My Story: Triathlete to Chronic Fatigue15 min read
I hated sport at secondary school. Running around a track, being harassed by teachers trying to force me to run cross country during Physical Education (PE) lessons were truly awful.
During PE one day I thought I would really try, just to see how well I could do in cross country running. Not only was I rubbish, I absolutely hated it.
It was only when I left secondary school that I began to take an interest in jogging. No idea why, but I began to jog for 10 minutes at a time twice a week when I was 16 years old.
The experience was painful, and on more than a few occasions I felt I was going to be sick halfway round. Clearly, I was not a natural athlete!
But I stuck with it, again no idea why, and eventually managed to build up sufficient fitness to be able to jog for twenty minutes, 2-3 times per week. I even began running with a friend from school who had always been into sport and cross-country running events.
Turns Out, I am a Runner
Colin and I began doing training together and soon completing 5-10km was a breeze. So much so that we entered some local running events.
I was really surprised how well I did, even managing to run faster than my friend who was the sporty one!
Entering local running events, I found that I typically placed within the top 20, which as a young 17-year-old was a great achievement. It seemed as if I have unleashed the hidden athlete and believe me it was VERY well hidden.
Colin suggested we join a local running club, Poole Runners, who met every Wednesday for a long-steady 10 miles around Poole.
Now, neither Colin or I had EVER run this distance. So, to check we could do it we decided to run 10 miles the day before going to the club. We could do it fine and the next day we did another 10 miles.
Within a few months I was able to keep up with most of the runners in the club during the weekly 10 miles. There were a few very good runners in the club, who typically ran 60-62 minutes for their weekly steady run – this is a good pace. For me I would do a respectable 65-67 minutes for my weekly run.
In a strange twist of fate, two of my secondary school PE teachers were also club members. It was incredibly satisfying running past them, each time with a calm look like it was a walk in the park. I resisted the urge to shout “encouragement” to them 😉
Fascinated with Triathlon
Trying to remember how I got into Triathlon and the only memory is being fascinated with the Ironman event.
An American guy called Mark Allen was dominating the Ironman event then, the fitness of this guy was truly formable. He is still regarded as one of the best endurance athletes of all time.
I enjoyed mountain biking and already had an affinity for biking, so I swapped out the knobbly tires for slicks and got myself some triathlon bars – making my carbon fibre mountain bike look very bizarre. So much so it caught the attention of some rogue builders at my local pool, who I believe took a liking to it.
Researching road bikes shortly after, I went with an Italian road bike and got some more triathlon bars and basically become a proper triathlete.
I was never a particularly good swimmer but at a chance meeting with a Swedish breast stroke medal winner, he kindly spent time improving my stroke. Eventually my swimming improved and leaving the pool I didn’t look like a drowned rat.
Dedication to Training
My time as a competitive athlete was short but during those few years as a teenager, I experienced athletic achievements I never believed I would, especially considering my lack of sports ability at school.
Apart from the satisfaction of completing triathlons and several half marathons, I achieved some impressive personal bests, including a 33 minute 30 second 10km and 1 hour 17-minute half marathon. I regularly placed in the top ten for running and triathlon events in Dorset.
Looking back at those times, I still remember the dedication and in some cases addiction to my training regime that I developed myself. Rain or shine I would be on the road, on my racing bike on a Sunday morning for my weekly long-distance ride of 60-80 miles (100-120km).
My typical weekly training sessions comprised of:
- Swimming 3 times per week for 60-90 minutes each session
- Cycling 3 times per week for 75-240 minutes each session, as well as cycling to work
- Running 3 times per week for 45-90 minutes each session
- Monday was my day off from training and I would only cycle to work and back. The rest of the week I had to fit in 9 training session into 6 days.
The weekend was when I did the longer sessions, so typically every Saturday morning I would jump on the racing bike to do long 60 to 80-mile rides from Bournemouth out to Weymouth or Dorchester. I was so dedicated that I would do these whatever the weather.
One of my most satisfying training sessions was completing a 75-mile bike road from Bournemouth to Weymouth and back, then changing into my running kit to meet a friend for a 5-mile run. Colin was unaware of the distance I cycled that morning as we kept a steady paced 7-minute mile for our run.
