A curling wave crashes over me from behind, pushing me forward and down below the surface of the sea. Through my swimming-goggles I catch a green, silent moment in the wave and I remind myself to relax and pace my breathing. I kick my legs, push my elbow back, folding it high and reaching forward for the catch, then pushing through and out into sunlight to catch my breath then surge forwards again.
The white crest of the wave throws sparkling droplets into the air, catching with the sunlight and there it is, I’m swimming through rainbows. The rough sea is challenging and fierce and I couldn’t be happier. Glancing through the swell I notice the spire of Saint Colman’s Cathedral on my right and the smaller Christchurch Church of Ireland on my left. These are my guides and there is a spiritual connection in my mind as I imagine an invisible tow-line attaching me to both and leading me back to shore. I am judging the current and the tide; the way the water is pulling me, along my trajectory to those fine points on the landline ahead. We are a perfect triangle, a power source, and the sea cannot defeat me. I am alive.
I have been fascinated by the open water sea swim between Spike Island and Cobh ever since I was a young radio reporter, writing stories about the island’s prison population and the infamous prison riot, which is now part of the exhibition about the island’s history. I always imagined what it might be like to swim it, but I never imagined that I would be the swimmer. So it is with the world, that strange coincidences turn dreams to reality. How appropriate that now I was swimming this infamous stretch – Ireland’s own ‘escape from Alcatraz’ – as part of an even bigger project of completing ten triathlons in a year.
The Cobh Tri was my tenth triathlon of 2016, and the swim from Spike to Cobh was without a shadow of a doubt the most exciting. It was also my first ever attempt at a full ‘Olympic distance’ tri and I really had no idea if I could do it.
Back in February with a lot of borrowed gear and last minute choices, I dipped my toe into the indoor pool in Carrick-On-Shannon for the Lough Key ‘Try a Tri’ – my first introduction to the world of triathlon. I was nervous, but the people of Carrick won the day, their encouragement hurtling me through to complete the course. It was a trend that was to continue, as I headed to Galway for the Castle Series and the Lough Cutra Castle Triathlon with its beautiful parkland and lake. From there I headed to Kildare for my first sprint distance triathlon during an Irish heatwave. Running along the river in Athy I thought I would melt but every elite athlete that zipped past used their precious breath to call encouragement to me as I jogged along.
‘By Hook or By Crook’ I finished my 4th triathlon in Wexford and swam back across the bay afterwards! Hells Angels were born for number five, when I buddied up and took my place in an all-girl team to finish the swim as part of a relay at Hell Of The West. My favourite run came next in the lovely Dromineer with Nenagh Tri Club, followed by the Lakeside Tri in Donegal, King of Greystones in Wicklow and triathlon number nine, the Salthill Tri in Galway.
Throughout the year I felt my confidence grow, but I also felt such admiration for the organisers and the athletes taking part. Safety and organisation was paramount, and whether racing across a lake or a big sea swim like Hell of the West, there was always a safety kayak within sight and the briefings before each race left me very clear and very safe about the race and my place in it. I very quickly found reassurance that I did have a place here. Even though this is a hugely competitive sport with amazing elites battling hard for home and country, I never felt out of place. That’s down to Triathlon Ireland, all the organising clubs, stewards, officials, safety crews, and the athletes and spectators who never stopped encouraging me along the way.
At the start of the year, overweight and unable to run very far, I felt a bit of a fraud turning up for my first ‘try-a’tri’ – but nobody else saw me that way. I soon realised that even if I never won a race, I could win each time by performing better than the last. My race wasn’t just on triathlon day, it was all the work I put in between the events, jogging on the road, swimming in the sea, cycling to work and going to the gym; it all counted. Turning up to race wasn’t a judgement on how slow or bad I was, it was a celebration of how far I had come; and everybody there encouraged me to realise that.
Back here at Cobh – my tenth triathlon of the Summer – and my first full Olympic distance. I accept the outstretched hands that balance me as I climb from the water after completing my epic battle ‘escaping’ from Spike. I head off on the bike against a gale force wind, because Cobh wasn’t making this easy! Nearly 40k later I swing back in on the bike and face my nemesis – the 10k run. Or in my case, the walk and jog. I didn’t have to look far for inspiration, I knew that this was also a ‘first ever full distance Olympic triathlon’ for the legendary Sonia O’Sullivan.
Of course she’d long finished the course, but as I finished my first loop and got the first of three wristbands before starting on the next, I thought about Sonia and the effort it must take to compete in an entirely new sport when everyone is watching. The loveliness of the lady and the kindness she has shown me whenever we have met was another reason to keep me going for the second band, which was green. I knew with a white and a green band on my wrist there was no way I was stopping. To my delight, other ladies, stewards and even some of my friends, joined me on the last loop, walking and jogging it with me and encouraging me all the way.
