From freezing cross country meets to epic swimruns, Helen Croydon has a long list of gruelling endurance events under her belt. But it wasn’t always so. I caught up with the former party girl to chat about her new memoir, This Girl Ran, and find out how she went from immaculate, rain-hating city girl to gritty endurance sport convert.
Your book, This Girl Ran, is out this week. Tell us about it?
It’s my story about changing from a city girl and a bit of a girly type to getting involved in running, getting quite addicted to outdoor sport and challenges, and going on to qualify for the age group World Championships in triathlon. As well as it being a sporty story, it’s also a story of toughening up and pushing past boundaries – particularly boundaries that women face – and becoming comfortable with a less glamorous image. That, and all the wholesome effects that sport and triathlon has had on my life.
How would you describe your life before sport?
Living in London I was a typical city-dwelling urban professional and kept fit purely for aesthetic reasons, because I wanted to fit into skinny jeans. Most of my social life revolved around trendy bars, cocktails, drinking and good times, and trying to look good. Quite shallow pleasures. It was fun, and I wasn’t unhappy, but the only way I knew how to have a good time was drinking.
Although I didn’t have a drinking problem, my life revolved around social drinking. I wanted to write about it in the book because I think a lot of people will relate to that. Whether they’re into sport or not, I think lots of people are trapped in that bubble. That’s what my life was like; I was trapped in this city-living bubble. A very pleasant, very convenience-led, very comfortable lifestyle. And I don’t think I ever really pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, physically or mentally.
Fast-forward several years and you’ve completed 125-mile bike events, a 52km swimrun… You inhabit a different world!
I still look at my old life now and think, gosh there’s this disconnect between the two, and how did I become this person? I still get this sense of pride when I fix a puncture or get on my bike in the cold and rain and survive [laughs]. I am a tough girl now!
Cross country was your first introduction to endurance sport – a baptism of fire?
Cross country is one of the toughest things to do because of all the hanging around in the freezing cold before and after the races. But that was the first thing I ever did! I think that was part of the addiction though, I got this sense of satisfaction from having proved that I could do it. And that made me want to do more things that pushed the boundary. In many ways, I think throwing myself in the deep-end at something so tough was probably what fuelled the addiction. It could have completely put me off or it could have been, Oh my god, look what I’ve managed to survive – and it was the latter!
So it was a shock that you managed to get through cross country?
Yes, because I’d never seen myself as sporty. I wasn’t sporty at school; I’ve just been pretty average. I adopted this glamorous image and was always known amongst my friends as the one who never wore flat shoes. I think when we’re liked by friends for certain traits, we often try to emphasise them. We live out that stereotype, so I was known as the glamorous one and you make a bit of a parody about that. ‘Oh gosh, I’m not going out in the rain. I’m going to get a cab.’ I was that sort of person. But yeah, I never saw myself as being tough or sporty, so when I realised that this is possible, it did become quite addictive!
What was the life-changing catalyst to you rocking up at that first cross country event?
I was in a low point and I was desperately in need of something new. I had split up from a relationship and at the same time it just seemed that all my friends were moving away, having kids and becoming increasingly more unavailable. Even though it was my decision to end the relationship, it still left a hole.
I was craving activities and adventure, but the only activity I knew was going out drinking, and that’s what I was really trying to avoid. I was in this empty, frustrated period craving something to fill a gap. But I didn’t know what I wanted to fill it with.
Didn’t you once do a cross country race with a designer tote bag?
Yes, I did [Laughs]. I carried my kit in it! It was an Estee Lauder bright red patent bag – the kind you get sometimes if you buy two beauty products from a department store. It was the only thing I had, other than a suitcase.
I didn’t have an outdoorsy coat either, so I wore a very blingy, gold quilted thing with a fur collar. I was very warm, but I obviously didn’t fit in! I think a lot of people in that situation would have been: ‘I’m not going to go – I’m not going to fit in, I don’t look the part.’ But I was so desperate to fill this gap that I was determined to get involved in a club. And I think once I did that cross country race, it became my drive. I saw the running club as a way out of this empty, frustrated phase that I was in.
How did things change once you joined the local running club?
I became a complete maverick about it, wanting to do some sort of event, challenge or race, every single weekend. Whatever the club was doing, I would do it. It wasn’t even because I was that bothered about fitness – it was just solely that I wanted to get involved in club culture. I had that empty feeling and I wanted new friends. And I think the secondary effect of that was that I realised my body was getting stronger, fitter. Mentally, I was becoming more resilient, hanging around in a cold field all day, which to me was a big deal! Things like buying thermals, knowing what thermal layers to put on, that was such a technical thing to me and I just felt really proud of myself.
