The Space Between

“When we ski the trees, the trick is to focus on the spaces between, not the trees themselves.  The lines we choose are defined by our fears and our confidences, and when these are out of balance, when our fears outnumber our confidences, we lose the ability to find the spaces between the trees.  We lose our rhythm.  This goes for life, too.

My wife has anorexia.  She’s struggled with this all her life, but recently – to keep the analogy rolling – she smacked into the trees.  She’s struggling to find the spaces between.  As her partner, I’ve struggled to keep her moving through the forest.  At times, I’ve guided her into trees too dense for her to navigate.  What appears to me as an open glade of old-growth aspen, to her is a tangled mess of icy deadfall.

But I must keep my partner from becoming lost completely.  I’m responsible for her safety, and she for mine.  I can point out the spaces, but I can’t expect her to ski them as I would.

Rhythm, when skiing the trees, is as important as finding the spaces between.  The two are interlinked; one cannot exist without the other.  At speed, it’s easy to decide which way to go, which space to pass by and which to pass through.  With each turn is another decision in a rhythm that repeats itself over and over again; turn after turn, flowing from space to space.  I struggle mightily to find good lines these days.  Skiing much too slowly to find any rhythm, I’m forced to stop short – to hunt for a new space in woods that only seem to grow more dense.

Skiing the trees, there are no guarantees, no timelines: only expectations.  It’s not certain; I only expect my partner and I will find our rhythm again, and we’ll flow from space to space as easily as we once did. Momentum is everything.  We’ll gain momentum, and though it doesn’t always lead to the spaces between, stopping leaves us no choice but to stare at the trees”.

  • James Foukes, Backcountry Magazine

 

 

 

Weight Loss During Pregnancy

So it’s safe to say that pregnancy hasn’t been anything like what I expected it to be. I’m not going to harp on about the gory details of severe morning sickness that lasts for 40 weeks because it’s very rare and most people will never experience the ‘joy’ of it, at least for that length of time. What I will focus on, is how amazing the human body is. And how little control you have over this whole amazing journey of creating a human from scratch.

The Dude or Dudette's room, finally ready to go.

The Dude or Dudette’s room, finally ready to go.

In the first trimester, I lost weight. No surprises there, I was vomiting so much I was hospitalised. In the second trimester, my body really came into its own: I gained weight like a trooper, with an aim to eat as much nutritious food as I could get down and keep down, and my baby grew like a little champion. In the third trimester, the vomiting and nausea returned with a vengeance and I have been losing weight again. Remarkably, the baby continues to gain weight – proof that the human body is simply incredible in just “knowing” what to do throughout this whole process. It’s now officially “baby month” as the baby is due to arrive any day now….something which is extremely exciting and equally frustrating for a control freak like me!

WHEN is “D-Day?” Such a simple little question. Thoughts race through my head about when it could be, where I will be (hopefully not at work taking a Pilates class!), what it will be like. I can handle the excitement of not knowing the sex of our little bubba, but not knowing when it will arrive is a huge challenge for me. I feel like I’m in the final days of preparation for an Ironman, only I don’t know which day I’m actually going to have to pull it all together to perform….

Control freak aside, I know I will cope with whatever labour throws at me when the time does come; know after everything I’ve been through that I am strong enough for that. I can’t wait to become a “mother”, and to meet this little person who’s shared the toughest 9 months of my life with me.

Birthday Cake: despite my nausea, I couldn't break my annual tradition of making myself a cake and eating some of it.  It wasn't much, but that's a win!

Birthday Cake: despite my nausea, I couldn’t break my annual tradition of making myself a cake and eating some of it. It wasn’t much, but that’s a win!

What scares me is the presence of Ana, ever there perched on my shoulder and nattering away its useless voice. Every time you get weighed at the Obstetrician’s office. And you’ve lost weight. Or gained weight. Every time you think about life after pregnancy – returning to racing, eating (normally, without vomiting…), running. Breastfeeding. Every time you see your body in its ever-changing state (why aren’t there any stretch marks there? Is that even possible?!). And of course, all the unknowns about how you and your body will be afterward. I put a lot of the uncertainty down to being so sick for so long, which invariably makes you dread eating food but forcing yourself to do it anyway. In some ways, it’s like being in recovery all over again. And then when you LOSE weight despite all the effort to keep some nutrition down, it’s like an extra factor messing with your head.

