Falling in love again

October 6, 2013

I’ve been in love with running for quite a number of years now. When I finished cancer treatment in December 2010, I naively imagined that I’d be back to my running “normal” within a few months. Well, 9 months later I ran a marathon, but almost an hour slower than my personal record. Disappointed, I did some historical research and figured that it had originally taken me 2 years of consistent and systematic training to reach my “peak” so decided I would give it 2 years. In that period the focus of my training was on getting faster, but as the 2 year mark approached I was still nowhere near as fast as I used to be. Reluctantly I had to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen. So it wasn’t that I fell out of love with running, exactly, but my inability to get back to my previous level seemed like a symbol that I wasn’t what I used to be and never was going to be.

That was one of the factors that influenced my decision to go for the Ironman. To prove to myself that I might not be as fast, but I was still fit and tough and that the cancer hadn’t “won”.

So my focus changed. I was still running of course, but less than usual since that was the triathlon discipline I already had in place. As I was regularly pushing myself outside my comfort zone swimming or cycling, it was a relief to come “home” to running, where I felt comfortable and relaxed and could process all the thoughts, feelings, stresses and strains from the Ironman training. I fell in love with running again and stopped feeling it as a symbol of anything.

Then early this summer I noticed something strange. My running speeds in training were, quite suddenly, getting faster. And it wasn’t just something I was imagining. In July I took part in Etape Bornholm, a five day stage race (running) and was really surprised that I clocked times that were close to my pre-cancer times, and surprisingly came second in my age-group. Then a couple of weeks ago I ran a 10 km race and got a time that was only 40 seconds slower than my all-time personal best (and according to my favourite tool the age equivalence calculator I should be 90 seconds slower by now!). And last weekend I ran a half-marathon 9 minutes faster than the same race 1 year ago, and again while not a personal record, faster than the age equivalence calculator says I should be by now.

When I realised that my running was getting faster again I figured that I’d really like to have a shot at running a marathon again before the winter and by chance I got the opportunity for a start number for New York marathon on 3rd November. So for the last couple of months since the Ironman my focus has been back on running. But while I’m looking forward to running in New York, I’m no longer obsessed about proving anything in terms of finishing times. While I’m curious about how well I can do, mostly I’m looking forward to having a great experience doing the thing that I love.

I do of course realise that the many hours I’ve spent swimming and cycling have had a huge impact on my fitness gazellelevel which has influenced my running. However, I don’t think that it’s the only factor. I also believe that shifting my focus away from the obsession with “getting back to normal” freed my inner gazelle.

Yes – Kirsten the gazelle is back!


A few nutcases, ehrm, I mean highly intelligent individuals, have reacted to my recent Ironman experience by mentioning they would quite like to try it themselves. If you are one of them I apologise if I have appeared less than totally enthusiastic. I can understand it probably seems confusing considering my excessive enthusiasm for my own Ironman experience.

But the thing is this: I don’t actually recommend throwing yourself into an Ironman project – not at least without an awful lot of reflection and thought. My reservations aren’t about your physical capacity. Let’s face it, if I – a middle aged, female, cancer survivor with absolutely zero talent for swimming – can do it, then unless you have some kind of physical illness or disability that prevents it, so can you. The issue is rather that an Ironman project isn’t just a physical challenge. Not even mainly a physical challenge. The biggest challenges, as I’ve hinted before, are mental and social.

So here is my list of things that you need to think about if you are considering your own Ironman project.

The home-front: If you are single and live alone you can skip this one. But if you are in a relationship, and particularly if you have children, this is the single biggest thing you need to consider if you ask me. This Ironman stuff is just for fun, so it’s not worth putting your family life on the line for! For the reasons I list below you cannot do it without it affecting the whole family, so unless your family also actively buy into the project, as opposed to grudgingly putting up with it, I wouldn’t recommend it! A good starting point might be to get your spouse to read this and see what they say…..

Time: Unless you regularly sit around for 10-20 hours each week wondering what to do with yourself, then you need to figure out where the time is going to come from. Over the 10 months I was specifically training towards the Ironman I averaged 11-12 hours training a week, but some weeks were up to 20 hours. And this doesn’t count time spent on things like bike maintenance or commuting to training. For example, for me a 1 hour open-water swim session could easily take 3-4 hours, if you include transport, changing and rinsing my wetsuit after. I was doing that 2-3 times a week. All this time needs to come from somewhere – family time, work time or time with friends – it’s not going to come from sleeping less, because you’re going to need more, rather than less of that too!

