Category Archives: triathlons

The Butterfly Within

A Triathlete’s race against a brain tumour by Rachel Bown

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She’s an unordained vicar who uses sport to reach her audience and her personality to reach out to her online parish. Rachel is a daughter/sister/partner/friend, but she’s something more than this – a triumviarate of sporting personalities that gets unleashed in that hardy multi-discipline sport, triathlon. And she’s pretty good at what she does.

When Rachel finds out she has a brain tumour it can mean only one thing – the battle to survive surgery becomes another race that has to be taken on, endured, and survived. Her brain tumour becomes Rachel’s most difficult opponent she has ever faced.

This isn’t just a story about survival, and one woman’s battle against the tumour that is growing in her brain. There’s another ‘battle’. One where the ‘evil’ is depression and the sufferer is Rachel’s mum, who is fighting her own devils in her life, alongside Rachel, and how dramatically this impacts Rachel’s journey through her own illness.

Alongside the swirling doubts that Rachel fights to keep out of her mind, there’s a desperately sad story in the background of a family rallying to help their mum cope with her own disease. So often hidden behind closed doors, Rachel refuses to pretend that her mum wasn’t facing as much of a battle as she was. Instead of dealing with a physical symptom, that ultimately could be overcome, Rachel’s journey back to health is paralleled by her mum’s battle with her own mental health illness. As if facing surgery on a brain tumour, and rebuilding her life after, wasn’t a big enough challenge, Rachel couldn’t turn to her mum for the support she desperately needed. Other family members had to cope with both women fighting their own battles. And they did.

Rachel’s is a powerful story of resilience, positivity and also a good dose of bloody-mindedness. Everything Rachel takes on in life she does with 100 per cent commitment. And so the journey to defy her tumour is exactly the same. There’s little self-pity, even though there’s some moments of sadness and confusion. Maybe more than anything Rachel’s personal journey is testament to how sport, and living a life where you purposefully go out to be the person you know you can be, meaning you strive to achieve your goals and commit yourself, means that you can bring an inner conviction to your ability to survive. And beat a physical condition that could mean the end of your life. Rachel approaches tackling her tumour as a race, and talks us through the preparation, execution and recovery of her ‘race’ against her tumour.

It’s like most races though… how many go exactly to plan? How often have you run a PB when you felt there was no way you could, or have you thought you were perfectly prepared for a spring marathon then an unexpected event in the race shattered your hopes and plan? After her initial operation, and as she is recovering, Rachel suffers an infection in her brain and finds herself much more poorly than she had thought possible, or planned.

Though at times consumed with feelings of being scared, worried and frustrated Rachel always holds on to her hope. Rachel’s body fights the secondary infection, but as a consequence of post-operation complications, Rachel is left visually impaired.

Does this mean her career as an athlete is over? Of course not; it means that Rachel has even more determination to return to health and fitness – so much that she defies her doctors in her rapid recovery. It’s not long before Rachel is competing at triathlon (and that means competing not completing, representing Team GB in the age group category) and last year she set a world record at the London Marathon, running in fancy dress. Even when we are faced with an unthinkable challenge Rachel shows that we can all be the creators of our own destiny.

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Rating: ****

Why you should try a tri… Fareham Triathlon

Due to an injury I couldn’t do Fareham Triathlon… well, that’s what I thought after I ran London Marathon three weeks before. Then I thought, why not just do the swim and bike. The run part of this triathlon is about 3.3 miles (just over the standard 5K of your average sprint triathlon), which in itself isn’t too long to run, even when recovering from an injury.

David and Simon abstained from a drink before the triathlon, why oh why oh why didn't I?

David and Simon abstained from drink before the triathlon, why oh why oh why didn’t I?

I did this race last year and loved it. Partly because it’s just about as local as you can possibly get for me – I cycle up to, and swim at, the leisure centre it’s held at most weeks. So why wouldn’t I want to do it? Most races we go to involve getting up early and travelling. There’s only a few that are usually close enough to just stroll up to. This is one for me.

