PEDALLING POWER A champion cyclist, Noreen O'Toole, Westport, is looking forward to the 180k bike race in the Frankfurt Ironman. Pic: Pawel Sadowski
Noreen O’Toole has her sights firmly, unshakeably trained on becoming the first Westport woman to complete an Ironman triathlon. The famous long-distance event’s gruelling course consists of a 3.86k swim, a 180.25k bike ride and a full marathon-length run of 42.2k – all raced in that order, and without a break.
It’s a race to test the grit of the most determined athlete. But grit and determination are traits that this 37 year old has in spades. She loves nothing more than a physical challenge (though a scoop of ice cream could be a close second), and training is one of the greatest joys in her life – just as well: the event she’s gearing up for, the Frankfurt Ironman, is just around the corner, on July 3.
“I just love training,” she tells The Mayo News. “It sorts your head out. You get out on the bike, or out for a run … you forget about everything; it’s brilliant. It makes you feel great.”
Originally from Westport Quay, Noreen went to St Colmcille’s NS and then the Sacred Heart School. Her determination was evident from a young age.
“I was always sporty, but I wasn’t always good or natural at it. I had to work at it. But I’ve always loved sport. Even at The Quay, when we were kids … there were a lot of kids around at The Towers, The Helm, the Caddens had The Asgard at the time. I just remember getting stuck in with all the lads. I might be the only girl, playing rugby at the pond at The Quay.
“Or I’d play rounders at the school. I lived for the sports days. I wouldn’t have excelled academically, but I loved the sport.”
Noreen, who works as a lifeguard and in the gym at Westport Woods Hotel, believes that being ‘a natural’ isn’t key to achieving physically – what’s key is encouragement. “People have to get encouraged a little bit; once they get that they’re fine,” she says. And she’s living proof.
Noreen first started running when she was 26, after she had put on a bit of weight in her college years. “I was quite heavy, 16 stone – and I’m not very tall, I’m only five foot four and three-quarters,” she laughs.
“I woke up one morning and said to myself, ‘I have to lose this weight’. I started Weight Watchers and walking.” Soon, that walking turned into running.
“I couldn’t run 300 metres at the beginning,” she confesses – but not for long. She picked a route, out to the graveyard on the West Road, ‘and around the heather road’. “It’s a 5k loop. Quite hilly. I’d pick off posts and say, ‘Today I’ll run four posts and walk three’, or whatever. Within three weeks I was running the whole 5k.”
She was hooked, and soon she was running half marathons aplenty. But still the urge to do more, to push herself more, tugged. “I knew I could run, and I knew I could swim. I’d never owned a bike though….”
Was a little thing that going to stop her? Not a bit. “I took a part-time job at Christmas time, along with my full-time job in the Woods Hotel gym, to get a bit of extra cash to buy a bike … and that’s how it started!”
Before she knew it, she was a fully fledged member not only of Westport Covey Wheelers cycling club, but also Westport Triathlon Club.
“My friend Derval Devaney got me into the cycling club. From there I started cycling, and then the triathlon club. Then I tore my calf one year, so I couldn’t do any running. I started cycling a lot instead, and I got better and better at the bike. So I stuck to the cycling then, and I raced the bike for a few years. Now I’m back to triathlon.”
A medal-winning cyclist, she’s pedalled her way to top honours in a range of Connacht championships. Although working full time, and competing when she can, she makes sure to find the time to encourage others: She coaches swimming at the Westport Tri Club two days a week, and pitches in at Covey Wheelers any chance she gets.
“I help with the youth cyclists every now and then, and I encourage the women – I’d encourage anyone… the beginners too – I’d often take them out. You have to encourage them as much as you can, because you want to keep them going, keep them interested,” she says, her voice full of the kind of infectious enthusiasm that must be an inspiration to those just starting out.
Focus on Frankfurt
Westport Tri Club’s annual Westport Sprint Triathlon is coming up on June 11. It’s a set distance – a 750m swim, followed by a 20k cycle and a 5k run. Although she’d normally take part, this year Noreen’s restricting herself to organising the event’s swims. The Ironman training is top priority. “The shorter distances – the fast and furious stuff – doesn’t suit me,” she explains.
But she’s not taking it easy – the Lough Cutra Castle Triathlon is coming up on May 29 and Westport Tri Club is taking part as its club race. Noreen will do the half Ironman event there – a 1.9km lake swim, a 90km bike and a 21km off-road run, as it fits in with her longer-distance training for Frankfurt.
While 14 of her club mates are also doing an Ironman later this year – the Barcelona event in October – Noreen hopes to already be crowned Westport’s first Iron Lady.
After watching her friend Seán O’Boyle train for previous Ironman events, the keen athlete’s familiar urge to meet a new challenge tugged hard again. When her friend in the Ballina Tri Club, Sharon O’Hara, told her they were heading to the Frankfurt Ironman in July, she couldn’t say no.
“It was more or less a spur-of-the-moment thing. So it’s thanks to Sharon – it’s her fault!” she jokes. “I chose Frankfurt because my sister lives over there – it wasn’t because I didn’t want to go with my club to Barcelona or anything! It’s just I can make it into a kind-of holiday, you know?”
And if anyone deserves a holiday it’s this woman. Her Ironman training regime is unremitting. “Monday I usually run, for about an hour, and in the middle of that I’ll do a few sprints. Tuesday morning I swim up to 2,500 metres, and Tuesday evening, I do a spinning session on the bike, normally up to an hour – easy stuff with high cadence, so you move your legs really fast. Wednesday morning I take off, and usually do a bit of stretching, then Wednesday evening I do a run – around an hour.
“Thursday morning I’ll do a spin session on the bike, followed quickly by a run; a quick change of clothes and I’m on the road for a run up to half an hour … Thursday evening I swim, up to 2,500 metres again. Friday I take off, then Saturday I run – it could be anything up to an hour or an hour-and-a-half at most at the moment. Then Sunday, I cycle, anything up to three hours.”
Looking ahead to July, Noreen is confident about the water event – it’s a lake swim, which she prefers, though she’s hoping the water temperature will be cool enough to make it a wetsuit event, for the extra buoyancy. “A wetsuit keeps you up, so you wouldn’t get as tired. It means you save energy for the rest of the day.”
She’s not fazed by the cycling either. It’s the last of the three challenges she’s least looking forward to – especially if it’s very warm. That said, she’s confident her determination will carry her through. “I’d be a strong swimmer and a strong biker, but the running … I’m not worried though, I’ll plod through it,” she laughs, “one aid station to the next!” The aid stations are located every 1.5k, where those all-important water and light-food refuels can be grabbed.
Her good friends Seán and Delva will be along the route too, cheering her on, as well as all the supporters travelling with the Ballina crew. She can be sure there’ll be many more back home in Mayo willing her on through every stage too.
Doing an Ironman is such a massive achievement that many people get tattoos of the race’s distinctive logo after they’ve completed one. A permanent badge of honour, body-art style. Will Noreen? “I’d like to say no,” she chuckles, “but I already have two, so who knows…”
Tattoo or no, Noreen has already proven she has the metal to meet any challenge head on – even one made of iron. May the wind be at her back her on July 3.
For information on the Westport Triathlon Club and the Westport Sprint Triathlon on June 11, visit www.westporttriclub.ie, and for more on Westport Covey Wheelers, see www.westportcc.ie.