I am all too aware that statistically, the postpartum period is a high risk one for ED relapse. And that those of us who have had ED’s are also at higher risk of postpartum depression and anxiety. I’m concerned that I hear the little voices of Ana already planning “when the baby is out we’ll….[insert damaging behaviour here]”. I guess I somehow thought that by being all-absorbed with the love for the little person inside of me, there would be no room left for those thoughts. I was wrong.

I feel like pregnancy does make you strong enough to fight those thoughts and do everything in your ability to nurture the child within; my question is, what happens to that force once you are no longer carrying the baby inside of your body?

My hope is that the strength will carry over. Ultimately, that little person, whether inside of me or out in the big wide world, is relying on me and only me to be its whole world – at least for the start of its life. It’s still me who has to feed it, love it, care for it. And I can’t do the best possible job of that if Ana is taking up any significant real estate in my head. I also like to tell myself that after everything I have been through in the past few years, if major relapse was going to happen, it would have happened already: if major foot surgery, 18 months away from my beloved running, and 3 miscarriages doesn’t push you over the edge I think you can stand tall and be proud of where you have gotten in your recovery.

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I’m choosing to focus on my “strategies” and all the positive things to come, rather than the fear of relapse and Ana returning. Those strategies include having races pencilled in, so that I can feel like “myself” again in the not too distant future (it has been the longest time since I have raced an Ironman, fit and healthy, and I cannot wait to do it as a ‘Mum’ with my husband and baby cheering me on). And focusing on new friendships: up until this point in my life, I feel like I have friends who knew me as anorexic, then when we moved here 5 years ago, I formed a heap of new friendships with a clean slate – mostly triathlon-related friendships, and those people have no idea about how much of my life Ana took up. And I like it that way. But I have been missing spending time with a lot of those people with the reduced training that comes with surgery then pregnancy. I am excited to meet yet another bunch of friends through mother’s groups etc, and to start the next chapter in my life. I’m excited to blend that with my return to racing and hopefully have the best of both worlds: new mum, and Ironman comeback Queen. I’m blessed enough to have had a number of amazing women pave the way before me (see previous post on elite athletes and motherhood) and show me that not only can it be done, but you can actually come back even stronger.

Bring on 2015: New baby, new (stronger) body, and a long-awaited return to Ironman!

Happy Training,

K xoxo

My gluten-free Iced Vovos...presentation was a fail but I am assured they tasted amazing!

My gluten-free Iced Vovos…presentation was a fail but I am assured they tasted amazing!

Pregnancy, Dual-Athlete Households and Ironmums

Yesterday marked a new low point in my Pregnancy: throwing up in the middle of the foodcourt of a very busy shopping centre. Yup, that happened. No warning and obviously no time to run to the bathroom. The running commentary in my head was quite comical, from the “Oh God this is actually happening” moment through to “thank God I actually look pregnant now, not just like some super prolific Bulimic…” (LOL). At 7 months, you’d think one would have stopped throwing up, but apparently this little bubba is a strong one on the hormonal front and having a laugh causing mum lots of embarrassment!

Top 6 female finishers at Ironman Western Australia, 2014...plus Wynne

Top 6 female finishers at Ironman Western Australia, 2014…plus Wynne

In other news this week, my new hero Beth Gerdes – Professional Ironman athlete and baby-mumma to 6 month old Wynne – whipped around the Busselton Ironman course in a PB time of 9 hours and change, clocking one of the fastest marathons of the day in under 3 hours….all while dad Luke McKenzie (also a Pro Ironman athlete) and Wynne cheered her on. I’m not going to launch into the politics of Feminism, but I will say that as a member of a dual-athlete household where I am actually the better Ironman athlete of the two of us, this made my heart swell.

I get so sick of people assuming when we go away to Ironman races that I must be the “wife” that goes to dutifully cheer on my husband. And let’s not forget that he doesn’t get out of it scott-free either – the heckling from his mates when I beat him down the finish chute of an Ironman is ridiculous. But I’m lucky enough to have a husband who is both manly enough to not let that phase him, and who is also super proud of my athletic achievements and happy to defend me – like he says, if I’m in front of him then it means I’m having a great day and that makes him happy (he’s beaten me a few times too, but on the current score card I win…..and the last one I beat him on, I had a broken foot for the marathon, so he’s not living that down for a while….!).