The open nature and fun aspect of the event also appeals, especially last year when it was my first ‘proper’ triathlon (I had done a few events before, but the distance of 400m swim, 20K bike and 5K run was my official first). Anything goes in this race – not just any level of participant, but you can rock up with whatever bike you have and do the race at whatever level you like. All you need is a swimsuit, bike and pair of trainers.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some extremely competitive athletes who do the race every year – there are, and some of the times in the three disciplines are amazing! And check out some of the equipment. It’s stunning too! If you love triathlon you are probably going to invest in better equipment each year, and some of the bikes racked up at the start were expensive. Phew! Some weren’t though; there were plenty of mountain bikes and other, more standard bikes.

That's me in the pink hat, with my hand dangerously cutting across my midline

That’s me in the pink hat, with my hand dangerously cutting across my midline (Pic: Soul Perception)

This year the registration time was much less civilised – 6.30-8am. What’s that all about! Well, it’s about the event maturing each year and becoming more streamlined. Established triathlons have earlier start times. And this year there was a kids’ triathlon after the adult event.

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I was still horrified (I don’t think I’ve had a lie in for over four weeks). I couldn’t just breeze in at 7.45 either, as I had a clash with my parental responsibilities and had to drop my middle girl, Amelie, to another mum in the opposite direction before 8am for a dance competition she was going to in Worthing. Life is never easy! It’s never ideal preparation, is it, when you are racing around before an event getting children ready and to another location before you can head to your own. It felt a bit stressful, but I turned up with at least two minutes to spare before the race. I’ve left it later!

Thought I'd fiddle with my peddles for a bit before I got going

Thought I’d fiddle with my pedals for a bit before I got going

Everyone Active is quite relaxed with registration, and I knew Luke, the organiser, so I already had my pleading head on in case I missed the 8am deadline. I ran my bike over to the racking zone, ran into the registration hall to have my numbers written on my arm and leg (all good warm up), ran back to get my kit then, as the slower swimmers started their race, I had at least 15 minutes to de-stress before my turn. I had forgotten to get out a protein bar before I left my car so by the time it was my turn to enter the pool I was famished.

Pic: Soul Perception

Tiny Chantrey on her tiny bike (Pic: Soul Perception)

I knew my swim wouldn’t be better than last year as I haven’t done much. I worked out I hadn’t swum since before my taper for the marathon about six weeks before. Oh dear. The same went for my bike; I did quite a bit over the winter, but again, in the last seven weeks I only got out twice. It’s been a bit soul-destroying feeling all my fitness just ebbing away, but the first few weeks after my marathon I’ve had to rest, as my left leg is injured in several places.

Not going off too fast in the swim is essential when you’re not a good swimmer, and so I didn’t race off, but my breathing isn’t great and I tend to snatch at my in-breath. So pretty much all the way through the swim it felt as if I wasn’t getting enough air in. And I was starving! I find swimming so incredibly hard, as my asthmatic lungs don’t like the different type of breathing required for swimming – but I love doing it. And I want to get better. I’m not a relaxed or efficient swimmer, so I just do my best. My swim time was the same as last year, to the second.

What has happened to my gait - no wonder I had backache the next day, I'm all over the place!

What has happened to my gait – no wonder I had backache the next day, I’m all over the place! (Pic: Soul Perception)

Transition is where you can lose time, and I fiddled with my cycling shoes, didn’t get them on tight and squelched around the bike in them, but overall I really enjoyed the bike. There’s a steep hill where I always keep my brakes on as I’m petrified when I go fast, but on the second descent I didn’t use them and, just for a second, almost enjoyed myself (while at the same time imagining how horrific it would be if I came off). I didn’t have a spectacular bike but it went OK. I stuffed down two gels, but felt like I was lacking in energy (breakfast seemed so long ago) and there was no power in my left leg.

