Increasing numbers of ordinary Irish women are reaping the physical and social benefits of fitness challenges such as marathons and triathlons, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir

THERE was once a time when the urge to get fit and lose weight would drive women to the gym. There, they would sign up for aerobics classes in an attempt to emulate celebrity fitness gurus like Jane Fonda.

While today’s women haven’t abandoned aerobics or fitness videos, more of them are setting themselves more serious challenges. Challenges such as marathons, triathlons and Ironman competitions which have traditionally been the realm of macho males. Challenges which require them to spend long hours pounding pavements, cycling the roads and swimming in the ocean. What motivates them to do this?

It’s complicated, according to personal trainer Eilís Burns. Eilís works at the Source Centre in Cork and also trains teams such as the Cork Masters Swim Team.

“I see a lot more women becoming involved in sports,” she says. “This has a lot to do with the fact that they are no longer stuck in the housewife’s position at home. They have the time and opportunity to participate.”

Women are also under pressure to conform to the svelte, toned ideal of female beauty portrayed in the media. “Women are made to be aware of their bodies and there’s pressure in that, no doubt about it,” believes Eilís. “That’s definitely part of what drives them to exercise.”

Why then do they choose endurance sports? “Endurance is about time, not speed,” says Eilís. “You can pace yourself and perform at your own level. This can suit women better.”

Married mother of two Hannah Nolan from Tinaheley in Wicklow may have some more answers. She runs four or five times a week for up to an hour and a half at a time and is aiming to run the Dublin City Marathon in October. But 29-year-old Hannah wasn’t always this fit.

Two years ago, she weighed more than 16 stone. She never exercised and she ate a lot of fast food and crisps. “I didn’t look like myself anymore,” says Hannah, who now weighs eight stone. “Pushing the kids in the buggy would leave me with a pain in my chest, out of breath and sore all over. I really needed to lose weight.”

She started by eating only home-cooked meals and exercising. “I walked the kids and my husband bought me a cross trainer, but I hated it at first,” remembers Hannah. “But gradually I found that if I didn’t exercise I’d be miserable. And about a year into exercising, I caught the bug.”

What she means is that she upped the ante. When out walking this February, she found walking was no longer challenge enough. She decided to run instead.

“I only jogged as far as the lamppost at first but soon I was running more than walking and now running is all I ever do,” she says.

She developed a competitive spirit too. “I’m competitive with myself,” she says. “It’s all about me and my previous times. I don’t think about the others when I’m running. It’s more important to beat myself.”

Hannah is so enthused by fitness that she can’t see how she could ever return to her old ways. “I get worried if I get a twinge now,” she laughs. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t exercise. I’m almost glad I let myself get so overweight. If I hadn’t, I’d never have appreciated how good it feels to be who I am now.”

Sports psychologist Dr Alan Ringland believes Hannah is representative of a lot of women. “Society has attributed better health to thinner bodies for the past 40 or 50 years,” he says. “Combine this with the media focus on obesity and how bad it is for our population’s health and this is what is driving a lot of people to get fit.”

Dubliner Aisling Coppinger is another whose enthusiasm for fitness started with health concerns. In 2003, the then 32-year-old had given up smoking and wanted to get healthy. But instead of signing up at a gym, she decided to run a marathon.

“It seemed more sincere to pick something really hard, a real challenge I was scared of doing,” explains Aisling.

Weight wasn’t her issue. It had more to do with setting herself a tough target. “Running 10 kilometres wasn’t going to satisfy me,” she says. “I wanted to face the fear of running a marathon.”

Once she did this, her confidence grew. “If I could do that, I thought I could do anything. So I kept running.”

Aisling soon graduated to ultra runs, which are defined as distances longer than a marathon. To date, she has competed in events such as running 100 miles in the Alps and the Connemara Ultra Marathon which involves 39 miles of hill running.

Aisling has to stick to a demanding training schedule to keep her body at peak fitness. She has three running sessions, four cycle sessions and four swimming sessions every week — all of which she fits in around running a shop with her partner Rob.

“You do make sacrifices,” she admits. “But our kids are grown up now so all I have to do is keep my eye on the next event down the road and I’ll stay motivated.”

Aisling has noticed an increase in the number of women taking up running. “Years ago, people thought you were a superhero if you ran a marathon but now marathons are regarded as normal because more people are running,” she says. “A few weeks ago, there was a 5K race in the Phoenix Park and 70% of the runners were women.”

She also believes ultra running suits women’s personalities more than men’s. “Men go at it, eyeballs out, as fast as they can and then try to hang in there,” she says. “Women pace themselves better and are more consistent when training.”

