How an ordinary, post menopausal woman became an Ironman
I am an Ironman. Around 30 years of wondering, 2 years of training, a 3.8km ocean swim, 180km cycle & 42.2km run later I was legitimately able to say those words a year ago. Definitely nowhere near the front of the pack but pretty amazing for someone who never ever in a million years imagined she could actually achieve anything like this.
As the Cairns Ironman event took place again this weekend, I’m sitting here (not so ironman fit) following the race and reminiscing about my own amazing experience (still not quite sure if I’ll ever line up again – but as they say, anything is possible).
For some reason, I haven’t written about it fully yet – somewhat like childbirth, big events like this take quite some time for me to recover from – physically and mentally!
The journey to becoming an Ironman was, for me, the most challenging thing I have ever undertaken in my life.
The time commitment for me was huge. Although generally the training load didn’t seem so large most of the time, I didn’t initially consider thing like going for a swim for example would add another hour of travel, shower etc. The recovery from long cycling and runs ate into my days as I tried to allow my body to adapt and I was often useless afterwards. When you head out for a 100km ride, for someone as slow as me, that means it’s going to take twice as long as a more gifted athlete. Over the long 2 years, although I did miss some training sessions, I think I only ever missed 1 full week. For me, this was incredible in itself and also a very long slog. When my training weeks were at their highest, I found it really difficult balancing life.
I also recall my coach telling me 7 weeks out from the event that now was the time I had to get selfish. I immediately thought, ‘gosh, I feel like I’ve been selfish for the last 2 years!’. Juggling 2 busy teenagers, a small renovation, a new dog, a new horse, study, some work (which I cut back considerably) and all the other things that go with life was confronting for this woman who had always put everything and everyone else first.
Add to that, literally the month I decided to start training and find a coach, I had my last ever period. That was when I say that my ‘real menopause’ started – and boy did it start!
Yes, I had fumbled my way through peri-menopause symptoms like severe night sweats, crazy mood swings, blood bath periods, sleepless nights etc but ultimately, I thought I had things all under control. To be honest, physically I looked better than I ever had in my life. During peri-menopause I achieved my lifelong goal of running a marathon and completed a half ironman triathlon. Unintentionally stripping back body fat during this training, I was looking and feeling pretty good. Of course, I thought I was managing quite OK – menopause wasn’t so bad – what was everyone complaining about?
Well, the combination of ironman training and flatlined reproductive hormones put me back in my smug little box and decided to provided the biggest test of my life.
With the change in hormones, it felt like literally overnight that I was not only losing muscle mass but also gaining weight at an alarming rate, despite training for an ultra-event. Whereas in peri-menopause when I was training for the marathon and half ironman triathlon, weight would fall off me and my muscles would become more prevalent, with the loss of my reproductive hormones, my body was definitely not coming to the ‘lean, mean, triathlon machine’ party I had imagined for myself as an ironman triathlete
But it wasn’t just physical changes. Despite not training considerably more than I had in the past, I just wasn’t recovering the same. I was exhausted all of the time. Although I was getting through my training, I wasn’t improving. I actually felt like I was going backwards. It was such a distressing time. I felt like an idiot and was sure my coach must have thought I was manipulating training peaks or something!
And, for the first time in my life, I was struggling to get out of bed. I recognised that I seemed to be in “overtrained” state but it just didn’t make sense with my reasonable training load. I then found myself continually googling things like chronic fatigue and adrenal fatigue. And, ‘what the hell is happening to me’!
Needless to say, I almost gave up my ironman dream numerous times. And, perhaps if I hadn’t started my ‘athletic’ career so late in life, then I would have given up.
Eventually, I realised that I needed to change things – as a post menopausal women, my body needed a different approach. I set about educating myself, visiting doctors, completing an athletic menopause course and talking to anyone with the slightest knowledge about menopause.
What I discovered? That my physical symptoms were possibly related to menopause (although there was no direct correlation). But more importantly, it was how I was managing my lifestyle during this time, when my body was going through this huge transition, that was probably the main problem. The positives that I took away from my research and studies? That there were ways to limit the detrimental effects that menopause was causing and also a way forward with my ironman training.