Money: Triathlon is a really expensive sport! The amount you could spend is probably limitless. I haven’t kept track of how much I have spent, but I’m fairly sure I would be shocked even though I know it’s a lot. And I have definitely done it in a low key way. There is the obvious expenditure – a bike, bike shoes, a wetsuit, running shoes etc. There are also entry fees for the big one, but also for other smaller events in the run-up, energy products (cost a lot more than you would imagine) and coaching. Not to mention endless pieces of equipment and kit you suddenly realise you can’t live without. Apart from anything else you need to figure out if you can afford it. Unless you have a limitless budget you are going to need to try to figure out how much you are willing to spend and how you prioritise. For example, I prioritised spending money on good coaching (and a professional bike fit) as opposed to buying a fancy triathlon bike, which I really believe was a good decision, but a lot of people choose the opposite……

Project Length: You also need to be realistic about how long it is likely to take you to get in shape to do an Ironman. It took me 3 years from the time I first time I had the thought until I did it. Granted I was a chemo patient when I first got the idea so it’s not necessarily going to take everyone that long! But unless you are already an accomplished marathon runner, long distance cyclist AND swimmer or have multiple half-ironman successes under your belt, it probably isn’t realistic to think you’ll do it within 3 months. My recommendation is to take a realistic look at where you are now and what you would need to do to get to the stage where you are able to take a decision about whether or not to do it. In my case I needed to learn to swim, so I set myself a goal to swim 1000 m crawl without breaks and only when I could do that I would I take the decision to go for it for real. The process is going to be different for everyone, so if you have never run more than 5km you might want to try training for a half marathon first, or if you have never tried cycling for more than transport, to buy a racer bike and participate in a bike race.

Motivation: Apart from support from the home-front, this is probably the most important one. If you burn enough to do an Ironman, then you will find a solution to the other challenges. So you need to figure out how much you really want to do it – enough to take a break from work for 6 months if that’s what it takes? Enough to cancel the family holiday so you can afford it? That’s the “big picture” motivation. What about the day to day motivation? If you’re the type that normally struggles to keep on training 3 times a week during the winter is it realistic that you are going to consistently get out there for 6-10 sessions a week? And enjoy it? Because let’s face it, if you don’t enjoy it you’re not going to do it. If you haven’t tried training up to a “big” event like a marathon (or whatever the equivalent would be in cycling or swimming) before, I would try that first and see if you actually like it. And even though I didn’t actually manage to finish the half-ironman I had scheduled to do before the Ironman, I would recommend doing a half before you go for the whole…..

If you have seriously thought about all this: you have a realistic idea of the process you need to put in place towards an ironman and how long that is going to take; have figured out how you’re going to make the time to prioritise this for however long you need; you know where the money is going to come from and your family are already enthusiastically designing the banners to cheer you on….

If you are so desperate to do an Ironman that you simply can’t not do it…..

Then go for it! Enjoy it! If my experience is anything to go by it will probably be one of the best experiences of your life…..

50s: Here I come!

September 13, 2013

Today is the last day of my 40s! Somehow I can’t help but take stock of the last 10 years: to compare where I am now with where I was in 2003 and the journey between.

Ten years ago I had a bit of a crisis as I was approaching 40. A year or so before that birthday I saw a photo of myself and got a shock. I looked fat and frumpy and middle-aged and my outside didn’t match how I felt inside (and no, I’m not going to show you the photo!). I wasn’t dissatisfied with my life. I had two lovely, but sometimes challenging children, and a job I loved. But I was often stressed. I often felt guilty – because I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job at home or because I wasn’t doing a good enough job at work. I felt depressed about turning 40. It sounded OLD! My picture of how the world was for women in their 40’s didn’t seem very appealing. So in desperation, as I approached 40, I overhauled my eating habits losing close to 20 kg over a year and I started to exercise, running a few times a week (though never more than 5km).

I’m probably not the best judge, but I think I probably look younger now approaching 50 than I did when I approached 40 (those of you who have known me that long may well disagree)! For sure I have more grey hair and my skin is gradually succumbing to gravity. But I weigh 5 kg less now than I did AFTER the pre-40 diet, and I’m much more toned – not to mention fit! When, I see pictures of myself, I look pretty much how I feel inside. My life is also totally different now. My children are still lovely and still challenging, but as teenagers they demand much less of my time. I still love my work but I’m rarely stressed and rarely feel guilty. I now have a lifestyle where, being self-employed, I have control over how I use my time and what I prioritise. Sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s training for an Ironman, sometimes it’s family time, sometimes it’s hanging out with friends or reading a good book. I decide!

