Lucy Gossage Exclusive Interview
Cancer fighting medic and professional triathlete Lucy Gossage tells us her prescription for success.
Since turning pro last year, Lucy Gossage has won Ironman 70.3 Ireland, taken the British and European Duathlon titles and a pair of second places at Challenge events in Fuerteventura and Barcelona. The medals tell only half the story though, for when she’s not training, Lucy is an oncologist working tirelessly for Cancer Research UK. Taking Triathlon Plus on a tour of Cambridge, Lucy spoke about her double life as a high-flying medic and podium-topping triathlete.
Prior to contracting the triathlon bug, Lucy’s sporting endeavours revolved around hitting the gym and random activities with the medics’ drinking team at Cambridge University. “I didn’t run or bike or swim. I did cross-country when I was 13 and came last, that was my last running race until taking up triathlon.” Hardly the origin story that befits an athlete of Lucy’s talent, it wasn’t until 2005 that she found her way into triathlon.
Lucy shows off her super-aerodynamic Pashley Princess
“I was working as a junior doctor and decided I needed a challenge. Someone suggested doing the London Triathlon so I did that for Leukaemia Research. A few weeks after that I was teaching some medical students on the ward and someone mentioned this Ironman thing and I remember thinking, ‘That sounds ridiculous!’ Then I got really drunk and told my friends, ‘If I’m single on New Year’s Day, I’m going to do an Ironman.’
“On New Year’s Eve I was up in Scotland and I met a guy who’d just done his first Ironman and he said it was the best thing he’d ever done. So I went to the gym (on the second not the first!), did a half marathon on the treadmill and thought, ‘Right! I’ll do it!’ and signed up.”
Training alone, Lucy began a chaotic routine for Ironman UK. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was literally finishing night shifts and going for bike rides. I honestly didn’t think I’d finish it – no one did except for the guy who’d convinced me to do it. I did though and loved it.”
Modesty personified, Lucy doesn’t let on at first that finishing meant winning her age group and earning qualification to the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. “I didn’t even know what Hawaii was or that I’d qualified so it wasn’t until I was checking my results the next day that I thought, ‘Blimey, I’ve won my age group, I didn’t expect that!’”
The completion of her Ironman-on-a-dare could have signalled the end of Lucy’s brief affair with multisport, but the pangs of triathlon separation soon struck.
“About a month later I found myself really missing the training. Someone I worked with had just joined Total Fitness Nottingham Triathlon Club but I was nervous of going: I thought they’d all be really good, really serious and really boring. But they’re such a fun bunch of people – it’s not all heart rates and training zones! I joined in 2007 and that’s really how I got into triathlon.
“At that stage I was using the training as an excuse to go to the pub afterwards; we’d finish swimming at eight and go and have a pint afterwards, Saturday nights we were always out until three in the morning. They were just a really great group who weren’t all doctors and I think that was really refreshing. I still didn’t have a clue what I was doing with training though.”
Regardless, Lucy entered the world’s toughest half Ironman, 70.3 UK, finishing second in her category and qualifying for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater. “I took a road bike with no tri-bars. Some Australian guys asked me, ‘Why have you brought your training bike?’ and I said, ‘This is my race bike!’”
Going part time has allowed Lucy to maximise her training opportunities
PICKING UP THE PACE
Despite downplaying her age-group talent, getting to Clearwater proved Lucy’s natural ability and hinted at her potential, which she intended to unlock with more dedicated training in 2008.
“All my long runs were still when hungover on a Sunday morning, but I started to think a little bit about what I was training towards – to qualify for Hawaii.
“I bought some race wheels and tri-bars and did Ironman France, which was the worst race of my life! I made every mistake possible. I didn’t know how to race in the heat and at the top of the mountain, my wheel broke. I just thought it was race over and I was crying at the top of the mountain. A support car came and they said, ‘Voulez vous finir?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course I want to finish!’ They took my new race wheel and gave me a crappy one with a different cassette but I finished the bike.
“I didn’t eat or drink anything and started the run thinking, ‘I can still do it, I can still do it!’ I was running alright for about half of it, on for about 11 hours, then on the third lap I was like a drunk leaning to one side, getting more and more unsteady, slower and slower then on the fourth lap at the turn around I fell into the drinks table and knocked all the drinks off! Two marshals then started walking with me and a girl went past. I said, ‘I’ve got to go!’ and they let me go and I promptly collapsed on the floor. I ended up in the medical tent with two drips. They did let me finish though.”
Even this disastrous experience didn’t hamper Lucy’s drive to achieve her goal. Competing in Ironman UK later that year, Lucy again came first in her age group – posting a time of 10:44:53 – and was soon Kona-bound.
“I went to Hawaii five weeks later, I was all on my own and I felt like a complete fraud. Everyone’s there on their TT bikes and I was still on a road bike, I wasn’t fat but I certainly didn’t look like an athlete and I was completely psyched out. I was really glad I went but I have to say I didn’t really enjoy it. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. I was still so much a novice, I didn’t have anyone coaching me; it was just getting by on a wing and a prayer.”
With a wing and a prayer that any triathlete would love to have on their side, Lucy completed the race in 11:09:27, coming 14th in her category and first British female age-grouper.
