Learning from the best: Eddie Brocklesby

Eddie Brocklesby at the Serpentine.

Photo credit: Susanne Hakuba

Dr Edwina Brocklesby (or Eddie as she is known) is 72. She is possibly the best advert there can be for the benefits of staying active as you age. Having started exercising aged 50 she has since run dozens of half marathons and marathons, triathlons, cycle sportives and Ironman races. She has represented GB in many European and World triathlon and duathlon championships, including the Ironman World Champs in Kona, and rode in a relay 3000 plus miles across America. Her retirement from social work saw her take over the reins at an adoption agency for children born into difficult circumstances and when she retired for a second time she set up the charity Silverfit. In just a couple of years Silverfit has grown from a few friends meeting for a walk in Hyde Park to weekly activities including walking football, spinning, track cycling, pilates and cheerleading) in parks right across London. Eddie and her mass of red hair can usually be found leading the way, whether running the session, filling in grant and funding forms, speaking to the medical world about how to motivate older people to stay active or just having a chat and a cuppa with Silverfit attendees.

Last year Eddie became the oldest British female to complete an Ironman (Swim 3.8k, Cycle 180k, Run 42.2k). I caught up with Eddie for a chat about how she approaches races to see what we can all learn from the doyen of the older exercise world. The race we focused on was Ironman Lanzarote. One of the hardest Ironman races in the world and one which beat her in 2015. So she is heading back in May with a goal to get her own back on the race and cross that finish line.

So you have signed up to Lanzarote. How you plan to approach it?

The first thing I did was sign up to do a swim course in Lanzarote. I know that if I am there all week then I will get the biking in. You can’t swim all day!  And I will make certain that I go across to Puerto Del Carmen to do the swim there in the sea a couple of times. So that is the first thing I will do. I’ll also go out to do a week with Steve Trew which only leaves me a week before Lanzarote so it is tight really in terms of busting a gut, in terms of the bike, but nevertheless it is hilly biking.

You’ve got to beat the bike cut off haven’t you. To finish I need to beat the bike cut off. I can walk round the marathon if I need to. I don’t need to get in much before midnight. I’d sooner minimize the pressure on my knees. And I’m very conscious of not doing any more running than I have to really. I will start upping my running later on but I’m not doing very much at the moment.

Getting out on the bike will be key so I’ve booked up to go over to the Algarve. It is totally unspoilt and I wonder why it is not more popular. The roads are empty and the whole main road from Faro to Lisbon is a smooth road, undulating surface and there is nothing on it. One lorry a day because they’ve all gone on the motorway. So I love it there.

And swimming?

I guess it is about doing more distance. I’m very good at getting into a pool for half an hour. Dan [Swim for Tri] will say it is all about doing drills and I’m not so good at doing that. Brett Sutton wrote a brilliant article about using a pull bouy last year and I know I could do hundreds of lengths with a pool bouy cause I’ve got quite heavy legs so I go much faster with it. But I spent a lot of my swim time up to Lanzarote last year with a pull bouy and I think, for me, that was probably totally erroneous and that is probably what led to the cramp cause I haven’t had to kick that hard for a long long time. So I’m trying very hard. Even using flippers because that does make you kick. So I think Brett was wrong for old people. What he said was use it as much as you like cause if it gets you into the pool then it is good but I use that as a complete crutch.

You’ve said before that swimming is the thing you like least. What is it that drives you to get in the water and train?

It is the ultimate challenge. The area I like least. But it is absolutely key. And now obviously it is a decision to do the Ironman again. I got a bit better last year. Lanzarote was an unfortunate blip on that. That second lap of the swim and the current. The current changed. Never ever will I forget that point out on the far point of turning round and swimming over a rock that felt like it was as big as a table and ten strokes more and you are still on top of the bloody rock and it was about five minutes after that I cramped for the first time.

And how did you get through that?

I didn’t know whether you could send for a canoeist and put your hand up and be pulled out or not. I really didn’t know. I just think relaxing, just lying horizontal and hoping that it would go away and slowly, very slowly continuing for the next few hundred metres. I was on the last 800 metres so that drives you as you are nearly there. I had no idea I was as near to the cut off as I actually was. I knew I’d been a bit slower, quite a bit slower in the first half than I would normally reckon on being but there is something about the memory of that. That spurs me on.

Spurred on by the fear of failure or wanting to do it better?

