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.
My old school buddy Fiona Egan from Sasta Fitness brought me back to my roots with a visit to my family’s old pub; The Cosy Inn, in Ballyfarnon, County Roscommon. That’s Fiona in the brown dress in the picture, and that’s me in the purple balero – we were at my 8th birthday party in the garden at the back of the pub. I had lived in London until shortly before that photo was taken, and I was getting used to a new town, a new country, and a whole new bunch of friends. It was a big adventure and for the most part, a very happy one.
The Cosy Inn is no longer a pub, but thanks to the current owners, and Fiona’s encouragement, I got a chance to revisit the old days. It felt lovely to look around and remember my early childhood. My bedroom with the deep window where I could shout down to my mates, and the gorgeous lake on the edge of the town; where I learned how to ride my bike. We even had a meal in Kilronan Castle, which was a ruin when I ran along the empty broken walls, through cow pats and nettles over 40 years ago!
I remember playing in the river, catching tiny fish with a net made from my mum’s curtains (oops) and keeping them in a jam-jar (sorry fish), my friend’s pony Merrylegs, and lying in the grass and yellow gorse under the Arigna Mountains with a pencil and a copybook; writing poems under blue skies and fluffy clouds. I can hear the insects buzzing in the warm sun and smell the flowers and the dampness in the ground beneath me. No wonder I still love the great outdoors 😀
I had an enforced ‘rest’ week between my active Paddy’s Day weekend and The Easter Bank Holiday. Close family visiting, a deluge that flooded and blocked the N11 to Wicklow, a truly unseasonal avalanche warning in the snow laden Mournes and a rather nasty tummy bug, all combined to keep me off the hills and out of the gym. Then an invite came to get out on Spinc Mountain on Good Friday with Concern/Uganda buddy Vera Baker, and I decided to push all thoughts of weakness aside and ‘just do it’. I was so pleased afterwards. It was a beautiful day in Wicklow with blue skies and bright sunshine, despite snow and ice underfoot; and it really stopped me feeling miserable and sorry for myself! Vera and her mate Lisa were just starting a new round of training for their latest charity appeal in Kenya later this year, and it was good to be out with them, as they bubbled and planned, all full with the sense of a new adventure.
When invite number 2 came to join Mountain Rescue volunteer Grainne Ryan on a trek up the Galtees on Saturday, again it was hard to refuse. I was probably quite weak after my tummy bug and I decided to take the train to Thurles rather than drive; the guys agreed to pick me up and drop me back afterwards to the station, which I felt was much easier than driving when I was feeling tired. It took the pressure off a bit, but I was still feeling a little nervous. I hadn’t climbed with Grainne or her mate Kevin before, and I wasn’t sure about my hill-fitness or strength. I just hate the thought of getting in ‘over my head’ and slowing people down. It’s always about picking your pace – but it doesn’t stop me getting a bit apprehensive first time out. Grainne reassured me they weren’t planning any hill-running…and off we went!
We headed first for Galtee Beag; intending to then skim the ridge and move on up to climb Galtee More 919m (3018ft) snow, ice and wind permitting. The pace was manageable, the company good, and the scenery stunning. Again another perfect climbing day, with snow underfoot and blue skies above; made all the more special by a natural phenomenon which I hadn’t seen before. As we left lunch and Galtee Beag behind and pushed on for Galtee More, we came out of the lee and the force of the wind hit us. Pushing onwards and upwards the cold was biting and it felt like being in a wind tunnel. I was using walking poles and could actually feel the wind tearing them from me as I walked. But I walked with care, staring in amazement at each footfall. I was nearly crying as I stepped on and smashed through these lovely snow crystals on the way up. Rime, Grainne called them. It was like walking through a bed of brittle diamonds… I’d never seen that before, the delicacy of the wind-blown ice formations on the frozen bog; I felt like an elephant in a china shop…
The last few measured steep steps to the summit; then walking across the flattened top to the cross, straining against the wind, leaning forward into it at an angle and pulling my fleecy buff up around my nose and mouth to try and help me breathe through the frosty air. We scrambled down a foot or two among the rocks and suddenly the wind stopped and I realised it had been roaring in my ears. Suddenly as if someone flicked a switch, we found ourselves in stark silence as we snuggled in to sit down among the frost-sparkled rocks, like ice-thrones in a winter wonderland at the top of the world. Swiftly turned to Ice Princess – I surveyed the 360 views of Tipperary, Limerick and perhaps Cork far off in the distance, with bright sunshine cutting through the bitter cold, now sheltered from the wind and feeling so incredibly grateful to be here.
