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Lee Spencer is a former Royal Marine commando. After surviving three operational tours of Afghanistan unscathed, he was hit by a car and lost his right leg while assisting a crashed motorist on the M3. Although his right leg was severed, he was able to instruct bystanders on how to tie a life-saving tourniquet while awaiting paramedics.

Less than two years after his accident, as part of a four-man team of injured veterans – with just three legs between them – he rowed the Atlantic Ocean. Three years later, he then rowed from mainland Europe to mainland South America, solo, breaking the able-bodied record by 36 days.

We speak with Lee about resilience, belief, identity, his formative military background and the debt owed by society to injured servicemen and women.

"I realised that if I didn’t grab this opportunity to do something that I believed was incredibly worthwhile, I might never get the chance again."

You’re known as ‘The Rowing Marine’. What’s the story?
LEE SPENCER: In 2014, just after losing my leg, I was sat in a bed at Headley Court, the military’s rehabilitation centre, and in the bed opposite me was a double amputee with a huge beard. Beards tend to stand out in the military and so I asked, “What’s with the beard?” The beard owner was Cayle Royce and he explained that he had just returned from rowing across the Atlantic as part of a mixed military team of amputees and able-bodied rowers. It was a sudden realisation that an adventurous life wasn’t over for me and so in early 2015, when I received an email looking for volunteers for the world’s first all-amputee crew to row across the Atlantic, I jumped at the chance.

Rowing the Atlantic and into the record books as the world’s first physically disabled crew of four to row any ocean, was an incredible experience. It changed my life as significantly as losing my leg. But I also saw an opportunity. I had just rowed across an ocean, so I had the knowledge and experience to do it solo. I had come to the end of my rehab and reckoned on another year being paid by the military, so I could afford to work on putting an Atlantic row together full time. I realised that if I didn’t grab this opportunity to do something that I believed was incredibly worthwhile, I might never get the chance again. So, I decided to row from mainland Europe to Mainland South America, solo and unsupported, in an attempt at beating the able-bodied record that had stood since 2002. Being a Royal Marine, who had done a bit of rowing, ‘The Rowing Marine’ seemed like the logical name for the project, but it has since stuck to me personally.
Proving that no one should be defined by disability could be seen as a central theme in much of what you do. Where does this drive come from?

In 2014, I was a serving Royal Marine and a volunteer for Special Duties, (not Special Forces - the difference matters). I defined myself by my physicality. When I lost my leg, I believed that the person I was, had gone. I was no longer that person. I was now a disabled person and would have to redefine who I was within the parameters of disability. Through rowing the Atlantic the first time, I not only realised that I was still the same person, but also realised that I was wrong to try and define myself by my disability.

It made me start to question how we in society tend to define disabled people by their disability and how in comparison, able-bodied people are not defined by something that can’t do well. It’s really that simple. I’m not trying to prove that I’m not disabled, because I clearly am - ask me to count to 16 without using my nose. It just doesn’t define who I am. Losing who I was when my leg fell off and then rediscovering that sense of self halfway across the ocean, was an incredible insight into the importance of identity. We all have one and we should all have the opportunity for that identity to be a positive one. 

Are there any common mis-perceptions you see faced by people with disabilities?

I often see a misplaced sense of sympathy from able-bodied people towards me. Disabled people share a difficulty in normal everyday actions, but that doesn’t mean we’re not living our best life. However, it’s hard to be annoyed at someone who often only wants to help.

How would you describe the psychological journey from where you were post-accident in 2014 and where you are now?

In January 2014, on a foul, stormy night on the M3 motorway, I fought with every scrap of my being to stay alive. When I woke up the next morning in hospital, I was elated. I had come within a whisper of death, and I knew how lucky I was. Since that moment, I have realised how fortunate I am and how precious every moment here is. 

You rowed the Atlantic in 2015 with three fellow injured veterans. You then rowed solo and unsupported from mainland Europe to mainland South America, breaking the able-bodied record of 36 days. Describe the experience of being alone at sea for so long. 

