After 11 failed rounds of IVF, I exercised my way out of heartbreak

'I started to exercise my way out of heartbreak,' writes Hepburn
'I started to exercise my way out of heartbreak,' writes Hepburn - Christopher Pledger
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I believe everyone goes through something sad in their life. Maybe you’ve lost someone too soon? Maybe someone you love has let you down? Maybe you’re simply sad about the things you haven’t got, or haven’t done? My own sadness is that I wasn’t able to have a baby with the man I love.

In my mid-30s, we were diagnosed with “unexplained infertility” and over a period of a decade we went through 11 rounds of unsuccessful IVF and multiple miscarriages. At the end of it all, we split up, heaping loss upon loss. I had a fabulous career as the chief executive of a large London theatre, but it wasn’t enough. I gave up my job. We sold our house in the separation and I moved back into my childhood home with my elderly mum.

I was grieving the loss of a future I had always imagined. But it became a catalyst. I started to exercise my way out of heartbreak. The first thing grief taught me is that it is an opportunity to do something you wouldn’t have otherwise done and a chance to get fit and healthy.

Get out of your comfort zone, and find your lane

At school I had always been the arty one, not the sporty one. I was first in line to audition for the school play, last to be picked for the netball team. But I did enjoy swimming as a child, even though I wasn’t very good at it – I especially liked going to McDonald’s on the way home. And I remember once when I failed to get into the school swimming gala, consoling my disappointed dad by saying that one day I was going to swim the English Channel instead.

'At school I had always been the arty one, not the sporty one,' - Christopher Pledger

In 1970s Britain, Channel swimmers made headline news and I wanted to make him proud. But I didn’t think about this promise again for more than 30 years. Not until after my dad died and my final round of IVF. But one day I woke up and decided it was time to give up on “Project Baby”; I was going to swim the 21 miles from England to France instead.

I had no idea what was involved. I had never swum in open water. I hate the cold. But learning to swim the crawl and the hours and hours of training in the pool and Dover harbour gave me something else to focus on beyond my grief. And I realised that I might not be the best swimmer, but taking on tough physical and mental challenges was something I was good at. I had proved that with all my IVF, which is one of the hardest things you can ever face.

It’s made me realise that the labels that are given to us as children are unhelpful. We all have the potential to be sporty – you just have to get out of your comfort zone and find your lane. Until you do, you won’t know what you’re good at or enjoy. It might be boxing, belly dancing or bowls. It’s probably not something you ever did at school. There are apparently 8,000 different sports and sporting games – go and find the one that’s right for you.

The exercise of adventure changes your life for the better

On September 2 2015, I stepped into the sea at 1.30am. My swim became akin to my own version of giving birth – 17 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds of labour, including violent vomiting and jellyfish stings all over my body and face. But when my feet touched the sand in France, euphoria eclipsed all the pain. The adventure of my journey across the Channel changed my life  – it made me physically fitter than I’d ever been before, but the mental health benefits were also enormous. I felt alive and excited for the future for the first time in years. And it marked the start of a new period of my life taking on massive endurance challenges.

After the Channel, I ran the London Marathon. I have always been a rubbish runner. Small dogs and toddling children overtake me. On April 23 2017, every step from Greenwich to the Mall was a slow slog, but I eventually crossed the finishing line in five hours and 27 minutes.

And then I embarked on the biggest adventure of all: climbing Mount Everest. I was a middle-aged woman who knew nothing about mountaineering. I’d never put on a harness or tied myself to a rope. I started climbing mountains around Britain (Scafell Pike, Snowdon, Ben Nevis) and then across the world. It took me three attempts to summit Everest. The first was a non-attempt – a few weeks before I was due to fly out to Nepal in 2020 the mountain was shut due to Covid.

Then in 2021 I did get there, but I got sick and wasn’t able to summit. I also realised I wasn’t fit enough and came back to London and joined a high-altitude gym. Finally, on my third attempt, on May 14 2022, I reached the top. I was 51 years old. And when I did it, this unsporty, arty girl became the first woman to complete the Sea, Street, Summit Challenge – swimming the English Channel, running a road marathon and summiting Everest.

It was grief that had inspired me. It doesn’t replace the sadness of not being able to have a baby, or losing the man I loved. But going on these adventures has enriched the experience of my life endlessly. I have also met so many new people who have become my alternative family. And I’ve got fitter than I have ever been before.

The secret to success is finding your joy

The truth is I’ve never enjoyed exercise and still don’t. I will always be an unlikely athlete. But although every stroke and step from sea to summit was hard, it also gave me an opportunity to indulge in things that bring me unadulterated joy. First and foremost: all the food, booze and box-sets I have consumed, guilt-free, after training. But it also enabled me to take on another endurance challenge that I felt far more suited to and adored.

'We all have the potential to be sporty – you just have to get out of your comfort zone and find your lane,' writes Hepburn
'We all have the potential to be sporty – you just have to get out of your comfort zone,' writes Hepburn - Christopher Pledger

During the many hours I spent climbing up hills with a pack on my back, I started listening to episodes of my favourite radio programme, Desert Island Discs. The show’s castaway guests became companions on my journey to the top of the world – their wisdom and music fuelling me. From Emma Thompson to Edmund Hillary, Maya Angelou to Louis Armstrong. With more than 3,000 episodes, it was an Everest-like challenge of listening and I may be the first person to have got through the whole BBC archive. It was the perfect adventure to complement my mountain training. Knowing your joy is the key to getting fit. Maybe you’ll find a sport you love. I didn’t. But exercise facilitated things I do love doing – like eating, and listening to people’s life stories and music. And what grief has taught me is that if you prioritise your joy, it’s hard not to feel happy.

Life is better when you move every day

Now that I’ve completed the Sea, Street, Summit Challenge, people inevitably ask “What next?” These days I’m more interested in undertaking micro-adventures. I’ve recently set myself the challenge of swimming in 50 new locations: pools, ponds, lakes, lidos – a 10-minute dip is enough. I am also walking a different National Trail each year. In 2023 it was the Cleveland Way, which was marvellous. This year I’m heading to the Norfolk Coast Path.

My exercise mantra is simply: move every day, and in order to achieve that I plan to continue to live a life of adventure. One of the most important things I’ve learnt is that exercise benefits your mind as much as your body, and there is both a physical and mental component to achieving huge endurance challenges. The grief of my life made me mentally tough. But I had to work hard on the physical side, which didn’t come naturally. And now I move every day, not just because I want to be able to climb a flight of stairs and touch my toes when I’m 100, but also because of how much it has helped my mental health.

Save Me from the Waves: An Adventure from Sea to Summit by Jessica Hepburn (£17.99, Aurum) is out now


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