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!

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!

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!!

For the first time ever this week I spent more than 10 hours training, actually more than 10½! It sounds like a lot, but I guess if you consider that your average person probably spends a lot more than that watching TV each week, or that many people spend more time than that commuting to work, then I don’t think it’s that bad really.

However, one thing is what I think and another is the perception on the home front, so I did a satisfaction survey this week. Well, sort of. I asked my husband if he felt my training was encroaching too much into family life. He actually looked a little surprised that I asked him, but then said “no, not at all!”. So, so far so good on that front!

Typically in a week I’m running 4 times, swimming 3 times, spinning/cycling twice and doing strength training 4 times. However being my own boss and working from home I am able to spread this out quite nicely during the week including during what is, for most people, working hours.  So not only does my husband not feel that it encroaches into family life, I don’t feel it encroaches generally too much into my own life. Or at least not more than I think is manageable and fun.

What is even better though is that it doesn’t leave me totally exhausted. And that surprises me more! When I “only” ran I covered more or less the same weekly distance at the same intensity as I do now – that accounts for between 3 and 4 hours of the total training amount. So now I have added an additional 6 or 7 hours of other training and not only am I not MORE tired, I actually feel LESS stiff and sore than I did when only running!

There are probably experts out there who can explain why this is. My own feeling is that it is partly to do with the strength training which I think is helping make some of my vulnerable spots less susceptible to the stresses and strains of running. Mainly though, I think it is because that swimming and cycling on the days when I don’t run – or even on the days when I do, warms and loosens up all my muscles and joints so that they don’t get a chance to get all stiff and sore, but without stressing them more they way running does.

It’s going to be interesting to see whether the trend continues as the training increases!

Crazy? or Fun?

January 13, 2013

I’ve got used to people telling me I’m crazy when I tell them about  my Ironman plans and I even understand why people think it’s crazy. However the first time I actually have personally felt there was an element of craziness in it was on Friday: to be more specific on Friday at 5:10am.

I’ve been going to Friday early morning swimming classes on and off for a while. After the Christmas break the location for these classes had switched from a pool which is about 11 km from my home to one which is, according to Google Maps, 21 km from my home. On top of that it is now starts 15 minutes earlier so we have to be in the water at 7am.

That might not seem so bad, particularly to those of you who normally transport yourselves around by car. However, I don’t have a car so for me the choice is between public transportation or bike. Until now I’ve been cycling (except when we had a lot of snow and ice), but it is quite a difference between 11 km and 21 km (each way I might add). However when I looked at the possibilities it would take even longer by public transportation, so I decided:  bike it was. And anyway, I need to get more cycling time into my training schedule. That seemed like a very sensible decision while I was sitting at my desk in my nice warm office looking at the route planner.

A complicating factor to this is that I have a truly terrible sense of direction and I had no idea where this swimming pool was. On the map it seemed to be in the midst of a rabbit warren of small paths and local streets. This was a problem because 1. It generally isn’t easy to read a map while you are cycling, particularly not in the dark which it is at 6:30 in the morning here at this time of year; 2. Even if I did have a map in front of me, I can’t see a thing without my reading glasses and 3. If you do get lost there aren’t many people around to ask for directions at that time of the morning.

So it is not an exaggerating to say that, when I headed off to bed on Thursday evening, I was feeling somewhat stressed about the whole project.

So on Friday at 5:10 am when the alarm went off my reaction was “THIS IS TOTALLY CRAZY!” And when I looked out of the window and saw that it had snowed during the night my reaction was “THIS IS TOTALLY CRAZY!”. And when I was pedalling through the forest in the freezing pitch blackness without another soul, bike or car in sight my reaction was “THIS IS TOTALLY CRAZY!”. When I got to the pool at was taking a shower and the water was freezing my reaction was “THIS IS TOTALLY CRAZY!”.

