Journey back to Ironman, or, when you’re going through hell, keep going

In May 2014, things were looking good. I’d just qualified for World Championships in Kona via a top 10 overall result in Ironman South Africa, was enjoying a balanced amount of work and training, and lived with Ed in the house we’d recently bought in London. The stability I’d been aiming for to build a platform for training and happiness was finally in place and working.

By June I could barely walk, let alone train. After a couple of months of misdiagnosis, we found out that I would need surgery on both of my hips to have a chance of competing again. I had a relatively rare condition called femoroacetabular impingement, which damages the inside of the hip socket – it’s exacerbated by training, but the underlying cause is skeletal structure.

I ended up having four separate operations between July and November. During that period, work dried up, and I didn’t dare try to take on anything new while I was on so many painkillers. People I’d thought were good friends stopped replying to messages. Post-op, the injuries took longer than expected to heal, and I couldn’t imagine being able to jog round the park pain-free, never mind race.

Or, the way I try to think of it: I had private health insurance, giving me swift access to excellent medical care. Without work and training keeping me busy constantly, I realised that if and when my body allowed, I wanted to “go all in” with training. I learnt who my real friends are, and now when I’m training and it’s hard, or it hurts, I think back to how I felt in the latter part of 2014 – and it doesn’t hurt at all.

It felt as though my world had fallen apart, like a nightmare that I never woke up from. A day while I was injured went something like: wake up, have coffee, and try not to have much breakfast because of the weight I was gaining from inactivity and pain drugs. Check emails and social media. Cry because other people were training and I couldn’t, or because races were going on that I had planned to compete in but couldn’t. Physio exercises. Watch TV. Physio exercises. Message Ed. Cry some more. TV, physio exercises, more dinner than I ought to have. Cry. Try to sleep.

Six months of days like the above is a long time, and patience is not my strong suit, so it would have been no surprise to anyone when I tried to rush back into training and racing in 2015. After a whole year out of racing, my body wouldn’t absorb even a moderate amount of load without breaking down again. I repeatedly got sick, and for a year I had to strap my ankle every time I raced, following another injury after my first race back in May.

I managed to haul myself round a few 70.3s, but all the wanting and trying and positivity in the world can’t make up for missing a year of training, and despite improving as the season went on, my results left a lot to be desired.

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During and after Dublin 70.3

During and after Dublin 70.3

My lamentable excuse for the 2015 season came juddering to a halt in late July and early August, when another insidious and apparently inexplicable pain in my back, hips and legs stopped me from walking again. In the meantime, Ed had moved to Amsterdam for work, and I felt isolated and very confused when repeat visits to a specialist doctor yielded only “everything’s a bit inflamed and you just need to give it a bit of time to settle down”.

Luckily, Ed does not have my tendency to blindly accept medical advice. After a couple of months with no improvement, he finally managed to convince me to see a different specialist, who MRI’d my lower back and found a torn, bulging disc that was the source of all the pain. Season over, but eminently treatable, and this time with only one hospital visit and corresponding unpleasant procedure! And, of course, a hell of a lot of physio.

By October, Ed and I had found our new apartment in Amsterdam, and moving day was scheduled on a Thursday. Of course as luck would have it, that day Ed was in Amsterdam directing the removal guys, and I was in hospital in London having a needleful of steroid stuck in my back. Unlike the hip operations, I had to be wide awake for the whole thing, but at least I was allowed to fly out to join Ed (sans heavy luggage, of course) the next day.

There followed some more months of only gradual improvement of the injury, combined with constant doubts about healing and competing again. Thankfully the rehab this time was much more active, and getting to know a new city – not to mention learning a new language – provided some distraction.

Once I’d been deemed well enough to go on training camp, albeit with significant volume and intensity restrictions on what I could do, I headed off to Lanzarote and spent as much of the winter there as possible! It was hugely frustrating watching others go out on rides and runs that were longer and harder than anything I could currently do, but I’m pretty sure I set the record for the number of hours spent in the lovely Trisports gym doing strength and conditioning work…

By March 2016 I could feel a little bit of fitness coming back – I still don’t feel back to the level I was before injury, but it was definitely an improvement on the point in late 2015 where I’d been literally unable to get out of bed (or, on one particularly embarrassing occasion, off a physio table) unaided. I was also desperate to race, having written, rewritten, re-rewritten and finally binned my race plans for the second half of 2015.

