Inspiring Women 4: Siobhán Sheils

You may remember from my last blog post that the roof has fallen in at the local pool! This means I’ve been travelling to Coleraine to swim and I’ve met lots of new people as a result of moving training venue 🙂 . The female changing area is very lively – even early in the morning. When I heard about Siobhán’s current challenge (swimming the equivalent of the Channel during the month of October to raise funds for Macmillan) I wanted to hear more about some of the other challenges she’d done. I was thrilled she agreed to be interviewed for my adventure blog, and here’s what she had to say:

In a nutshell:  ‘Siobhán is still evolving and learning on her journey to become the best human being she can.’
Age: 59 (and 6 months – isn’t just important for Adrian Mole!)
Trains at: Coleraine Leisure Centre
Work: Probation Officer. Specialises in working with those who have committed sexual, domestic violence and public protection offences

1. You’ve done several adventurous challenges over the last few years. Can you tell us what you’ve done and why you decided to take on each particular challenge? My first challenge was in 2015 and it was to climb the highest peak in each province of Ireland.  I fell into this by accident.  I’d always been interested in hill-walking but hadn’t really followed up on it during my married life.  I moved from Derry and made a New Year resolution that I would join a club and swallow any lack of confidence and ‘just go for it’,  Sod’s Law : I met a girl who has become a great friend/walking buddy and we discovered how similar our life experiences were.

Ironically she had lived a few streets away from me and we’d never met before my move out of the town.  Rhonda was uber fit and I just decided I’d just try my best.  We completed Lugnaquilla (Leinster) the last Saturday in May; Mweelrea (Connaught) – without a doubt the most arduous but most rewarding – June; Carrantouhill – highest in Ireland (Munster) July; and Slieve Donard (Ulster) Aug 2015.  Falling on your backside in front of everyone and having to run into bushes to pee is a great equaliser and a reminder we’re all alike.

My next challenge was a 2.5 km swim for Foyle Hospice.  Again, I just fell into this.  After the previous one, I liked the idea of challenging myself/setting a goal more and more.  It was for a very worthwhile cause and Foyle Hospice do incredible work for the terminally ill.  I went to the pool where lots of super strong swimmers were making it look so easy.  I completed it in 1 hour and 29 minutes.  It was funny as, at length 50, I was being clapped for achieving this.  The expression on people’s faces when I continued to the 100 lengths….  I was the last one out.

Without a doubt (in terms of camaraderie) the best challenge was walking the Dublin Marathon (October 2017).  I can’t run because of my ‘gammy’ knee, so thought I’ll try this.  It was incredible walking with others and encouraging each other on.  The laughs we had at ourselves were brilliant.  About 2 miles from the end the finishers in their shirts were out encouraging us to finish.  Brilliant.

2018 – Lap the Lough.  It was a beautiful summer and I decided to take out ‘Betsy’, my very heavy touring bike.  Each day I cycled about 25 miles before/after work.  I went with one of the guys from my spin class one Saturday and we did 40 miles in 3 hours and I didn’t get off my bike once.  Usually if I hit a big hill I get off and walk as I can’t stand up when cycling so everything is being done from seated position and that can be tough.  I thought I’ll  certainly give it a go and try my best.  On the day of the cycle it poured from the heavens and I was soaked right down to my knickers.  I did the 96 miles in under 8 hours.

2018 – Dulux London Revolution:  300 km cycle around London.  I was one of the ‘weekenders’ ( ie. we cycled 103.5 miles on the Saturday, camped overnight in Windsor Racecourse, and cycled 87 miles on the Sunday).  One of the girls in work saw this and suggested it for me.  In hindsight, while I’m happy that I did it, it was probably a bit too much in terms of my fitness levels at the time.  I spent most of the cycle on the Saturday berating myself about how silly I was etc. It was very difficult too knowing that there was more to come the next day.   After being frozen into the tent on the Saturday, listening to some man in another tent loudly singing his own praises, farting or snoring, I decided I was definitely getting on that bike and trying to finish it. It was funny I was dressed in my shorts and trainers with a bottle of Evian water on my hired road bike.  I initially felt very out of place amongst these incredible athletes who were putting on/taking off clothing in sections.  However on one particularly difficult hill at mile 85 on the Saturday a number of them were walking alongside me saying they wished they had trainers as their feet were killing them!

