Never underestimate the impact that taking on one of your wildest dreams can have…..
This is a journey that I was proud to be part of……
“A good coach improves your game; a great coach improves your life”
Just allow yourself the privilege to read this story……
Journey to IronMummy
The last couple for years have been a bit of a journey for me, culminating in starting a new job in a new company, leaving behind a company I had been with for 12 years, last October. It was after getting extremely lost, while out running on a golf course at the hotel I was living in for my training course that I picked up an email from Matt. It was along the lines of ‘try a tri’ and setting a new challenge. It got me thinking. Triathlon isn’t new to me, so I wasn’t sure I would ‘count’; this may have been wishful thinking – a perfect excuse to avoid the challenge I have always said I would do “when the time was right” ever since getting the triathlon bug back in 2010. I replied to Matt’s email, and in his ever super- efficient way, he was on the phone to me! I have worked with Matt several times over the last few years, including an incredible stint at getting me in the best possible shape ever for major surgery on 2014; so he knew my physical capabilities and potential limitations. I told Matt that I wanted to complete an IronMan! It was out there – I had said the words! Over the next couple of weeks I thought about it – did I really want to do this? Could I afford to do it? From both a financial and time point of view? I work full time and have two children aged 9 and 10 – it would be a family sacrifice as much as anything! So after lengthy discussions with my husband, I signed up! Well, I signed up to train with Matt – the actual signing up of the event took a few months after this!!
To put a little bit of context around why this was so much of a challenge to me, I will briefly explain my health issues! At the start of 2014 I was given the news that I am positive for the BRCA1 gene. Everyone knows about what that means now following the publicity surrounding Angelina Jolie. In short I had a 50% risk of developing ovarian cancer and 85% risk of developing breast cancer in my lifetime. My mum is a breast cancer survivor and tested positive for BRCA1 (a more potent mutation than BRCA2) back in 2000, and it was at this time that her consultant recommended that I get tested when I was 35 years old. I began the process of being tested shortly before my 36th birthday, and I knew what I would do should the result be positive. For me it was a no-brainer. I had the family I wanted, so removing my ovaries wasn’t an issue (HRT might be though!), and having seen a close friend succumb to brain cancer in front of her children, the decision to undertake a bilateral mastectomy was a straight forward one.
Most importantly, I had the full support of my family. In July 2014 I had a bi-salpingo oophorectomy – the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes (definitely no more babies!). The wonders of modern technology meant this was a simple day case surgery – albeit the most debilitating of the two surgeries! I had three months recovery, and on October 30th I had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. It was the lead up to this that I asked Matt for help. I wanted to go in to that operation in the best shape of my life – and for those who know Matt – this is exactly what he helped me to do, right down to advising me of the right nutrition based on my now forever altered hormones! I knew that the fitter I went into this operation, the fitter I would come out and the easier my recovery would be. I recovered and took my first run on December 7th having been known on my ward as the mad woman who religiously walked around the hospital grounds at least once a day in my dressing gown with my drains in neat knitted bags, it was a relief to be able to run free and I am so glad I maintained that little bit of fitness during my week in hospital.
Swimming, however, was a different story. Swimming was my life as a child – it was my sport. I competed at club and county level and national level for modern biathlon and triathlon. It was the sport I went to when I wanted to chill out, get rid of the day’s stress and what I did through college, university and both of my pregnancies. So when I got in the water for the first time post-surgery on December 31st, I couldn’t believe that all of a sudden, I couldn’t swim. Literally could not swim. I stood in the pool and for the first time through this whole process, I cried.
The surgery had cut through my pectoral muscles and in my reconstruction, my muscles has been shortened and forever weakened. The next day, January 1st 2015, I did a New Year’s Day swim (more of a freezing cold dip!) in the sea at Bedruthan, and promised I would re-teach myself to swim and set myself a few challenges for the year. In 2015 I ran the Plymouth Half (PB), completed London Triathlon (mainly for the swim) and cycled the BHF London to Brighton Ride (4hrs). I realised while training for London to Brighton, how much I used my arms and chest while riding – this undoubtedly helped me build strength in my chest. Later that year I decided that with everything I had been through, I needed a change in my professional life too, so I went for a promotion in another company. I started last October – which brings me up to date…..
