Lucy Charles-Barclay on going sub-8 hours for an Iron-distance

Lucy Charles-Barclay, three-time Hawaii runner-up, is set on her biggest quest yet – breaking the eight-hour iron barrier. James Witts caught up with her to see how her incredible pain cave, technology and teamwork will lay the foundation for her record attempt…

Lucy Charles-Barclay on going sub-8hours for an Iron-distance

Friday 12 March 2021 proved a pivotal date in the calendar of Lucy Charles-Barclay – arguably of greater importance than her hat-trick of successive Kona runner-up spots – for this was when the 27-year-old raced again. After the 15-month Covid hiatus that saw her last compete in December 2019 (second at Challenge Daytona), she recorded second at Challenge Miami, only losing out over the 1.6km swim, 63km bike and 16.9km run to countrywoman Jodie Stimpson.

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“I’m happy with how I ran but I’m rusty,” she reflected. That competitive corrosion manifested itself in a two-minute penalty for passing on the wrong side and flipping over her handlebars when dismounting in T2. But, she was back. “I live to race,” she reflected. And, as you’ll find out, for the next year she’ll eat, sleep and breathe going Sub-8… 

“I’d look to race up to the Sub-8hr Challenge, which looks like it’ll be April 2022. That’s a key reason why I didn’t compete in Daytona in December [2020]. Some athletes who snuck in that race will potentially burn out. Usually I’ll have downtime after Kona but with the Sub-8, I won’t have that. Last year, because of the constant cancellation and postponement of races, motivation really ebbed and flowed. Now, I’m feeling fresh and ready to go – especially with that unique challenge ahead.”

That unique challenge is to become the first female athlete to break eight hours for an iron-distance race. Charles-Barclay and Nicola Spirig will line up at a location still to be confirmed – Miami, Daytona and Montreal seem the favourites – while Alistair Brownlee and Kristian Blummenfelt face off in an effort to break seven hours. Organiser Chris McCormack feels Charles-Barclay was odds-on to make history by knocking up to 20 minutes off Chrissie Wellington’s world best of 8:18:13, set at Challenge Roth in 2011. “She’s the future of the sport,” he stated.

Lucy Charles-Barclay running

Like Brownlee and Kipchoge’s 1:59 Project, Charles-Barclay will enjoy the freedom to break every rule in the book, meaning drafting, unregulated tech and, again to be confirmed, up to 10 athletes to assist her every whim are allowed. It’d be an unofficial record but that doesn’t disguise the monumental task ahead.

“It’s going to be tough but I’m super-motivated. One of the coolest things is working with my individual sponsors on bespoke gear, so I might work with Roka to design a wetsuit that’s thicker in the body and thinner in the arms. Mind you, being one of the stronger swimmers, I need to find near-Olympic level open-water swimmers that could swim 3.8km faster than me and not many can. I never enjoy much assistance in the swim unless I catch up with the male athletes. Maybe I could have a lead kayak to swim behind? 

“As for the bike, I’m now with Cube so one question that needs answering is, should I work with professional cyclists who ride Cube bikes? Or would I be better choosing riders and triathletes that all live in the UK so I can actually practise with them? Working as a unit is particularly important on the bike to maximise those drafting gains, especially if there’s four or five of you.

“The run’s arguably the one I’m most looking forward to as I don’t run with people in races. I’ll look to have two or three female athletes to
run in rotation, who’ll not only bring a good vibe to proceedings but will also carry my nutrition. They’ll shelter me, too, which will make a difference. And if with 10km to go, things are looking strong, they’ll hopefully help me edge toward the men’s world record of 7:35.”

Charles-Barclay is nothing if not ambitious. Striding past Jan Frodeno’s 7:35:39 at Challenge Roth in 2016 is a huge ask and would lop 43 minutes off Chrissie’s official world record. But it’s a measure of the confidence coursing through the south-east athlete’s veins. And is it that far-fetched for an athlete who only learned to ride a bike in 2014? Who turned professional just two years after? Who finished second at Ironman Hawaii 12 months later?

Maybe. What’s clearer is that nemesis Daniela Ryf was asked first but declined. Charles-Barclay was happy to be promoted from bridesmaid, and is looking forward to working with – and against – 2012 Olympic champ Spirig. “We can interchange tactics and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of interaction through this process to try and make it [breaking eight hours] happen. But both of us will want to keep a weapon or two back. There’s still that competitive element.”

A competitive element that, through the barren Covid period, has if not flourished been cultivated with indoor racing. Back in April 2020, Charles-Barclay started competing in the Zwift-fuelled Pro Tri Series, her opening salvo resulting in second behind Flora Duffy. Fast-forward to February this year and she’s still at it, securing victory in race one of this year’s series. Ultimately, Charles-Barclay would take second overall in the 2021 series behind Meredith Kessler – a fine effort considering the much-reduced distances compared to her iron norm.

