10176152_10202536157538943_1437850482737057782_nWell who would have imagined that I would ever be a cover girl! Not me, but a full-page close up of my face graces the cover of the June 14 issue of the Danish running magazine ”Løbemagasinet” along with the headline ”Kirsten Ejlskov Jensen was an active marathon runner when she got lymphoma, she ran from cancer, through chemotherapy and over the finish line of Ironman Copenhagen three years later: read her story.” Inside there are 8 pages of pictures and article.

I’m pleased with how the article has turned out, but just as I’ve been on the other occasions I’ve had media attention for my story, also somewhat ambivalent. It seems that in the media cancer can only be addressed in terms of victims or heroes. I’m definitely no victim, but nor am I a hero or even exceptional. I know – not know of, but personally know – 6 other cancer survivors who have done an Ironman. One of them, Kaisa, has even been on the podium of the Ironman World Championships TWICE – now that IS impressive!

So every time something is published I feel a little embarrassed and end up doing some soul searching about how I present myself. I should add here that none of it has been the result of any active promotion on my side, but rather due to people in my network approaching me – though I have always said yes when asked. The only active effort I have made is this blog which mainly started as a good way to keep friends and family informed during my illness, and has developed from there.

In a nutshell, I believe that people with cancer are neither victims or heroes, but just people who unfortunately contract an illness and deal with it the best they can. I hate when the media present the victim picture – often in cahoots with the cancer organisations’ very clever marketing efforts – after all, pictures of suffering, bald, cancer patients raise more money than self-sufficient, strong cancer survivors getting on with their lives. But I don’t want to be guilty of contributing to the idea that a person is heroic just because they survive. It’s not heroic and there is very little you can do as a cancer patient to influence whether you are one of the ones who make it. But at the end of the day every time I go through this soul-searching there are two issues I always come back to.

When I got my diagnosis and told my children, who were then 14 and 12, I had cancer their first reaction was “are you going to die?” At least they said it so we could talk about it. I also knew that was what everyone else thought too, they just didn’t say it, which was uncomfortable and upsetting. If you try to tell people that you are not planning on dying just yet, they think you are in denial. So I can understand why many people going through cancer choose not to talk about it openly. The problem is that this contributes to keeping taboos and myths about cancer alive. Yet the fact is that in this part of the world more than half of those who get a cancer diagnosis, survive. (This is unfortunately not the case in the developing world, but that’s a whole other issue). Not only do we survive, but most of us are not invalids. We might have some scars on our souls, but most of us go on with our normal lives again.

The other issue is that I am very passionate about the importance of exercise, not only on our physical wellbeing, but also on our emotional and intellectual wellbeing. Cancer hits you on all three fronts, and I cannot emphasise enough the importance that exercise has had and continues to have for me in dealing with that. And it’s not just cancer, but all the ups and downs that we all go through in life. It doesn’t have to be an Ironman (in fact I actually wouldn’t recommend that unless you’re really keen!) – it doesn’t matter whether it is dance, or yoga, cycling or whatever the important thing is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and then to do it regularly and consistently.

I’m not heroic. I’m living my life the way I want to live it despite, not because of, having had cancer. I ran marathons before and I would have continued to have run them if I hadn’t got it. I suspect I probably would have got round to doing an Ironman cancer or no cancer. I do it because I think it’s fun and yes, because it lets me prove to myself that I am still me despite having had cancer.

And I will continue to share my story in the hope that it encourages others to prioritise exercise. And I will continue to speak out in the hope that the next time one of my children’s friends are told that someone close to them has cancer, their first thought will not be death. And I hope that I can contribute to gradually changing the taboos and the myths so that those of us who get a cancer diagnosis are no longer seen as either victims or heroes, but just people dealing with life the best way they can.

Advertisements

Ironman 70.3 Mallorca

May 19, 2014

Last autumn in the aftermath of the Ironman, but before I’d figured out my next goal, I bumped into my friend Lise at a race and she asked me if I didn’t fancy going with her to Ironman 70.3 in Mallorca in May 2014 (an Ironman 70.3 is half the distance of an Ironman i.e. 1.9 km swim / 90 km bike / 21.1 km run). Well, Mallorca in spring sounded great, and I was still irritated with myself for dropping out of the half-Ironman back in June so I signed up. And then I promptly put it to the back of my mind.

Of course, not long after that I decided on my goal for 2014, and since then my mind has been really focused on ultra trail running, and I began to regret that I’d signed up for Mallorca. I was still swimming and cycling regularly, but mainly as a supplement to my running rather than with any triathlon focus. I also gradually realised that the race is so early in the season that I wouldn’t be able to do any open-water swimming before which, to be honest, was a bit of a disaster bearing in mind my lack of swimming confidence! Still, I had signed up, paid for the trip, committed to Lise, so I just had to get on with it.