For sure the journey here has been very different than I would predicted 10 years ago, with ups and downs as there always are in life. On the up side I have run 3 marathons and done an Ironman; I dared to take the risk and become self-employed; I learned to swim; I’ve made new friends; I could go on! On the down side I have lost some people I was close to, including my Dad; I went through a rough time at work at one point; and of course the big one, the one that still, in my consciousness, overshadows everything else over the last 10 years, I got cancer.
However I know that my life wouldn’t be the way it is today without every single step of the journey: the good things and the bad.

So today I don’t feel depressed about turning 50! Apart from anything else, I’m just really happy still to be around! On top of that I’m kind of excited about what the next years, how every many they are, are going to bring – the good and the bad. Mainly because I don’t care what the world expects of women in their 50s: I know I can do whatever I want to do if I put my mind to it and that is just what I’m planning to do!

Thank you……

September 8, 2013

I don’t know about you, but I was totally inspired by Diana Nyad’s amazing swim from Cuba to the USA. I would like to be like Diana Nyad when I grow up! Mind you I’m not sure that swimming from Cuba to the USA is the goal for me – or swimming from anywhere to anywhere for that matter! It’s the attitude and the mindset that I’m talking about.

“I’ve got three messages” she said “One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

Her third point could just as easily relate to doing an Ironman. Everyone crossing the finishing line of an Ironman gets celebrated – “You are an Ironman”! Fair enough. But by rights everyone crossing that line ought to have the opportunity to stand up on a stage and give an Oscars type thank you speech, because I simply do not believe that anyone who gets there does so without a supporting team.

So I want to dedicate this blog post to thanking my supporting team. I would not have made it to the start line, let alone the finish line without the support of this bunch…..

My husband Erik. Every year when the Ironman is held in Copenhagen there are articles in the media featuring

Erik cheering on his crazy wife

Erik cheering on his crazy wife

grumpy spouses complaining about their triathlon-obsessed partners. This was, however, not my experience. Erik was a core member of my Ironman project team from day 1 until I reached my goal. He has picked up the slack at home while I have been out training for hours on end, he has followed my training with genuine interest, he has never complained about the amounts of time or money I have been spending, he has spent hours sitting on beaches watching me swim, and on the big day itself he was there cheering me on throughout the day from the swim start, during the bike and the run all the way to the finish. Not only has he not been grumpy about it, but he has never left me in doubt that he is immensely proud of his crazy wife!

My dear friend and coach, Bjarke. Bjarke has the honour of being the only person in the world who can tell me to do something and I will do it without question!  If he told me to run around Denmark for my Sunday run I might raise an eyebrow but I would do my best! We’ve known each other for years and his passion for running has been a huge influence in igniting my own passion. He trained me up for my first marathon and every other sporting goal I’ve tackled since. He cheered me on when I was ill and helped me every step of the way back to fitness.  When I told him that I wanted to do an Ironman he not only didn’t laugh, but was full of encouragement and excitement and has embraced the project with overwhelming amounts of enthusiasm, energy and not least, expert knowledge. This has been a 100% joint Bjarke/Kirsten project from start to finish and although I had to physically carry out the last part, the actual Ironman, by myself, Bjarke was with me in spirit the entire day. Bjarke has written his own blog post about our Ironman project (in Danish) which you can read here. Every time I read it it makes me cry!

Friends at first sight!

Friends at first sight!

My dear friend, Isti. I met Isti almost exactly one year ago and it was “friendship at first sight”! We quickly discovered that, by some weird coincidence, not only were we both cancer survivors, but we were both thinking of doing an Ironman this year. So Isti and I became an integral part of each other’s Ironman projects – and lives. I cannot imagine having done this without him. And I cannot imagine how my family and other friends would have put up with me if I hadn’t had Isti to nerd and obsess with endlessly about the ups and downs of our training. Being different genders and different ages means it is a match made in heaven as it eliminates any potential – friendship destroying – competition (i.e. Isti is much stronger and faster than me)!  I am totally and immensely proud of what he has achieved – completing his Ironman in an incredible 10:35:05!

