Devon help me!
Anyone who knows me knows I don’t pander to skinny-celebrity culture. I’m happy being a big woman and I’ve run workshops celebrating the scared feminine since my twenties. Yet, even though my life has been blessed with abundance – especially since I married my wife, Margi, last year – I knew that, deep down, i still had some work to do on myself.
My father died at the age of 42, and two weeks before my 43 rd birthday I realised that I wanted to commit to not only a spiritual path in life, but also a physical one. Writing my memoir, Touched by Evil (£6.99, Hodder), was cathartic and helped me realise that, as is often the case with people who have been sexually abused, my excess weight was a protective mantle I donned following a painful childhood. I felt that the time was right to start letting some of that go. Added to these emotional issues was the fact that I had recently been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, a condition that’s a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
With all this in mind I placed a cosmic order to transform my health and body. The universe answered my call when I stumbled upon an internet entry about FitFarms’ weight loss programmes in the Peak District and Exmoor , which, handily, wasn’t far from where I live. Before I knew it, I’d enrolled on an intensive week-long stay in the Devon hills.
I’d read the FitFarms literature with a light heart, unaware of the struggle that was yet to come. The packed programme puts you through 42 hours of exercise in six days, including circuit training, hikes, cycling, yoga and tai chi. There are also workshops on nutrition to help you set up a pattern of healthy eating.
I’d been warned that I would probably hit an emotional wall at some point during the week, but I secretly fancied myself as a fit warrior-woman type, and as I tucked into a hearty last breakfast before setting off, I was still feeling confident enough to crack a few jokes.
On arrival, I found myself surrounded by clucking guinea fowl and 22 women, all intent on regaining their physical power and emotional confidence. Julie, the health manager and a qualified trainer and sports therapist, showed me to my room, it’s simplicity a stark reminder that this wasn’t a pampering spa break.
Our schedule activity for the first night consisted of gentle stretching and ice-breaking games, such as throwing a ball to each other so we could get to know each other’s names. My fellow participants were a wonderfully mixed band of women from all cultures, classes and sexualities, ranging in size from 8 to 28, all united by a determination to get fit and healthy.
The rules for the week were laid down: no leaving camp without staff – our cars were blocked in by the leaders’ cars, in case we tried to escape to the kebab shop in the night – and no milk, sugar, butter or alcohol. We should be fed a nutritionally balanced menu, adding up to 1,700 calories a day, and unless we were allergic to something, there was no alternative. Any contraband we had went straight in the ‘sin bin’.
After a sleepless night on a mattress that swayed like a ship’s hammock, I was not in the best of moods when the 5.30am bell rang to summon us to our first 6am class. But as i went to put my socks on, a note from Margi fell out of my bag. “You can do it,” it read. “You’re my hero, I am with you every moment.”
Reminded of just how blessed I was, I felt a deepening commitment to the course, and staggered over to the barn with everyone else. We were confronted with 20 exercise stations, each involving an exertion, such as star jumps and weights, squats, or skipping, and all comprising a circuit we had to repeat three times. I quickly had to face up to the fact that I wasn’t as fit as I had convinced myself I was. This was confirmed by a fitness test, which involved being weighed ad blowing into a tube to measure lung capacity.
After the test, we had to run or walk three miles through the gorgeous Devon scenery – my cosmic order to be pushed being delivered in spades! But camaraderie got us through the rest of the day’s programme (which didn’t end until 8pm ) and I fell into bed exhausted.
The next day, after another 6am start and more circuits, we tackled a gruelling seven-mile hike. Although we were all determined to make it, some people were sick from exertion and four dropped out along the way. Walking has always been a meditation for me and I counted my blessings with each step, but I developed a four-inch blister under my toes that plagued me for the rest of the week. I finished with aching legs and a great sense of achievement.
Many hours of exercise later, my blister was agony, to the point that i couldn’t put my foot on the ground, and I still had to make it through an hour’s ‘muscle blast’ class, targeting abs, arms and legs, followed by a lively game of netball.
By Monday, I was shattered. When you are warned you’ll hit the wall, nothing prepares you for it. It’s like a thunderbolt of physical pain and emotional exhaustion, so that the next trial – no matter how small – flattens you. My nemesis came in a curried kidney bean breakfast. I hate kidney beans. Even though I knew I was silly, I couldn’t stop crying. I desperately wanted to escape, but knew I had to stick it out, so I subdued my inner diva and struggled on.
The next challenge was a 14-mile bike ride. I managed to complete 10 miles while crying and praying. Still under the weight of the wall, i asked my higher power to get me through and reminded myself why I was there. I clutched my carnelian crystal for dear life (to give me courage and stamina), let my ego go and surrendered to the process I was going through. Sure enough, something in me shifted and I knew I’d make it through. The unerring support from the other wonderful women helped us all plough on.
My memories of the following days are a mix small triumphs and delights. I discovered I love boxing, and experienced touching moments when other participants shared their stories and challenges. I also learned a lot. Enlightening workshops led by the genius nutritional therapist Julia Fitzgerald would alone have made the fee worthwhile. I’ve always wondered why I lose weight so slowly, even though i don’t eat huge amounts, and why I struggle with low energy levels, but she explained that stress can slow down your thyroid as a legacy from when our digestive systems had to shut down as we fled predators. I hung on to her every word and knew that I wanted to change my eating patterns for life.
Other highlights included a session with a psychologist/life coach – during which I realised I was a hedonist who had been living in denial! And cookery, tai chi and yoga classes to break up the arduous exercise regime.
By Wednesday my foot was much better and we went on a nine-mile walk, culminating in a climb up to Dunkery Beacon, from where the views were said to be spectacular. My legs were like tin soldiers as I crawled along behind everyone else, with Marie, one of the eager, bouncy trainers, forcing me on. The joy of coming last was that I saw a deer appear in front of me in the middle of Exmoor and it felt like magic.