Vanessa Raw calls time on triathlon career due injury and health problems
I was in so much pain…I knew it was over
Last week, Great Britain’s Vanessa Raw (www.vanessarawart.com) announced her retirement from triathlon, as seven years of battling with the results of a bike crash in 2010 became too much. After breaking onto the international scene 10 years ago with fourth place at the ITU Under-23 World Championships (ahead of London 2012 Silver medal winner, Lisa Norden, among others), her progress since then has been consistently interrupted by illness and injury.
Despite not reaching her potential, on the way she has won the British Elite Duathlon Championships, Windsor Triathlon, Ironman 70.3 Italy and last year took Bronze in the ETU Middle Distance Triathlon Championships, as well as being a regular member of the Great Britain team in World Cup and World Triathlon Series races.
This week I spoke to Vanessa at length about her career and the injury and health problems that have impacted her sporting goals. She opens up about depression, heart issues and more; the motivation that kept her pushing forward and why finally walking away actually feels like a “massive relief”.
So Vanessa, what’s the background to the injury and problems that have lead your to the decision to retire from triathlon?
I’ve had a few things going on, but the main thing that’s really caused me to call it a day is that I’ve had a twisted pelvis since 2010 (caused by a bike crash), and I’ve been thinking I was going to get on top of it… I’ve seen every physio possible over the years, who didn’t really know what the answer was, or how to get it better for sure, so I kept on searching for answers. I saw the best GB Athletics Olympic physio recently and he was great – he said the sacrum was lodged to the right hand side, so the pelvis had one side going one way, one the other, and that’s why you feel so terrible and are in so much pain. He said he’d seen someone like this before, had given them a strength programme and it had helped them. So, I was full of hope again.
That was three months ago, so I gave myself an ultimatum; if it was just a little bit straighter, had seen a bit more progress and reduced the pain before Christmas, I would carry on, otherwise I would stop. So, I didn’t go on the bike for two or three months – I hadn’t ridden outside at all since June – I went to Fuerteventura, got on the bike… and it was exactly the same! Every day was just miserable… I was in so much pain. This has been going on for seven years, so the frustration had built, by the last two days I knew it was over.
Having set that time period, done what you can to try and resolve things and not progressed – does making that decision now feel like a weight off of you shoulders?
Yes, now I’ve made a decision it’s a massive relief. The last few months have been very frustrating but as I’ve been coming under the realisation that it was over probably for many months, I think subconsciously I’ve been coming to terms with it and so when I made the decision a week ago, it was actually really quite an easy one and not too emotional. I no longer felt identified with triathlon, so it became quite an easy to make the decision. I just wanted to make sure that I really was making the right decision in stopping, and it was my ‘generally unwell’ body talking, you see…
…on top of that I’ve also had a lot of health problems; autoimmune thyroid problems since 2010 with loads of different symptoms including depression and heart problems – crazy symptoms. I’ve been treated with anti-depressants and everything, and nobody had really looked at the cause of it. I started working with Tamsin Lewis [Ed. former Ironman UK winner and doctor, who runs www.curoseven.com] and this year with Dr Tommy Wood (http://drragnar.weebly.com/) to try and get a bit closer to understanding the real causes. I really recommend Tamsin and Tommy.
I finally went deeper into my health with these tests after not being able to get my heart rate above 100 in the end and found that my gut health was in a bad way and would need two years out of the sport to heal properly – I also found in the last month that I have a parasite in my gut. I actually had a parasite found in 2012 but was never advised of the protocol to get rid of it – all I did was have some time off – so I’ve probably had it since then! That can cause lots of those symptoms like depression, like heart problems, weird dizziness… all the symptoms I’ve had for years and years, which people think is in your head and that you are going crazy…
Looking back on your career, the first time you were probably known to a wider audience was the ITU World Championships in Lausanne, 2006, when you finished fourth in the Under-23 race. It must feel like lots of ups and downs and frustrations since then?
It’s funny – I’d barely done any bloody training by 2006, I’d only just started really and that was my best year! That’s really what kept me going, as I knew how much talent I had and if I could just get rid of the problems I could get back there and be better than I ever was. I’m stronger than I ever was, I just have too many things going wrong and I suppose this year when I found out what the answer was, I had that answer but still couldn’t really do anything about it – so that’s when I knew. I knew that even if I got rid of the parasite and got my health back, that my pelvis was probably not going to change. I’d always have that pain on the bike, I might be able to get the odd podium in long distance, but I’d never be able to realise my potential – and that just wasn’t enough for me. Deep down I knew what I could be capable of on the bike, but it was too frustrating for me to just be mediocre.
During you career, what do regard as your best performances?