But then we got in the pool and started the session I started thinking “this is fun!”, and by the time we finished it was starting to get light and although I had a headwind on the way home, it was still fun. And when I got home I changed into my running shoes and went for my run, and although my fingers were freezing and my legs were heavy from the swimming and the cycling, it was fun. And when I got back from my run I sat down and had a huge breakfast with delicious bread rolls and an enormous croissant and hot coffee: THAT WAS REALLY FUN!

And not only was it fun, I felt very smug and pleased with myself. And now I know: next Friday when the alarm goes off (at 5:20 rather than 5:10 because I found out it was only 17km each way and not 21 – Google Map fail) I expect that I will have a moment where I think that this project is crazy. But I also know that that it’s a passing feeling and the feeling that THIS IS FUN is the enduring one……

And so a new year begins

January 7, 2013

For the first time in many years I started 2012 without a specific running target in the form of a big race (e.g. a specific marathon). Instead I had set myself two exercise related goals:

  1. To see whether I could get      back to my pre-cancer form in terms of running speed.
  2. To learn to swim crawl.

In terms of running, the result is that while I am still not as fast as I was pre-2010, I am now at peace with that fact that I probably never will run a sub-3:30 marathon and that it is completely OK. I am a lot faster in my running shoes now than I was at the start of 2012 though. However the best thing that has come out of this year is that I have somehow fallen in love with running in a different way. I used to think that I needed a “big goal” for motivation and I have now learned that is in fact not the case and by removing the pressure of a looming marathon I can run just because I love it. A quick review of the facts and figures shows that I definitely haven’t been slacking in 2012! There wasn’t a single week in the year when I didn’t run (despite a fair bit of travelling). The least I ran in a single week was 15 km and the most was 51 km. With a total distance for the year of 1913 km (compared to 1422 in 2011 when I did run a marathon) that averages 37 km per week. That’s not bad!

The last time I wrote about the swimming in April I was still struggling, but I persevered and had a breakthrough towards the end of the summer. Michael Phelps I am not, and never will be, but I am now at the stage where I can swim crawl and enjoy it (can’t believe I wrote that – I honestly never thought I’d see a day where I would enjoy swimming!).  Looking back to how horrendous it was in the start, I find it hard to believe that I made myself go back time after time and kept on persevering for a whole year.  From the beginning of 2012 until it “clicked” for me around the end of August I spent a total of around 40 hours of total hell in the pool! But believe me, the level of satisfaction I have at finally mastering it is completely in proportion to what I had to go through!

The subtext on learning to swim crawl was of course, that if I could do it then I would set myself the goal of doing an ironman distance triathlon in 2013 and I made that decision at the start of October. The first months of ironman training have gone well. In fact I haven’t really noticed a big difference from before. I have been spending an average of around 7 hours a week training which isn’t much more than before. My focus so far has mainly been on swimming and running, but also strength training which I do at home in front of the TV. Cycling has been on a bit of a back burner, but I’m going to start working more on that now, which will of course increase the amount of time I’m spending training. But so far so manageable!

As 2013 starts, I’m feeling excited about the year ahead. There are 222 days until my big day (Challenge Copenhagen) and I’m looking forward to every one of them!

With Berlin marathon finally ticked off my to-do list last September I decided to turn my attention to another long-term goal. One that had been lurking under the surface for a while: to learn to swim crawl. For most people that probably seems a much more manageable challenge than running Berlin marathon 9 months after finishing cancer treatment, but not for me. Definitely Not For Me: this was the third attempt!

Attempt 1: Failure

2009. In a moment of madness I agreed to compete in triathlon; albeit a “mini” triathlon with a 200 meter swim in a pool. Considering I had never learned to swim properly and had a total horror of putting my face under water, this was probably more than a little rash! So a friend and I found a swimming trainer and started having lessons. On the big day though, in my panic, I reverted to my home-made breast stroke with head up (you know the look!) and was, humiliatingly, the last one up out of the pool!