Lucy Charles-Barclay on indoor training

Though perhaps her indoor aptitude’s hardly surprising. The Team Charles-Barclay YouTube channel’s up to 42,000 subscribers. One of the most alluring insights into the life of Lucy and Reece is their decorated pain cave, which is arguably the world’s greatest home gym. It’s where the couple spent much of their training time before Covid. Since, it’s been a second home.

Traditional treadmill, Woodway treadmill, indoor trainers, a Red Bull fridge, weights, physio creams, Swiss balls, screens for Zwift, mood-setting lighting depending on session intensity, Concept 2, Theragun tool, Endless pool, sauna… there’s even a boxing ring.

“It’s actually an outhouse at Reece’s parents’ house. Reece’s dad was a professional boxer, which is why there’s a boxing ring in there. I think he was one fight away from winning a world title but he reached a point between deciding on setting up a building business or sticking with boxing. He went into building and he’s done amazingly well.

“When Reece and I started training for our first Ironman, we set up a physical-training business from there. It used to be a little spit-and-sawdust but we’ve built up equipment over the years.”

Did Reece ever look to follow in his father’s boxing footsteps, we ask? “He wanted to as a kid but his mum really didn’t want to see her boy box after watching her husband do it. As a kid, though, he did every sport going. He has a black belt in karate – like his sister – and he played squash to a high level. I think that mixed-sports background’s helped him be so robust as an Ironman athlete.”

The gym from the gods has kept both physically sharp. Race sharpness, however, demands outdoor training and, of course, racing. It’s why the couple spent early January in Dubai, although the camp ended early. “We’d intended to be there for four weeks but, due to Covid, we didn’t want to end up stuck in a hotel for a month so came home. While there, we trained with GB runners. Everyone wore masks but nothing was off limits.”

Which brings us back to the Sub-8hr challenge. Beyond the technology, sport science and cutting-edge nutrition, could the (hopeful) return of crowds provide the biggest performance boost? 

“Without a doubt; in fact, I’ve already been thinking about who I’d like in the crowd. I’d love to have Lucy Gossage screaming at me. If I could pick a cheerleading squad, she’d be top of the list. And Chrissie [Wellington], 100%. To race that 8:18 time unassisted was just incredible. She is the fastest and I’d love for her to help me in some form. It’d be great to have a British team and keep that fastest time in Great Britain.”

 Dissenters will criticise the artificiality of the challenge; proponents will argue that Charles-Barclay, Brownlee, Spirig and Blummenfelt still have to move their limbs faster than any male and female triathlete has done so before. For the likes of Charles-Barclay, it doesn’t matter. This is a challenge that’s sparked her motivation and one that’d cement her place at the upper echelons of long-course triathlon. Throw in a Hawaii 2021 title and after the annus horribilis of 2020, this could be a historic 12 months in the life of one of Britain’s greatest-ever iron triathletes.

A day in the life of Lucy Charles-Barclay

6:30am Reece and I have a bowl of porridge with dried fruit and nuts plus a drizzle of honey, all washed down with a cup of tea and then coffee. 

7:15am Drive to London Aquatics Centre. It’s a relatively easy swim with many drills using as many toys as we can.  

7:45am Core stability beside the pool. We do core work as a warm-up for most of our swim sessions.

8am The swim. As elites, we have access to this pool and swim here most days. We’re sharing it with the GB diving team and often swim in their pool when not in use as the main one’s not been heated for a year so it’s freezing. After, I’ll shower, dry my hair and hit the track for the second session of the day.

10am It’s 10 x 400m. I complete each in around 73secs, which is quicker than last week. It’s a brutal session and makes you feel sick.

12:10pm Drive home. Make a protein shake with berries and ice cream for extra calories as I always feel a little sick after a run session like that so eat later. Take my dog, Lola, for a walk.

2pm Bath time. Once bathed, I have one of my Fresh Fitness Food meals. This one’s chilli chicken, masala roasted potatoes and cauliflower with coconut. They deliver daily to the door. 

3pm Coffee. Zwift race series at 7pm so caffeine now. I then chill for an hour before heading to the gym early to ensure all the technology’s working properly. 

9pm It’s a good effort, fuelled on Red Bull and Candy Kittens! The first bike featured the Volcano climb of 6-8mins. Run, felt really good. The last race was a sufferfest. I killed myself to beat Meredith [Kessler]. It’s a good end to the day.

 11:15pm Bedtime.

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Images credit: Bruce Velarde/@mylensnotyours