A nurse is set to run 26.2 miles, cycle 112 miles and swim 2.4 miles in her 12th gruelling Ironman event – despite being allergic to exercise.
Roslyn ‘Roz’ McGinty, 50, discovered 12 years ago that she suffers from exercise-induced anaphylaxis (EIA), which causes allergic reactions such as “extremely itchy and burning” rashes and facial swelling.
Nevertheless, the plastic and reconstructive surgery nurse from Radlett in Hertfordshire loved triathlons too much to stop competing.
Over the past 14 years, Roz has participated in 11 Ironman events and received two European triathlon championship gold medals, three silver medals and one World triathlon championship silver medal.
Last month, she took first place in her age group at an Ironman event in Finland – granting her an entry ticket to the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in October – all while carrying an EpiPen.
Forced to abort three races due to itchiness in her palms and groins – her allergy warning sign – and use her EpiPen to stop an anaphylactic reaction, she said: “Every race is worrying, every exercise session is worrying, but the desire to do it outweighs the frightening thoughts.
“I get prodromal signs and I do think I’m fortunate in that regard, so that is like an early warning signal that shows that an allergic reaction is about to occur.
“I am on high alert and take my antihistamines as my first course of action as soon as it happens and immediately stop exercising.”
The diagnosis that threatened her racing career came in July 2010, when she had an anaphylactic reaction while swimming in a lake in Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, during a training event.
Roz, who is married to 55-year-old radiographer Martin McGinty, remembers: “There was a lot of mucus pouring out of my nose, so that was really weird.
“It wasn’t until I was out of the water and my adrenaline levels started to drop, that my lips felt swollen.
“They were massive and my tongue was going wooden. I remember it getting worse and worse and I was worried my airways were going to swell too and make it hard to breathe.
“As a nurse, I knew what was happening and that I needed adrenaline.
“It was pretty frightening.”
Luckily, Roz took antihistamines she had stored in her car and, over half an hour later, her mouth swelling and dizziness abated.
Her anaphylactic reaction that day came out of the blue – for although Roz had often noticed an “extremely itchy and burning” rash of small hives all over her body after exercise, she had thought she might be reacting to something she had eaten or that her skin was being irritated by sunscreen.
“All of these reactions that I had, I never put it down to being allergic to exercise per se,” she said.
“I just assumed that it was something in the environment that I was allergic to that was causing it.
“It wasn’t until that awful anaphylactic reaction, where I really thought that my airway was going to close before anybody got to me, that I thought, ‘Wait a minute.’
“The paramedics asked if it ever happened to me before and I said, ‘Actually I’ve had lots of reactions when I run’.
“I jokingly said, ‘You can’t be allergic to exercise, can you?'”
But the next day, Roz started Googling and figured out that an exercise allergy was exactly what she had.
The realisation was shocking as she had started running at the age of 29, quickly beginning to do half marathons, then running her first full marathon, the London Marathon, in 2008 when she was 36.
When running every day eventually took its toll and she suffered repeated tendon injuries, a physio suggested trying triathlons to mix up her daily sports schedule and she first gave it a go in 2008.
After signing up to two of the most popular triathlons, the Blenheim Palace Triathlon and the London Triathlon, she participated in her first Ironman race in 2009 in Frankfurt.
She was due to participate in her second Ironman event just two weeks after her anaphylactic shock in the summer of 2010.
“It was basically like a test swim for me and was supposed to give me confidence… but all of a sudden I’m panicking because I had this awful reaction,” Roz added.
She went to see an allergy specialist who told her she had the non-food dependent kind of EIA, which meant she couldn’t cut her chances of having a reaction by avoiding certain foods.
“He basically told me, ‘I’m afraid your racing days are over’,” Roz said.
“I wanted to cry and was in absolute shock. I had thought I could just take a tablet and be good to go.”
She was told antihistamines would mask the prodromal signs of an anaphylactic shock, making it dangerous because she might not see the signs in time to treat it.
But Roz was desperate to keep racing and, after discussing it with her husband, decided she would continue but stop immediately if she had any warning signs.
“I was issued with EpiPens and was advised on anaphylaxis and what to do if it happened,” she said.
Over the years Roz became aware of the prodromal signs of a bad reaction.
She regularly comes home with a rash after exercise, but the danger signs that tell her to stop running, cycling or swimming immediately are itching in her groin and on the centre of her palms
“Every time, it’s exactly the same and I just know now,” she said.
“When I feel that, I know I’ve got a few minutes to make sure to bring myself to safety.
“I know that approximately ten minutes after stopping the reaction intensifies.”
To keep safe, Roz makes sure she exercises with other people, in a public park or on an indoor bike – so she is not isolated if she has an attack.
Roz’s husband worries about her racing but is supportive of her and trusts that she will stop as soon as the prodromal signs hit.
“I live by the promise that I gave him and I’ve always stayed true to that,” she said.
“We considered the risks and felt that it was a similar situation to someone who has anaphylaxis to bee and wasp stings.
“Those people don’t avoid going outside, they are just vigilant and always prepared in case they are stung – my Epipens and antihistamines don’t leave my side when I am exercising anymore.”
Two weeks after her first anaphylactic reaction, Roz took part as planned in an Ironman event in Copenhagen and made it to the end without any problems.
EIA does not strike every time Emma exercises, but she said the frequency of severe reactions is “unpredictable”.
“It can be as many as three to four a year, but I once went nearly a year without a severe one,” she added.
Before a race, she gives herself plenty of time to minimise stress and is wary of extreme heat, cold or humidity after being told those could be exacerbating factors.
“There’s no time when I exercise when I don’t think about it… it’s on my mind constantly,” she said.
“What might be an innocent itch to somebody else isn’t just an innocent itch to me. Any reaction is scary, but I just cope with it, I guess.
“But I’m driven by exercise and I’m driven by triathlon.
“I love what I do, I’ve achieved the goals I’d never have dreamt of and I won’t be stopped – unless, of course, I feel my prodromal signs.”
Roz is now preparing for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in four weeks’ time.
“My dream was always to go to Hawaii to the World Championships but I never dreamt it would be possible,” she said.
“I have nothing to prove to anybody. I just want to go and experience it.
“If I get to that start line healthy and can go over the finish line healthy, I’m happy. Everything else is just a bonus.”
To follow Roz’s Triathlon adventures: www.linktr.ee/sprintymcginty