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Donna McHugh Athlete Ambassador

by Alexandra Parren

triathlon athlete cycling bike

Donna challenged herself to complete a triathlon after watching the success of a friend. She talks to Sundried about the highs and lows of being a triathlete.

Have you always been into sport?

I’ve always been active and played every sport I could get my hands on as a child from messing around on my BMX to football, judo, golf, athletics, hockey, netball, basketball, ice skating – you name it, I tried it.  I recall my poor mum being eternally frustrated that I would leave the house looking very pretty and clean and come back looking like I’d been down coal shafts!

What made you decide to enter the world of triathlon?

One of my friends decided he was going to take part in a local triathlon (his first ever) and we all went along to cheer him on.  He did great, the whole atmosphere of the day really got hold of me and made me start thinking this would be a fun thing to do.  Later that evening, we were all out socialising and my friend was quite rightly proud of his achievement that day.  So proud in fact, that he wouldn’t stop talking about it.  After some time of us all rolling our eyes at him and laughing along I stated, “anyone could do that with some training, it can’t be that hard!”  So, there it started – I was challenged to stick by my words and complete a triathlon. 

Now I’m not one to shirk a challenge, particularly one I set myself.  The following day my housemate gleefully reminded me that not only had I entered a triathlon, but that the swim was in a river and I couldn’t swim.  After a short period of dread and regret, I decided that only solution was to go and find adult swimming lessons.  After many countless hours of very patient tuition from the swim instructor I was able to confidently swim one length – 1/30 of the event distance!   It came to the day and I got in that river shaking with fear, wanting to jump out and just sit in the sun cheering everyone on.  Then I noticed I could walk the swim, the river was shallow – hooray!!  I got through with a mixture of hideous splashing that somewhat resembled swimming and walking, all to the cheers of my club mates who I had only recently met having joined my local triathlon club.  Once out on the bike and run I was in much more familiar ground.  I absolutely loved it, I didn’t care that I walked most of the swim, I did it – I completed the triathlon.  But I did promise myself I wouldn’t walk another swim.

swimming triathlon athlete

What’s been your favourite race to date and why?

This is a difficult one to answer, so many races have been great for very different reasons.  It’s not always the biggest sporting success in a race that makes it the best race either.  I think my favourite one might have been Aberfeldy middle distance triathlon.  I landed on the start line to this race in my usual manner, I had tried to qualify for World standard distance championships in London that year and not quite made the grade.  I had worked so hard and wanted to do something with all that hard work.  So, in very predictable fashion for me I decided on a whim to enter a middle-distance race.  I had never done one before, I had never trained for one before, and this one was in three weeks time - what could possibly go wrong??

The answer was nothing, I really surprised myself with just how much fun this distance is.  I ended up finishing 4th in my age group and 5th female overall, considering I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to complete the distance before starting I was delighted with that.  I think that’s my favourite race because it was a challenge that I wasn’t sure I could manage; something hugely out of my comfort zone and without time to really train for it specifically.  It’s good to challenge and surprise yourself from time to time.

And your proudest achievement?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have raced at European and World championship races and come away with age group wins and silver places, so it would be easy to pick one of these as my proudest achievement however I think my proudest race was a much lower key event than any of these. 

I spent the latter half of 2016 and early half of 2017 with a significant back injury, caused purely by my own drive and determination.  It started as a niggle that I ignored and pushed through until it ended up causing such nerve damage that I could barely walk let along function and train.  I spent significant hours and months doing rehab just to be able to walk straight again. 

During all this time it hadn’t passed me by that the 2018 European Championships were very near Glasgow – my home city, and I was gutted that I was injured.  I desperately wanted to be a part of this but saw no way of being fully fit and able to train for the qualifiers.  I plugged away with rehab and physio but kept one eye on the date for one qualifier.  It was a course I knew, it was flat and fast, and had nothing too taxing technically on the bike or run that might jeopardise my back.  I spoke to my coach and stated I wanted to go for this qualifier.  I was doing it and while I would love his support and help, I would fully understand if he didn’t want any part of this due to my injury.  I think he knew too well that it was probably safer if he had control of this crazy plan, so we devised a schedule to do minimal but enough training and do it safely alongside the help of my physio to try to get through the race as safely and effectively as possible.

