It's the 2nd of December 2023 and I have won the Classic River Race, big deal 🤷♀️ I have won it before, 3 times in fact. However this one actually was a big deal as there was something very different about getting to the Gorge Bridge this time round. I had to fight so hard for every inch of that 70km, an invisible battle no one could see.
Rewind 3 years and I was quietly minding my own business driving from Nelson to get to my next work appointment in Blenheim. It was a hot February day and there was plenty of traffic on the road. As I approach the Woodbourne RNZAF Base there are road cones everywhere, 30km signs and I can see a man with a temporary stop sign. There is a line of traffic ahead of me. I come to a halt behind a rather large house bus. As I glance up to look behind me the world comes to a complete stand still. My revision mirror is filled with a windscreen and it takes a few seconds for it to dawn on me that the car behind me is about to hit me. The impact is violent and as my car is shoved forward and crushed by the bus in front of me, I am thrown forward, then backwards, the forwards again. It all happens in such slow motion. In that moment I had been left with a life altering traumatic brain injury (TBI), this would take months to figure out and even longer to learn how to manage it and start to recover.
So, what had just happened? My brain had been damaged by the force of the accident, ok, but what does that mean? Turns out your brain doesn’t actually move, just your head, something I had never really thought about. Our brain is suspended and protected in our skull by cerebrospinal fluid, how clever. As my head was thrown backwards and forwards at such speed my brain stayed still until it was forced to move. This is where it gets bad. Our brain is made up of white and grey matter both of which are difference densities, this causes them to move at different speeds during an impact. Our grey matter is a lot softer and lighter than our heavier white matter, therefore it stretches a lot more. This is where disaster strikes, the difference in densities causes shearing of the axonal nerve connections. Axons are the micro nerve fibers that connect the two parts of the brain. The axons help the grey and white matter communicate with each other. When the axons are stretched or sheared, they suffer micro tears causing complete chaos in your brain. It can take years and years for these damaged nerve fibres to slowly repair themselves and the communication pathways to be restored. This is where the life altering journey begins.
I won’t go in the endless list of things that have changed for me since the accident. It’s just too long and none of it makes any sense. Instead, I will just cover the highlight (or low light as the case may be). The most gut-wrenching soul-destroying moment was during the Classic River Race in 2022. It was January and the one-year anniversary of my accident was fast approaching. This date was a real focus for me, naively thinking that it would all be behind me once I had past it. As the race approached, I still had so much going on with the exercise intolerance that comes with the TBI, a permeant headache and servery altered vision especially on the river. However, my only experiences racing in the Gorge have been so powerful and successful, how could I not even try? That’s just not me. I knew I was completely screwed but a part of me was sure that instinct would kick in and my mind and body would do what it normally does and just get the job done. Miracles do happen!
I started the race knowing I couldn’t get my HR over 135 bpm as that was when things started to go downhill rapidly. I was really relaxed and content to just sit amongst the field and manage myself as best I could. Well before you know it, somehow, I am in the lead, with the girls all eager to follow me. My pace was slow and steady as I focused on keeping my HR low. We are just past Gooseberry Stream and I already know I am not going to have the magical “day off” from the injury I hoped. We get to the top of the Gorge and still none of the girls have paddled past me, I am going so slow and I can’t help but think what are the others doing? I pull over to the side and tell at Fi and Kathryn to paddle past me. My vision is starting to fail me and I have a white ball of bright light sitting in my field of vision just above my right eye. Still, I keep trying. That’s the problem with a brain injury. I am not thinking rationally either. I should have pulled out at that point but I didn’t. I am still hoping if I can get through the Gorge, I might come right and can finish the race strongly. I paddle for a bit with Rebecca, which as it happens is our first encounter and I introduce myself paddling into Salmon Rapid. Fi hasn’t taken off quite as I had expected. Maybe I am not paddling as slow as I feel I am. We are down through Hamilton’s and she is still well within my sights. So much is going on. My vision is continuing to deteriorate at the same time as my head is screaming you are a faster paddler than Fi, what the hell are you doing, get up there! You can’t let her beat you! Brain your right, she can’t beat me, but of course she could. Fi had a really great paddle and won the race in fine style. I tried to keep up but I couldn’t, as she paddled away from me it felt like so much more than that. I was losing everything I have ever worked for. That feeling of complete helplessness was the stuff of nightmares, I can still feel it now. You’re trying to run away from the scary monster but your legs are stuck to the ground and you can’t move. My mind wanted my body to paddle but I just simply couldn’t do it. I have never felt anything like it. I wasn’t just losing a kayak race I was losing my identify, my life, my everything. Oh dear, this isn’t going to be pretty!
