Tuesday 25 June 2019

Ireland's Iron women, and their incredible life-changing stories

All over the country, people are changing their lives with triathlons. Everybody has their own reasons, their own journey. Our reporter talks to three of the increasing number of women getting involved, and hears their stories of how the simple acts of swimming, cycling and running changed their lives

Joanna Doran, Laura Keane and Paula Scott. Photo: David Conachy
Joanna Doran, Laura Keane and Paula Scott. Photo: David Conachy
Joanna Doran: 'You can achieve things you didn't think that you could with a little bit of work and a bit of persistence and a bit of bull-headedness'. Photo: David Conachy
Laura Keane: 'When people are healthy they are the best version of themselves'. Photo: David Conachy
Paula Scott: 'I never had any fear of the open water. It doesn't bother me, I can just keep swimming'. Photo: David Conachy

John Greene

You have to be mad, right? Why else would you want to swim 1.2 miles, cycle 56 miles and run 13.1 miles - and do it all against the clock? Yesterday, over 2,000 people did just that, when they took on Dublin's half Ironman.

There's an old line: the amazing thing about running is that many runners may run the same road, but no one runs the same journey. Everybody has their reason. Everybody today is on a journey of discovery, learning about themselves, their bodies and their minds.

Some are running from something, others are looking to fill a void. For some, it is the greatest challenge they have undertaken, but, for many, just getting to today's event - known simply as Ironman 70.3 Dublin (the number refers to the total number of miles covered) - is the greater achievement.

Ultimately, though, they have nothing to prove, except maybe to themselves.

So, as they stand on the shore at Dun Laoghaire this morning, staring anxiously out to sea, and to their first buoy marker, there will be a moment where their minds are swirling with memories and fears and frailties, before a calm descends, and for now, at least, the worries slip away.

Beginning with that swim, they will then transfer to the bike and head north along the coast, through the centre of Dublin, before winding their way west, and circling back to the Phoenix Park and Chesterfield Avenue, where the half-marathon will begin and end. It is a gruelling endurance event, which will take anywhere between four and eight hours to complete.

Although still very much in the minority, the number of women taking part is creeping up all the time; this year there are around 400. We spoke to three women who are taking on this daunting challenge for the first time, and relishing the prospect of doing so.

Born to run

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Laura Keane: 'When people are healthy they are the best version of themselves'. Photo: David Conachy

Laura Keane's tattoos are eye-catching and seem to serve as an illustration of just how she has managed to mix beauty and chaos in her 36 years: the three butterflies on her foot and lower leg, each of them representing one of her daughters; the wing on her wrist, dutifully covering up the name of an ex-boyfriend ("sure, I was with him three months only... madly in love!"); and the blue rose on her back, the act of an impetuous 16-year-old looking to be noticed. She chose the wing because she's flying now, even if she can scarcely believe it herself sometimes.

Six years ago, Laura knew enough to know she wasn't happy; she just didn't know how to change it. She had three daughters who meant the world to her, but was in a relationship that wasn't working out. From the start, she had known some hard times. Her life had been a whirlwind; she needed to stop spinning. A knock on her car window changed her life.

Times were tough growing up in Ballincollig, Co Cork, and by 17 she was pregnant, living in a flat and pretty much fending for herself. Sarah was born, followed two years later by Faith.

With storms raging all around her in her personal life, she somehow managed to put herself through a degree course in early childhood studies in UCC, but still couldn't see any way out of the rut she found herself in.

Her third daughter, Cayce - called after spiritualist Edgar Cayce - was just a baby when everything changed. Faith had an urge to take up athletics, so Laura brought her to the woods near Killeagh where she now lives. She was sitting in the car with Sarah and Cayce, when the tap came on the window. The "mad woman" knocking startled her. The woman beckoned to Laura, "Come on out; you, too".

"She was trying to get the women that were waiting with the kids to come and start doing the run too. I was there in a pair of Converse, normal clothes, and I thought, 'Arra, feck it', so I asked Sarah to mind Cayce, she was only a small baby at the time, and I went, and I enjoyed it. I went the next day and enjoyed it; did the Couch to 5k and enjoyed it..." And she hasn't stopped running since.

Something inside her was unleashed that first day and even she couldn't believe the extent of it, or how restless she was for more. She ran the marathon in Cork city, then the one in Dublin less than six months later. But she needed more; what else was there?

A triathlon? She learned the basics of cycling and then, just under three years ago, she set out to learn to swim. Down to the pool every Monday night, relentlessly pursuing her goal: to have a go at the Moby Dick Spint Triathlon in nearby Youghal. "I wanted to be able to do it and I did. That was two years ago, and I learned [to swim] for it and I did it. That was 750 metres in the open water and I was flying after it; buzzing. It makes you feel alive. Just like running."

The biggest impact on her, though, has come from the other women she met on those first few weeks when she took her few fearful steps in the running group. They made her feel one of them, even as she feared she could never be one of them.

