Being stopped in your tracks
By the Menopause..
2014, aged 39, I lay on the bed sobbing. I hadn’t the energy, I had run out of steam. That year I had competed in Aix en Province half Ironman, I followed a five month training plan to the letter and trained for 18 hours a week. The seven years before I had been competing in Olympic distance Triathlons. I ran a Pilates studio, teaching for 30 hrs a week. I was raising two spirited teenage boys. I was tired, really tired. Looking back it was no wonder, but something wasn’t right. I have always had boundless energy, this year I also married Tim, my love, my biggest fan, support crew, steady step father, and all round best human being who stood shoulder to shoulder with me, and also dried my tears and told me I was doing a good job.
As it happens, at 37 I started to feel drained, I kept coming over ‘all funny’, I was getting hot and bothered all the time, I was anxious, I felt every bit of sorrow in the universe, I had become emotionally super sensitive. I worried about the boys, not just general stuff like have they brushed their teeth worries, but astonishingly irrational worries. I worried about everything. I wasn’t sleeping as I was being roused out of sleep by a hot sensation that started in the palms of my hands and souls of my feet that radiated throughout my whole entire body. I once woke up convinced I could smell gas and that we should get the hell out of the house. I put most of it down to being over tired. It got quite crazy, I went to the Dr’s, they ran some blood tests. And boom there it was Oestrogen levels way low, I was going through the Menopause.
I wasn’t a sporty child or adolescent. I was artistic. I have an Arts degree, arty people are rarely sporty. After my son Olly was born I started running (in 2000) and have never really stopped. In 2011 a girlfriend and I cycled 700kms in Northern Vietnam. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 11 and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Also that year I was asked to take part in my first team triathlon. I was asked to do the run leg and I had a decent 5k time of sub 21 minutes. I was a runner, marathons, half, 10k’s, I loved running.
The day of the triathlon I watched in awe as swimmers launched into a lake, freezing cold, very early one September morning. I couldn’t swim, never learnt. After being disturbed watching Jaws when I was nine years old, I was convinced I would get eaten alive in a swimming pool. I even went through a phase as a child of having to look behind me whilst sitting on the toilet, convinced something would emerge and take me down. But something sparked in me that day as I watched the swimmers, and it ignited a passion, albeit a little obsessive for the next seven years, I had found Triathlon. Slight hurdle to overcome though.
I had to learn to swim. Both my boys swim well, I watched them progress from babies, they had to love the water, I was certain they wouldn’t feel my fears. Never once had I the urge to learn to swim. I had never been out of my depth particularly, and could just about tread water in my Pajama’s if necessary. That I remember doing at school. As a child we never went on holiday, and I certainly didn’t have the privilege of swimming lessons like my boys. So I read EVERYTHING about swimming, I found a pool and started swimming. Kicking hard with my arms stretched out in front of me dipping my face in and out of the water (which I hated doing). 25 meters was a massive goal.
I swam everyday for the first year and that really is the truth (ok maybe not Christmas Day). I joined a swim club that met every Tuesday and Thursday lunchtimes called Swimfit and I was by far the worst. Everyone swam amazingly. David the group coach gave me every bit of encouragement that I needed, not that I needed a great deal as I am quite determined it turns out. He inspired me to keep trying to tickle the toes in front of me. I was seriously slow, and to this day I blame my ‘runners’ legs. I learnt only front crawl and four months in I signed up to do a 3k open water swim, having NEVER swam in open water. So that was next, come early spring my first experience was a complete disaster. Terrifyingly cold, the wetsuit was so tight around my neck I couldn’t breathe. I tried to put my face in the water but the shock sent me into panic. Lets not even talk about the demons lurking low in the murky waters…
If at first you don’t succeed….and of course I persevered, I had set myself a goal and being an upholder I was sticking to it. After seven months of learning to swim I found myself on a chilly (they are always chilly) morning treading water (still not very good at that, but the wetsuit gives you buoyancy) facing my biggest challenge yet.