It felt great and I managed the session easily, which just went to show the level of my fitness at that time.
In hindsight I should have taken a month off during the winter and resumed training in the New Year. But the early success with local Triathlon races when I was 18 spurred me on to take my training to a new level.
Instead, I trained heavily through the winter months with back to back training sessions up hills, running fast paced 10 miles with the running club and 3-4km swimming sessions.
Start of Overtraining – Doing Too Much
I didn’t realise at the time, but I was overtraining and instead of increasing fitness and building up my body, I was slowly breaking it down.
The tell-tale signs were there, if I had stepped back and had the experience to know what was happening to me. I couldn’t put on any weight and remained 50kg (8 stones!) with around 6% body fat, despite trying to eat as much as possible. Fatigue was happening more often, and training sessions were getting harder to finish.
Even today I remember two training sessions vividly where I knew something wasn’t right. During the training sessions I felt spaced out, like I was outside of my own body, that I literally had nothing left to carry on.
When Dedication is a Mistake
Just before Christmas it went horribly wrong, I become infected with a nasty virus over the festive period. My glands were incredibly swollen and very painful, along with a killer sore throat I was flat on my back for a week.
Feeling sorry for myself I was getting anxious about losing fitness, so I waited to feel 95% back to “normal”, which was around 10 days, before hitting the pavement and pool again.
Unbeknownst to me and having considered this many, many times over the years, it’s likely I had contracted glandular fever over that Christmas period.
If you haven’t heard of Glandular Fever it can be nasty, check out this reference too, a virus with no medical cure you have to rest and recover naturally. The symptoms are unpleasant too, can feel like a bad case of tonsillitis with fever and extreme tiredness.
Now it’s the last point, extreme tiredness that for me was the real “killer”.
Glandular Fever is not an illness you hear about that often. It’s incredibly dilapidating though if you don’t rest and recover sufficiently to shake it off. In rare cases it can lead to other more serious conditions, such as pneumonia.
It’s very infectious too and it can easily be spread for up to 7-weeks before showing symptoms.
Back to Training Too Soon
Paranoid about “losing fitness” I was desperate to get back into training so I could perform even better the next season.
In a state of ignorance that I simply had a bad cold I rested for 10 days, which I believed at the time was long enough. I attempted to get back into my exercise regime, only to be knocked back in a few weeks with the same symptoms.
With no outside help or advice, only really poor advice from local GP’s saying just rest and take antibiotics. I repeated this pattern 3-4 times before pretty much collapsing with fatigue and needing 10-12 hours of bed rest per day.
At the time I was studying for my A levels at Bournemouth College because I wanted to go to University. Because I had been studying so much in my first year, the second year was fairly easy for me and so missing a lot of lessons meant I didn’t really get behind.
Of course, the periods of bed rest and lack of attendance impacted on my A level results, but I still managed to get passing grades and enough to get to Brighton University doing the Sports Science degree I had been aiming for since starting further education.
Nevertheless, the second year of A levels was a hard time mixed with real disappointment seeing really surprising running and Triathlon performances turn into someone who struggled to exercise at all.
The fact is, I struggled big time with mood and often felt very depressed, a combination of feeling sluggish and continual brain fog, along with really missing the exercise-induced endorphins I used to experience every day.
This was certainly one of the lowest points in my life and has impacted me throughout the rest of my life.
Prior to getting ill, my identity was clearly a triathlete. I lived and breathed Triathlon.
Every week I spent 10-15 hours swimming, cycling and running.
I spent most of the rest of my time reading about Triathlon and when finances permitted researching and buying new kit, mostly for my bikes.
My identity changed to the guy who was constantly sick, who even looked sick (pale and glazed eyes). The guy who complained ALL THE TIME about his glands being swollen.
Basically, the guy whose friends would sometimes finish my sentence for me, saying “I would do it, but my glands”.
Diagnosing and Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
These days most people have heard of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) in some way. Possibly not in terms of its likely causes and long-term effects, but certainly that as the name suggests it causes severe fatigue and a recognised disease.
When I first got it, no one really seemed to know what’s wrong, even medical GPs were explaining my symptoms in a light-hearted way, suggesting it was a cold and I was simply “unlikely” to be getting ill so often.