I finished my tenth triathlon on the seafront in Cobh, grabbing my last wristband to form the perfect green, white and gold. As I heard my timing chip beep as I passed over the pressure mat, I knew that I’d just completed my own personal Olympic moment. Thank you Triathlon Ireland, thank you Sonia, thank you friends, spectators and fellow competitors for all your support and inspiration along the way. Thanks also to the kind donors who allowed me raise €1,000 for The Irish Wheelchair Association and the Gavin Glynn Foundation, and to everyone who donated to the TRI10 iDonate page throughout the year. It’s been an amazing adventure and I have a sneaky feeling that I’ll be back next year….
*First published in Sept 2016 by Triathlon Ireland
I’ve decided that this is how I want to look by the end of the year! Before you laugh, it’s the beautiful powerful creature charging after the surf ‘look’ that I’m going after! So no old nag cracks please – especially from Continue reading
It was dark and damp as I turned the corner onto Accommodation Road in Leixlip. Some of the streetlights were out and it made the darkness more intense. Behind me I could hear the Westie gaining on me, I took a deep breath and ran a bit faster. My legs were tired now but I couldn’t let him catch me; him or the man who was with him. I heard the click of Continue reading
A twisted lumbar facet joint and an iliolumber ligament strain is not actually as bad as it sounds, but it does mean several days’ inactivity and quite a lot of sharp breathing when sitting and standing. Apparently one of the spiky little bones in my lower back snagged behind Continue reading
I said from the start that I want to be one of those people who wakes up and wants to Continue reading
We deserve a medal. 8am on Saturday morning and we’re pouring ourselves out of bed and into leggings and trainers. Elaine tumbled down the steps and across the road towards where I was parked and her expression mirrored my own. I burst into giggles as I caught her eye. ‘Water’. She greets me. ‘There’s a bottle in the back’ I said. Gunning the engine as she drank deeply, I laugh out loud ‘Oh Lord, what are we like? I was so tired this morning I couldn’t even face brushing my teeth’. ‘I’ve just drunk your water’ she replies. ‘That’s ok.’ ‘No, all your water’ she adds sheepishly, as we pull out into the light, early morning, weekend, Dublin traffic.
I’m bringing Elaine along to her first ever parkrun. I’ve been preaching proudly about parkruns for the past 6 weeks, ever since we first began our #Couch2Christmas challenge to run 10k for Aware. The parkrun is such a clever idea. You register online for free, print off your barcode, and are then welcome to participate in a timed 5k run in parks all over the world, every Saturday morning at 0930. It’s all organised by volunteers and the runners are a varied mix, ranging from walkers and joggers, right up to elite athletes. I’ve dipped in and out of parkruns for a year now, according to my fitness levels and I’ve always found a warm welcome, whether I’m running or walking.
We cut down along the Grand Canal and out onto the motorway heading for Celbridge, then turn off at Junction 6, in search of Castletown House. This is a new Parkrun and I haven’t been here before, but our coach, Irish Ultra runner John O’Regan had mentioned how beautiful the trail was. Heading up the drive towards the main house, I could see he hadn’t exaggerated. The stunning Autumn weather is amplified here, where the heavy woodland sweeps down towards the river. Gloriously green fields glow emerald against the copper gold of the trees that weep drifts of brightly coloured leaves at our feet. We park in front of the big house and as we walk away from the car, I feel guilty as if I am trespassing. We pass a groundsman who salutes us with a cheery smile and I stop to talk, surprised, because I had half expected a reprimand. It is the first of many welcomes.
Down to the start and a hug from run director Sharon Ashmore who explained the course and then announced our presence to the group of assembled runners; as Elaine and me stood mortified and wishing we’d stood behind a tree!
You don’t have to win to succeed..
To be honest I didn’t feel much like a winner as I plodded on towards the river. The trail was slightly downhill which helped, but I felt every ounce of the extra weight that I’m currently carrying.
As I watched Elaine’s long legs disappearing around the bend ahead, I felt a flash of envy. Then looking down at my stumpy little tree trunks, I decided that they’d have to do, and I grinned, as I ever so slightly extended my shuffle. The sound of the river renewed my interest. I looked off to my left and considered if I could get my kayak in there, and was still pondering the silver, gurgling, eddies of the river when I got to a bridge, and took a cheerful word of guidance from a Marshal to ‘look out for surface leaves’. I didn’t exactly need to slow down… but I tore my gaze from the shiny river to concentrate on the trail. It took a bit of concentration too, because there was a hill here. Focus, breath, step. A cheery Halloween scarecrow shouted encouragement as I headed into the hill. No I wasn’t hallucinating. This was the Marshal who had believed that instruction to wear fancy dress….