So, by November I had downloaded the Training Peaks app (amazing!) and embarked on the journey that would eventually lead me to Weymouth; my hometown, and the realisation of a long held dream…. There was a lot of work to do!
Training Peaks was a new concept to me. My background of competitive swimming was always having your coach there (usually screaming at me from the side of a pool!); this was a whole new world of self-motivation. “What a month to start this” was a regular thought at 6:30am in winter, dragging myself out of bed to the pool. But by the same token, I had this feeling of not wanting to let Matt down! He dropped my weekly schedule into the app; all I had to do was train as per instructions and upload my activity. If I didn’t train, Matt would see this also, so to a certain extent I was accountable, and felt that if Matt was spending time writing me a personalised programme, I wasn’t going to waste his precious time by not completing my training. I really liked Training Peaks for these reasons, plus I could shift things around to fit in with my work and my family commitments – and I knew what I was doing and when I had to do it. This really took the stress out of training and the worry of not knowing what to do.
Matt and I had regular phone calls – I remember one in particular – a very wet and cold January morning – I was catching up on a missed brick session – it was ridiculous-o’clock in the morning, I was on my bike on the turbo trainer, chatting to Matt mid-session! These phone calls were great. They gave me an opportunity to catch up with Matt, talk about what was going well and any problems that I had; and I really appreciated the time. It made up for not having a physical presence all the time. Towards the end of January my father in law passed away, it was expected but a shock none the less. I had the reality check that people get when a loved one dies, and decided I really needed to book my place in Weymouth; life is too short. So on February 20th this year, I bit the bullet and signed up for the IronMan 70.3. The return email came back; I took a screenshot and sent it to Matt! This was now a reality, and from now on, everything really counted. I was truly invested in this, on every level!
I managed to complete most of my training – I would be lying to say that I did every single session that popped in to my app – I have a busy job and my children have various clubs that they go to too; my husband runs his own business and works long hours – so I knew (and Matt was aware) that sometimes life would get in the way! I found various ways and means of fitting in as much as I could, and became very aware of how helpful friends and family were – and understanding too; I have turned up to several family events in my biking gear – trying to fit a ride in around family time; I rode to my son’s rugby matches – often leaving the house 2 hours before my family did – to meet them there; the same for football tournaments, cricket matches, horse riding lessons and brownies! I even rode to Exeter one morning to watch my son in a rugby tournament!! It was very much a case of having extremely supportive and understanding family! I used to fit my swims in with my daughter’s swimming times – either swimming in a lane beside her during her lessons, or her coming on an early morning swim with me before school/work! Other parents got quite used to me dropping the children off, and then disappearing for a run, returning and picking them up!! I just found what worked for me, and what I could do to minimise the impact on my family.
Matt suggested a couple of events to me, which I completed in May. They were fun, and I used them as a checker on my progress. He suggested a duathlon because the total distance gave me almost the same run and bike distance as the 70.3 would, without the swim. At the time I crossed the line, I swore (literally!!) that I would never do an event he suggested ever again….!!! But now I know why he suggested it to me – the experience of the distance helped fuel my belief that I could do the 70.3, I had the distance in my legs and the mental strength to get through it. Having a coach, who thinks laterally, is priceless. I am even thinking about signing up to do it again next year!!
All the while I still had to keep a check on my health. Having been sent in to an early menopause has put my body in to quite a bit of shock! I take HRT, and my bloods need regularly checking to make sure my hormone levels are OK. In the early part of the year, they were rock bottom (I even swung by the surgery for my blood test in the middle of a running session around Meadowlands Park in Tavistock – I was actually quite relieved for the rest it gave me, even though it meant another needle in my arm! I’m not sure completing a running session is that advisable after giving blood, but needs must!!) The regulation of my hormones has been quite tough, and did have an impact on my training.
