Emma G, The Ironman
This is the first in a series of Inspirational Wellbeing Warriors; people who grab life by the horns and achieve amazing things. First in the series is Emma, a mum, a wife and an Ironman.
At 8:22pm on Sunday 11th September 2016, Emma crosses the finish line having swum 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. In the same moment she becomes the third fastest female in her age category (45-49) to complete Ironman Weymouth.
10 days after she completed her first Ironman, I sat with Emma.
How were the conditions before you started?
The day before there was a big storm with high winds and heavy rain, but on the morning I woke up to perfect conditions. So I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to enjoy today’, and I really did.
10 minutes before the start I went into the water to acclimatise. The water was cold but completely flat and very clear. The sun was just coming up over the cliffs and the dawn sky was bright orange, with vapour trails high overhead. It was a fabulous moment.
They played the national anthem; I couldn’t hear a great deal because I didn’t have my hearing aid in, but the atmosphere was absolutely amazing.
Emma suffers from Meniere’s disease, a condition that affects the inner ear, causing progressive deafness and regular attacks of vertigo (severe dizziness) and tinnitus. Rather than let this stop her, it has been the driving force in seeing her complete an Ironman this year.
How did having Meniere’s disease affect your performance?
I had a bad year leading up to the summer of 2015 and was having vertigo attacks fairly regularly which stopped me training for triathlon to the level I wanted to. It was very frustrating and I lost a lot of confidence both in sporting ability and in daily life. But as the attacks subsided my confidence started to creep back.
In September 2015 when I was starting to feel better I hoped that I would have a window of a year or two of better health. I saw this as my chance to do an Ironman.
My condition was one of the things that pushed me to sign on the dotted line at that time. If I hadn’t have had that time window in my head I could just as easily have said ‘I’ll do it next year.’ That’s one of the good things about having the condition. It forces me to grab opportunities!
Emma’s achievement feels all the more impressive because of her having Meniere’s. However, over the course of the interview, I understood that in fact the Meniere’s was not the most difficult element to deal with. One cannot foresee an attack of vertigo; just as you cannot foresee a poorly child needing to come home from school just as you are about to go out on an 80K bike ride.
How did you balance family commitments and training?
That was sometimes the hardest bit of the whole journey, including the event itself. You need to do the training otherwise you won’t get round the course. It’s a commitment you make and a challenge you set yourself, but at the same time you have kids who are your first priority and when they are hungry or tired and need attention it can sometimes come at the most inconvenient times. My husband was great and without his help I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all.
Fitting all the training in was the hardest part; when you should have been out on the bike for 5 hours but actually only managed 3 after leaving late because something unexpected happened but still had to get back for a certain time it can be frustrating. But in the end you just have to say ‘Ok fine, that’s just how it is.’ It’s important not to compare yourself to other athletes who have a different lifestyles and commitments. But that is easier said than done!
Back to the race itself and Emma is cool, calm and collected. She has told herself she is just going to enjoy the day after months of training. The swim is self-seeded, meaning competitors put themselves into the time bracket they hope to complete the swim.
I put myself in the 1 hour 15 min group to finish the swim. Then at the last minute I re-thought. I wanted to take the pressure off myself, so I stepped back into 1 hour 20 group. This meant I would overtake some people and gain confidence as I swam. Ironman swim starts are notoriously hectic and can throw you off your pace if you get it wrong.
As it turned out the whole swim experience was fabulous. As I swam I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is so magical.’ I decided to take it really easy and enjoy every moment. I got to the end of the first lap thinking that I’d probably done a slow 45-50 minutes for my first lap, because I was so relaxed. But when I looked at my watch as I ran onto the beach to start the next lap it said 37 minutes. It was a PB and it really spurred me on!
Considering how much I’d enjoyed it, and how easy the swim felt, it was only 2 minutes slower than my predicted flat-out pace would’ve been. I was really pleased.
How much is mental and how much is physical?
Some people say Ironman is 90% mental, some people say 60% mental. I think if you’ve managed to do all your training and you have confidence in your fitness, then on race day you can relax a bit but I still think it is ALL mental.
That said, I wondered if there were any times where Emma ‘hit the wall’.
How was the bike section? Did you have to talk to yourself to get yourself through tough sections?
I did talk to myself a few times… things like ‘ok there’s a hill here but then once at the top it’s a fab undulating course and there’s no wind so quit your moaning!’ I felt the downhills and flats were mine to enjoy. I thought ahead and ticked off landmarks as I passed them and sometimes it was as simple as, ‘ok you only have to do 200 metres of this and then you can enjoy again.’