This year I also climbed Carrantouhill again – this time the Devil’s Ladder and descent via Heavenly Gate.  Not good for the knees!  Great achievement and a beautiful day.  To stand at the top of Ireland and be able to see all around – glorious.

I haven’t a notion what’s next.  Maybe next year (my 60th) I’ll challenge myself to no challenge!!

2. Your current challenge is a water-based one. Can you tell us all about it and let us know how you’re getting on with it? My current challenge is to swim the virtual Channel.  That’s 22 miles.  It’s in aid of MacMillan Cancer and I love the idea I don’t have to get into dirty water.  I’m completing a mile a day (I’ve cheated and have had a few days with a few extra yards in order to give myself some leeway).  At this point I’m officially at mile 13 (but in fact have 14.69 miles done).

3. Tell me a little bit about your training regime if you have one. (How often do you train? How do you balance the requirements of training with your work/life?) For most of the events that I take part in I don’t really follow a formal training regime.  For example, when walking and swimming I’m getting fitter each time – so there’s continuous improvement.    No matter what I’m doing I like to complete 15,000 steps each day.  It’s surprising how little of those are during routine things like work or housekeeping so it means adding some walks into my day.  I do this by parking my car about a mile away from work and walking back/forth – if my diary allows.  I really like mornings so I try to do something (walk, swim, cycle -not in winter).  I’m really lucky too that I own my diary, although there are a number of times when I just can’t factor in an exercise.  I no longer let that bother me.

4. What has undertaking these challenges given to you that you didn’t expect? I think my confidence as a person has grown as I’ve undertaken the challenges – not about winning but just about acknowledging my capabilities and willingness to push myself.  I try to incorporate some mindfulness into my exercise routines and feel this has improved my general sense of well-being as well as my ability to be more tolerant of myself and others.

5. I know you from the pool and I see you ploughing up and down at full force. It’s impressive and inspiring! Do you think swimming is a good sport for older women to take up? Swimming is amazing and, as you can see, I don’t do it prettily.  No Sonia O’Sullivan here lol!  I always laugh about the ways I can manoeuvre my body in the water and do moves such as lunges when sometimes I struggle with my knee holding me up.  I think swimming also improves female flexibility and is a great way of boosting confidence – not sure why the latter (maybe it’s having to fight off the men who nearly mow you down 😉 ).

6. As a woman on the other side of the menopause , how do you view your body? Who hasn’t said it?  If only I had a shred of the confidence/self-image that I have now when I was a teenager!  I think I definitely have more respect for my body – I also do a number of no alcohol challenges – September Dryathon; Sober for October; November; Dry January; Feb Fast; Lent and Summer Six-Pack Challenge.  My daughter says she’s given up trying to come home at a time I am drinking.  I think I know my limitations – and that’s not lack of confidence but because I’m aware of what I can/cannot do.

The menopause first affected me through night sweats.  At that time in my life, I lived alone and it was great!  I could throw the bedclothes off/on as I wanted without worrying about anyone else.  I also had hot flushes – generally whenever someone asked me a direct question – my face/neck went bright red as though I was lying through my teeth lol.

I think there was a period (before the challenges) when I became extremely emotional and weepy and fearful about things I hadn’t previously paid any attention to.  For instance, I would lock the car doors when driving through a town in the evening.  I had gained weight prior to starting the challenges but have since gained more muscle. I know I don’t have an athletic build and I’m not small – sometimes I laugh to myself when I see the reaction of people when I say I’ve done such and such.   I think weight is something that I will always struggle with but it doesn’t bother me too much.  I threw out scales about 7 years ago.   I’m a naturally greedy eater, although I generally try to eat unprocessed foods as much as possible.  I’m better at that during Lent – what’s that all about?!!

In terms of mental ability – I’ve never noticed any particular deficits – nothing extra anyway lol 😉 .

7. People talk about women feeling ‘invisible’ once they have gone through the menopause. What do you think about that? Is it true for you? I do think that, over a certain age, women are invisible.  I look back to when I was younger and trying to cross a road and firmly believe that as a woman gets older less cars stop.  Similarly the older I become I feel that males (swimmers) don’t see me.  However, I don’t think though that it’s a feeling that comes from menopause but I can see how if someone is feeling emotionally vulnerable they could connect events when in fact I think older women are invisible to men generally!  I don’t think women are invisible to women though!  I think most adults are invisible to teenagers!  Not sure if that makes sense.

