In this blog we hear from Zelda Wilson, client, friend and training partner. Zelda tells us about her story from beginner to endurance athlete, what got her started, how cancer has shaped her goals and what’s she’s learned along the way.
How it all started
I was late coming to sport. I put it down to changing schools often, 13 times to be precise. It was hard to become part of a team, so I preferred to get lost in a book rather than on the roads in South Africa, where I lived. It was studying dietetics and with it the belief that I needed to be in good shape to represent my qualification that I started running on a treadmill before work, never for one moment thinking one could learn to enjoy it. It was only when we moved to England and I could run safely over fields and along canals, that I learnt to love running and started running further.
London Marathon and Cancer
I was a month off doing the London Marathon, when I was diagnosed with a grade 4 breast cancer. It felt like collapsing against a brick wall. The next two years, I was in and out of hospital for multiple surgical interventions, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. I came out the other side weak, tired, and divorced to boot, trying to protect my small sons against real life a little longer.
When in company, I found myself needing to share my trials and tell my story. Until I woke up one morning thinking ‘I need something more interesting to talk about than surviving cancer’. I needed to survive something bigger and harder. I had heard about Ironman and thought that sounded like just the thing. I would do an Ironman.
Unfortunately, by the time I found out what it was, it felt too late to retreat without losing face. I took stock: with childhood exposure to open water and rough seas, I could swim, and I had cycled as a child too. I had a snorkelling wetsuit and hybrid bicycle. I called up a local triathlon club to hear how to join.
One of the coaches, Penny, took the call and in her calm way (that I would get to know well over the years), told me to join a club pool swim Sunday evening. I thrashed my way through the session, flat backed and kicking wildly.
I remember afterwards talking to one of the club members who had her leg in a cast. She was one month off doing Ironman Austria. This was the beginning of understanding resilience and tenacity. How taking one step at a time in the right direction will get you to achieve things you never ever thought possible.
I survived my first open water swim in a diving wetsuit, and my first club cycle on a hybrid bike. ‘You need a road bike’, the ever-present encouraging voice of Penny in my ear.
Three years later, with various sprint, standard and middle distance races under the belt, I completed Ironman Austria under coach Penny’s expert guidance. By then I was a proficient swimmer and cyclist, but the lessons I had learnt were way beyond this.
What I learnt
What I learnt from triathlon that has nothing to do with triathlon:
- Leveraging your personality type gets you further than following a programme: as an extravert, I need people to encourage me and keep me accountable
- Expert guidance saves a lot of time – a coach in life as in sport provides a short cut
- Big goals can be achieved a small step at a time
- Achieving the impossible changes your relationship with yourself
- Champagne and a hot tub go a long way to smooth the bad memories
It has been 8 years since that first long-distance triathlon. Doing that, gave me the confidence to run the Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa- something I grew up thinking was destined for the demi-gods of the running world.
Who would have ever thought I could do 8-hour training runs? Of course, I organised them as a social: inviting anyone who could run 5k or more to join me in a loop, setting up a table with food and drink for all to enjoy while waiting or recovering.
150miles in a Day
I cycled Coast to Coast in Day (150miles) and did the Marmot in France. While training for the latter, I was commuting to Paris on a weekly basis and had to find a way to train there. It entailed 2-hour turbo sessions after work. By this time, I had learnt to trust my coach, take the thinking out of it, and just did what was required, knowing that this built the bridge to what I felt was impossible.
With each completed event, I walked a bit taller, having unlocked another part of myself I didn’t know existed.
Ironman Number Two
With this greater depth in my cycling and running, I decided it was time for another Ironman. I set a target, got coach Penny on board, and started training for Ironman Barcelona. I had completed the Comrades Marathon training while handing in my Masters, so I felt this time, without the studies, I could commit the time needed to do well. I had bruised ribs to recover from after a tumble on a Paris pavement. But there was plenty I could still do to keep my training going. Little did I know, that brick wall was waiting.
A lump in my neck showed that the cancer had returned and the bruised ribs had masked it. It was also in my spine and in my pelvis. I told my children I was going ahead with the Ironman as I knew I would never be strong enough to do it again.
What I didn’t tell them, is that I wanted them to remember me strong, not the heap of bones I know chemo would spit out on the other side. They gently coached me through the reality that 3 months could make a difference in the treatment outcome. They suggested that I should ask Penny if I could bring the Ironman forward. Vichy was 3 weeks off. Penny told me it would be hard (I hadn’t done any open-water swimming), but that I would get through. She would even be there to see me over the finish line.
Jogger to Athlete
What had changed for me between first and second long distance triathlon:
- My identity was now that of an athlete. To me this meant I trained as part of my daily life. At times, this was 4 x 1 min reps to improve my running style. Other times it was 100 mile cycles, taking all day
- My peers trained, so it felt ‘normal’ to get up and do a session, or learn to train after work
- I understood that life was cyclical. One could always start again
- I trusted my body more, was able to be in the moment more, be more grateful for what I could do
- Champagne and hot tub still see me through a lot of rough patches
Ironman Vichy – The Challenge
I completed Ironman Vichy. Penny was right – it was HARD! I cramped through the swim and had to sing myself through the bike, crying.
I made the four loops running with my sons talking me through and Penny, who hadn’t run much distance for a year, pacing me through walk/run intervals.
As I write this now, I can hear you asking ‘why?’
As I started chemo that next week, and lay on the sofa, hardly able to move, I knew I was more than cancer. I was a triathlete. The moment I could stand up, I started walking, and when I could walk, I started running.
My oncologist just shakes his head. Yet, as I grow strong again, and my immune system keeps the cancer at bay, he sends me away scan after scan with ‘keep doing what you are doing – I don’t understand it, but it works’.
Becoming an athlete has been my biggest gift to myself.
You can here Zelda share some of her other experiences on various episodes of my podcast.
If Zelda has inspired you and you’ve always wanted to take on an endurance event but don’t know where to start with your training then get in touch to book a free 15min call here and discover how I could help you.