The Ingredients are collected
I have always loved taking part in and watching any sport, it has been, and continues to be, a big part of my life. As a result of this I was always very active at school and home. I played a reasonable game of Rugby and was quite good at bowling in the game of Cricket.
I was, however, a late developer, and when I was in my early teens I really had not started to grow out to my adult size. During this time I was diagnosed with Osteomyelitis in my ankle on my right leg. This caused me a great deal of pain and before long I was in hospital.
My parents did not tell me at the time but the antibiotic drip that I was given for over a week did not improve the situation and my doctors considered amputating my lower leg. However, my father found a well known local surgeon who agreed to operate and try a new procedure to remove the infection. I was lucky, the procedure was successful and I was soon back on my feet. However, at my last session with the surgeon he told me that it was likely that one leg may grow to be slightly longer than the other.
When I left school and through university I continued to play a lot of Cricket and a little Rugby but I also added smoking and partying to my hobbies. I was having fun! This continued through to my first working years but the exercise stopped. I started to put on weight, a lot of it! I had never really thought about my food intake, why should I start now? I paid no attention to my body or what it was saying to me.
Vicious downward cycle
Soon after my now wife, Ana, and I moved to London in 1991 I started to get pain in my back. At first I thought it was just a muscle injury and I ignored it. I had started a new job, and was still having fun. I did not exercise, ate whatever food I liked the look of and was now heavily smoking.
Over time the back pain got more and more serious. It is one of those problems that as its gets worse you believe it to be the new normal and just deal with it. Eventually, however, I got to the point where I was limping and walking partly bent over. I could not stand up straight! One morning I came into work in quite a lot of pain but ‘dealing’ with it and one of the senior managers was horrified and sent me home.
Finally, I found myself at the doctors, was put on morphine, was quickly referred to a specialist who found a slipped disc and as a result I ended up in hospital where I was given an epidural and was manipulated back into a ‘normal’ position. Many months of physiotherapy followed where my back started to get better and I thought that my problems were behind me.
Over the next few years, however, the issues and pain continued. I slipped another disc, had more physiotherapy, it got a little better and then the same cycle would begin again. One of the more visible consequences of the pain was that my left leg muscles had wasted to nearly half the size of the right.
I clearly remember the period when I reached my low point, the second half of 1997. Ana and I went shopping in London to buy Christmas presents for our friends and family. I could not stand up straight again and the only way I could go was to put my hand on Ana’s shoulder and to walk slumped over, limping behind her. I missed a bus to work because I could not even jog slowly to the stop. I was in pain when I went out with my friends and had a very bad case of scoliosis.
Around this time I changed my physiotherapist, I realized that I was not getting any better and I thought that someone new could help. A South African national, he sent me off to see several surgeons and back specialists in Harley Street in London. One told me that he wanted to operate and fuse my spinal bones together, another informed me my issues were down to nature and that I needed to put up with it. I didn't believe any of them, what they said did not feel right. The search for a solution went on.
Demis Roussos, a dentist office and yellow pages
Meanwhile my Physio and I were trying another solution to my problem, Acupuncture. I hated the long needles, especially the one he put between my toes...makes me shiver even now! I sat up and said to him that we were getting nowhere and I did not want to do Acupuncture any more. He was a bit upset but suddenly said that he knew of someone who may help. He was from South Africa, was difficult to get an appointment with, had very unusual methods, but had helped the South Africa rugby team during their 1995 world cup win. I was desperate, I asked him to help me get me some of his time. In the end I phoned the guy myself, many times without success, but finally I got an appointment. He said come to an address in Harley street the next week, I groaned, is this going to be any better than the quacks I had already seen?
I was with some suspicion and doubt that I rang the bell for ‘Klaff’ as requested by my new healer. I was buzzed in and went up the stairs to the rooms. When I arrived, it was clear that the arranged meeting place was a dentists surgery. How could this person help me!