8. Are there any upsides for you about being on the other side of the menopause?  Yes.  I’m glad the night-sweats have stopped and mostly the flushes too.  I think though that I’ve reached another stage of my life and I’m not 100% sure that’s attributable to being post-menopausal or whether I was at a stage of change anyway.  I think on reflection though the menopause is a great opportunity for reflection and moulding your world.

9. What do you have in your sights? (What will you do after your swimming challenge?) I’m not sure.  That’s what I like about this.  I just see something and think  will I/won’t I?  I like the thought/feeling though that the reason not to is not because I don’t think I am capable but rather that it doesn’t appeal to me.

10. What’s your number one piece of advice for post-menopausal women? This is not a rehearsal.  Have a blast.  Be the best you want to be.  Always remember you are incredible and all those experiences have not stopped you one jot.  Ditch the self-help books.

Siobhán’s answers certainly give a lot of food for thought! I’m just going outside to have  wee think about things – and I may be some time 🙂 . (By the way, if you’re new to my blog, you can find more out about my #OldDogNewTricks project here.)

JT 🙂

Inspiring Women 2: Hazel Smallman

Today’s post is an interview with the inspiring masters track athlete, Hazel Smallman. I met Hazel at the Midland Masters Athletics Championships in Nuneaton this June. We were racing the same distances (400m and 800m) and shared the excitement of collecting our silver medals together!

Hazel Smallman (56) is a mum of one, wife to the long-suffering Mike and works as a  mentor and pastoral officer for apprentices at a large college. She discovered running in her fifties. After trying a half marathon she decided less was more and has moved into track. Hazel lives in Wolverhampton and is a member of  Wolverhampton and Bilston Athletics Club. She was a silver medallist for the 400m at MMAC this year.

Hazel in action – looking relaxed and focused!

1. You only took up track athletics this year. What inspired you to start? I’ve always preferred shorter distances and loved the idea of track. I’d tried it a couple of years ago but most of the groups that did track consisted of extremely speedy teenagers. Sadly, most people I ran with seemed to prefer longer distances. After missing most of last year through injury I decided that now I was able to run again, I was going to do the type of running that I wanted to do, even if it meant I did it on my own.

2. Tell me a little bit about your training regime.  Having decided to commit to track I got in touch with a friend who is a coach. He had always encouraged me to give it a go in the past so I asked him for coaching. Garry draws up a schedule for me every week and takes into account my working week and any other commitments for that week. I’m lucky because I work part time so I can find time most days to train. I usually do 2 or 3 track sessions a week together with some gentle runs. I help coach a C25K group on Saturday mornings and that is always built into my training.

I usually train alone following the sessions that we have agreed. Because Garry and I always discuss how I got on I find this gives me the discipline to push myself in the sessions. He also comes to some of the sessions and some of the races that I enter.

I also do a couple of gym sessions a week as I have found that I need to keep my legs strong to cope with the rigours of track running.

Competition preparation generally involves lots of chocolate and much soul searching about why I agreed to enter!! My lovely coach will, however, make sure that the actual sessions relate to the distance that I am running e.g. 400m or 800m.

3. What has running/competing given to you that you didn’t expect? Running has introduced me to new friends and gives me the energy and enthusiasm to enjoy life. It has taught me that I’m stronger and more focused than I realised. I don’t think I realised just how much was involved. People always say put one foot in front of the other and that’s all you need to know. However, I guess like most things, the more involved you get, the more you realise how little you know.

When I first started running 5 years ago I entered 5K and 10K races and did well at them. Track is completely different. It’s much more exposed and the other competitors are fast! I’ve had to accept that there’s a lot to learn and a lot more training before I will feel competitive enough. However, I have also learnt that I’m brave enough to enter races knowing that I will come in behind everyone else. That’s a huge thing for me, putting myself out there when I know I will struggle.

Following on from that, running has given me so much support. Every competitor genuinely respects the effort that goes into each race and respects their fellow runners.

I think I’m still working out which distance suits me best. This year is a year of learning for me and I’m happy to look at other track distances and see which I like. At the moment I’m still veering towards shorter. Sometimes, the thought of a second lap is one lap too many!!