"You shouldn't limit yourself, go by how you feel not by what you think you're capable of"
BACK TO CAMBRIDGE
Throughout this increasing triathlon success, Lucy continued to work in Nottingham as an oncologist, but April 2009 marked a move away from treating cancer patients face-to-face with a relocation to Cambridge, her undergraduate university city, to start work on her PhD for Cancer Research UK.
“I had lots of hopes about it being a really inspiring PhD but the first year was really, really tough. If you’re a doctor, even if someone dies at least you’ve done something useful in that you’ve made it as peaceful or comfortable as possible or helped their family. But with a PhD you can spend a month doing something and it doesn’t work and you’ve not moved forwards. I found that transition really hard so needed something else to throw myself into, and that became triathlon.
“I think everyone in their first year in a science PhD – and particularly medics used to people contact – find it overwhelming and, looking back, I realise that a hard session meant that even if an experiment didn’t work out, I’d achieved a long run, or got a bit better at swimming. It became an alternative marker of achievement.”
Ablaze with a need to train hard, Lucy qualified for Kona again in 2009, but decided not to return until she could “do well”, illustrating the stratospheric expectations the perennial high-achiever places upon herself. Winning a few middle distance races, Lucy went into 2010 in fantastic form.
“It was really my breakthrough year in terms of thinking, ‘Blimey, I’ve actually turned into someone who’s quite good!’
“I won the Vitruvian, which I still think is my best race ever. I didn’t look at speed or heart rates, I just raced as hard as I could without holding back, which I’d never done before and I went much quicker than I would have thought was possible. It just made me realise you shouldn’t limit yourself, you should go by how you feel not what you think you’re capable of. Suddenly I was consistently good and beating people I never thought I would’ve been able to.”
After another season ending in Hawaii as first British female age-grouper, Lucy had a life-changing decision to make.
“I was umming and arring at the start of 2011 and then thought, ‘Sod it, I’ll race pro and just see what happens.’ I did Wimbleball again and I had a really bad race. The pros start about 25m in front of everyone else and I’m a rubbish swimmer so I was just waiting to get swum over by 2,000 people. I’d been ill the previous night due to a dodgy drinks flask. I was being sick on the bike and stopped three times on the run to dive into the bushes but somehow finished third. That was when I thought, ‘Hang on, I’ve just come third and I had a really bad day,’ and I started thinking about going part-time at work.”
A positive discussion with her boss led to Lucy reducing her work hours in September. “I’d learned to believe in myself a little bit more. I just thought I would always regret it if I didn’t – and also resent my PhD as it would be time stopping me training. Cancer Research UK, who fund my research, and my boss have been absolutely brilliant in supporting me.
“After my first two days off, I won 70.3 Ireland, which I thought was a really good omen! Then I went to Challenge Barcelona a few weeks after that, finishing third.
Lucy chats with Triathlon Plus' Tom in a favourite Cambridge coffee haunt
“Mum and Dad took a while to get used to the fact that all of a sudden this academic girl was not going to just be a doctor, but I think they quite like it now. Now I race pro, but the nice thing about working is that triathlon is still a hobby – a serious, life-encompassing hobby, but still a hobby.
I do train more, but I think the key thing is the recovery; life’s just not quite so manic. Instead of getting back off rides and having to do work, it meant I could just relax, get more sleep and cook proper food – having a bit more energy to focus on the hard sessions and really do them hard.
“I’m not sure I’m mentally tougher than other people in races – I don’t give up easily, but neither do most triathletes – but in training, I’m about perseverance: dig, dig, dig, chipping away and keeping going.
“I had to do an after-dinner speech at a Kidney Council meeting before Christmas and I compared training for an Ironman to doing a PhD and how they’re so similar. They don’t sound similar at all, but you go one step forward then three steps back, and the goal’s so far away that you can’t see where you’re going sometimes.
“At Challenge Fuerteventura this year I thought I’d probably have a bad race, but then it would be out of the way; I’d make all of the mistakes there. I was really pleased with second. The British Duathlon Champs were just a bit of fun, but obviously I was really pleased to win that! Then winning the European Duathlon Championships – well it just goes to show you shouldn’t turn down a challenge.”
ALWAYS PUSH YOURSELF
“I never really chase races to win. I’d rather come second to someone better than me than come first without trying; I’d rather race fast girls and come lower down. I love having people to push against and I think some women shy away from it and don’t like it, but I think it’s great and exciting.
“I think I’ve always pushed myself in whatever I’ve done. Until triathlon it was academically. I did everything as quickly as possible – my postgraduate exams and climbing the career ladder – and I think moving and doing the PhD and having a really tough first year has been brilliant. It’s made me realise there’s more to life than just climbing a ladder for the sake of it. You need to climb the right ladders, so I think that fate works in funny ways.
“I don’t feel guilty about not seeing patients, but I do miss it. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing playing around with triathlon when I want to be a proper doctor. But that will always be there and this won’t, I’ve only got a few years I can do this. That’s the thing about oncology – you realise more than in any other speciality how short life is. People regret not trying new things and taking opportunities. I think I could have 30 years as a consultant oncologist with the memories that I tried triathlon and found out how good I could be, or I could have 35 and always question. I’ve definitely made the right decision.”
This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.
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on Friday, August 3rd, 2012 at 5:30 am under Uncategorized.
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