Interview with Laura Backus

Laura Backus on the Beach holding her Bike

One Dream, One Chance
An Interview with Laura Backus, 2013 Ironman Florida Finisher and Blogger at A Fat Girl’s Ironman Journey

People come to Ironman for their own reasons. In fact at any given triathlon if there are 1,000 athletes at the starting line there are 1,000 reasons that brought them there. Laura Backus has a great story. One of perseverance and managing a constant pain threshold that accompanied her all through her Ironman journey. Laura Backus proves that the saying “Anything is Possible” is true in every possible sense.

OFPSXM – I see you started triathlon in 2007, were you active at all before that?

Laura – I played volleyball in HighSchool and in college Freshman year transferred schools then practiced with the volleyball team Sophomore & Senior year of college. It was a division 1 school and I’m only 5 feet tall, so practice was all I could get (in Hindsight, volleyball is a terrible sport for EDS, it damaged my shoulder from serving, not to mention the strain on the knees). I continued to play after college for about 10 years; I also am a Naui Divemaster. I like to stay active, I Just never considered Triathlon until it was put in front of me.

OFPSXM – You said after you won the Athena Division at ChesapeakeMan that you had to sign up for IMFL, Why Florida? Was it the course topography? Did one of your mentors previously do the race which helped pique your interest in Florida? I ask because IMAZ is also a flat course with a good swim. I am just wondering what drove your decision.

Laura – I live in New England, and it is quite hilly. I don’t climb hills very well even with lots of practice. With EDS, I have to tell some of my muscles and ligaments to work I have a pretty hard time getting my hamstrings and butt to fire on their own. It gets rather old thinking about something that should be subconscious. To climb you need your butt and hamstrings! No amount of conditioning can make them work on their own. I knew I needed a flat course, because I could pedal no problem! ChesapeakeMan is pancake flat! I knew Florida and Arizona were flat so it had to be one of those two. We could drive to FL, plus my family could join us there and I don’t mind the ocean swim. I quite enjoyed it! I am at home in the ocean! So Florida was a no brainer for me.

OFPSXM – When were you diagnosed with EDS? Has it been a constant training companion since Day 1?

Laura – Actually it was Triathlon that led to my diagnosis in 2010 I had never heard of the disorder, and I considered my fatigue, lack of muscle control, ligament slippage, etc to just be not enough training. I was doing the Cohasset Sprint Tri, and doing my normal walk on the run portion. I met another woman who had the same problem with migraines that I do. I get debilitating migraines and/or headaches that can last 25 days out of every month. We discussed how no traditional migraine med worked and not many pain killers helped either. (A side effect of EDS is that pain killers don’t often work to ease any discomfort). I have no idea how we started talking about our bar tricks; at that point it was bending fingers backwards, very stretchy skin, and how our ankles would roll completely over. When I got home I researched to see if migraines and loose joints were related and discovered Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I brought it up to my doctor and he actually said “Oh.. well.. we weren’t barking up the wrong tree, we were in the WRONG FOREST”. I was sent to a specialist and it was confirmed. From there I was able to start managing my symptoms, and even found some relief in the migraines through chiropractic care. I even carry a chiropractic activator with me when I race! I have pain pretty much 100% of the time, and yes EDS has been present in every workout. I have done triathlons with a full blown migraine with a pain scale of 8 out of 10. I generally live on a 2 out of 10 scale. Any given day, something will be out of place. Typically it would be a hip, my arches, shoulder, neck, rib heads, but sometimes I get surprised by a new outage. I’ve learned how to put myself back together.

OFPSXM – With your EDS, how many training hours were you able to get in each week while preparing for IMFL? Were there missed training days, extra rest days or pain thresholds you worked through?

Laura – Time spent training would vary. I really did have to manage the very fine line of push through the pain vs. don’t hurt yourself. For example, during my longest training run for Ironman was 20 miles, I messed up my hip pretty bad by the continual motion of the hip rubbing on the socket. I couldn’t run or walk for another 3 weeks. I only ran a few times from that 20 miler until race day. My coach had me on a sport intensive schedule rather than the typical 3 week cycle of build, peak, recover. I would get anywhere from 10-20 hours in per week and since it was sport intensive, if I missed some days it wouldn’t completely hurt my training. I definitely missed training days. It made me very mad in the beginning, but then I realized and my coach enforced that EVERYONE misses training days and it is ok. A few times I missed 3-4 days in a row, and then suffered the consequences of EDS. Our strength atrophies very quickly! I also had to manage skipping workouts when you hit the wall of just being done with training. I had to ask myself several times: Are you sure you are in pain and not just being a whiny baby because you’re tired of this? Luckily I could tell the difference and suck it up when I was being a baby. Pushing through pain was just a daily task with me. I often joke that if I’m not in pain, I must be dead. I do think that helped me with Ironman. I don’t think I had the same level of discomfort as the other athletes (or maybe I was used to it?). My body felt “normal” after the 17 hour workout. I really did feel pretty darn good after, except for the blisters!

OFPSXM – As a Clydesdale, I have to ask you what your race day nutrition/hydration strategy was for IMFL and did you stick with it and did it work?

Laura – I have struggled with diet and food consumption all along. I do better when I eat clean or Paleo style. I don’t have a gluten allergy, but feel much better when I eliminate that from my diet. I do have a Whey allergy though, meaning I can’t eat most protein bars. I tried to find a clean way to manage endurance and it just didn’t work so I worked out my plan and kept with my exact same training and race diet from July until Nov. I would eat a Ham egg and cheese bagel before workout, gel, peanut butter pretzels, Swedish fish, bananas and larabars during the workout. I used hammer fizz tabs for hydration. During IM, I did have potato chips, chocolate chip cookies and chicken broth on the run. Chicken broth is like heaven! I did stick with my nutrition plan, but I wasn’t neurotic about it. I knew to eat every hour, and I ate 6 of 7 hours on the bike. I knew it was more important that I DRINK, so I was sure to drain my speedfill every 1.5 hours. I had planned on eating more of my pretzels but they were WAY too dry so I just ate the other items instead.

OFPSXM – You said IMFL was your last run. With a few weeks since race day and some recovery time under your belt, do you stand by that or do you think you could see yourself maybe someday lining up for one more go ’round at the 140.6 distance and hearing Mike Reilly one last time calling our name?

Laura – Unfortunately yes it was my last run, unless someone calls out my story and sponsors me to go to Kona, in which case I will be there will bells on! (well Green Sparkle Skirt anyway) It actually breaks my heart. I would like nothing more than to do another one, but the run training was destroying my hip and feet. I sublux my hip all the time, and the more I run, the more it comes out of the socket and rubs, each and every step! I will degrade that hip joint and will not be able to walk without a walker or wheelchair if I continue much more. I have adapted my bike and swim so there is no damage to my joints, but there is no way to do this for the run. Regarding hearing my name called? it didn’t even happen the first time. He said “2 more in the box.” I am far from in any box.

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