I have had many other breaking points along the way. I have cried more tears in the last 3 years than I have I my previous 40. I have experienced deep depression, which is a common side effect of a TBI. Up until now depression was just a word I knew existed. I had very little understanding or compassion for anyone suffering this debilitating condition. Surely you just need to get outside and go for a run or a bike ride and you will be fine? Turns out this is far from the case. True depression is so hard to describe. It’s such a dark overwhelming weight that is crushing every part of you, pushing you down past a place it isn’t possible to go. The free fall is immense. Nothing can save you. No one can help you. All you can do is breath and beg to come out on the other side. Nothing makes sense and the world feels like an incredibly lonely deserted horrible place. You need a lot of help to survive. During these awful dark times the people in my life are everything.
Len. Len isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t immediately get off on the right foot with him you will never be back. He is that kind of guy. However, if you do click with him, he is the stuff legends are made of. Len and I have such a great time together. He has a heart of gold and we can talk for hours and hours and I never get bored (well sometimes if it’s another boiler story). He patiently asks me all the right questions every time I go paddling, how did I feel? what did I do? what paddle length did I choose? how did the boat feel? how was the rudder handling? and so on. This was a daily routine along with everything else. We live a fairly repetitive life. Then everything changed. I was no longer capable of even the simplest of tasks, getting up early to train, coming home to get work, then some more training before making dinner and getting myself to bed, now there was just no way. I couldn’t do housework, I couldn’t cook, I had literally forgotten how, my brain couldn’t understand the dynamics of cooking a meal and getting everything cooked and ready at the same time. We do it without thinking but it is actually really stressful and hard when you are compromised. How could cooking dinner turn into such a disaster. Then after it all went wrong; I couldn’t even get myself to bed. Step in Len Smyth. It took us about 6 months or so to really work out what was going on and learn our new routine. Once Len had learned my limits and the things that helped, he stepped up like I could never have imagined. The daily things he did for me blew me away. He looked after me to the absolute best of his ability which isn’t easy when you are trying to run a business as well and your patient is determined to completely destroy herself. The last few years have been the pits but some of the moments that we have shared together I will never forget. The kindness and compassion he has shown towards me have been a big part of my recovery. You simply cannot survive a brain injury without people like this in your life.
My family. I don’t have a big family. We missed the memo on that one. The Cambie family has always been small, and with the recent passing of my grandpa 6 days after the Classic it is now just that little bit smaller. My Mum and Dad have the most amazing generous attributes. They have both spent a lifetime putting others above themselves. They have demonstrated so much love and commitment it's awe-inspiring. I have a brother too. When I was little, I always wished he was a girl. Never did I imagine he would grow into one of the most specular people on this earth. When times are tough, and they have been more challenging for our family over the past few years in ways we could never have imagined, my little brother Jeremy has shone like the brightest of stars. From little things like a message to see if I am doing ok to the big things like learning how to time kayak races my family have done it all.
My friends. Turns out I have the most amazing bunch of close friends. I mean I already knew that, but when times are tough this group really shines. We have been through a lot together over the past few years. Losing Penny to cancer in September in 2021 was a very difficult time. We all stuck together and found comfort and support in each other. Even though we were going through the harsh reality of watching someone deteriorate with a brain tumour they all still found the time and strength to check in and support me as well. Their help came in so many forms from house work, cooking, driving, managing kayaking race registrations and even Era’s tickets. It has been endless. There is a lot to be said for good friends. I may not have that many friends but the ones I do are the kind of people who make this world a better place.