Torbjørn. I suspect I’m probably the least talented swimmer Torbjørn has ever had the misfortune to teach. In the 1½ years I’ve been in his classes, I have consistently been the worst swimmer – even when new beginners joined they have always already been better than me after a week (honestly, I’m not exaggerating!).  In theory it’s not a lot of fun always being bottom of the class, particularly when you have as fragile self-confidence in water as I have. Yet, I cannot tell you how Torbjørn does it, but he has never made me feel like it was embarrassing or problematic that I was the worst – on the contrary more that I deserve respect for fighting my demons. And in the meantime he has helped me to improve, at my own tortoise pace, AND deal with my fear (which you can also read about here), so that I not only was able to swim 3.8 km (albeit in the second slowest time of all!) but I ENJOYED it! You can’t all be lucky enough to have Torbjørn as your trainer, but you can buy his book “Tri”!(in Danish, but I think it will be coming in English soon.)

Morten. The transition from the pool to open water really challenged my fragile swimming confidence and Morten is the one who has, metaphorically at least, held my hand from my very first open water swim until a final briefing at the Ironman swim route a couple of days before the big one. Isti and I have had personal lessons with him a couple of times a week throughout the summer and I doubt that I would ever have been ready without Morten’s help.  When you are as scared as I sometimes have been in the water you feel incredibly vulnerable, yet I have always felt totally safe with Morten. At the same time he has challenged me to go outside my comfort zone and to experiment with my swimming style, which in turn has gradually increased my confidence. On top of that he is also a lot of fun and I have also learned that it isn’t easy to swim when you are having a fit of the giggles! If you live in the Copenhagen area and are looking for a triathlon trainer I cannot recommend Morten highly enough. He also has a triathlon shop where not only does he have very cool gear, but freely shares his extensive triathlon knowledge and experience.

Without these five, I would probably have given up along the way and not have had the opportunity to fulfil my dream. I am so incredibly touched by all of them, the way they have believed in me and my project, and enthusiastically and passionately shared their time, their knowledge and experience so that I could have one of the best experiences of my life. Gentlemen, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.


August 25, 2013

I did it! I swam 3.8 km in the sea, cycled 180 km and then ran 42.2 km in 13 hours and 10 minutes.

I am an Ironman!

In August 2010, 3 years ago, I was about halfway through my chemotherapy when the first ironman distance triathlon took place in Copenhagen. The bike route passed 500 meters from our house, so we went out to take a look. I stood there with my bald head and in the worst shape of my life and, totally in awe of those guys flashing past on their bikes, thought to myself that I would like to try that one day.

In the three years between I have learned to swim, though not without a lot of heartache; I have gone from being a “transport cyclist” to one of those lycra-clad types on a racer bike; and I have worked really hard to regain the running fitness I had before cancer struck. As I approach my 50th birthday, I am now fitter than I have ever been in my life, I weigh less than I have done since before puberty (though my husband says I’m too thin and need to fatten up!) and I have muscles in places I have never had muscles before!  

Biking through Birkerød about to cry

Biking through Birkerød about to cry

So last Sunday when it was ME who flashed through our town on my bike and my family, friends and neighbours were there cheering me on, I clearly remembered that day 3 years before and began to cry, with big, loud, happy sobs!

With a build up like that, my Ironman experience could so easily have ended in fiasco. But it didn’t. Not only was it not a fiasco, it was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. A truly fantastic day.

I can’t explain how it is possible, but I got through the whole thing without having a single crisis. Not once did it cross my mind that I couldn’t go on, or I needed to stop, or that I was in agony. On the contrary, most of the time I was feeling totally high and completely happy (and no, I wasn’t doped, unless you count beetroot juice). The most negative feelings I had during the day were some moments of boredom on the bike. Believe me, 6 hours 42 minutes is a very long time to sit on a bike without any breaks…..

The swim was clearly the biggest challenge for me and I can understand that most of my family and friends held their breath until they saw that I was successfully out of the water again. It went really well though. I was slow, but I knew I would be and I swam in the time that I expected to (2:01). My original expectation though was that I somehow just had to “survive” the swim, but instead it was actually a really good experience. For the past couple of months, one of my strategies to manage my swim panics has been a daily visualisation exercise of the swim and amazingly the reality was exactly as it plays out in the visualisation. Not only was I relaxed throughout, but I had strong feelings of happiness that finally I was underway.