Hazel working hard! I’d say that’s Hazel’s 800m face! (Mine is similar 😉 )

4. Are you a member of a club? Do you get coached? How many sessions a week? Are you doing a cross-country season this year? Although I am a member of a running club, this year I have mostly been training alone. I have coaching from Garry Palmer at Sportstest. We discuss how the previous week has gone, look at any races or future events and then plan a week’s training. This will usually include relevant track sessions and other runs as well. I usually run 5 times a week, probably around 20 – 25 miles a week. There’s always a complete rest day but on easier days I will do gym sessions as well.

I have tried cross country in the past but won’t be doing it this year. I tore my meniscus last year. Track and what I like to call ‘straight line’ running work well for me. I don’t particularly enjoy cross country racing and know that the terrain aggravates my knee if I run fast on that type of surface.

5. Why do you think athletics is a good sport for older women to take up? I love the fact that there is age grading. This means that you can compete against people of a similar age.  There’s good camaraderie amongst the ladies and there’s plenty of choice in the events. The support from other athletes is amazing and it’s great to challenge yourself. You can also do it at a level that suits you. It doesn’t have to be about competing with others. It can, whisper it, just be for fun too!!

I practised karate for 10 years before concentrating on running. What I like more about running is that it can be whatever you want it to be. I actually enjoy training alone and just concentrating on myself and what I need to do. However slower runs, done for pleasure with a group, give a social aspect to running. Similarly, running for a team gives support. For me I get the head space that I need when I’m doing a challenging speed session and then the social aspect I enjoy when running with a friend or a group.

6. As a woman on the other side of the menopause, how do you view your body? I can honestly say that I feel healthier, fitter and happier than before the menopause. Running has shown me that my body can perform far better than I thought it could. I’m actually lighter than I was before the menopause. I’ve learnt to nurture my body with healthy food, sleep and exercise. I definitely think that being physical helps.

I certainly respect my body more now. If I want it to perform I know that I need to give it the support that it needs to perform the way I want it to. I’m also proud of my body. It’s looked after me well and enables me to do the things that I want. I don’t take it for granted any more.

I’d like to think that I escaped the brain fog but I do find myself making endless lists to ensure that I don’t forget things. On the flip side though, if things do get forgotten or go wrong, I’m so much more relaxed about them now.

The finishing line is in sight! #FlyingFeet

7. People talk about women feeling ‘invisible’ once they have gone through the menopause. What do you think about that? Is it true for you? It’s just a different stage of life. In many ways I feel more secure in my choices and way of life. I still have the lack of confidence that has always been with me but I’m gradually learning to challenge that. I definitely haven’t conquered it but I’m aware that the spotlight is no longer on me as much. In that way, yes the menopause can cause women to become invisible, but sometimes that can be liberating.

8. Are there any upsides for you about being on the other side of the menopause? Lack of periods!! Growing into my own skin. Learning from past mistakes and realising that the world didn’t end. I think also, you become aware that time is finite and that spurs you on to do the things you always meant to but never seemed to find time for. Possessions are no longer important, work will always get done in the end. You realise that it’s friendships and relationships that matter.

9. What do you have in your sights? Desperately seeking a sub-3-minute 800m. I’d also like to get below 80 seconds for my 400m. It’s a little bit like being a child in a sweet shop. There’s lots of distances to explore but at the moment I’d like to concentrate on 400 and 800.

I’m also currently doing my Level 2 Fitness Instructor qualification and will then do the Level 3 Personal Trainer qualification. I’m doing these more to have an understanding of how fitness works and how to look after my body, rather than as a career change. I still enjoy going to the gym but use it to complement my running now.

10. What’s your number one piece of advice for post-menopausal women? Love your life and your body. It’s the only one you’re going to have. Cherish and make it a good one.

I wish Hazel all the best for her track career! I have the feeling that I’ll be racing against her (probably behind her 🙂 ) next summer 🙂 .

Right then. I am just going outside and may be some time 🙂 . (By the way, if you’re new to my blog, you can find more out about my #OldDogNewTricks project here.)

JT 🙂

Inspiring Women 1: Kerry Sweeney

Over the next month or so I’ll be introducing you to some inspiring women. These are women I’ve known for a while or women I’ve met through my adventures.  In all cases, they challenge what it means to be an older woman, and their achievements and life philosophies are really worth sharing. Seeing other people living their dreams can help us to generate the courage, ambition and zest to live our own 🙂 .

