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Durham alumna taking on ‘The World’s Toughest Row’

Grace Gilbert and crew member standing on rowing boatDate: August 2023


Meet Grace Gilbert (Geography with Education, Hatfield College, 2011-14) who is taking on ‘The World’s Toughest Row’ across the Atlantic with no prior rowing experience...

Thankfully Grace will not be completing this challenge alone, she will be joined by 2 other crew members in the boat as they embark on rowing over 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua.

We caught up with Grace to find out more about what she has been up to since she left Durham and her preparations for the row.

From all of us at Durham - good luck Grace!

If you would like to find out more this expedition and how to support Grace, please check the links at the end of this page.

What have you been up to since you left Durham?

Since leaving Durham I went on to do a Masters at Oxford Brooks in Commercial Real Estate, an RICS accredited MSc, to go on to a graduate scheme at a consultancy to train as a chartered surveyor. I managed to secure a job at Cushman & Wakefield during a summer internship before commencing my Masters, which meant I had a job to go to straight from my MSc which took a lot of pressure off. I spent 3 and a half years at Cushman before moving on and trying to combine my love of sports and events, being head hunted as Head of Major Events and Commercial Services at UK Anti-Doping for a 1-year FTC. During my time at UKAD I worked on pretty cool events including the Indoor World Athletics Championships, The World Cup Netball and The Rugby League World Cup.

After my FTC came to an end, I returned to real estate, moving back to Oxfordshire, working at VSL and Partners which got bought out by CBRE. After 3 years there, I am now at a small planning consultancy in Oxford called ET Planning where I do commercial valuations and development viability.

In terms of "where am I now" outside of work... well... this is another story.

Grace Gilbert cycling in a triathlonDuring my third year at Durham, having played college hockey (captaining Hatfield) and college netball, I decided it was time for a change because I was a bit bored of conventional team sports, so a couple of friends from college persuaded me to give triathlon a go... well, I can safely say I was truly hooked, and am now quite far down that rabbit hole. I have completed 8 full Ironman races and made it to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawai'i in October 2022. This year, due to the row, I am sticking to half Ironman, and successfully qualified to go the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Lahti, Finland in August! I also race for Team GB Age-Group in middle (70.3 miles) and long (full Ironman – 140.6 miles) distance, where in 2022, I become European Champion... it’s been quite a ride!

Triathlon, and training for full Ironman distance gave me a taste for endurance... which in turn inspired me to push my boundaries. At the end of Durham, before my Masters, I climbed Kilimanjaro and at the end of my Masters, I cycled from John O'Groats to Land’s End on my own unsupported. These two trips gave me an insight into my own capabilities, and my inner strength to endure and this has led me to push my boundaries and dream big. Events and challenges which I never imagined possible to complete, I decided to focus on and see if I could. I have managed Marathon des Sables (twice), 2 Ultra Marathons and now my latest endeavour is rowing the Atlantic in December!

Why are you doing this challenge?

I am rowing the Atlantic for various reasons, but first and foremost, for the adventure and the sense of pushing myself to achieve the impossible. I stand by the phrase "dream big" - if you can dream it, you can do it. You just have to say yes and start taking the first steps. This is how I started my journey, and to date it's been incredible in terms of places I've been, and what I have managed to achieve... something I never ever imagined I'd be capable of. I consider myself just "your average girl" but I have managed to do some pretty cool things, and if I can do it, why can't you.

The objective of our row is threefold:

  1. Stay present and in the moment, enjoy the journey. In the fast-paced world we live in, it is really easy to get lost, and forget where you are and who you are. So, the row is an opportunity to showcase the classic "live in the moment" mentality.
  2. To inspire women and girls to participate in sport and be driven be adventure, to say yes to things that excite them (maybe even scare them) and find the freedom and exhilaration that adventure can bring. In a bid to help translate this into encouraging women and girls to say yes, to be more confident and believe in themselves and promote self-esteem.
  3. Highlight issues around sustainability and ocean plastic, so much so we are hoping for a "sustainable crossing" (using a second-hand boat, solar power for our electrics on board and collecting ocean plastic along the way).

Ultimately, once we start the crossing (12 December officially) we are fund raising for the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for the Neuro Intensive Care Unit. Back in 2009 they saved my brother's life, who was in a coma for months and given a 3% chance of survival. It is a cause very close to my heart.

What is it like training and working towards such a challenge?

It is quite mixed to be fair... prior to saying yes to the row, I had already committed to Marathon des Sable in April/May 2023, so the start of the year was very focused towards endurance running and weight training. After I completed that, I was still hoping to compete in Ironman 70.3 with a qualifying race (for the World Championships) at the end of June, which meant the bulk of my training was swim, bike, run and gym with 2 rowing sessions a week, especially as I have no prior rowing experience, so I am fully starting from scratch in this area. We also have team weekends 2 or 3 weekends a month where we are down on the boat getting our mandatory hours in.

After August, there will be a significant switch, and my focus will be rowing, gym and strength work. The aim is to get robust and strong to tolerate over 40 days at sea being tossed around in bad weather whilst still pulling on the oars and making headway. My endurance base is strong already thanks to triathlon, so for me specifically, its refining my rowing technique, making those muscle patterns autonomous and building core strength and resilience.

In terms of what it's like working towards this, it takes a huge amount of dedication and discipline. It isn't always good days and smashing each session, its hard graft, constant time management, adapting and being flexible with how you fit everything in. It also involves a lot of compromise, which in the first instance means far fewer social activities. But I do my best to fit in what I can, and thankfully I have a very understanding and supporting husband and group of friends.

Find out more