After 3-4 times of experiencing the same symptoms I knew something was wrong but no idea what.
The first year I went to the doctor every time I got ill and the first 3-4 occasions took the prescribed antibiotics, which had no positive effect. To make matters worse some doctors I visited even suggested the problem could be psychosomatic – great I thought, they think it’s all in my head!
The social support was appalling too. I spent years with no information or support, and it was only when I was eventually referred to a “specialist” unit in Weymouth did I speak to someone who understood what I was experiencing.
Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the unit or the woman that I saw. A few visits later and the advice was to follow a graduated programme whereby you literally take baby steps in terms of getting back to your usual life.
I found it very difficult to follow the advice as I didn’t live in a bubble and wanted to have a life. So, I took things easy when I felt I had to and had mostly given up on exercising, only trying a few times since.
Chronically Infected Tonsils
The only medical treatment that really helped to improve my symptoms was when I had my tonsils removed.
I would have swollen glands and sore throats every month for years and a chance appointment with a sympathetic doctor noticed that my tonsils appeared to be pitted and infected. He suggested that I have them removed as they didn’t look in good condition and could have been hindering my health.
Going private I arranged to have them removed the following week, using my 2nd year student loan and kindness of my Dad. After the operation I recovered overnight in the most expensive “hotel” I have ever stayed in, a private hospital bed. At £1,000 per night back in 1996 I had to imagine the cost now!
I asked the surgeon if I could keep the tonsils, I know a bit morbid but I was studying anatomy at the time, but he said they were so chronically infected that they were incinerated immediately.
A week or so of recovery and there was a marked improvement in my health. I looked better too, my eyes were less glazed over.
Since then I suffer from swollen glands in my neck much less, at a guess more like once per year instead of the 12 times per year – result!
25 Years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Sitting down writing this post has triggered mixed emotions. In some ways it’s been cathartic to reflect on events over 25 years ago now. But there is a tinge of sadness remembering so vividly the transformation from sedentary teenager to competitive athlete to being and feeling unwell for many years.
Over the years many people have said that my “condition” was in my head and that I just needed to get out and do some exercise. Or if ill and at the local doctors, you have a low immune system and just happen to be picking up the infections going around.
The most frustrating thing at the time was the lack of awareness from both the public and medical profession about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I remember visiting my local GP early on several times and being prescribed antibiotics!
Crazy now that I think about the damage this over prescription has probably done.
Eventually you just ignore the “advice” and just get on with your life.
It’s been fortunate that for most of my adult life I have worked for myself. This affords me flexibility and the ability to work from home. I mean don’t get me wrong I am certainly not bed bound but being able to avoid the daily grind of a commute certainly helps when your immune system is poor, and your energy levels are at an all time low.
Another massive plus for being self-employed is the ability to take time off and travel. I have spent a lot of time in the last 20 years abroad, mostly in Asia, but in Germany too. A quick calculation and I think I have spent 6-7 years abroad.
Sometimes I have worked whilst abroad but mostly it’s been enjoying travelling, which is an awesome way to get out of a rut and feel rejuvenated.
What works for me is changing my lifestyle to fit how I want to live my life. I can live and work anywhere in the world where there is a decent internet connection.
25 Years Later
It’s my 25-year anniversary this year since I got Glandular Fever, seems another life when looking back. A lot has changed for me since then, I really like my life now, I should have no complaints although of course I still do.
The truth is I still miss regular exercise, actually I REALLY miss training. Slipping on a pair of trainers and heading out the door for an hour steady run feels great and it’s the easiest way to exercise and stay fit.
In hindsight I know where I went wrong, overtraining with insufficient rest, getting glandular fever and not having a complete break from exercise for a month. Who knows, if I had done this what personal athletic performances I could have achieved. But I know that exercising as much as I did was too much and not sustainable in the long-term.
There is some good news though, I am sure that having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome led me down the path to where I am now. It heavily influenced my choice of career and with some help from friends pushed me towards an entrepreneurial path that ultimately led me to meet my wife, get married and have two kids.
An interesting question is if in some weird rub a genie type situation, would I swap being a fit triathlete for my lifestyle now? Not in a million years!