It is absolutely fear of failure. How do you deal with failure? Which is how I perceived it at the end. Going to the pub the following weekend to see my son [who had also raced] wearing his finishers t-shirt!

Dan proposed that if you swim seven or eight days on the trot you will swim better and I thought it would be important to do. I’m on day three today. Once you get in I find, even if you just do five lengths, you always feel better having swum. So it is almost telling yourself I know I’m going to feel better when I come out the water.

So drawing on previous experience and constantly reminding yourself you can do it?

Yes.

When Lanza was not going well last year. How did you deal with that in your head?

I don’t think I know. I was around El Golfo when the police car overtook me, waved at me and then dropped off behind me. I was at least 3k further on before I realised that meant something. They followed me all the way up to the top of Fire Mountain and I remember getting to the top of that and turning round and then I did overtake another cyclist at lost my lovely police escort. But up until then it was fun actually because you knew all these cars were treating you with real respect cause you’ve got a police car flashing its light behind you. So it was fun. I don’t think I was really expecting the cut off time was going to be held, no-one did. So it was quite a shock when you are in the vehicle going down with your bike behind. But you know I’ve done it twice before and at that point you think ‘well ok, it was so windy’. That day we were surprised to be racing. They must have been right on the edge of cancelling it.

Did that help you deal with it better?

No it didn’t to my surprise. Intellectually you knew. A friend came in on the dot of midnight and is a far more powerful swimmer than me so you realise everyone’s times were longer. But a week or so later you think ohhh how am I going to deal with that. Your automatic assumption was to sign up again but I hadn’t got the courage to do that. I didn’t believe I could do it. I’ve still got my doubts. So Vichy Ironman came along as an option. Even that was a tough race. I think it was 96 degrees for 8 hours on the bike and we were cramping. Everyone was cramping. The same number didn’t finish that race as didn’t finish Lanzarote. There were quite a few ambulances around and people lying on the ground desperately trying to stretch.

What do you think helped you get through that cramp and the heat when others couldn’t?

A month before I was doing London Triathlon and my seat post broke with about 13k to go. I had to literally stand all the rest of the way and then wondered if it was possible to run after that. I could imagine my sons laughing and thinking it absolutely pathetic that I couldn’t get through 10k and how could I do an Ironman if I couldn’t do that. So I ran. And I think it helped me in Vichy cause I knew I could stand when I got the cramps. Probably other people didn’t realise that you know if you stand up on the bike for a good kilometre or 2 then you could sit down and you wouldn’t get the same cramp and I guess other people hadn’t tried that.

I realized that I could get good publicity for Silverfit and it would be greater if I had completed an Ironman rather than said I’d failed. That motivated me on the bike at Vichy.

I also had a real anger level with WTC if I’m honest. The Ironman brand had been sold to the Wanda group just 2 days before for $650m and it was really heart rendering to see the state of some of those volunteers out there. On every junction you have four volunteers for 9 or 10 hours in 96 degrees and they were suffering and they’d all had enough and I thought that “is this what Wanda have bought for $650 million. And those volunteers getting nothing but a goodie bag and a supper.” So yes there was anger.

Have you got a pre-race routine?

I probably avoid alcohol. For a while I would go out 24 hours earlier and push myself and then take on a carb drink. The High 5 guys had researched it at Glasgow University and it did seem to unlock your ability to absorb the carbs so I did do that. I sleep quite well. It is normality that helps me. I have the same breakfast I normally do. I think it is more important to do things that are part of your routine rather than doing something different or specific. Gives you comfort. Puts you in the right mind set. Relaxes you.

How do you feel on the beach before you start a race?

I think it depends on whether I have left myself sufficient time or not. I’m very chaotic at the last minute. Have I got this? Have I got that? And anyway I know I’m going to the back you know so I don’t need to get to that flag any earlier than a minute before the final whistle.

Would you not feel more comfortable if you were more prepared earlier?

Yes. You are always trying to squash something else in aren’t you. And that is my problem. If there is five minutes to spare then I can do this, this and this. And that is why I am late usually. So yes I get anxious but I quite like that. I don’t know how I’ll feel this time which is why I need to go in and prepare, build the adrenaline. My father did a lot of public speaking and I remember him saying the more nervous you are the better you are going to perform.

Do you like getting new ideas around sport and researching them?