As I prepared to head out into my second loop, I swung out of the way of the flying feet of finishers, coming quickly up behind me. Their 5k was over while I was less than half way through mine. They were pushing hard for good times or PB’s (personal bests). I could hear their breathing, hard and heavy; but still they took the energy and time to call out to me ‘you’re doing great, keep going’. That’s the generosity of spirit that I’ve come to expect at parkrun, and I so admire it. It still quickens my heart to hear real athletes call encouragement to this huffing, puffing, red-faced steam engine, chugging up a hill. If they can believe in me, it’s so much easier to believe in myself.
I’m just back from a shopping trip with new runners and leggings. Everyone knows if you Continue reading
The challenge is on. One minute I am sitting nice and cosy on the TV3 Midday panel with Elaine Crowley and the next thing I know, we have talked ourselves into running a 10k before Christmas.
As we sat, discussing the benefits of running for both your physical and mental health, Elaine had a Continue reading
If you’ve been big, like me, you probably have whole years of your life without a single photo reference. When I was writing my book, after escaping from the prison of my 23 stone body, I had to beg for ‘big’ photos from my friends and relations to document the ‘before’. I’d cleansed them you see, completely erased every large unflattering print of myself, to complete my denial that I was obese and getting bigger.
The Power Within…
Lately I’ve been bouncing out of my skin with delight at my growing fitness and strength. After a dodgy winter with the weight piling back on, I’ve been back out on the wilderness trail, climbing mountains and running; working hard to reverse the damage. Finally this week, the results began to show. I felt the power building in me, my lungs burning less when I run, my calves burning less when I climb. On Friday I joined a night-hike on the Sugarloaf with the Oldtown Road Trailbreakers. On Saturday myself and some old mountain buddies climbed Leinster’s highest peak, Lugnaquilla, with Ronan Friel from Irish Guided Walks, surprising ourselves by finding snow at the summit. I stayed overnight in Wicklow to join the mighty JuJu Jay from ‘Mud, Sweat and Runners’ for a beginner trail run on Sunday, and accepted an invitation to go sea-swimming at the 40ft in Dublin for St Patrick’s Day.
Then came the photo of a thousand knives. Casually taken and innocently posted on Facebook, it was a photo like the photos that had haunted my past. Caught at a vulnerable moment, legs akimbo, muscles slack, crudely placed limbs facing into the camera, and worst of all, a glimpse of pain and discomfort in my eyes as my rusty old joints complained at their treatment. A horrible image that burned into my heart and soul and poked open the scars on wounds considered long healed.
Lycra or Bust…
I am often asked how I exercise when I’m heavy, if I am embarrassed, or how can I bring myself to wear Lycra or a swimsuit? Yes of course there is an element of ‘cringe’. If I am out running and kids jeer me, it hurts; but I’m usually too out of breath to answer back! Besides, the best response is to just keep running.
Mostly I just breathe deeply and get on with it. Knowing the freedom of being strong enough to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, is worth the effort. But occasionally there are setbacks when it all seems pointless, when I see defeat looming and feel the temptation to lie down in front of that wave of sadness and just give up. This was one of those moments. In the middle of a busy, active, fun weekend; my heart leapt and my breathing caught as I fought to keep my eyes from watering. My personal ‘pity-party’ gathered pace as looking at this horrid image, my confidence disintegrated around me. Is this how I look in my unguarded moments? A ridiculous caricature of the person I see in the mirror. Chewing on my upset, a timely call from a good friend gives me a chance to vent my sadness. Heading to bed somewhat earlier than expected, I suddenly feel tired and old and foolish.
Waking up this morning in Wicklow where my soul usually soars, I started out for my run with JuJu Jay with a stubborn reluctance in my step. It felt pointless. ‘Fat people can’t run’ I told myself. Except a sneaky voice in my head insisted that if I ran, I’d feel better.
I got JuJu’d…
JuJu’s chirpy greeting and jokey instructions have me loosening up my joints and my mind, before I have a chance to bolt. Within minutes we’re running. Beginners trotting out into the woods, at different levels and stages. When my breathing gets heavy, JuJu’s practical advice cuts through my embarrassment, and before long my head is up, my pace has slowed and I’ve found my rhythm. Not fast, not slow, but just right. Like Goldilocks, I’ve found what works for me.
Sometimes life knocks you out of rhythm, and like trail-running up a hill through a forest, you need to tune out the confusion, focus on the stillness, give yourself a hug and learn to breathe again. Thank you for today Juju Jay, and for helping me to breathe again.
This time last year a very good friend of mine and fellow ‘weight warrior’ completed a one-kilometre Reindeer Walk for the RNLI and kick started a life-changing year, in which her 50th birthday suit featured greatly and frequently! Get ready to raise your glass to my guest blogger -a lady who truly does ‘Dream, Dare and Do’ – Averil Larke.
Two days to go until the end of 2014 and I’m Continue reading