Fit & Fab
Tania Harris' path to triathlons was paved with failure. After nine miscarriages, two stillbirths and a pulmonary embolism within four years, the executive coach embraced the sport as a way to experience success in her life.
"I was spiralling downwards without realising it," says the 50-year-old from France.
During her depths of depression four years ago, Harris attended a talk given by some runners who had competed in the 2009 Racing the Planet desert ultramarathon in Namibia, a 250-kilometre, seven-day race. She was inspired by one of the female runners, Joanne Eades.
"Her story was all about achievement and it resonated with me because I felt like a failure - a woman who could not have a baby," says Harris. "I had professional success but personal failure."
At the same event, she struck up conversation with Philip Penaloza, the president of the Hong Kong Triathlon Association, who encouraged her to take part in a sprint distance triathlon - a race that consisted of a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre bike ride, and five-kilometre run - that was taking place in five months. Without hesitation, Harris signed up.
At first, she couldn't run a kilometre without running out of breath. "My husband said I looked like a cross between a duck and a grasshopper," says Harris.
She didn't know how to swim front crawl, and so would stop halfway across a 50-metre pool, exhausted. She didn't have good control of her bicycle, and fell off three times before she got the hang of it. But she persisted, completing the race in a time of one hour, 37 minutes and 23 seconds.
"The race itself was beyond my expectations," she says. "Of course, I came last out of the water, and because I'd pushed so hard on the bike, my legs were like jelly on the run. But I did it, and I wasn't even the last person to finish."
Since then, she has completed the Laguna Phuket Triathlon (1.8-kilometre swim, 55-kilometre cycle, 12-kilometre run), and finished second in her age group twice at the annual Hong Kong ITU Triathlon: in the sprint distance in 2010, and in the Olympic distance (1.5-kilometre swim, 40-kilometre cycle, 10-kilometre run) at this year's race.
These days, she trains three to five times a week for each discipline. "I love a challenge. It's what gets me up in the morning," she says.
Did you ever think of giving up during training for your first triathlon?
No. My motivation to take part was strong. I always had in mind my two children that I'd lost - Xenia and Flavio - and I was doing it for them. It was so painful, you have no idea. But I just couldn't give up. It was my way of making it right.
What's your most memorable triathlon moment?
The most amusing is when I tried to unclip my cleats during my first cycling session. I went out to Tung Chung on my own at 6.30am. I stopped to rest and the inevitable happened: I unclipped one foot, lost my balance and totally flopped on the floor in front of three good-looking cyclists.
I tried to look cool when I heard one of them say, "Apart from your ego, darling, nothing broken?" I couldn't help but laugh. I was also lost and asked them for directions. As I pedalled off, I went between two poles and fell over again, grabbing hold of one of the poles for balance, and sliding down, while the trio laughed at me. I was laughing, too. It was more than comical.
Are you healthier now that you are a triathlete?
These days I am more aware of having a good diet to feed my body. I never used to eat meat, and now I've discovered that I need more protein when training as much as I do. When you push your body to its limits, you need to replenish it.
Is the sport about the individual or the team?
In order to better myself, I can't just do it on my own. It's my team that keeps me going and makes me better. I remember at last year's Laguna Phuket Triathlon I was losing focus. One of my teammates from the Hong Kong Dragons Triathlon Club passed me, noticed I was struggling, and ran with me for the next two kilometres.
I knew he was much stronger, but out of the goodness of his heart, he stayed with me and pushed me along. I don't know if I could have kept going if it hadn't been for him.
How do you find balance?
It's not easy. At some points I have balance, and at other times I don't. It's definitely difficult to achieve. It depends where you want to take your passions, such as sport and work. I think the best way is to realise that you can't do everything.
What keeps you going these days?
I often ask myself why I am doing this. For me, it's all about personal bests, and the challenge itself. There are always going to be a lot of people faster than me.
Succeeding requires a lot of mental strength, and it is about being inspired, rather than worrying about anyone else. I just keep thinking, "I can do this. I am doing this for me".