Calming a racing heart
ED nurse and racing car driver Alex Clark loves the rush of not knowing what’s around the corner.
When Alex Clark grabs a break from a stressful ED shift, she pictures herself putting the ‘pedal to the metal’ around a racetrack.
“It is quite calming – I know most people wouldn’t think that. But I guess it is like a meditation… and that’s also what I do when I’m readying to race.”
The alter ego of this 25-year-old Middlemore emergency department nurse is a BMW racing car driver, who this season took out her first victory on the track.
This may not be the stress release you would expect from a nurse who sees the aftermath of road crashes, but Clark says the sport she loves is safe. And both her job and hobby are good fits for a young woman who has come to realise that she thrives on adrenalin.
Clark grew up around motor racing. With a dad who dabbled in racing Minis when she was a little girl and a grandad who raced, she spent a lot of time as a kid at Western Springs Speedway. So when seven years ago her father once again got back on the racetrack in the BMW Race Driver series, the then-19-year-old nursing student took the chance to try it for herself.
Once she got behind the wheel during a motor sport fun day she fell in love with the technical demands and concentration that racing demands, as well as the buzz it provides.
The rush Clark got from the racetrack made her realise that she was more of an adrenalin junkie than she had ever thought. “I think it must definitely be in the blood.”
Nursing was also in the blood, with her mother being a nurse. Her career choice was sealed by seeing how well the nurses cared for her grandfather during his frequent hospital stays at the end of his life.
ED was not her first choice on graduating from AUT in mid-2014 – that was paediatrics – but the rush of never knowing what was around the corner appealed, so she applied successfully for a new graduate place at Middlemore Hospital’s ED.
“And I can’t imagine doing anything else. Every day is different, every patient is different and in every presentation the condition is different. I like that change – the not knowing is a big drawcard for me, as well as the adrenalin when the ambulances radio ahead with an ‘R40’ and you think ‘oh, what is coming in?’ And you try to stay calm while being absolutely terrified inside.”
Adrenalin is something her job shares with her hobby. “I’m an adrenalin junkie – I never thought I would be, but I am.”
Clark’s first motor racing season was six years ago after a family friend, former motorsport champion Todd Pelham, helped to prepare her for her debut on the BMW Race Driver Series. First up she had to qualify by racing around the track against “big, fast, scary cars”, getting up to around 180 kilometres per hour.
“Terrifying, but so exhilarating!”
Clark raced for three years with the support of her family ‘pit crew’ then, after two seasons off, she started racing again for the 2016-17 season. The season kicked off well, with her first ever victory in the 2 Litre category of the Castrol BMW Race Driver Series held at Hampton Downs’ race circuit in September.
As an ED nurse Clark sees the aftermath of crashes on the road but says she feels very safe in her racing car on the track.
“Motor racing is so safe nowadays. I have all the safety gear – the belts, a roll cage and special neck restraints – so I’m at very little risk of being badly injured. Driving on the general road in a general road car is actually probably more dangerous.”
But she adds that being an ED nurse has put her off riding a motorcycle again.
“And I can’t watch motorcycle racing – it terrifies me as all I can see is the injuries that can happen,” she says.
So what do her ED colleagues think of her racing? “Most of them don’t know,” she laughs. “The ones who do know think I’m mad.”
But Clark highly recommends that other nurses give this meditative and addictive sport a spin.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GEOFF RIDDER
Kate Gibb, a nursing director for older people’s health, is a born-again biker who is totally smitten with her new motorcycle.
Kate Gibb admits she turns a few heads when she rocks up in her bike leathers to work meetings.
She doesn’t do it often, but if she has a meeting on her way home she will ask to be excused her for turning up in her leathers with a helmet over her arm.
Since getting back into motorcycling three years ago and buying her dream bike only last year, the director of nursing for older people’s health for the Canterbury District Health Board chooses two wheels over four wheels as often as she can.
And after a hiatus of seven or eight years without a motorcycle, this born-again biker wonders how she let herself go so long without an activity that she finds so good for her wellbeing.
Gibb first became hooked on riding dirt bikes around a cousin’s farm as a kid and took it up again in her early 20s. Her first motorcycle was a 250cc – the largest you could ride at the time on your learner’s licence.
“It was a little old dunger and I ended up taking it to bits in the garage for quite some time. And then we moved house and I couldn’t remember how to put it back together. So we ended up selling that one for parts.”
Without a motorbike to progress through to her full bike licence, however, motorbiking just fell off her radar over time.
But three years ago Gibb bought a Suzuki GSX 650cc and started progressing through her licence again. “It took me 19 years to go from my learner’s to my full licence,” laughs Gibb. “I finally got it just last year.”
Meditation on wheels
As soon as she got her full licence, Gibb got her dream bike – a Triumph Street Triple R 675cc – the bike she had been coveting since it first came onto the market in 2008. She says it is light, quick, nifty and just the perfect fun package. “It just flies around the race track.”