Attempt 2 (2010): Blowing bubbles

Winter 2009-2010: After attempt 1 I avoided the pool for a while, but by the following winter I was starting to be irritated that I had given up so easily and figured I needed to attack the problem at a more fundamental level. So I signed up for water anxiety course. All I can say is that I’m glad no-one I knew saw me bobbing around in the warm-water therapy pool with two elderly ladies and our beach-ball shaped teacher blowing bubbles and gradually learning to be friends with the water! Generally this course was a huge success and by the end I could happily put my head under the water. Though, to Ms. Beach-Ball’s eternal frustration, I never learned to float in the water as my legs apparently have a magnetic attraction with the bottom of the pool and inevitably sink. Still, I had gained enough confidence to re-connect with the swimming trainer from 2009 and re-started swimming lessons. And then I got cancer. Chemo = no swimming due to the risk of infection.

Attempt 3  Part 1: Humiliation

Last September (2011) I noticed that our local swimming club was starting a “beginner crawl course for adults”: I immediately signed up.  Luckily the confidence gained during the water panic course had not vanished and I could still put my face in the water. To some extent at least. I definitely hadn’t turned into a dolphin! In the new class, every time we were asked to do a new drill the panic would return and a voice in my head would yell “I can’t do this” and the adrenalin would start pumping resulting in blind panic and mad gasping for breath. However, let’s just say that our trainer, Mr. Dictator’s style is the exact opposite of Ms. Beach-Ball: no cosy bubble blowing here! So short of giving up (which I don’t consider an option) there is no alternative but to force myself. With time I have discovered that if I do a specific drill regularly the panic subsides, though since we continuously get new ones, it’s an ongoing battle.

However, the magnetic attraction between my feet had the bottom the pool had not subsided in the meantime. Unfortunately, Mr. Dictator believes that the key to learning to swim crawl is a good leg action so, particularly in the beginning, we spent endless time doing legs-only drills – e.g. “swimming” up and down holding onto a float and kicking the legs. While everyone else was storming up and down the pool, I, at best, was completely stationery, kicking madly until my legs gradually sank to the bottom. At worst I sometimes actually “swam” backwards. To the accompaniment of the snarling derision of Mr. Dictator (who however didn’t seem to be able to identify the root of my troubles so I could do something about it). Talk about humiliation!

Attempt 3 Part 2: Determination

Frustration was building up when I heard about another Crawl Class that was starting. It sounded promising, with a bit more of a short-term but intensive approach and I decided to join that (while also continuing with Mr. Dictator). What a difference – no snarling derision here! Our trainer Mr. Empathy has a fantastic eye for spotting each individual’s issues and suggesting how to correct them within a safe environment where we are nonetheless encouraged to push our limits.  According to Mr. Empathy, the source of my leg issues is my head. Probably mainly what’s inside my head i.e. the panic which makes me tense and swim with my head too high which in turn makes my legs sink. Makes sense to me. So now I’m working both on what’s in my head and my head position. And there is progress, albeit slow. Everyone else progresses faster than me, but while there is progress there is hope!

Last week I asked Mr. Empathy if he thought I would ever be able to swim crawl effortlessly. He answered that it takes some people longer than others and I was one of those for whom it would take a long time, but that if I was determined it would happen.

I am determined and I’m not going to give up, although it is really difficult! Will-power is my middle name (well it isn’t really!) but I usually only push my limits with things that I like. I have no problem pushing myself when I run and I even love the pain when I push myself running no matter whether it is speed or distance. Swimming is different, I don’t like it (though I do now have fleeting moments where I do) and I’m forcing myself to push through instinctive panic which is truly horrible. Moreover, twice a week I participate in sessions where I am the “worst in the class”: generally a situation I would avoid at all costs (which I don’t think is abnormal!). However, although progress is slower than I would like, there are moments where it goes well and then the  feeling of success is HUGE!

So the swimming story is not over. Look out for Part 3, hopefully entitled “success” and coming soon!