Something I have been meaning to write about for a while now, is the transition from elite sport into ‘normal’ life. The transition from full time training, 3 times a day, every day – has been hard to say the least. I have been struggling to find the elements that replace the part of identity I have lost. From a world where sport was everything from Monday – Sunday, 365 days of the year, to the ‘normal world’. I wouldn’t say that triathlon was my identity, by any means. It was a component of me and my life and I was very aware that it would be a chapter of life rather than my whole life, which is why my transition to the ‘real world’ has probably been far more manageable than many before me.
Being an athlete was always career for me. It wasn’t bankrolled for me by my parents and there had to be an income in order for me to compete. That meant for as long as there was sponsorship and prize money coming in, it was a viable avenue. I always had other sources of income like my blog, some modelling and the online coaching (which I still offer 😊 ) which added some variety to life as well as keeping the financial side of things safe(r). Sure, when I made a return to Loughborough after my crash in 2015, a part of the compensation I was awarded made it possible to go full time again, but it wasn’t a bottomless pot and a return on my own investment would be needed fairly promptly in order to continue.
In early 2016 I met with a mortgage advisor, who made it clear that prize money and sponsorship weren’t going to secure me a mortgage regardless of the deposit I could offer. The elements I was craving to offer security were beginning to loom over me. There was no pension scheme and no fall back if I got injured or hit by another van. Despite every positive of life as an athlete, you reach a point, you must reach a point where these rather mundane, adult factors become considerations. The reality is, I stopped in order to secure the things I craved so much. Stability, security and independence.
Life as an athlete is so organised. Every session was planned to the minute. Not getting to the land conditioning room pre-swim session 10” before was a big no-no, missing (or worse yet turning up halfway through) a session briefing made life not worth living. Training times were non-negotiable, sessions were non-negotiable and the content was non-negotiable. Race dates were set, you couldn’t move them and you couldn’t avoid them. This way of life works for some people, and it worked for me. Every day was set, the structure was there, and you knew what was coming. My responsibility as the athlete was to turn up recovered and prepared to train.
Being an athlete offers a huge spectrum of emotions. Training gives you fatigue, disappointment, elation and focus on a scale like no other. Racing offered all the above plus adrenaline and nerves. And there were goals. There was purpose to every session, and every session was a paramount step to achieving the goals. Life had a clear path and direction. What I’ve found so far, is that range of emotion isn’t needed anymore, and there’s a tendency to amble from one day to the next without a huge sense of purpose and/or placing. I for one haven’t found anything that replaces those emotions, yet. When you are an athlete, October seems like the end point – the year is jam packed until that point with camps and racing. Now, life looks so open ended. Nothing is set in stone to ‘happen’ and the weekends just roll on one to the next. There are no consequences to my races and no threats to my training (or rather real life equivalents).
Just before Christmas, about 6 months after I stopped, I realised how much I was struggling. Not just the intensity of training but the structure, routine and discipline. Emotionally I took quite a nose dive. I had lost my feeling of purpose and place and was struggling to find it. The truth is, I still am. But this is probably a void that will never be filled. Amateur racing and daily training will keep it topped up to an extent but never replace it.
I’m still running, though from leaving Loughborough in June through to November I lost a lot of fitness, lost weight and fell out of love with the sport that have given me so much purpose. I managed a 30-45” run every day but there was no goal and no quality. I needed that break, and it did me good. The New Year pushed me onto my feet as I created new goals and found new motivation. I have adopted a flexible enough approach to my training that means what I have planned in my head for the day doesn’t always transpire because ultimately my new career now takes precedence. I have been holding 65-75km weeks with at least 1 session within. I end up doing 4 bikes a week (at least 30” each) through teaching bike classes locally so I have no doubt that has assisted me in the conditioning side of things as well as my recovery.
It’s interesting comparing last year’s Training Peaks records to now. Run weeks in 2016/17 averaged out at 90-100km with two consistent sessions (track and threshold) and 1 long run (80”+). Along with 5/6 bikes a week, 3 gym sessions and drills. I had massage every week, stretched most days in the gym and the foam roller was never far away. If you asked me where my foam roller was now I couldn’t tell you and the last time I had a massage was May 2017.
So, quite a contrast you might observe but have I got slower? No, I seem to have got quicker… I ran a half marathon last week where with a fair chunk of climbing I managed a 1:20:40 off the back of a 75km run week. I had spent the Saturday before working all morning, forgot to eat lunch and then spent the afternoon surfing in sub 10 Celsius waters for 2hrs with a take-out pizza to round it off. This isn’t preparation I would endorse or have ever trialled but, it would seem there’s something said for pressure off, all-round happiness and no junk miles…
Part of me thinks well what would happen if I had tapered down, spent Saturday on my bottom resting my legs and had a pasta dish Saturday night? Truth is I already know. I’ve done it, I did it for 5 years committing every hour to full time training, recovering, nutrition and a race programme. For me it wasn’t enough, I wasn’t mentally stimulated, and I didn’t feel a purpose in the wider concept of life. Life for me is so much more and I constantly felt like I was missing out.
One thing I have done is found a new hobby. I want to learn something again and I want to improve at something. Although I devote time to my running, it will always feel like a job to me, or elements of it will anyway. I wrote a long list and a few activities were short listed. The criteria were that it would have to be outdoors, relatively low cost and accessible at any point in the week. Surfing ticked the above boxes and would be a new challenge so that’s what I picked. I’ve been body boarding since I was dinky, going every year with my Mum’s family to the Cornish surf beach of Polzeath but it’s now time to learn how to stand on my board and call people ‘dude’. So, last Monday I drove down to the Polzeath solo for my first surfing lesson. Because no one else is as barmy to enter the sea for 2hrs a week after Britain’s biggest snowfall, I was not only the only person in the lesson but also the only person in that small section of the ocean. Nonetheless, I’m keen to keep going and improve.
I have had to sit down with pen and paper and work out what I want to do. It feels bizarre, going back to square one almost like the athlete career never happened. Where do my strengths lie outside of cycling or running as fast as I can? How can I turn my strengths into a new career? Essentially, I am now working from the bottom upwards in anything I choose next.
The skills I could identify are my motivation, perseverance and desire to work hard. Elements that I am now directing into working for myself. I now work self-employed as a private Personal Trainer and coach. I offer training to clients in their own home or outside, with a running focus - an area that I am both passionate about and like to think I know more from my own trial and error experiences that one could otherwise learn from a textbook. I coach a number of Triathlon clubs locally or further afield as either a one-off or more regularly.
In addition to this, I this week begin my training as an Officer in the Royal Navy Reserves. This as far as I am concerned may well be my missing link. In my eyes, the military is a lifestyle not a career, just like that of an athlete. It will reintroduce to me the non-negotiable discipline and organisation which I have thrived off before.
There are now lots of little elements that make up my new life, rather than one huge one that bulldozes everything else. I would never take back the life I led, the places I got to go and the things that I learnt from races that went to plan, and the races that (really really) didn’t. Don’t live in the past, don’t worry about the present, but take the elements from both phases that will make the future wonderful. It is now time to carve out a new life, and boy, what an exciting adventure this will be.