We had pink caps on, about 50 women, I decided a women only race would be a good gentle start to my swimming career, goggles on and waiting. The klaxon sounded loudly, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Everyone surged forward, I hung back thinking basically I’m going to drown. I got going and about 30 metres in, disaster struck. My ‘lucky’ goggles snapped, (I had fiddled with them and tightened them so much with nervous anticipation). I suddenly became the biggest NON swimmer out there, my goggles gave me security, without them I was going no where. You are told if you get into trouble just lay on your back and put your hand in the air, well I couldn’t think straight and somehow thrashed my way back to the start, ( I have no idea how that happened), thinking I can’t even lay on my back and float, I’d never even tried doing that before..
So I hauled my body out and sat in shock on the jetty, by this point the stronger swimmers were almost completing the first 750m lap. Trying to compose myself, my legs were like jelly and I was shaking so much with cold and adrenaline, I said to myself that’s it, that’s over then, just get back to the car and get warm. What the hell was I thinking anyway?! I clearly wasn’t ready in the slightest, no way. And this is what happened next: A lady marshal in her 50’s asked me what happened and I explained that my goggles snapped and that is was ok, I just want to go home. ‘Hang on’ she said ‘there’s a bucket over there with spare goggles, go grab some and get yourself back in’. I protested politely and said ‘NO but thanks, really.’ What she wouldn’t have understood at that point is how utterly terrified I was and that my ‘lucky’ goggles were the only pair in the whole wide world that were going to assist me in swimming 3k( I had trialled so many pairs, it was a joke).
‘Don’t be silly’ she said, I rolled my eyes like a teenager and dutifully went to peer into the bucket, which in hindsight I should have used to throw up in, but I showed willing just to get her off my case. FORTUNATELY they were all mens, all large, all wrong and hallelujah I’m going home! ‘WAIT’ she exclaimed I have mine in the car, and off she runs. I stood there thinking what the hell? What the actually F*@k. Is this really happening? At this point the swimmers are almost two laps in by the way, sure enough like a flash she returned with two sets of goggles.
Again, I said ‘look really kind of you but I don’t want to get back into that water and I’m absolutely 100% ok with that, ok?’ ‘Not ok’ she said. ‘Put the goggles on, she was a little stern which could of gone two ways but I found myself complying. ‘Listen’ she softened ‘ I don’t care what happens today, I want you just to jump back into that water, swim to the first buoy and back, then you can go home, deal?’ I actually started to cry, ‘ I don’t think you understand (of course she did) this is all new, I have a fear of the water, I have made a huge mistake, I’m terrified and I just cant, I’m sorry” I sat down in protest still holding onto her goggles. Then this happened: She started to undress, to my relief, surprise and dread she had a bright orange swimming costume on underneath, she took my hand, ‘come on, we will do this together’ Was this woman out of her mind? She said ‘get the goggles on, we are going to jump in together, that’s all, then you can get out’ I was in such shock that I didn’t really have time to think about it ( however I do remember thinking get this god dam woman off my case). So, three, two, one we jumped. To my utter surprise the goggles stayed put and we bobbed up like two corks, she must have been freezing, Her eyes never left mine, ‘few strokes?’ She pleaded. My heart rate would have been 200 I swear, we remained still for a minute eyes locked. I decided to start swimming to the first buoy, that’s it, no further, and we did, together, I had her orange swimsuit on my right hand side the whole way, 20 freaking metres. I had a choice, I could turn round and swim back or I could carry on, and that’s what I decided to do, for that woman. With no word or signal I just swam, I found myself on the course with a mantra that went over and over until my heart rate settled, ‘bubble bubble, breathe’. I completed the four laps, 3 kilometres, at one point a guy in a canoe with a flask of tea paddled along side me, probably thinking I may drown at any point. I surrendered and found a rhythm, a flow, and I remember the swim being very peaceful given the struggle.
I exited the water, second from last (yes that’s right!) and she was there (dressed) , our eyes met, she cried, I cried and that was the start of something truly amazing. That lady was a gift to me, we didn’t know it at the time but she was the reason that Triathlon became my next big passion. I’m convinced I would have left that lake (had I not gone back in) and stopped swimming altogether. Instead that was the start of a fabulous journey with many many more strokes to come. That lady was a gift.
