This week we feature a woman who embodies the indomitable spirit of an athlete. Doctors told Crikey she would never walk again… but she didn’t listen. Now she climbs stairs and holds two British bench press records. She says Fitocrats “make it normal to aim for extraordinary.” We say she has done just that. (Oh, and fair warning. Keep some tissues handy.)
Username and level
Crikey, level 36
How did you get started in fitness and training?
August 1st, 2012. I had recently walked out of a completely toxic job and was in a panic about being unemployable, I was a crumpled ball of stress from looking after my dad (with his ever increasing dementia), and found myself weeping in a changing room when I couldn’t fit into the scarily largest size of a dress. Somehow, gradually, I’d let myself become a lardy sofa-slug who thought it was ok to hide, and to use my physical limits as an excuse. I’d done some exercise before—swimming, and tedious gym plodding—but always let it drop because I was too busy, too tired, too “oh what’s the point I’ll always be rubbish” defeatist. That was an old habit– I wasn’t the kid who was picked last for the team, I was the kid who was told to sit in the corner and read and not get in the way of the others. I’d tricked myself into believing I was OK with that.
August 2nd, I started swimming again. Every day. Tiny amounts to begin with, and then a little bit more, and more. And then I found Fitocracy.
But here’s the backstory of this wonky donkey: I was born wonky, and 20+ surgeries later, I’m wonkier than ever. I had a dislocated hip from birth but it wasn’t diagnosed until I was two and a bit. By which time I had been walking on it, and trashed the joint. For the next nine years, I was in and out of hospital, having a lot of surgery and spending months at a time either in traction of in casts from armpits to toes.
It got really bad again when I was at college, kicking off more surgery and tractions, and, after a few years of ever-decreasing circles, I got my first hip replacement, at 26. It was incredible. I was out of pain for the first time in over a decade. I had adventures. I danced. I claimed the life that I thought I should have. Then the bloody thing failed, not even six years later. So did the second one. And a year after my third hip replacement, I got a bone infection. My surgeon said this was game over. No more walking. Ever. They should remove my hip, let the gap fill with scar tissue, and I would be hopping on crutches until I had to give in to a wheelchair. But another surgeon had other ideas. He thought he could clear the infection out, and then, maybe he could rebuild it with a partial femoral replacement. The first stage of this was vile: two months of no hip after he’d removed the old metalwork and bad bone, plus all the antibiotics and painkillers ever invented. Going in for the second surgery, not knowing what I’d wake up with? Not fun. But the infection was gone, he was able to fit some amazing new hardware into me, and, if everything worked out I should be able to put some weight through it once it healed.
Seven years later, he’s still not entirely sure how I can walk. But I do. I’m held together with titanium, scar tissue, and sheer bloody mindedness. He likes to show me off to visiting doctors when I have my check ups, and sits there, chuckling and beaming with pride at what we achieved.
Impact is forbidden, so is putting extra weight through the dodgy leg. I’m ok with that—if it keeps me walking, I’m ok with not running. I’m ok with finding exercises I can do sitting down, or standing on one leg.
I know it’s not going to last forever, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up now.
It took me five years to be able to walk up stairs. Five years to be able to walk more than a mile. I say it took me five years, but really it took me one—summer 2012 to summer 2013–the first year of weight training and swimming that got my core strong, that gave me so much muscle in my good leg that I can work around the weaknesses. I can’t fix the things that are gone—you can’t strengthen things that don’t exist—but I’ve found other ways. (I will never be able to lift my leg up off the floor if I’m lying flat—the muscles don’t connect to anything–but stairs? Aye. It’s a neat trick: push up so hard from the good leg, then lift from the abdomen and use momentum to get the bad leg high enough to reach the next step and push down.) The day I logged stair climbing beyond the height of Burj Khalifa I think I cried for an hour—not pain, but pride and amazement.
So, training is the same. Find the things I can do, and keep doing them. And do them more, and better. Find ways around things that look unlikely, and give it a go. Listen to my body, and not do anything fundamentally stupid—risking all of this is not an option. But nor is taking to the sofa again. This is too much fun. I got funny looks in the gym when I started deadlifting while standing on one leg. But I can stand on one leg and lift more than my own weight, so I can stand a few funny looks.
Also—and here’s the inevitable vanity bit—I like being a UK size 6/8 now rather than only fitting into the more generous versions of a size 18. I’ve shed 21kg, and at least six inches each from my hips, waist, and chest. I’ve weighed less before, but this shape is new. And I like my muscles even more than I like buying small sizes. And, even better, dropping that weight means I could get to keep my hardware in place longer, because it’s under less stress.
How did you find the site? How has it changed your workouts?
I was looking for somewhere useful to log my new adventures with swimming, and my husband pointed me towards Fitocracy. Within a month, I was lifting and in love with it. See what you did to me!
Changed my workouts? Ha! It’s changed my life. Entirely.
Lifting would never even have occurred to me without Fitocracy. I asked for suggestions of things I could do to get stronger–while sitting down or standing on one leg or otherwise not putting extra weight through the wonky leg–and three days later I was at the gym saying “please teach me to bench press, teach me the shoulder presses, show me the heavy things.”
And I would never have attempted—and achieved—a 10km swim without the collective insanity of Fito swimmers and others who know that setting your mind to something is more than half the battle.