Apart from 2006, I’ve had some good parts of races where I was riding really well in races like in 2010 before I had my crash and it felt really good to be riding so well at the time. In Stockholm (WTS) I got into a breakaway on the bike – but it’s been frustrating not having many ‘whole’ races where I’ve felt good the entire race. More recently when I was training with Benjamin Sanson, he got me into really good shape and I was feeling pretty good ahead of Ironman Frankfurt (2015), hoping to qualify for Kona, and just before that had a bad bike crash, lost some teeth and got concussion!
I’m hoping I will look back and remember some more good races – you’re probably speaking to me a bit too soon to be objective – but right now the immediate memory is more of seven years of pain. I’m sure that will change over time!
Your other passion has always been in art. Comparing that with triathlon, some of the keys to success in our sport are doing repetitive, often simple, sessions over and over, consistently to build strength / endurance etc. In art, you would be far more focussed on variety, imagination, invention, expression etc. Did you find that contrast quite difficult?
Yeah, I found it really difficult. I did try and do both at the same time, but often I found that energy got in the way of combining them. It’s one of the key reasons I stopped really, as I was starting to feel like I was waiting to ‘live’, and doing triathlon just for the results… and anyone knows that you can’t be successful in anything if you are just doing it for the results and not enjoying the journey, and that’s what it became, particularly this year. I was always ‘I can’t wait to do this’ (be a painter, or designer and coming up with ideas) after triathlon, but putting it on hold the whole time – but it got ridiculous, and I suddenly thought what am I waiting for, just f***ing stop! I felt like I was full of ideas but just having to put a plug on it all and suppress it.
Every time I was injured or ill or smashing my face into the ground by crashing my bike I learned more about myself than any ‘success’ I had. I became much stronger as a person, more resilient. Even this pelvis thing, it was like being faced with the same problem every day for seven years, each day having renewed hope. I am sure this skill in persistence is going to come in useful some day! ha ha.
There’s no point in looking back now, for myself, I’m grateful for all the experiences, they’ve shaped me as a person. If I can help other young athletes in not making the same mistakes I made that would be great.
The motivation to keep pursuing with triathlon?
I felt like because I had this massive engine with this huge VO2 Max, in some way that it was almost my duty to try and show what I could do, and that it would be a waste not to try and fulfil my potential. That was almost like a noose around my neck because every time I didn’t perform, or got injured or whatever, it was a failure. I did my best in my first two years probably because I had no expectations, everything was a bonus and I was enjoying just competing. It was only when the pressure and expectation started, that things went wrong. I think for new athletes coming into that position they need to be protected and advised. If you are the kind of personality like the Brownlees then you thrive off that pressure, but people like me need to learn how to thrive off it. I thrive well under pressure for my art, so perhaps I’m just not a natural sports person!
Have you got your next steps in the art world planned?
I do have a lot of interests and I’m interested in fashion design as well. I’m going to focus on the art side initially and I’m desperately trying to find a studio at the moment, which is not easy in London with the rising property market. I want to do that and put a body of work together and then potentially do an M.A. in Fine Art – but I need to work somewhere for a year first before that. And then maybe a bit of designing on the side, but it is all exciting, all things that I love to do so I can enjoy the journey now and appreciate it.
Who are some of the friends that you’ve developed over you time in the sport?
I’ve made loads of great friends over the years, particularly in the latter years. It took me a long time to get the balance right actually. I felt a lot of guilt whilst training for not being there for people, so my intention was to try as hard as I could, and focus so hard, I could get the best results I could in the shortest amount of time – so I could then be there for people. Now you can begin to see why things didn’t go as planned! So, obviously every year it didn’t go as planned I kept going as it felt terrible to stop before I had achieved what I believed was ‘my potential’. Each year year feeling more guilt, putting myself under pressure and I suppose keeping people out because I didn’t feel I deserved it. I relaxed a lot more in the last three or four year and allowed myself to enjoy the journey more and let people in, as well as my boyfriend 🙂
Is it different since racing in the longer distance events outside of the ITU circuit?
It did feel different in long distance; because you weren’t competing for a GB spot, you were just focussed on your own performance. Personally I was always more interested in my own performance rather than if I won or not. I won Pescara 70.3 for example but I was practically walking with blisters at the end – but another one where I came third was, for me, a better race because I ran more to my potential. Not everyone is the same though. I think generally, it is easier to be more successful in a sporting arena if you are a bit more cut throat and competitive.
And what does the sporting future hold for you? Are you likely to be going to the gym and doing to some classes or any other plans in a sporting sense?
Well, since I quit two weeks ago I’ve only run once, but once I’m back to health I plan to get back to some running – you get the best bang for your buck! – basically… I just don’t want to get fat! Maybe one day I could do a good marathon, but it’s not top of my priority list, but we’ll see how the art and designing goes first and if I’ve got the time for that as well!
On the whole I’ve had some amazing experiences tht would have never happened if I hadn’t started triathlon and being helped by some truly great people that I will be forever grateful to. Thank you!