My perfect Easter weekend didn’t end on the hills. I splashed my way through large waves in Malahide in bright sunshine on Sunday morning with Fergal Somerville and the Low Rock swimmers. I’d actually turned up with a wet-suit, but I was shamed when I saw them all getting into the surf in their swimming suits, so I decided to leave it in my bag and take the plunge – literally. It was icy cold. 4 degrees apparently, but it was beautiful being bounced around by the icy waves in bright sunshine. I didn’t last long; getting through about three swells before turning around and swimming like the clappers for the shore. But as my skin burned with fire afterwards and I drank hot coffee and pinched someone’s chocolate biscuits, there was no doubting I was alive.
Monday the holiday continues and I’m still off work, so I’m hitting the gym in the morning – then meeting the ‘Get Off The Couch‘crew as the six participants in our new TV series on Setanta go through their paces on the track at the prestigious Morton Stadium with Triathlon trainer, Eamonn Tilley. It’s our second session and I’m dying to see if we’ve made any progress. Last time we were training with Eamonn, the wonderful Katie Taylor gave us a pep talk and that really fired us up. The show’s taking 6 men and women from around the country and encouraging them to get out and active in the great outdoors. After my exciting ‘holiday’ break, I’ll have plenty to talk about!
I had a pretty amazing Paddy’s Day weekend. Thanks to the amazing hospitality of mountaineer Tony Nation and the incredible cooking skills of his wife Mary…. I climbed Carrauntoohil in snow on Saturday, and I climbed the Coumshingaun Horseshoe in Waterford the following day – I ate loads of homebaked cakes and bread – with cream – and sank a couple of glasses of red wine… but even the scales gave me a break and I only registered a half a pound increase for all my indulgence.
Then tonight the good times continued at Le Cheile AC in Leixlip.
We are just about half way through their ‘Couch to 5k’ programme and they told us during our warm-up tonight that we’d be running for a full 20 mins without walking. My jaw dropped and to be honest, I wondered if anyone would notice if I grabbed my keys and slipped out the back door! I’d run 20 mins with them last week, but that was running 5 min intervals with a 2 minute break in-between; and I’d thought that was tough!
Setting off into the cold, dark, night, I had a face like a glum trout…. but I concentrated on picking my own SLOW pace and keeping my breathing even. I ended up sort of jogging between two groups, out on my own, but still a part of the gang. I could feel the group ahead pulling me forward and the group behind pushing me on – like I was on an invisible cord.
I realised that if I kept thinking I couldn’t do it, I’d have a mini panic attack and end up walking off. So I started telling myself that of course I could. I told myself I was enjoying it, and matched the words to my pace as I ran slowly along the dark tarmac, occasionally glancing up to see the moon and stars above. At first the moon was ahead but after a while it fell behind and I grinned into the frosty night, thinking I’d just outrun a moonbeam. Do you know, after a while, I really began to believe it. I’m genuinely unsure whether the running became easier, or whether I just convinced myself that it had. All I know is that when the 20mins were up – I didn’t want to stop – and when I saw the lights of the clubhouse up ahead in the distance, I just kept on running – all the way home – on a cloud.
