I COULDN’T EVEN SWIM 400 METRES
From Olympic hopeful to barely able to walk, Kylie Mansfield explains how she battled back from chronic fatigue
Strolling through the park with a friend, panic gripped triathlon Olympic-prospect Kylie Mansfield.
Her friend had fallen silent and it was clear it was Kylie’s turn to speak, but she couldn’t remember what they were talking about. Kylie couldn’t even think why she was in the park or where she was headed. It was the shock she needed to face up to the fact she hadn’t been well for months.
Having discovered triathlon in her early teens, Kylie was not unused to training for 12 to 18 hours per week and had made the potential squad for the 2004 Olympics. She was in her second year of a marine biology degree, but she only had one dream – to be a professional sportswoman.
“When I’d started university we’d been encouraged to have flu and meningitis vaccines, and I’d spent the following three weeks with severe shivers and flu-like symptoms and I never really recovered,” Kylie said. “I’d feel better for a week or so then rubbish again. I’d kept trying to push myself through it but it wasn’t working.
“Because I was keeping a training diary, I had a detailed log of when I’d been ill and what with. It led to a diagnosis of post viral chronic fatigue.”
Kylie was signed off university and told she needed to rest. For the next six months she struggled to do much more than sleep.
“Every time I tried to do something – read a text book, go for a walk – it would leave me so exhausted I would spend the next three plus days recovering,” she said.
Desperate to get her training back on track, Kylie got in the pool with what she thought was a realistic goal of swimming just 400m.
“Half way down the lane I had to stop and I kept having to stop,” Kylie said. “But I’d got it in my head I was doing 400m and that’s what I did. It took me 45 minutes. That’s when it really hit me that this wasn’t something I was going to bounce back from. I wasn’t going to achieve my dream of being a pro. I didn’t think I’d even be able to do triathlons again.
“Chronic fatigue isn’t just a physical, muscle aching illness where you can sleep for 11 hours and still wake up lethargic, it is a massive blow mentally as well as emotionally.
“Sometimes you really cannot get yourself out of bed or off the sofa, your muscles ache like you have flu, joints hurt, it can hurt to talk.”
At university, Kylie struggled with the workload, pace of learning and
“Every time I tried to do something, I would spend the next three days recovering”
concentrating generally, and even with special dispensation in exams, her marks were affected. Her hopes of doing a masters degree were no longer realistic.
In 2004, after a period of various work placements abroad, Kylie took up a teaching assistant job and decided to complete teacher training. She still had fatigue and was by then also battling depression and intestinal ulcers brought on by stress.
“I was pushing myself too hard in all areas of my life in the hope of ignoring what was going on and trying to believe I was better,” she said.
“As someone who had always been active and positive, it was a complete turn around on both counts. Chronic fatigue left me feeling useless and worthless and lacking in direction.”
With serious training no longer a viable option, Kylie concentrated on just trying to get healthy, but in the back of her mind, she couldn’t shake the desire to get back to triathlon.
“Gradually, over years, I was able to get fit again with easy visits to the gym and pool. Over the years I just built up a little bit at a time, first in the gym, swimming then gradual run/ walking and eventually I started cycling again,” Kylie explained.
Kylie attempted a few sprint triathlons and after moving to Hereford in 2009, she joined her local triathlon club.
Her focus remained mainly on gym and strength work. As she was always having to be mindful of how she felt, she tended to have at least rest days every other week.
On a good week, she had two days containing a 20-mile commute ride and gym sessions, plus a day of a circuit class and a slow and steady swim of two to three kilometres. A Saturday would perhaps allow a 60-minute off-road run and Sunday, a 40 to 50 mile cycle club ride in the morning followed by a swim in the afternoon.
Her strategy was a bit sporadic, but her progress unquestionable and by 2011, she had won her place as an age-grouper at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships. Kylie admits she went feeling under prepared and her performance wasn’t what she hoped, not helped by the cancellation of the swim.
On her return, Kylie began more structured training and introduced the different training zones more specifically. She returned to the Worlds in 2012 and 2013, coming 10th in the 30-34 age group in 2012. But after securing 3rd place in that group in the ETU Challenge Long Distance Triathlon European Championships in June 2013, her new schedule took its toll and Kylie was signed off work as a teacher.
“I knew it would be hard but I needed to see if I could do it again”
“I felt scared, frustrated, but then determined,” Kylie says. “It was probably actually a blessing in disguise. It made me stop and reflect and realise I had to make some decisions.”
Kylie went part-time from September 2013 and, disillusioned with the general training methodology of “if it doesn’t hurt you’re not training hard enough” and how incongruous that was with chronic fatigue, launched KMTricoaching. Now a Level 3 British Triathlon Coach and accredited nutritionist and herbalist she ensures her own training takes a whole person approach and delivers coaching to match.
Her training is generally done on a three week rotational programme with a rest day every Thursday and the third week being an easy week, stripped right back and only one session each day.
After 12 months out of competition in 2014, last year Kylie became European champion in the 35-39 age group in Weymouth and was the second female age-grouper across the line.
She said: “I’ve found the best thing for me is variety and consistency. Doing the same sessions week in, week out tires me very quickly. You also have to adapt to what’s going on in terms of work. “Sometimes you have to change that session to meet your remaining energy levels or forget it completely, have a nutritious dinner and an early night.
“Diet wise, I’m lactose and gluten intolerant so I keep things as natural as possible. I try to include protein, carbs and fats in all meals and I’d rather eat little and often rather than three main meals a day.
“You always seem to be training for the year ahead, building on the foundations you laid down previously. The same is true of rest, recovery and diet. Nothing is an instant fix or quick short cut to the results you want. It takes a long time to make fundamental changes and see the results.
“I’m lucky that I’m now at that stage where I can go into a race not feeling 100 per cent physically ready but then rely on mental strength and previous experience to drag me through. That’s taken years to build up. Triathlon is a long-term commitment sport.”
Now 36, Kylie would love to return to the world stage and get to Kona one day, but her immediate ambition is to raise the funds necessary to take her place in the long distance Euros in Poland in July and middle distance in Austria in September.
“I am grateful every training session and before every race that I am able to do that again and I don’t take it for granted,” Kylie says.