"My whole life has changed. I think it changed my mindset. Before I started running, I kind of felt a little bit hard done by, but when I started changing my attitude, things were happening for me, and I think that was because I was more proactive."

And now Laura is getting ready for her first half Ironman. The full Ironman - a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and a marathon - will surely follow.

"When I think back on the person I was to the person I am now... I mean, my confidence and everything; I'm a far better person. I know it's probably [down to] loads of changes, but I can't believe I'm training for a half Ironman. I can't believe that me, Laura Keane from Castle Park in Ballincollig, is actually training for a half Ironman. It's great for my kids to see it, so that they can do it. I never had it. I'd nobody to show me."

The "mad woman" was Richella Devereaux, known to everyone as Ricki, and the pair have become firm friends. "She doesn't know how much I owe her, but I owe her so much because it just opened up a whole new world." So much so that Laura got a new job working in an outreach service for people with intellectual disabilities, a job she is passionate about. "When I got that a year ago, I was like, 'Why are they even employing me?' Forever, I'm that child."

Thinking about today, she admits to getting emotional about the whole thing. "I will be nervous before and emotional after and I will be going through mixed emotions during it. I still can't believe I'm doing something like this. I know to other people, it might seem like nothing, but for me, it's huge. Huge! It's like, 'Look at me, Laura Keane, boy! Look at me'. From shitty times and now to be thinking of this. But that's all down to health, too, isn't it? When people are healthy they are the best versions of themselves, so you're meeting the best versions of everybody. When you're meeting people that are not taking care of themselves, it's all negative and a totally different mindset."

Lady in the lake

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Paula Scott: 'I never had any fear of the open water. It doesn't bother me, I can just keep swimming'. Photo: David Conachy

On the day she turned 40, Paula Scott had a bit of talk with herself. Life had passed her by so quickly and she couldn't stomach the thought of the same happening to whatever years she had remaining, at least not without a fight. "I don't want this decade to be as quick as the last one," she said to herself.

The idea of doing a half Ironman circled around her head for six months before she bit the bullet at the end of March and signed up. She turns 41 tomorrow.

"I'm trying to push 50 away from me, and the best way I can do that is to work towards big goals. So I thought for 40, I'd do a half Ironman, and I'll have that done the day before I turn 41." She doesn't know what will be next, except that it will be something challenging, maybe even a full Ironman.

"You never say never. The first time I did a half marathon, I thought I'd never do one ever again, and then I did. And then I did a sprint [triathlon] and I thought I'd never do an Olympic one, and I did. And now I'm going to do a half Ironman. I never thought that I'd ever get to this point. It all seems a bit ridiculous, though, doesn't it? Three-kilometre swim? One hundred and eighty on the bike? Marathon?"

It's all a far cry from the day four years ago she first forced herself out for a run. It was a struggle. There was no grand plan or anything, other than a recognition that something needed to change in her life. "I just wanted to get healthy. I hadn't been doing anything. I had loved sport in school, alright - I loved netball, rounders and stuff like that, and I was always good enough at swimming, but I hadn't done anything in years and years."

Paula found running tough, not that she expected it to be easy or anything, but she picked up a few injuries which frustrated her. Now that she was on a path towards better health - physically and mentally - interruptions caused by injury were a blight. And there was another problem too: boredom. Running on its own wasn't enough; she needed more, and she found it in her local triathlon club in Tullamore. The simple act of breaking exercise into the different disciplines of swimming, cycling and running triggered something within her - she felt alive.

The day she knew things had changed for the better was the day she and a friend went to Lough Owel, just outside Mullingar, for her first open-water swim practice. It was like she became a different person - no fears, no worries, just the open water and the freedom it brings.

"For a lot of people their biggest fear will be the water because it's open water, but for some reason I just never had any fear of it. It doesn't bother me; I can just keep swimming. I really enjoy it. It is a big stumbling block for a lot of people because it's very intimidating when you get in with a large group of people. But I'm not competitive, so I just let everyone off."

Working full time as a nurse in Tullamore Hospital and raising her 13-year-old daughter Annabelle means it is hard to make time to prepare for an event as challenging as this. It's mostly early morning starts before school and work, although occasionally there is the opportunity to bring Annabelle with her, cycling alongside as Paula runs, or keeping a watchful eye from the shore at Lough Owel. Paula is acutely aware Annabelle is watching everything, and hopes it will be a positive influence on her.

Having her around also has other benefits. By her own admission, she is so at home in the lake that she can push the boundaries a bit too far. "People say, 'Don't swim on your own', so I bought one of those swim buoys - if you get a cramp or get in trouble, you just hold on to that. I've gone out once on my own and knew that I shouldn't and I felt bad after because, god, if anything happened to me, what would happen Annabelle? And all these things were in my head. But I guess you have to trust that you're going to be OK, and relax. I just love the open water."

