‘Ironmams’: Women who combine triathlons and motherhood
Fitting in a triathlon after you have children – you can do it if you put your mind to it
Jacqui Dunphy with Beibhinn and Caoimhe. “When you have kids you have to make a choice: you miss your sessions or you get the first round done before they wake and you do the other one after they go to bed.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Sinéad Lynch with Hannah, Molly and Clodagh: “They see me going everywhere on the bike, so if they see someone getting into the car for a short journey they question it. They’re learning a healthy way of life.” Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22
Getting to the start line for an Ironman distance race – a 2.4-mile (3.86km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25km) bicycle ride, and a 26.22-mile (42.20km) marathon – is no mean feat.
The competitors will have spent months, some even years, preparing for the gruelling one-day endurance challenge.
Training for the event means finding about 16 hours a week to fit in lengthy bike rides, swims, runs and some strength work in the gym. For the average person with a full-time job, this is extremely challenging. Add in a couple of children and it seems nigh-on impossible.
Jacqui Dunphy (39), a PE teacher and mother-of-two living in Dublin, is currently training for her second Ironman, having completed the race in Barcelona last October. Dunphy, who is originally from Clonakilty, had her first experience of triathlon in June 2014, but her entry into the sport was far from smooth.
“I was recovering through swimming after my long runs and then I started cycling to work,” she says. “And people were saying, ‘Why don’t you put all three together?’ I had an old, heavy hybrid bike and I decided to try cycling to and from work one day a week, and that was 3½ years ago.
“I attempted to do TriAthy in 2014, but I had a really bad experience in the water and only barely finished the swim. That’s why I chose to go back to it.”
Dunphy, a member of the Piranha Triathlon Club, returned to the same race one year later and came third.
“I signed up for the Olympic distance the next year because I’d signed up for the half Ironman in Dublin and I needed to go a little further than the sprint before it,” she says. “I stressed myself trying to get back into the water for Athy because I’ve a fear of open water. I decided because I did so badly in TriAthy the year before that I would join a tri club. It was someone that I knew in my running club who encouraged me to join and he actually walked me into the pool on my very first day.
“Even though I knew people who were triathletes, I still found it very intimidating because I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do what they’re doing’.”
With a background in marathon running, Dunphy decided to sign up to compete in her first Ironman, held in Barcelona last October, finishing in a time of 11:01:21.
Becoming a mother has made her training more focused, she feels.
“In my run training I always preferred the longer stuff so I was hoping that my preference for longer distances in running would transfer to triathlons. I do a double session a day. It’s early mornings. I’m an early bird and my alarm goes off at 5:45 every morning except Saturday, when I’ve a lie in until 7.
“When you have kids you have to make a choice: you miss your sessions or you get the first round done before they wake and you do the other one after they go to bed.”
Dunphy says she has probably more determined since becoming a mother. “When I have a pocket of time to train, I maximise that time. In order to be able to maximise that training time, it requires me to be extremely organised outside of my training – getting everything ready, organising the kids, food prep, gear prep.
“The easy part is probably training when you have the pocket of time. The hardest part is probably getting to the training and being organised for yourself and your family to get you there.”
Mother of seven
Sineád Stafford (39), from Kilflynn, Co Kerry, is a full-time mother-of-seven training for her first Ironman in Barcelona in October. Last August, she completed Ironman Dublin 70.3 – a 1.9k swim, 90k bike ride and half-marathon run.
Stafford began training with the Tralee Triathlon Club in June 2015 after watching a local event run by the group a few years before. She started out by taking part in a “mini-series” of triathlons run as training for the club’s members.
“I could barely do anything at that time,” she recalls. “Running 3k was an effort. I could do the swim, the bike I was only doing 7ks a time but you gradually build it up.
“That winter I decided that the next summer I would do a half Ironman. So I did the training with the club and downloaded a programme myself. A few of us decided to do it together. It was fantastic.
“I know you have the support of your clubmates, but I would not be able to do it without the support of my husband either. Our youngest are twins and I was breastfeeding at the time as well, so I would feed them here before going training. Then he would come over to Fenit and I could give them another feed before going off training again.
“You get used to multitasking and you get really good at time management and structuring things. That kind of falls into triathlon as well, because it is very structured and you have to be ready for your training. They both fit in well together.”
Olympic rower Sineád Lynch (40), a mother-of-three and trainee GP in Ennis, Co Clare, is currently training for Ironman 70.3 Dublin and hoping to do the full distance race in Barcelona.
Lynch competed in triathlons as a junior and completed Dublin City Triathlon, which she will return to in August, a few years ago, but her focus as an athlete has mainly been rowing. She qualified to represent Ireland in the lightweight double sculls at the Rio Olympics at the age of 38, alongside rowing partner Claire Lambe.
