GTC athlete of the month: Hilary Glen

Hilary Glen has enjoyed another fabulous year with GTC, culminating in winning the Most Improved Athlete of the Year. It’s always interesting to find out more about club members, especially when they are relative new-comers to triathlon and, indeed, sport.

Hilary reveals that she wasn’t a particularly sporty child although she did play a bit of tennis (because the tennis club was located behind her childhood home) and swimming (although this was not competitive).

She adds: “My dad took myself and my two sisters swimming once a week. This usually consisted of Catriona [Padmanabahn] swimming 200 lengths while Rosi [her other sister] and I did a couple of races then mucked about and did handstands.

“I did try out for an Edinburgh swimming club once and got in, but when I found out training was at 5am I declined the offer.”

Hilary has made lots of friends through GTC.

During her 20s, Hilary, who has been with GTC almost four years, completed a couple of 10km runs – “very slowly,” she says – and a half marathon.

She continues: “But then exercise took a back seat after I had children, while also working full time and doing a PhD etc.”

Hilary with her dad.
Hilary and her children.

‘A mid-life crisis”

When Hilary, who is a consultant medical oncologist at Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, turned 40, things suddenly changed.

She says: “I think I had a bit of a mid-life crisis. My husband Paul and I had finally gained some control over our work-life balance and the children were a bit older and more independent so we found we had some spare time.

“The Beatson had launched its new charity and I thought I might mark this, and my 40th, by raising some money for them. Things kind of snowballed and I ended up taking on a year of sporting challenges, including 10ks, half marathons, Tough Mudder and finishing with the Edinburgh Marathon.

“Looking back I trained badly and without much structure and I spent half the year struggling with injury. I limped round the marathon to finish my goal and raised lots of money but I wasn’t especially impressed by my sporting achievement.”

After completing the marathon, Hilary agreed to take part in the Beatson Charity’s “Aim for the Skye” event, which involved cycling from the Beatson to the Isle of Skye over three days.

She says: “I had never been on a road bike before and a very kind friend donated one of hers. I could barely make it to the end of the road due to anxiety and balance issues, and very quickly I abandoned any hopes of ‘clipping in’ after ending up in a stream (still attached to the bike).

In a ditch!

“But with the help of my dad (a much better cyclist than me) we made it to Skye intact.”

Then came triathlon

Now that she had a run and cycle under her belt, triathlon seemed the natural next step. By this point, Catriona’s older children were members of the junior section of GTC.

Then Hilary’s son, Jamie, became a member. She says: “I decided to take the plunge and joined the club. I met my now great friend Michelle in our joint first session in Duggie’s lane at the Western Baths and the rest is history.”

When Hilary started doing triathlons, she tended to rotate the discipline she liked the least. She says: “I’m not a natural at any of them and certainly at the start I was equally as bad at all of them. Seeing your improvement through training really helps the enjoyment though.

“Now I alternate my favourite discipline. When you are out cycling in the stunning Scottish countryside on a beautiful day with good friends and family, you can’t beat it. But then when I’m having a really good run, with great tunes playing, it also feels great.

“The biggest surprise for me is how much I enjoy open water swimming. The first time I did an open water triathlon I had a massive panic attack and thought I was going to drown, until I realised I could actually walk along the bottom as we were in a very shallow part of the loch. I now prefer open water races to pool.”

Hilary reports that she has improved in all disciplines since starting with GTC. She says: “I could hardly finish a length of front crawl when I started. Like many in the club, I tentatively started in Duggie’s lane on a Sunday night and progressed from there.

“I am much faster than I was to start and my endurance has changed enormously, but it is a slow process and you need to not get disheartened when lots of swimmers leapfrog past you into faster lanes.

“I’ve also gone from being barely able to balance on a road bike and certainly not able to get up any hills – I fell off going up Schiehallion during my first Etape due to extreme slowness – to being clipped in, down on my tri-bars, maintaining good speeds for long hilly rides and loving getting out on the bike.

“And my running has changed completely. I am now running speeds I never thought possible.”

Hilary enjoys the variety of different race distances. She says: “They all test you in different ways. Earlier this year I did my first super sprint relay at Monikie, which I absolutely loved. You are absolutely flat out for the short distance but it was quite thrilling and I felt the extra pressure of trying to do the best for the team.