Anyway back to Beth and her superhuman effort. I’m not advocating that the mere mortals among us who balance a day job with training loads shoot for the goal of an Ironman PB 6 months post-partum, but this is her career and it’s her “normal”, and I am hugely proud that her partner Luke is so publicly supportive of her getting her career back on track after Wynne’s arrival. They’re not the only example in the Ironman or distance running world either – thank goodness over the last 5 years we are finally starting to see a host of female professional athletes supported by their partners returning to full time sport, with happy healthy little bubbas to cheer them on. I have been a one-woman study nerd in following their blogs through pregnancy and beyond, and have used a lot of their guidance in deciding how much exercise I am happy safely doing throughout my pregnancy, and also in setting a realistic race goal post-partum for myself (which includes an Ironman one year post-baby arrival, not 6 months – I have a business to run and as it’s my first child, and Ironman is a great love but not my source of income, I want to prioritise enjoying my time with the baby and not to feel rushed with the training). If you are interested in more from these amazing ladies, my favourites include of course Beth’s blog (California Training), and the blogs of Clara Peterson, Lauren Fleshman, and Steph Rothstein (the latter two come complete with photos of what REALLY happens to your body after baby….fascinating stuff!).

DEC 2014 III

As for my plans on returning to racing after the baby arrives, I’m finding that once again, reactions of those around me tend to reflect their own insecurities about things. My closest friends and family think it’s great and are super supportive; others are surprised and like to add a snide remark about “focusing on the baby” or “oh well, just see how you go with that” – with an added glint in their eye like they’re really trying to say ‘good luck finding the time/getting your body back to that level/you’re about to lose your whole identity because you’re becoming a “Mum”…..Of course my life is going to change, and I’m so excited about the next chapter with a new person front and centre and the added challenges that come with that. But I also want to set an example for my son or daughter that I am still an amazing, strong, independent woman and an athlete, as well as being a great Mum. Not to mention the travel experiences and awesome family atmosphere at triathlons in this country that our new addition will get to be a part of – seriously unreal!

The stunning Botanical Gardens in Queenstown, NZ.

The stunning Botanical Gardens in Queenstown, NZ.

On a deeper (ED) level, having a big Ironman race looming one year post-partum is also a protective thing for me. It’s long enough that I won’t feel rushed at all with preparation, but not too long in that it might interfere with when we try to fall pregnant with a sibling for this little one. But the biggest factor is it helps me to stay on track with eating and training once the baby is out, which is the “danger zone” of pregnancy for those of us who have had an ED from a relapse perspective. Even though I have maintained a healthy weight for 5 or so years now, I have still found the pregnancy body changes quite confronting, and have fears about the post-partum period. It’s hard to ignore the statistics on relapse rates. But I do know me, and I know that I have beaten the stats to recover after a decade of Ana; I also know how to pull my head out of a relapse phase in the earlier stages and in my case, it’s by focusing on running or triathlon (and in this case, producing breastmilk too) – which means being healthy, not skinny.

When I have a big race goal, I am focussed on being 100% healthy and strong – no nutrition short-cuts, and the focus is off weight and onto performance, which has in the past worked perfectly for me because the better you eat, the better you perform and the happier you are. I fear that if I don’t plan any big races, the focus will too easily slip back to losing all the baby weight or worse, the number on the scale….and it’s a slippery slope from there. On the flipside, I also feel as though if 100% of my focus is on the baby, then I will fall into the trap of having to be the ‘perfect’ Mum, and that’s a dangerous game to play as well – from a postnatal depression point of view.

The weekly baking for work - well fed Physios are happy Physios!

The weekly baking for work – well fed Physios are happy Physios!

As always, balance is key….. with a side of preparation, and communication: these are things that I have spent many, many hours discussing with my psychologist, husband and to a lesser extent, dietician, in the hope that I can be as prepared as possible and to minimise the overwhelmed and isolated feelings that can come with motherhood. With less than 12 weeks of baby-growing to go, I’m feeling very ready for this next exciting stage of our lives!

Happy Training xo

Sesamoid Update – 1 year on

oct c 2014

“At some point you need to stop making a comeback and start running towards who you are meant to be next” – Lauren Fleshman #womanup

Hoorah for beating the odds – once again!

