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Rower Kate's amazing fashion makeover

By Kerry McKittrick

We gave the stunning face of Runher Kate Richardson a glamorous makeover and, er, found out what it’s like trying to wash your hair in the middle of the Atlantic.

As she strikes yet another perfect pose for the camera, in vertiginous heels and a super sexy shorts and jacket combo, passersby can’t help but stare at the beautiful young woman who, it must be said, bears more than a striking resemblance to another tall, leggy brunette ... Kate Middleton.

But while the Duchess of Cambridge has been making headlines around the world for her glamorous foreign tours, this 22-year-old, from Portadown, captured the attention of the world’s media for an altogether grittier global trek.

For, earlier this year, Kate Richardson became the first Irish woman to row across the Atlantic after an epic 3,000 mile (4,828km) crossing from the Canary Islands to Barbados, lasting 45 days, 15 hours and 26 minutes.

Kate and her fellow four team members, who completed the challenge to raise public awareness of human trafficking, battled constant seasickness and fierce storms as they completed their journey.

And then there were the more routine concerns, from suffering badly chafed bottoms due to sitting down rowing all day, to not being able to wash their hair — ever.

Little wonder, then, that Kate is clearly relishing a day spent having a glam makeover and photo shoot.

As the hairdresser teases her tumbling tresses into a trendy updo, while a personal stylist proffers a range of stunning outfits, Kate, a delightfully modest world-record breaker, chats away happily.

Most people would pause for a moment before dedicating a year of their life to one particular project but it took Kate just seconds to make the decision.

At a local church event in February 2011 she was introduced to Julia Immonen (31) by mutual friends. Within 20 minutes Julia had asked Kate if she would like to join her latest venture. Julia was putting together a crew for the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, one of the most demanding races in the world.

“It depends on what kind of person you are,” explains Kate. “One kind of person will think that the idea is impossible and say no immediately.

“The other kind is me, one who is looking for a challenge and says yes.”

A natural athlete, Kate has played hockey for years and also directs children’s activities at the Celebration Church, Portadown.

All well and good, but the fact remained that for someone about to row the world’s biggest ocean, she’d never rowed before.

“I went to my local boat club and told them what I was going to do and they agreed to help me once they had stopped laughing,” she recalls. “I couldn't do much at all when I started — only about 20 minutes.”

“But I started to build it up slowly so I would do 30 minutes, then an hour, then two hours.”

On the crossing, the all-female crew of five would be rowing in shifts of two hours, 24 hours a day. As well as learning to row, Kate had to train at different times of the day to get her body used to the shifts of rowing and started setting her alarm clock for 2am.

“My parents Manna and Mark were fantastic. Initially they were shocked about what I was doing — I think mum expected the whole thing to blow over at first but then they really got behind me. They also helped by encouraging me to row when I just wasn't feeling motivated. They would help me get up in the middle of the night and it really kept me going.”

The team was rowing for the charity Row For Freedom, an organisation that campaigns against human trafficking across the globe. For Kate this meant spending hours fund-raising and finding sponsorship for the trip. Every hour not training was spent cold-calling companies and asking for money.

“I couldn't have guessed just how much work was involved in preparing for the race,” she admits. “At the beginning of the year I was working as a classroom assistant for children with special needs. When the contract ended I started doing some casual work as a behavioural therapist. The closer to the race it got, though, the more training I was doing, therefore less work. I just had to live off my savings.”

As well as learning how to row, Kate's training involved ocean yacht training, first aid at sea and sea survival courses — if an accident happened on board the boat then there would be no available help for hundreds of miles. Kate was travelling to England and back every month to train with the rest of the team — all expenses for which came out of her own pocket. The cost eventually climbed to £3,000.

The team also worked with a coach and a nutritionist. They had to bulk up for the trip, eating more than 4,000 calories a day, rising to 8,000 at sea. “I put on a lot of weight both because I was eating so much and building so much muscle. By the time we set off I was walking like a man but guys from the other teams were horrified at how little bulk I had compared to them.”

Disaster struck two days before they were due to set off from the Canary Islands at the beginning of December. Andrea Quigley, the skipper and only member of the team who had any ocean-rowing experience, suddenly dropped out of the race for personal reasons. After much debate about whether they should take part at all, Row For Freedom finally took off — two days after the other 17 boats in the race and a crew member short. As well as Kate and Julia Immonen, the team included Debbie Beadle (30), Helen Leigh (26) and Katie Pattison-Hart (31).

