#INSPO: From Irish Dancing to Ironman Finisher

Becoming an Ironman doesn’t happen in an instant or a motivating movie montage. It takes time, sacrifice and hard work. The challenge of overcoming the distance and coming across the finish line to the words ‘You are an Ironman!’ is addictive and perhaps what makes it so alluring to first timers.

Annemarie Cooke, or AMC as she is affectionately known as, is one of those first timers. She has been on the triathlon scene for about five years. This year, after a few setbacks and the disappointment of Ironman Melbourne being cancelled, she decided to step up to the iron distance at Ironman Australia in Port Macquarie, New South Wales.

We caught up with Annemarie one busy afternoon at Truman café in Albert Park, which happens to be her post-ride nutrition pit stop.

AT: Great to see you Annemarie! Firstly, big congratulations on a big year and getting through an Ironman. To start, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

AMC: Well, I’m from Limerick in Ireland and have been in Australia since 2009. I came out here when I lost my job. My friends were travelling so I decided to join them. We travelled around South America for three months and then [came to Australia]. We spent six months in Brisbane and then moved to Melbourne. I’ve been here ever since.

AT: Were you always active growing up? How did you get in to triathlon?

AMC: When I was growing up I didn’t play sport. My school wasn’t a big sports school. Irish dancing was the ‘local sport’. So I did that once a week.

After high school I went to university and studied architecture. There was no time for anything except for study. [But] in my final year I started swimming with a friend. We’d go to the local pool and celebrate when we’d done a lap. [Eventually] we built up to a kilometre in the pool. I thought doing one kilometre was massive!

During my first year in Melbourne, I continued to swim but then I started getting back pain at night. After trying different treatment methods, I decided to do something a bit more active to see if it would help. I signed up for a mini distance triathlon. Leading in to the race, I remember I was really worried about doing the three-kilometre run. On race day I got through the swim, which was completely flat, and the bike and I even managed to get through the run. When I got to the finish line I cried [laughs]. It still feels like one of the longest races I’ve ever done. I caught the triathlon bug after that and haven’t looked back since.

AT: That is awesome! How do you think triathlon has changed your life?amc-pre-start-support-crew

AMC: Oh god! [Laughs] Well, I get up at 5am now on most days, which I never would have done. So I’ve probably become more of a morning person. I definitely go out a lot less on weekends. I feel a lot healthier and fitter.

AT: That’s brilliant! And now you’re an Ironwoman! So, what made you decide to do an Iron distance event?

AMC: It was a natural progression. I got to Olympic Distance and then thought maybe I can do a half Ironman. Once I did a half iron distance event I knew I could do a full. Also seeing other athletes makes you want to get involved. Plus I feel like I race at the same pace no matter the distance, so I started wondering if there would be a miracle and I’d be amazing at this distance. [Laughs]

AT: Building towards an iron distance event is huge! How important do you think is having that support network around you?

AMC: It’s very important and especially this year [building towards my first Ironman]. I literally would not be doing it without them and my friends who I train with. I couldn’t do it by myself.

AT: How important is rest and recovery in an Ironman build do you think, from what you’ve learnt over the last few months?

AMC: I thought I kind of had it all figured all out. But when I started my Ironman build, at the 12-week point training stepped up. During the first three weeks, I was struggling to cope. I was going to bed earlier then I ever would but I still couldn’t catch up. Every session I turned up to wasn’t quality, so I had to pull back and do easier sessions. It’s really important to recognise ‘right, I need to break this cycle and get myself fresh for next weekend’.

AT: What’s your favorite thing to do for recovery after a hard training session?

AMC: I’ve always been a napper. Now my naps are turning in to 2 – 4 hour sleeps. So I do that.

AT: Naps are the best! Your journey towards your first Ironman hasn’t been all smooth sailing. You’ve had a few injuries and were involved in a bad bike accident in 2015.