When she thinks back on how much she has changed in the last couple of years, Paula says she is in a much better place. She doesn't drink or smoke any more, although chocolate is proving harder to give up. "I'm not going to complain. I'm definitely in a much better position now than I was a couple of years ago. I was miserable... really, really miserable."

She is the type of person who loves her own company and is always comfortable on her own, which, in some ways, goes against the essence of a triathlon, as when you're participating, you're surrounded by people.

"I get the best of both worlds, because when you're on the road, when you're on the bike, or running or in the water, you are completely on your own. So I have the headspace, but I've got the added advantage of the energy of people around me, whether it's the other athletes, or the crowds, or if it's the splitting hot weather, or if it's the burst of rain... and being as close as you can to nature, and to have all that energy, but at the same to have the opportunity to be in your own head and go through your own thoughts."

On the road again

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Joanna Doran: 'You can achieve things you didn't think that you could with a little bit of work and a bit of persistence and a bit of bull-headedness'. Photo: David Conachy

Growing up, Joanna Doran's passion was for riding horses. That was all she wanted to know about as a child. She had no interest in any other sport; she just felt alive when she was around horses.

In 2010, she got the opportunity of a lifetime: to go and work for a year with legendary American eventer Bruce Davidson, who had enjoyed a storied career in the sport, winning Olympic and world medals in three different decades. Working as a groom in his stables, she got to see first-hand the kind of dedication it takes to achieve success at the highest level.

The 35-year-old from Knocklyon in Dublin says that her experience in that year has helped shape part of who she is now. She currently works in marketing, has qualified as a physical trainer and is now well down the road to becoming a personal trainer.

Sadly, living and working in the city has taken its toll, and horses have had to take a back seat, So, she needed something to fill the huge void that left in her life. Having gone from working in the great outdoors to an office, she was looking for an avenue to stay fit, so she started running.

"I discovered that I enjoyed it. I was 29 at that point, having never really ran before. I did the Couch to 5k on my phone, the same way loads of people do, and really enjoyed it, so I did some 10ks and a couple of half marathons."

And that was where it all started. She doesn't remember a precise moment where she took a conscious decision to start doing triathlons. She tagged along with friends to an event (250m swim, 7.5km bike and 2.5km run) at last year's TriAthlone and then got talked into having a go at Gaelforce West, an extremely tough endurance event mixing running, cycling, kayaking and an ascent of Croagh Patrick.

Now she's set for her greatest challenge yet: the half Ironman. To get a sense of how far Joanna has come, you just have to go back to last year's triathlon in Wicklow, when she volunteered as a marshal for the day. She remembers looking at the 1,500m swim course, and thinking she could never manage it. But you never say never, and last month she took the plunge and completed the swim.

"We are so self-conscious that first you think people are looking at you, but you don't have time to be looking at anyone else. There'll always be someone at your level, no matter where you are on your journey. Whether you're learning or at a better level, there's always someone else at your level. When I started last year, there was a few people breaststroking with me, I wasn't on my own. I think that was my fear: that I was going to be left behind, just me and the kayakers."

She'll have the comfort of being with friends from her triathlon club, Belpark, today, but ultimately it will be down to her, her preparation and her determination to complete the course.

The swim doesn't trouble her as much now, which just shows how quickly you can improve when you put your mind to it. "It took until earlier this year, last May or June, to all of a sudden be just able to focus on other things instead of where my next breath was coming from."

Still, once she gets out of the water and onto her bike, she is happy. The bike is where she feels most alive, something she traces back to her horse-riding days and the freedom of being out on the open road. It is also where Joanna feels most at ease. She set off one morning recently on the bike towards Naas, and circled back by Hollywood and Blessington lakes. She was struck by the beauty of the landscape, and wondered how she hadn't really appreciated it before, despite it being on her doorstep. This, she says, is the magic of the bike.

"Without me realising it, it's done a lot for me. Not consciously. Like, say for example, when I stood looking at the swim in Wicklow last year, I genuinely would have said before I saw the course, 'Yeah, maybe I could do it', but when I saw the swim, then I said, 'I don't think I could ever be that comfortable'. I think the fact that we do that now as our training swim gives you confidence without you even realising it; that you can achieve things you didn't think that you could with a little bit of work and a bit of persistence and a bit of bull-headedness. It's given me that. And it's given me a love of the bike.

"It's also given me a real appreciation for how inspiring other people are. People achieve amazing things. Being in the club, you see the really awesome athletes who work full time and stuff, and still compete at a high level. You see what they can do and you're completely inspired by it.

"Then you see other people who came to the sport, maybe in their 50s, who absolutely love it and are amazing in their own right. It gives you an appreciation for how awesome people are."

Looking beyond today, she thinks it's likely she'll take on the Ironman at some stage. She's also looking forward to qualifying as a personal trainer.

"Maybe it links back to doing triathlon and seeing what people can achieve, but I just want to be able to help people achieve what they can, and to believe that they can, because people can. That's the thing."

Photography by David Conachy

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