Sesamoid fractures have a pretty serious reputation for not going well. There is little evidence-based research available for treating practitioners on best standard of care, and even when that has managed to be achieved, they tend to be slow to heal and long to recover from.

Being a Physiotherapist and knowing all of this information, I was shaking in my boots a little at what I was staring down the barrel of just over a year ago now. Compound that fear with the knowledge of what I had done to my foot (doing an Ironman on a stress fracture is not something I will ever do again…), along with my history of poor-ish bone density thanks to a decade of Anorexia, and I was pretty much crawling with my tail between my knees into that surgeon’s office and pleading with him to save my life. Ok, dramatic…but running IS my life, my first love, my sanity and makes my soul happy. So NOT running again was simply not an option.

I am happy to say that even with the odds seriously stacked against you, with a great medical team and some serious dedication to a long and conservative rehabilitation process one can come out the other side flying. Once I got to the point where surgery was the only option left – 8 months of conservative treatment already tried and failed – I had to make a choice. I had to put my big-girl panties on and suck up the situation; there was zero time for feeling sorry for myself and about 24 hours a day to dedicate to doing an awesome job of this rehab process. As discussed in previous posts this included everything from sleep to nutrition to Physio – and most importantly, a great medical team: a brilliant sports physician who understands my passion for running as well as my medical history; the best foot and ankle surgeon in Australia; and a sexy Physiotherapist (OK that was my husband so I may be biased….but it probably helped the treatment come along….!!).

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Which brings me to the now. My surgeon was clear and stern with me from the start that it would be a 9-month rehab process before running would even begin, and 12 months before my foot would be adapted to what we had done to it: bone grafting the sesamoid plus breaking, elevating and plating the 1st metatarsal (dorsiflexion osteotomy) to take load off the sesamoid underneath it. 8 weeks in plaster non-weight-bearing was followed by another 8 weeks partial weight-bearing in a boot; then a very gradual increase in walking and loading the area. When I was in plaster I was doing a lot of Pilates, strength work and all-importantly, resting and eating well. My arms got pretty buff at this point – crutches plus strength work= guns!! As soon as I was out of plaster I was into the pool. Initially not allowed to deep water run, but I was allowed to swim if I used a pull-bouy and didn’t push off the wall with my right foot. This made me feel about 100% more human just being back in the sun and in the water again, even if it was limited. Towards the end of that 8 weeks in the boot, I was able to start deep water running and freestlye swimming (kicking). Then came the fun part.

The “real” rehab began once I was walking more and out of the boot. My right calf muscle was over 3cm smaller than my left at this point…I had a lot of work to do. Not to mention adapting to my new biomechanics – the first time I stood on my right foot, I felt like I had a marble under my 2nd metatarsal! Now a lot more of my weight would go through that bone rather than the 1st metatarsal/sesamoid complex, and so I had to go slow to allow the bone to adapt – it’s common at this stage to get stress fractures in the 2nd metatarsal if rehab is too aggressive, due to the increased load. I was allowed to start cycling (using carbon-soled bike shoes so the toe doesn’t bend) at this stage.

Due to my job being so physical – Physios are pretty much on their feet for 8+ hours a day – it would be another month or two before I could introduce any extra walking outside of work, which was frustrating. This was (mentally) probably the hardest part – not being ‘disabled’ any more, but feeling like you’re not actually working towards running either. My patience paid off and once I was able to walk for exercise, things moved quickly – at 7 months post-op, I was walking 30mins every other day with minimal swelling and less than 2/10 pain (ie. Acceptable pain levels given the surgery I had)….which meant I was allowed to jump on an Alter G treadmill and start running, 2 months ahead of schedule!

My surgeon was very strict with the Alter G protocol to follow. I started with 50% body weight for 20mins at just 10km/hr. This felt easy as my fitness was pretty good by now from the swim/bike/deep water running routine; that was a key part of this stage going so well. Over the next month I built the AlterG sessions up to 40 mins at 70% body weight including intervals, allowing me to build some speed and rhythm in. I had the luxury of having my husband and Physio accompany me and give me feedback on biomechanics and technique – it was like getting used to running on someone else’s foot! It felt very strange. I will be forever grateful to my sports physician for making access to an Alter G so available to me; not everyone has the luxury or the joy of this.

