When Jo took up rowing she simply wanted to crack her sleep problem. But now her life has been massively enriched by tiny joyful sporty adventures.

I didn’t exactly plan to become so involved in women’s outdoor pursuits that I’d get asked to do panel talks about them. When I took up rowing at the age of 48 I was just looking for a way to sleep better. At the time I was feeling overwhelmed. An anxious perimenopausal single mum of teenage boys, with both my parents going through chemo everything just got on top of me. So when a friend gave me her old rowing machine and I found daily rowing left me feeling calmer, I realised sport needed to play a bigger part in my life.

I’d always loved sport when I was younger, but I’d dropped it along the way. Now the rowing was giving me something I needed. A few months after Mum died, I went for bereavement counselling and the counsellor asked me how I felt and I said “Like I’m standing in a little wooden boat in the middle of a lake looking at my old life and I don’t know how to get back there”.

“In the hills or the sea is where I feel the most me”

Grief, trying to look after my boys and my dad and handling all the stuff after mum died frequently overwhelmed me. Every time I felt like I‘d got a bit of stability a wave crashed back over me. When he asked what I needed to do I said “Row back to my old life”. I didn’t mean it literally but in fact three weeks later I began a fund-raising million meter rowing challenge, finishing it five days before my 50th birthday.

It wasn’t like I went trekking in the Himalayas, I just sat on a rowing machine at the gym every other night, but nonetheless we raised over ten thousand pounds. I realised at that point that my life was vastly enhanced by being active – but I preferred being out of doors. Living in beautiful Yorkshire means there are many options and I was soon out swimming in the sea, snorkelling, body boarding and paddle boarding.

There is so much joy in getting outside and being active. In the hills or the sea is where I feel the most me. The North Sea is pretty chilly for swimming in winter, but gliding through the waves with my fins on is such a serene way to way to start the day – no phones, no social media, just the beauty around me and living in the moment.

“After three days of wipe out I stood up on a surf board for four seconds”

This year I had a summer of firsts. At a three-day surf bootcamp, after three days of wipe out I stood up on a surf board for four seconds and it was such a thrill. And I recently managed to do a headstand on my paddle board on land. My next goal is to do it on the waves (I still can’t do it without falling in).

I’d always thought running was for other people but this time last year I started running . I did the ‘couch to 5k’ challenge, designed to get you off the couch and running 5km in just nine weeks. And this year I have set myself a challenge to run a thousand kilometres.

But I don’t just run – I pick up litter too. I heard Erik Ahlstrom, founder of plogging and the Plogga website, speak at the Love Trails Festival this summer and he got me hooked.

Plogging is picking up litter while jogging and my plogging challenge this year is to a two minute litter pick or beach clean wherever I am each day. And it’s great exercise because it involves lots of stretching, squats, stops and starts as you pick up. Sometimes I carry a bag with me, especially if I’m plogging on the beach, because there’s always more litter there than in the hills.

For me it’s a combination of being aware of the increase in litter – especially plastic – and wanting to do my little bit for the environment. It adds a real sense of purpose to my running and a feeling of guardianship and belonging to my usual routes. I’m never going to be the fastest runner or break any records but it’s one way I can make a difference.

“My plogging challenge is a two minute litter pick or beach clean wherever I am each day”

My outdoor lifestyle has led to a lot of opportunities and joy. It’s transformed my life. Because I’m a plogger and write a blog about my new sporty lifestyle I got asked to speak at a running festival and at a women’s adventure festival in Bristol. I was also on the panel at the Everyday Adventure Session at the Kendal Mountain film festival, talking about tiny joyful adventures for women in midlife. Many of the people there had done huge amazing expeditions, but people said it was nice to have someone say you don’t have to climb Mount Everest. You can just do small things, little adventures like learning to surf or paddle board.

I really enjoy my very normal job working for a small company. Being a single parent I’ve always needed to make sure I’m available for my boys. But now my youngest is going to uni next year, and I’m starting to develop my profile as a speaker for little adventures and outdoor pursuits for midlife women. I don’t want to slow down as I get older, but reinvent myself and start a new chapter, while still continuing with my normal life. Having this whole world open up for me is such a thrill, and the more honest I am on my blog the more people respond.

I know the menopause can be challenging but I see it as a time of rebirth that makes you reevaluate your life and sift through what’s important and what’s not. You quickly realise that you have to look after your health and start putting yourself a bit higher up in your priorities. You have to decide what else has to give so you can go out for that run.

“I don’t want to slow down as I get older, but reinvent myself and start a new chapter”

And you’re not going to look like Elle McPherson at 50. I share pics of myself where I look completely dishevelled because I want people to see the honesty of sport – because fitness imagery can be so posed. It’s hugely helped me accept who I am and just enjoy what I do.

My new outdoor life has been a total revelation. I meet great women too. I’ve made real friendships though social media, people whose lifestyle has a crossover with what I do. Because my side hustle grew out of a need to feel good and enjoy a new way of life, other women can relate to that. Sport and being outdoors makes me feel confident like I did as a child – it’s amazing to rediscover that.

I’m sort of looking forward to the wintry weather and pulling on my beanie and getting out there. Last night I took out my paddle board and had a little pootle on the reservoir near us. It’s a feeling of utter joy and confidence and I’m so happy I’ve got it back.

Words: Marina Gask