The old adage is that life begins at 40 and for Donna Harding that is evidently the case because just days after reaching that milestone on May 4 she is embarking on her first Ironman, a triathlon involving a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike topped by a full marathon run of 26.2 miles.
To complicate things further, Harding suffers from Crohn’s disease (a bowel disorder).
Along with locals Dave Bennett, Justine Plenkiewicz and Tony Watts, Harding is in the Ironman Texas on Saturday.
All the hard work has been done and they are just tapering off in the final days. All four swam in the LIME 800m open water event on Saturday as a final serious training session.
Harding knows what to expect, having done two half Ironmans – in Orlando and Miami – so to finish the Ironman Texas will involve at least twice the pain but probably 10 times the satisfaction.
She said that after watching friends compete in Ironman Switzerland a few years ago, the seed was planted to emulate them.
Then at the end of last year, some of the same friends said they were thinking of signing up for a full Ironman and it tipped Harding into signing up.
“It is a daunting idea to sign up for your first full Ironman so to have the company of friends out there with you training during all those long hours with the same goal convinced me to do it,” she said.
She will be satisfied just to complete it and does not intend to put extra pressure on herself by setting a finishing time.
The plan is to cross over the line running and smiling. “As long as I complete each discipline ahead of the cut-off times, I’ll be happy; anything more is a bonus.”
The training has been tortuous. “Well, that’s how it seems! The plan I have been following had a base, build and training phase each of 10 weeks, with a maximum of about 20 hours a week during the peak training.”
The hardest discipline for Harding will be the marathon as she does not see herself as a runner and the distance is daunting.
She took part in the Cayman Islands half marathon in December to ease herself into the longer distance.
However, trying to prepare for running a marathon after swimming and biking for hours first is never going to be straightforward.
The other challenge has been nutrition, which triathletes view as the fourth discipline.
“As I have Crohn’s disease, this has been an even bigger challenge but one which I haven’t let deter me. It is just something I need to figure out by trying different nutrition on the longer training days and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
Totally undaunted, Harding loves every aspect of the triathlon, which is one of the world’s fastest growing Olympic sports. Running a marathon has become so commonplace and achievable for many that people are now seeking bigger challenges, hence triathlon’s increased popularity.
That is reflected in Cayman too. “I think sport in general on the island is extremely popular, which is fantastic,” she said.
“To see every weekend so many events happening on such a small island and to also see that the events bring other athletes from off island as well is wonderful.”
The executive legal secretary with Walkers applauds the Cayman Islands Triathlon Association for encouraging people to get involved from beginners to elite athletes.
“Plus, it’s the challenge to see if you can do more than one sport at once. I think people enjoy pushing themselves to see what can be achieved.”
Her advice to triathlon virgins is to simply give it a try.
“There is always going to be that voice in your mind telling you that you can’t but if you just try, you can.
“If you enjoying biking, for example, but not so much swimming and running, you can get your friends together and join in a triathlon event as a team which makes the idea less scary.”
In her first sprint triathlon of 750 meters swim, 20k bike and 5k run in Cayman the fear was not completing but she did and was inspired to find a bigger challenge.
As a child in a seaside town in West Sussex, England, Harding enjoyed sports, playing in the high school netball team and attending the local swimming club.
However, rather than pursue conventional sports, she trained as a classical and contemporary dancer.
“Things were put on hold when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s and it wasn’t really until arriving in Cayman that I had the opportunity to become involved in so many sports.
“After being unwell, I saw it as my chance to try as many different sports as possible and never to accept that having an illness would stop me.”
Always chirpy, that positive attitude will get her to the start at The Woodlands, Texas and around 14 lung-busting hours later, Harding will have earned the right to pig out on anything her pumping heart and aching limbs desires.
A final word of advice to anyone considering becoming a triathlete: “If you are going to take on an endurance sport with all the hours of training, remember to thank the support you receive from your family, loved ones, friends and training partners.
“I know that, without them, training for such an event would have been even more difficult so thank you to each and everyone of them.”