You know when you dream of something, when you work hard for something, when you strive for something – you can’t quite believe it when it happens? Well – it SURE HAPPENED!
On Sunday 12th June I became an IronMum – or more specifically an Ironman! I completed a 3.8km openwater swim, a 180km bike ride and a marathon run all in one day (13 hours and 42 minutes to be exact) in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia. It was the culmination of a year of thinking about it, six months of specifically training for it but a lifetime of trying to believe in myself and that “Anything is Possible”.
Two and a half years ago I was a tired stay at home Mum without a job, without a goal and seemingly without purpose beyond inventing school lunches, master minding school homework, completing the laundry, driving the kids tax and attempting to be enthusiastic about preparing an evening meal every night for my husband returning home late from the city. I had a background in triathlon and actually being rather good at them but that seemed like another lifetime masked by three stomach operations, two pregnancies, a bust core, poor sleep, anxiety about my role as Mum and an overwhelming tiredness.
What changed? Initially it was mainly about nutrition. I discovered a simpler, cleaner and healthier way to eat and to ensure my body had the correct nutrients to thrive. The side effects of this nutritional change was some wonderful, much appreciated and surprisingly deeper sleep, better energy levels and a skinnier Mum who began to receive a few compliments on how she looked. With improved energy you can believe that you are capable of doing more including exercise and so I started to ride my beloved bike again. My friendship circles opened up with female bike riders and a group to train with and together we joyfully undertook a few charity rides – not least a 600km ride over 4 days. Perhaps, just perhaps – there was a life post kids that, does not forget or ignore the fact you are a Mum but builds on this to become a MUM PLUS – someone your kids will look up to one day realising what a powerful role model you have been for them.
And then my husband Giles decided to do an Ironman! This seemingly impossible task for someone 15kg overweight with a busy new role as a City Barrister was undertaken with my full support – I was glad that he wanted to take better nutrition seriously and that he had a reason to lose the 15kg – once over 40, this mainly visceral fat, can prove fatal to many busy city workers who rarely find time to exercise. Giles and his two mates trained diligently and in May 2015 all became Ironmen at the Port Macquarie event in New South Wales. What a day! Fun, exhausting, filled with pride but tinged with a feeling of – what about me?
It took me another few months though to consider that perhaps I might too have a go at the seemingly impossible. This time I was held back by the knowledge that my knees, always an issue, would likely never hold up for a 42km run. And then I made matters worse in a local triathlon by running on a calf injury and ending up with a torn calf muscle.
So where and how did I change my mind? I can’t remember exactly – but I was now part of a circle of people who were training for a half ironman and I could keep up with them on the cycling – why wouldn’t I give it a go? But no point doing the half – if you have sore knees – just got for a ‘one time only’ all out Full Ironman – don’t you think?
In a rush of blood to my head one night I paid my $900 and signed up for Cairns Ironman in June 2016. I had just over 6 months to go but was off to France for most of January on a family ski trip. I recruited myself a coach for my return starting February, completed more miles on the bike, still thought a 1500m swim set in the pool was a long way and completed the odd 10km run knowing that at the end of it my knees were dam sore but choosing not to inquire what this meant about the possibility of doing a marathon.
If anything our ski holiday in France in January nearly marked the end to an, as yet unstarted, Ironman campaign. The pain of ski-ing for even 3 hours was intense in my knees – little did I know what this really meant but I retired to the gym for our final 2 weeks in France letting the family explore Val d’Isere without me.
I was thrust into a full on 15 hour per week training plan upon my return and can’t say I was really enjoying it much. I did everything by myself having been unsuccessful in recruiting other people to join me in my mad escapade. In particular I dreaded the runs – something was going wrong around 7-8km every time and I dragged my battered legs home at a crippling slow 8-9 minutes per km pace every time and lived with pain for the rest of the week. It was time for a diagnosis – the MRI revealed Grade 4 osteoarthritis – bone on bone, no cartilage and no possibility of running 42km.
This was the key decision point – what had seemed like a blissful dream now required critical thinking. Could I complete an Ironman only walking? Was it worth it? Would I hate it so much that it would not be worth the training? Was I doing irreparable damage by continuing?
These thoughts plagued me for a week and I remember one Sunday cycle when I had even hurt my inner left knee on a hill, coming home, swearing at Giles and a friend and telling them it was all a waste of time. The body was never going to hold up. I may as well stop now.
But – what does this mean about you Liz – the nagging voices asked? What will you do instead? How will you spend the time you will suddenly release by quitting training? And why are other people happy to simply complete an ironman within the 17 hours allowed whilst you throw in the towel at the first hurdle? So I continued – the hours per week increased, the hours of solitude on the bike got lonelier, the nutrition plan got more complicated, I got more savvy about pain control in the knees, my swim sessions were longer than I would ever have thought I was capable of AND – I even started to relish the challenge of walking faster and faster and integrating my short run bursts to get faster and faster Strava times.
The Sydney weather was superb and not a single session was rained off till one week before the actual event. I completed every session set in my TrainingPeaks diary by my ever supportive coach. I persuaded myself to get up every Sunday at 4.30pm to ensure I had at least sometime with the kids during the afternoon after my long ride and I juggled the kids early morning swim squads with my own training needs. Giles was, as ever supportive, and I used his presence at home on a Thursday morning to squeeze in an openwater swim – mostly hating them but knowing I had to do them.
And suddenly – there we were on a plane to Cairns – Ironman day only 4 days away. The blur of merchandise shopping, registering, bike checking, pre -training, checking in and transition tours took over as did the regular waking every night, dreams filled with panic over swimming with 2000 other people and an incessant need to go to the toilet as adrenaline started to rule my bodily functions.
And then it was Sunday – race day. There is a whole other blog report coming which takes you through my own peculiar race report – this blog is more the journey not the race. Suffice it to say – it was tough, the toughest MENTAL challenge I have ever undertaken let alone the toughest physical challenge. The weather played its own familiar role – the day dawned windy, grey, rainy and horrid – not what my Ironman dreams had been made of – and as ever, you have to readjust, readjust and not think more than 1 step ahead at any one time. I was amazed by how emotional I felt – as every leg was completed I wanted to break down and bawl my eyes out and have the arms of my family around me – but you can’t stop, you can’t let emotions take over – so on I went. Things went wrong – of course they did, they always will but you readjust – when I took in so much carbohydrate that my tummy hurt I simply re-evaluated and shifted to water; when my brain lost focus I took a caffeine shot to ensure clarity; when my right heel started to ache inexplicably I took a panadol.
And then I was there – 3 run lap bands on my wrist meant I could turn into the finishers’ chute. I’d dreamt of this moment but it was more than I thought possible. The video will show one massive smile all the way down seeing Giles ahead of me under the arch – arms out stretched and the words of the commentator ringing in my ears – “Liz Stapleton – you are an Ironman!”
And what does this mean for me? I am not defined by this one event – I am the sum of many parts: Mum, wife, athlete, friend, business owner. But I had not realised before just how much mental power I possess and how much stronger this mental power is over physical power. Just how much we can live for ourselves whilst still balancing appropriately the role of wife and Mum. Just how special each and everyone is. Just how important fabulous nutrition is in helping us regain our energy and be the person we always dreamed we could be. Just how we can conquer our fears if we have sufficient accountability and support. AND just that “Anything is Possible”.
Liz: IronMum / IronMan June 2016 – Best Mum Ever (to my two) ALWAYS