Eventually I was shown into one of the rooms. There was a dentist chair, a cheap looking massage table, and a man who looked very similar to Demis Roussos. Overweight with curly hair but with an odd charm and enthusiasm about him he reached out and limply shook my hand - his name was Ron Holder.
Ron immediately got me to undress to my underpants. He looked at me from the back, front and side and said, matter of factly ‘You have been through the wars’. I grumbled back to him my agreement but still feeling suspicious that I was going to waste another chunk of money on a useless ‘doctor’
I followed his instructions to get up onto the massage table. I barely fit on the table it was so narrow. Ron started to, what I thought, was massage me but my goodness he was aggressive. He stuck his elbow into my back in several places, he rubbed my skin near my bones. I was soon yelling out in pain. He responded ‘You rugby players always scream more than other sportsman’ I was too busy being in pain to respond.
Eventually he relented and I sat up in relief. He then, to my surprise, picked up a book of yellow pages and a pair of scissors and proceeded to start cutting. He did so with such expertise and gusto that it quickly became clear to me that this was a regular event for him. Still in my underpants, in pain from his ‘therapy’ and starting to get cold I sat in disbelief watching him at work.
He signaled to me to stand up on four of five of wedges of yellow pages strategically placed under my feet. He then got me to hold out my arms and he pushed down on one or more of my arms and then bend down and remove a few pages and repeat the exercise. Each time he tested it was easy for me to resist his push. However, after a period of continued experimentation I found I could not resist. He did not push hard, I just could not stop him - it was very odd.
He then got me step off the wedges, covered them in painters masking tape, stuck them in my shoes and then told me to walk on these wedges all day, every day for three weeks and then return. I was then quickly ushered out as soon as I had dressed.
I had nothing to lose, I followed his instructions. It was often very painful but I religiously walked on those yellow pages. I did not really believe that any change was going to happen but it was worth a try.
I returned as instructed and he repeated the same exercise again. This time, however, his scissors cut out different wedges and I was sent away again for another three weeks. More pain again, but I could feel myself starting to straighten out; my back pains were reducing.
We repeated this exercise four to five times until one day he cut out only one wedge which was to be placed under my left heel. I was starting to feel better I was now walking straight. I was unbelievably happy!
I continued to visit Ron whenever he was in London. He was always difficult to get hold of but I went out of my way to see him. The wedge under my heel had got thinner and Ron told me that it would remain with me probably for the rest of my life. He told me that the Osteomyelitis in my leg had caused one of the bones in my leg to be partly stunted when I eventually grew to my adult height. This caused a minor balance problem in my body, which, as I put on weight cause my body to react by putting my pelvis at an angle which in turn started to put my back under strain. My lack of exercise had weakened my core muscles and therefore my back was vulnerable. The rest was history.
Whilst all this was happening I continued to put on weight, I had stopped smoking, and actually this made me more hungry! However, my problems, if I did not know them already were driven home to me after a work arranged physical where I weighed in at just under 280lbs or near 20 stone. Soon after, I remember being at work very early one morning, I sneezed, and because my shirt top button was so tight it flew off and hit a metal cupboard next to my desk with a resounding ‘ping’.
I started a diet; I used the Weightwatchers method. I had a little book that had the points for all food and exercise. I had 30 points to eat a day and I wrote down everything I ate and drank. That little book was well used...I knew most of it off by heart after a couple of years! It was now late 1999.
Vicious upward cycle
In 2000 my boy and girl twins, Jamie and Gemma were born. I was still very overweight but had started to change my eating habits. The work that Ana and I had to put into the first few months of the twins certainly helped me to be more active!
As the months went by the Weightwatchers diet was starting to work and I was losing weight. I had started to run irregularly - I remember my first run on a treadmill at a club in London. Beside me, on either side, were two very fit looking ladies. I started to run and after about half a mile I felt very tired. I hadn’t, however, looked at the instructions about how to stop the machine and despite desperately trying read the small worded instructions whilst jogging I eventually just stopped and was spat out the back, landing with a thud on my bottom. The ladies paid no attention and carried on - very embarrassing.
