‘Iron-mum’ Claire just wants to inspire her boys
What does being a mum actually mean?
Becoming a mum is such a life-changing experience that many of us go through a period of readjustment, as we try to establish who we are both as a mum and a post-childbirth individual.
Our priorities change, and we have a host of new practical challenges to overcome in running our lives around one or more little people with all their diverse needs. Amidst all of this, we can end up losing something of ourselves, and needing to re-centre on who we are and what makes us tick. The latter is an important process if we’re to be the best possible role models to our children, but in my experience, it’s not an easy one.
My current focus is on making up for lost time and all I really want to do is ‘drink George in’ and spend every waking moment relishing his company. However, part of the reason I’ve changed my life direction, is to give proper focus to rediscovering who I am and, as part of that, the kind of mum I want to be to my beloved Bubba.
It helps me to look at others’ examples as part of this process, and I just had to feature the story of one truly inspirational woman whose path I have been fortunate enough to cross recently – Claire Humphris.
Breaking the motherhood mould
The day before I interviewed Claire for this article, she posted on Facebook how her eight-year-old son Max had asked her, on the Saturday evening, if they could ‘climb the highest mountain in Britain’ the following day.
It says everything that Claire’s simple answer was ‘yes’. Not quite the biggest mountain in Britain, but she and her partner Martin took Max and Martin’s two children Callum, 14, and Dan, 12, up Scafell in the Lake District, via the challenging ‘Corridor Route’.
“Of my two boys, Max, the youngest, really just takes my outdoorsy approach to life for granted,” said Claire. “He just shrugs his shoulders and accepts ‘there goes Mum again’.
“I think my older boy, Alex, who’s 17, is quite proud of what I do. I hear him telling his mates about my latest challenge, and I think for him it’s quite cool to have a mum who does these things.”
No wonder Alex thinks Claire is super-cool, given ‘the things his mum does’ are truly extraordinary, and include ‘Ironman’ triathlon challenges and – soon – a cross-Channel swim.
She completed her first triathlon five years ago, and describes her motivation for getting involved in this gruelling leisure pursuit.
“Max was three and I went to see my doctor because I was getting repeated sinus infections,” said Claire.
“I expected her to just prescribe me some antibiotics but instead she told me to stand on the scales. I was 14 stones – the heaviest I’d ever been in my life – and four stones overweight.
“She told me I had to do something about it and she wanted to see me again monthly so that she could keep an eye on my progress.”
A physical and emotional journey of self-discovery
“It took me eight weeks to pluck up the courage but the first thing I did was go for a swim. I found it really hard but I felt better after it, and it really escalated from there. I got to the point where I enjoyed it so much, I was motivated to make room for it around my busy weekly schedule of work and home life, and caring for my kids, and started going three times weekly.”
She added: “I realised, gradually, that I had been quite unhappy. I’d fallen into a routine of not looking after myself very well, and not doing anything physical. It was too easy to indulge in treats like a glass of wine on a night. I realised that I wasn’t happy in my marriage either and my now ex-husband Ed and I wanted really different things. Among other things, I remembered how much I loved being out in the great outdoors, while he was quite happy to just enjoy a comfortable home life.
“We ended up getting divorced and both now have new partners, but still get on fantastically well, and share in the parenting of our children, Alex and Max.”
Through her swimming, Claire met an inspirational friend called Matthew. He had been a club swimmer, but through illness had since lost both of his kidneys. On daily dialysis, he could no longer do the physical things he loved, with the exception of swimming. However, he encouraged Claire to push herself physically and extend her repertoire to triathlon.
“There was just something about Matthew which was irresistibly encouraging,” continued Claire. The fact that he was so passionate about sports he could no longer engage in, made me want to really make the most of my life and push myself to achieve amazing new things.”
Claire, a contact centre manager for a major UK building society, started doing triathlons, and joined her local club at 35, in 2010.
“It’s amazing to look back on now. When I started I couldn’t swim front crawl, I didn’t own a bike and I couldn’t run at all,” she added.
Yet despite these limitations, Claire completed her first Ironman race in 2013. Involving a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile cycle and a 26.2 mile marathon, she completed this gruelling event within two minutes of the allowable time (17 hours), complete with multiple blisters and lifted toenails.
“Matthew had died two months before the event, following a failed kidney transplant, and it felt as though he was there spurring me on to finish. I was determined to do it for him,” she said.