Her training has changed significantly since having children, and she’s sometimes had to manage fitting in sessions while on 24-hour work shifts.
“Pre-kids, it was all very structured and I liked to stick to the same routine every week and do things in a certain way,” she says. “Most of my sessions were quite long, three-hour sessions. Some sessions would be hanging over you for the week and you’d be dreading it. But now it’s so nice to have time to yourself and clear the head so there’s never any dread.
“At the moment I’m training before the girls get up and I just train as hard as I can for that hour. I don’t know how structured that is, but I’ve been doing a few duathlons and I’ve been doing pretty well in them so hopefully it’s doing something.
“Sam [Lynch], my husband, is working in Dublin doing orthopaedics, so he’s away Monday to Friday and every fourth weekend. So it’s a matter of finding when you can fit it in.
“When I was rowing before I’d have thought there’s not much point having a shower for less than an hour’s training, but now I’ll fit in whatever I can. I just try and do as much as I can within that time, so a lot of the high-intensity stuff.”
According to Lynch, her training has been a positive influence on her daughters Clodagh (6), Molly (4), and Hannah (2).
“They would see me on the turbo trainer in the morning if they get up early. They call it my ‘pretend biking’ even though it doesn’t feel like pretend biking to me – it’s so much harder than out on the road. They see me going everywhere on the bike, so if they see someone getting into the car for a short journey they question it. They’re learning a healthy way of life.”
Sineád Stafford said her children Nathan (18), Caoilainn (14), Aoíbheann (10), Oisín (8), Fíadh (5), Conrí and Saorfhlaith, both (3), have also benefited from her training. “You see them playing around the house and they will get a swimming cap on, even the small ones. They will pretend they are swimming but they are running around the house. Then they will run off and they will transition and then they will get their bikes and they are flying around the place,” she says.
“My eight-year-old and my 10-year-old competed last year in Fenit. We had a junior club that we set up last year. My 14-year-old won triathlete of the year in the club last year. I don’t push them, either. If I play piano, they don’t have to play the piano, but I do think swimming is an essential life skill.”
Jacqui Dunphy’s two daughters, Beibhinn (7), and Caoimhe (5), have also followed in her footsteps and competed in their first triathlons in April, but her training and healthy lifestyle has had an even greater impact on the students she teaches at St Paul’s Secondary School in Walkinstown.
“They see that I constantly have energy even though they’re saying to me, ‘But you cycled here nearly from the airport’. I’m never in bad form; I’m always bouncing around. They see the food that I eat. I could be walking around with a bowl in my hand and they’ll be asking, ‘What’s that now?’
“I have a real push on nutrition in the school and they come to me asking what I’d recommend eating for running or whatever it is they want to do. They never stop asking questions.”
Importance of nutrition
Dunphy’s students ask “if I have a race at the weekend. I bring them to races and things like that. I’m really trying to push them to stay active, but it’s really important that they have the right food. I think people don’t understand the importance of nutrition at all.
“The kids these days all want to go to the gym, but not everyone has the money to go to the gym and they don’t always have the time to get to the gym if they’re studying for exams or they can’t get there. So I do two strength and conditioning classes a week for them at lunchtime.”
Dunphy says the positive impact her training has on her daughters helped her when she had to leave them for long days while preparing for her first Ironman.
“There are points when you get very, very tired. You reach a point of tiredness where I did feel a bit of guilt. I had four or five intense training days where I was gone all day and you come back home and your kids say, ‘But Mammy, you were gone all day,’ and that just rips you apart.
“I think that is the hardest bit,” she adds, “so that’s why I try to maximise my use of the time that they’re not available to me. I need to nearly stop myself and realise that they have now gone into triathlon and I’m so proud of their achievements. They’re learning so much and that would nearly push me more.”
Sineád Stafford sometimes has to remind herself that focusing on something other than parenthood doesn’t mean her children suffer. “Anybody can do it, not just a mum,” she says. “Anybody can do it if you just put your mind to it.
“Sometimes you do have a small bit of guilt as well. Especially training for the full [event] now this year as well as the half, I will have a lot more training. So you do think, ‘God, I am putting a lot of training in, I am not giving that much back to my family’. But us being mums, and I think women in general give 100 per cent to everything even if that means splitting themselves two ways or three ways.
“The kids will get the same amount of love and attention either way,” she says. “ Just because you are doing one thing, another does not suffer. Sometimes the mommy guilt comes into play and you put that bit more effort into everything else.
“After 18 years of being a mum, it is kind of nice to have that time to yourself as well. It is headspace. It is exercise and it is fantastic for your mental health. It is the only thing I have ever been good at apart from being a mum, and with being a mum you are always questioning that. You don’t give yourself enough credit for what you do, but with triathlon I am actually okay.
“You get a little bit proud of yourself. I love it. I love everything about it.”
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