Cancer Fit Blog from Liz O’Riordan

I was the girl at school who avoided PE and games. During my 20 years of training to become a breast surgeon, I would join a gym every time I moved hospital and never go. I only started cycling when my husband bought a bike and did my first triathlon at the age of 40. Nine months later I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I wanted to carry on training during chemotherapy but couldn’t find any information and my doctors didn’t mention it. I found fellow athletes on Twitter who encouraged me to keep exercising, and I ran, swam and cycled during my chemo good weeks – very, very slowly, mind you. I even persuaded my local club to let me enter their pool-based sprint tri halfway thru chemo, after promising that I would be sensible. I was one of the last to finish, but that didn’t matter. The sense of achievement was amazing.

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It took two months to recover from my surgery, and radiotherapy wiped me out. But once my treatment had finished, I started to wonder - what could my body do now?

If people don't laugh at your goals, they're not big enough

I had signed up the year before to ride the Maratona with my husband in three months’ time, and went on a last-minute cycling camp to get some emergency miles in. It was there I met Tanja Slater who told me how she’d trained her Dad to race triathlons after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. With her backing, I signed up to do Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire the following year, which would be one year after finishing breast cancer treatment.

Back to the beginning

And that's where it got hard for me. I had to throw away all my ideas about training and ignore all the programs I had read that tell you what to do and when. I had to listen to my body, and most importantly my coach, and accept that there would be a lot of very, very slow jogging, cycling and swimming. Thanks to chemo, my heart rate would sky-rocket with the gentlest exercise and I had no real aerobic fitness to speak of. It was so frustrating seeing how slow I was on Strava, and in the end I stopped looking at the data. I had to stop comparing post-cancer me with pre-cancer me and learn to just enjoy being outside on my bike instead of staring at my computer chasing a heart rate zone.

Not plain sailing

There were a few set-backs along the way. I got a nasty bout of bronchitis after an open water swim that meant no training for 5 weeks. I also went back to work two months before the 70.3, so had to cope with the physical exhaustion of working again, as well as a two-hour commute on top of training. I hadn’t done a single brick session. I hadn't really done much swimming. Our plan was to get me round the course, safely, without breaking my body or my immune system. Speed could come next year.

Nothing new on race day

Thanks to 'chemo brain', I forgot my socks and brought my bike shoes instead of my tri shoes. Luckily my husband had a spare pair I could borrow. To top it all off, the weather was forecasting the hottest day of the year so far - 29-30C by the afternoon. I was planning on running in a neon pink wig for charity. I would melt! Had I brought my running cap that I always wear? No. Cue a last-minute dash to Tescos to buy a baseball cap.

Swim, Bike, Run and Done

I got really emotional standing on the pontoon before the swim start and started crying – crying for what I’d been through and for what I was about to do. A lovely woman next to me gave me a hug and then suddenly we were wading into the water. The water was lovely and warm and I actually enjoyed the swim, and was surprised at how quickly the time went. I knew the bike course was technical, and I needed to finish in 4 hours to give me 3 hours to complete the run. It got hotter and hotter, and the hills seemed steeper and steeper. The volunteers were amazing – giving us bottles of water to pour over ourselves, but I was glad to get back to T2, right on time.

By now it was 30 C, and I had to run a half-marathon. I had 3 hours to do it, and it would take me all of that time. It was a hilly three laps, and the crowds were amazing – cheering and singing and spraying us with water. My husband had managed to find Tanja, who had come to cheer me on, and it was great to see them cheering on every lap wearing their Morvelo F*CK CANCER socks.

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Finally, after 3 hours and 3 minutes, I turned the final corner to run down the red carpet - I had bloody done it!

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After having my body broken down by chemotherapy, I had rebuilt it and raced farther than ever before. The icing on the cake was meeting Lucy Gossage (I was a bit of a fan-girl) - Tanja knew Lucy and asked her to give me my medal. And now the 3 of us, together with Gill, have set up Cancerdoesn’t have to stop you exercising. Dream big. Let us help you get there.

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