Then there was Sam. Day after day after day I didn’t want to get out of bed and face the world. I literally couldn’t. How could getting up, getting dressed and going for a paddle have become more challenging than climbing Mt Everest. I didn’t want to see a single sole, let alone talk to someone. The anxiety I felt about leaving the house was like nothing I can describe. Just leave me alone! I simply can not face the world, I am trapped in some kind of hellish prison no one can see, but Sam was relentless. He never backed down and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In my darkest hours (which there were many) he would pick me up to take me paddling, even though he knew I would undoubtably cry multiple times, tell him my life wasn’t worth living and he should really just go by himself. All this was prior to even getting on the water where my injury prevented me from being able to paddle for more than about 20 mins before I would be overcome with exhaustion, poor vision, a horrific headache and a few more tears for good measure.
I developed all sorts of tricks to try and fool him but he never fell for any of them. Instead working out what I was doing, accepting it (mostly) and then working out how he could help me. I treated him terribly at times, shutting him out when he was one of the people doing the most to help look after me. I just couldn’t cope with feeling like a stranger in my own body. I don’t know who I am anymore and I don’t want anyone to see me like this, especially someone who knows what I use to be capable of. Such a downwards spiral is hard to escape and even harder to hide from those closest to you. A classic Katie C move was when he messaged me to ask how I was feeling my reply would be a question about a completely unrelated topic. I didn’t want to say I was fine as that was a lie. I also didn’t want to say what was really happening which was usually tears streaming down my face wishing I was no longer alive. So instead, I would neither lie nor tell the truth. It drove him crazy (I still do this to this day but I am a bit better at not avoiding the question). Times were tough but he didn’t give up on me. He spent hours reading about TBI’s, recovery and training through such an injury. He adapted to the new Kate, a new type of “training plan”, worked out what would help and set about making it happen. Through it all my love of being on the river and paddling beautifully through the Gorge played over and over in mind. I wanted it back so desperately. I wanted the trophy back too. It was an impossible ask for so many reasons, my balance has been affected, my vision is impacted on the river, my exercise capacity has dramatically decreased, the list goes on, but not once did Sam ever question my ability to regain what I had lost. He has paddled by my side (I mean mostly, sometimes he gets away on me) every day and without him I would not have been able to step up on to the podium and take a moment to reflect on achieving something I had to work way too hard to get. Sam is a champion friend.
I still have a long way to go before this injury will be resigned to my past. I continue to struggle every day. Some days it’s easy to hide and other days not so much. The overwhelming reality that this follows my every move is so hard to escape. Every morning when I wake up it’s there. It’s the first and last thing I think about each day. I never get a break from the big sign that sits above my head each day reminding me it’s still not over. So much so that I even can’t remember how I felt before this all happened and what’s it like to have brain that isn’t constantly letting you down. The people who surround me each day are the only reason I am still here. You just cannot get through a brain injury alone.
What has been the most challenging part? All of it! Every single day is hard. They call it the invisible injury and that is of course very fitting. No one can see a brain injury and in the early days accepting I had an injury was the hardest part. Even now I still struggle to accept it. I have had to get up and fight every day for the past 1041 days. It is exhausting and even now nearly 3 years in sometimes I just can't do it, but the good days are a lot more frequent and for now that's as good as it gets. When will I be better? Just like asking a Swiftie what their favourite song is, that question literally cannot be answered, but I am a lot closer than I ever have been. The daily anguish of my contestant confusion, the inability to see a way forward and the struggle to try and survive moment by moment isn’t quite such a full time gig now. I have to get there one day and when I do, a moment I have been holding my breath for will pass and I won’t even notice. I will be back thanks to an army of support behind me ❤️