Into transition again, and this is where I planned to either not run, or try one mile then walk back if my foot was too painful. I made a big fluff of getting my trainers on as my feet were still wet, which scrunched up my insoles, and somehow my arch supports underneath these moved forwards so it felt like I had a few cocktail sausages rolling around in my trainers. There was no way I was going to stop and sort them out though. Luckily the first part of the run is slightly uphill (though it feels like a mountain after the bike), which seemed to help the insoles reverse back down my shoes a bit.

David came 2nd, Simon 5th, me, er...89th

David came 2nd, Simon 5th, me, er…89th

I was trying out my new adidas ultra boosts for the first time and I loved them. The knitted upper fits brilliantly, and these are a great trainer for triathlons as the design means you don’t need to tighten your laces. I already had mine double knotted before I put them on, which was incredibly easy, even with soggy feet. I loved running in them.

I wasn’t expecting much from my legs due to the marathon and lack of training for three weeks, plus the pain I’ve had in my leg and foot. So I was chuffed that I finished the whole run and wasn’t too uncomfortable. My feet felt quite numb from being cold and wet for so long, which I think really helped. The 5K run is lovely as you eventually head away from paths and into a forest route. I love running off the bike, and if I could spend some time practicing (that means doing something, anything, before next year’s event!) this is the place where I can make up time. As it was I did a bit faster than last year’s run, which I was chuffed with considering I can’t actually train or run at the moment.

I was so chuffed to participate and not spectate

I was so chuffed to participate and not spectate and got first in my age group

There was no need to walk, even though after the race and this week I’ve had a little pain in the problem areas. I think running anything further than three miles would have been foolish – it was just lovely to actually be able to use my legs!

Overall I beat last year’s time by a few minutes, which was a surprise as I didn’t think I was in the right physical shape to do this, and I enjoyed rather than raced round the three disciplines – it shows us all that it’s better to turn up and participate, and see what happens, rather than write ourselves off just because not everything is going to plan. I was certainly pleased I did the race, rather than sit at home feeling miserable.

Amelie came home with a couple of trophies so she was chuffed

Amelie came home with a couple of trophies so she was chuffed

There were lots of friends and fellow club mates also taking part, and most of them aren’t triathletes either. We’re all trying to learn something new, and trying to do our best at something that doesn’t come naturally to us, and I think everyone I spoke to improved on last year, or exceeded their expectations. Few train seriously, most just don’t have the time to fit in three disciplines, so the results overall were so impressive. I thought every one of these guys was amazing.

My award for best blog arrived, thank you if you voted for me!

My award for (second) best blog arrived, thank you if you voted for me!

Just giving an event like this a go, and getting the first one out of the way, allows you to go away for a year and prepare the next one. Everyone Active at Fareham organise my local triathlon brilliantly – the stress is on fun and participation by all. So go on, look on the British Triathlon website for an event near you. It will be a fun and amazing experience!

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Give triathlon a go…

Don’t get me wrong, I love running. But when you’re a runner you can easily become distracted (*obsessed*) with each and every run and forget there is a whole new world of other sporting events out there waiting to be discovered. Last year I tried both a duathlon (run, cycle, run) and a very short triathlon (swim, cycle, run). My biggest hurdle to this goal is the fact that I am not very good at swimming. I only faced my fear of putting my head underneath water and learning how to do front crawl two years ago – in swimming terms this is like being a toddler in the pool (especially compared to other triathletes my age who have been swimming for over 30 years). When my youngest daughter finally grasped the front crawl, aged six, I felt shamed into manning up and facing down. I have never looked back.

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Do you, like me, watch in awe at how fast triathletes can swim? Unlike these awesome dolphin-esque athletes, I squirm as I swim, grasping at the air and the water like Gollum searching for his precious. And yet I crave my weekly swim as much as I look forward to my next run. The stress relief swimming has provided was completely unexpected. I also love the technical challenge, after all, running is just one foot in front of the other, right? And just because I am not very good at it makes me want to get better.