How did you go from runner to triathlete?
So I slowly became drawn to the competitive side more than to the social side. First it was, ‘Oh I want to be part of this new social scene’, then it was, ‘I’m getting tougher, what else can I do?’ Year two, that’s when I started to get a bit more competitive. Triathlon lends itself to all-rounders. I’m not a bad runner, but compared to club runners, I’m very in the middle. But when I did triathlon I found that I ran in the top quartile. And that drove me a bit to try a bit harder.
Then I started doing lots of triathlons but I found that I was doing them on my own. So I went through a little spell of thinking, Why am I doing this? The whole reason I started this journey was because I wanted to be part of a group; I wanted to spend my Saturdays having group banter and Sundays going to the pub and stuff. So I joined a triathlon club and my focus shifted to triathlon.
How did you get on with the cycling?
After a few races, I realised that my weakest discipline was the bike. So I thought, right, I’m going to focus on cycling. I’m going to get better on a bike over the winter. In 2014, a year after I first joined a running club, I decided to focus on cycling.
You cycled the very tough Tour of the Peaks event, didn’t you?
I found a friend and cycled in some treacherous weather. The trouble with winter cycling is that not a lot of people want to do it because it’s really unpleasant and your extremities get frozen [laughs]. We went cycling in all weathers and I did some really tough challenges. The Tour of the Peaks was 112 miles in the Peak District, and the only flat bit in the whole of the 112 miles was 5 miles in the valley. The rest of it was up and down in gale-force winds for 9 hours. You just can’t eat enough to fuel that, so we were seeing stars.
Eventually, we got picked up by the sweeper truck and didn’t quite make the end [laughs]! There were loads of incidents like that. I just look back and remember cycling in rain and ice. I don’t think I ever knew I could get that cold.
They sound like great resilience-building rides!
Yeah. I used to get home and instead of thinking, Oh my god, that was so traumatic I’m never doing that again, I’d have this sense of pride and satisfaction that I’ve survived; that my body was capable of it and my mind was capable. And that’s what drove me, because it was so incongruous to how I’d always seen myself as the girly, glamorous city girl. That was the thing that fuelled me most. What else can I do? And eventually I started to see the results.
How did your triathlon Team GB age group qualification come about?
The following spring, I decided to enter a qualification race for the World Championships. It was kind of a secret goal; I never really thought that I’d make it. And on that morning I had to get up at 4am and drive a hire car to a race in Leicestershire. I was thinking, What am I doing? I’m getting up at 4am, I’m going on my own again, it’s going to rain and the water’s going to be cold. And I nearly didn’t go. But I did and I was really on form that day, I had no idea why. I’d had 2 hours sleep. I had a really good race and I did qualify.
Did qualifying as a GB age-grouper change your approach to training?
I trained like mad for the next 3 months. I was totally consumed by it; the idea of having GBR printed on my bum felt so amazing. So I just became super-healthy that summer, hardly drank, had loads of sleep, had sports massages, trained twice a day. Everything textbook to make myself as fit as I could in that timescale.
When the Triathlon World Championship day arrived, as expected I was somewhere in the middle. But at the end, I just broke down and cried. I saw all these other athletes with their families and club friends and I realised that the very reason why I started this whole journey in the first place was the camaraderie. I realised I’d taken my level of competition so high that it was far too serious to have any camaraderie at all, and it was all really serious athletes. Where were my club friends and the trip to the pub at the end?!
It made me realise all the other things I get from sport – it’s not about the medals and where you come. Sport’s made me a tougher person, physically more robust, more patient, more at ease hanging out in thermals and trainers, all these mental and physical affects it’s had on me. That’s amazing, that’s what I get from all this.
Now, I still train as much as I can – I still love it. I very much do it now for pleasure, and I still race, but I do ones that my friends and club friends are doing.
In your book you dreaded your Track Tuesday sessions – do you still do them?
I do! Every Tuesday. The exact same one. That’s my one session that I try not to miss. I’m very sporadic with my training; I don’t follow a scientific plan like a lot of people do, but I have a rough quota of sessions I try and fit in. But that Tuesday track session is just the best. It’s still the toughest session I do, but I don’t have the same dread that I used to.
Did you find the track sessions improved your running?
Yes, definitely. I would recommend it for runners and triathletes – I would say the single most effective session is a running speed session. It’s just so good for both your anaerobic and aerobic fitness.
