Ge­orge Mahood, 37, thought an Ironman triathlon was just for the un­hinged, but when a spinal tu­mour threat­ened his abil­ity to walk, he quickly signed up for one

Triathlon Plus - - Contents - Debbi Marco Ge­orge Mahood; Fin­ish­er­pix Words Pho­tos


To say Ge­orge Mahood, a writer from South Devon, was a pretty in­ex­pe­ri­enced triath­lete two years ago is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. The fa­ther of three had only taken part in one pool-based sprint triathlon but didn’t go back.

Ge­orge re­lied on a few marathons and his reg­u­lar football games to keep him­self fit and healthy, so it was a big shock when in April 2014, he was di­ag­nosed with a spinal cord tu­mour.

“I started notic­ing back prob­lems and get­ting pains in my legs. Af­ter some phys­io­ther­apy, which didn’t help, I was sent for an MRI scan in Au­gust,” ex­plains Ge­orge. “I was di­ag­nosed with a spinal cord tu­mour at the bot­tom of my spine. It was pretty ter­ri­fy­ing. There was still a good chance it was be­nign but I would need surgery as things were only go­ing to get worse.”

A scan in De­cem­ber 2014 re­vealed there were no other tu­mours and Ge­orge was fi­nally wheeled into surgery in April 2015.

“My only op­tion was to go for it,” says Ge­orge. “Luck­ily it was be­nign and the sur­geon got it all out, but be­cause it was in­side the spinal cord there was a risk of a spinal cord fluid leak so I had to lie hor­i­zon­tal for 72 hours as change of pres­sure could cause one.”

It was dur­ing that time, high on mor­phine and the suc­cess of his oper­a­tion that Ge­orge’s Ironman plan started to form.

“While I was ly­ing there I knew I had two pos­si­bil­i­ties – spend my life think­ing my back wasn’t as strong as it used to be and con­stantly try­ing to pro­tect it, or I could use it as a way to get fit­ter than I was,” he says. “Be­cause they didn’t struc­turally change my back, there was no rea­son for it to be weaker. So once the mus­cles had healed it could be just as strong. I needed there to be a goal at the end of it.”

Ge­orge went through the op­tions in his mind. Al­though he’d done a cou­ple of marathons he’d never re­ally en­joyed them. Plus, run­ning was at the end of the phys­io­ther­a­pist’s list of things he could do in his re­cov­ery. “I de­cided cy­cling would be no way to judge my progress as that was the one thing that hadn’t hurt too much be­fore surgery,” he says. “I knew I’d be al­lowed to go swim­ming quite early so that’s what tempted me to­wards triathlon.”

For Ge­orge, triathlon was the per­fect way to com­bine ev­ery­thing, and once it

was in his mind, an Ironman was the only op­tion.

“I used to think an Ironman was com­pletely lu­di­crous un­til I was ly­ing in my hos­pi­tal bed un­able to walk. Then it seemed the log­i­cal thing to sign up for.

“When I told my wife she thought it was a crazy idea but then af­ter 10 min­utes said I should go for it.”

Ge­orge set­tled on Ironman Vichy as his race, largely be­cause it was just over four months from his oper­a­tion al­low­ing him enough time to re­cover, but not too much time to ob­sess over his train­ing. For the first three weeks af­ter his oper­a­tion all Ge­orge could do was walk.

“I walked to end of the drive, then I walked a lit­tle bit fur­ther each day un­til I was do­ing a nice lit­tle four mile cir­cuit.”

Af­ter about three weeks Ge­orge ven­tured to the swim­ming pool. “I thought I knew how to swim front crawl but I had to re­learn from scratch. I had a few lessons and spent a lot of time watch­ing YouTube videos on tech­nique, fo­cussing on that rather than dis­tance.”

Then five weeks af­ter his surgery, Ge­orge be­gan to cy­cle, start­ing at 10 miles and grad­u­ally in­creas­ing his dis­tance.

“I built up my mileage and en­tered the Dart­moor Clas­sic sportive, which was 57 miles. It was the first proper cy­cling event I’d en­tered. Look­ing around, ev­ery­one had cy­cling shoes and Ly­cra while I just had nor­mal shorts and train­ers. I knew I had a long way to go.”

