Good enough to beat the rest of the world, twice, Wales’ former world champion triathlete Helen Jenkins has never allowed her path to be blocked by obstacles. So, why should two kids and surgery on her spine get in the way of her comeback, as she tells Graham Thomas.
Helen Jenkins plans to race again in April – having proved that anything is possible if you’re determined stay active and impress the kids.
For most of us that might mean keeping in reasonable shape as the years pass in order to enjoy life to the full with the family.
For Wales’ double world champion triathlete it included finishing her first race for over three years, during which time she has had two children and suffered a serious back injury that required complicated surgery.
Jenkins only gave birth to her son Max eight months ago – a brother to two-and-a-half-year-old Mali.
The 35-year-old had only just returned to training after the birth of her daughter when her back problems became so severe she needed an operation to fuse the bones in her spine.
Doctors told her she was unlikely to compete again, but the fires still burned – not so much to compete, but simply to overcome the injury in order to run, swim and cycle again and stay healthy.
But once Max came along, the Bridgend-based athlete – who is coached by her husband and fellow international triathlete Marc – felt her back problems ease.
It meant that in early February – more than three years since her last triathlon – Jenkins competed in the Dubai 70.3 Ironman. Not only did she last the course, but she finished fifth in a high quality field.
“When I had my back surgery at the beginning of 2018, it was not about competing – it was just about being able to have an active life,” says Jenkins.
“I love training and doing sport, so even if I wasn’t going to be able to compete again, I wanted to be able to exercise – go for a bike ride or for a run. That’s always what I’ve loved to do.
“My frame of mind for the last year hasn’t been about competing. It’s been about seeing how my back goes and getting active.
“Competing was always going to be a bonus. After the surgery, it seemed quite unlikely that I’d be competing again, so this is just a huge extra.”
Jenkins was the best female triathlete in the world in 2008 and 2011, but having been out of the sport for long, she’s too far behind all her rivals to have any hope of making the Great Britain team for the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
Instead, her comeback is likely to centre for now on the longer distances of ironman competition, where the calendar is more flexible and she can pick and choose her races.
“One of the reasons for choosing a longer distance was that it’s a bit more relaxed. When you are competing at the Olympic distance then there is a lot more pressure and focus.
“The Olympics comes around every four years and you have got to try and get points and qualify and all the rest of it.
“This definitely fits in with where I am at the moment, with having the kids. It’s about when I want to do it, rather than being on a schedule.
“But I’d never run that distance (21.1k) competitively. The last time I ran that far in training was years ago. Running the last couple of k’s I was thinking, ‘wow, there’s still a long way to go, here!’”
What was crucial for Jenkins was not her time, or even her placing. What mattered was how she felt. Was it still fun? Did she enjoy it or was she too busy thinking about catching the last flight back to London and being home in time for Mali and Max’s bath-time.
In the end, she found the answer to all those questions was, yes – including making bath-time.
“I’m really happy. I didn’t really know what to expect going into the race or how I was going to go. I know I’m not anywhere near how I was when I was competing at my best, but I knew that I’ve been improving.
“It was just really lovely to be out racing. Going into the race, there wasn’t any goal or plan. I just wanted to see how it went and was simply keen to enjoy it again.
“You never really know until you race, whether you are going to enjoy it. But I really did and that was the most important thing.
“In terms of speeds, it wasn’t a brilliant performance but so many people know how hard it is to get back – especially anyone who’s got two kids!”
Mali and Max are happy, too. Not only do they get the prospect of more pushchair runs around Portchcawl with Mum supplying the power, but Mali has a new toy from the Emirates.
First race back completed!
4th in #imdubai703
Was so glad to get to the finish, the last 2k felt a long way.
I loved being back racing, the result wasn’t too important to me, it was about putting myself back on a… https://t.co/SvaDooTLir
— Helen Jenkins (@heljinx) February 8, 2020
“I brought a medal back at the weekend and she likes that. She’s been very happy walking around wearing a medal.
“The back feels fine. I’m aching a bit, but I’m letting my body recover and I’ll be fine. The temptation is to jump straight back into training, but I really need to take it easy and give it a bit of time.
“I will now give it a rest and probably do another race in April. This race was just about getting it done and seeing how it felt. And the good news is that it felt really good.”