An Unstable Triathlete's Blog

By Rob Brennan

Unsurprisingly perhaps, as a personal trainer, I was always relatively sporty in my younger years; finding activities like golf, hockey and tennis easy to pick up and excel at. I often took for granted the fact that I had a natural ability to learn these skills, and found training for them fun as opposed to a hard slog. Competing in a triathlon in July therefore may seem like something I have naturally progressed towards over the years, thriving of the necessity to train in 3 different disciplines, well that is sadly not the case at all….

Only two years ago, out of the blue, I mysteriously found myself having difficulty even walking, never mind running, cycling and swimming which, after 25 years of practice, was a surprise to all concerned!

It started with my head spinning when walking around, and an inability to focus on moving objects, like people's faces as they walked by or car registrations as they drove past. I also found I was unable to read anything whilst moving and, perhaps even more sadly, watch TV whilst working out at the gym! It culminated in me specialising in walking in zig zag fashion, bumping into everything I came across and suffering the odd fall here and there. However, whatever was wrong with me impacted most on my ability to play golf, hockey and tennis. The three sports I had always been so good at now seemed nigh on impossible to play. And, more worryingly, I had no idea why.

Weeks of nail biting examination followed, from balance tests to brain scans, and the resultant verdict was clear... no one knew what had caused it. The Harley Street 'specialist' and his equally expensive colleague, both stated they had no idea what was going on, but that I should consider myself lucky it was not a brain tumor. I questioned whether their verdict was worth the thousands of pounds it had cost, especially when they failed to apologise for being unable to offer a sound diagnosis. In an attempt to offer some conclusion, they said they suspected I had contracted an inner ear infection which had gone undetected and damaged my Vestibular nerve equally badly on both sides. It was the only possible explanation really and, on reflection, I realised I had suffered a sore ear a few weeks previously. Nonetheless, it seemed a particularly harsh side effect of a common earache, and highly unlikely that it would affect both sides! As a final token gesture they gave it a name, Vestibular Neuritis. I suspect they just made it up to get rid of me, useless bastards.

So despite their sentiments, lucky was hardly what I felt as I staggered home with a list of arbitrary Vestibular exercises to do such as 'spinning around' which, as they helpfully informed me, may or may not help to improve my balance. Their vagueness brought back thoughts of the thousands of pounds it had cost to receive such advice and I’m pretty sure that, had I not already have been dizzy from the Vestibular neuritis, viewing the bill they presented to me would have been enough to make me keel over!

As a determined type, I tried to continue with my normal life, even going on the golf holiday I had booked long before, much to the amusement of my friends. At one point during the holiday, the tee warden drove up right next to me to watch my tee shot on a tricky Vilamoura course. The additional nerves caused by this and… well…lack of crucial ones (Vestibular), caused a full air shot for the first time in years! After a lengthy attempt at persuading the over protective warden that I was not a total rookie, he gave me one last try to hit it or I'd be asked to leave. As I looked down at the 3 balls before me, raging at the situation I was in, I felt hardly likely to hit it at all - never mind straight enough for this arsehole to leave me in peace!

I remember it well. I called to the nervous observers, “I can see three balls, I'm going to quit and just walk round today”. Then I heard in reply “F**k it Bobby, you're not giving up, just hit the middle one!” So, with a wry smile on my face I wound up, and never before, nor have I since, hit such a flawless shot! It sailed out to the right with natural draw, bringing it around to nestle in the middle of the fairway; the longest drive of the day. Needless to say the tee warden was gone before I could smugly look around at him!

I still had a torrid time on the course that day, hacking it round like a mal-coordinated lumberjack, but felt at least there was light at the end of the tunnel.

There were several more sports which I both tried and was, in turn, appalled at my sudden unlearning of them. I failed miserably to get into a hockey team, the standard of which was lesser than I had played comfortably at for years of my life; air shots and falls were amongst my contributions to my one appearance. Next came squash… well, let's not talk about that! Tennis? Better on the whole than squash, but I was still far worse than I had been at 14 when I played at county level. A brief swim left me so disorientated I was sick, and running just seemed so dangerous given I could not focus at all where I was going! Driving a car was touch and go and, after a night drive home from London to Leicester feeling like I was in a rave full of flashing lights, I stopped driving after dark. Riding a bike anywhere near a road after all that would have been suicide.

So I focused on doing the Vestibular exercises and found that, in the gym, the free weights and static cardio machines like rowing machines or bikes, were about all I could use!

I also did my research and found that, although the Vestibular system was the major component in balance, the vision (eyes) and proprioception (body awareness) were the other two key factors. So I tried to work on those!

I worked hard on my core and postural alignment and tried everyday to focus on signs, registration plates and people’s faces as they walked by. If you were one of the many people I stared at in Canary Wharf at that time then I apologise!

