Three years ago, I thought I'd never walk again. I seem an unlikely candidate for a triathlon. Yet here I am.
Back in 2012 I was just starting a PhD in Psychology when I had a bad run of health issues. These included endometriosis, which left me in severe pain day and night for two years. After trying powerful prescription drugs and two rounds of surgery, my body was plagued with exhaustion so paralysing that l couldn't walk and needed a wheelchair just to get around the kitchen. I was barely able to string two sentences together due to endless brain fog and couldn’t sleep due to pain. Unable to work, I had to quit my PhD, seldom left the house and disappeared from society. Eventually I was diagnosed with a list of musculo-skeletal and immunological lifelong health conditions with no cure, and lived with disabling exhaustion, widespread pain, cognitive difficulties, memory issues, sensory sensitivity, coordination problems, and post exertional malaise.
Using sports science for recovery & base training
Last year, my husband started doing triathlon. I supported him as much as I could and was immensely proud, but at the same time the level of his physical activity and achievements magnified the ineptitude of mine. The size of the difference between my ‘normal’ and into were polar opposites. As part of his training, my husband used elements of sports science to maximize his potential and prime his body work as efficiently as it could, to achieve incredible things. Having an academic background, I developed an interest in the science aspects and wondered if using sports science could help my body recover from exertion more efficiently and become stronger.
I started one-to-one, 30 minute fitness coaching sessions to try to slowly build strength, starting with a very low intensity. It was risky, and the first few left me bedridden for a week at a time. I rested. We adjusted it. I tried again.
Using sports training techniques, and sport science based recovery strategies, my baseline slowly improved. I undertook the sort of recovery routine a seasoned athlete would do, even though I'd only jogged say one kilometer (or walked 200m as per my first session). I made sure I stayed hydrated and fueled my body correctly. I had protein shakes, electrolytes, hot and cold baths, compression tights, massages, physio sessions, took supplements, stretched, and foam rolled. I did everything I could before and after each session to make sure my body was ready before each session. I still got horrendous flare-ups, but they became further apart and on ‘good’ days I could do more. I put faith in science of sport and my body, while at the same time knowing that doing just a bit too much would floor me for days or even weeks.
NB: Exercise is not a cure or solution for all chronic illnesses. In many cases overexertion exacerbates symptoms and can be incredibly dangerous. I was at the right point my recovery journey to try what I did. With the science of sport aiding my recovery, and a devotion of my time, energy, life I was able to make this start and progress forward. Had I tried this sooner, or in a different way, I undoubtedly risked going backwards.
My decision to enter the Sebamed Brighton and Hove Triathlon
After the challenge of completing my first 5k parkrun in a time of 31min, 28sec. My coach got in touch with Brighton and Hove Triathlon and explained that I was recovering from ongoing illness but wanted to try a triathlon. I’d progressed to a point where I could cycle and run but was one sport away from the magic trio. Brighton and Hove Tri said that they want as many people to get involved in the sport as possible and they were very accommodating and happy to help make special allowances so that I could take part. In my case, they encouraged me to race the super sprint distance (distance: 400m swim, 5k cycle and 2.5k run), and allowed me to have someone else do my swim leg and to have my coach in the transition area as a helper, and to pace me on the run to make sure I didn’t blow out, risking a serious flare up later on.
At that point I didn’t actually have my own bike. I’d been practicing on a friend’s mountain bike that was two sizes too big for me, so I got a move on and I bought my first road bike - just 3 weeks before race day! I struggled to understand the gears and had never ridden a road bike before. My first few rides were spent just trying to get used to the gearing. In the end I resolved to stay in the small chainring at the front, and wrote ‘E’ and ‘H’ (‘easy’ and ‘hard’) on the other gears with a sharpie so I know which was which.
Training for the big day
The Brighton and Hove Triathlon was just 3 weeks away. One badly timed flareup could have written everything off. I did some brick sessions. My legs felt like lead each time, but I did them, recovered, rested then did them again, to prove to myself that I could. I practiced on the actual course route. I cycled longer than the race distance and ran further. I could still do it. And always at around 15 minutes per section. It was consistent. This was possible. I was ready.
Then with just ten days to go, I got a flareup that left me in bedridden. I didn’t know if I'd be able to walk on race day, let alone compete. It knocked my confidence, but I sucked it up and gave my body what it needed: rest. Towards the end of the week I was back on my feet and a few days later, back to training and pure focus.
