Tracy Shaw – Trail Runner. Kettlebell Pro. Cancer Survivor.

Words: Crush

Findus Frozen Foods

We chat to Tracy Shaw – Kettlebell instructor, trail runner and breast cancer survivor. Her indomitable spirit and her approach to beating cancer are truly inspiring.

Tell us a little bit about yourself…

I need to burn both mental and physical energy and have basically figured out how to earn a living doing just that. I am self-employed and empowered. A personal trainer specialising in kettlebells from 06h00 – 08h00 and a strategic design consultant thereafter and I love doing both. I get to work from home with my amazingly talented husband and steal cuddles from my gorgeous pair of Bullmastiffs throughout the day.

How did you get into Kettlebell training?

I was introduced to Kettlebells through a friend who referred me to do a workshop with Kettlebells for Africa owned by Shaun and Marlize Cairns back in 2008, I was literally infatuated after that day.

Every aspect of kettlebell training resonated with me as a ‘less conventional’ personal trainer. Kettlebells are steeped in a timeless and colourful history and embodied in a ball of iron grit. Until that point as a personal trainer, I had never encountered a tool that when used properly could literally activate the entire body and challenge a person to their limits and beyond – all performed in one spot.

You hold a Russian Kettlebell Certification and went through some pretty intense training to attain this. Tell us about your training programme and how one becomes a Kettlebell instructor?

After completing a level 1 course through Kettlebells for Africa, I enrolled to get my Russian Kettlebell Certification in 2011. The course was held under the instruction of Pavel Tsatsoline, otherwise known as the father of modern day Kettlebells, also an ex-Russian special forces officer with a sense of humour as cold as a Russian winter.

After 6 months of training with my 16kg kettlebell, that included a series of strength, endurance and technique orientated exercises, I headed off to Chicago with my husband where I was put through a gruelling 3-day test. By the 1st day I realised we were in for a tough ride, everything we thought we knew got stripped back and we learnt every movement from scratch and more importantly learnt how to teach those movements in fine detail.

Thankfully my commitment paid off and I returned home a certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor with a few extra holes in my already callous hands.

So it all started with Kettlebells; how did you get into trail running?

I began teaching at Faught’s Gym in Durban, a professional MMA training facility owned by Darryl Faught. To date one of my favourite experiences as a teacher, it was a family of unpretentious hard working individuals.

One of my clients during this period Zsig (Who’s name took me about a month to pronounce) introduced me to trail running. I think it was basically his payback for the tough Kettlebell classes that I delivered to him and his gorgeous wife Tammy.

My first ever trail run was 10km through a combo of sticky KZN air, forests and some killer undulating sugarcane hills. I remember getting home and hoovering the contents of the fridge and then collapsed for a lengthy afternoon nap. It was the best, worst morning of my life.

Soon after I joined Riverside Trail group where I met some of my best friends. Made up of a passionate group of bush wakkers including Buzz Bolton who sometimes took us through terrain that quite frankly seemed more like an Indiana Jones jungle adventure than a trail run – loved every minute, spiders wrapped across your face, hornet stings and all.

Getting into nature and occasionally eating dirt from wiping out awakened the kid in me again. Trail runners are awesome, friendly people and have a passion for life. No matter how tough the course, there is always new friend to be made who will talk away the toughness and take you over the finish line.

Do you think the two forms of exercise work cohesively to build an overall fitness regime?

Without a doubt! Six years later and the combination of Kettlebells and trail running are my perfect pair when it comes to maintaining my overall strength and fitness. I have found that Kettlebells, when taught and executed with proper form, will complement pretty much every sport you can think of and is guaranteed to show results.

In September 2016, you were diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. How did this affect your daily routine with regards to fitness, health and social responsibilities?

This was obviously not the best news but we were relieved that we caught it early – I take my health seriously and my annual check ups literally saved my life. I went into combat mode, and with my operation scheduled for the 21st October 2016, I had 1 month to plan my attack. My personal diagnosis led me to make the decision to perform a double mastectomy with reconstruction.

I put together a pre-op work out plan that focused on ‘hands-free mobility and strength’. My arms and chest area was going to be out of action so I worked on my core and legs. Hands-free Turkish get-ups being my primary exercise.

Secondly, I devised a post op plan based off some research I did online. This changed substantially once the op was done, but with some minor modifications, I at least had a structure in place.

I documented my weekly progress and the exercises that I used so that I could share it with other people in recovery.

I felt like a Tyrannosaurus Rex for the first week out of hospital. Simple things like putting a mug back into the cupboard was challenging, so I started off literally doing just that, packing one mug at a time with each hand back into the cupboard until I could reach to the top shelf. I spent 20 minutes each morning doing slow dynamic stretches focusing on breathing and posture, followed by full body movements using patterns that incorporated lower body strength and stretches – considering the body moves as a whole.

By the second week I was ready to head out for a walk and was amazed at how challenging this was – the rise and fall of my chest and the cold air was painful, but from a mental aspect this was a groundbreaking moment in my recovery.

My body was having to deal with some radical adjustments – I had severe back pain caused from the placeholder implants now under my pectoral muscles, which lead me to reconnect with the physiotherapist who deals specifically with breast cancer patients. As it turns out a lot of people don’t bother with the rehab and then further down the line come back with more severe muscular and postural issues.

