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Mara is tackling her phobia of swimming by taking on Ironman Bolton


Mara has a background in running but has decided to take on Ironman Bolton in an attempt to #defyexpectationstogether


Mara from The Fit Londoner (, social media: twitter - @thefitlondoner. Instagram: @mara.thefitlondoner ) 

What’s your involvement in triathlon ? 

As I write this, I’m in week 6 of my training for Ironman UK 2018 - 15 July 2018. I have never completed a triathlon before. Either way, to do Ironman, with or without my triathlon experience,  I’m either brave, crazy or stupid. Or a mixture of all three. You tell me! But taking on this challenge bears so many meanings to me. It’s not just important for me, it’s important for others, which I’ll go into later. I’ve never done a triathlon before for two reasons: the cost but also due to a phobia of deep water, which has set me back from swimming. The moment I can’t touch the floor of a pool, or the sea-bed, I get into a state of panic.  
Favourite Discipline of Triathlon; Swim, Bike or Run ? (Why?)
I come from a running background, though I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into one particular sport. I love spending time in the gym lifting weights. Long-distance running is what I’ve pretty good at. It’s what I’m comfortable with. But Ironman training is about putting me out of my comfort zone. 
Why did you want to do triathlon ?
Swimming is one of my weakest disciplines. Everyone tells me that this is is often the case with triathletes. But it’s hard to relate to this when part of your weakness in swimming is down to a phobia. Six weeks into my triathlon training, I feel like I’m making progress with swimming and now I look forward to my ‘swimterval’ sessions and long swims: I thought these would be the sessions I’d dread. And actually, I’m writing this after completing my first swim session in the 50m pool. The depth of the pool really scared me. I wasn’t sure at which stage of my IM training I’d dip my toes into that pool, but I did it today.
The first few laps were more like thrashing about as I tried to build up my confidence, but the more I did my warm up, the more the confidence built. By the end of the session, I managed to move up to a middle lane to avoid the breastroke swimmers. I definitely don’t feel 100% confident in that pool but today has been huge progress for me, even if it might not sound that much of a big deal to others. 
The bike is my other weak discipline. It’s down to the fear of not being fast enough and getting a flat tyre. How crazy is that? I know. I find it so hard to replace my tyres, I have to have help when I do it and I don’t know how I’d cope in that kind of situation during a sportive or triathlon. Have you noticed how much fear plays a part in this preparation for Ironman? There are so many fears I need to get over.

I’ve named my bike Bertie and I’m learning so much about him. When I first bought him in September this year, I genuinely could not get on the saddle properly. I had absolutely no idea where the gears were on a road bike, let alone how to change them. It’s been years since I went cycling. The second time I took Bertie out, he got a flat tyre. I didn’t realise the tyres he came with were performance tyres, not suitable for road cycling. The third time time I took Bertie out, I hurtled down a steep hill on a very, very windy day, fell over and cut myself severely (it’s still healing) but more importantly, the rear derailleur and hanger on Bertie broke (‘Hillgate’). I hadn’t even started Ironman training. I had Bertie for less than a month and was already taking him to the local bike shop for a repair. The embarrassment was real. The guy at one bike shop I took Bertie to for a quote, told me I didn’t have the skills to ride a road bike like Bertie. I was determined to prove him wrong. When I picked Bertie up from my bike shop, I left him in the garden and refused to look at him or go near him for a few weeks. Week two into Ironman training and I realised I needed to not let Hillgate get in the way. On the plus side, these incidents with Bertie have led me to learn about my bike - I had no clue what a derailleur, crank or drive set were, before buying Bertie. 
I know I have the capability and endurance to swim the 2.4 mile swim segment at Ironman, but it’s a matter of building up my confidence. I know I have the capability and endurance to cycle 112 miles in a good time but again it’s about building up my confidence. It’s going to take a billion baby steps, but I will get to to that start line at Ironman UK, 15 July 2018, with a new found confidence in two of the disciplines with a new skillset. Doing Ironman, is my way of proving to myself that I can overcome the fears I have. 
How did your journey into triathlon start ?
I love endurance sports and pushing myself to challenge my limits. That intense feeling of pain you have to overcome and mental strength you need in order to get to the finishing line is what I love. That feeling in your legs.The ups and downs you go through both during training and on race days. This is what I love. And what partly drove me to look at Ironman races. 
It’s not just those though. From my running background, I noticed that at both obstacle course races and long-distance running events, the ethnic diversity among participants dwindled, especially among women. There’s this drive in the UK to encourage female participation in sports, with initiatives like This Girl Can and Vitality’s Women in Sports, and overall this is working. But, if you break it down and look at the participation in ethnic minorities, how much have these numbers really changed? Look around at your next training session or race.


