Inspirational Women Series: #2 Naomi Freireich
This week we were delighted to have the opportunity to interview Naomi Freireich, a Digital Health IT manager from Edinburgh.
Not only does she work incredibly hard within her field, but she is also an avid endurance cyclist in her spare time. Naomi has competed in events across the globe. In 2018 she came 1st place in the elite female category as part of the European 24 Hour Championships, as well as a staggering 4th place in the World 24 Hour Championships. However lockdown has resulted in her routes being shortened and competitions lessened, so we are keen to know how Naomi manages to sustain her passion during these difficult times.
During the ease of restrictions last September, she was able to cycle the An Turas Mór, a 354 mile route starting from Glasgow and finishing at Cape Wrath. We think that this is truly remarkable!
We want to know Naomi's story and how she came to be such a successful worker, athlete and mother. We would also like to find out who inspires her and any advice she can pass on to our readers. We are so grateful that she took the time to speak with us and her interview is definitely worth the read!
We have selected you as an inspirational women because of your amazing achievements in cycling, and for being a fabulous human! You are just incredible. We can’t lie, when we think of some of your insanely long and gruelling bike races that you have not just competed in but also won – it makes our minds explode and we wonder how you even manage to walk afterwards! Can you tell us about some of your cycling achievements to date?
That is so kind. I started racing in October 2015 when I took part in my first National 24 hour championship at the age of 40. I came 3rd Veteran female and I learned so much. The January afterwards I raced the Strathpuffer, a legendary 24 hour race in the north of Scotland, with 17 hours of darkness and winter conditions, and won, beating the recently crowned 24 hour champion! I had the bug. Since then I have won 3 national 24 hour titles and I am current national champion, and the only woman to hold 3 consecutive titles. In addition to that I hold Fastest Known Times (FKTs) for long distance routes such as the West Highland Way, John Muir Way and GT24, which combines the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way into a 180+ mile route from Glasgow to Inverness.
Q - How do you celebrate your wins?
A - I’d love to be all Rockstar and spray champagne, but the truth is after my races, mostly it’s an effort to still be awake. I like to eat lots of cheese, perhaps that’s how I celebrate. Cheese. Oh, and sleep.
Q - How do you deal with the losses?
A - If I have trained my hardest and give the best representation of myself in a race, then losing to someone who was better on the day is as it should be. I try to focus only on achievement rather than the perceived failure. If I haven’t given a fair representation of myself then that’s something I take into the training for my next event.
Q - Did you always know that you wanted to be a cycling ‘queen'?
A - Oh no. I came to cycling really late in life. I started riding a mountain bike in my mid-thirties after a fairly traumatic relationship break-up. I’d been a competitive swimmer as a child and always knew I had that competitive streak in me, but finding cycling was amazing. So many people never find a sport that they can really connect with because it may not be taught in school. It’s a real passion of mine to try to make cycling more accessible to children
Q - What do you love most about cycling?
A - I love the self-sufficiency. The ability to take myself places and explore our beautiful country, and planet, under my own steam. When I get on my bike, my head empties of all the minutia of life and I can just enjoy the freedoms that having a strong body permits.
Q - What is your personal story? How have you gotten to where you are today?
A - I thought I had led a fairly conventional life. School, university, a graduate job, married in my 20s, 2 kids by my 30s, but my first marriage was really destructive. I was basically in a harmful, controlling relationship. After almost 10 years of coercive control I had pretty much lost my identity and then I was eventually subject to physical violence. Cycling gave me my life back. I first used it as way to manage my depression and escape from all of the troubles that a difficult divorce and legal battle entails. Subsequently I learned to love myself again for what I was capable of. It’s not overly dramatic to say that cycling saved my life.
Q - Tell us about your career and professional life?
A - I studied Mathematics and Statistics at university and went on to become a trainee Actuary. I very quickly felt like a bit of a black sheep, not enjoying the job at all, so I switched over to the graduate IT programme. It was the best move I could have made. I quickly grew to love development, first using old fourth and fifth generation languages of traditional banking industries and then moving on to code in C++ and Java. When it became apparent that I was also a good organiser, I moved into Scrum Mastering and now I’m in Project Management. I’ve worked in many industries, starting in Finance, where I spent the majority of my career, but I now work in Digital Health which I really love. I’m part of a team that’s building Virtual Reality applications for the diagnosis and monitoring of patients with a variety of ophthalmic conditions like Retinitis Pigmentosa and Macular Degeneration. I love that the work I’m doing is really making a positive difference to people’s lives.
Q - How do you balance work and life responsibilities?
A - As I said, I’m a mum of two, but my husband, Charlie, also has two children who live with us part-time. And we have two dogs! I think my penchant for planning really helps. I am always looking for efficiencies in my work, and that helps in general life too. I work full-time but I am fortunate to work for a company who understands family commitment and so I have freedom to work with a degree of flexibility. I fit my training around my family and work, trying to impact them as little as possible. It’s all a bit of a juggling act, but I’m grateful that my family are really supportive. Thankfully, Charlie is also an endurance athlete and so he understands the training that is required.
Q - How are you coping with lockdown?
A - I’ve been really fortunate in that I was already a home worker, so the company I work for has not really been impacted much by the pandemic. Lockdown is tough on everyone in different ways. As a bit of an introvert I’d say I’m better equipped than some when dealing with not seeing people, but I do still miss my family a great deal. I think I have felt it most by not being able to travel. All races were cancelled last year, and so not having a training focus hit me quite hard at the start. Making my own challenges has helped me through, and I now have a number of plans for the coming year, depending on how far we’re allowed to travel. It’s definitely been a case of making the best of what you already have. With the Pentlands as my back garden, I have a lot to be thankful for.
Q - How do you motivate yourself? Whether that is during a really tough ride, a difficult day at work or having to cook a meal for the family at the end of a long lockdown day. What are your coping strategies?
A - The cycling I do is ultimately a hobby. I’m not a career athlete and so I have the pleasure of being able to choose what races or events I want to do. Because it’s my choice, I get motivation almost for free. When it gets tough, I tell myself just how lucky I am to be capable of pushing my body to these extremes and to be fortunate enough to participate in such extraordinary events. During tough moments I try to keep myself present and just focus on the next thing. Tasks can often feel overwhelming when looked at as a whole, but each individual part, be it a lap in a 24 hour race or the next section of a long distance trail, is manageable by itself. Then when that’s done, focus on what’s next.
Q - Who inspired you and why?
A - Inspiration for me has come from a number of sources. When I started riding, I didn’t really have a clue about the cycling community and I had no inspiration from it. My strength then came from my family and Charlie. My mum is incredible. She raised the four of us on her own after my dad left, returning to work, managing the house and garden and still having time to devote to being treasurer and secretary for the local Homelessness Charity. She is such a strong and independent woman, it’s impossible not to feel inspired to be more like her.
Now that I know more people in the cycling community, I’d have to go for local legend Isla Short. She has just had an outstanding year in XC racing, coming 5th in the world and several high placed finishes. She’s been through all sorts, such as having major back surgery after breaking it, but she always shows such grit and determination. She has never given up on her goals, always playing by her own rules and to top it all off she is such a lovely person too. Yes, there are big names in cycling (and watch Isla because I’m certain that this is moments away for her) but it’s the people who have worked so hard to get to where they are that offer me the most inspiration.