Monday, 24 July 2017

Reflections on doing Ironman

Sunday 23rd July 2017: I’m sitting on the sofa following my afternoon nap, which I woke from because I was hungry. It’s been a week since I finished my first Ironman, but the appetite and fatigue are still there. As are the amazing memories and wonder of what I have done.

So what have I done? For those who already know the sport, while an Ironman is a cool thing, it’s an achievable thing. Proper planning, performance, discipline, and some mechanical fortune will see many a person to the finish line. But to those new to the sport, I want to point out that it’s not that easy, simple or formulaic. I know this, because I represent the marker point in timing of who becomes a finisher and sadly who does not. My flat out best effort cycling speed of 13.1mph average over 112 miles is just enough to get a competent swimmer through the bike in time so they can start the run.

I know this because last week, four amazing people who started training with me didn’t make the finish line and so it’s for them as much as me that I write this blog - to undertake an ironman for me is not a sporting endeavour, it is the journey from the person you thought you were not: a swimmer, a runner, a cyclist, an athlete, confident, capable, mechanical - whatever label you want - metamorphosing into someone new, who can tackle scary descents, do roadside repairs, keep pushing for 16 plus hours, someone who can get up and swim three times a week, who will sit on indoor bicycles with sweat in our eyes, who will do the same while our fingers freeze outdoors. Not because we want to, not because we enjoy it, but because we choose to suffer for a personal reason, cause or definition of ourselves. For those who didn’t make the finish line, you went on that journey, and don’t forget that.

I honestly feel that if I knew 12 months ago that I was capable of an Ironman, that it would not have held the same allure as it did that I would have to take myself physically to places I had not been before. What I didn’t realise was how much of that journey was to be mental and emotional.

To cut to the chase, I did not enjoy the training. I had a bout of anxiety early in the season, on the hill of the Mow Cop KIller Mile which made me fear going uphill for the rest of that ride, and I consequently DNFed at 56 miles when the sweep van caught me and knocked my confidence flying. I was wracked with sleepless nights leading up to the weekend fearing the Big Ride ahead. The traffic, clipping in, the speed, the rain. I had been blown off on the A62 riding the moors in high winds.   I had fallen off outside the Black Dog at Belmont, and smashed my saddle. Sportives gave me respite to get around but there was also long journeys by train or car to get around the country (from Cambridge to Scotland) and collect enough bike miles. I started a few rides by crying into my husband’s jumper to get rid of nerves.  I am therefore so grateful to anyone who rode with me patiently or took starting lines with me in sportives, you have no idea how much it meant to me.

I missed my friends terribly, I became paranoid that most of them thought I was making excuses that I couldn’t see them (I was tired, or training, or preparing for the next session) and if I did see them I was so short of money it was embarrassing, I became to feel isolated, as if no one understood or cared what I was going through. Again I am so grateful for those who sent cards, food, pictures, messages and asked how I was doing either to humor me or because they knew I was frequently on the verge of tears.

I missed who I thought I was - I stopped campaigning, stopped volunteering, had little time to read about what was happening in the world and make it a better place. I felt very superficial and while I liked being part of the athlete’s tribe, I was not proud of how shallow I seemed to have become and how narrow my interests were. While Ironman does force you to concentrate on what is most important in life, without a bullet to your head, it often made you choose Ironman as the most important thing.

So what were the benefits of doing an Ironman, besides learning what your body is capable of and having a very cool medal, backpack and collection of tshirts?

I learned how amazing my support crew was. From my husband, who never complained and gave up so much time and energy to feed, fuel, drive, prep, clean, care for, me and our family. To my mum who rearranged her holiday to be at the start line. To the amazing people who turned up on race day - the sight at transition 2 will live with me forever. The humour of the whatsapp chat. The remote supporters, the care packages. My in laws who kept popping up, even with Hannah in a wheelchair and a frail mother in law in tow! A former colleague wrote to me after the race and said it was amazing to see how much love you all generated. Thank you. I am totally humbled.

I learned that band of brothers feeling. I joined a tri club and while truth be told they were a bit scarily intimidating because they were bloody quick, I did feel very loyal to them because they were so nice. While my race brains was mostly befuddled, as I passed my special needs bag I realised I should have got a tyre and inner tube to throw at one speedy racer who had already punctured twice. I spent the first hour trying to find out how one of the club, not a swim fan, had fared in the wash.  As I was possibly carrying enough food and spares for a bike shop, I had visions of throwing them parts should I pass them with any mechanical issues on the ride. But it was my UK Tri Ladies i was most in arms with, for they were mortals like me and all but one of us feared the bike cut off. We had been swapping messages and support for months, some of us had met at events, and at the race briefing, the race commentator  had reserved us a table, given us a shout out and arrange  an official photo  of us. We were part of the 15% of women who took the start line and we felt like VIPs. I felt devastated when I learned we had not all finished the race.  Like the army’s ‘no man left behind’ mantra, I will be there when each of them takes their next Ironman attempt which may cruelly involve three climbs of Sheephouse Lane.  

Finally, I learned that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. And I don’t mean that in a finish line, race day way. I mean in a greater sense. Ironman is a tough event because it has very strict rules about speed and outside support which prevent some people on certain days finishing. This may limit a moment (the red carpet, voice saying ‘you are an Ironman’) but it doesn’t stop The Dream, the redefining of yourself, the overcoming the voice that says ‘stay in bed’, the bettering yourself physically. About two weeks before the race, my yoga teacher took one look at me, and one look back into the person she had seen over the years and said “you are so much more than race day. Remember that, whatever happens. The journey you have been on is remarkable.”

To steal from other blogs like Crushing Iron:
“Ironman is one day and simply another in a long list of life’s deadlines.  It’s a test to see if we can finish what we’ve started.  A metaphor for all of those projects and dreams we want to complete.  The more we finish something difficult, the easier it becomes to fold your laundry.”