In April this year my testosterone levels were below the baseline measurement. Although known as the male hormone, testosterone is important for females too. It helps us with our get up and go; and at certain times I felt that my ‘get up and go’ had got up and gone. This made it tough to find the motivation to get going – my mind wanted to; my body really didn’t. Pulling myself out of these lows was hard, and I think changed my character (for the better). I was glad to have the challenge of the Iron Man to motivate me. My hormone levels would have dipped whatever I was doing, and I thought that if I didn’t have a challenge to get me going, then the chances are, I would struggle to achieve anything,
Following a health check in late April, I asked Matt about coming into the studio to build my strength and conditioning. I started going once a week to do an hour session of pure, targeted strength work. I love the studio training and could feel myself getting stronger. As Matt and Mike planned my programme specifically for triathlon, I felt the benefits in all disciplines. The PRs started rolling in on Strava!! I continued the strength work beyond the initial trial period of five weeks, and went right up to a few days before my event. Matt even set strength work for me to do while on holiday, meaning I could continue throughout the summer.
The summer came (I could tell because the gear got shorter on the arms and legs!), and it was a relief to be out in fairly decent weather. I should also say at this point, that as well as dropping my schedule in, Matt was always aware of times I was away with work, on holidays, away for weekends etc. this was important because he made sure that the sessions were fixed to accommodate me for wherever I happened to be. For example, if I was away with work – did I have access to a gym? A pool? A bike? Could I go out running or train on the dreadmill? Needless to say, I had a two week holiday booked in August (returning a week before my event – not necessarily recommended, but also had its positives!), and Matt did an awesome job of planning my training for those weeks. The good thing about telling everyone what I was doing, was that it no longer became a surprise to anyone. This was particularly helpful when we went on holiday, because we went with friends! They knew what I was up to, and that I would have to train (a lot!) while we were away. I was excited to get out on the beautiful coastal roads of France, and get some lovely long rides in the sunshine; I couldn’t wait to swim in the bay of Sables D’Olonne and I knew I would have a running buddy in my husband.
He also joined me on a couple of rides – on other days, I went out on my bike early on my own and provided the day’s surf check! There is nothing quite like lying by a glistening pool in the sun, knowing you’ve done all your training and you can just chill out!! It also allowed me to indulge a little in the gastronomic delights of France (well, it would be rude not to!).
Sailing home from France in September, reality really began to strike. Weymouth was exactly a week out, the hard work had all been done. I was confident in the amount of training I had done, I knew I could do the three disciplines, I was fairly certain I could do it in the cut off time – but the fear hit! I can’t really say much about that week, other than I felt like I was in another world – I couldn’t quite believe that the event I had been planning for, for ten months, was almost here. ‘What if’ became a common saying. I had the angst that after everything I had done to prepare, what if xyz went wrong? I spent one evening practicing how to replace a tyre on my bike. In the end I had my daughter timing me, so that I could see, in worst case scenario, that if I got a flat, how long it would add to my time (ten minutes!) if I had to stop and replace an inner tube! My OCD really came to the fore!!
My parenting skills were tested the week of Weymouth. We had a dilemma. Sporty son had a football match on the Saturday morning and a cricket final on the Saturday evening before my event. I wanted to get to Weymouth for the novice’s briefing at 3:30pm on the Friday! So feigning a dentist appointment, I took my daughter out of school and drove a fully loaded car up to Weymouth!! Husband and son would join us Saturday evening. Being my hometown, I had had the advantage of riding the bike route in the summer, I knew the run route (and was relieved it was flat), I virtually lived in the sea while growing up, and I knew transition and the finishing point. That was all a huge bonus for me. I got to Weymouth and went to register on my own. I was delighted with my IronMan backpack, and got completely carried away in awe of the whole event and how my little hometown had got so absorbed by IronMan and had totally engaged with the event.