Gearing up for the ultimate challenge
Matthew has been a huge influence in other ways too, as his dream of completing the ultimate challenge of swimming the English Channel, has rubbed off on Claire. So much so that she’s due to undertake her first relay attempt between 22 and 30 June. “I want to complete a solo swim eventually,” she told me, but the advice is to complete a relay first, to gear up, as this is a really serious thing to undertake.”
Serious because it involves a minimum 22 mile swim, tackling hazards such as cross-currents, sustained low temperatures, pollution, jelly fish and passing shipping along the way.
Together with her three team mates Christine, Lucy and Leon, she’s in the throes of a rigorous training and acclimatisation programme to prepare for their swim. Followed by a support team, they have to meticulously plot out their route beforehand and if they deviate from this plan, they’ll be disqualified.
Why? you might ask.
“Partly because of Matt’s inspiration, I want to do this really amazing thing that only 1,500-or-so people have done ever since the Channel was first swum in the 1800s,” Claire went on.
Leaving a legacy of confidence, pride and love of the great outdoors
“When I’m in my 80s and my body’s no doubt struggling as a result of all these crazy things I’ve done while I’m younger, I want my kids to be able to tell their kids, with pride, about all the amazing things ‘Grandma’ did back in the day.
“More than anything, I want my achievements to give them the confidence that they can achieve their dreams, whatever they are. I want that to be my legacy.”
Aside from her formal training schedule, Claire is the kind of person who gets up at 6am and, before work, heads up to the top of the hills and moors above the village where she and her family live, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. Some of the time, she takes eight-year-old Max along with her.
“We might get up at 6am and walk about three-and-a-half miles up on the moors,” she said.
“Or other times, he comes with me to some of my favourite training lakes, sticks his wet suit on and feeds the fish while I swim. Afterwards, our reward is to share a bag of chips. This kind of thing costs so little, and yet it’s such lovely rich time together.
“Max just accepts that’s what we’re going to do, as long as I prepare him advance. It wakes him up and prepares him for his day at school. Best of all, we have some of our best conversations during these walks, and these bring us closer.”
What I find most inspirational about Claire, now married again to Martin – who shares her love of the outdoors, including triathlon – is the way she’s pushed herself to the absolute limits to be a better person, mum, and role model for her family.
Personally, I think it would be dangerously easy to pigeon-hole oneself as a mum, and think you have to conform to this or that convention of a modern homemaker, whatever that is. However, Claire’s example should give us all confidence that it’s possible to be a rounded, 360-degree, inspirational individual, and a great mum.
“Going right back to my childhood, I remember always having that love of the outdoors, and that curiosity to find out what was over or at the top of, this or that hill. I’d somehow lost touch with that, and with myself. However, my triathlons have given me that back.
“Before my conversation with my doctor, and Matthew’s inspiration, all I was doing was working and then looking after the kids. Much as I adored spending time with them, I wanted to be more, and to give them more. Now I’m in a much better place, physically and mentally, and I have the energy and good health to be able to make every minute of my time with them really count.
“I absolutely love being outside, there is so much simple beauty all around us and I hope that, if nothing else, I will give them an appreciation of that. I do things now that I would never have dreamed I could do, a few years ago, and that’s a wonderful renewed confidence to be able to pass on to them.
“I’m not fast, in fact I usually finish last (though it has to be said that finishing an Ironman at all is a tremendous achievement), yet I get such a sense of pride from finishing at all. I’ve gone from feeling too tired to do anything much at all, to not being able to wait to get out into the fresh air, and up high, every day.”
What Claire has been on, and is still, is a journey of personal discovery which is not just physical, but emotional too.
“I will always struggle with the running and cycling,” Claire admits. “But I find the swimming almost meditative, I love it.”
Yet even learning to do this effectively has involved overcoming some demons. Having lost three close friends and family members through drowning earlier in her life, it’s taken huge determination and strength of character to build up the courage to swim in rugged settings such as Lakes, rivers and, ultimately, the English Channel.
“There is such a sense of freedom in these pursuits, and when I’m in the outdoors I feel like I can breathe, no matter what else is going on in my life. It reminds you that some of the trivial things you might sweat over on a day-to-day basis really don’t matter in the scheme of things.
“Thanks to this, I can also do things with my kids that I’d otherwise never have dreamed of doing previously, including setting off on tough walks involving scrambling and careful route and weather planning, and being able to responsibly take care of their wellbeing.
“They have to be careful what they say and ask for – or I’m highly likely to take them seriously, and we might just go and do it!”
What does being a mum (or dad) mean to you? What are the things you do with your child or children that mean the most to you? Do you challenge convention just like Claire and, if so, how? I’d love to feature your story – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with details.