“Ironman isn’t our job, our family or our life. It’s a vehicle to get better at all three. In the end, it is simply a stage on which we perform for one or two days a year.  The reward ceremony at graduation.”

“When people ask my why I would do Ironman, I never have a clear answer.  It’s obviously the challenge and accomplishment, but I think it’s more about the journey.  About how the training along the way brings out the parts of you that might normally stay buried.  The confidence, the clarity, the humility.  You become more comfortable with your beliefs.  The commitment forces you to appreciate what’s really important and you begin to lose interest in petty distraction and “filler” that sucks energy from your true path.”

And so to anyone who says ‘I couldn’t do what you do’ - well yes you can, you choose not to, and that’s fine because throwing a tonne of money at a 12 month sporting attempt isn’t for everyone - but everyone has a dream, it's scary because we might not achieve it, or scary because we might - and I would urge you to move in the direction of that dream because I found out that while it’s lonely, terrifying, and challenging, you will be amazed at the people who come to stand with you when you need it.

PS much cheerier race report to follow!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

What I learned about cancer while doing an Ironman

I started training for Ironman UK pretty much as soon as I found out my friend Helen had cancer. The two are linked - stupidly, because it was a knee jerk emotional reaction in the helplessness of her news, I thought doing something heroic and challenging might lessen her burden. I felt like I should carpe diem in her place. I don't know what or why really, but I am sure someone who knows psychology could tell me.

Anyway, as I swam-biked-ran, she undertook her own journey which is documented on her blog.

Here are some things I learned about cancer during her journey and mine. (Disclaimer: This isn't in any way supposed to be a comparison of cancer versus triathlon. But I find we are largely all very bad at talking about life, death, mortality, and the love of friendship, so I figured I would use the framework of triathlon to explore this.)

The swim: cold chemo
So I learned lots of things I didn't know. Little practical things on everything from hairloss to how chemo makes bits of you feel. I saw that Helen has to wear these cold mitts on her hands and feet (like oven gloves with ice packs inside) for some of her chemo sessions. It was awful seeing the discomfort she was in wearing them. I'd like to say this made me braver on my cold water swim that April but it didn't. I flinched, squealed and withdrew my hands. I don't know how she kept them in there but then she has done a New Year's Day swim in the Quays so she is definitely of harder stuff.

Brave and inspirational:
This leads me onto being brave and inspirational. I get lots of lovely messages from friends saying I am inspirational. I figure this is because deep down they would like to try a triathlon, tackle an ironman or simply move out of their comfort zone. I get that. Helen is often called Brave and Inspirational. We, her cynical friends, had to confront her about this. Is she brave? She's got cancer. This means she has to be cut up, poked at, scanned, injected and so on. She doesn't really get much say in it. We should be careful in that saying someone with cancer is brave, we deny them the space to be afraid. If Helen went into every medical appointment crying and fretting she is no less a person and I know we all know that, but maybe let's not give people with cancer another cross to bear?

The bike: it will be lonely and you will cry
I can only imagine there are times when Helen would cry (like I do at 85 miles) or shout (like we both do at headwinds). Sometimes you cry when you don't know why, and I know Helen has had those days too. I wish I was there for her all those times she may have cried, (mind you, if it's anything like me on the bike, perhaps it's best left alone as I may cry more?!) Sometimes you need to howl at the wind and it doesn't matter who hears you. I hope Helen gets some wind howling done.

The run: the move into the unknown. 
So they say that the marathon after the bike is like no other run you've done. This makes sense as your legs don't feel your own after 112 miles. For Helen, the future is an unknown, and I hear her frustration or hesitation on making plans because she doesn't know what her treatment schedule might be. But sometimes I hear her silence because I feel like she's thinking "I don't know where I will be." How do you treat someone as the same old same old with that elephant always being in the room. Our mutual friend Kat expressed this on Helen's first birthday with cancer.

You can run and ride with cancer, on chemo. 
This follows on from being brave and inspirational. Helen always ran, and always rode. She had parkrun double figures before her diagnosis. She was an ace cyclist for many moons. That she did this when she had cancer was because she wants to be who she has always been. I feel bad about this because when she ran the Great Manchester Run, we milked the PR for all it was worth, obviously for Pegasus RDA. But she was just being Helen and I am sorry we had to make it so much about cancer. But you got some awesome donations! For this reason, I can understand why she was so frustrated cycling to Edinburgh. She wasn't some inspiring invalid - she is Helen and she wanted to cycle like Helen.

No one can understand what you're going through
I say the above like I am reading Helen's mind at times. Of course I can't. Even if I lived and breathed her every moment, you only know what is inside someone's head when they have cancer if you can crawl inside their head. I don't think we have an app for that yet. In the way that many of my friends don't understand Ironman: why are you crying, you paid for this; you'll make the cut off; you'll smash it; can't you have one night off; why do you go to bed so early; but you can't train all the time? I can never understand what she is going through. And in the same way my friends try and say the right things to my addled, exhausted, hangry soul, I try and say the right things to Helen and indeed my other friends (for there are too many) who have cancer. I have foot in mouth syndrome so bad that someone should call Defra. Let the forgiveness flow as we all come from good places.

It doesn't make any difference:
The biggest lesson I have had to learn is the hardest. It doesn't make any difference, you know. If I have a bad day on the bike or set a PB at Ironman. If I don't make the cut off, if I win the whole freaking event, it doesn't change her diagnosis. It doesn't ease her suffering one bit. It doesn't give her more days or more vitality. It doesn't make us understand each other any more than without. So it's official, there's no cure for cancer. And my heart breaks for it.

Find out more about how I will be fundraising to make this event useful to Helen.