I wasn't at Canary Wharf for long however, and I hasten to add, this was not because I was ejected for staring at people! I decided to quit investment banking and set up Fitness Universal as you must now be aware! I think that quitting a stressful job that was not congruent with what I wanted to achieve in life; helping people to grow and develop to fulfill their potential; must have helped me a lot. It relieved the pressure on my brain, allowing it to deal with the more important things I needed to accomplish like walking!

The more relaxed 'me' got back into sports one stumble at a time. I started with squash, then more golf, then some (wobbly) running and, over a few months, I was almost forgetting the balance problems that had previously been so restrictive. Although I often got a stark reminder by jarring myself on a table or unintentionally taking out a defenseless old lady in the street!

At this time my housemate was training for the Barcelona triathlon. I had already said flat out after trying swim again that I'd never do it. Despite this, he didn't let up with the abuse, and part of me felt he just didn't get how bad it was. The other, more optimistic side of me felt that maybe he did understand but just wanted me to take a chance and go for it, because there really was nothing else I could do.

And I did. In august I swam a mile in a mankini (think Borat!) for the British Heart Foundation and got through, escaping with minor chafing and severe cramp. I didn't swim again for 6 months, but it was a start.

However, due to my profession I began to get far fitter and leaner, thanks mainly to boxing, spinning and kettlebells. I was looking and feeling far better than the chubby overly muscle-bound banker I had been only months before. So I was tempted into more of my old pastimes.... I still often failed to get into clubs and bars as my zig zag walking meant I looked drunk, but that was probably a good thing!

I increased the number of spinning classes I did to 4 or 5 per week to at least get my body ready for a real bike. I finally braved the water once more; my swimming was starting to improve and, although swim pool lanes cut my fingers to ribbons many times, I felt better. I finally got a real big boy bike in February 2011. Perhaps foolishly, but never one to do things by halves, I got cycle shoes and clips…the works. And yes, people with functioning balance do fall off with these!!

And fall off I did! Three times in quick succession outside Evans in Camden, with a highly embarrassed shop assistant and a crowd of attractive young girls howling with laughter at me! At that point I doubted I'd ever cycle the bastard thing, but I'd paid for it now, it was too late.

I finally managed to cycle around the block, with the shop guy riding after me like an encouraging father, but still I was not convinced. It was 8 weeks before I rode that bike again. And inexperience showed when I did.... I chose the windiest f**king day since the dawn of time and opted to go to Regents Park along Finchley Road at rush hour.

Looking back I see it as a blip in my progress! I tackled a 5 lane merging junction by simply 'panicking' and cycling as fast as I could, I leant on a passing bus that came too close, I fell off twice in slow traffic where brain dead people had not left any space for a bike to get past and I couldn’t get my foot out of the clips in time, and there was an incident at some traffic lights where I unclipped the wrong side and toppled slowly and gracefully to the floor in front of a queue of beeping traffic. But the main event was outside London Zoo, just as a large group of excited youngsters and their teachers queued up to get in. A cheeky look at the watch to see what my lap time was resulted in me hitting the kerb at high speed, dismounting in the air and skidding to a halt not far from the group, one foot still clipped safely into my bike. This was a low point. Not only had the look at my watch revealed I was lapping at a snails pace, but it highlighted the fact that one handed riding was permanently out of the question for me. To add insult to injury, some tosser on a Barclays bike with no helmet and on a mobile phone, cycled past as I lay on the ground; probably having just called his mates to tell them about my crash.

Since this time, it took a few more weeks until I could bear to try again, no longer cycling on the road but driving with my bike to a chosen destination before beginning to ride it. I still fall off without fail, and if one more smug cyclist stops by my crumpled form on the floor and asks with a knowing smile “are you ok? New to clips?” I may well end up in prison for GBH.

But on the whole it is improving. I did a half triathlon in May, during which I took down the whole barrier on the way out of the transition zone on my bike and filled my wetsuit with water by not doing it up properly, but still managed to notch up a half decent time.

The future is bright; somehow overcompensating for lack of balance with an as yet undiscovered 6th sense and a stern determination to struggle through. I really just want to finish the London triathlon in July, but wouldn't it be nice to do it in my target time of....and don't hold me to this... but 2 hours and 45 minutes?

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog and, if you consider it a worthy venture, I'd be grateful if you sponsored me on

All money raised goes to a fantastic charity helping people with cancer to discover ALL of the treatment options available to them, including alternative and complimentary methods to provide an integrated care approach. They work tirelessly, often against the grain of 'modern' medicine which can be heavy handed and tends to adopt a 'one size fits all' approach, which is rarely the answer.

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