This could be said to apply to Anne Marie Ward, the 2010 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year. She has paced herself and trained consistently for 10 years to arrive at the level of fitness she has today.

But it wasn’t always so. “One day, 10 years ago, I was walking with my brother and struggling up a small hill,” says the now 45-year-old HSE manager from Portnablagh in Co Donegal. “He told me I should do something about my fitness and I realised something needed to change.”

Like many people, Anne Marie had stopped exercising in her teens. “We were always swimming as kids,” she recalls. “But by my late teens, I’d given it up to concentrate on college, career and life.”

The unfit 36-year-old Anne Marie decided to return to the water. “I used a two-mile charity swim that was taking place locally as my motivation to train,” she says. “It got me back into regular exercise and soon I was hooked.”

In 2003, she swam nine miles from Tory Island to the mainland. In 2006, she took part in a round Ireland relay swim, during which she and five others swam 1,500km in 56 days. She swam the English Channel in 2007. And in 2008, she set herself the target of swimming the North Channel — a notoriously difficult 22-mile stretch between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

“It was the obvious next thing to do but I hesitated to do it,” says Anne Marie. “It’s so difficult and so few people have succeeded in crossing it.”

She was unsuccessful in 2008. The tides turned her about and 17 hours into her swim, she was closer to Ireland than to Scotland. A storm hit two hours into her second attempt in 2009. She tried again in 2010. Her first attempt failed because she swam into jellyfish, but on September 2 last year, she became the first Irish woman and only the 11th person in history to cross the North Channel.

It took her 18 hours and 59 minutes in 12-degree water and she didn’t wear a wetsuit. How and why did she push her body so?

“I suppose the sense of satisfaction keeps me going,” explains Anne Marie. “I like a challenge and if something is there for the taking, I want to take it.”

This focus helps her to get up to train at 5am every morning. It drives her to train for another two hours after work and all day at weekends.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices but I’m committed,” says Anne Marie. “There’s no way my brother could call me unfit now!”

She believes older women are particularly suited to open water swimming. “I started in my thirties, which shows it’s something you can do when you’re older,” she says. “Because it’s not demanding on the joints like running is, you can do it no matter what age you are. And because women have more body fat than men, we can compete more equally when it comes to open water swimming, especially in cold water.”

Dr Alan Ringland concurs. “People who take up sports at a later stage are often looking for a challenge,” he believes. “Possibly because they have not fulfilled their potential or achieved performance results before. This can make them push themselves harder than might be expected.”

I don’t know if Joyce Wolfe would agree with this. The 32-year-old physiotherapist from Cobh broke the Irish women’s Ironman record last month. She swam 3.8km in 58 minutes, cycled 180km in five hours and four minutes, and ran a marathon in three hours and seven minutes.

It all started six years ago. “I wanted a challenge and decided to run a triathlon with my sister Amy,” she says. “So I took part in the Kinsale triathlon but didn’t enjoy it. I panicked while swimming and swore I’d never do it again.”

Her resolve didn’t last long as she was back the following year and over time, she has found herself drawn to more demanding events such as Ironman competitions.

The sense of achievement is not the only reasons Joyce enjoys the sport. “There are many rewards,” she says. “The social side means you make lots of friends. And there’s the competitive side too. Once you achieve something, you want to push it to see if you can achieve more.”

Her demanding schedule involves training twice a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of 20 hours.

“I prioritise training,” admits Joyce. “I don’t have much time for anything else.”

Luckily, she has convinced her husband to compete too. He’s not the only member of her family to do so either. Her sister is now a member of the Irish triathlon team and her brother has also competed in Ironman competitions.

They may be representative of a general trend. “I see the growth in fitness,” says Joyce. “People are more conscious of health. Maybe it’s to do with the recession. They’re not in pubs as much and they are looking for entertainment. All you need to run is a pair of runners and once you start, it drives you forward. On top of that, once girls start, their friends often join in too.”

Dr Ringland agrees with Joyce. “There are many factors behind women’s increasing participation in these sports,” he says. “There’s the economy as gym prices have not decreased and people realise the service they receive there is superficial and confined as opposed to the outdoor environment of the roads, mountains and seas. There’s the increased awareness of the importance of exercise to mental and physical health. And there’s the fact that you can train with others, a social aspect which can be especially attractive to women.”

The desire to be thin and toned, the chance to indulge your competitive spirit, the opportunity to enjoy a sport that prizes endurance over speed, that costs little and allows you to train with friends; all of this goes some way towards explaining the increase in Lycra-clad women in our midst.

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