This blog is for every woman who goes out there and kills the course. Whatever length her course may be; a 5k, a marathon, a triathlon – the distance doesn’t matter, just the heart that goes into it. 

Today we meet Emily, an IronWoman and thyroid cancer survivor. She has faced (and continues to face!) some serious challenges and continues to push through, set goals and be a total badass woman! She definitely #RoarsWithHerCore. Thanks for sharing your story with us Emily!

Name/Age/Sport?

My name is Emily. I’m 43 (44 in February) and my sport is long course triathlon (Iron/half-iron distance).

Do you have a nickname? How did you get it?

These days I answer most to mom (my daughters are 8 and 11). Otherwise I’m Emily, Em or Em D.

What do you love most about your sport?

I have always done well with exercise – it helps me think, it helps me “calm the monkeys” and I do well with big goals to focus on and work towards (otherwise I often don’t dig up the motivation to do the training).

On race day, I love the “me against me” aspect – that it is the time to celebrate all of the work that went into getting to the starting line. These days I’m appreciating that it sets a good example for my daughters about what it means to set a goal and work towards it (“hey mom, that shouldn’t be too hard, after all, you’ve done an Ironman!”).

And with a thyroid cancer diagnosis in January 2019, returning to training after surgery and radiation (a time where I didn’t want to be in my body at all) has helped ground me back in my body, and remind me of my strength and resilience.

Where did you start from? What was your beginning?

I have always been involved in sports. Growing up I played everything, but my passion was martial arts (tae kwon do). As I moved away from home involvement waxed and waned over the years, but as a new mom I returned to exercise as a way to find and ground myself again as I got to know my new body and new life roles.

I got into triathlon training after my oldest daughter was born.  I was working out with a local “fit mom” group, and when they offered a sprint triathlon training program I thought “wow, what an accomplishment a triathlon would be!!!!”. So I signed up! After my first race, I was hooked – less on the racing and more on the training with a wonderfully supportive group of other moms, coaches, friends, and just all around cool people.  I treasured the feeling of community that came with it.

Since then I’ve continued to draw inspiration from the folks around me.  I train with some incredibly strong athletes from all areas of life: other moms, former pros, various training partners with goals resulting from finishing to qualifying for Kona (the world championships), and folks racing – and kicking my butt! – in the 65+ age category.  I’ve learned a lot about who it is possible to be as an athlete, at all stages of life. I’m currently a back-of-the-pack’er, and I’m ok with that.  I’ve been doing the training that I’ve been able to do, around work, single parenting, and I am happy to be able to get to the starting line.

How do you ensure you are at your strongest on race day?

In addition to the coached training for triathlon, I’m working with a personal training to ensure that my foundation is strong.  It is a work in progress, but for me cross training an integral piece of the puzzle! Yoga also helps lots with flexibility and reminding myself to breathe.

What are your short/med/long term goals?

My short-term goals include getting race ready for the 2020 race season (I’m registered for Calgary 70.3 as well as Ironman Canada). I’m base building with cycling, swimming, and rehabbing my knee to ease back into running. I’m also working to dialling in nutrition for both fuelling and recovery. 

My medium-term goals focus around maintaining my weight, strength, and focus regardless of what is (or isn’t) on my race schedule. 

Right now I find it difficult to answer about long term goals, as I’m learning what it means to live life in 6 month increments between tests to ensure that there hasn’t been a recurrence of cancer. It’s like I’ve been granted citizenship I have never applied for in a land that I have never wanted to visit, and I only get to return to the land of “health and wellness” I used to reside in as a visitor who is required to apply for visa renewal every 6 months with the application process comprised of ultrasounds and blood work. And even then, the knowledge that my visa could be revoked at any time despite my efforts to follow all of the rules. I’m sure this will get easier as it goes, but right now it’s all pretty new and “cancer” still feels totalizing when it comes to how I think about who I get to be.  

If you could meet any athlete in the world, who would it be? What would you ask them?

If I could hang out with any athlete in the world I’d love to meet Muhammad Ali. I would ask him how he would use his platform as an activist today – what he would stand for, and what he would stand against.  I would want to know his take on how history has viewed him, what he appreciates and what he would edit or clarify. 

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
― Muhammad Ali

What's on your playlist?

I usually end up with a song stuck in my head while swimming; the most ironic has been “I feel like I’m drowning” by Two Feet. While cycling on long rides on the trainer I’ll usually listen to entire albums – The Fratellis and Bloodhound Gang are usually part of that. I haven’t updated my run playlist for a while, so songs with decent beats from about 10 years ago seem to be the norm, lol. I think my most motivating songs to move are Five Hours, Tsunami, Na Na Na, Uprising, and Bombs over Baghdad.

What's your favourite piece of tech/gear?

For the swim, hands down it is my two-piece wetsuit (DeSoto T1). I love not having my shoulders pulled down on by being attached to the bottoms, and while it is no easier to put on, it comes off like a dream in T1.