AMC: I’ve realised it’s hard to stay injury or niggle free with this load. I have weekly appointm
ents at Lakeside Sports Medicine Centre. I see Simon Anning [physiotherapist] who is amazing. I’ve also been getting regular massages at Lakeside with Justin O’Donohue.

I had a shin injury, which flared up again earlier this year. I have been on reduced kilometers for my Tuesday and Thursday runs, but I’m running pretty much pain free now.

AT: What a relief! Let’s talk a little bit about the bike accident that you were involved in last year. Talk us through what happened that day.

AMC: The accident was in March 2015. I had already done Challenge Melbourne that year, which was my main event [for that year]. But I had decided I wanted to give the last Olympic Distance race at the end of the season a good go. So I was training with the Ironman group that day.

I started the ride with the Ironman group. I was going to go up to Frankston with them and then come back on my own. It was a nice day, around 16 degrees Celsius in the morning, no rain or wind. We were near Mentone and I was on the front with one of the guys from the squad. There was a smaller group that tried to pass us, in single file; I can’t really remember the exact details. Then another, much bigger, group came up on the out side of that [smaller group], and I just remember there being hustle and bustle to my right and a little bit of shouting. I remember hearing a clash of materials, then two guys went down in front and got tangled. They went down in front of me. It’s kind of like slow motion in my head. I remember seeing them go down in front of me, they were both on the ground, I saw them thinking ‘I have nowhere to go’. My memory kind of cuts out then, but from what I’ve been told, I went over them, over my handlebars and landed on my head.amc-bike-cheer-cropped

Then, I remember lying on the ground with some of the athletes from Tri Alliance beside me holding my hand. Everyone looked really worried. There was lots of blood coming from my head. Greg [one of the Tri Alliance coaches] was asking me questions but I couldn’t answer them. It was apparent that I had memory loss.

AT: Wow! Full on.

AMC: We didn’t really know how serious the injury was [initially]. I had a really bad headache, which was really worrying me, as well as the fact that I couldn’t remember things. And my ear was blocked. I also felt really sick.

We got to the Alfred and there were so many people checking everything all at once. I was told I had a fracture behind my ear. I don’t think I ever panicked that this was going to be brain damage but I remember crying. They discharged me late the next day.

AT: Were there any lasting affects from the accident?

AMC: I had bad vertigo from the accident. Any time I moved the room would spin. The accident had displaced something in the balance canal in my ear. Gradually it has petered out. But I still have it. It’s gradually getting better. At the moment it’s not bad enough to affect me day-to-day.

AT: How did you feel getting back on the bike after the accident?

AMC: The whole time I was injured I just wanted to get back on the bike. After getting the OK from my doctors to ride, my first ride was with Tri Alliance. Riding past (the scene of the accident) I was a little bit shaky and emotional.

AT: What does your mum think about all this?

AMC: My mum’s advice is always, ‘mind your self’. She’s just like ‘be careful’. A few days before Gold Coast half Ironman [a couple of years ago, my mum] said to me ‘if it gets too hard, don’t worry just give up’ [laughs]. But then by the time the race came around she sent me an email saying ‘I hope you win’ [laughs]. I was like, ‘Wow – you’ve changed your tune’. So I think, she wants me to be happy with it [the race].

AT: So what are the recipes for success? What do you are the keys to longevity in this sport?

AMC: I think the number one thing for being able to do this sport, is that you need to really want to do it. Once you have that, the rest is figuring out how to do it. I also think building slowly from one distance to the other is ideal. If you do that, it’s less likely you’ll get injured. I don’t have any special talent. I’ve just kept going. Literally any one can do it.


At the time of publishing, Annemarie will be a first time Ironman finisher.


Margaret Mielczarek

Margaret Mielczarek is the deputy editor at Australian Triathlete Magazine and writes the web series 'Shenanigans of a Deputy 2.0'. She is a passionate age-group triathlete and four-time Ironman finisher - currently in training for Ironman number five!

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