What motivated you ?

Choosing Ironman UK 2018 as my A race might be an extreme choice, but like I said, I know I have the capability of completing it. I chose it particularly because triathlons are stereotypically a wealthy white MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) sport. To a degree this is true. But it is also quite a white woman’s sport. Women are taking up triathlons in their numbers, but again, how ethnically diverse is this sport?  
It’s not just an issue at grassroots levels - sport brands and races need to be aware of this lack of ethnic diversity and do their part in making sports visibly diverse. They need to communicate with a wider audience and relate to them as well. So I will be working with races and brands during my Ironman training to encourage this ethnic diversity visibility.
My training to Ironman is equally a symbol of my Instagram hashtag #defyexpectationstogether, which is about encouraging people, particularly women, of different ethnicities, to face their fears and defy their own expectations or those that people may have of them. It might be swimming 2 laps in a 25m pool for the first time. Learning how to ride a bike as an adult. Completing your first run. It’s also why ’ve qualified as a personal trainer - to help encourage more women from different ethnicities to get into sports or be more active. 
What is your best moment in triathlon ?
Ask me this after I’ve done a few triathlons! For now, I’d say I am loving my turbo interval sessions and I really enjoyed my first ever double brick session last week. I can’t wait for the distance to build up on the brick sessions. Tired, jelly legs are one of my favourite post-training feelings. And the food afterwards...
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of giving triathlon a go ?
Ask yourself, why aren’t you doing it? What are you scared of? It takes me a while to process instructions and so I felt that one-to-one swimming lessons were better for me than group sessions; there are lots of triathlon swimming coaches across the country to choose from.
I want to complete Ironman. But, I also want to complete it in the best possible time that I can. My lack of triathlon experience means that I couldn’t really create a plan in the same way I’ve made my own marathon and ultra training plans. Get a coach - through my research, I was surprised they aren’t as hard on the bank as I thought they would be. My coach, Jon Brown, not only has done a lot of Ironman races, he’s done IM Bolton as well, so has better perspective on what kind of sessions I need and what the course is like and is coaching several other IM first-timers. 

Alternatively, a cheaper (and just as good) option, is join a tri club. There’ll be people in the same boat as you. I’ll be joining a tri club in the new year as it’s time for me to meet similar people and doing long bike rides isn’t as fun as doing them with others, especially when you’re prone to getting lost even with a Garmin Edge. The British Triathlon site has a great list of tri clubs across the country HERE.
If cost is a big factor, there are ways of getting around this. I’m on a tight budget and have discovered clearance sales, eBay, FaceBook groups and online communities are great places to buy most triathlon kit at lower prices. One of my best bargains is a brand-new-with-tags (don’t worry, I wouldn’t buy them secondhand) Pearl Izumi cycling bibbed shorts for £10 because it was an unwanted present.  
Any other comments or thoughts ?
Follow me on my blog The Fit Londoner and my social media during my Ironman training. What is my Ironman journey might be different to yours: whether it’s completing your first swim, first 5km run, learning how to ride a bike or having the confidence to enter the free weights area in the gym. I want to show you that you can overcome these fears. Let’s defy expectations together.

Mara will be writing some updates for you to track her progress to Ironman Bolton in July.

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