“We were actually lucky at the start, because the weather was terrible,” said Kate. “The wind was behind us and we flew along and caught up with the rest of the pack after just one day. We were petrified though as the waves were 30 feet high and we were all continually seasick.”

But when the weather changed a week later, the rowers had to deal with both sun and flat seas. As the team was one person down it mean each member had to spend extra time at the oars and thus less time asleep. Fiercely hot temperatures of around 40 degrees meant that sleep during the day was impossible as the tiny cabin on the boat was like an oven.

“It seemed like we were going nowhere because we didn't have the winds to carry us along. When we hit a current going the other way it felt like we were going at a snail's pace.”

It was only when it came to cleaning the boat that the crew realised their speed. One of the team mates was fitted into a harness and lowered into the sea to scrape kelp that was impeding their progress off the hull. “She vanished,” said Kate simply.

“We pulled her back with the harness but at that point we realised that if anyone went into the water they would immediately be lost because of the speed we were going at. From that point on everyone was using foot straps to anchor themselves down.”

Thankfully no one came to harm but there were plenty of mishaps. The boat was equipped with three rowing seats but one of them broke after a couple of weeks. The jet boiler packed in, meaning that all of the dehydrated food the girls had to eat was cold. Then the water purifier broke on day 15. After that for 12 hours a day for 30 days one crew member had to pump fresh water for the team to drink by hand.

Unsurprisingly, conditions at sea were not luxurious — there was no shower, no hot water and no toilet. The girls were reduced to using that most primitive of devices, an ordinary bucket.

“I couldn't wash my hair while on the boat but I would douse myself with water and once a week I took it down and gave it a really good brush,” says Kate. “Everyone just kept their hair tied up all the time.

“We all ended up with chafed bums which wasn't pleasant. We’d rub ourselves down with surgical spirit. It doesn't sound very nice but it was to prevent infection.”

However, Kate reckoned that being part of an all-girl crew had its benefits.

“I think because it was an all-girl team we looked out for each other more. Everyone made sure everyone else was wearing sunscreen and drinking enough water.”

One of the toughest challenges was the desolation— the entire time they were at sea they saw no other people but themselves, a situation that has been known to drive people mad. Rowers have jumped from boats after three days at sea and tried to swim back to shore when the magnitude of their task has finally dawned on them. The only other craft they came across were the freighters and cruise liners that appeared on the horizon — they didn't even glimpse any of their competitors. Kate explains: “We had a GPS system so we could tell if any of the other teams were within 10 miles of us — we could also talk to them via satellite phone if that happened but we never actually saw anyone else.”

The worst time by far was Christmas Day

She says: “No one thought that would be very difficult. I knew what Christmas was like and didn't think missing it one year with be a challenge. On the day though, everyone on the boat was very emotional. But we all got to speak to our families on satellite phone which was brilliant.”

The team's progress was tracked by GPS and every few days they were given updates on their positions via their coach on satellite phone. As they pushed on, their place in the pack got higher and higher. “On day 43 we saw Barbados and found out that we were sixth — that was unbelievable. The prospect of seeing our friends and family and having some proper food and proper sleep was unbelievable.”

The team arrived in Barbados in the middle of the night of January 22, 2012. They came fourth and entered the record books for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by an all-female team and the first five-woman team to row any ocean.

Kate now works as a fitness instructor in her home town of Portadown and still fund raises for Row For Freedom, giving talks in schools and community groups about her epic journey.

The team has raised £80,000 so far but intend to keep going to raise money for the 27m people on the planet who are still in some form of slavery, ranging from human trafficking to child labour and sweat shops. Next up, Kate is planning on taking part in the Belfast Telegraph’s Runher event and then a polar trek organised by Row For Freedom's nutritionist.

As the make-up artist puts the finishing touches to her stunning new look, Kate adds with a grin: “It's not until 2014 though ... I think I need a bit of a break first!”

T he Belfast Telegraph RunHer Coastal 10K kicks off at 7pm on Friday, May 25. The route is between Holywood and Crawfordsburn and can be walked or run by women of any ability. Entry is via: Entry fee, £15

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