Joanna Butler…..her journey to Kona

I love reading Pulser’s stories, race reports and all, it’s like a door to a different world but I never intended to be writing one myself. Yet here I am typing……for me it’s a story about how we evolve, influenced by people we meet and unexpected things that catch imagination. Sometimes it can take you on a path you would never expect.

I first came to Ireland in 2004 for a summer break during the final year of my masters. Then it was the story of ‘boy meets girl’ and although I never planned to live abroad, in 2006, we bought our house, shortly after adopted a cat, a dog and I’ve put a formal seal on Ireland becoming my home for ‘next unspecified while’. I went from being busy as a student, balancing part time work and full time socialising to ‘grown up’….home – work – commute. Fast forward a couple years it became a steady routine (with a ‘gift’ of an additional 2 stone).

One day my good friend Eoin told me about a TrailTrekker event he’d just came back from. (Oxfam charity event: 100 km non-stop trek in under 36 hours as teams of 4). It really caught my attention. I was leading a beyond sedentary lifestyle at that time (no sport background either), but the following year in 2009, with a bunch of friends from work, we decided to put a group together and give it a go. Hey, how hard can ‘a long’ walk be? Well, I got to about 60km odd in the middle of the night; I cannot even begin to describe how sore one is after hiking that distance in sun, rain, daylight and total darkness of the night. Every little bone and muscle was hurting, but it was my mind that was stuck in ‘now’ and how miserable I was and.. I withdrew (the rest of my team went on to complete the challenge).

I didn’t think it at the time but it might have been the best thing that has ever happened to me. Had I done it, I might have put it in the ‘been there done that’ box but the withdrawal stayed with me for a long time.  And it drove me to start making small changes. As I am sharing this story, I don’t want this to be about physical side only as to me that is a small part of it. Yes, I started walking more, hiking, and slowly building some kind of fitness but it really had me thinking why someone was able to push through mentally and I couldn’t? It started a series of tiny changes.

In 2010, I went again, completed it this time (and a couple more times after that, for good measure). You can’t train to trek 100 km, you will be sore. So it didn’t really get easier. But by then I knew the lows were coming and was able to prepare how I’d respond to them.

In 2011 another work friend told me about our company taking part in the Dublin staff relay (teams of 4/5 collectively running 5 km). You don’t have to run, walk-jog is acceptable. Great I’m in! Knowing I don’t have to run takes the pressure off. I always admired runners. Such a freedom, all you need is a pair of runners and off you go; ‘wind in your hair’ and all that. I quietly tried a C25K program. I’m blown away how hard it is to jog 90 secs! I nearly fainted but I kept at it. Before I knew it we have a group in work, we meet early, walk – run and chat. Call it ‘friends with benefits’ if you like. During one of those runs a friend asks me: why don’t you train for a marathon? Girl is proper nutcase! But it got me thinking. I enjoy our group runs and chats so kept building the distance but I don’t have the confidence to go for it yet. The following year in 2012 I think about it again: what is the worst that can happen? More confident, I decided to jog it. I’m on top of the world. High-fiving kids and waving at everyone around the course like a Polish imitation of an English queen.

Around the same time, my good friend Síobhan comes back from Kilimanjaro and tells me about her experience. And it grabs me again! I’m on a mission; put a team of four together. It was an incredible adventure, to stand at 5895 meters above sea level in Africa to see the sunrise above snow-capped peaks. But the best part of the whole experience for me was the simplicity of the 7 days prior. Wake up, set your mind to ‘happy mode’, eat, climb, eat some more (yay!), sleep, and repeat. No phones, no outside world, no worries. Life gets simple and you actually see and hear things. It stayed with me for a long time.

Sometime later, Eoin again tells me about Ironman; he would love to do it one day. We’re in the pub so I’m jolly and that sounds amazing..and so unachievable.

In the meantime Síobhan keeps telling me about triathlon, the club she’s in and the races she does… I’m in TOTAL awe of this girl; she is an ‘ultimate athlete’! Swims, bikes and runs. She doesn’t accept any bull…I mean excuses. I really want to try but this time I’m seriously apprehensive and nervous. All those questions: will I fit in, drown, fall off the bike, everyone will be staring and be better than me.  It took me nearly a year to pluck up the courage.

One dark, rainy October evening I went to my first Pulse session on my own, terrified.

And for how scary that was in my head before, that’s how easy it was once I did it. The Club is awesome, everyone is welcoming and supportive. I’m hooked and by winter 2014 I’m a fully-fledged Pulse tri club member. I love the chats and training with the group. I meet so many people with different backgrounds and stories. A whole new ocean of inspiration and everything becomes possible when you have your tribe behind you.

2015 was my first tri season and I dived right in: first Sprint, then Olympic distance race and 70.3! Everything accelerates, I get braver and my goals get bigger as I’m going along. I decide to sign up for the full Ironman event before I have completed the ‘half’. I’m not even afraid of failure anymore, it doesn’t matter. Without me realising, it has become my lifestyle and a passion.