So over the last few weeks, the ever optimistic Coach Bjarke included some triathlon specific sessions in my programme. Nevertheless my enthusiasm for these sessions was underwhelming – I just wanted to focus on running the trails! But as May approached and I had no alternative than to make plans, I began to look forward to it more and more. And since I didn’t finish the only half-ironman distance I’d entered before I just had to finish for a personal record. So I decided just to do my best and enjoy the experience and an active, sunny mini-holiday with my friend Lise.

Hard not to love swimming here!

Hard not to love swimming here!

We arrived on Mallorca 3 days before the race and were kept busy sorting out our stuff, registering, checking-in, attending the race briefing and also doing some easy training including some swimming in the sea. Thankfully my worries over lack of open-water practice were groundless: not only had I not forgotten how to swim out, but I actually felt a lot more comfortable than I ever remember being last season. It was a relief that my hours in the pool over the winter had some impact, even though I’ve been quite frustrated by my lack of improved swimming speed In fact I had a secret hope that I might not actually be the slowest swimmer of all here in Mallorca, without any real expectation!

Anyway, I didn’t want to take any chances of having a major panic attach during the swim – it would be just too humiliating to drop out again, so I did everything I could to be prepared. We checked out the actual swim route – particularly the start and the finish, which I used to do some visualisation the night before. I had used visualisation a lot in the run up to the Ironman last August to help me to control my panic when swimming and it worked then, and it worked this time too!

The big day arrived. The women all started together, right after the pros. I positioned myself at the back of the crowd and to the side. As I stood on the beach waiting for the horn I did my breathing exercises and looked out at the beautiful flat water in the morning sun and I felt happy and relaxed and eager to get started. I walked into the water at the back of the group and then started swimming and immediately found my own rhythm. The route was really straight and easy to navigate and I had plenty of space to myself. Quickly I realised that there were lots of women around me were panicking, hyperventilating and thrashing around desperately. Probably I am not a very nice person, but this actually gave me a boost! I just got on with my swimming and never lost my feeling of being happy and relaxed. I even overtook some people (I’ve never tried that before!). Just after half way the group behind caught up with me and I started to get jostled by the faster guys. Somehow though, this didn’t disturb my calm though it did irritate me a bit when they started swimming over me. For the first time ever I experience a bit of fighter spirit in swimming and just kicked more aggressively so they didn’t swim over me – and it worked! And suddenly there I was already at the swim finish!

A very sweaty day (this is salt!)

A very sweaty day (this is salt!)

I wish I could tell you that the rest of the race proceeded in the same way, but it didn’t. Bizarrely, bearing in mind my strengths and weaknesses, the swim was the best bit and from there it deteriorated. Due only to my own lack of planning and preparation I might add. I knew that the bike route included a climb from about 20 to 35 km and then a downhill for 10km after that. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it, having spent a week cycling in the Mallorcan hills last spring. As usual I had a detailed plan for energy and fluid consumption, but what I hadn’t thought about was the practicalities of opening/eating energy bars of grabbing my bottles on the steep uphill which is probably a piece of cake for most cyclists, but not for me! It was a very warm day making it even more important to keep hydrated, but I got totally behind with my plan. I gradually ran out of energy throughout the bike ride and when I started the run I actually thought I was going to faint! However, I managed to pull myself together enough to decide that stopping wasn’t an option and that I’d better get some fluids and sugar in, which did help a bit. But once the damage is done, it’s done, so the run was a nightmare. Still I managed to get through it by constantly doing deals with myself to run 2 km and then walk 100m. Probably my least elegant running performance ever!

Still, once I crossed the finish line I was happy. I had dealt with my unfinished business with the half-Ironman and in a masochistic way it had been fun. And I was really happy about my great swimming experience. Also I had no idea what time I had swum but I knew for a fact that I hadn’t been the slowest. Later when we checked out the results I was shocked by swim time. Last year that distance was taking me about an hour and on Saturday I swam in 47:44! So I HAVE improved!

Ironman 703 mallorca 0699_001715

That evening I was happy that I could now also put half-Ironman on my CV as well as the full distance and that I now could turn my full attention back to training for my ultra trail run in the autumn. But the next morning I was already thinking though that I can do much better with some proper focus and planning. So I’m fairly sure I’ll do another one in the future – just not this year!

After New York marathon at the beginning of November, I entered a period where I had no new goal and no desire to have one. That might not seem like a big deal, but I can’t emphasise enough how unusual that is for me. Typically I have my next goals lined up before the current ones are completed and I’d had New York marathon on the calendar long before the Ironman in August.

