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Doctor combines sporting excellence with NHS career

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A trainee consultant is successfully balancing two very different types of training having proved to be one of the best triathletes in the country.

Hannah Saitch (above), the first woman home in the 2022 Ironman Wales, combines her love of the sport with her role as a trainee consultant anaesthetist in Moriston Hospital – and she couldn’t be happier.

Although the 36-year-old represented Wales in rowing as a schoolgirl, her triathlon career has coincided with her studies as she only took up the sport shortly after enrolling as a medical student in Cardiff University in 2008.

She said: “I got into rowing at school. We had a great coach who was really dedicated, and I got into the habit of training twice a day. 

“I’m half Welsh, through my grandparents, so I rowed for Wales. That’s what brought me to Cardiff University.”


A lack of opportunity to develop her rowing saw Hannah switch sports.

She said: “It wasn’t really feasible to carry on rowing, so I bought a cheap mountain bike. I had always done running alongside rowing, and a bit of swimming, so I thought, maybe I should enter a triathlon. 

“I did my first in 2008. It was quite short but I really enjoyed it and began entering other local triathlons. 

“Then one of my friends did Ironman and I decided that I wanted to do it. So I just worked up to it and did it, alongside my husband, in 2013. 

“I came fifth in my age group with a time of 12 hours 23 minutes.”

Hannah, who as a trainee consultant is employed by Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW), is more or less self-taught when it comes to the sport.

She said: “It was fairly amateur. We used textbooks to work out how to train and looked it up on the internet. 

“I’ve done 10 or 11 full distance triathlons since that first Ironman, including qualifying for the World Championships in 2017, all under my own steam using the same textbook.

“I think I got better because I enjoyed the training so much, rather than because I knew what I was doing.” 

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Such was her progress Hannah decided to enlist the help of a coach and reduce her working week by 30 per cent.

She said: “I decided to reduce my hours - reaching the world championships was a good opportunity to ask - and get a coach to see how far I could progress. 

(Left: Hannah victorious in last year’s Iron Man Wales held in Tenby)

“It was a big step up but the intention was to balance my competing and work so I still enjoyed it, which I did.

“The support I’ve had from the anaesthetic team has been brilliant. It’s not just letting me go less than full time, when I’m racing they are all tracking me. Their support has been so nice and I’m really grateful.”

Her big breakthrough moment came last year when she won the gruelling Tenby-based Ironman – a 2.4-mile sea swim, a 112-mile cycle and a 26.2-mile run - in a time of 10 hours 47 minutes.

She said: “There were no pros competing that time, so I was lucky, but I think my time would have been up there with them.

“I don’t think I will ever have a better day in triathlon than winning a massive race in your home country. I feel fulfilled in terms of triathlon but that’s not to say I’m not going to carry on.”

Despite cycling the length of Wales in one day, by far the biggest challenge Hannah has faced has been competing in the Norseman triathlon in Norway – an extreme race in all senses of the word.

She said: “It’s a small field, around 40 to 50 women. People qualify to be there or come in a ballot.

“It’s the same distances as Ironman but the reason it’s extreme is they take you out on a ferry to the middle of a fjord and you swim back. Then the bike is over a really expose plateau, higher than Snowdon, and it’s really hilly with 3,400m of elevation on the bike. 

“The first year I did it I got hypothermia. There was a wind chill of -2 on the bike. It’s so exposed you have to have your own support team. 

“The run is a marathon and the first 14 miles are along a valley, round a lake, then you have to reach the top of a mountain. The last three miles are proper off-road. It’s pretty crazy.”

Hannah has completed the race twice, coming third and fifth with a best time of 12 hours 20 minutes.

Despite her obvious talent Hannah has resisted the urge to become a professional triathlete.

She said: “It was something I considered, certainly a few years ago, but I decided I love my job. I think to become a pro, and do well, you couldn’t do that alongside the job we do. 

“One of the nice things I’ve had is the balance of being a high level athlete with doing a job I really enjoy. I didn’t want to give up my job, even briefly.”

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Hannah (Above: completing the Norseman), who lives in Gower with her paramedic husband Matt, trains before and after work, believing it makes her happier and, in turn, a better colleague.

She said: “I think my training gives me a really good balance. When I come into work I’ve more often than not done some training, which keeps me happy and usually means I’m in a good mood.

“Anaesthetics is such a team-based job that being able to have good relationships with your colleagues is really important. It affects how your day goes.

“I think, generally, being in a good mood, being happy, helps you help other people. It doesn’t mean you’re laidback, but it helps you take things in your stride – you’re able to maintain cheerfulness rather than getting het up.”

Training also allows Hannah to switch off at the end of the day.

She said: “I will work until 5-5.30pm, depending upon how the day goes, and in the evening I will have a bike ride or run – anything up to two hours. 

“Training gives you a personal space. That’s what I love about evening training. Whether you train for 15 minutes, or an hour and 15 minutes, it gives you a space to reset.

“You get home and feel cheerful and have forgotten anything negative that happened in your day.”

Hannah is keen to encourage others to be active whatever their level of sport, to promote health and well-being.

She said: “There’s loads of different niches in sport which you can find enjoyable. You need to find what it is that you enjoy. It shouldn’t be a chore.
It’s about finding what works for you.

“It’s not just about being active, it’s about getting out and about, socialising and meeting people. It’s not just the fitness benefits that you gain through doing sport. It’s all the other things that come alongside it. A different perspective and a break from work. 

“It definitely makes me a better person because I enjoy it so much. I’m grumpy if I don’t do it on a regular basis.”

Hannah was shortlisted for the health board’s Living Our Values Award after being nominated by a colleague, Catherine Cromey.
Catherine said: “Hannah has developed her athletic training to allow her to achieve her dream of competing, and winning, internationally at triathlon.  

“She inspires others through her presentations at educational events and through social media.  

“She has shared her approach to optimising work-life balance with colleagues both within and outside the specialty and her work serves as an example of how to optimise resilience to achieve incredible things both personally and professionally.”

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