How Hongkonger Trilby White overcame TB and took part in women-only race in Tehran

Veterinary manager and mother of two talks about taking part in a women-only 10km race in Iran, her first event since overcoming tuberculosis after a two-year battle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 4:53pm

Hong Kong Australian Trilby White, 39, has just returned from Tehran, where she ran a first-of-its-kind all-female race. It was her first event since recently overcoming a two-year battle with tuberculosis, which has caused her permanent lung damage and saw her spend nearly a month in strict isolation.

Yet today she looks the picture of health – and not only is she back on track with her training, she’s also a busy mother of two and veterinary practice manager at East Island Animal Hospital in Shau Kei Wan, where she oversees five animal health companies and 50-odd staff.

What first got you into running?

I started in triathlon after my first daughter was born. My husband [ultrarunner and fellow vet David Gething] and I both decided it was time to get fit. I did triathlon for a few years and a couple of half Ironman races, and aimed for an Ironman, but I just couldn’t manage the training and working and being a mother. I got too exhausted.

I started to focus on running as it’s so much more versatile. I actually like cycling more, but you can’t go out cycling here in the middle of the day – you’d get killed on the roads. I love that you can run anywhere, and you don’t need much equipment. As long as you remember your running shoes you’re OK.

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You have two young children, and you work full-time: how do you find the time to fit training into your day?

It’s always a struggle – particularly for working mothers in Hong Kong with the hours that we’re expected to work – because you’re trying to fit in your children’s needs and your own needs. You don’t want to miss dinner or bedtime because you’re out training. So I usually train at lunchtime on the Sai Wan Ho promenade because it gives me a great break in the middle of the day. Now the weather is warming up, I try to fit it in just before or after work.

Everyone needs to find a balance. I think it’s valuable to show the kids it’s not just dad who gets to do things.

You’ve just got back from Tehran, where they held the city’s first international marathon. How did that come about?

I hadn’t been running while I was sick, so I decided, ‘OK, I don’t think I can manage a marathon. I think even a half marathon is going to be really, really tough, but I need to push myself, so I’m going to aim high. And if I can’t do it I can’t, but at least I’ll give it my best shot.’ I got back into training around Christmas time so it was a good amount of time to try to get my fitness back up. And we’d never been to Iran, so we thought it’d be a great opportunity to see the country.

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Women – both local and foreign – were blocked from the official marathon at the last minute. What happened?

The day before the race we found out from the race organisers they hadn’t been able to get approval to hold the women’s marathon due to religious reasons. Men aren’t allowed to watch women running. We were told we were allowed to do a women-only 10k race instead.

After putting in so much effort I was quite frustrated. And I’ve never been a 10k racer; I’ve always been a marathoner, because the challenge with that is to keep yourself constant and push yourself over a longer distance, whereas shorter racing is much more of a burst.

It’s like turning up to a baseball match and then being told you’re playing golf. It really threw me, but then I thought, well I can’t let them get me down, I’ll give it my best shot and it’ll be an experience anyway. And I’m so glad that I did.

I was expecting to finish in about one hour and 10 mins, which is a lot slower than I was running before I got sick, but then I came in at an hour exactly, so I was really happy.

What was it like, as a woman, to be running in Iran?

It was the first time that women were able to run in an official competitive environment. We had to wear a headscarf, long trousers and long-sleeved shirt. They issued everyone with the same kit, regardless of body size. It was set within an outdoors sports complex which was closed so that men couldn’t come in.

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Along the track, they had these female ‘morality police’ who would tell us off if our head scarves fell off, or our sleeves were pulled up too far. The weird thing was, because the clothes were all one size, on some of the bigger women they were so tight it almost looked less decent than if they’d worn shorts. But they’re the most lovely, generous, kind people. There’s not a running culture there, so the women were very enthusiastic but the runners in Hong Kong would run them into the dust.

This was your first challenge after overcoming TB. How did you find out you had the disease?

Last June I was signed up to do my first ultramarathon, [the 89km] Comrades in South Africa, but I had real trouble training for it. I thought I was getting asthma – I kept having this recurring chest infection. So after being given a couple of courses of antibiotics, the doctor sent me to get an X-ray. After they’d taken the X-ray, my GP called me and said I had to go to hospital immediately, that I had pneumonia and needed to be on IV antibiotics.

They couldn’t see that I had TB because the pneumonia was covering it. The hospital did a bronchoscopy and found that I also had TB. At this point they tried to kick me out of the hospital – they don’t like to have TB patients in most private hospitals because it’s a communicable disease. They ended up putting me straight away in this glass box.

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It must have been traumatic. What was the hardest part for you?

I was more worried for the kids because they weren’t allowed to come in and see me. Then I was in isolation at home for two weeks so I had to stay in my bedroom; still no contact with the children. Anyone who came into the room had to wear a mask. TB gives you plaques – little holes, or circles in your lungs – and there’s two things that do that: TB and cancer. So there were 24 hours while we waited for my test results when we didn’t know which it was going to be. I think it was probably worse on Dave than on me, as I was too sick to care at that point.

How are you doing now? Are you fully recovered?

There’s quite a lot of scarring on the lung, and I find it more difficult to breathe now when I’m running, but if I keep running it’s really good for my lung tissue. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as competent as I was before but I was never a world-class runner, I’ve always done it for enjoyment anyway, so that’s fine. I may be more susceptible to infections and things going forward, but that’s no reason to stop running.

What was your biggest lesson from this whole experience?

At some point we all learn that we’re mortal. But I think not many people know just how prevalent TB is in Hong Kong. It’s very common in South East Asia too. So it made me aware of that, and of my health in general. I’ve just gone and had a whole lot of vaccinations as well. We’ve travelled around Asia and never used to really think too much about what could happen.

I’m never content to sit still. I guess some people may have used it as an excuse to stop running, or cut things back a bit, but I need to keep having goals to move forward and it really helped me feel that I’d overcome that chapter in my life to run in Iran. Maybe I’m just stubborn.

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What advice would you give others who’ve experienced setbacks in their training due to health issues?

I think everyone can find something that they can do. Before running I went back to yoga; and even that, I’d get halfway through a class and have to leave. But I just kept going back until I could get through a whole class. If you can find something – whether that’s walking around the block or swimming a couple of laps in the pool – you can then just add on a little bit more.

And it might be a really slow progression, but I think sports are so important, not only for the physical aspect, but also for the psychological aspect. More so in Hong Kong, where you’re working really hard, plus or minus kids. You need to have that outlet.