At 8 months I was given the green light to start my road running return program, which was also very conservative…it started with 30 minutes walking with 8 x 1 minute run throughout. But I was the happiest person on the planet! I kept up the Alter G sessions for a few more weeks just for my sanity more than anything else – it was still a novelty and better than drugs being able to push myself again (from a cardiovascular perspective), plus the fitness boost it gave me was invaluable and transferred beautifully onto road running.

I was slowly building week by week and up to running 5-10km, 3-4 times a week when we got pregnant this time around….and so I have maintained that level of running over the last 5 months, and will continue to for as long as I can into the pregnancy (I’m now 5 months along and 4kg up). Ironically, the extra relaxin hormone boost from the pregnancy has allowed me to get my full flexibility back in the foot post-op and so running feels better than ever! This could have taken a year or more to achieve without relaxin. I can honestly say now that I don’t even think about my foot anymore – it feels “normal”, strong and functional.

Oct E

Of course, I am missing racing immensely – between the surgery and pregnancy, it’s been almost 2 years since I’ve raced an Ironman and I cannot wait to get back to it. I am hoping to do an Ironman about 10-12 months after the baby arrives; it would be nice to go back to Busselton where it all went down in the first place and get some unfinished business out of the way!

What I have learned about Sesamoid Stress/Fractures:

– Get a health care team on board that KNOWS WHAT THEY’RE DOING. Search for someone who has experience with treating sesamoids; if your GP/Sports Doc/Physio/Podiatrist does not, then call around until you find a team that does. Don’t be afraid to ask upfront.
– Use an MRI for diagnosis and follow-up progress scans. XRays are not sensitive enough and bone scans are not specific enough. The cost is worth it to know what you are dealing with.
– You need to be aggressive – from day dot. These are typically not super painful injures (well nowhere near a femur or sacral stress fracture – of which I’ve had both – hence being able to finish an Ironman on it without realising), and so they can be deceiving. But you need to take them very seriously, as hard as this can be early on,
From the moment of diagnosis you should be in a boot; either partial-weight bearing or full weight-bearing if pain allows – needs to be <2/10 pain at all times.
– Use contrast bathing or ice/heat protocols – 20mins of each, 1-3 times a day, to flush swelling and increase blood nutrients to the area.
Give it TIME. Prepare to be in the boot for 8-16 weeks. Yikes! I know….but trust me, this option is much better than having to go through surgery. Sesamoids have poor blood flow and don’t heal well, but if you treat them like gold from the start you will give it your best shot at healing conservatively.
– Statistically, following the above protocol, 50% of sesamoids will heal and 50% will not (at 12-16 weeks). It depends where the break is, what the blood flow is like, and how well you rest it during this time.
– If you are a serious athlete, love your sport, or have a job that requires you to be on your feet, think about getting a referral to a very experienced foot surgeon early in the process. They typically take a couple of months to get into, and it doesn’t mean that you will have to have surgery – but if it’s a slow healing fracture, they will give you an all-important educated opinion on your time frames, options and prognosis. You can always cancel the appointment if you’re going well, but it’s hard to get an urgent appointment if and when you do need it so plan ahead!
– If you do need to go ahead with surgery, ask the surgeon how many sesamoid stress fractures they have treated and how they have gone. You want the most experienced surgeon with good long-term outcomes ie. Return to full sport pain-free.
Avoid removing the bone at all costs. Unless it is completely shattered, a good surgeon should be able to either bone graft, pin or shave off part of the bone to salvage it. A foot without one or both sesamoids is, biomechanically-speaking, a disaster zone for arthritis and injuries and is not very conducive with a future running career!
– Further, if you do need the surgery, plan it well and be prepared for a long haul. Be ready mentally and physically to put in the hard yards from a rehab perspective (exercises, pain and swelling management, and lots of rest…), but even more so be ready to be patient from a psychological perspective. There is no point going through major surgery only to rush it on the other side.
– Be rest assured that with a good surgeon, and an even better rehab protocol (think slow-and-steady), you CAN and WILL return to your old athletic self. It’s possible you may even come back stronger after all the time spent with rehab and core strength work, and in my case, biomechanically improved because he fixed the 1st metatarsal angle at the same time, decreasing my chances of getting the injury again.

