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Q&A With Esther O'Callaghan Ironman Triathlete

by Alexandra Parren

Ironman triathlete beach open water

Esther entered an Ironman to raise funds for Thrive Fund which provides small bursaries for disadvantaged young people to enter employment. She then went on to found Isle Of Tri with fellow Sundried ambassador and World Champion duathlete Claire Steels. She talks to Sundried about training for an Ironman from scratch and what it meant to her.

What made you want to enter an Ironman? And why full distance rather than half?

A team of us did it to raise money for the Thrive Fund, a fund I founded which provides small bursaries for disadvantaged young people to enter employment.  Most people opted for Tough Mudder, Bear Grylls challenges and a few bake sales and dress down days. But one team decided to do an Ironman and they signed me up for it. So it was a case of blind ignorance as I had no idea what one was.

You say you never learnt to swim, how did you find taking lessons from scratch?

Extremely daunting!  It turned out not only did I not know how to swim, I was also terrified of the water. There were a lot of tears, a lot of sitting at a table with my head in a bowl of water trying to learn how not to panic underwater, lots of sitting in a bath learning to submerge my head under the water. More tears. Lots of swearing. 

If I hadn’t had a compelling reason to do this, it's highly likely I would have given up. Then I met Salim from SwimLab and that changed everything. His love of water and his way of teaching someone like me how to learn to love swimming made all the difference. I also learned that a lot of triathletes don’t like the swim, so I decided to learn how to love it. 

My first swimming lesson was 30 October 2017. Eight months later I swam the Brighton Paddle Round the Pier (don’t be fooled by the name - it's a 2.5km open water sea swim!) and a full Ironman swim 11 months later.

What was the toughest part about learning to ride a road bike?

Cycling shoes! I went to Tri UK and was handed a pair of cycling shoes. I looked at the shop assistant who had the misfortune to serve me and I was like “You ATTACH your feet to the pedals? Are you insane?!”  More tears, more swearing.  You see the pattern here.

How did you fit the hours of training for a full Ironman into your work and home life?

This is possibly one of the most challenging aspects of an Ironman. The last 3-4 months of training I was averaging 18 hours a week.

You have to get up earlier, work smarter, and sacrifice a lot of other things - especially weekends. It is a huge commitment for a year - but I found that everything improved; my health, fitness, strength and because I had to stop working to train, it made me work harder and faster. It was worth it.

What was the hardest part of training for an Ironman?

Self doubt. Having to learn to override the gnawing voice that says, "what are you doing? What were you thinking? How the hell are you going to do this?"

In what ways did you surprise yourself over the course of your Ironman journey?

In every way. Learning to swim, cycle, and run properly from scratch is insane now I look back at it.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

Rob and Hayley Roche. I met them at a Got To Tri Camp in Mallorca. They are an amazing couple who inspire me because they just train. They don’t make a big song and dance about it, but they consistently train, week in week out, they do more triathlon/multisport events than is normal and they are always encouraging and supportive of all my efforts. They keep me motivated.

What advice would you give to others thinking of training for an Ironman for the first time?

I’m not sure coming from total zero to a full Ironman in 11 months is the most sensible thing to do. I think it is really important to be part of a triathlon club and train regularly with them. Training on your own for prolonged periods of time is really hard.

Get a good coach who can give you a real-world training plan – most of us aren’t pro athletes, we have jobs, lives, kids and unexpected curve balls. You have to be able to obsess slightly over training, everyone around you will be sick of you by the time the event rolls around! 

Prioritise smart training. It's not just about time and miles; your nutrition, strength and core work and transition practice are all as essential as swimming, cycling and running. Try to make some of it fun - I think I left a part of my soul on the turbo trainer of doom by putting in three hour sessions on it. 

Have accountability partners who won’t allow you to slide when you are struggling to find the motivation. 

Avoid the trap of spending a small country’s GDP on equipment. It is a never-ending money pit!  You don’t need a £12k Cervelo bike - it isn’t going to make you go two hours faster - no matter how much lighter it makes your wallet. 

Don’t train over injury; if your body is hurting and not in a good way, listen to it. Ignoring this was my biggest mistake and I paid a high price for it.

How can people support you now that you've completed your challenge?

Triathlon has completely changed my life. Starting Isle of Tri was all about how to inspire other women to give it a go. The best part of the journey so far has been the number of women who have got into triathlon because of me.

If I can do it, anyone can.  I came from nothing; I have asthma, hypermobility, dyspraxia and I’m left handed - none of these things are conducive to athleticism!  But I did it anyway and it was worth it.

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