On the morning of race day, I was nervous but felt ready. To be honest I was just very happy and grateful to be well enough to take part at all. It felt like weeks ago that I couldn't walk and had to wheelchair around the kitchen, yet here I was, a competitor at the Sebamed Brighton & Hove Triathlon. By turning up, I'd already achieved the impossible. To look at me, no one would guess that I was any different to the other athletes.
Before I knew it, it was time to start
My swim buddy set off and I waited in transition, taking conscious breaths to keep calm until it was my turn. The first women started to come through. Then suddenly there she was! The feeling of readiness I had milliseconds ago was replaced by panic and faffing around with swapping the timer chip over, putting my helmet on (initially back to front!) and grabbing my bike. At that point I thought I should calm down so walked towards ‘bike out’, but she shouted “Run!” and I remembered it was supposed to be a race and I’d better get a move on.
At the mount line, some spectators screamed support at the competitors. The noise and sudden nerves overwhelmed me. I'd had anxiety dreams about falling off my bike and feeling stupid, but with the adrenalin and shaky legs, I couldn’t even get onto the thing in the first place. I took a deep breath and I was off. Out on the bike course I found my rhythm. It was a nice easy straight road and just one lap. My swimmer had come back so fast that I was way ahead of the pack, completely on my own and had the course to myself. Lucky for me as I also had no risk of crashing into another bike or being overtaken by hundreds of competitors at once and deflating my confidence. It was just me. Perfect. The course was flat, fast and over quickly.
With a struggle I pushed my bike up the kerb and tried to jog into transition, but I couldn't move faster than a very slow walk, like trekking through mud. My legs were shot. I wasn't sure why as I'd done this in training (4 times) and been fine. I could usually push through the jelly legs and even liked the feeling, but this time I could hardly walk at all. I staggered towards my bike number in transition, racked my bike and took my helmet off.
The run was hell. I was beyond exhausted. I had been at the front of the pack on the bike, so as I slowed to a shuffle on the run, a lot of people overtook me. I thought this would get my spirits down but the people who overtook me looked pretty athletic so it just reminded me that I was lucky to be in the same race as them.
I tried to jog but kept having to walk. I felt awful. I wanted to go home, have a hot bath and just say that I did what I could. So many thoughts in my head 'Why am I doing this?'. It was a hot day and I wanted to just collapse on the beach. Everything hurt. I couldn't breathe. If I was going to get to the finish there was only one thing I could focus on - keep going. No matter what, how painful, how slow. Keep going.
The closer I got to the finish line, the more everything hurt and the further away it seemed to get. I felt like I had nothing left to give and like my legs were going to give way and collapse underneath me. Tears stung my eyes and my body pulsed so hard it felt like I was going to burst. Somehow, I reached the finish chute. Somehow, I sped up. Maybe out of amazement, desperation to get it over, or to not let anyone see me fail. I sprinted over the finish, my legs a running fast underneath me and through the finish.
Amazing!!! I did it!
As soon as I crossed the line, a medal was hung around my neck. Having stopped running, I could hardly stand. My legs were finally allowed to turn to jelly and that they did. My husband rushed over to give me a big kiss. Then he held on to me as my legs were so wobbly that I couldn't actually stand or walk unaided. I hobbled forward, supported by him and took in the smiles of my supporters. They told me to get on the podium so they could take a photo, but I couldn't stand or get on it so just sat on it, deliriously happy from endorphins with a big shiny medal round my neck.
After a rest, I plodded towards the beach around like a newly born fowl whose legs don’t work yet, looked at the sea and had a little cry. I was amazed that I could still set my mind to something and achieve it - something I thought I could no longer do. I had lost trust in my body, my abilities and myself. Yet being here today and getting through it was a show to myself that with the right support and strategies, I could still achieve what I set my sights on. I felt a bit embarrassed that no one else seemed as shattered as me and I had done the smallest of all the races - and not even all of it at that. But to me it was huge. I’d done it.
At the time of writing I still have severe flare ups and my physical abilities wax and wane. I'm not cured. But I am stronger and have improved. We can’t always choose what happens to us in life, but we can choose how we respond. Now I’m setting my sights on the next challenge: a 50k bike ride – first on an e-bike, but hopefully one day with just my own leg power. And of course, another triathlon! …All in good time.
Special thanks to my husband David for all the love and support, swim buddy Zeina, coach Paul, and to the Sebamed Brighton and Hove Triathlon for making it possible.