I’ve learnt from my ironman training experience, that we need to work with our own unique body and circumstances. What is ideal is not always what is possible – and we need to adapt and adjust things to suit our own individual needs.
As I moved forward with my ironman training, I also gradually adjusted my mindset – particularly about my body. I realised that now was definitely not the time to stress about my weight I needed to fuel my body to get through the training. And, I have to admit that this was really hard for me. There were times throughout the journey, that I had thoughts along the lines of – how can I complete an ironman at my heaviest weight in probably 25 years?
I also had times where I wondered what people thought when I said I was training for an ironman, as I wasn’t looking my best physically. Because, to be honest, I also naively held the notion that you needed to be ultra-thin to do these ultra kind of events. However, menopause has truly taught me, that athletic women come in all shapes and sizes. I might not have looked as stereotypically ‘fit’ as I was 20 or 10 or even 5 years ago but I was heading towards achieving a goal I never imagined was possible when I was younger or slimmer.
Around 2 weeks out from the event, I was finally feeling ready – finally. Initially I’d planned to do the Ironman 6 months after I started training but menopause issues, covid lockdowns and race cancellations had dragged that out for another 18 months. It had been 2 years of ups and downs – to be honest, an awful lot of downs.
When it was announced that Melbourne was going into yet another snap lockdown I was forced to make a decision – hope that it was going to be the few days they were saying or get myself out of town. Within 24 hours, I had thrown all my gear into a bag, booked a new flight, begged the bike shop where I had booked a bike bag to spend part of their last opening morning packing my bike for me, picked up my hired wetsuit, booked a maxi cab and headed to the airport.
On the way to the airport it was announced that anyone arriving from Melbourne in this 24 hour period would have to go into lockdown in Queensland. I recall sitting at the airport with my bags and bike bag around me feeling despondent and tears welling up. 2 hours before my flight and I had to decide to go and risk being in lockdown there and not doing the event or staying in Melbourne. I eventually stopped feeling sorry for myself and checked in – I had to try.
Arriving at my very basic accommodation in Cairns at midnight (that I had booked at the airport), dragging my bike bag and other bags up the stairs and into my room, I was still wondering if I had made the right decision. When the door wouldn’t lock and eventually fell off, I was really not sure!
As I was technically in lockdown I wasn’t even really supposed to be going out at all. The next morning, I risked breaking the law and dragged my bike bag the 2km down the road to the bike shop to get my bike put back together. Seriously wish I had this on film – it was a comedy – bike bags are really heavy and the wheels do not work well!
Eventually I settled into lockdown routine. I was able to go out to buy groceries and theoretically one hour of exercise 5km from my accommodation – I may have extended that a little but luckily I was tapering so it wasn’t so bad. The one bonus of arriving so early – I was definitely able to acclimatise to the warm, humid conditions of Cairns.
2 days out from the event my stress levels were partly alleviated. It was confirmed that I was cleared to race. Yeh!! What a relief as I’d spent all this time still not sure if I could even start the race because of the lockdown conditions.
Needless to say, it wasn’t the most idea taper but mentally, it had given me even more incentive that if I got to the start line, I’d give it my all. This may be my one and only chance to compete in an ironman.
The race itself was of course really hard.
However, I was prepared. All those challenges throughout the 2 years of training had made me stronger.
The swim – the sea was quite rough at Palm Cove which isn’t unusual.
I recall seeing people being rescued before we even hit the first buoy. But, for some reason I felt relaxed. I was determined to soak up every part of this experience. As I swam, I looked out to the shore and saw the tropical mountains behind – something you can’t see from the sand. It was very calming. Initially I had hoped to draft someone slightly faster than me and conserve energy but everyone around me seemed to be zig zagging everywhere. Quite quickly I decided to just do my own thing – I settled into a rhythm, rolled with the waves and in no time at all I was powering with the tide into shore.
The cycle – the longest part and it was always going to be tough for me.
I’m not a good cyclist. The course is rolling (kind of feels like mountains) and notoriously windy, especially coming back. You ride to Port Douglas twice from Palm Cove (bloody hell!) and then back into Cairns – so it’s quite a big chunk into the wind. 180km is a really long way for me.