I have a research background. Not just in terms of my PhD but prior to that I’d always been, well I did statistics and economics at university and psychology. But in sport I do confirm to a timetable which Annie [Emmerson, Triathlon coach] says do this and do that. But you can’t always fit it in so you are juxtaposing and mix and matching but essentially more or less you are doing the total of what is put on it. I read remarkably little on what I should be doing. I have had a four page article on pedal technique but I haven’t read it yet. I have been carrying this article around with me for months to read about pedal technique as I am sure I can optimise my pedalling.

I did used to listen to lots of podcasts based on exercise research. Especially the Fitness Rocks podcasts. When I first heard those it had a massive influence on me as I was then running quite long distances listening to them. I listened to ever so many of those podcasts and that was leading research every week.

How do you cope with sessions you don’t enjoy?

I clock watch dreadfully. Even spin sessions are clock watched. Only another ten minutes to go. Or count to 100 and you’ll get to the top of that hill you know. I can switch off and write a report. I found when doing marathons you can get to about 5k and you can’t count any more but that the brain is quite good at creative stuff. Although some would say that takes away from your technique. Dan says “I can see when you are thinking about Silverfit!”

Lots of people say that you inspire them. But who inspires you?

The best most inspirational speaker I have heard for a long time is Sarah Winkless. She is a three time Olympic rower but when she was 18 she had just gone to Cambridge, she found out she didn’t get into the Commonwealth Games team and that her mother had Huntingdon’s and she herself was tested and is positive. I thought Sarah was absolutely brilliant. She is a very good speaker. Very few notes and spoke for 30-40 minutes in front of an audience who were mostly medics.

What did you take away from it?

If she can survive and thrive aren’t we all lucky. She has a cloud hanging over her but maybe the latest technology and learnings about the brain may be able to alleviate or alter it somehow. I am fascinated by what makes some people be positive as opposed to negative in tough situations. In her I saw a driven, positive, psychological driving factor that will enable some people to see they are the lucky one which will push them on. That ability to see things positively.

You say that after your husband died you always thought you were the lucky one and wanted to make the most of what you had. What gave you that positive mindset?

I am a great believer in attachment theory. The idea that as a child you need to develop a strong, trusted relationship with a least one primary caregiver for you to be able to have successful social and emotional development. I’ve always believed the care I got as a child has allowed me to have such a positive resilient attitude as an adult. My experience of 50 years in social work shows that good attachment is immeasurably valuable. It doesn’t have to be a parent. I thought Mary Soames, the youngest of the Churchill kids was an absolutely brilliant woman, very warm, very caring, very rooted and she grew up with very good consistent nannies. I think that consistency from a very young age, even as a tiny baby, of knowing you are responded to, makes a big difference.

And do you think that 50 years in social work has given you a better perspective when doing your sports stuff?

Most certainly. It influences my whole persona. So it must do. Yes. I would never have dreamt I’d be doing this sort of mad sports stuff when I was social working but I’m sure there must be a link. I’m proudest of the first half marathon. The fact I could prove to my husband that I could do it. And I did it. It kept me going.

Do you see any benefits of having started competing later in life?

Lots of people who did a lot of sport when young seem to now be playing the price with hip and knee operations, especially in sports like Gymnastics and Badminton where there is lots of jumping and landing. No one wants to promote it but that is denying it happens and it may be in fact be that not starting till I was 50 was a huge bonus.

And finally, how do you celebrate after a big race?

Well that was the thing about Kona. There was no drink at all. Compare it to Lanzarote where all the bars are there and open for you. They had ice cream in Kona but no pizza and no alcohol. So having a drink I guess. It is what you have dreamt of for the last 16 hours 6 minutes and 13 seconds.

Eight lessons we can learn from Eddie

  1. When you are struggling in a race think back to other races you have completed or previous times of adversity and see if any of the experiences or lessons from those will help you now.
  2. Work out exactly what it will take you to achieve your goal and work backwards to identify what processes you need to put in place by when.
  3. Take advice from experts, but be pragmatic as to whether it applies in your situation. Most physiological research is carried out on men aged 18-35. They may respond very differently to you if you are female, or older, or both!
  4. When something goes wrong, don’t panic. Keep going slowly while you work through the options, chances are you’ll have got far enough on and the issue will have subsided.
  5. Keep in mind what is motivating you to do that race. For Eddie it was PR, a previous failure and anger. Find the thing that motivates you. And keep it in mind.
  6. Practice ways to distract yourself when stuff gets tough.
  7. Think about who inspires you, and what it is about them that inspires you. What can you learn from that to have a little bit of their super strength for yourself.
  8. Always have your own supplies ready to celebrate after a big race!

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