First up in this series is Kerry Sweeney. Kerry’s a 44-year-old mum of three, wife, paramedic team leader for the Scottish Ambulance Service, RAF reservist medic, runner, swimmer and outdoor-lover. She recently represented Great Britain at the ITU (International Triathlon Union) World Championships, finishing 7th in the aquathlon.

I’ve known Kerry since 1999. When we moved to Crieff (Scotland), Kerry was a fitness instructor at the Crieff Hydro. I went along to Kerry’s aerobics classes (right up to the day my son was born) and ran with her now and again (although it was quite hard to keep up with her most of the time 😉 ). Kerry was one of the first people to welcome me into the local community.

I managed to catch up with Kerry recently and ask her about her adventurous life. Here’s what she had to say:

1. You’ve just represented GB for the first time at the ITU championships. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to competing? I had a random chat with an existing GB age group athlete that I know through social media who suggested I should look at qualifying times. I had one opportunity left in the season in Scotland to qualify and I decided that I should go for it. I raced at the Stirling aquathlon, placing 3rd overall and 1st in my age group. After that I received an email that confirmed my place. Knowing that I would be representing GB  is a feeling that it is difficult to describe: it was the biggest sporting achievement of my life. Some of my motivators were inner motivations to prove to myself that you really can do anything you want to do if you work hard enough. From an external point of view I wanted to show my children that you should chase your dreams.

My training regime was tough due to shift work and also going through the joining process to become an RAF reservist at the same time. I had to ensure that what I was eating was fuelling my body properly and that I was getting sufficient sleep around my night-shifts. I cut down on alcohol and then gave it up completely for 6 weeks which was a challenge for me. I devised my own training plan again to work around shifts but I tried to get 6/7 sessions a week in, mixing up swimming, running and strength training. Then, towards March, I started doing back-to-back swims/runs. My biggest letdown was not being able to do much outdoor swimming as it was just too cold to justify driving to Loch Earn for a few minutes swim.

Representing my country was the highest honour and pulling on the tri suit made every single session worthwhile. The support my family and friends gave me really inspired me to push to be the best I could be. As I walked into the holding pen with another 180 female athletes from all over the world I felt nervous but super excited and really privileged to have this opportunity.

2. You had a phenomenal championship! What was the race like and what impact has this achievement had on you? Throughout the race, due to how the set up was, I never knew what place I was in! The first I knew was when friends from home were messaging me. I knew I had run a 5K PB and that felt like confirmation that I had given it my all. My swim was quite difficult and I had to dig deep into mental reserves to keep pushing and this consolidated the whole feeling of being strong both mentally and physically. I sat on the roadside by myself immediately after the race with medal in my hand and I felt so overwhelmed with happiness that I had just lived my dream. All those tired, cold, hard runs were worth it. The sacrifices of going home early and monitoring weight, food, alcohol and training they were forgotten. I also realised that it’s okay not to win as long as you give it your best shot.

3. What do you have lined up next? I hope to move into representing the RAF sports teams and aim to qualify for Almere in 2020 for the world champs at aquathlon.

4. What advice would you give to women in their 40s, 50s and beyond who might really want to do something but are afraid it’s too late / they may make a fool of themselves / they’re really not cut out for whatever it is they want to do? My advice would always be give it a go. I personally don’t care if I make a fool of myself as it’s better than suffocating your dreams and I believe we are all capable of so much more than we think we are. If you don’t try, you will never know. I met some amazing American aquathletes who were in their 60s. With the uptake in women in sport I believe there is a place for everyone whether it be recreational, national or international.

5. Do you have any swimming advice for me and my upcoming butterfly adventure? Break it down and drill, drill, drill, then put it back together. For butterfly, relax and keep it smooth.

6. As you approach the menopause, how is your relationship with your body changing (if at all)? I haven’t experienced menopause symptoms, but as I get older I am growing to respect my amazing body that has not only birthed 3 wonderful babies but has carried me thousands of miles exploring hills, trails, roads and tracks. It has allowed me to lift weights, to cut through pools and lochs, and to let me live my life to the full.

7. And finally, why do you think you push yourself to achieve things in the way you do? I often ask myself why I push myself so much and quite simply it’s because I can.

If you want to keep up with Kerry’s adventures, you can follow her on Twitter @strathkerry.

Right. That’s me inspired! I’m just going outside and may be some time 🙂 . (By the way, if you’re new to my blog, you can find more out about my #OldDogNewTricks project here.)

JT 🙂