Currently sesamoid injuries are highly misunderstood by the medical profession and usually by athletes as well, but over the next decade I believe there will be huge improvements in understanding and treatment from medical professionals. In the meantime, those of us who have walked this path beforehand can hopefully shed some light, advice and much-needed hope that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel!

Happy Training

K xoxo

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From Rehab to Racing

8 weeks post-foot surgery, happy to be out of plaster and trying to stay positive...

8 weeks post-foot surgery, happy to be out of plaster and trying to stay positive…

I flew today.

Well, it felt like it. 6km run at good pace with minimal foot discomfort, able to find my rhythm for the first time since July 2013. Excited much?! I was smiling from ear to ear for the rest of the day!

It’s been a huge challenge, a very long 9 months, and the biggest mountain I’ve had to climb in my post-ED life. But I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Today I entered two 5km fun runs, and an Olympic Distance Triathlon which I will do as a team (as my surgeon is not giving me the green light to run 10km at race pace just yet!).

Still a long road to another Ironman finish line but every day is a step forwards

Still a long road to another Ironman finish line but every day is a step forwards

So what have I learned along the way? Patience. Something I never had a lot of before. I’ve learned how to apply my discipline to my rehab like nobody’s business. That applied effort has allowed me to return to running 2 months ahead of the schedule my surgeon set out for me post-op. In fact, when my psychologist was warning me about the danger zone I am currently in (given my raging exercise addiction, it was a fair concern!) – I reassured him “don’t worry. I am treating my rehab program just like I once did Ana – I am aiming to be the “perfect” patient, which includes following the program to a tee, eating every nutritious food I can get my hands on, and doing every recovery strategy that is validated in the research – compression, ice, physio, you name it.” I’m not sure he 100% approved of my approach but was nonetheless impressed by my creativity and my insight into my personality characteristics (well, they weren’t going to go away just because my foot got cut in half and I couldn’t run for a while, let’s face it. May as well make use of them).

Full steam ahead: back on the bike and loving the training!

Full steam ahead: back on the bike and loving the training!

So, as my coach would tell me, it’s “onwards and upwards”. Every day is another opportunity to “practice perfection” – every stroke on the bike, arm turnover in the pool, step on the run, and weight in the gym, all tiny building blocks that will one day form the strongest Ironman body I’ve had yet. Every new day is another chance to be thankful for my health and my happiness. To breathe in the fresh air and feel alive.

I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in Karma. And I am grateful for the chance to rebuild my body and to live life to the fullest.

Happy training everyone!

K xoxo

Racing Weight

So yesterday I had a revelation. It’s only been, hhmmm, 18 years coming.

I was looking through some race results from a recent track meet and they had accompanying photos. One photo in particular really set me off – I felt a deep pang of ?yearning? to suddenly stop eating and to run a really long way. To look like that. ASAP.

I won't put the triggering photo up for obvious reasons.  Instead, here's a bunch of awesome, fit healthy chicks at the New Balance Games.

I won’t put the triggering photo up for obvious reasons. Instead, here’s a bunch of awesome, fit healthy chicks at the New Balance Games.

Ever since I started restricting calories at age 12, I have always been very easily triggered by certain people – for me, mainly athletes of the very lean, tanned, blonde and hot description. I most definitely have a “type”. For the longest time it was Anna Kournikova. I remember as a 12 year old looking up her height (same as mine – I was tall at 12. Incidentally, I never grew after that….amazing what starvation can do to the human skeleton) and weight. That was ground zero. Only, once I got to her weight, of course the ED/Ana was in full flight and I couldn’t stop there. I may have had the long blonde hair, the sports trophies, the tan….but I didn’t look like Anna Kournikova, because, well….she looks healthy. She glows. I had some grey death staring out my eyes to match the grey shades under them, and a bony back to boot.

Anna Kournikova in full flight.

Anna Kournikova in full flight.

Over the years the role models have evolved, and as I’ve talked about in previous posts, I now tend to look up to healthier athletes as a matter of requirement. I am simply too easily set off by the former. And of course a swap to a sport that suits my genetic make-up to a tee has helped as well: as a distance runner, being lean and super light was always an uphill battle, whereas I build the endurance and strength needed for long course triathlon almost by mistake, it happens so easily.