Of course, the more I ran, the more calories I burnt. I started to lose more and more weight and quickly. I could run faster, started to feel good, and I could eat more nice food. Overall I was getting happy...this motivated me more to do more and eat carefully. With the exception of a few weeks I can honestly say that I have been documenting everything I eat ever since I started the process now 13 years ago.
After all his help I had still not received a bill from Ron it was therefore, with some trepidation, that one visit I sheepishly asked him when he was going to bill me for his help. ‘You were an interesting case Graeme...dont worry about it’ he responded. ‘I tell you what you can do though’ he continued, ‘you can run a marathon’.
Me, run a marathon, he’s crazy. There is no way I could do such a thing. I told him that I had started running a little that must have been where he had got the idea from. ‘Once you run longer than an hour the rest is much easier’ he said. Madness! I thanked him and promised that I would try. These words rang in my ears for some time to come.
Soon after I took part in a 5K running race. I enjoyed it! Then a few months later and more training I did a 10K race and enjoyed it as well...what was going on? I did many more 5 and 10K races...I collected finishers T-Shirts like Scout Badges.
The journey begins
I was beginning to build confidence, so much so that I nervously clicked on the enter button on the Windsor Half Marathon web site in early 2002. This seemed an impossibly long distance - how could I possible finish 13.1 miles running the whole way?
I didnt really know what I was doing so I started to read Runners World magazine. There were very useful training schedules and articles, and through experimentation, I started to learn how to train.
I clearly remember almost every mile of that Half Marathon in October 2002. I finished in 1hr36m. I was so proud - it was the first time that I had done something that I truly thought that was impossible. If I could to the half from nothing then I can also do a full distance.
I kept my promise to Ron - I completed the 2003 London marathon and raised several thousand pounds for charity. When I went over the finish line I was almost in tears. I had aimed to complete the race in less that 3hrs30m, I missed it by 2 minutes and was devastated. I did not immediately realize what I had achieved and how it changed me forever - I could now do anything right?
By the time I finished the 2003 marathon I had lost over 80 pounds and my weight as stayed at around that level ever since. I had to eventually buy a completely new wardrobe - everything was like a sack on me. I lost over 8 inches on my waist, 2 inches on my neck - a complete change. People who look at pictures of me from the past dont believe that it is the same person. Ana still complains about how I looked in our wedding day photographs!
The 2002 half marathon was the beginning of my journey from a fat man with a bad back to an athlete. Not a great or competitive athlete but nevertheless one that I am personally happy with given my family and work commitments.
Since that day in 2003 I have completed six more marathons, three times in London, Paris (my PB of 3h27m), Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Running has always been my favorite.
I like the look of that...
Soon after the marathon I was visiting Windsor, near where I lived and happened upon the preparations for the Windsor Triathlon. I returned on Sunday and watched the athletes taking part, I was fascinated. The energy and the atmosphere of the event inspired me, I turned to Ana and said that I wanted to have a go. I have run a marathon, an Olympic distance triathlon is only a 26 mile bike and a 6 mile run right? 1 mile swim should be relatively straightforward. I entered the race for the following year.
The next week I went to my gym to have a go at the swimming. I jumped in and started. After less than 50 metres I stopped, out of breath - this swimming was not as easy as it looked!
Like everything in my life I looked at it as a problem that needed to be analysed and fixed. I hired a coach, bought books and videos and started training. After many months I became a poor but relatively capable swimmer.
I bought a bike in a sale, and started learning how to cycle as well. I immediately had fun on the bike but I was very slow!
In 2003 I tried my first sprint triathlon, I was near to last out of the water. I found the ‘scrum’ of the start and the cold water in a wet suit (which I had worn only once before) completely overwhelming but I finished. I also had fun!
In 2004 I finished my first Olympic distance triathlon in London at the Excel center. I had a great day. My life as a triathlete had begun.