As I mentioned I had moments of boredom on the bike, but most of the time I was in a state of complete flow. Like a trance. During a lot of my long training rides I have motivated myself by counting down the kilometres or targeting one half-hour at a time, but during the Ironman I was not aware of the time or the distance passing. I did notice when it started to rain and got quite windy and can understand from other athletes that they had a tough time with it. However, I experienced it as something going on around and outside of me, while I just kept on cycling. After I passed my home town for the second time and had stopped sobbing, I woke up again and with 25 km to go I started getting excited about getting off my bike and starting to run.


Having a party!

While my focus was almost totally inwards during the swim and bike, during the marathon it was more or less completely outwards! The 4 x 10+ km route was totally lined with cheering spectators and the atmosphere was incredible.  I was totally having a party! I smiled and waved and high-fived my way through the entire run. As with the bike ride, I was more or less oblivious to the time or the distance, quite unlike my other marathon experiences where I have meticulously counted down the kilometre markers! Along with my trainer I had agreed a strategy to start running at around 5:30 minutes/ per km and stick to that as long as I could, knowing that at some point I would run out of steam. I was somewhat surprised that I actually managed to hold that until at least half way. From then on I gradually got slower, but never experienced any crises or “the wall”; my legs just couldn’t run any faster any more – and who can blame them!

For the last 2 km I did start counting down the time and the distance until I got to the finish line and when I passed my

I did it! I did it!

I did it! I did it!

husband and daughter 200 m before the line I started crying and was shouting to them “I did it, I did it!”.  When I got to the finish my swim coach, Torbjørn, was the speaker and I got a high-five from him and a special shout-out, which is a pretty big deal.

And then the crossed the line and I was an Ironman!

My goal for the Ironman had always been just to finish and to have a good experience. As it turned out I didn’t just have a good experience, I had an absolutely amazing, fantastic, wonderful, and every other superlative you can think of, experience. In my wildest dreams, I had not imagined that it was possible to get through an Ironman without having a single crisis and I can still not explain how that is possible. While I hadn’t a specific time goal in mind, I had anticipated that if everything went according to plan then I would finish in around 13+ hours, so I am more than satisfied with 13:10. I had however not expected that I could run my marathon as fast as I did though. 4:04 is not a bad marathon time for a woman of my age, even without swimming 3.8 km and biking 180 km as a warm-up, so I am hugely, immensely proud of my marathon time!

And having read this if you are wondering whether I am going to do it again, then the answer is no! I am an Ironman, and I have no need or desire to be a faster Ironman. And I do not believe that it would be possible for me to have such an amazing experience one more time!

There are some obvious parallels between the journey involved in fighting and recovering from cancer and the journey involved in training for an ironman. Recently however I had an experience where those two parallel tracks merged.

One of the parallels is that the physical part, while enormously difficult in both cases, is nothing in compared to dealing with the mental aspects. I don’t want to underplay here how very difficult the physical aspect of cancer treatment and rehabilitation is. It is only in retrospect that I recognise just how awful those 7 months of cancer treatment were. In terms of physical rehabilitation, I have been very lucky in that having had a blood cancer, I have not had any parts of my body removed, and nor have I had any serious, lasting after effects from my treatment. I have a few small scars, my 5 blue tattoos and some numbness in my right hand as a reminder. And while it has taken me more than 2 years to get back to my previous level of fitness and that has required a huge amount of hard work and determination, today I am as fit as I have ever been. The mental recovery has however been more difficult and I believe that this is something that is common for many cancer survivors.

Previously I was the type of person who had endless amounts of energy, a tendency to restlessness and thrived the more balls I had in the air at one time. I am no longer that type of person. I get easily tired and stressed if there are too many things going on at one time or too many people around me. Luckily I have a lifestyle which for the most part allows me to plan to avoid situations which stress me, and when it is unavoidable I am very lucky that my nearest and dearest (in particular my husband) are happy to help me. But still, sometimes I get sad that I have lost something that I previously saw as a major part of my personality and a key strength.

The physical aspect of training for an ironman is obviously also pretty tough! But in my case it has been the mental aspect – my fear of water – that has been the biggest challenge. Yes, close to a show stopper. After pulling out of the half-ironman distance triathlon a few weeks ago because of a panic attack, I have been working really hard to try to deal with these issues so the same thing doesn’t happen for my Ironman on 18 August. The strategy has involved regular swims on the route where the Ironman will take place, regular open water training sessions with a fantastic swimming coach, Morten, plus a one-on-one coaching session with Torbjørn Sindballe, who has a special expertise in performance psychology. It was as a result of the latter that my two parallel journeys – the cancer journey and the ironman journey – unexpectedly merged.

