Sarah couldn’t run, and although triathlon inspired her, she never thought she’d be able to do it. Until two friends introduced her to Parkrun.
‘Let’s start off with a spot of reality,’ Sarah Kelman says. ‘I’m not ‘athletic’, and never have been. I was a chubby kid who could never hit a ball and was always chosen last for team sports. But I loved to cycle and would ride 15 miles for fun after school on my ‘gas pipe’ stead with three gears, and I loved to swim too, but I never won anything.’
‘At university my friends would run, but for some reason I never could. Whenever I got anywhere near building up to a 5k jog, I’d get a hip injury and end up unable to walk for a few weeks.’
Sarah first heard about the world of triathlon when she was 23, but doubted whether she’d ever be able to be a part of it. ‘I read about an event in Edinburgh, culminating with a run on Arthur’s Seat. It looked amazing but I thought “I could never do that!”.
Twenty years passed, and after two children, Sarah had all-but forgotten about her swimming and cycling days. Her running was still going nowhere, and then a friend introduced her to Parkrun, an organisation providing free 5k races every Saturday morning around the world.
Discovering that’s it’s ok to ‘shuffle’
I got the most motivating cheers from the marshals even if I finished last, I discovered that it was ok to gasp, shuffle and whinge! That motivated me to started shuffling a bit more – with two amazing friends who showed me that anyone can learn to run. One of them had gone from morbidly obese to marathoner in two years and the other was in respite from chronic ME. Realising that it was ok to be a bit rubbish to begin with, with lots of support, inspired me to think that perhaps one day, I could do a triathlon after all.’
Nine months later after her first Parkrun, in summer 2014, Sarah entered her first triathlon, a Sprint Distance event with a river swim. Parkrun had become a regular part of her training, and cycling was back on the scene.
‘When my first triathlon rocked around I had no wetsuit, and the water was freezing! The klaxon sounded and the river turned into a torrent of cold, muddy slimy water filled with flailing limbs. “Why did I think I could do this!” I thought. I couldn’t even put my head in the water, not even a little bit. I panicked and nearly gave up. Breast stroke saved me, but I must have looked like a bit of a muppet – but I was determined to get it done.’
After ‘an eternity’, Sarah’s swim was over and she was well on her way to being a triathlete. Her body chattered in T1. ‘I felt awful, and my swim was a personal worst. But as soon as I was on my bike, I was smiling again! I nailed the ride and there myself into the run with renewed determination.’
Sarah’s running buddies cheered her over her first tri finish line. ‘I was in tears,’ she says. ‘Crossing that line was the most monumental feeling in the world. I had conquered swim demons and twenty years of self-doubt. I was inspired after that, and entered a half Iron for the following year!’
‘I conquered my swim demons and twenty years of self-doubt’.
Sarah had nine months to prepare for her first Half iron distance. ‘I was a member of a few online forums,’ Sarah says, ‘and I remember seeing the phrase “only a half” used quite a lot. The people on there seemed to be doing a lot less training than me, so I thought “what the heck” and switched up to a full Ironman!
‘I asked my husband whether he’d prefer an autumn weekend lazing in Majorca or cheering me on at Challenge Weymouth. To my astonishment, he chose Weymouth!’ Sarah laughs.
Training volume for a full Iron distance was a huge challenge for Sarah, who works 10-14hr shifts and looks after two children. ‘Training plans always assume you have weekends free! I had to juggle each week around and avoid back-to-back big sessions,’ she says. Alongside these challenges, she was growing concerned about not finishing her big race. ‘A DNF was a distinct possibility,’ she says. ‘I realised that the course was tough – big hills and potentially a very wavy swim, I was getting seriously wound up,’ Sarah recalls.
All the worry became a bit much for Sarah, so she decided to switch plans again, and go for a flatter Ironman. The catch? It was only a month away. ‘The Immortal Full at Stourhead was a lake swim, which I felt more relaxed about. Because of the change in plans, I ended up going it alone!’
Ironman Race Day
On race day, Sarah’s demons returned in the lake. ‘I had a terrible swim in that soupy green water,’ she says. ‘I was very cold.’ Once again, though, the bike section warmed her spirits, until she got bored. ‘Lap three of the 112 mile ride was a mental struggle. I couldn’t wait for the run!’
Sarah’s legs felt fresh on the run, and despite a massive energy dip at 25km, she was first lady in her age group! ‘I could barely wheel my bike the 1km back to the car to drive home, but I had done it – this Ironman malarkey wasn’t so bad,’ Sarah says.
Having achieved her Ironman goal, Sarah could have hung up her goggles. But she was still signed up to Challenge Weymouth, and felt tempted to do that one too…
‘It was so tempting to bin the race, I had achieved my goal,’ Sarah says. ‘Managing the training was a nightmare – I needed a very easy week after the Immortal, then a gentle reintroduction week, then I was already up to the two-week taper again, so I wasn’t on my best form. But I was determined. I arranged some sea swimming to get used to the swells,’ She said. The forecast was shaping up to be everyone’s worst nightmare with strong easterly winds and very wet weather!’
Second Ironman? Oh go on then.
Despite still recovering from Ironman #1, Sarah decided to head to her second just one month later.
‘I lined up on the shore and waited what seemed like an age! The swell was increasing and I couldn’t see any of the buoys, but once in the water, it was like a lovely scuba trip in the Mediterranean – I could see the bottom despite it being several metres deep, it was wonderful!
Sarah’s training had paid off. The hills on the bike proved to be no issue. ‘I had a strong ride despite the winds, ahead of time, I knew I just had to trot around the run for a good race,’ she says. Unfortunately, at 32km, disaster struck. The route went down a short ramp and Sarah caught it wrong, badly jarring her back. ‘This is my weak point – something went ‘twang! Suddenly, I couldn’t stand, let alone walk. Kind bystanders tried to help but I was hunched over like a pensioner. But I was going to finish that race – I slowly started to walk, but got freezing cold. So I nicked a bin liner from a feed station to warm me up! Sarah laughs.
‘If you think you’re rubbish but you are up for a challenge – go for it. As they say in Ironman, anything is possible!’
‘The feeling as I crossed my second Ironman finish line in a month was incredible,’ Sarah says. ‘If you think you’re rubbish at something, but you enjoy it and are up for a challenge, then go for it. The training is long and requires commitment, but if you’re determined and prepared to confront those demons then, as they say in Ironman, anything is possible. Thanks to my Parkrun beginnings, now even I believe it!’