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.

In February I wrote about my new goal for this year – an 80 km trail race (Trailman 50 miles) in October. For many years my running goals were always about getting faster at a specific distance and it has been a long process for me to accept that that’s no longer realistic. At the same time, though, it has been incredibly liberating and opened the door for much more interesting goals!

My “decision” to attempt my first ultra-run was based purely on a gut feeling: when I heard about the race I just knew that I wanted to do it. Likewise, my decision to tackle an Ironman last year could hardly be described as entirely rational! So I’ve been reflecting recently on what it actually is that attracts me to a particular goal and I’ve come up with a couple of things.

  • It needs to be ambitious. While there will also be a 50km route at Trailman in October, which would be a more logical choice for my first ultra, it just didn’t turn me on to “only” run 8 km more than a marathon. Also, I never actually finished a half-Ironman before doing the whole Ironman, let alone before making the decision!
  • It needs to require an element of experimentation and learning new things and the Ironman was kind of extreme in that regard since I was a newbie both to swimming and cycling! Trailman less so, but there are still plenty aspects that appeal to the nerd in me.

The first “new” thing I’ve been experimenting with this time is training my fat burning capacity. Despite the fact that I have run marathons and done an Ironman, I have never specifically focused on training my fat burning capacity before. I don’t want to dwell too much on nerdy details here (but I’ve included a link at the bottom for the nerds among you) but the general idea is this.

Usually when you run your body uses mainly carbs as fuel. However, your body can only store enough carbs to fuel a couple of hours or so. Therefore, if you’re planning to run for longer than that you ideally need to be stocked beforehand by eating properly in the hours before and then taking in more carbs during the race in in the form of gels or energy drink.

The problem is that there is a limit to the speed that the body can absorb carbs so during an ultra-race it can be a problem to consume enough to provide the necessary fuel. Apparently digestive problems are one of the main reasons that people drop out of ultra-races.

The good news is that the body can also use fat for fuel and even skinny people have more than enough fat to provide fuel for a long time. The body uses fat for fuel when exercising at a lower intensity, but by training the body to be more effective at burning fat you can gradually increase the intensity (i.e. speed) where you are using fat for fuel.

The bad news is that the best way to do this is to go out for a long slow run with the carb-tanks empty and without taking on extra fuel during the run. The most practical way to do this is to run in the morning before breakfast. As someone who gets up half an hour earlier to eat breakfast before leaving for a 5am flight and who has steadfastly avoided morning runs because I hate running on an empty stomach, I was not entirely thrilled by the prospect.

Nonetheless, last week I got up on Sunday morning and headed out on a longish run before breakfast. I was worried that I was going to feel terrible and bonk long before I made it home. I toyed with the idea of carrying an emergency gel in my pocket “just in case” (though I didn’t). In reality it was absolutely fine. While my tummy felt very empty for the first 10 minutes, I quickly forgot about it and I didn’t bonk at all. And it was lovely running in the woods in the early(ish) morning. This weekend I did it again – a bit longer this time – and I had a great run! And was home again before the time I normally would be heading out for my run. Even better was the “aha” feeling I got. I’ve been running for years, but by being open to trying new things I still learn new things about myself and my body and have new variations in my training and for me that is very motivating.

And of course the best part of all is that when I get home from these runs I can eat a delicious breakfast with a totally clear conscience!

PS. If you want to read more about fat-burning training I found this blog post really interesting. It’s in Danish, but he links to other sources in English at the bottom of the page.

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.

New York marathon 2013 more than lived up to my expectations!

Running a marathon is always emotional (at least it is for me), but there’s something particular about New York that pushes all the emotional buttons. It starts with Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York blasting out from the speakers as we stand in excited anticipation waiting for the starting gun. Then there’s the first kilometer climbing to the course’s highest point on the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge with a view to Manhattan in the distance and NYPD helicopters hovering at our side, like a scene from a movie. Then the streets lined with screaming spectators and bands and DJs playing all along the route. I’ll spare you the details of the most disgusting toilet I’ve ever had the misfortune to use in my whole life which provoked an entirely different kind of emotion! Soon forgotten thanks to the sight of runners competing despite various physical disabilities and or those fighting to keep going while suffering what looks like their life’s biggest battle. Then there’s the silence as we cross the Queensboro Bridge until we near the Manhattan end when a low noise starts, gradually getting louder and louder until it erupts into deafening cheering. The wonderful sight of my two absolute biggest supporters, husband Erik, and coach Bjarke, standing together on First Avenue. Then the final couple of kilometres through Central Park, the amazing sight of the finishing line, not to mention the incredible relief at being able to stop running once it’s crossed. I had a lump in my throat for the first 5 km and the last 2 km and the tears were close most of the time in between.

Running a marathon is also always hard (at least it is for me), and there’s also something particular abut New York that makes it really hard: the hills! I had forgotten how hilly it actually is. Or perhaps I was just so locked inside my own misery last time that I didn’t notice them. I noticed them this time!

 

NY Marathon altitude profile

NY Marathon altitude profile

 

I started out at my planned pace, but after a while realised that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain it so turned it down a notch and pretty much held the new tempo the rest of the way, though it was hard at the end! I was thankful that my goal was to have a good experience rather than a particular time. The latter would have made me press on for much longer, it would have been miserable and I probably wouldn’t have crossed the finish line sooner. As it was, it was hard, but in a good way. I didn’t hit the wall or have a crisis and when I finished I felt that I had given it my best. My finish time was 3:52:59.544129_10201242056347222_1647278478_n

In the aftermath I’m left with a feeling that at very long last, in terms of running and physical fitness, I’m at least back to where I would have been had I not had cancer. Of course I don’t know how I would have developed as a runner if it hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I would be running much faster at any distance, including marathon, than I have done this season. I never expected that it would take me three years, and along the way I have doubted that it was going to happen. So it’s a big deal!

Somehow it is very fitting that it was running New York marathon that got me to that point since New York was that last marathon I ran just a few months before I got my cancer diagnosis. From now on I am no longer a runner trying to get back in shape after cancer. I’m just a runner.

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!

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.

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!