By this point, 10 weeks af­ter surgery, Ge­orge still hadn’t done any run­ning. His plan was to fo­cus mostly on his cy­cling, con­sid­er­ing half his time at the race would be on the bike. “I knew I had to get fit enough to cy­cle 112 miles and still have some­thing left,” says Ge­orge.

He grad­u­ally upped his dis­tances and en­tered Ride Lon­don as well as a few other lo­cal 100 mile bike rides.

While his cy­cling was strong, Ge­orge was still strug­gling with his swim­ming.

“I went for a cou­ple of open wa­ter swims and they were fairly dis­as­trous,” ad­mits Ge­orge. “I needed to test my­self and give my­self con­fi­dence so I en­tered Ply­mouth Break­wa­ter swim where they load 200 swim­mers into boats and take you 2.2 miles out to sea. I had no idea how small Ply­mouth would look when you’re 2.2 miles out to sea. There were a few ma­jor panic at­tacks on the way back to shore with a mix­ture of breast­stroke and front crawl. It took me about one hour and 40 min­utes, but I did it, just two weeks be­fore my Ironman.”

By the time Ge­orge set off for France

“I never thought I’d be grate­ful for hav­ing a spinal cord tu­mour but it turned out to be quite a bless­ing”

he’d only run one 10k in his train­ing be­cause he didn’t want to risk in­jury and hoped the cou­ple of marathons he’d done in the past would be enough to get him through.

“The camp­site in France was full of Iron­men which was in­cred­i­bly in­tim­i­dat­ing,” says Ge­orge. “They kept go­ing off on train­ing rides and I spent the week play­ing crazy golf with the kids. But the thing that wor­ried me most was that France was suf­fer­ing from a heat wave and the wa­ter might be too warm to al­low wet­suits.”

Thank­fully on the day of the race, the

“I used to think an Ironman was com­pletely lu­di­crous un­til I was ly­ing in my hos­pi­tal bed un­able to walk”

wa­ter was less than one de­gree in­side the wet­suit cut off tem­per­a­ture. Af­ter mis­plac­ing his tim­ing chip just min­utes be­fore the start, Ge­orge was ready to put him­self to the ul­ti­mate test.

“By the time I got to the wa­ter I felt a sense of re­lief,” he says. “I knew I’d done all the train­ing and could do all the dif­fer­ent el­e­ments. It was just whether I could put them to­gether.

“I was con­stantly pan­ick­ing in the swim that I was last but when I saw there were swim­mers be­hind me I felt bet­ter.

“I man­aged just un­der 1hr and 40mins and it still in­volved a lot of breast stroke but my front crawl was ef­fec­tive enough to make up for it.”

How­ever it was the bike leg with a strong head­wind and tem­per­a­tures of over 40 de­grees that re­ally put Ge­orge un­der pres­sure.

“I started hal­lu­ci­nat­ing and with both my wa­ter bot­tles empty I couldn’t re­mem­ber what lap I was on. All around me cy­clists were shel­ter­ing un­der trees with am­bu­lances com­ing over. A lot of peo­ple dropped out on the bike leg.”

The bike leg took Ge­orge around 7hrs 20 and he was de­lighted to have sur­vived it, but he had no idea what his legs would feel like on the run.

“I just used a tech­nique that a few peo­ple had told me about which was run­ning from aid sta­tion to aid sta­tion. In Ironman they’re so well stocked it’s ev­ery 2.5km so I tried to make my­self eat and drink then run to the next one. Ba­si­cally it was like a long mis­er­able pic­nic.”

The one thing that stayed strong was Ge­orge’s back. To the de­light of his wife Rachel and his three chil­dren Layla, Leo and Kitty, Ge­orge crossed the line in just un­der 14 hours.

“It was an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence I’ll never for­get. I would have said an Ironman was just for crazy peo­ple, but that was un­til I couldn’t sit up, then I felt al­most in­vin­ci­ble. I never thought I’d be grate­ful for hav­ing a spinal cord tu­mour but it turned out to be quite a bless­ing.

Ge­orge Mahood went from his hos­pi­tal bed to the fin­ish line of an Ironman event in just four months

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