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I knew I had to start small, and so signed up to the new Triathlon Pink series that has come to the UK from Australia, where it has raised over $1million to fight breast cancer. Triathlon Pink (www.triathlonpink.co.uk) offers British women the chance to try out a triathlon in a relaxed, non-competitive and fun environment – and it really does deliver.

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The University of Bath provided the stunning backdrop for my event last year; the course wound its way around the university grounds with the swim leg held in the pool at the Sports Training Village. Everything – EVERYTHING – was incredibly well organised. The parts I was worrying about, transition and racking, that left me sleepless the night before, were seamless and thoroughly explained. With hundreds of women gathered in the pool for the first wave, there wasn’t just excitement in the air, but a sense of inspiration. Many women – some in remission, some fighting cancer, some participating in memory of loved ones – were tackling their first triathlons to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. I felt humbled.

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The best thing is you don’t have to be experienced triathlete, and it really doesn’t matter if you don’t have any of the gear. A pair of trainers, a bike (anything goes, including shopping baskets on the front) and a swimming costume will see you round. Looking to the future, and the health of our nation, this event series ensures it offers something for the whole family; Triathlon Pink for the ladies, Triathlon Pink Kids and the Pink Pyjama Fun Run for any men who wanted to be part of the day.

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This year I did my local triathlon at Fareham Leisure Centre. I definitely don’t shine in the sport, especially as I didn’t do any bike training, and despite the best of intentions, managed very little swimming leading up to the day. I’d like to say my run was super swift, but it wasn’t. What could I expect, with so little training? I know lots of people at my running club who manage to fit in multiple activities during the training days, whereas I struggle to fit in one bike (not very far) and one swim every week. Over the holidays this reduces to nothing. I don’t expect to get better, even though I wish I would! But it really inspired me to give sea swimming a go. This is truly scary for a swim-phobe like me. So scary I almost cry every time I try it, and yet I love doing it once I get out of the water. The truth is I’m not a water babe, and swimming in the ocean petrifies me; I try not to look in the water for fear of spotting any type of marine-based animal moving towards me. Even though I only swim when the sea is calm and the tide is high, open water swimming remains a massive challenge. This is exactly why I keep trying it. Earlier in the summer I tried an aquathlon in a local lake, but pulled out half way round the first (very short) lap. I was so cross at myself I nearly broke down and spent the whole evening going over and over why I just couldn’t swim in water that is shallow enough for me to stand up in. Obviously there was no question as I have an irrational fear of water.

So I have forced myself to swim in the sea, cautiously and with my lovely triathlon-busting friends David and Sandra close by. The first few times Sandra suggested I try to swim out to the local buoy and back I said no way. It looked like it was miles away – half way to the Isle of Wight at least. In fact there and back is only about 8 or 900metres. So when I last went out, and said “Let’s go for it” I was trying to do something I never have thought I could achieve. And yet I’ve done it now. There was a bit of a swell on the way out, and I did start to struggle as we got near to the buoy, but the tide was with us, which greatly helped in ensuring I didn’t make a complete fool of myself. I still haven’t conquered an open-water triathlon; I’ve got lots of opportunity during the rest of the summer to give one a try. I keep stalling though.

A lot of us runners are reluctant to try new events – after all, we love running so much we wonder if there is any more room in our lives to love anything else. And yet the more you cross-train your body, the less injured you are likely to become, and the longer you will hopefully be able to continue running, enjoying improvement and strength and not the disappointment of recurring niggles. Something I have always dreamed of doing, I have now achieved, and it really wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. Well it was, but I did it anyway. I bet there are lots of you reading this who were pretty good at swimming when you were younger. If you gave yourself a chance to reconnect to the sport, and then mix up your training with the odd cycle, as well as your running training, I know you would be sooooo much better at triathlon than I ever could be.

Questions: Have you done a triathlon? Is triathlon something you fancy giving a try? What’s holding you back from giving it a go?

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