Anyway back to the point. To give you some context, my body at the moment is not at racing fitness and after being “Ironman fit” for the preceding 3 years straight, that’s a hard thing to get used to. I was as fit as I’ve ever been going into my foot surgery in July last year. But 3 months in a cast and non-weight bearing on crutches, when all I could do was core and upper body gym work and then after that, swimming….well for someone who builds muscle easily, I suddenly developed upper body muscles. Throw into the mix a couple of pregnancies then miscarriages in that period and well, needless to say, my body has changed. So I’m in the prime target zone of being affected by such triggers and constantly fighting the urge to overexercise and undereat, when in reality my body needs to be loved in every way in order to repair right now.

Only yesterday, for the first time ever, a shocking thing happened. I’m not even sure it was my brain producing the thought process, so foreign was that thought process. I suspect perhaps my psychologist or dietician found a way of tapping into my brain waves and altering them. For when I saw the picture, I yearned to starve and go run 35km. But then the next thought that followed was astounding: “yeah, if you want to be skinny-fat and unhealthy. If you want to get back to that level of fitness, you know what you need to do. You need to commit to training hard, and eating. A lot. Of really high quality food.” Sigh. Wait – whoah!! What just happened?!!!! Was that my head talking?

New, healthier role models: Caroline Steffen aka "Xena", 2nd fastest female Ironman athlete in the world.  Machine.

New, healthier role models: Caroline Steffen aka “Xena”, 2nd fastest female Ironman athlete in the world. Machine.

After deep consideration, I’m fairly certain it was me. I’m impressed. And when I analyse it, it’s true – the only times in my life I have been super race-fit, lean, healthy and glowing (and incidentally injury-free) have been when I’ve been able to train well and at a high intensity, and when I’ve been able to eat a lot of food to support that. For many of the other times, I may have been clocking in at my desired “racing weight” – for distance running, not triathlon – but I was far from glowing, and the fake tan and smiles were barely hiding a very frail skeleton with 10+ stress fractures in their short history.

As we all know a little too well, it’s far easier for us to undereat and overexercise. It’s comfy, predictable, safe, not scary. Eating like an athlete is frightening, uncomfortable, requires planning, and a lot of mental strength – and not just for a day, but for months. But when all is said and done, it’s always more rewarding doing something challenging than sticking to the same well-worn path. I don’t want to be a skinny-fat distance runner anymore; I will stand proud as an athlete. Glowing, too.

Bring it.

xoxo

My hand-made Easter chocolates for the family.  Happy Easter everyone! xoxo

My hand-made Easter chocolates for the family. Happy Easter everyone! xoxo

And Isn’t it Ironic: Anorexia and Ultraendurance Events

Once upon a time while in the middle of a large training block for an upcoming Ironman triathlon, I walked in on a conversation between my husband and our coach. They were having a competition about who had managed to get through their 5 hour ride on the least amount of nutrition – ie, they were competing about who was the better fat-burner, which is a huge factor for success in ultraendurance events like Ironman. Coach thought he was going to be awesome, because he’d had an eating disorder for about a year while running competitively at college (he is now recovered); my husband, on the other hand, had been specifically working on developing his fat-burning engine over the last few months – not an uncommon thing to do amongst Ironman athletes. Controversial? Absolutely. Effective? Most of the time. If you can get away with 20+ hours a week of training on not enough nutrition. Most athletes eventually crash and burn – through either injury or illness – prompting sports dieticians to admit that while these behaviours in high-level athletes can be effective at creating adaptations to fat-burning, they are also highly risky and are to be used sparingly and under the guidance of a qualified coach or dietician.

Husband: I just got through a 5 hour ride with 3 bottles of Gatorade, a banana and 2 Gu’s….beat that….

Coach: (laughs) well I got 3 hours in on nothing but water, then I hit the wall so bad – we had to stop and buy Coke and Mars bars to finish it off! I feel so wiped out now I can’t get off the couch haha.

Me: You two are such amateurs. I was doing the same ride, I wasn’t aware we were having a competition – I had 3 Gu’s for the whole ride and I wasn’t actually trying….and I feel fine now….seriously, you two should stick to short-course triathlon….