It’s all in the head isn’t it? I said ‘I can’ – and I did. 🙂
Well it’s a week to go to Uganda, so if I haven’t trained enough by now, I’ve just left it too late. I’m excited, but I’ve got those pre-expedition ponders – when you just can’t help going over the last few months in your mind, and wonder… if only. If only I’d tried hot-yoga, it would have helped me prepare for the heat. If only I’d spent more time on the hills, more time on the bike, more time in the pool. But in fairness, I drafted a training plan several months ago, and I’ve pretty much stuck to my plan. I’ve cycled 15k into work and back, most days – I’ve lifted weights in the gym twice a week, I’ve joined Wild Water Kayak Club and learned the basics of how to paddle, I’ve got my level 2 cert to prove it. I’ve climbed Carrauntoohil twice, and Purple Mountain and Tomies – as well as several training runs up my beloved Spinc in Wicklow.I’ll know very soon if I’ve done enough to tackle the altitude on Mount Elgon, whether I’ve done enough to keep up with the rest of the group as we cycle over 200k through the African bush, and whether I’ll be able to Kayak well enough, when we get to the Nile and Hairy Lemon Island.
This was my very last weekend for training, and it’s been a howler. A day’s climbing in Wicklow yesterday, followed by climbing at Awesome Walls last night – and a day out on the Liffey kayaking today – and all with a film crew shadowing every move in preperation for “Get Off the Couch”, a programme I’m presenting for Athena Media on Setanta next year, which aims to encourage people to get up and get active and get outdoors into our lovely countryside. Thanks to Barry and Paula and Rob and Helen – you were all brilliant this weekend and I’ve learned so much already from you all.
I really don’t know whether I’ve done enough for Uganda on Saturday – I really hope I have, I hope I do Concern proud. But at least after today, I feel a lot more confident about the paddling. I’ve had a real mental block over paddling over weirs into white water and was gutted last weekend when what should have been my last training session didn’t come off the way I wanted it to. I decided to have one last shot and the guys in the club pulled out all the stops for me and got me in the water again this weekend. Last night I kept telling myself I could do it – even though I didn’t really believe it! Today I told myself the same thing, and eventually when the time came, I popped over Wrens, and stayed upright….then did it again… and again. Andy, my WWKC instructor was with another group downstream, and he told me later they all heard me screaming with jubilation and they laughed as he said “ah, Teena’s made it down Wrens!”
I’m so grateful to Wild Water Kayak Club. To Andy, Aidan and Dave – who first showed me the ropes, to Andy again who never gave up on me, and to John Judge and Sean who took me out today. Thank you to adventurer, friend and mentor Pat Falvey, to Wicklow Mountain Rescue buddy Ronan Friel, ATI ‘City Kayak’ chief Donnchadh McCobb, to gym guru David Dunne, to my own fantastic radio station 98FM, to Howth Coast Guard and all our ‘forces’, to the most patient dad in Ireland, to my brother who’s prepared a detailed list of all the spiders I need to avoid in Africa, to the Albany Clinic who gave me millions of injections for a very tiny price and no bruises, to Great Outdoors who always support me and who are on P41 of my book!, to swimming ‘Chanimal’ Fergal Somerville, and to everyone who hiked and climbed and encouraged and motivated me over the past couple of months. So many friends, including my FB & Twitter supporters, I’m so very, very lucky. And thank you to whoever told me to fake-it till you make-it… ‘cos today I faked my way over Wrens until I suddenly made it! If it turns out that I haven’t done enough for Uganda, I guess I know what I have to do.. 😉
There’s a reckoning a coming, I reckon….
If I’ve had a difficulty with training this year, it’s about balancing multi-discipline sports. Our Concern challenge in Uganda this November requires me to climb a volcano, cycle for several hundred kilometres and kayak the source of the Nile. Well I bought a bike and started clocking up hours earlier this year, and I signed up with the Wild Water Kayak Club on Dublin’s Strawberry Beds and learned the basics of how to fall in the river! (…and of course, more importantly – how to get out).
Now, as you can imagine, this all takes time – hours of time, and the one thing that has suffered is the activity I had previously been very familiar with – climbing mountains. To get hill-fit, you need to be walking up inclines for between 4 to 6 hours, at least once a week….and I haven’t been doing that. I simply haven’t had time for much more than a quick spin up and around Spink in Wicklow, which is a beautiful mountain, but not the most challenging – particularly when you’re only doing it intermittently at best.