It came to race day and I hadn’t even ran 2km at one time let along 5km off a 20km bike, I had no idea if I could even finish but I wanted to give it a go and trusted if my back flared up I would stop and withdraw.  The plan was to swim as hard as I could, keep an eye on those going by me on the bike – if I don’t need to chase I won’t chase, if I do need to chase I will make a judgement call on whether I could or not, the same applied for the run with the addition of I must stop if I’m in pain.  I kept to the plan, I swam all right, no- one caught me on the bike, but I did catch some fishes, I got onto the run and felt AWFUL!  I thought “I need to stop, this is horrid”, then I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one suffering, so I kept going, passing people eventually, no-one passing me.  I finished 3rd in my age group – I had qualified and I was delighted, a massive achievement and a well executed plan to get through safely and effectively worked out.  It wasn’t the prettiest of races, I wasn’t looking slick and impressive – but I did it! 2018 European Champs are a possibility now J

cycling triathlon athlete fitness

Have you ever had any racing disasters / your toughest race yet?

European Triathlon Championships, Lisbon 2016.  This was my first ever triathlon championships after really seeing myself as more of a duathlete and my family were there to watch.  I had been working hard on my swimming and had a great swim in the race, exiting the water way sooner than expected.  Out onto the bike and I was catching the better swimmers one by one, got to the turn point and down the hill only to have my back wheel slip from under me as my tub punctured - 8km out from the transition area!  No real damage done, I got back up and jumped on the bike knowing I could ride on a punctured tub without too much damage to the rim.  I lost count of how many people passed me, it was gut wrenching after making up so many places up to that point.  I kept going as well as I could until I got to a cobbled section about 1km out from transition, I didn’t want to ride the rim over that, so I picked my bike up and ran with it.  I have always vowed never to quit on a race and I certainly wasn’t going to do that with my 9-year-old nephew watching.  I got to transition, dumped the bike in and ran full of frustration over what had happened.  I ran so hard I ended up getting the fastest female run split of the day, I was determined not to come last and wanted to make up some lost ground.  I ended up finishing 18th in my age group that day, there’s no point in dwelling on what might have been though as that just makes it more frustrating.  After the initial disappointment of that race and what went wrong I was quite proud of myself for keeping going and not giving up. 

I do have a score to settle now though!

How do you overcome setbacks?

I used to be SO bad at getting over setbacks and disappointments but then I started to realise that dwelling on them only makes the situation worse and prolongs the setback.  Now I try to focus on what I did well and how I can prevent a situation or a result happening again.  If I’m injured, I focus on rehab being my new training and give it all the attention it requires.  Don’t get me wrong, I still get annoyed at myself if I don’t think I’ve done as well as I could have, but I’m better at looking at why and dealing with it now.  I think being methodical and looking for answers to setbacks is the key to resolving them and moving on positively.

What is the best bit of advice you wish someone had told you before you started competing?

It doesn’t matter what anyone else looks like, you do what you can do – that’s all that matters.

We’ve all done it, we’ve all stood on a start line or looked around transition and saw someone who resembles a ripped athletic Goddess or Adonis and allowed ourselves to be intimidated by them or talked out of performing to our best.  But appearances often mean nothing, I’ve raced alongside triathletes of all shapes and sizes and those chiselled action figures next to us don’t always perform as one might assume.  Trust in what you can do and respect all on that start line, regardless of shape, age, or size.

What are your goals for 2018?

2018 is all about European Sprint Triathlon Championships in Strathclyde Park.  Some extra pride this time round as it is a home race for me and one that family and friends will be out supporting – no pressure then!! J

Who do you take your inspiration from?

No one person to be honest.  I think we can get inspiration from many places.  I watch people of all ages and backgrounds take part in this sport, all doing it for their own reasons and with their own struggles going on behind the scenes.  Some may be parents of children having to ferry them around all over the place while trying to get in some quality training just for their own sanity.  Others may be in their retirement years, still doing what they can and often leaving people half their age wondering how they are managing the incredible feats they pull off.  Others may be trying to improve a lifestyle and change habits.  Kids are great to watch race as they give everything to that one race, there’s no holding back, no fear of the “what if’s”. I find their enthusiasm and determination incredibly inspirational.  At the same time, I am aware of how often children look to older athletes for inspiration and as role models as well, so that inspires me to be the best I can be for them. 

For me it’s not just about the pointy end of the sport, I find inspiration in those around me trying to juggle everyday life and the pressures that go along with fitting in training and racing just because they want to, and they can.

What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?

I love the ethics and values of Sundried, knowing that with every purchase there is a charitable donation sent to a good cause is wonderful.  Not only that but the ethics and values extend to the manufacturing and production of the garments.  This is so important, and I feel Sundried are paving the path with this way of thinking in the clothing industry – hopefully others will pick this up and run with it too.

I love the Grand Tournalin training top and hoodie, I have ridiculously long arms for my height so to get a top that have sleeves that fit is awesome!! The Ruinette tights are so comfortable too.  You can tell these garments are made with care and attention to detail.

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