Tag Archives: triathlon

The Butterfly Within

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


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: ****

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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