I’m not going to give away all Torbjørn’s trade secrets, but as a part of my session with him we did a relaxation/visualisation exercise which included me imagining a yellow energy ball in my chest which is a part of me where my strength, energy and courage are located and that I can focus on when I am afraid or need energy, in particular when I am swimming, but also cycling or running. During the session I could not imagine the yellow ball, instead I could only see a lot of aliens running about in my chest. And now you think I am really nuts! Let me explain. When I had cancer the cancer cells were located around my chest area – my armpits, on my breastbone and my throat – and I had a very clear mental picture all during the 8 months from diagnosis until being told the cancer was gone – that there was a war going on in my body where the good cells were battling against the aliens. So, when Torbjørn asked me to visualise something in my chest, that was all I could think about. Still the rest of the session was really good and helpful so I wasn’t too worried about not being able to locate my yellow energy ball.

However that night something strange happened. I had a very clear experience where an energy ball grew in my chest. It was not yellow as Torbjørn said, it was golden and it rotated slowly shedding a very strong, warm and powerful glow. And inside this ball was all the energy and power that I used to have that had gone. I don’t know if I was awake or asleep when this happened but the next morning I had a strong recollection of it, and I have it still now.

I wish I could tell you that my golden energy ball has solved all my problems in terms of my post-cancer stress and my swimming stress. It has not. However it is actively helping with the swimming. However, perhaps more significantly, for the first time since the cancer I am starting to think that my more general stress may not be a permanent state of affairs and that something of that old energetic Kirsten my still return!

No Guts No Glory

June 24, 2013

pirate-no-guts-no-glory-flag-1965-pLooking soulfully out of the train window on the way home from my half-ironman triathlon competition yesterday, I saw a No Guts No Glory pirate flag gusting in the wind and rain in someone’s garden.

I felt like they had put it up for me.

I dropped out during the swim. And I can’t even blame the jelly fish.

I struggled in the water in total panic for 15-20 minutes. I tried in vain to find a rythmn, get control of my breathing and to relax. I tried swimming breast stroke for a while, I tried having a rest hanging on to one of the kajaks. Nothing worked and in the end I just had to get out of that water. And you know what, I don’t regret it. I did the right thing. It felt like such a relief when I stopped.

But don’t worry, I’m not giving up! I’m still certain that I can do my ironman distance triathlon on 18th August! Yesterday gave me some good insight into things I need to focus on…..

  • I need to be better organised and have more peace and structure in the days up to the competition so that I get into the “zone” and have a positive mindset.
  • I need to use the next 8 weeks to get as much open water swimming practice as I can, particularly on the route for the triathlon (which I’m pleased to say is a lagoon and has much quieter water than the swim route in Øresund yesterday).
  • I need to find some techniques to help with my panic.

That’s all!

Luckily I have people around me who are experts, who believe in me and my “project” and who want to help me, help I’m more than happy to accept. And while I was dreading coming home and having to spread the news that I had flunked it, I ended up overwhelmed by all the support and encouragement I’ve been getting……seahorse

So maybe no glory this time around, but I’m feeling a lot of love!

And from today I’m back on the (sea)horse!

This Ironman business seemed fine when it was months out on the horizon, but all of a sudden reality has struck!  On Sunday – in less than 4 days – I have my first “real” triathlon: the half-ironman distance Øresund Triathlon. That is 1.9 km swimming, 90 km cycling and 21.1 km running. I am actually really looking forward to the cycling/running part (apart from some underlying anxiety about the potential for punctures), but the swimming…. well, the swimming is an entirely different matter……………………………..

The swimming part takes place in the sea. And up until 2.5 weeks ago I had never swum outside…..

To get this swimming thing in perspective, you can read the background on my learn-to-swim project here. That post was written just over a year ago and at that point I was struggling just to stay afloat and was suffering major panic attacks. There has been significant progress since then, I’m glad to say! For the most part, the panic attacks are a thing of the past (unless anyone asks me to flip over in the water or such like) and I can swim crawl after a fashion at a steady pace for a while. But I’m the slowest swimmer I know. Like really slow. Like so slow that, at a mini-triathlon I did a couple of weeks ago (swimming in a pool), I was being overtaken by women doing breaststroke granny style (i.e. with their head up).  That is slow!