She says that the few times she has taken her bike around a track she has had so much fun she is very tempted to enter a race, but meanwhile she just enjoys track training days.
“It is very meditative,” says Gibb. “Total mindfulness, it really is – you must be so fully focused and can’t think of anything else. Particularly on the track as you are fully concentrating on hitting your lines perfectly and everything else goes out of your head – it is just the most beautiful, serene concentration with all the power and exhilaration at the same time.”
Riding on the road is admittedly less meditative as you need to focus on the other traffic, but Gibbs says that making sure she gets plenty of time on her bike is one of her key ways to wellbeing. “It’s sort of a unique regenerative kind of activity.”
Bike shop owners no longer do a double take if a woman turns up to buy parts, with motorbiking now an activity being taken up by a growing number of women.
But there is always the safety issue. Gibb acknowledges that motorcylists are more vulnerable on a motorbike than in a car.
“You’ve just got to do your best to make sure you’re riding safely and defensively, and there are some really fantastic safety initiatives since I’ve come back to riding.”
One of these initiatives is the excellent ACC-supported Ride Forever training programme (see resources box for details).
Bikers also need to invest in the best protective gear they can get their hands on and wear it, says Gibb.
“But at the end of the day you do need to accept that at any time somebody can come out at you and, if something does go wrong, you are more vulnerable.”
Gibb says that she actually feels safer on her motorbike than she does on a bicycle. And she adds that people can also get a false sense of security in a car.
“I’m not denying there isn’t a significant risk …but I love it so much that I’m prepared to take the risk.”
And Gibb says she has given some more passive and less risky ‘ways to wellbeing’ a go. “For a while I thought I should try mindful colouring or whatever you call it. But it didn’t quite ring the bell for me…”
Whereas time on her bike… well, that’s the ultimate stress-buster and path to relaxation for this nurse leader.
Massey nursing school head Dr Mark Jones reflects on how his first schoolboy motorbike back in England gave him his nursing vocation and a lifelong passion for bikes and, eventually, bike safety too.
My Anglican minister dad’s plan was that shifting to a new parish was a good time for me to shift to a new school.
I wasn’t so convinced and instead saw it as a great excuse to get my first motorbike and commute to school. Unfortunately, one bike trip to school ended with me waking up in the care of the NHS. But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining and during my four-month rehabilitation at a local hospital I was looked after by a guy who would set me on my nursing journey.
Up to that time my potential career choice hadn’t evolved much further than a bit of a ‘Miss World’ notion that I would care for people and save the world. The aforementioned church upbringing had ensured a steady stream of folks needing assistance around the house. But, being unclear what form my ‘helping people’ would take, I had chosen subjects that had me tracking into teaching.
All of that changed when I met Neil. This was in the day when nurses had time to chat and even as a 17-year-old I could see this inspirational charge nurse was a great leader and passionate about his ability to care for people. So my bike accident steered me into a profession that wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.
I suppose motorcycling and my career have always been linked. Being a biker bloke and a nurse was a bit ‘out there’ and I guess increased my then tendency to buck convention. It also went down well with clients back in the UK when I eschewed the relatively posh health authority car for my bike to make calls as a Health Visitor (an English role that is a hybrid of New Zealand’s Plunket and Public Health Nurse roles). And I do think positive connections were made with the men in families I worked with just because I showed up on a Yamaha rather than in a Rover.
Unfortunately, even after becoming a nurse, my sense of mortality hadn’t quite caught up with reality. But another trip to hospital following a truck tangle saw me waking up to realising you could actually do something to minimise the chance of being killed while having fun on a bike.
Getting decent rider training was the way to go and – with the help of Britain’s grandly named ‘Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ (RoSPA) – I learnt all about defensive riding skills and eventually became one of their instructors. After moving to New Zealand in 2005 I was an instructor for the Women’s International Motorcycle Association branch in Wellington, and working over in Oz gave me a whole new set of training challenges.
I now have less time to spare, but as an NZ Transport Agency-approved instructor I still enjoy offering motorbike training through ProRider – one of the providers of the ACC-funded Ride Forever training programme. I find this kind of education actually fits quite well with my day job. I have the satisfaction of passing on knowledge and helping people become better at what they love doing, be that biking or nursing. The youngest participant I have had on a Ride Forever course was a 16-year-old girl and the oldest a couple in their late 70s setting out to tour Australia. It is rather neat to be able to see someone who has never ridden a motorcycle take to the street safely and learn their craft with our further support as they hone their skills and expertise.
I have to admit though, that the teenage biker in me pops out from time to time as I enjoy our wonderful roads (anywhere out of Auckland!), but I know now what it takes to have fun and stay alive into the bargain – a good way to live by any measure.
ACC-funded, NZTA-approved Ride Forever motorcycle training is available nationwide by accredited training providers. Fees range from $20 for a beginner (bronze) level rider to $50 for silver or gold level courses.
Women in Motorsport New Zealand