So this Sunday, I’m facing the Goddess. Carrauntoohil in Kerry, at 1,038 metres (3,406 ft) is Ireland’s largest mountain, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’m heading there this weekend, feeling a bit like a fool – because I know I haven’t prepared, and I know I’m going to suffer. I love this mountain and know her well, but I also know it’s not clever to take her for granted. I’m also pretty certain she’ll be wet and cold and windy. Mountains have a way of letting you know……
My ‘Happy Feet’ relay team for the Lough Key triathlon was waiting for me at registration when I turned up, shoulders shrugged high, to stop the torrential rain running down my neck, realising the futility of keeping dry – when I was just about to jump in a lake!
As I walked up to the girls, I couldn’t help gawping at the big yellow markers on the water, that were clearly marking the swim. To my eye, the markers seemed far too distant from the shore; surely they’d made a mistake? It looked so much further than I thought 740metres would look like. There were shrieks and hugs as we met up and shared training disaster stories from the past week; but all the time I felt butterflies the size of bats in my gut. I shouldn’t have eaten breakfast, I knew I shouldn’t. The egg and ham and goats’ cheese and spinach soufle that my host had made me, was now hanging heavily on my mind.
I was doing the swim, Teresa the cycle and Anna had been roped in at the last minute with a dodgy knee and very little notice, to cover the final 5k run. It had all seemed so simple to offer to swim the 750m for team Happy Feet, until I read the briefing notes with just a week and a half to go, and realised there was a 30 min elimination time on the swim! Pressure, and not enough time to train. If you followed my training blog here, you’ll know I tried to short-cut my lack of speed-work by swimming without a wet-suit, against the tide at Malahide Beach in North Dublin. I suppose I thought that if I made myself suffer as much hardship and discomfort as possible, I might feel more comfortable, and swim faster, when I had to get in the lake. Well it was a theory at the time, and the only one I had! My big problem was that although I was comfortable doing the distance, I had no speed and was planning to complete the distance in 40mins. The briefing notes blew that out of the water – if you’ll excuse the pun.
Well I put my shoulder to the wheel – or tide – and soaked up all the tips I could drag from my Hi-Rock swimming friends in Malahide, and in particular ‘Chanimal’ – Channel Swimmer, Fergal Somerville. Deep, even breaths – long, measured strokes, no panic. Now today was the day.
As the other athletes gathered in the holding pen, adjusting swim caps and goggles, stretching to warm up arms and legs and shoulders; they looked sleek and professional, I sneakily looked around comparing the size of my belly with everyone elses. I thought mine looked much bigger, and I grimaced. A throwback to my days of being 23stone. These days I’m just under 12 stone and still a bit on the curvy size, but despite no longer being morbidly obese, I still have body-image flashbacks, especially when I’m standing on the shore in a screamingly tight wet suit along with 300 taller, slimmer, fitter looking people. I just had to remind myself that I was strong and healthy and capable of taking them all on. (I just didn’t really believe it).
The Public Address speakers crackled into life and there were speeches and applause as the rain continued to fall and we stood, shuffling our bare feet in the wet grass, wishing for the start. Eventually we got the nod and as one, we swimmers moved towards the water. It was all new to me, we were to get into the lake and swim to warm up, before the start was called. I followed the leaders and reached the water’s edge, noting the lack of reaction from the other swimmers and imitating their composure as I stepped calmly into the lake, biting down a gasp at the cold. Up to my ankles, my knees, my chest and finally I’m swimming, then finding some space to keep treading until the race ‘got the off’. This part was unexpected, and I felt a tremor of adrenalin or something close to fear. I was out of my depth, I couldn’t swim out with a proper stroke or I’d crash into the swimmers ahead. I was just bobbing about getting cold, and I didn’t like it. I determinedly removed my mind from the lake and imagined I was going through my yoga routines in the sun, and felt the warmth and the calm flood through my legs and up through my body to my arms. I relaxed. We’d go when we’d go – and finally the human wave washed back towards me, as the race began.