I thought that the solitude would be hard to deal with, as I love being in company and I much prefer to share experiences. But it wasn’t a problem. In fact, I rather enjoyed being on my own and that surprised me. I loved the simplicity of just me, the oars and the ocean. There were times when the nearest other human was in the International Space Station. And then the big seas came. Towards the middle of the row, I was hit by huge waves that battered my small rowing boat, Hope, and it often felt that I was on the edge of disaster. The fear crept into every corner of my being. There was no escape from it and I had to develop coping mechanisms to take the edge off the fear. It was at times unbearable. I have been to war four times, I have been in tricky situations and had to fight for my life on a few occasions. But fear when you are part of a team and fear when you are completely on your own are two different things. One is very manageable; the other is horrific. 

Where do you think such a record-breaking performance like this came from?

I was chased out of Portugal by a very experienced ocean rower called Ralph Tujin, who set off a couple of weeks after me on the very same record attempt. I kept imagining breaking the able-bodied record that had stood since 2002, and then immediately handing it over to Ralph. That thought drove me through every rowing session. I rowed as hard as I could and then collapsed exhausted in the cabin, trying to rest before my next rowing session. In the end, Ralph came into the Canaries to charge his batteries, and never came back out. But I kept the same pace, by then almost from habit.

That fast pace had consequences though. With two weeks to go I hit the wall. I became absolutely physically exhausted. I had nothing left in the tank, but because of the currents approaching the South American continent, I had to continue rowing at the same pace. Resting was not an option, and the mental gymnastics I had to go through to get out rowing every shift was draining. Very soon after becoming physically exhausted, I became mentally exhausted, and right on the tail of mental exhaustion was emotional exhaustion. The last two weeks were the hardest thing I’ve ever done by a couple of country miles. It was horrific. Those last couple of weeks were so bad that it took me a couple of months after finishing to look back at the row in a positive light.
To what extent do psychological fitness and fortitude go hand-in-hand with those same physical attributes?  

Physical fitness and fortitude are very different and it’s possible to have one without the other. I wasn’t physically fit it terms of VO2 Max, or even rowing fitness before I started rowing across the Atlantic solo. But I knew I had the physical fortitude to keep going when required. Even early on in the row, before I was physically conditioned to rowing long periods, I had to row for nearly 18 hours solid, to clear the shipping lanes to the southwest of Portugal.

I think that the difference with psychological fitness and fortitude is that they cannot exist without each other, and you cannot have physical fortitude without both psychological fitness and fortitude.

Where does mental fitness come from, and how is it trained?

Unlike physical attributes which are part natural ability and partly acquired through training, mental fitness is almost exclusively attained through practice and training. People that are naturally gifted physically, can often have a high level of self-belief. Also, some people can be stubborn. It's important to make the distinction that neither confidence nor stubbornness are the same as mental fitness. Mental fitness is the ability to force your heart, nerve and sinew to continue serving you, regardless of physical pain and fatigue. To push yourself beyond what you thought was possible.

When I was in training for the Royal Marines, there was an exercise that taught me how to push through where I thought my limits were. It was a joint navigation and survival exercise called Running Man. It started by being placed in a survival situation, then the navigation exercises began. After the first few, I could feel the physical exertion without any fuel begin to take a massive toll on my body. On the second or third day, we were tasked with another route to navigate. I genuinely thought that I wouldn’t be able to complete it. It looked too far for how I felt. It was quite matter of fact. I could feel that I was at the absolute edge of what was physically possible, and I wondered how I was going to complete it. A few hours later we walked back into the wood and settled back around the fire. I was amazed that I had completed this latest leg, but was absolutely sure that that was me now at my limit. I thought I knew my own body and I felt that I had absolutely nothing left to give. Later that evening, the training team came in and briefed us on the coming night’s exercise. And again, I made it back into the wood, settled around the fire, totally amazed that I had made it. The next morning brought another exercise. ‘Surely’, I thought, ‘I can’t do this one as well’, but a few hours later I was back around the fire. At that moment, I realised that I didn’t know what I was capable of. I thought I knew where the end point of my endurance was, but realising that it was nowhere in sight, completely changed the way I saw myself. Realising that I don’t know what I am capable of, has stayed with me to this day. I’m still pushing the boundaries, searching so far in vain, for that end point where either my body or my spirit says, ‘this far and no more’.

