After a serious car vs bike crash in 2012 I have spent the best part of the last 4 years working through comprehensive physiotherapy to regain mobility, including learning to walk again. I was told by the doctors in the days after the crash that my ‘marathon and running days were over’. My book ‘Back on Track’ published last October outlines my personal recovery process over 3 years, from serious, multiple injuries. I incorporated advice from experts and athletes as well as effective recovery strategies for those who are not quite ready to give up on their sport or active lifestyle.
Up until last Summer I had no plans to return to the sport of triathlon as a competitor. I was so grateful for the improvement back to an active, independent life and was highly motivated to continue progressing my functional strength program, a natural progression from all the physiotherapy. I created a pre-training routine that involved swimming, cycling and running and this led me back to a triathlon start line last Summer 2015. I led from gun to tape at Windsor Triathlon in a time of sub 2 .5 hours. Using the same athlete centric approach I implement with my coached athletes, I made plans to return to being competitive in the 2016 triathlon season.
My first race of the season was a half Ironman distance at Challenge Barcelona half. I finished 7th and was amongst the Pro women’s field after a super strong swim. I continued my build in training through to Ironman Maastricht and proved the consultant wrong by running a sub 3:30 marathon off the bike, winning my age group my minutes and finishing again in the top ten overall amongst the Pro women. That race happened to qualify me for the most extreme tests of endurance, in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii on Saturday 8th October. I had 9 weeks to prepare for it and after 4 weeks recovering from Maastricht and attempting an easy run, I realised I had a broken big toe and some ligament damage after falling over the stairs at the swim exit in Maastricht, Netherlands. Running that marathon on cobbles may have compounded the problem somewhat…
However with rest from land running and adopting strategies from my recovery process, like pool running and cross training, I was on the plane to Kona to acclimatise 10 days before the race. The race takes place in one of the most geographically contrasting parts of the planet. The 2.4 mile swim in warm, clear, aquarium like Pacific waters, 112 mile cycle through extreme heat, humidity and gusting crosswinds up to 60kph as well the infamous headwinds, finishing with a gruelling 26.2 mile marathon on hot tarmac with a few hill climbs to seal the deal. This event defined triathlon in the 1970’s and has decades of rich history, in qualifying as an athlete you are very privileged indeed to pitch your ability to suffer, stamina, strategy and fitness against the conditions and famous course.
My race could not have gone any better. My swim of just over 1 hour had me out on the bike at the front of the women’s age group race. Approximately 25% of all the rehab/ training time I have completed in the past 4 years has been in the water and this is now a great strength with which to begin any race as it puts you a long way up the road on your competition, or even among the Pros as my previous races demonstrated. The 100m+ mile cycle was hot, windy and enduring. It’s important to stick to your feeding and hydration scheduling, ensuring you are taking on carbohydrates, fluids and electrolytes at regular intervals. The aid stations in the middle of the hot, stark lava fields every 10 miles are such a welcome and contrast in sights and sounds. As you approach at a slightly reduced speed on the bike the volunteers call out what they are holding out for you to grab. By killing a bit of speed on the bike, being clear about what you want and ensuring other riders aren’t trying to cut in between you and your aiders, it makes for an exciting ‘grab’ challenge to juggle your needs. I thanked every one who passed me something. The ratio of volunteers to athletes at the World Championships is 2:1, so there is ample support all through the day. You are looked after like a VIP all day long, and never feel alone for very long. It is a really unique experience from that perspective if you have raced a number of Ironman events.
Coming into transition after the bike was a great relief, to get the last part of the race executed. The small matter of the marathon… I walked out of the change tent for ~ 100m before breaking into a slow run approaching the shorter first (famous) ascent of Palani hill. Once this ascent was dealt with a second time, the toughest 15 miles of the marathon unfolded along the Queen K highway and into/ out of the Natural Energy lab and back again. I felt strong on the latter stages of the run, confident I had fuelled well on the bike providing energy at this critical stage of the race when athletes start to slow down. I was passing people at an impressive rate and getting encouragement from many supporters as well as athletes I passed. It was a massive relief the big toe injury held up ok, didn’t really slow me down very much. I ran a 3:38 marathon!
Finishing on the podium at the Ironman World Championships seems an extraordinary achievement from the start point 4 years ago. I would not have believed anyone if they had told me I would be back out racing in Kona, 9 years after qualifying in my first season racing Ironman, 2007. I produced a stronger and faster performance in 2016 than in 2007 as a 37 year old, by a few minutes! The power of the human body to recover from injury and damage, whether it be life changing, chronic or sudden is amazing. It just needs the right conditions, some determination, patience, a progressive approach and time for each stage of adaptation to be fully consolidated before asking for more. It’s a conversation with your body each and every day, beyond simply listening, engagement is required.