The briefing was a little daunting, but I was relieved not to be the only novice there. It put my mind at ease a little and I decided there and then that whatever happened, I WAS going to enjoy this no matter what, soak it up and just love it. A home cooked dinner and my own bed was just what I needed that night. Early Saturday morning my mum and dad left to go on holiday (how rude!!), so it was just me and my daughter for a while until my sister in law came to help me. Matt had set me a programme of training for the day and also advised me on when to rack my bike. The only trouble was, it was absolutely howling with wind and horizontal rain! Leaving my sister in law in charge of my daughter, I drove to the beach for my sea swim. Matt had asked me to do 15 minutes – it was all I could manage before I felt sea sick from the swell pushing up the bay! I was the only one out in the sea, and I was a little scared! I came in and headed home, where I changed in to my biking gear and headed out for 20 minutes on the bike. Still in the pouring rain, I wanted to get a little bit of the atmosphere, so I headed around the bay to the pavilion where the finishing carpet and bleachers were being constructed. There was such a buzz in the air.
Despite being soaked through, I couldn’t help but feel excited and so proud – of myself to be taking part, and of my town for hosting this epic event. Once home and resembling a drowned rat, I got changed and finished putting all my gear for the triathlon into the appropriate bags, ready to go and rack my bike and my transition bags. I got the best text from my husband to say that due to the weather, the cricket had been cancelled and they were going to arrive early!! Horary!!!! I headed off to transition with my sister in law, daughter and nieces. I have never seen a transition area so big in all my life! I thought London Triathlon was big! But, it all ran like clockwork! I found where to rack my bike, and then made my way in to the tent to find my pegs for my bike and run gear. Leaving transition, I couldn’t help but feel that I had forgotten something – despite my OCD and the lists of lists that I had!!!
Deep down I knew it was all there.
A few weeks earlier, I had been reading about novice triathletes and what they wish they had put in their bags and had seen that someone had put in a note from their children to look forward to in transition. I did the same. I had a note from my mum and a note from my daughter in my run bag. It gave me something to look forward to reading. I literally couldn’t wait to read them and it would mean that the bike section was over! Later that day, with my family in Weymouth, I went out for my last run. I chose to go along the sea wall that would form part of the run section, and just remember running along and trying to take everything in with deep breaths, and release all anxiety with long breaths out! I aimed for an early night, but I know I was still awake at midnight!!
The alarm went at 0430 and I jumped out of bed. I re-read all the text messages I received and for some reason looked at my training peaks app – not that it could save me now – but I was thrilled to have a little message on there from Matt. I forced breakfast down and gathered up the troops and off we went. I was so lucky to only be a short distance from the start. I was dropped off at the entrance to transition, said my goodbyes and hoped that I would see my family before the start. I completed all my checks and nervously left transition to hand in my street wear bag to the lorry. I would say that reality hit, but I feel now that I was in some parallel world. The atmosphere was incredible and I kept repeating to myself to just enjoy it. I got to see my husband and children before the start, and then I had to get my race head on.
I lined up for the start of the swim where Matt had advised me to be, and felt very emotional when the national anthem was played. The pros went off first, and it was then that I thought how far the swim looked! Eventually I was down by the sea and ready to go. I ran in to the sea and then just tried to keep calm and get through. The sea was surprisingly warm, and very still, like a millpond, it was such a pleasure to be swimming. I enjoyed the swim and coming around to the exit, I was next to another competitor and I think we kept each other’s pace up, matching each other stroke for stroke. Running up the beach was tough, trying to catch my breath, get my zipper down on my wetsuit and get my hat and goggles off whilst thinking about the next thing – as Matt had advised me, take each part individually – I got in to the transition tent and found my bags and got changed for the bike, praying I had everything, I ran out to find my bike and exited transition getting my head in gear for a long ride. It was while cycling out on to the main road and hearing my name, that I realised I had forgotten my glasses! I was grateful at that moment for the rides I had done in France without them – unwittingly good prep! I knew the route really well, and that was to my advantage. I knew every bend and drop and hill that was coming. I loved the bike ride, but kept saying little prayers to keep my tyres safe! Matt’s advice was always at the back of my mind and the will to want to enjoy it.
