Ordinary Women Being Extraordinary
Gill Bickle, 36, a dispensing optician from Brighton, last year qualified as an age group triathlete for the 70.3 distance and has a place at the world championships in 2018. An endurance woman through and through, Gill’s suffered with cancer, and a debilitating iron deficiency – as well as more recently concussion. She’s opted not to plan too much…
‘I didn’t plan on becoming an age group triathlete. I was ‘sort of’ sporty as a kid, then started smoking and partying. When I was around 26 a friend of mine was taking on the marathon, so I stopped smoking and started running. We didn’t have a structured training plan, all of It was hard and we did loads of training.
‘We coped with the long runs and miles by eating lots of sugary sweets and snacks – and we both put on weight, I think I put on about two stone. I had a plan to run to time not mileage and I think my Sunday long run got shorter as I got heavier! We had a goal of completing the marathon in around four and a half hours. By mile 20 I was walking and she’d left me, then when I started running again and caught up with her, she was walking. We crossed the finish line in five and half or maybe five hours 50 minutes – I’ve blocked it out. It was horrendous.
From Jogger to Runner
‘After that I gave up running for a while, but then another friend persuaded me to do the Dublin marathon. Then in 2010, Brighton launched its first marathon and I decided to take on the race being held in my home town. I joined a group, I trained, and ate properly, and I did have a plan. I ran the race in under four hours. By 2014, I’d got my time down to 3.31, which I ran two years in a row.
‘The journey to triathlon was almost accidental. At my fittest I somehow managed to do an unofficial Ironman event in around 13 hours, based mainly on my running fitness. I also did the Stafford 70.3 in 6 hours 45, again off running training. But it was when I was training for the Paris marathon and got injured, and then I ran injured and the injury lingered for four months, that I began to introduce swimming into my training. At around the same time I decided to have a break from the longer distance runs for marathon training. The plan was to try to get faster as I wanted to break 3.30 for the marathon, so I started to do sprint triathlon and shorter runs.
‘It wasn’t long before I had a new plan in place and I lined up for more endurance by entering a half Ironman. But in April 2016, all plans halted as I found a lump – and this lump turned out to be cancer.
A New Challenge
‘At first I hadn’t expected it to be serious. I’d toddled off to the doctor by myself, but when I’d been examined they asked me if there was anyone at home, and organised for me to see a MacMillan nurse as a follow-up, so I quickly worked out what was going on. Then the fear kicked in and I began to play out different scenarios in my head, and weigh up which was the least bad case (all of which were not great!).
‘There was a period of around six weeks when they were trying to work out what type of cancer I had and training was just for enjoyment not performance. Endurance training helped me, for example, when I was getting scanned for 20 minutes, I’d remind myself it was the same time as a park run. And I recovered quickly. Fortunately, it was a rare type of cancer and a simple operation removed it, followed by physiotherapy, radiotherapy and just two weeks of being out of running.
Best laid plans
‘After that I signed up for another half Ironman, this time in Kronborg Denmark, and the Brighton Marathon, and was considering a full Ironman. Training went really well and I was making great progress, but then in the last few weeks of marathon training I started to feel very tired. It had come on very suddenly, from feeling great to feeling awful. A blood test confirmed I had an iron deficiency, and there was a possibility that I’d had a stomach bleed which had accelerated the drop in energy.
‘The iron deficiency had left me feeling very run down. I was catching colds and tired, but until the test had confirmed it, I had believed I was over-trained, as the symptoms were similar. Bike rides were hard and slow, and I was running about two minutes per mile slower than my usual pace and barely able to make it up a hill.
‘It took a while for the iron reserves to build up. Training was patchy and inconsistent, but once the iron levels returned to normal, I felt completely different, so I decided to just go and do the half Ironman I’d signed up to and with around five weeks of proper training under my belt I headed off to the race. I did better than I thought, completing the race in 5’50 and taking 45 minutes off my earlier half Ironman time.
‘With this result under my belt and my confidence and health boosted I signed up for The Gloria 70.3 Ironman Turkey, being held just 12 weeks later. I wanted to see what good iron, good fitness and good training would result in. I had a terrible swim, and I think lost seven minutes in the swim and transition one. But with triathlon you never know what’s the best balance, because the bad swim might have helped me to work harder on the bike. I felt like I was in a good place to push myself on the run. I did and it was a good race. I did it in 5’31 which meant I qualified as an age group triathlete for the world championships.
Bike Training For Triathlon
‘My coach has worked on the basis that to get times quicker it has to come from cycling. This means that all training goes against what I want to do – which is to run. I have to look at the margins I can make and it’s always on the bike. So going forward from Turkey to South Africa this year, it will still be bike training as a focus. As you become more efficient on the bike, you’ll use less energy for less time, and this can serve you well on the run. And if you’ve been an endurance runner you’ve built up a mental resilience and you can tap into your runner’s mindset – the one that got you to do off-road runs in horrible weather on a Sunday morning.
‘I’ve had some tough times, but the people I’ve met through endurance training and racing have helped me and I have a great support network. I’ve been in my town for a long time and I’m an active member of running groups and a couple of clubs, including Brighton Tri Club and Brighton and Hove City Athletic’s Club. Sometimes I’ve leant on this group even more than my old friends, as we spend longer together out on training rides and runs.
The next race…
‘I’m really looking forward to my next race, but the last few years have given me some perspective. All the plans that I’ve made have changed. Most recently training was going well and then I came off my bike, got concussion and was out off training for three weeks (Fiona Bugler: Check out my story, Gill is in the ambulance with me).
‘Before, if I got injured or ill and couldn’t run, I’d get really upset, but now (particularly as I’m a triathlete) I let it go, and think if I can’t run, I can swim, or go on my bike. But one plan I do have, and that is to give the race in South Africa my best shot.’
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