Do you have any long term goals or direction you plan to take your training?
I really want to make it through to the WDFPA World Single Lifts this year—and do well when I get there. It’s partly because the idea of me competing at any international sporting event is so entirely absurd I can’t resist the challenge. (The qualifier is the British, on March 1st. Yes, I’m nervous.)
Longer term, I want to be able to break a national Open record, rather than a Masters age record. Because I want to take all away all the qualifiers and caveats.
And in the realms of the “may as well dream big”, I would love to get my crazy one-leg deadlift strong enough that I could enter a push-pull competition without it being completely laughable. A decent deadlift, rather than a novelty one. I’m 5kg off 1.5x bodyweight, but I can’t yet imagine getting it into triple digits. (I can’t see anything that specifies two feet on the ground rather than just the one, so there’s no reason to rule this out on a technicality…)
What are things you’ve learned through trial and error? What areas do you hope to learn more about?
Make sure your spotter is actually looking at the bar and understands what you might need a spotter to do. (Learned that the very, very painful way.) And that doubt absolutely kills my bench: if even a half-formed “meh, not sure I can get this” thought sneaks in from the side when I’m under the bar, gravity wins. I didn’t realise that I lift with my brain as much as my body.
Learning how to learn from failure, rather than avoiding it.
Oh, and that you can change shape without being utterly miserable and hungry. That was a good lesson, and very happy lesson to learn
As for learning more…all of it, please. I hope I never wake up on a day when I don’t want to learn everything.
Currently, where would you say your weakness lies? Where do you excel?
Sleep and food. I have been running a serious sleep debt for years, and though I’m getting better at it, I’m short of sleep almost every night. I’m just very bad at getting to sleep. And I’m not nearly as disciplined as I should be about food—it’s too damn easy for me to slip back into mindless eating. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but I’m still learning.
Excel? Setting my sights high and not letting words like “impossible” get in the way. (Except when things truly are impossible: willpower and hard work will never make me tall, or grow me a pair of wings. Just like I’ll never be able to run. That’s ok. I can do other things.) Learning the difference between reasons and excuses has been a huge part of this journey, and it’s spread across the rest of my life too.
What motivates you?
Absurdity. Contrariness. Tell me I shouldn’t do something—because I’m too old, too disabled, too female, too whatever—and I’ll almost certainly want to do it, and do it well. Just to piss you off.
And regrets for time and possibilities wasted in the past—I want to squeeze as much in now as I can, while I can. I left a handful of things too late—dreams that I should have followed up on, opportunities I chickened out of while they were still available to me, and now I pine for them a bit if I’m having an “it’s not fair” day. (I will never get to ride across the deserts of Mongolia. Always meant to, but it was always “next year”. Oh well.) So carping the damn diem is a good motivation, before it’s gone. Particularly if that diem can include six impossible things before breakfast.
Also: coffee. Really good coffee.
Are you using any supplements or special dietary changes to achieve your goals?
Not really. I tracked everything I ate for the first year and I keep a watch on my calories. (I track for about a week each month now, just to make sure I’m not drifting.) I try to keep my protein reasonable, and lay off the giant bowls of pasta. Boring, but it’s worked so far. I’m not good at diets that have lots of rules because I fight against them and then throw a huff about it.
If you could give advice to someone starting off, what would you tell them?
There’s no good reason to be plodding along doing something you hate in the gym, resenting it, just because you think you should when there’s a world of possibilities, destinations, and paths to choose. Find the thing that gives you joy—or calm, or satisfaction, or release, or control—and you’ll not just stick with it, you’ll weave it into the centre of your life and it will give you strength that spills over into everything else.
Learn the difference between reasons and excuses, and acknowledge when you’re making excuses (without beating yourself up about it).
What’s your ‘secret weapon’, the thing that pushes you or you feel gives you an edge?
Repeating to myself “you’ve learned to walk twenty times, how hard can this be?”
Anything that is merely improbable, rather than truly impossible, is fair game. And knowing that other people’s assumptions are their problem, not mine. See above: contrariness. Contrariness is mighty.
What has the overall impact of Fitocracy been in your life?
I would have laughed my arse off two years ago if you’d told me I’d be looking forward to getting out of bed at 5am tomorrow so I could go to the gym, that I’d hold two British records, that I could be someone for whom any form of physical activity was not just a regular event but important. Ridiculous. Yet, here I am.
I could write a ten thousand word love letter to Fito about this, because there are so many layers of good stuff. Tracking what I was doing and seeing progress I could measure, yes, sure, with the extra power of imaginary internet points. But it’s more about the people–seeing how other people train, watching other people’s progress—and the growing pride that comes with that, learning from their knowledge, getting the incredible support (never underestimate the power of props from total strangers when you are having a rubbish day), being egged on by people with shared goals, or reassured by people with experience that a scary thing is not so scary once you just do it, or that it’s ok to do something even though it’s scary. And the huge, amazing sense of following through, that it’s not just talk of “if only” or “maybe” or “I wish”.
Thank you. (Yes, you!)
It’s because you’ve made it normal to aim for extraordinary.
One thing I want people to take away from my story is…
You only get one body. It may not be the one you wish you had, but work with it. It can still surprise you.