefAdvFilmFest

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