Running with a message: how Andrea Mason is breaking records and changing the conversation around menstrual health

andrea mason
Andrea Mason’s incredible sea-to-summit challengeOlly Bowman

‘I’m always getting to a certain point, thinking I’m really fit, and then getting hit with something,’ says Andrea Mason. Before the 41-year-old IT consultant from Blackpool’s latest extreme challenge – to swim the longest lakes and run up the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland, cycling between the six destinations – it was long Covid. After catching the disease in October 2020 she suffered with after-effects for over a year, most notably myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle which could send her heart rate soaring to 190bpm on the sofa.

In 2019, she fell off her bike and broke her arm, just days before embarking on the first of many extreme triathlons – a swim of the Channel, bike ride across France and ascent of Mont Blanc in 2019. Then, just as it was almost better, she did the same thing again.

But most of her setbacks have been gynaecological, and those are the reason for all the challenges. Mason has been raising awareness and funding for her charity, Lady Talk Matters, which provides sanitary products to those in need and aims to amplify the conversation around reproductive health.

As a teenager she was a competitive swimmer and club runner, but her progress faltered once she began experiencing unusual pain from the very first time she had her period. ‘I was always sick, always in a lot of pain,’ she says. ‘My mum often took me to A&E because she knew it wasn’t normal, but was just told: “She’s exaggerating, go home and give her a hot water bottle and some paracetamol.” I started to believe that I was overtraining, as I was so drained and fatigued all the time. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis.’

Endometriosis is a long-term condition where womb tissue grows elsewhere on the reproductive organs. It affects one in 10 women of reproductive age around the world, a statistic that confirms it isn’t discussed nearly enough.

‘There is still very much a taboo surrounding menstruation. It still happens in a lot of co-educational schools that boys are removed from the class the minute you start talking about periods. When you do that, you’re saying to the girls, “This is something private that you should almost be ashamed about,” and you’re saying to the boys, “You don’t need to know or care about this.” That thought process stays with us as adults.’

Later, a diagnosis of cervical cancer and a life-saving hysterectomy in 2017 confirmed that people don’t talk enough about the need for smear tests, either.

Perhaps Mason’s extensive experience with pain and discomfort made her better suited than many to undertake such gruelling athletic feats.

In 2020, she completed her second giant ‘Sea to Summit’ triathlon – swimming 38km around Lac Annecy, cycling the 330km Tour Du Mont Blanc and running the 170km Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc. Then in 2021 she did a 35km swim, 360km ride and 2,335m climb up Seweweeks Port Peak in South Africa.

But the UK challenge in July 2022 was the toughest by far. She started with a swim across Lake Bala in Wales, cycled to and ran up Snowdon, cycled to Lake Windermere for the next swim, cycled to and ran up Scafell Pike, cycled to Scotland’s Loch Awe where she swam again, and finally cycled to Ben Nevis to finish with a run to the peak. That’s a total of 66km swimming, 812km cycling and 42km mountain running in four days, seven hours and 58 minutes, with four separate records set for fastest known times. (Former Royal Marines Commando Frankie Tinsley beat her to the idea of uniting Britain’s longest lakes and highest peaks with his own 16-day triathlon in August 2021, but his format was a bit different as he ran between each country’s lake and mountain, plus his cycle began at Land’s End and finished at John o’ Groats.)

There were some nice moments, including sunrise on a deserted Scafell, but with only five hours rest each day between midnight and 5am, there wasn’t much time for contemplation. ‘With the other challenges I’ve done, once the swim was over, it was over. This time I had to do each element three times, and everything got progressively longer and harder,’ she explains. ‘I was knackered from the first cycle, into a headwind during horrendous weather in Wales, and there was so much still to go.’

So she was surprised to hear from others that she had made it look easy. ‘I’m a filmmaker’s nightmare because there’s no visible drama. I think it’s my coping strategy, to be overtly positive the whole time, because the minute I start telling somebody what’s in my head it’ll become real and take me into a low that I don’t want to be in. I also tell myself that if I quit, I’ll only have to come back and do it again.’

Now she knows how it’s done, naturally there are more in the works. The grand goal is to complete a Sea to Summit challenge on every continent, and Asia is next. Then, finally, a bit of rest. ‘I’ve promised my husband that once I’ve done every continent, I’ll take up chess.’

seatosummitextreme.comladytalkmatters.org

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