So I spent the next seven years pushing boundaries, always slightly out of my comfort zone. I went to Mallorca early springtime and trained with proper age group athletes, I acquired a series of bike upgrades ( that was fun). I swam in seas, rivers, lakes and lidos. I ran tracks, trails, mountains, and cities. I cycled everywhere and hunted hills. I met a brilliant community of triathletes. I succumbed to taking HRT in this time and it truly lifted me. I still had good days and bad but my anxiety was reduced and I could sleep. There was a nagging feeling that I wasn’t fully listening to my body, it was asking me to slow down. Teaching Pilates is a fairly physically demanding job and it takes a lot from you. So something had to give.
My last race in 2015 was Aix en Provence, a stunning course, beautiful lake swim ( horrendously physical start) the bike ride was the moment for me where time stood still and something shifted, that’s the only way I can describe it. I had been so convinced I would get a puncture, I was worrying I wasn’t eating or drinking enough, cramp was starting in my feet, by the time I actually lifted my head up to breathe I was about 30k into the 90km course. I was going through a very flat section purple mountains ahead, the scenery was breath taking but I couldn’t afford the breath, and that’s when a voice inside my head said, slow down, you’re missing this. I had become fixated with times and numbers and stats that I had begun to loose the joy, I couldn’t even appreciate the view. And I was tired, so tired my body wanted to stop.
I have never been so relieved to finish, the run was the biggest endurance (aside from childbirth) of my life. But I felt like I’d achieved a massive goal and I was happy with the race. However that voice got louder. I got home had a lot of moments of crying on the bed, I took some time off. Scaled my work schedule down a tad, stopped training and had to go through a transition of not beating myself up for not training, this I found hard. At that point I had been running for 16 years, triathlon for seven, I needed a break. By the way, I’m one of those slightly obsessive people if you hadn’t noticed, when I do something I do it..
*a note: The one consistency in my physical life has been Pilates. I have been practising and teaching for 18 years. I absolutely adore The Method, it has kept me strong, pretty much injury free and sane. It has given me so much more, I couldn’t imagine life without it. And yes, I think it is absolutely brilliant to ease you through Menopause. I started practising Yoga, gently, carefully knowing not to get competitive with it. I introduced meditation, again without trying to make it my next big obsession.
I tread lightly these days. When I was first told at 37 I was going through the menopause I was in denial, I felt it wasn’t fair, I was embarrassed, I felt like life was slipping through my fingers. Some of my friends were just starting their families! I felt my life just stopped, having been very driven, active and determined, I lost my joy and that drive. My path seemed to fizzle out, I wasn’t sure of my direction anymore. The menopause made me fuzzy, forgetful, and low. Having entered into my second marriage I was young enough to have more children, but that was taken away. The very feeling of not being able to have children anymore is quite frankly sad.
Seven years in and I’m feeling a shift again. Over the last year a more dramatic one. And it’s this, I am starting to feel that this is a special time. A time to reevaluate and put your health ( which includes mental health) first. Given that I am incredibly grateful to be gracing this beautiful planet, I feel life is a gift, like that woman. We have a choice, keep swimming up stream, feel the sun on your face, walk barefoot, eat nutritiously laden food, move our bodies with grace, be strong and centred, breathe well, meditate, jump in when you feel scared and don’t let life pass you by, love and be loved, its a gift.
These words by Susan Sontag from the book The double Standard of ageing pretty much sum it up for me..
“Women have another option. They can aspire to be wise, not merely nice; to be competent, not merely helpful; to be strong, not merely graceful; to be ambitious for themselves in relation to men and children. They can let themselves age naturally and without embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the conventions that stem from this society’s double standard about ageing. Instead of being girls, girls as long as possible, who then age humiliatingly into middle-aged women, they can become women much earlier – and remain active adults, enjoying the long, erotic career of which women are capable, for longer. Women should allow their faces to show the lives they have lived. Women should tell the truth.”
*Today I am still on HRT, the advice is to take it for 10 years. Originally it went against everything I believed in, I went down every natural avenue I could find first, nothing helped. I stopped eating meat three years ago, one of the best decisions I’ve made for my health. A whole plant based diet works for me.
Thanks for reading xx