Its all about the bike
I was working out at my local gym in early 2004 when one of the instructors, Richard Meaden, came up to me and said that since I had done a marathon I should try cycling a stage of the Tour de France. Called L’etape du Tour (www.letapedutour.com) the event allows amateur cyclists to test their skills on an actual stage of the Tour on closed roads several days before the professionals. I was intrigued and with my new found confidence decided to enter for the race in 2005.
Richard and another gym instructor, Merrick Harris kindly took me, an old man by comparison, under their wing and really taught me how to cycle. They took me out on local roads near where we lived but we also went up to the Lake District to do ‘hill’ training.
We stayed in a local bed and breakfast and spent two days going up unbelievably steep hills. My special memory of that time was a hill called the ‘Struggle’. It was named well because it was about 5 miles long and had hills of up to 20% gradient. This was a new world of pain and challenge to me. Both evenings I collapsed into bed exhausted.
In July 2005 we travelled down to the Pyrenees and we took part in a race that took us over 100 miles on 3 huge mountains including the famous Col D’Aubisque. I will never forget that day - I had never dug that deep into my soul before and I learnt a huge amount about myself and how my achievements to date had really been very small.
This race was the first of many cycling races I did including another L’Etape Du Tour which took me up Alpe D’Huez - probably the hardest day on a bike I have ever had. I also completed the cyclosportives for the famous European races, Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold. I had to learn how to ride over cobbles to get these finished!
My journey with Ironman started in 2006 when I decided to take part in the Half Ironman race in Monaco. As a family, we have spent many Summer holidays in the South of France. In 2006 I had done a number of triathlons and completed cycling races - my confidence and fitness was growing fast. The next obvious step was longer distance triathlons.
I had such a great experience I returned to do it again in 2007 and, after a successful race, I decided to do my first Ironman in Nice, France 2008. I will never forget that day in June 2008 amongst the most memorable of my life.
Once I was bitten the bug has continued to inspire me. I went back to Nice in 2009, then, after moving to Lake Forest, Illinois completed Ironman Wisconsin in Madison in 2010.
Three weeks after Nice in 2009 I took part in L’Etape Du Tour for the third time. The finish was on the famous Mont Ventoux, a 19 mile mountain. I realised at the first major climb that three weeks was not really enough to recover from an Ironman. However, I refused to give in. I cycled well over 100 miles and got within 3 miles of the finish line on Ventoux but was walking. I missed the time limit and was pulled out. I was very disappointed but I had not shown enough respect to the race and had learnt a valuable lesson.
After a bad day in 2011 Ironman Wisconsin where I had four flats and my bike caused me huge problems I decided to try two Ironman races in 2012. I completed (there is a long story to this!) Ironman St. George and Wisconsin again. A great year!
My Journey continues...
The journey I have been on and will continue has taught me so much about myself and others. Key things include:
Know yourself - I have had to look deep inside myself and overcome my demons so many times that I think I know me quite well now - I dont always like it but I know it!
Perspective - there is always someone way better than you and also worse - it doesnt matter. It is really all about whether or not you feel happy with yourself and the challenge you have set. This does not mean you are not competitive but there is perspective
Your lucky - the challenges and problems you go through in an Ironman are, I believe, a microcosm of life itself. It has taught me to understand how important my family are to me. I am so fortunate that my wife Ana, Jamie and Gemma have supported me so much during my journey. I am so lucky and I know it!
Today is important - I remember this all the time - every day is leading you to the next challenge whether you created it or not. It will never be given back to you so make the most of it. This does not mean that you have to climb a mountain every day but you need to understand where every day fits into the big picture.
I have had so many wonderful experiences and, I hope, many more through my involvement with Triathlon, Cycling, Swimming and Running. I would never would have had them, or the great memories, that they bring without having started the journey that Ron Holder started back in 1999. As my friends say to me - Ron was and despite the fact that he passed away earlier this year, continues to be my inspiration and my Yoda. Thank you Ron for everything I was so lucky to meet you!