'If I can do it, anyone can...' says Cork's Ironwoman

A Cork woman was among 2,500 athletes who took part in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. Fiona Foley chats to Roisín Burke about juggling work and family life during her training, the grueling race, and her plans for the future.
'If I can do it, anyone can...' says Cork's Ironwoman
Fiona Foley, who took part in the Kona Ironman Hawaii, in October. Picture: Siobhán Russell

MOTHER of three Fiona Foley is just home from competing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

The fitness instructor, aged 47, who teaches HIIT, spin and bootcamp classes in Crosshaven and Carrigaline, took on the challenge of completing her first Ironman in Youghal on June 23 — and to her surprise, she qualified for Kona earlier this month — the holy grail of Ironman athletes across the globe.

Originally from Glanmire, Fiona lives in Crosshaven with her husband Sean and their three children, Ritchie, Ben and Katie.

The former hairdresser, who has a second brown belt in Karate, started doing triathlons about eight years ago, after her younger brother Nigel and her husband Sean took up the trendy sport of swim, bike, run.

Fiona Foley, is a former hairdresser, who has a second brown belt in Karate and only started doing triathlons eight years ago. Picture: Siobhán Russell
Fiona Foley, is a former hairdresser, who has a second brown belt in Karate and only started doing triathlons eight years ago. Picture: Siobhán Russell

Fiona said her favourite of the three disciplines is the bike and she also said she has awful trouble with the swim.

“I love the bike, but I hate the swim. I have demons about the swim.

“Five years ago I was pulled out of The Seven Frogs triathlon in Castlegregory due to a panic attack brought on in the water.”

Fiona said her swimming coach, Dave O’Mahony, went above and beyond the call of duty to get her ready for Kona.

“At Ironman Youghal there ended up being no swim and because the water is so warm in Kona there is no need for a wetsuit and the Ironman swim is 3.8km.

“Some days with tiredness I would go to the pool and I wouldn’t be able to swim, Dave coaxed me around and helped me with the panic and my breathing.”

Another tough element of training for an Ironman was time management. Fiona explained how she fitted work, training and family life into each day.

“When the days are longer and the mornings are brighter, I would run at 5am, get the kids ready for school, teach and swim, then get home and the fun would really start, taking the kids to activities.

“I would be in bed by 9pm every night.”

Fiona said her social life took a hit in the run-up to Ironman Youghal and while training for Kona.

“I love my social life and believe in everything in moderation. I missed it when training for the Ironman. I missed my friends and going to dinner with Sean and having a glass of wine.

Fiona Foley with her husband Seán & their children Richie, Katie & Ben Foley. Picture: Siobhán Russell
Fiona Foley with her husband Seán & their children Richie, Katie & Ben Foley. Picture: Siobhán Russell

“But I did still enjoy myself, I was in Mallorca before Kona, I had it booked with friends since January, we did a bit of cycling and I did some swimming and running.”

Fiona used the Don Fink advanced Ironman training plan to get ready for Youghal and for Kona.

“I usually train 16 to 20 hours a week, including six classes a week of HIIT, bootcamp and spinning.

“Typically I would do five runs, two with brick sessions (a cycle followed by a run), three long cycles, roughly four to six hours and three swims a week.

Fiona said she also did some yoga to help her sleep at night.

“I didn’t stick to it religiously, but most weeks, that is what I would do.”

As well as battling the swim and making sure she has time for everything, Fiona also revealed she has a long-term injury in her leg that affects her when running.

“I have a recurring injury that I picked up five years ago running the Dublin Marathon. I have a nodule on the top of my hamstring and as a result, my hamstring is constantly inflamed.

“I was told to take six months off to let it heal after Ironman Youghal and I couldn’t.

“I find It really starts to hurt after 13 miles, (21km) and my back is affected by it as well from the running so I have a slight bulging disc. It is savage pain, but you get through it.”

Fiona with her medal, at the Ironman World Championship Race at Kona, Hawaii.
Fiona with her medal, at the Ironman World Championship Race at Kona, Hawaii.

Thankfully, Fiona has an exceptional massage therapist in Colm Crowley who keeps her moving.

Chatting about the big event, the Ironman World Championships, Fiona said it is a memory she will have forever.

She and the whole family went over to Hawaii for the race. They arrived three days before the event.

“Usually, people go a few days before to acclimatise to the heat but because my son Ritchie was doing the Leaving Certificate we went three days before the event. We got there on the Wednesday, it took 26 hours.

Fiona said she was very nervous when she arrived.

“It was Ironman everywhere. It was all very new to me, I felt very lucky. Most people do a number of Ironman before they get to Kona, I had done one.”

On the day of the race, Fiona told herself her only aim was to complete the event.

“Most people want to get a good time at Kona but I just wanted to finish. Nobody wants to DNF (Did not finish).”

Starting off in the water, Fiona said the swim was a challenge.

“I was kicked and punched and swam over, everyone was there to race and they are all good swimmers.

“I set off with my age category, 40-50, the sea was bouncy and had a big swell, I was a little bit seasick.

“At the 1.5km mark, the fast swimmers from the next group caught me and swam past me.

“My goggles were knocked off, so I treaded water, calmed my breathing and went on again. Time was not an issue, I needed to let them past.

“At the 2km mark, more swimmers caught me and I was pushed under the water and into a boat.”

Fiona said she had swum in Kona in the days before the race and it had been a very different experience.

“During the days before I had swum in very clear beautiful waters with a turtle beside me. It was gorgeous but on that day, I was happy to just survive.”

