Like many women, I had stared at my bum in the mirror many times. But one particular butt-cheek gazing moment in the summer of 2015 was different.
I was not looking at its shape or size but three letters on the red, white and blue fabric. GBR. GBR for Great Britain. In two months time I was to compete for my country in a World Championships triathlon event in Chicago.
Me, compete at a world championship sports event? It seemed ludicrous. I’d always considered myself a girly girl. A fashionista and connoisseur of cocktail bars. At school I was far from athletic. I skived PE whenever I could because I thought the changing rooms were dirty and I was scared of netballs and hockey sticks so was always last to be picked for teams. So how had I now become the type to swim in pongy lakes and spend my Sundays on a bike for six hours smeared in bike oil and my own sweat?
Rewind to autumn 2013. I went through a breakup (always the cue for drastic lifestyle change). Around the same time all my friends were either leaving London, where I live, or having children. I was lost.
What was left of my social life just seemed to be frivolous drinking. It’s easy in our culture to find superficial drinking buddies. There are always work drinks, birthday invitations, reunions. But it seemed so futile. I’d always rested my popularity on being a gregarious party girl always game for a cocktail and gossip. But at the age of 36 I was starting to pay the price of being a social drinker in productivity.
So, I joined a running club. But something about the camaraderie of a sports club sang to me. In my low patch I was craving the sort of group activities and banter that fill your life so easily in your 20’s, before your friends get responsibilities.
I was so enamoured with that vision, that it didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t into running. I was fit, sort of. I used the gym twice a week (in my designer matchy gear). I swam occasionally in a my gym’s tranquil heated pool with fluffy towels and I did the occasional 20-minute jog. I exercised to stay slim. I never felt the need to push myself or go out in the elements if I could do it an air conditioned space.
What concerned me more than the prospect of running, was the prospect of fitting in. I imagined the sorts of people who joined running clubs were the sort of people who owned waterproofs and thermals. To me, the outdoors was barbaric and my way of staying warm and dry was to take black cabs.
On the evening of my first visit to Victoria Park Harriers in east London, I dithered about what clothes to take for the bar after the run (yes, this running club had its own bar!). My wardrobe was high couture. I didn’t do jeans and hoodies. I fished something out from a bag destined for the charity shop. Last year’s fashion was my idea of ‘casual’. After the run in the club changing rooms, I spotted a hairdryer on the side but didn’t dare use it among such a hardy crowd.
Nevertheless, I threw myself into my new club culture, desperate to be part of a new social scene, going to every weekend race. It was winter, which meant cross country season.
Cross country, in case you never had the pleasure, is basically a race in a water-logged field, with no where to change or leave your dry clothes. It always rains or hails and you slide and squelch through thick mud and up evil hills.
To my surprise I relished the challenge. Not only was my increasing fitness a fascination in itself, but I found even greater delight in my newfound resilience. The fact that I could get covered mud, freezing cold and then head to the pub in a clashing assortment of thermal layers, without a shower and enjoy it was revelational. Yes I got mud in my pedicured toe nails but when I realised nothing bad happened it made me want to push the boundaries of my cossetted city lifestyle a little more.
Soon, I bought a bike so I could cycle to run club. That meant I had to clip on lights and buy waterproof trousers. As I used it more, out went handbags and in came backpacks. Heels and skirts didn’t get a look in. I realised how much easier life was without all this glamor faff.
When spring arrived, I joined long weekend cycle rides of 100km. Then I braved open water swimming (I nearly got hyperthermia but I felt like Bear Grylls in feminine form afterwards).
Every other weekend I signed up for a new challenge with club friends – a weekend fell running on the Isle of Wight, a half marathon in gale force winds on the Devon coast, a 100 mile cycle across the vertiginous Peak District, a 5km sea swim. Always I was spurred by the same two things – a fascination in how my body rose to the challenge, and never going back to those bored, empty weekends of autumn 2013.
I enjoyed triathlons most. With it being three disciplines in one, it sated my craving for the extreme. I also found I ranked higher, probably because I’m more of an all-rounder rather than being a naturally gifted athlete who excels at one thing.
I started to focus on triathlon and learned that it’s one of the few sports where amateurs can compete at international level. Each year there is a World Championship race with qualifying spots for each five-year age category. (Which means there are 85 year-olds on the GB team). In June 2015 I entered a qualifying race to see how far off I would be. To my astonishment, I qualified.
Four months later (September 2015) me and my beloved Bianchi road bike travelled to Chicago for the big World Championship race. I came 41. In theory, that made me the 41 fastest amateur 35-40 year old triathlete in the world!
But you know what? That race (and the kit with GBR printed on my bum) left me empty and unfulfilled. There was only one other club friend who qualified and when I was mingling in the Team GB hotel, amid great and gifted international athletes, I missed the camaraderie and fun of my running club.
I realised that the reason I’d spent two years pushing myself though endurance extremes was not to make it here to an international level event. It was because of far deeper rewards: Through outdoor sport I’ve discovered a physical and mental resilience I didn’t know I had. I’m hardier to the cold, I’m calmer, more patient (if you do enough 6 hour bike rides when you can’t feel your fingers, you can count yourself through anything!). I’m no longer a slave to female beauty ideals (when you swim in the Royal London docks and then go for brunch with a great group of friends with green slime caked on your cheeks, you realise there’s more to life than blow-dries).
I can still be that party girl again, but I love that there is a wild, ethereal part of me as well. I love that I can cycle to another city at a moment’s notice. I hope my story can inspire others to find that spirit within them too.
Helen’s book This Girl Ran: Tales of a Party Girl Turned Triathlete is out now.