On the bike, it’s my tri bike. Like a new pair of running shoes when I was a kid, it makes me feel fast, lol. In all seriousness, though, it is well-fitted, comfortable, and fits me well.

On the run it is my cooling sleeves – I melt in the heat so they really save me on hot days. In some of my race photos I’m lumpy because my sleeves are stuffed with ice.

What motivates you? How do you deal with a lack of motivation?

I’ve had a few “why’s” around my involvement in triathlon. As I’ve mentioned, the sense of community has been important to me. I’m motivated by gaining strength and I build my confidence when I see improvement. As a mom, it is space where it is about me, when so much else in my life is about others. As a PhD student, long-course triathlon made sure that I got up and moved, when the grad student lifestyle can very easily be pretty sedentary. As a cancer survivor, I’m discovering that it reminds me that I am still alive and keeps me focused on the here and now, and the experience in my body.

I need to get better at dealing when I lose sight of my “why” – I tend to get quiet, withdraw from others and sit with the struggle on my own. I’ve done a big race where I haven’t had a strong enough connection to my “why”, and instead of feeling proud of myself, it tasted more of guilt and disappointment. If I had it to do over again, I would have asked for support around finding my “why”, or maybe withdrawing from that race and taking the time to rest and refocus.

When it comes to motivation, I’ve found that having a race on the schedule is the biggest incentive to get up and get out the door. I let myself complain in my head but keep my body moving. I have had workouts when I’ve been halfway through and in my head I’m still trying to talk myself out of going in the first place, lol. When I don’t have to think and just have to get there, it helps me to get out the door and get it done.

What is your favourite thing to do after a race?

Post-race cheeseburger, fries and beer to celebrate. Depends on how the race went as to what order they might be consumed in, lol. Over the past few years I’ve had beer in the finish line tent, a floor cheeseburger picnic, and fries under a space blanket on the couch, lol. After a race I like to take some down time, sleep in, do gentle yoga, and indulge in the things I don’t often have time for while training, like curling up for an afternoon and reading a book. And then sign up for another race of course!

How do you deal with race day jitters?

I remind myself that race day is a celebration of all of the training that was done to get there, and it is a privilege to get to the starting line. It means that my health has held up and that I have had the strength, guidance, and support of the last number of months and hundreds of kilometers to do the work to bring me to race day. I remind myself to trust my training, and to race the day I trained to have. I engage with the other athletes around me, thank volunteers, and try to remember that I actually like this stuff. 

What are you most proud of?

One of the things I’m most proud of my ability to persevere through difficult circumstances with the big picture in mind (like, not in every moment but overall). Some things really hurt and are really hard in the short term, but I am working on being kinder when I am hurting and thinking of my hopes for the situation and working from that place instead of a place of hurt. 

Keeping an eye on the long game has served me well as I’ve worked towards accomplishments I’m proud of, like finishing my first triathlon, my PhD, and my first Ironman.

These days I’m most proud in my role as dance mom for my two daughters who are in a competitive dance company. Dance is demanding of these little athletes, as they practice patience, teamwork, determination, discipline, working through frustration, nutrition, and sacrifice social and chill evenings and weekends for classes and rehearsals. Sitting in the audience watching them celebrate all the work they have done with their company to get to the performance on stage is my favourite.

What challenges do you struggle most with?

The ability to persevere through difficult circumstances is a struggle for me as much as I am proud of it – I can suffer for a really long time (endurance, ha). 

In my last Ironman race I went in undertrained run as I had been dealing with illness during the bulk of the long runs and rides. The “run” was more of a “death march” and I one point after the sun had set I was walking alone, crying, thinking “I’m suffering alone in the dark and this is a metaphor for me life and I don’t want to do this anymore”. Dramatic, right? After 13 hours of hurting I was feeling pretty dramatic, sure – but I tend to cut myself off from others when I’m hurting. I struggle with asking for help when I really need it, and I’m trying to get better with that. But maybe I don’t need to hurt and struggle by myself in the dark quite as much as I do.

What advice would you give a woman just beginning their athletic journey?

To know that anything really is possible. We carry so many assumptions about what we think an athlete looks like, thinks like, acts like, etc. I know I certainly did! And then when I witnessed IRONMAN for the first time, I realized that athletes come in all shapes and sizes – there is no cookie cutter. And in talking to others, I found out the variety of challenges, strengths, stories and goals that people bring. It finally sank in that it could be me, if I did the work.

Which brings me to the second suggestion for someone starting out to keep in mind: trust your training. If you do the work (including the recovery!!), you will be able to do the race you trained to have. It really does all add up to fit together, though it is hard to believe it will the first time you’re in it. Borrow the confidence of someone you trust that you will be ready

The content of this interview was only edited for clarity and length.

Wednesday’s Warrior – Emily
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