And then there is the open water thing. I have of course known all the time that the day would have to come. It has been a recurring nightmare I’ve been trying to push to the back of my mind all winter. And while the rest of the Danish triathlete community has been bemoaning the long cold winter which has meant that open water swimming season has been delayed, I have been rejoicing.

Isti and me after a 7am swim in the pouring rain!

Isti and me after a 7am swim in the pouring rain!

However with 3 weeks to go until Øresund triathlon it was verging on the irresponsible to postpone the evil moment any longer……. So along with my dear friend and training partner, Isti, I signed up for a 3 week intensive Open Water swimming class. It was also his open-water baptism, and I don’t think he would argue when I say that he isn’t crazy about swimming either, but he is generally cooler, braver and a MUCH better swimmer than me. And boy, was I glad that he was there too.  I honestly feel like my swimming personality is the opposite of my normal personality. Where I’m usually self-confident, willing to give anything a shot, always finding the positive in any situation, when it comes to swimming, I feel hopeless, scared, convinced that I can’t do it: very vulnerable and humble. Then it’s very nice to have a friend around, believe me!

I wish I could say I took to it like a duck to water, but I didn’t! It wasn’t as bad as I expected, which is the good thing about blowing your worries totally out of proportion! We started in a lake, Søndersø, where the temperature is marginally higher than in the sea, but where the visibility is zero. And while swimming in a wetsuit is great for those like me that have trouble staying afloat, I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it is to swim in a straight line and if you are as slow as me you don’t want to also be swimming double the distance! And the panic was back…..

So while, it wasn’t actually as bad as the horror story I had invented, I developed a new nightmare about whether I could actually manage to complete the swim on Sunday before the cut-off time (which is 1.5 hours after my start). Can you just imagine the disappointment, not to mention the humiliation, of not actually being allowed to continue with the cycling and running parts??? Ouch!

However, after a couple of days of running around totally stressed about that, I figured out that there is nothing I can do about it, except just go for it and do my best. In the meantime, my open-water swimming has improved quite a bit. The panic has receded, I’ve figured out how to swim in a more or less straight line, and while I’ll never be fast, I can swim at my own steady (slow) pace and am not in doubt that I can hold the distance. So I have been feeling a bit better about it….

At least, that was until I read a Facebook post this morning about the risk of being attacked by jelly-fish during the swim on Sunday. Hmm, attack of the Jelly Fish, oh for goodness sake, now I’m already busy with a whole new range of swimming nightmares!!

I’ve just had one of the best weeks in my life! You will never hear me say that cancer was a “gift” or a “blessing in disguise”(though I have full respect to those who are able to see it that way), but I will admit that there have been benefits and opportunities that have come my way as a result of having had cancer.

One of those is being given the chance to be one of 12 cancer survivors sponsored by La Flamme Rouge (LFR) to spend a week cycling on the beautiful island of Majorca. LFR is a charity, founded by Brian Holm, Sports Director for pro-cycling team Omega Pharma-Quick Step, to support people affected by cancer. For the second year running LFR sponsored 12 members of PACT to go on the cycling trip. PACT stands for Physical Activity After Cancer Treatment and is a sports association for people who have been affected by cancer. The goals of PACT are to support those affected by cancer to find and develop their physical, social and mental resources through physical activity and also to change public perceptions of what is possible and beneficial during and after cancer. If you know me and/or my blog you’ll know that those are issues very close to my heart!

Puig Major

Puig Major

So I was one of the lucky ones selected to take part in the trip this year. To be honest I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’m still a novice on the bike. My longest ride ever before this was 66 km and I’ve only ever cycled in flat terrain. The main goal of the trip was for us to cycle up Puig Major which is the highest mountain on Mallorca, 14 km up with an average grade of around 6%. I had no idea what that meant in real terms! Also the thought of heading off for a week with a group of almost strangers was somewhat daunting. Nonetheless it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to kick start the serious part of my cycling training towards my August Ironman.

Winter training PACT

On the surface of it the 12 of us didn’t have much in common except the fact that we’ve all had cancer. Six men and six women, the youngest was 24 and the eldest 69, with the rest of us spread between! Likewise with our levels of fitness and ambition, but common for all was a winter spent training to be ready for the trip, not easy with the long winter we have been having here in Denmark.