"I thought I knew where the end point of my endurance was, but realising that it was nowhere in sight, completely changed the way I saw myself."

You're about to embark on what you've named The Triathlon of Great Britain. What does this involve and where did the idea come from?
The Triathlon of Great Britain is an idea that combines the three icon endurance challenges in Britain: swimming the English Channel, cycling Land’s End to John O’ Groats, and climbing the Three Peaks, into one enormous endurance event. The clock will start when I begin swimming the English Channel, under the rules of the Channel Swimming Association. I’ll then get to Land’s End as quickly as possible and begin the cycling phase. I will cycle the length of Great Britain from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, stopping en-route to climb Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, and Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England. I will then begin by far the most challenging phase for me - the running phase. Although I can't run due to a severely damaged left knee, I’ll undertake a marathon on foot, starting at Glen Nevis, Fort William, going over Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Great Britain, and finishing at the Commando Memorial in Spean Bridge, where the clock will stop.

I had the idea in the ICU the day after I lost my leg. I was thinking about the future and wanted to challenge myself in my new reality of being a disabled person. I thought about a marathon first, then wondered about the Channel, thinking swimming would be easier with only one leg compared to running. I then wondered about cycling LE-JOG, not even knowing if it would be possible. I then thought about The Three Peaks and realised that all three challenges taken together made up a triathlon. Rowing oceans got in the way and then Covid, but now I’m finally getting round to doing it.

What has your training regime looked like to prepare for this?

Swimming, swimming and more swimming. The crux of the challenge is getting across the Channel. I’m not a swimmer of any note. I’ve never competed at any level, so have really started from scratch. Also, it’s a one-shot challenge. I can’t stop halfway across for a breather. Once I start, if I even touch the support boat, it’s over. Everything else I know I can do, it just depends on how long it’s going to take me. I’ve completed my mandatory six-hour swim at 13.9°C and I’m ready to go. 

"keeping wounded and injured servicemen and woman in the nation’s conscience, reminding us all that there is a debt to pay, is what drives me."

You served as a Royal Marine for 23 years, completing multiple operational tours in the process. How did you find the process of transitioning into the civilian world? Is this something veterans struggle with in your experience?  

If you’d asked me 10 years ago what I thought I might miss when I eventually left the Corps, I would have answered ‘camaraderie’, ‘excitement’ or something similar. Actually, what I miss now that I have left is doing something that matters. Having a purpose would have been furthest from my mind when I was serving, but it underlined everything I did. Having a clear purpose now, has definitely helped me transition into civilian life. Many veterans find that transition hard. Military service defines who you are in a way that no other vocation does. When that service comes to an end, the loss of identity can be difficult to deal with. 

You’ve been raising funds for the Royal Marines Charity since 2015. Tell us about them and the work they do. 

I rescued a dog in Afghanistan in 2008 and was asked by the charity that brought her back to the UK, Nowzad Dogs, if I would do some fundraising. I quickly got the bug and started raising funds for the Royal Marines Charity from around 2010. Why the Royal Marines Charity? Well, apart from the obvious connection, Royal Marines were used disproportionally more than any other cap badge in the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, winning more gallantry medals and awards in the process. But that came at a price, with Royal Marines disproportionately suffering more life-changing injuries and deaths.

 After I lost my leg and started on the recovery pathway, I came into daily contact with other Royal Marines who had had their lives shattered in the service of our country. It left me with a passionate belief that we owe those who have given, in some circumstances, everything they had, as well as their families, a life with dignity. I see it as a moral obligation. Along with proving no one should be defined by disability, keeping wounded and injured servicemen and woman in the nation’s conscience, reminding us all that there is a debt to pay, is what drives me. Helping repay that debt, giving those Royal Marines who have had their lives shattered by service, a life with dignity is what the Royal Marines Charity does so well.

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