“But then, at the other extreme, I’m not sure anything will compare to the test you put your whole body through in an Ironman, with the unbelievable sense of achievement at the end.”

And it is Ironman Wales that Hilary reveals as her best sporting achievement yet. She says: “This time last year I had done one standard triathlon, which nearly killed me, and I was practically last.

“I could not have dreamt that an Ironman was remotely possible and in the end I managed it about two hours quicker than I’d hoped.

“The whole experience was like nothing I’ve ever done before and I absolutely loved it.

“But it’s not just the race that was the achievement, but the year of sacrifice and dedicated training leading up to it. During that year, I also raced my fastest shorter distance events and realised that if you actually put the work in, it is amazing the results you can see.”

With Maggie and husband Paul at Ironman Wales.

Tips and advice

Hilary has lots of tips and advice that she has learned through personal experience.

Training tips

Set a goal. I always have the next race booked up. It doesn’t matter what distance it is, nothing will get you out training more than having something to train for.

But make sure you aren’t put off by comparing yourself to others. I just ran a 10k race with lots of other teammates and was last out of all of us. But I took 2.5 minutes off my previous PB and so was thrilled.

Have a training plan and stick to it. Ideally, if you can, get a coach to make a training plan for you!) It is very easy to put off a run, swim or cycle if it’s not written down (for me anyway).

Using something like Training Peaks is great as you can plan your week or month around your work/social life.

Sign up for group sessions. If you’re signed up, you have to go. And once there, you will always be pushed harder than you would push yourself. And you meet great friends and have a bit of fun while your training.

Get some training buddies. Having a lot of the club doing Ironman Wales was great because there was always someone up for a joint training session. With marvellous folk, such as Viv, Paul, Maggie, Jim, Gareth, Lochlan, Neebs, long, hard cycles were always much more manageable.

Exercise is a great mental healer. Beyond the physical fitness, which is so important, we cannot underestimate the importance of exercise and the part it plays in emotional wellbeing. In my job, the vast majority of my patients have terminal cancer and I look after them until they die.

With the improvements we are making in the treatment of cancer, I often treat people for many years before they reach the end of their life and get to know them and their families extremely well.

This can take a huge emotional toll and when I started as a consultant I really struggled with my own mental health to the extent that I nearly gave it all up.

While many things helped to finally turn that around, I find exercise enormously beneficial in helping me cope with the stresses of the job. And my lovely patients, who have far bigger battles than me to fight, which they do with great courage and humour, spur me on.

Because I do most of my big races for charity, I get a lot of donations from patients and their families which also helps drag me out for a training run when it’s cold, dark and wet and I’d far rather be curled up in front of the telly.

Racing tips

When it comes to racing, as long as you have done a reasonable amount of training, you can physically get through any race. But the biggest challenge is always the mental one.

There are lots of tools you can use, such as breaking the race into sections, spotting someone ahead of you that you try to keep up with or overtake, visualising the finish etc, but the most important thing is to completely believe in yourself.

If you tell yourself you can’t do it, you won’t. Also, if you’ve done any “big” races, you can draw on that on all your subsequent races. I frequently tell myself. “if I could get through Wales I can get through this.”

Goals for next year

Hilary is keen not to lose the fitness and progress she made in the year leading up to Wales. She says: “While I don’t have plans to do another Ironman (at least for the foreseeable future!), Paul and I have signed up for the Yorkshire Half Ironman next year to keep us going.

“Having seen the difference actual training makes, I’m also keen to keep improving my speed in the shorter distance events and, in fact, we have kept Crawford (Project 3) on to help with this.”

Hilary’s lifetime aspirations are simple: “I just want to keep enjoying it.”

She adds: “The benefits are so huge, from general fitness, improved mental health and wellbeing, meeting friends for life, encouraging our children to keep fit and active to the sense of achievement when you achieve a goal.

“I also have a slight inkling that I might like to take on coaching, but I’m making myself have a bit of a rest before embarking on that…”

More tips from Hilary

Join a club. None of this would have been possible if we hadn’t been in the fabulous GTC. I used to be a solitary trainer and didn’t think I liked training with others. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Believe in yourself. I have said this before, but it’s important. You can totally do anything you put your mind to.

Set yourself goals. It doesn’t matter if they are big or small, without a goal the likelihood of putting in the training is much less. And achieving the goal is hugely satisfying.

Don’t put things off until a rainy day. Life is short. Today is your rainy day.

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