Moral of the story? If there has to be an upside to Anorexia, it has to be the amped-up development of the best fat-burning system on the planet. I mean, seriously – my body is out of control with this. It’s actually unfair to my competitors. So often during 3 hour long runs or 5 hour bike rides, I see my husband struggling with fatigue and hitting the wall and yet my engine just keeps on churning it out. I’ve lost count of how many times we have discussed a physical feat that should not be possible, according to the textbooks – and yet I’ve just done it. Case in point: at Busselton Ironman in 2012, I very stupidly accidentally consumed a drink with gluten in it right before the start. As a coeliac, that = disaster. I got about 2 hours in then started vomiting for the next few hours on and off, then came the stomach cramps and gastro. I got nothing but water and a bit of watermelon down during the race, and yet I still managed to finish. Two hours before my husband. In 35 degree heat. It should not be physically possible to exercise in those conditions on that little nutrition for 11+ hours, and yet – there I was, I’d done it. What an engine.

Marino Vanhoenacker passing by an aid station at Melbourne Ironman 2014

Marino Vanhoenacker passing by an aid station at Melbourne Ironman 2014

There isn’t much formal evidence of this phenomenon, but there is a hell of a lot of anecdotal evidence around. A quick look around at the top Ironman, marathon and ultramarathon professional athletes in the world reveals a huge proportion of previously eating-disorder-afflicted athletes. Some still have obvious ED’s. Even more would currently have well-hidden disordered eating patterns. And I’m not just talking about females, either. There are a pair of professional brothers who compete in Ironman and one of them has such a severe eating disorder that despite over 1 million dollars being laid on the line by their sponsor for the two of them to go head to head at Hawaii Ironman a few years back, the ill brother didn’t even make it to the starting line because his ED was so out of control that he was admitted as an inpatient, missing the race altogether.

Then there’s arguably the best female ultramarathoner we have seen to date, Pam Reed, who won Badwater outright two years in a row, beating all the men in the field:

“…And there was also an ironic twist to all of this. Anorexia had ruled my life for 15 years and had done a lot of damage in the process. One of its effects had been to condition my body to an amazing degree for ultrarunning. Something that had hurt me at one time in my life would now help me in another”
– from “The Extra Mile”, Pam Reed.

Need more evidence? Let’s look at the maths, and let’s stick to Ironman since that’s my thing. A typical 65kg athlete who completes the Ironman (3.8km swim/180km bike/42.2km run) in 12 hours will burn around 42000 kj doing so. That’s on top of the roughly 8000kj that same athlete needs just to stay alive that day – breathing, thinking, blinking etc. Think about that for a second: do you think it’s even possible to physically eat that much in a day? Let alone on a day you are exercising – hard – for 12 hours of it, shunting blood away from your digestive system? Well let me tell you, even if you have “Ironguts” like my husband (who is famous at our local pool for chowing down on a large flat white and bacon and egg muffin while getting into the pool to start his 4km swim set….), you cannot ingest that much energy. Not even close. If you’re lucky, you’ll have about 90 minutes worth of carbohydrate stored in your primed muscles, but after that, it’s predominantly the fat system that you’ll rely on. Most of the energy that you consume after that will be split between helping to prolong that fat-burning system, and importantly, to keep your brain happy. Recent research shows that while dieticians used to think we used the fuel from Gu’s and Gatorade to keep our muscles happy, it’s actually more to trick our brain into thinking we are still high on sugar and so it’s safe to continue exercising. Pretty cool stuff.

Unfortunately, Ana doesn't make you immune to blisters!

Unfortunately, Ana doesn’t make you immune to blisters!

So while I would never wish an eating disorder on anyone, I am happy for the gift that it has given me. Happy that something came from all the years of suffering (one must try to look on the bright side!). Before my very first Ironman a few years back, Coach and I were going through my nutrition plans for the day – Plan A, B, C, D….. because nothing ever goes to plan on race day and you must be flexible. His last words to me were “you will dominate this – you are so strong because of everything you’ve been through, when you get to the point where you have to “dig deep” you will absolutely thrive. And……don’t be afraid to start drinking coke early on the marathon!”. Well, he proved to be oh so right. I couldn’t stomach much during the bike leg, so was heading into the marathon feeling a bit flat. I started on coke and water straight away, and kept that up throughout. Sure enough, my brain was super happy with that! While everyone around me was collapsing like flies, I just kept getting stronger and stronger – the fat-burning kicked in and I was having a ball! Indeed, I got to the end and was disappointed that it wasn’t a bit harder.

I joked to Coach we might try the UltraMan next time (back-to-back Ironmans).

We’ll see what the future brings!

K xo