Left to right – Jo at her first sprint at TriAthy in 2015, and at Dublin 70.3 the same year

In 2016, surrounded by a massive contingent of Pulsers, I completed my first full distance Ironman in Frankfurt. I loved it. It’s like Kilimanjaro, awesome finish run along the red carpet, soaking up the roars of the crowd, big medal around my neck. But it’s ‘the grind’ and the work I’ve put in to get me there that makes me proud. The 10-20h training weeks, 5am starts, the after work sessions, daily choices, consistency and commitment to improving. This lifestyle allowed me to travel and see so many incredible places in Ireland and abroad. Every weekend, month and year I discover something new. I love it so I know I’m going to continue.

Jo after her first Ironman in Frankfurt

In 2017, hungry for more, I signed up for two Ironman races in one year: Lanzarote (known as amongst the hardest in the world and I’m chuffed to be told I’m the first ever Club female to take it on) and ‘fast’ Barcelona.
Afterwards I get bold and look at what performance is required to win an ‘Age Group’ and qualify for Ironman World Champs in Kona Hawaii. Perhaps not impossible? Go big or go home, I’m going to try! Don’t get me wrong I knew well who I am, and where I came from: I knew it would be a tough, multi-year project of consistent work with many ups and downs along the way. Johnny and I hatch a plan that we’ll have a ‘Kona coffee’ by my 40th birthday one way or the other (even if just during a once in a lifetime holiday). I’m brave enough to dream it, but I’m afraid of people’s opinions so kept it quiet at the start. Those closest to me already know I’m happiest when I have a goal, so they are on board.

2018 Austria; it’s reality-check year. Progress is not linear, just because you work hard it is not always enough. Sport brings way more failures and disappointments then glory days; we just don’t talk about those as much! The novelty of the last couple years wears off and perhaps my expectations for my own performance are surpassing my ability. I start comparing myself to others. My confidence hits rock bottom, my head becomes a dark place and every race becomes a ‘judgement day’; not fun to be around. It also hits home that it doesn’t matter how many years I’ll put in, qualification is very unlikely. I have to have a tough conversation with myself and decide whether I keep at it even if it was to never happen? The answer is simple actually. I accept and plough on.

2019 brings Ironman number five, on ‘home’ turf in Cork. You remember Eoin from the beginning of this story that told me about TrailTrekker and Ironman? Well, he is doing it too! I’m going with him. We’re training together, he’s flying. And again for me progress is not linear. Plus the race course doesn’t align with my strengths. Technical bike .. ask anyone about my descending or TURNING LEFT!  I had no expectations going into the race, plan is to stay focused and positive throughout the long day.

Race morning: orange weather warning day, cold, wind, rain, three hours of standing, waiting and shivering. Just as I’m about to go off Andrea and Ciara whisper, that despite crap conditions someone WILL end up going to Kona after that race. Yeah right, whatever!

Perhaps because of the conditions the pressure is off and I manage to stay ‘happy’. First lap of the bike Johnny jumps out of the field, shouts I’m doing well, oh cool, off I go to do it again. Run, Johnny shouts something that my brain is unable to process. I keep trying to digest but it’s not computing. 42km is a long way, hold your horses and focus. The excitement of Pulsers around the run course, wave of emotions, it’s radiating. I’m begging my legs to keep going, pace is dropping and effort going up so fast. First time ever I’m worried if I’ll make it to the finish line.

Red carpet, trying to read faces around me for some kind of external confirmation. My brain still doesn’t compute.

That night some crappy thoughts of ‘not deserving it’ creep in… Johnny reminds me to get a grip, he’s due his ‘Kona coffee’.

Following morning announcer calls ‘half Polish & half Irish Joanna Butler’, Síobhan lets out a ROAR worthy of the Aviva stadium and I get to hop on the top step of the podium, get a medal and a Hawaiian lei.

In 4 weeks’ time, October 12th, I’ll be in Kailua-Kona Hawaii on the start line of the biggest race in the world: The Ironman World Championships, amongst the best of the best. I’m going to wear a Pulse trisuit with a Polish flag on one shoulder and an Irish one on the other. I still know who I am and where I came from. No expectations beyond to stay present and soak up every minute of this once in a lifetime experience. I’m incredibly grateful for all that has happened, to be healthy and to be able to do this. For the support of my tribe (those around me, at home, work and club) as it offers a sense of belonging and inclusion. No one does things like this on their own!

Joanna Butler receiving her AG winner’s prize and her ticket to Kona after Ironman Cork!

Looking back to this bonkers 10-year journey from ‘then’ to ‘now’ there are three things I’ve learned which translate to sport, personal and professional life:

  1. ‘Normal’ people propelled me towards sport, and challenges I didn’t even know existed. Normal people doing great things is what inspired me and gave confidence to put myself out there. Share your story.
  2. Happiness often comes from having a goal and pursuing a passion. Commit to something you enjoy and give it ALL you’ve got.
  3. Whether you think you can do it or not – you are right. Confidence is not something we’re born with, we build it. We tend to wait till we ready, we never will be. The time is now, step into the ring.

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