Four years ago if you had told me that I would be getting up at 6am to swim in a cold lake, or I would brace gale force winds and cycle for nine hours through the remote Yorkshire moors for fun, I’d have spat out my champagne.
Until the age of 36, I was a self-affirmed city girl. I didn’t own any waterproofs or thermals (that’s what black were for!). The closest thing I had to outdoor clothes was last year’s fashion from the charity shop bag, that I didn’t mind getting a bit mucky.
I was into fitness but only for vanity. I used the gym to look good in skinny jeans, not because I loved breathing fresh air and sunlight, or the feeling of total utter depletion when you’ve pushed your limits.
But something in the autumn of 2013 changed that. I went through a break-up (break-ups are always a catalyst for change aren’t they?), my close friends were moving away and having children and what remained of my social life revolved almost entirely around drinking. Apart from the occasional brunch every ‘catch-up’ with girlfriend, colleague or family member was done with wine.
Desperate for a new social scene, I joined a running club. I was reasonably fit thanks to my trendy gym classes but the bigger shock to my system was the outdoor lifestyle.
Suddenly, instead of Prosecco lunches, I was spending Saturdays at cross country races. On the one hand it was just what I craved – a group dynamic with banter and laughter minus the hangover. But on the other hand, standing in a wet field then going to the pub pre-showered was way out of my comfort zone. But surprisingly I loved it.
First there was the delight in witnessing my body rise to the challenge of 10 mile runs or brutal speed training sessions on a track. They left me comatose the first few times but the human body is amazing and it quickly adapts.
Then there were the less expected rewards: I noticed that I was becoming more mentally resilient, hardier to the cold and I acquired an inner sense of calm. (If you can count your way through five hour bike rides or freezing races when everything is chaffing, it’s amazing how quick things like boring work meeting or train delays go.)
My new friends’ lifestyle rubbed off on me. I bought a bike and out went handbags and in came backpacks. Tailored coats were replaced with a fluorescent green waterproof to protect from road spray.
Instead of reeling at the unseemly sight of helmet hair and a clashing mismatch of garish thermals, I loved the new practical me. It made me feel I was using my body, and more importantly, using my life.
I got braver and joined weekend cycle rides. Open water swimming (I nearly got hypothermia but I felt like Bear Grylls afterwards!) and triathlons.
There are many women like the old me who are put off sport and outdoor activities because it doesn’t tally well with ideals of femininity. This is the biggest barrier to getting more women into sport.
It’s hardly surprising. Most things which are considered to make women more attractive are at odds with practicality. Heels, tight skimpy dresses (when we’re freezing). Lacy matching underwear and the pressure on women to have blowed-dried do’s. Matching accessories for every outfit and gloss painted finger nails makes packing for a weekend away a headache.
Things are changing. The old fashioned gender stereotypes that we used to see in children’s fiction, TV or films are evolving. But millenials and older will be all too familiar with the narrative that boys get dirty and do adventure sports and girls have gentler pursuits. The effects are still filtering through society now. That’s why there are still more male cyclists. More male runners, more men who partake in recreational sports clubs any why being ‘rugged’ for a man is a compliment but not so for a woman.
My newfound passion for outdoor challenges led me to qualifying to be a GB triathlete. I’ve written a book about my journey. And all the things which held me back from embracing the joys of an active lifestyle before. Of course you don’t have to do races or take up triathlon. But we can all gain something from venturing outside of our cosy lifestyles. Saying to hell with unrealistic feminine ideals and enjoying real life.
This Girl Ran: Tales of a Party Girl Turned Triathlete (Summersdale Publishing, £9.99) is out now