As well as the 12 of us, we had 4 supporters with us – two from PACT and two from LFR. Those guys were amazing! When you are outside your comfort zone it’s nice to feel you have a safety net, and those 4 were the best safety net you could imagine! We were part of a bigger group, around 70 in total I think, organised by a Copenhagen bike shop, Soigneur. The whole thing was just amazingly well organised! Running a bike shop isn’t necessarily a qualification for being good at organising cycling holidays, but the 4 guys from Soigneur are great! And any concerns I had beforehand about how they and the “civilian” participants (who had paid for the trip and presumably therefore are pretty serious about their cycling!) would react to us newbies, were put to complete shame. Not only did they not “look down on us”, but rather treated us with a huge amount of respect and went out their way to help us, give us tips, and support us when the going got tough.  From day one, the trip totally exceeded my expectations! Let’s face it you would struggle to find a better backdrop than Majorca. I’d never been there before but it is beautiful! And the weather was perfect with sunshine and 25 degrees every day. From the first ascent I was totally in love with cycling up a mountain! On the other hand I was totally panic stricken by having to cycle back down the mountain again!  Every day my limits were stretched – uphills, downhills, distance – so that by the end of the week I had a totally different perspective on cycling. Over the week I cycled a total of 481 km with more than 6000 m of ascent (and descent). Best of all, by the end of the week I actually was enjoying the descents too and reached a top speed of more than 57 km/h (compared to 41 km/h on the first day!).However the best thing of the whole trip was the camaraderie with my teammates – 11 totally inspiring, warm and fun people. Every single one of us was pushing our limits every day of our trip, and while sport often is related with a sense of competition, there was absolutely no competition here. Everyone supported each other and celebrated each other’s successes. I think all of us felt a unique bond at having gone through that process together.

Me and my cool teammates (minus 1)

Me and my cool teammates (minus 1)

It was an amazing week and I feel very humble and very grateful at having been given such an opportunity. I’m a very lucky girl indeed.

Cancer is not on my CV

March 29, 2013

Cleary I have never made any effort to conceal the fact that I have had cancer! When I was in treatment, I did wonder whether my openness would have any negative effect on my professional life in the future, since many in my professional network were following my progress (and being extremely supportive) both through this blog and more directly. It didn’t turn out to have any influence though – at least not in any negative sense.

Nonetheless, I don’t actively publicise the fact that I am a cancer survivor, or a runner (or hopefully future Ironman) in my professional life. If I’m honest, I quite like having work assignments where my clients and other partners don’t know my cancer story.  Even though it’s more than 2 years on, cancer is still something that preoccupies me, but having an assignment where no-one but me knows about it allows me to step out of that “cancer survivor” role for a while.

I’m in Indonesia at the moment, working on an assignment for a very large public sector organisation.  I was recommended for the assignment through my network, but I was fairly sure that no-one here knew about the cancer, or the running for that matter. I was taken aback therefore when the other day, at a meeting with one of the Senior Managers, he started off the conversation by asking me if I was getting any running done while I was here in Jakarta. I had been discussing running with some of my other colleagues so I assumed someone had mentioned it to him. Then he followed up by asking my how my cancer was now which really shocked me because I knew I hadn’t mentioned that to anyone. Then he told me that he had Googled my name and found and watched my TEDx talk. It turns out that if you Google my name the TEDx Talk is the first thing that comes up – before my website or any of the other professional type references.

That wasn’t a consequence I had considered when I agreed to do TEDx! It’s every day practice to Google professional contacts (I do it myself) so suddenly I’ve had to adjust my thinking to the fact that when people want to check me out professionally they are almost certainly going to find out that I am a running, cancer survivor.

This time it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. This Manager was apparently very positively disposed to me as a result of seeing my talk. And starting off our meeting on that pretty intimate note resulted in a level of trust that normally takes much longer to achieve as a consultant (if ever). He has also told other of his colleagues about my story with the same result. In retrospect, I’m not sure it would have had the same impact if I had shared the information directly with them compared to them finding and seeing the TEDx Talk.

I’m still not planning on putting “cancer survivor” or “marathon runner” on my CV.  But I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can no longer assume that professional contacts do not know about that part of my life and that it’s is OK!

If you’ve had cancer or are a runner do you mention that on your CV?