This time though, I needed some time and space to reflect over – and digest – what I’d been through, before figuring out what I wanted to do next. Here are some of the results of my reflections:

  • Despite having done an Ironman I don’t identify myself as a triathlete. I’m a runner.
  •  Nonetheless, my body functions well when I train like a triathlete and it has a good effect on my running.
  • I enjoy swimming, especially in open water, even though I’m not very fast and I still have an underlying fear of water.
  • I loved the whole process of training for the Ironman, particularly having to learn many new things and constantly push my limits, but also the aspect of having to manage a big project with many different elements.

Perhaps the biggest lesson though was this. Immediately after the Ironman I was really surprised – shocked even -that it hadn’t seemed hard and that I got through the 13+ hours without a crisis or hitting the wall. I’ve since come to the conclusion that our bodies are designed to be in motion over long periods of time. It requires the right training and the hitting right strategy on the day, but if you can find the right intensity, you can pretty much just keep going.

Racing on the local trails

Racing on the local trails

During this period I also had no training programme, which is even more unusual for me than having no goal. For once I was happy to let my feet decide where they wanted to run, and how far and fast. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a town which is surrounded by lakes and forests and when my feet decide, more often than not I find myself on the forest trails. This is the place where I do my reflection and find my inspiration.

On one of those runs, out of the blue, I suddenly knew that my next goal was to participate in an ultra-race (defined as anything more than a marathon). At least it felt like it was out of the blue: in retrospect it is apparent that it was the culmination of my reflections.

Initially I was thinking in terms of a 6 hour race, where you run as far as you can in 6 hours – typically round and round a relatively short, flat route. That was until I found about plans to organise an ultra-trail event in the forest near my home and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

So my next goal is Trailman 50 (very hilly) miles (80.4 km) on 19 October 2014.

A new adventure, a new challenge, a new project!

Kirsten’s Cavalcade 2013

December 30, 2013

Ironman!

Ironman!

I’m not sure whether it is the constant stream of ”2013 highlights” around at the moment or whether it’s just normal at this time of year, but I too have found myself reflecting on my year just-about-gone. And I’m not short of highlights to pick from this year. Kirsten’s Cavalcade 2013 features, of course, an Ironman and New York marathon, but also up high on the list is Etape Bornholm in July. Not just because I snapped up the second place in my age group, but because it is one of the best running events I have ever participated in (I recommend it if you haven’t tried it) and this year the weather definitely contributed, as did the fact that my husband ran too. But my sporting highlights aren’t limited to “events”. This was the year where my relationship with Open Water (OW) swimming started – a truly turbulent, passionate relationship with the low of dropping out of my first OW triathlon with a panic attack, and the high of swimming 3.8 km (twice) and enjoying it! I suspect that it will continue to be a stormy, but hopefully lifelong relationship! Then there was my cycling trip to Majorca where I discovered that I love cycling up mountains in the sunshine! And I can’t leave off the list that feeling of being in peak physical condition which only happens when you manage, for a sustained period of time, to hit the right balance between pushing yourself to the limit, but not tipping over into exhaustion and injury. I hit that point in the run up to the Ironman, just a few weeks before my 50th birthday!

With my beautiful daughter

With my beautiful daughter

Not all my highlights this year have been about exercise though. It’s not that often that my family manages to get together since some of us are in Scotland, some in London and we are here. This year though we managed to all get together twice – in the spring for my daughters confirmation and in the autumn for my Mum’s 80th birthday. Special times with my most special people. And then there are friends. Great times spent with “old” friends, but also a bunch of new friends this year! And related to that, I am both proud and humble to have become Vice-Chair of PACT, a sports association for cancer survivors and a group of the most fun, lovely and inspiring people you ever could imagine. And believe it or not, I have actually done some work this year too, including one of the most interesting projects of my career to date – in Indonesia.

Yes, it’s been quite a year: but as I was running through this list of highlights it struck me that the ABSOLUTE highlight is that in 2013 I lived my life exactly the way I dreamed of living my life when I decided to leave the security of a “proper” job and take my chances as a freelancer. My ambition wasn’t just to have better “work-life balance” – an expression that never really made sense to me as it seems to kind of already assume that there is “work” on one side of the scale and “everything else lumped together” on the other side in some kind of even match. Rather I wanted to scrub out those artificial lines altogether and spend time on projects and activities that I’m passionate about, enjoy and that give me energy, ideally along with people that inspire me and give me energy. And that has been the essence of my 2013.

So with that, I wish you a very happy New Year where you have the opportunity to spend as much of your time as possible doing things that you love and that give you energy, together with people who inspire you.

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…..

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.

Ironman!

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.

running

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!