I reached out into the dark waters of the lake, pushing my head under water and noticing the pink hue of the feet in front, dyed red by the peaty flood waters. I had taken the other swimmers’ advice and kept out of the crush at the start, for fear of being dragged or accidentally thumped in the fury of the moment. I took my line against the yellow marker out near an island in the lake and just swam. I didn’t try to go fast, hearing Fergal’s comments a week before, telling me that trying to go fast was the fastest way to slow down. I wasn’t sure if he was right, but I was taking his comments on board. After about 250 metres, the 1st marker was drawing close and I realised there was a crush emerging as the swimmers tried to get a tight line around it. I didn’t. I pulled left and gave it – and them – a wide berth. I think I actually gained time instead of losing time, as I swung wide arount the buoy and the human soup, and took my line to the next marker.
I had told myself that if I was comfortable after the first 250, I would step up the speed on the 2nd leg. It worked fine, I stretched out and increased my speed, breathing deeper into my lungs and concentrating on rolling smoothly to catch my breath, keeping my face down between strokes and pulling my arms smoothly through the water. Quicker than I expected, I reached the second marker, and swept around to face back into the shore. I looked up, and saw swimmers far ahead and far behind. At my right was an orange kayak, on hand to help if I needed it. I didn’t need it. I saw the last marker, saw the shore, put my head down – and bombed it. I gave the last 250 every last bit of energy and strength and felt excitement well up inside me. I’m not sure why, I just felt powerful and thrilled because whatever the time on the clock, I wasn’t the last person in the lake, and I knew I had the energy to get me back to shore. Stumbling out of the water, I took the waiting helping hand eagerly and pulled myself free of the lake, then sprinted to the holding paddock and my teammates. Pulling the electronic tag from my left ankle and passing it to Teresa, I recognised she was excitedly shouting at me about the time. I felt tears well up as I realised I’d made the 30 minutes…. and more.
Later, with the time confirmed at 22 minutes. I joked that it was the egg and spinich ‘Pop-Eye’ breakfast after all (thanks Mary) but I was humbled. This body of mine, that I have so abused in my lifetime, again pulled out a blinder for me. With less than 2 weeks to prepare, it had delivered all I asked, and I had smashed my own time. I felt like one of our Olympians, I could proudly say I had a PB and I’d smashed it! It was hard work getting here; swimming in cold, choppy, waters off Malahide, hours of weight training in the gym on our few sunny days, and a lot of self doubt. But the help I got, the support from my friends, from FB and Twitter, and all the generous tips and training swims I got from Fergal and his Hi-Rock mates, had paid off. I’d made it – and Team Happy feet could run and cycle the rest of the way, without being disqualified by the swimmer!
You know, when I started training for our Concern/Uganda: hiking, cycling & kayaking challenge in November, I never thought I’d end up long-distance swimming too. But I suppose it all helps with general fitness. What’s next? Well, the whole Concern group is due to climb Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain this Sunday; and that’s going to hurt – because with all the time I’ve spent cycling, swimming, working-out in the gym and learning to kayak, I’ve somewhat neglected my hill climbing. There is a reckoning a-coming on Sunday. And do you know? there’s a 750m sea swim in Killiney on Saturday….. 😉
What a stunningly special day.
Started with a bang – a 15k cycle into work, and planned 15k home. A 30k round-trip, but much needed as I’ve got my first triathlon on Saturday in Kilkenny and I don’t think I’ve prepared well enough.
The best fun was after work, when I cycled down to ATI City Kayaks near the IFSC for my Monday paddle. I had two special treats. I was joined by my Concern/Uganda buddy Vera Baker – and I got to try out my new kayak. A loan from the fantastic marathon swimmer, Fergal Sommerville, who heads off to swim the North Channel on Thursday. Best of luck Fergal.
My new kayak is yellow, and I’ve decided to call my mellow yellow craft ‘Saffron’. she ripped through the water like a shark (well, maybe a goldfish)…. and I love her already.
Good friends, good equipment, good weather and good waves…. what more could a girl need to start the week?