So we headed to Mexico for Monterrey 70.3, where I managed not to embarrass myself as 12th out of 14 pros – hardly setting the world on fire, but a sizeable run and overall PB, a strong bike split in a red hot field and “not coming last” made me pretty happy.

Stunning swim venue at 70.3 Monterrey

Stunning swim venue at 70.3 Monterrey

Back home, I trained in Amsterdam for the next block, making sure we got our money’s worth out of the turbo trainer with some truly hideous interval sessions, joining our local tri club for swim training and running seemingly endless loops of the Vondelpark. The idea had always been to work my way back to racing iron distance as my stronger event, and I felt as though I was finally approaching a level of fitness where I could think about heading to a start line.

Challenge Denmark was already on my radar, after I’d been signed up to race the half distance last year and had to withdraw at the last minute with one of my many injuries. I entered the full distance this year: it looked like a great race, with a lake swim, rolling bike and flattish 6-loop run – which sounds hideous, until you realise it means you can see your supporters 12 times for a bit of much-needed encouragement!

A training camp in Italy in May laid the final steps, with two weeks hammering the swim under Dan of SwimForTri’s expert guidance, coupled with riding up some hills, running on a very forgiving trail and some wise words on mental attitude from Steve Trew, who’s been running this camp for 30 years. Many of the athletes on the camp have been attending for years too, but I felt entirely welcome as a newcomer and met some lovely people.

Back home, only a few days remained before starting the taper, so I squeezed in one last long ride and long run. The “long” run felt very long but was only 16 miles, very short for marathon prep, and I was more than a little nervous at the thought of doing all that, after the swim and bike, and then still having 10 miles to go, but I told myself it would have to do.

Going into the race, in a sense I didn’t care about the result (spoiler alert – I finished – but I’ll save that story for another day!). For the first time in over two years, my body had made it through the training for an ironman, and that in itself was a lot to be thankful for.

Speaking of being thankful – there are many, many people who helped me through the nightmare:

Daz and Debs from TriSports Lanzarote, who provide an amazing training camp destination (which I’ve previously written about here) and who were kind enough to let me move a recent stay at 3 days’ notice when we started to realise the latest injury was more serious than we thought

Dan from SwimForTri, who has the patience to coach me on a regular basis, and who came up with something productive I could do when I first turned up to meet him on a cold, wet and miserable day in November 2014 and said “I want some coaching, I need to break the hour for the ironman swim, oh and I’ve just had hip surgery so I can only swim with a pull buoy, is that OK?”

Russell Cox for reading my rambling emails of data and questions, and coming up with useful suggestions in reply to questions like “I’ve just had hip surgery, can I do 2 Ironmans next year?”

Steve Trew for something I can’t quite explain, but will try to summarise as judicious application of off-the-scale emotional intelligence

Cris Kellett and the whole team at Progress for reconstructing me when my disc tore

Joy, Cath and Giles at Sport Hip London for hammering my hips back into shape (literally, I believe – happily I was unconscious for most of it) and Jane Attard at Central Health for physio support and not minding when I spent a session crying instead of balancing on one leg with my eyes closed

Anna Waters, who helped me get my head round injury and recovery

Laura Turner, who taught me to run in a way that bore less resemblance to a baby elephant, though I admit there is still work to be done here

Ed’s dad, Martin, who has come to many of my recent races to support, providing conversation and perspective. Thankfully, he enjoys the experience equally whether I come first or last

Friends and family who have come to visit, listened to me, read my wailing emails and generally been there when it mattered – I doubt any of you want to be named on my blog, but you know who you are

And Ed, who not only stayed with me through all of this when other people would have left long ago, but did, and does, anything and everything he can to make my world a better place: from holding my hand while I cried as they knocked me out for the operations, to providing me with food, cuddles and shiny pieces of carbon fibre, to cutting the dead skin off my feet after races, to acting as chef, chauffeur, psychologist, coach, #bikebitch, Head of Legal and of course Team Manager, Great Britain

Everyone wants to spend a snowy Sunday in February feeding their girlfriend gels and water while she runs round the forest, right....?

Everyone wants to spend a snowy Valentine’s Day feeding their girlfriend gels and water while she runs round the forest, right….?

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3 Responses to Journey back to Ironman, or, when you’re going through hell, keep going

  1. ironman39 says:

    Glad to hear your are on the mend, Frankie! A tough journey will just make you tougher!

  2. Dr CJD George says:

    I was impressed enough on camp…. now I have read the full story, I am seriously gobsmacked
    sooooo impressive

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