Going past a couple of friends who I didn’t expect to go past was a massive motivation – especially the ones who had expensive bikes, although I probably shouldn’t say that!
What was your motivation?
I felt I was privileged to be able to do this event. So many people don’t have the opportunity to do the things they’d like to.
It was pure joy getting to the day itself. I had struggled with training in the 3 weeks leading up to the event and I couldn’t wait to get on with it!
What is it that made you want to do triathlons in the first place?
In 2009 a friend, who like me was an ex-rower, told me about a triathlon in Chichester 2 months later and suggested we did it. I hadn’t done any exercise for 10 years and realised it would be too short notice to start training for it, but I decided to sign up the following year. In the meantime I found a PT and worked with him to get fit again. I got stronger and fitter, lost weight, cut my hair and started feeling positive about myself again. I was hooked. I really enjoyed my first year of triathlon; I had just turned 40 and loved my new lifestyle and the new lease of energy I had.
What has doing triathlons given you?
It’s a lot to do with self-esteem. I was really enjoying being a mum at home, but I was just floating and I missed having direction – with hindsight I was quite frustrated. As my friends started drifting back to work I felt I didn’t really have anything to offer. I’m a competitive person and fairly driven and challenge and focus outside daily life with the kids was what I missed. Training and competition gave this back to me.
How has doing triathlons and your fitness played into your wellbeing?
Massively, without a doubt. The weather affects me. As long as the sun is shining I have loads of energy, but when it’s raining and dark I just want to hibernate. On those days, the last thing I want to do is go for a run or a bike ride, and I often procrastinate but I know I need to get on with it. Sometimes I have to say to myself, ‘Just do 1 mile and enjoy the fresh air’, but usually after 5 minutes I get into it and start enjoying the session and more often than not I finish and come home ready to tackle the rest of the day. It’s not always easy especially if the weather is against you or there is something else going on in your life, but it is really good just to be able to switch off from all that. The whole endorphins aspect is hugely influential too. That said, I really cherish my days off training!
Channelling all the training into the day makes sense, but how do you pick yourself up after 112 miles on the bike to run a marathon?
You’ve just done 6 hours 30 on a bike, with just a marathon to go, what are you thinking?
You are programmed for that run after months of mental and physical preparation. I didn’t do much ‘running off the bike’ in training and to be honest until the day came I didn’t know I could do it. But there’s no escaping that run if you want to call yourself an Ironman! You just do it. That’s just how it is.
About 200m into the run in Weymouth I saw my husband on the esplanade. He asked how I was feeling expecting me to sound tired but I shouted back ‘I’m so excited!’ And that’s truly how I felt. It was a fab moment when the penny dropped and I thought ‘it’s just down to me now’. I had finished on the bike without any of the mechanical issues that it can throw up and I knew at that point that I’d be an Ironman in a few hours’ time.
This is the overwhelming feeling listening to the way Emma describes her race. Her positive mental attitude carried her through the day; it wasn’t a question of whether she’d finish, but how much she would enjoy the race.
How was the finish?
I remember the finish so vividly; everyone was making so much noise, every camera was flashing and there was music blasting. It was an amazing moment to hear those infamous words: “Emma. You. Are. An. Ironman!” I mentally patted myself on the back as I jogged then walked down the red carpet to the finish enjoying every last second. I’d worked hard for a year, I had started at dawn and I was finishing in the dark. The atmosphere was electric. This was the icing on the cake.
It was a very exciting day and one I’d highly recommend to anyone. If you think you can do it, then you probably can!
A good friend and repeat competitor said ‘Race day is a funny thing: it gives you powers you never knew you had’, and it’s so true! You just get swept along. Until you take that plunge you never know what you are capable of.
The challenge sounds perfectly manageable when Emma talks about it, but this is entirely down to her approach. Her ruthless training regime and putting in the hard work in the year prior to the event enabled her to relax and enjoy the ride. Emma completed her Ironman in 13 hours, 11 minutes and 24 seconds.
My challenge now is to enjoy every event I do in future as much as I did this one. It’s about embracing the experience from the preparation and the build up to the finish. I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved because it wasn’t that easy at times. It was frustrating with my ears playing up, but I look back and think, ‘I’ve done ok this year.’
The great thing about doing any sport is that you can look back and see your progression over the years or over a season and see your hard work has been worthwhile – and hopefully you see that you’ve also enjoyed the ride.
So what can we take from this? What can we learn from Emma, the inspirational wellbeing warrior?
When we exercise and train, we are working towards a stronger body and with that comes a stronger mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking on an Ironman, like Emma. In even a half marathon, a 10K or a local park run you will feel the benefits and a sense of achievement when you cross that finish line.