Other competitors were so lovely.
Your name is printed on your race number, so people would come past and say ‘good job, Alison’ or ‘keep going, Alison’ It was such an unexpected part of the experience, yet it was also really motivational – especially when you are blowing up a hill! The ride was fantastically well supported, almost the whole way around, and it lifted spirits like nothing else. Who knew cow-bells would be music to my ears? Towards the end (clearly the drafting rule had gone by the wayside!) we were all clamouring to get up the last big hill and I knew the descent really well. Eventually it drops down into a long road of houses; it was at this point the emotions took over. The road had been decorated by residents with bunting and people were at the end of their driveways clanging cowbells, music was being played. I started to cry!! Tears streamed away from my eyes and I felt a huge swell of pride.
I pulled myself together to enjoy the last victory mile into T2, which I loved. I had goose bumps on goose bumps. I racked my bike and headed to the tent for my run gear, and my notes. I read a beautiful note from my daughter telling me how proud she was of me, and a similar theme note from my mum. Spirits lifted, and gels in hand, I ran out. I remember Matt telling me to keep an eye on my pace, and to keep going, use a run/walk strategy if I had to (I had to!). I was really pleased with my first 4 or 5 miles, keeping my pace steady and at a rate that I was happy with. However this was when the midday sun was at its warmest, I just couldn’t tolerate another gel, so I decided to walk through the feed stations, grab what I could to drink and then run again. About 8 miles in, I ran towards the Jubilee Clock which sits on Weymouth seafront, and could see that it was 12 noon. This was when I realised I could maybe make 6 hours.
Time had never really been a feature – I had wanted to finish in a respectful time – but now I could see that I could post a decent time (for me). This was the motivation I needed to keep going. I saw family and friends on a very supporter-friendly route, and this bolstered me too. The marshals were also amazing at encouraging everyone along. I was enjoying the run, the heat – not so much, and kept asking myself if I was giving everything I had (I was). My main concern was that I didn’t want to cross the line and think I could’ve tried harder.
On the final lap of the run, and the part where I could finally follow the arrows to the finish, my goose bumps returned and I remembered at the briefing being told that the carpet was ‘your moment so enjoy it’. Determined to do so, I cranked up my pace (a bit, with what was left in the tank!) and ran on to the magic carpet with my arms in the air, a massive smile on my face and tears running down, I just tried to absorb every single moment that I could. I heard my name being called out as I crossed and ran over, finished. Done. I couldn’t believe it. My medal was placed over my head (I regard it as the most expensive medal I have ever won – in every aspect) and I saw my family. I hobbled over to them and cried as they cuddled me. My daughter asked if I would do another one to which I replied ‘no, never ever again’!!
After making my way through the athlete’s village, I found a little extra reserve of energy to shop! I purchased some Iron Man merchandise which I promised myself I would if I finished. We then had a 2 mile walk back to Transition to collect all my things, and after that another mile walk back to the car!! I was on such a high, the pain didn’t register.
I have now had two month to reflect on what was for me a huge challenge. I know people do these literally every weekend. I never knew there were so many IronMan events, but for me this occupied ten months of mine and my family’s life. I have now gone from saying never, to saying probably. I think I will keep Weymouth sacred though, I want to keep it as that special memory. I have continued my training with Matt at the studio and have been out for several runs and bike rides – for fun! I am not sure what next year holds, but I know that whatever it is, I won’t do it without Matt’s help.
There is no doubt in my mind that he is the reason I got to Weymouth, and the reason I finished too. I will be forever grateful for everything Matt did for me. “A good coach improves your game; a great coach improves your life”
Owner of Functionally Aware Fitness Personal Training
Voted Cornwall’s Best Fitness Instructor 2016
Voted The UK’s Most Innovative Fitness Entrepreneur 2012
International Best Selling Author of The Fad Free Fitness Formula
Author of The Hot to Trot Cook Book and The Equestrian Athlete Plan
Email: Info@fa-fitness.co.uk / Phone: 07841 136302