Former Miss NI Tiffany Brien on her 1,200 mile charity cycle and finding romance with an old flame
Former Miss Northern Ireland Tiffany Brien is just back from a cycle which took her the whole length of Britain. She tells Stephanie Bell the poignant reason for her efforts and why she's not thinking of settling down for a few years yet
Tiffany Brien has never shied away from a challenge but, even by her own extreme standards, her latest feat ranked among the toughest yet.
The former Miss Northern Ireland, fitness blogger, estate agent, model and champion sailor has just finished a mammoth 1,238-mile cycle in 15 days to raise funds for research into motor neurone disease (MND).
Battling rain, snow and biting winds, the 28-year-old spent 88 hours in the saddle as part of The Great Rugby Cycle, which set off from John O'Groats on March 4 and finished at Land's End on March 20.
The charity cycling event, through which an incredible £26,000 was raised, was set up to raise funds for the My Name'5 Doddie Foundation, which was launched in November 2017 to aid research into the causes of MND and support people affected by the disease.
The foundation was established by former Scotland and British and Irish Lions rugby player Doddie Weir, who since revealing he had MND has been at the forefront of efforts to combat the condition.
Tiffany set off in a team that included Royal Belfast Golf Club chief Stuart Thom, who organised the event, former All Black Carl Hayman, ex-Scottish rugby international Brian Redpath and Andrew Conway, from Glasgow, who had previously completed the route in four days.
The team were joined along the way by rugby and other sports stars as they pushed themselves to the limit to raise awareness and funds for the foundation.
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Tiffany, from Holywood in Co Down, has more than 90,000 followers on Facebook and 50,000 on Instagram, where she blogs on fitness and her life.
The daughter of well-known estate agent Simon Brien, of Simon Brien Residential, she is deeply involved in the family business and has worked her way up to become to an associate partner.
A dedicated professional, she arrived home from her exhausting challenge late in the evening and was at her desk first thing the next morning.
She is thrilled to have achieved such an amazing feat, but it was tough going.
After being crowned Miss Northern Ireland back in 2012, Tiffany stayed in the public eye through her charity work and popular blog.
She was already a star in sporting circles, having developed a passion for competitive sailing thanks to her father.
Tiffany has been sailing since her teens and at one time was the Irish number one in the women's laser radial class.
She was also selected for the Irish Olympic sailing team, but she turned down the opportunity to focus on her career.
The 30-year-old still competes, however, and is planning to take part in the Irish and British championships this summer.
Taking on challenges comes naturally to Tiffany. During her busy year as Miss Northern Ireland, she joined blind adventurer Mark Pollock to sail a Skud boat from Belfast Lough to Scotland to raise funds for the Mark Pollock Trust.
A couple of years earlier, she was part of a group that completed a 550-mile cycle from Belfast to Paris, helping to raise around £14,000 for the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children.
Topping that this month with her 1,238-mile cycle in aid of MND, she is elated to have completed the challenge.
"It is one of the best things I have ever done in my life," Tiffany says.
"I play golf at Royal Belfast. Stuart mentioned the cycle challenge and asked if I would help get some sponsorship.
"While, fortunately, I don't have any ties to this awful disease, I know what it is like, so I wanted to help and take part.
"I approached my dad and a lot of local developers and companies we work with and raised around £13,000.
"I did it with six other guys and I didn't know anyone when I rocked up on my bike on that first day.
"I knew it would be tough, but on day one I remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness what have I signed up for?'
"We set off with the prevailing wind in our faces. After about 10 miles, I was absolutely dying. All I could think of was that I had another 1,000 to go and I really didn't know if I could do it.
"Weirdly, your body adapts and gets stronger every day. It comes down massively to mind over matter and to using your mind to not let the body believe that it's sore."
The team cycled an average of 17 hours every day. While Tiffany's body ached, the weather was the biggest challenge.
She is indebted to the Chain Reaction cycle store on Belfast's Boucher Road, which made sure she had all the right gear to protect her from the elements.
"The weather was so cold and you were soaking because of the rain," Tiffany says.
"I had tinfoil and plastic bags on my feet, and I had surgical gloves and another pair of gloves and surgical gloves on top of them too, so that I could still feel my fingers.
"I'm not a cyclist. I tend to throw myself into these situations and I had no idea what I needed.
"Chain Reaction sponsored me with the right equipment and the right clothing.
"Without them, I would have been massively unprepared. If I hadn't been able to keep warm, I wouldn't have been able to do it, so I feel indebted to them."
Tiffany bonded with her team-mates and, like any tight team would, they supported each other through the gruelling 15-day challenge.
With the ride now completed, she is happy to settle back into her routine, which is pretty hectic when you think that she juggles her career with modelling, a fitness blog and building her own home.
Thanks to her high profile on social media, Tiffany landed a job working promotions for a company called The Bucket List, which flies her to exotic destinations twice a year.
She enjoyed a trip to the Caribbean in December and is looking forward to going to Greece with the company in July.
The estate agent also still works part-time as a model and is one of the presenters of Belfast Fashion Week.
On top of all this, she is working alongside her personal trainer, Ben Canning, to develop an online training programme called Fit Body Bible.
Tiffany and Ben recently launched a website for the exercise regime, which can be found at www.thebodybible.com.
The idea is to give access to a personal trainer to people who normally would not be able to afford one.
The average trainer costs around £40 an hour, but Tiffany and Ben's eight-week programme costs just £40.
They provide bespoke workouts every week, aimed at helping people reach goals, be they fat loss or muscle building.
"There are lots of really exciting things happening at the moment," Tiffany says.
"Ben and I are working on another Fit Body Bible programme. There is a lot of demand for it and we now have a website launched.
"We will be working on developing that even further over the next few months.
"It's really aimed at people who can't afford a personal trainer and it offers access to demos - all the information they need at their fingertips."
But it is not all work and no play for Tiffany.
While she is busy with a raft of professional projects and charity work, it is also an exciting time in her personal life.
She is renovating an old house on the beach in Holywood, her hometown, and hopes to move in before the summer.
She also recently rekindled a romance with her childhood sweetheart - a local guy who works in wealth management whom she first dated when she was in her teens.
Although she doesn't want to reveal his identity just yet, it is clear that they have something very special.
"He is a great support and I probably wouldn't be able to do everything that I do without him," Tiffany admits.
"He is the most chilled-out and laid-back person imaginable and not into social media at all.
"We first dated when I was 15 and got back together a couple of years ago, so we have been best friends for 15 years."
Checking on progress with her new home was one of the first things she did on returning from her cycle challenge.
Overseeing the renovation, she plans to work with an interior designer to create what she hopes will be "a cool house".
"I stripped it right back to the brick and I have replaced everything except the four walls," Tiffany explains.
"Des Ewing is the architect and it is going to be such a cool house. My builders are great. I can't wait."
Tiffany, who has a younger sister, Jess (27), and brother Jack (22), comes from a very close family - and she puts that closeness down to dad Simon and mum Juanita.
While she is packing a lot into life, she has plans to slow down - and perhaps settle down - in the not too distant future.
"Things are busy, but I've no kids and I've no ties and I just want to enjoy myself as much as possible," she says.
"Maybe in a couple of years I will take a step back and settle down. It's like I have this wee window of time to do everything. I know where I'm at in my life."
For more information on My Name'5 Doddie Foundation, visit www.myname5doddie.co.uk