Are you interested in what it must be like to be a uniquely successful champion athlete in two sports, but who decides to take on what might be one challenge too far..?

Rebecca Romero is a World Champion and Olympic silver medallist rower and a double World Champion and Olympic gold medallist cyclist. Now retired from professional sport she set herself the daunting challenge of completing a full Ironman event.  She recalls to WatchFit’s Guy Holland the harrowing ordeals of her training and preparation for something she described herself as “two thirds ill-suited to”!  

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I’d been in a very fortunate position to escape a rain lashed UK with its low temperatures and general grimness and had been basking in glorious sunshine in Mallorca. But I hadn’t been lazing around!

I went to get a seriously meaningful week of training and to compete in my first triathlon event –  a 70.3 Ironman which was a kind of ‘Half Ironman. All perfect timing for my build up to the full Ironman début in the UK a few weeks later.

By putting myself through half the distance – which believe me was more than enough for me at that point –  I’d be able to gauge how my training had been progressing, where I was physically and perhaps most importantly it gave me a serious taste of the competitive environment.

Since retiring from being a full-time athlete one of the things I had to adapt to was training effectively within a framework of drastically reduced hours per week. Training had to be built in and around a busy life, work commitments and the interminable studies for an MSc!

The hours of training for an Ironman, particularly for an absolute event novice, are brutally demanding and I really admire everybody who undertakes this kind of thing around work and family lives. It’s all very well being a professional athlete when your day is all about training, rest, training, rest, competing and repeat. This was a healthy dose of ‘real life’!

So I could no longer put all my effort and focus on training like I used to which was kind of ironic because I had never been more out of my depth! But it was also good because the restrictions spiced things up a bit and really made ‘smart training an absolute necessity.

And I can’t deny that I enjoyed having a more balanced and varied life outside the stifling confines of elite professional sport. Training is less all-consuming and therefore not likely to feel like a chore – even if  rather painful at times!

Rebecca Romero back cycling ironman_4

However that week in Mallorca I managed to put everything else to one side (no studying…Yippee!), concentrate on my training and it was brilliant. Feeling the warmth of the sun on me for the first time in ages was wonderful. There’s no doubt it makes a difference in my ability to train effectively. For a long time I have suspected I am some kind of solar powered machine and this was further evidence!

My first 10 week block of training for Ironman concentrated on the swimming and running disciplines which were totally new sports for me. I tried to be completely candid about my struggles and my gradual progress.

I know some of you might think I was being deliberately self deprecating, but if anything I probably downplayed  by stumbling, hobbling, gasping, splashing forays into two thirds of the Ironman requirements. I came into those pursuits as an absolute non-runner and swimmer – authentically awful at both. But progress was made (it had to be!) and then I was able to turn attentions to the bike – something I do actually know a little bit about.

Rebecca Romero back cycling bike_1

Having said that I was frustrated to see quite how far I’d slipped back on my cycling performance. I came to realise this is one of the difficulties all triathletes face. It is so important but quite tricky to get a great training balance between all three disciplines.

It might be impossible to give all three as much focus as might be wanted. Strengths and limitations will invariably exist between each discipline and recovery constraints will also be a significant factor. It seems to be pretty much accepted that there will always be one discipline with which you are playing catch up.

Before going out to Mallorca I assessed my progress and concluded that I’d reached a level which sees me on target for my swimming and running. So my focus was to get cycling miles in and build my strength back up on the bike.

The weather there, the terrain and the hours available meant I was able to make some good progress and I was confident of restoring some of the old cycling ability into my legs.

I looked forward to competing in the Half Ironman but I was also apprehensive and nervous. The event was a 1.9km open water sea swim, a 90km bike ride taking in a 14km 1980ft climb and then a half marathon.

Rebecca Romero back cycling ironman_3

I could cycle that distance no problem but I finished it tired when doing it at race pace. I’d run a half marathon distance in training three times and I’d even swum 1.9km in the pool, albeit only once. But I’d never strung all three together. Therefore I had absolutely no idea how the bike would fair after the swim and the run after the bike.

In truth I was quite worried about the swim. It really was a long way and if you knew mmy previous swimming abilities you’d know that it was a monumental achievement for me to even contemplate covering that distance! I was not a great swimmer. I pretty much started my training from scratch and two lengths of freestyle came seriously close to an undignified shallow end drowning incident.

My progression in the pool was pretty good though and I had just been introduced to open water swimming out in Mallorca. It had been too cold to attempt it at home and my strength and endurance had only just allowed me to tackle longer open water sessions.

Pulling on my wetsuit for the first time was exciting but I wasn’t prepared for the shock of what sea swimming was going to throw at me. We’ve all mucked about in the sea on holiday but that is not exactly preparation! The initial wash of cold water seeping into my wetsuit and over my face took my breath away and some panic began to set in as I could not settle into a rhythm and make distance through the water.

The inconsistent chop of the wind and the waves disrupted any flow and the unpleasant sensation of salt water finding its way into my nose, mouth and throat was an unwelcome and debilitating distraction. And probably my biggest problem was knowing I no longer had that welcome crutch of a comfy wall every 25 metres or the cosy lane ropes to hang on to and guide me in a vaguely straight line!

And then there was the daunting prospect of a 1500 strong massed start. The mayhem of this vast number of people dashing into the water was something I tried and prepare for but it’s not something you can exactly simulate! It was always going to be particularly hard because I find the found the first 10-15  minutes of swimming very hard as my body settled into it.

So my first half Ironman target was to survive the swim! A modest hope perhaps but a sensible one! Assuming I did my overall target was to string together all three disciplines at my full Ironman target race pace and to practice pacing and nutrition strategies for the longer distance. The event was an invaluable learning process and told me exactly where I stood with 10 weeks remaining to the ‘Main Event’.

Rebecca Romero back cycling ironman_5

* Next time we’ll find out how Rebecca goes on!

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