One of my projects this year is to work with my therapist on a more advanced rehab movement program for breast cancer patients. This regimen will be given to patients as a week to week program with recommended follow-up visit to their therapists, who can then monitor their progress and make personalised adjustments accordingly.

I got back into teaching Kettlebells as soon as possible, this also helped me to stay motivated on days when I was having duvet and motivation warfare. I have included Indian Club bells in my rehab to slowly rebuild my strength and mobility during this process. I did an Indian Club Bell workshop with Shaun from Kettlebells for Africa before my operation and it turned out to be incredibly valuable.

What are some of the lessons you have learnt through your journey of overcoming this terrible disease?

Firstly I learnt that your support system is really important. I was literally blown away and will always be thankful for the overwhelming support my husband and I got from friends, family and clients. Both my surgeons were also incredible; they spent time delivering the facts about my diagnosis and my options. I felt secure in my decision and knew I was in good hands.

My biggest personal hurdle was to prepare for the downtime and not being able to train with my Kettlebells or run. However, every day has shown improvement and it never ceases to amaze me what the body is capable of if you put in the effort.

It is important to believe in your ability for recovery – our bodies are a brilliant miracle of nature.

10 weeks down the line and I am back to pressing my 8 kg KB and I completed a 7.5 km trail race after doing some short practice trails in the mountain paths outside my home in Clovelly. 

Do you have advice for someone who is experiencing the same kind of journey currently about how they can look after themselves physically, mentally and emotionally?

Everyone will experience a different journey, but the advancements in medical science mean that you have a good chance of success at beating breast cancer.

You need to re-asses your life and health. What you do, or in most cases, stop doing will not only help you in this healing process but also help you regain some “me time”. You deserve at least an hour a day for yourself, it will benefit everyone in the long run because you will be able to approach all of life’s situations with calm clarity. I suggest doing something of a physical nature at the same time every day, so that it becomes like brushing your teeth. Let nothing or no one get the way of this time. Do something that will hold your interest indefinitely and get a buddy or personal trainer if you need some encouragement. Walk, run, dance, learn to play drums, do yoga, go diving, surfing, whatever, find it and do it. No harm in trying everything either, you still have a lifetime ahead of you so go for it.

If you feel pain, go and see a specialist therapist, your body is adapting and may need to have muscle pain alleviated during this transition. I work with both my physiotherapist and reflexologist. If you are feeling down in the dumps, get in touch with the CANSA counselling and support groups they offer a remarkable service to patients and family members alike.

Get motivated and spread the word, sign up for events in support of the Pink Drive.

I cannot reiterate the importance of doing check-ups, this is something that is literally in your hands.

Do your monthly checks at home and if anything looks or feels strange go check it out. If you have concerns that you may be predisposed to breast cancer because of genes, get yourself tested. 1 in 15 women are being diagnosed with breast cancer these days – that’s scary, but caught in the early stages can not only save your life but help you avoid painful radiation or chemotherapy should you have to go through any procedures.

You are due for your last operation soon; do you believe it is important to have a pre-op work out plan? Tell us a bit about how keeping your body strong can help with major operations.

I think having a pre-op plan is certainly beneficial if you have time to implement one before the procedure, especially now knowing what limitations I experienced. You are unable to rely on the strength of your arms for the first few weeks so by making sure that the rest of your body has the mobility and strength to compensate for this will make life a lot easier. Getting out of bed and moving as soon as possible is very important.

The bottom line is that your body goes under enormous stress during any operation, sometimes you can plan for it and sometimes not. Having a solid base of health and fitness is going to be the determining factor as to how fast your body will recover.

The time it takes to recover will in turn impact on your mental state, and the less chance you have of slipping into depression. It’s not pushing too hard either but rather listening to your body and perhaps working on some basic things we forget like breathing, posture and full range movement patterns.

How has diet played a role in your recovery?

I generally have a very healthy approach to my diet that includes a lot of raw veggies and fruit, healthy proteins and very few processed carbs. I do occasionally allow myself to relax over an unrestricted meal with friends and indulge with a glass of wine and some Lindt dark chocolate on the weekend. I have however been more conscious of what I eat during recovery and have boosted my supplements to assist my body with the healing process using glutamine, glucosamine, chondroitin, collagen and Elixanol Hemp Oil. Also, no wine or alcohol as your body will be trying to eliminate the anaesthetic and this takes at least a month.

Fighting cancer obviously has a major influence on how you view life; what has changed for you?

I never felt like my diagnosis was life threatening, but I did take a step back and assess my life to make sure I was happy and that my family was happy. I can honestly say that I am really content with every aspect of my life right now.


Your ultimate cheat meal? The picnic basket from Vergenoegd Wine Estate is a slam-dunk winner for me. Ryan Shell packs a 3-course meal of moreish surprises washed down with a bottle of wine, you literally have to take a walk around the farm to digest the meal before you can tuck into the dessert.
Food you dislike? KFC
What is your favourite kettlebell exercise? The Snatch
You favourite non-exercise related thing to do? Travelling overseas with my hubby and going to watch bands.
Your most recent splurge? A pair of Vivobarefoot Primus trail shoes.

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