The Ironman athlete said she was delighted when she got to the bike

“I was on a high after surviving the swim. I had a time in mind for the bike, I wanted to hit six hours. It was a hilly route, but I had completed it in training and I knew it was possible.

Fiona on her bike during the Ironman World Championship Race at Kona, Hawaii.
Fiona on her bike during the Ironman World Championship Race at Kona, Hawaii.

For the first 60km, Fiona said the tailwind was behind her and she was flying it, but then she turned into the wind on the route and slowed down considerably.

Further on, Fiona said there were very dangerous crosswinds.

“Nothing prepared me for the crosswinds, I have no fear on the bike, but you had to lean left when the wind was on your right or you were blown off your bike. I couldn’t stay on the tri-bars. One woman actually was blown off her bike.”

The triathlete said that at 95km she was flying it and feeling good until she met the crosswinds on the way home.

“When I met the crosswinds again, I totally forgot about them and my bike wobbled.”

With Kona being Fiona’s second-ever Ironman and her first in 32C heat, she found it to be a sharp learning curve in competing in long-distance abroad.

“A big mistake I made was wearing thin socks, my feet blistered and swelled and my neck was burnt because I wasn’t wearing enough suncream.

“With 60km left, I was ignoring the pain in my feet and pouring water all over myself.”

Off the bike in six and a half hours, Fiona was happy with her time, but her feet were ruined for the run and she was overheating heading into the second transition.

“I could have been more prepared with sunscreen and thick socks and I was overheating but I enjoyed the bike, it was exhilarating. I could really feel the race vibe.

“In the transition area, I had swollen feet, I couldn’t run, I had to hobble, thankfully the carpet was wet from people throwing water.

In transition, volunteers gave Fiona ice sponges and wet cloths to cool off.

“The temperature was 30-32C and it was very humid and dry. It was very hot!”

After spending 12 minutes in transition, Fiona hobbled the first 5km, before picking up her pace.

“After 5km I woke up a little and started to enjoy it, I felt good. It was so hot, there were aid stations every mile and a half. At every station, I put ice in my hat and under my top and by the time I had gotten to the next station the ice had melted.”

Towards the end of her run, Fiona watched the sunset as she made her way to the finish line.

“There was the most amazing sunset, I watched the sun go down and it was breathtaking. It made me realise I was really lucky to be here and to be taking part in the race.”

Fiona’s hamstring injury was acting up towards the end of the run and the determined athlete said she had to take a paracetamol that she had in her pocket to ease the pain.

Fiona Foley with her husband Seán & their children Richie, Ben & Katie Foley, in Crosshaven. Picture: Siobhán Russell
Fiona Foley with her husband Seán & their children Richie, Ben & Katie Foley, in Crosshaven. Picture: Siobhán Russell

“It felt like a punch in the hamstring, it sounds horrific but you kinda get used to the pain. I knew I had to get my mind over the pain.”

A mile from the finish, Fiona heard her name being called over the PA and she thought it was all almost over.

“On the last mile I actually got upset, they can see you coming on the tracker system and the man on the PA yelled ‘I can see you coming Fiona, you are a mile away’ I thought I was nearly finished!”

Crossing the line, the 47-year-old mother said she was crying and couldn’t walk.

“They wanted to take me to the medical tent but I wanted to see Sean and the kids. I lay down for about 15 minutes and made myself eat a slice of pizza. I drank water and after 30 minutes I texted Sean, met them and they helped me with my stuff.”

Comparing Kona to Youghal, Fiona said she much prefered the wind and the rain to the humid conditions of Hawaii.

“The heat exhaustion was fierce. It made me feel sick. I’ll never forget the pain in my head. I was dizzy for two days after.

“In Youghal, after I crossed the finish line I was chatting away and I was in flying form the next day.

“After Kona, the body was okay but I was dizzy and light-headed. Going to dinner the next night I felt faint and had to sit down.”

Although an admirable achievement and very much an individual challenge to undertake, Fiona emphasised the importance of the support she received from her family and friends in getting to Kona and across the line.

“An Ironman is a team effort, you need your family behind you. Sean was great We are together 27 years and married 20, he knows me.

“He put my bike together for me in Kona and the minute I signed up he had everything organised. He always has complete confidence in me, he is very proud of me.”

Her local triathlon club, Crosshaven Tri Club were also extremely supportive.

“They wanted to do a fundraiser for me but I didn’t want them to, so we had a BBQ instead and they presented me with a Crosshaven tri suit with Kona on the sleeves and Team Foley T-shirts for the whole family. It was really special.”

Fiona’s physio, Joyce Wolfe was also a key part of her Ironman journey.

“Joyce has been to Kona, she knows how it works and gave me great advice.”

After she got home, Fiona saw a congratulations photo in her local shop in Crosshaven which she found very touching.

Looking ahead to the future, the two-time Ironman said she thinks half distance is probably next year’s goal with all eyes on the Cork Triathlon Club event ‘The Lost Sheep’ in Kenmare.

“I think I will go back to half Ironman now. It is do-able to train for a half and have a life. It can be very hard when you have to go for a long cycle and you are gone for six hours and then you have to run for an hour after that.”

As a fitness instructor, a mother and as an Ironman, Fiona said the key message she wanted to get across to people was that an Ironman is an achievable goal for anyone who wants it.

“The overarching message is, if I can do it, anyone can. If you put in the work you can do an Ironman.

“You don’t have to be super-fast, it is all about mental strength. The mind can stop you.

“For me, I know the swim is in my head and I needed to beat it, I needed to take control of that. Life is busy, you can’t let phobias take over.”

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