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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

Triathlon Role Models and the Taboo of Periods

Dedication: I want to thank with these lines one person for her openness: Emma Pallant-Browne. And I want to talk about a few things that I increasingly speak about openly and with more ease, which was and is however a long learning process.

On the 27th of August 2023, my family and I participated in the Everyone’s Triathlon in our hometown Erfurt (open to everyone). I had felt good in the weeks before. However, on the Tuesday before I got a mild cold. Additionally, my period started on Wednesday. I really did not feel like standing on the starting line and running into the water. I took it easy the following few days, so that on Sunday at least the cold was gone. I could not do anything against the period though, it is always just a question of how to deal with it. At least the strongest days were already over.

Our start was at 13:00, the race briefing started five minutes before. At 12:30 we changed into our swimming gear and went towards the start. At the same time, I noticed an uncomfortable feeling in my womb. Not bad pain yet, but also not good, and I feared it would become worse. Additionally, the bleeding started to be stronger again, after it had not taken place the entire day so far. Brilliant timing!

I went to the toilet twice, hoping it would stop before the race started. Since I often have strong pain at this point of my period, I put painkillers into my backpack. The backpack however was not close to the start line. I described where to find the backpack and my pills to my grandmother, where she would be able to find it, and asked her to give it to me in the transition zone if it was getting worse. My grandfather said something about doping and that the organizer would not approve. I responded that the organizer– who was a man, according to my knowledge– did not have to deal with period pain that was so bad, that I at least would not be able to continue. Therefore, I did not care about what he might think.

I also was not wearing a pad anymore since I only had my swimming suit on. That was also an unusual and uncomfortable feeling. I had to think about how easily people would be able to see the blood throughout the entire competition if it continued like it did then. But here comes the reason why I am thankful to Emma Pallant-Browne: I had to think of her and one of her races, and suddenly the thought of me bleeding throughout the race and people possibly seeing it was not that uncomfortable anymore. It was more like a mental shrug, a ‘well then…’.

For those of you, who are not familiar with the name and the context: Emma Pallant-Browne is a British endurance athlete and triathlete who competes successfully in Ironman and 70.3 Ironman competitions. After a triathlon in Ibiza in May 2023, one photo was published in which one could see a blood stain on her bright-colored swimming suit due to her period. A comment underneath the post said that one surely could have found a better-cropped photo since this was not the most flattering picture of her.

What was remarkable here and what impressed many women and men, was Emma’s response. She wrote that she does not have a problem with showing and talking about something that is a reality for female athletes. She later shared the photo also on her own account and wrote some words about it. She explained that she was glad about the unedited photo since it shows an existing, normal reality of female athletes. There are always days during which the period is bothersome in one way or another when doing sports when it is messing with the plans one had. Editing the photo, hiding the blood stain, would imply that there was something wrong with it. There is not.

On the contrary, Emma Pallant-Browne did not have her period for a long time, which unfortunately happens to some endurance athletes who do not eat enough compared to their amount of training, which is a warning sign. She struggled long with getting her period again and is glad about it now. She finds it beautiful because it shows her that she is healthy. Therefore, she says, it is nothing any woman should be ashamed of but something one can be proud of.

When I read about this, I was impressed because I agree with her. The period is part of our lives, and we all find our own way of dealing with it. Nowadays, I also talk about it with my family, telling them how I am worried every time I notice that a race is at the time when I am at the peak of my period. Reading about it, that she also has her concerns, was reassuring for me. Knowing that professional athletes also struggle with this, that they also try to find ways, that for them it also does not work out all the time, and that the perfect photos of the beaming winners are not everything, helped me as an amateur athlete as well. Therefore, such talking helps.

Thinking of her words, Emma Pallant-Browne became, at that moment when I was standing at the lake at the starting line, my role model. The words of this professional athlete gave me the confidence and calmness for my own triathlon. Just in time, because the starting signal was given very suddenly. And off we went, one lap of 750 meters through the lake, three laps of 20 km in total on the bike, and one 5 km lap running. I finished the triathlon as my best one so far, both in terms of performance and feeling. All my worries had dissolved into something that was half as bad as feared. I did not need the painkiller in the end since the mild pain disappeared after swimming. But the knowledge that my grandmother was there with it if I needed it gave me a feeling of safety. And even though the blood had been running down my legs after I had left the water, my swimming suit was black and one could see it only later on the white sock, which had become reddish as if I had played tennis. But even if one could have seen it, I would have not found it bad anymore.

One might wonder why I did not use a tampon or a menstrual cup since they do not bother one when swimming. To explain why I am not doing this so far requires breaking with another apparent taboo.

A few weeks ago, I went to my gynecologist and found out that my hymen is constricted. So much so that even a medical examination is a problem. That explained a lot to me. It explained why I cannot have sex because it is too painful for me. It explains why I do not manage to use tampons. I had tried that as a teenager and failed. Since then, I have not attempted it anymore but simply used other period products like pads. However, I had always assumed that I was doing something wrong. Since I was failing with things that were normal for others, I had to be the one doing it wrong. It undermined my confidence, and I avoided many topics that had to do with, i.e., sex or the period for a long time. I had to learn that it helps to talk about it. The gynaecologist then had a simple answer for my ‘problem’. It was anatomical, nothing I could have done anything for or against. And apparently, it can only be changed with surgery. Such an option had never come to my mind because I did not know it existed. I knew about vaginismus due to psychological reasons. However, I was not aware that something like this can also have anatomic causes because it is nothing that is usually talked about. ‘Everything will work out by itself’, is often said when someone is sharing concerns. And what if not? This showed me how important it is to talk about these things.

I am not a professional athlete, no one is writing about me, so I have to do it myself. And maybe there are women and men who read this and wonder what I am complaining about here since all women have their period and deal with it quietly. But just because such topics are not widely or publicly discussed, just because many young women are alone with their worries, fears, and insecurities and do not trust others to talk about it, it does not have to stay that way. We can and should talk about it, especially if it can support young women’s confidence, not only but also in sports. Gladly, this has already been recognized, and for instance, the association Athleten Deutschland is communicating current knowledge and debates concerning menstruation and sports. And with that, I want to say again: thank you, Emma!

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Cover photo by Nina Kolarzik.


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