Thursday, 17 February 2011

My Fitness Story... - Corinne

Today's story is a truly inspiring one. It's by Corinne Ellison, who decided she wanted to do an Ironman, started training, but was then diagnosed with a heart condition requiring open heart surgery which she underwent in June 2010. When I first read the post, I was struck by how positive Corinne has remained throughout, even when she has been experiencing tough times. Over to Corinne to tell her story, which she has chosen to call..

Heart Surgery to Ironman

My story starts with a desire to complete an Ironman. To those who have not heard of Ironman, it is a long distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles bike and 26.2 run (a marathon) – one after another!

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not an experienced triathlete. In fact, when I entered my first race, I could only swim 2 lengths and bike round the block! I finished my first triathlon in 2009 and came third….from last! I had been ‘keeping fit’ for a couple of years but I didn’t seem to be improving as I should. I began to become suspicious that something was wrong but put this niggle to the back of my mind. Eventually, I went to see my doctor, complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain - within two weeks I was diagnosed with a large hole in my heart.

This leads me to the motivation behind finishing an Ironman. Facing the prospect of never being able to exercise again scared me immensely. Doctors warned me that I would never be an elite athlete (I wasn’t planning on this!), that I wouldn’t be able to take up my marathon place that year and I facing open heart surgery.


As a woman in my twenties, I felt like the natural concern should be the physical aspects of the surgery – pain, the anaesthetic and the scar. Open heart surgery usually means a vertical scar of around 12 inches down the centre of the chest. This did not concern me, my only focus became ensuring I got back to health as soon as possible. After getting over the initial shock of diagnosis, I had to stop exercising completely as my heart was at the beginning of failure. Whilst I had my long term fitness dreams still burning away inside, I felt unsure about the timescales for achieving them. Over the next few weeks, I began to switch off from sport – I couldn’t talk about it with friends, I stopped going to my club and couldn’t read magazines. The pain of not being able to exercise meant that I had to shut off for a while, focusing only on the here and now.

I was feeling pretty vulnerable whilst waiting to have the surgery and initially afterwards. I was frustrated at not being able to exercise. Doubts started to set in and I was concerned about my ability to ever run again. I needed a positive boost of confidence. This is where the Ironman goal came in. My fixation with achieving of the ultimate physical challenge was cemented. My journey from heart surgery to Ironman began; I fully committed to this goal and used it as a distraction from my fear.

Obstacles in recovery were overcoming the post-operative pain to get out for my first shuffle round the block – a miniscule 7 minutes on my first day! Mentally and physically, I felt fragile but was determined to keep up with the training prescribed by the physiotherapists. Everyday, I pushed myself a little further and soon was walking up to 4 miles a day. My love of exercise began to return and I soon felt the benefit of the fresh air.

What I learnt from the experience was that when something is taken away from you (in my case the ability to exercise and potential ability to race in the future), you want it even more. Scarcity is powerful and I found my determination grew. Ironman became a possibility after a discussion with my cardiologist. He inadvertently told me that as my heart was so ineffective pre-surgery, I should be able to achieve much faster times with my fixed heart. An hour off my best marathon time was jokingly mentioned – I committed this to memory and set my goal then and there. The benefit of having heart surgery, aside from improved health, was that I now appreciate the true value of exercise and how it improves your emotional and physical well-being. Going through a test of character and coming out the other side has given me confidence in myself.

So, where I am today? Almost 8 months after my surgery, I am back to all the sport I love and getting ready for my first race – the Brighton half marathon. A succession of races follows for the rest of the year, with the ultimate challenge of Ironman in November 2012 – the month I turn 30!


Huge thanks to Corinne for sharing her story with us, and good luck for all the races she's running - the Brighton half marathon is actually this Sunday so I will be thinking of her then. Corinne also has a Just Giving page to raise money for GUCH (Grown Up Congenital Heart Patients Association) when she runs the London Marathon for the third time in April. You can also find her on twitter here.

If you'd like to tell your fitness story, please get in touch with me, either on Twitter or via the email address on the About Me page.

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