Gorey woman Shelley Atkins has been chasing her passion for fitness since the age of six and her drive to keep moving forward against all odds has landed her a place in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Utah.
This October 28, the 45-year-old athlete, PE teacher and mother will take on the challenge, which will consist of a 1.9 k.m. swim, a 90 k.m. cycle through the mountains and a 20 k.m. run. While the race will see Shelley participate alongside top athletes from around the world, it is her own values rather than a desire to win that she is focusing on as the race moves closer.
"I’m feeling really strong and really good. I studied a Bachelor of Science in Mental Health in Trinity for four years so I have really good mental strategies such as meditation and grounding. For me, the work is nearly done in my body physically so it is all about mental preparation to make sure I’m running for the right reasons,” she explained. “I race for myself, for my kids, for my husband. I race for my own values. I’m not the person who races to tell everyone I got a podium or a medal. Whether it is a local competition in Gorey, whether it is a park run, whatever level it is, I am still going to treat this like any other competition and give it 150 percent of my heart and soul. That’s all I can expect of myself. I hope I do my county proud and I can’t wait to go.”
Shelley qualified for the World Championships through participating in a triathlon in Dublin. However, owing to the pandemic,
"I came third in Dublin and I got a world qualifier off it because my time was so fast. They gave me a slot and then Covid hit so unfortunately, none of us could go. That was actually scheduled for New Zealand. Utah took over and we got our places transferred to Utah, and that is what is coming up in October," she explained.
This is not the first international event that Shelley has qualified for. Earlier this year, she qualified for the World Championships in Finland following a successful race in Swansea. However, it is not just these races that has landed her a place in two world championships, said Shelley.
"People might just think I did those two competitions but there’s a lot I did in between. I went to Kerry, Galway, Lanzarote and Spain. I race a lot so I do a lot of racing to get those world qualifiers. It is a massive undertaking,” she said.
At the moment, Shelley spends about 20 hours a week training. She juggles this with work as a substitute PE teacher and her role as a mother to her two children. While her life is very full, she is passionate about the idea that people can do whatever they set their mind to with passion, determination and time management.
"The message I want to share is, no matter what level you are at, no matter what ability you are at, you can always fit in that 30 minutes a day four or five times a week, just to stay fit and healthy and prolong your life and happiness,” she said. “As a mum, what I try to teach my kids is that there are seasons. I don’t do 20 hours a week for the whole year. My race season will be over now until November and won’t be racing again until February or March. With the kids, I work it around them as well. I don’t go missing for five hours. I make sure that, for example, if my son has a soccer match, I can run around the pitch while it’s on or, if my daughter is at a horse-riding competition, I can go off on my bike for two hours afterwards. A big element of it is learning how time management and balance are key to being successful at this game. And I do struggle at it. I’m only human, I’m not a robot. I’ve a great coach and work hard and I have to prep lots of food and work out the week for us all on a Sunday. It is all about balance and time management.”
As a result of her success, Shelley regularly receives messages from people asking how they can motivate themselves to achieve their goals, whether that be completing a triathlon or walking every day.
"I always say get a diary. I have this big family planner at home and everything goes into that. If it’s not written down, it’s not going to happen. On a Sunday, I will know what my training is for the week and what time I am going to do it,” she said. “Things do change but you have to learn to write it down and not make excuses as to why not to do it. Life does get in the way and we are all human. We get sick, your children get sick, you get called into work for extra hours. For me, it is about having a structure. If it is written down, it is going to happen.”
Setting goals that align with your personal values is another factor Shelley feels is important when it comes to achieving personal goals.
“Find something you love. If you hate the gym, don’t go to the gym. If you hate running, don’t go to a running club. If you love walking, take the dog out and go walk on the beach for an hour. It’s about finding what you love.”
Indeed, fitness is a passion that has long been held by Shelley, and her entire family. As a teenager, she was an all-Ireland gymnast and regularly took part in sport in school. Six years ago, her brother encouraged her to participate in her first triathlon and she was hooked.
“I think the whole motion of exercise and what it does for the brain is what does it for me. Everyone knows that when you train, it releases dopamine and endorphins. It improves your mood and makes you feel better,” she said. “When it came to triathlons, I was more enthused by it because it was three disciplines. I’ve always been a swimmer and always loved being on my bike and I run with Croghan Athletics and really love it. With triathlon, you have to be good at the three sports combined to get anywhere. That was a great challenge to take on.”
As she counts down to the World Championships, Shelley is preparing her mind and body with training, food and some unique practices.
"Utah is going to be well over 100 degrees, which we are not used to,” she said. “I’m doing this thing called heat adaption. One strategy for this is I sit in a sauna for 30 minutes after a very high-impact session in layers of clothes at 90 degrees. I do this four times a week and I have to make sure I’m fuelled.”
Whatever the outcome of the race in the coming weeks, Shelley hopes to do Gorey proud and show people what is possible.
“My message is no matter what task you take on, give it all you’ve got and always find something you love. That will make exercise a whole lot easier,” she said.
“I’m really proud of this. It shows that us working mammies can go out there and smash it.”