I reckon a lot of women find the idea of rocking up to a track session daunting…
Yes. I think we all have this idea that everyone who’s into sport has been into it for a long time and is really seasoned and experienced. I don’t know if I speak for everyone, but my image of that comes from school when I was really intimidated by PE teachers and the tough, sporty girls. I was this skinny little rake, scared of the netball, really felt the cold, and it was that whole impression that sporty people aren’t sympathetic at all to anyone who’s not sporty. It runs deep!
I think women in particular find it daunting because the sporty image is very incongruous with the feminine image. And that’s what’s so intimidating about turning up to the track or doing anything sporty, we think, ‘Oh that’s not me’ and ‘Everyone else is going to be so good’ but what I know now of this world is that it’s full of people going for the first time. It’s full of people on a similar journey to me, who’ve come to some kind of life crossroads. And they’re only going to get welcomed. Most people’s attitude is, ‘Good on you for trying!’
What does your weekly training look like?
Because of this epiphany I had in the World Championships in Chicago, my training has massively reduced. Life is about balance and doing sport because it’s part of my social life. It doesn’t have to be all extreme endurance sport or extreme partying.
Over the last year, I’ve probably cut my training down by around 5 hours, so now I train maybe 10 or 11 hours a week. When I was training for Chicago, I was doing maybe 18 hours during a heavy week.
Now, I have a menu of sessions I pick from and roughly I try and do one endurance session and one speed session in each of the three disciplines (swim, bike, run), plus two strength sessions in the gym. One would be upper body and one would be legs. I try and do 3 runs and two cycles and swims, but I never ever achieve that. In reality at least two of those would go.
Do you like to track everything on Strava?
Yeah, I do. I’m a Strava addict! I’m a geek. I absolutely love statistics. I always wear a heart-rate monitor, I have the latest Garmin – 935, I think it is. It tracks your sleep, your steps, your resting HR and everything like that.
Given you’re into geekery and stats, do you train by power on the bike?
I don’t train by power, only because power meters are so expensive that I haven’t got round to buying one. But I would like to. I do go on a Wattbike. When I do a speed session that means a session on the Wattbike. So I’ll do 5 or 6-minute intervals at threshold. But I tend to go on heart-rate rather than wattage.
You have a 200km cycle this year – is that the furthest you’ve ridden?
The furthest I’ve ever ridden is the Bianchi Grand Fondo and that was 125 miles, so that’s 200km isn’t it? Yeah, so I’ve done it once before.
Will you be riding the 200km event solo or with friends?
I’ll be riding with friends. That’s my criteria now for racing – what are my friends doing? What is the club doing? My goal for me is to fill my weekend and have fun with human company, the joy of a day out. Obviously, I want to be as fit as I can be within the parameters of my lifestyle, so I still don’t want to be slow [laughs]! But I’m not chasing the podium.
Your toughest event was a swimrun with 52km running and 9km of swimming – tell me more?
It’s not in the book as it took place after writing, but it was really hard (the Swimrun to the World’s End event in Norway) and one of the real noteworthy challenges that I did. We had to swim in our trainers and run in our wetsuits and it just went on and on and on! The scenery was beautiful but it was running and swimming and running, and some of the changeovers between the swims were only 100m. So you’d be in the water and out of the water, in the water and out of the water. By the end of it, every time I saw water, I was like: Not again.
Swimming 9km over a day in trainers is a lot. Some of it was lakes, some of it was in the sea. We got so sore from chaffing because of the salt-water, we were rubbed raw. We were running as a pair, and we were so cold. I couldn’t run at the end of it, so for the last 10km we walked because my hamstring was so painful.
And yet you’re coming back for more swimrun with a Brecca event later this year!
It’s funny, because when you do these challenges it seems so painful that you never want to do it again. I remember articulating those words to my partner: ‘Never again, this is hell’, and the next thing, within hours of stopping, you forget the pain and just think, That was so good! and how beautiful all the scenery was. You forget it. I think that’s characteristic of all endurance sport. I always feel like that at the end of a race.
Do you have any strategies for getting through tough events? I read that you do fractions!
Yes, that’s my mental trick to get through. My markers are always a quarter, a third and half-way through. I do all these fraction calculations in my head to pass the time, really.
What are your favourite items of kit?
Bianchi loaned me a Bianchi Oltre XR2 – I used that for the Triathlon World Championship and still have it. That is my one possession that I love, my baby. He even has his own Facebook page!
Aside from the bike, it’s cycling caps because they are brilliant for covering up bad or wet hair after cycling or swimming and ‘cool’ enough to pass for fashion. I have a pale blue Bianchi one which I wear all the time.
Do you have any sponsors?
I had support from Bianchi during and after World Champs and they provided me with my wonderful Oltre. I did get some great coaching from ETE triathlon camps. They let me go on a training camp with them for a week’s worth of coaching.