My goals were to stay in the aero position as much as possible, keep my core temperature down as much as possible in the tropics and not allow my heart rate to rise too much. Of course, I was in pain a lot – my back hurt, my osteoarthritic toe joint was throbbing and as the day began to warm up it was a constant challenge to manage my menopausal temperature. Amazingly, I only stopped once for the entire 180km to refill my pockets with food – a record for me and I’m still not sure how I managed to do that.
During the cycle I constantly chanted to myself – I am strong, I am prepared, I am capable – the words that had been part of my favourite guided meditation leading up to the event. I also sang the Ironman song, Hall of Fame, to myself – a lot! Watching the YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUlPrWg9Ef-IGsKRfDCPPew less than 3 minutes – take a look – it’s pretty inspirational) was something that had kept me going throughout my training and again I utilised this to get me through the event.
When my repair kit (that I have to admit I still didn’t really know how to use properly) flew off into the bushes about 40km from Cairns I was fairly nervous, especially as I rode past someone on the side of the road with a flat. By then there wasn’t a lot of support out on the course – the elites had finished hours before. But, somehow I made it safely into Cairns.
The run – almost there (kind of – just 42.2km to go!).
When I was in the change tent, I was smiling. I always knew that if I got to that point, I could probably finish. Of course, there was always the chance that I hadn’t fuelled or hydrated correctly (I’d never exercised for this long before in my life so it was still a bit of the unknown) and I could be one of those people who are taken away by an ambulance with 10km to go. But, I was pretty confident. I hadn’t overdone things on the bike and I had a good plan for the run.
Was the run easy – no, it was really hard. Apart from my osteoarthritic toe joint hurting continuously and my body feeling exhausted, I was also out there completely alone. As I had escaped the Melbourne lockdown earlier, my support crew wasn’t there with me. I’m not part of a club and didn’t really know anyone else in the tri world. Where I saw other people with their families and friends holding up signs of encouragement and cheering them on, I had no-one. At times people around me had friends come out and run part of the course with them to keep them going. Not me.
However, although I did feel a bit sorry for myself at times, I think being completely alone also made me stronger. There was only one person who was going to get me to the finish line and that was me – if I did get there then I deserved that medal.
As the day turned into night, and there were less people on the course it definitely became harder. I knew that there would be a few points in particular where I would have to dig deep and yep, those times came. Around 10km and 20km I started to wonder how I could possibly go on. My one goal on the run was not to walk any of the course except when I was grabbing a drink at an aid station. And that is what kept me going – yes, I was reduced to the ironman shuffle but realistically it wasn’t a lot different than my usual running style!
With 5km to go, the emotions started to roll in. The memories of all those hard training sessions where I’d spent a lot of time crying and my kids telling me I couldn’t give up were entering my mind and I was telling myself that it had all been worth it. This 2 year journey was coming to an end. I cried a little but pulled myself together.
The last 2km of the Ironman. I was sprinting. Actually, I was probably shuffling but I felt like I was sprinting! The hugest grin on my face and all the pain was gone.
I turned into the finish chute with the announcer and crowd singing YMCA. Thanks Pete Murray – I really wanted you to hear you call out ‘Tania you are an Ironman’ – but he was busy! I’ve tried to reframe that to be that I was sprinting so fast down the red carpet that he didn’t have a chance! A nice lady called it out which was fine. Did I need Pete’s voice to confirm that I was an Ironman?
No, I was here in Cairns completely alone. I had found every ounce of strength inside myself to get through the day. On 6 June 2021 at around 9.45pm at night, thirteen hours forty two minutes and fifty one seconds after I headed out into the sea in Palm Cove, I crossed the finish line and I became an Ironman.
Although my time was not extraordinary, I was a winner! It was such a euphoric experience – right up there with childbirth. One of the most incredible moments of my life! I was overcome with emotion, I was smiling while at the same time sobbing uncontrollably with joy, relief and happiness.
Somehow this shoulda coulda woulda woman who had spent most of her perfectionist life never stepping out of her comfort zone had, at 52, endured 2 years of training, transitioned to post menopause and completed an event that she never imagined possible even in her 20s or 30s.
I’ve said it before but we really are capable of so much more than we can ever image – regardless of our ability, our age or our reproductive status.
Anything is possible.