When not destroying the field at a long-distance race, the four-time world Ironman champion is a champion for various charities worldwide…
What are your reasons for getting involved in charity work?
I’ve always been passionate about international development and in trying to solve the problems that affect the world we live in. I was fortunate to make my passion my career working for the government and in Nepal, on development policy and practice. I believe really strongly that sport has tremendous power, both as a means of empowering and educating individuals, building bridges, uniting communities and improving the health and well being of societies, but also as a channel for raising awareness, support and much needed funds for important causes.
Champions come and go, but to me, the real judge of my personal sporting success will be whether I actually do something positive with the opportunities I have been given. I really hope that as a World Champion, I can be a role model and ambassador for the sport that everyone can be proud of and can actively use my achievements as a vehicle for helping to support charities and causes that I care about. In this way I feel I can achieve more in the way of development than I ever thought possible a few years ago.
Tell us how you became involved with the Jane Tomlinson Appeal…
In 2008 and 2009 I was incredibly humbled to receive the Jane Tomlinson Award for Contribution to Triathlon at the annual 220 Awards. I never had the privilege of meeting Jane, but everything I’ve heard has left me in total awe of her unwavering courage, strength, drive and an ardent determination to help others. As many 220 readers know, in 2000 Jane was diagnosed with incurable, advanced breast cancer, and was told she would only survive for six more months. However, Jane fought through various treatment programmes, and despite also developing chronic heart disease, bravely completed a full Ironman race, two half Ironmans, four marathons, three London Triathlons and three long distance bike rides – John O Groats to Lands End, Rome to Home and the final challenge, the 6781.8 km Ride Across America. Jane channelled her remaining energy into setting up Jane’s Appeal to raise funds for a variety of local charities.
I, like so many others, truly believe in the vision and mission of Jane’s Appeal, and I was delighted when, in 2009, Mike Tomlinson asked me to be a patron of the Appeal and the related ‘Run for All’ series. I’ve been as actively involved as I can since then, including the organisation of a Run With Chrissie event in Leeds on 21 December last year. The event comprised a 5km run, training sessions, buffet dinner, a presentation, Q&A and, of course, a lot of signing! It was a huge success and raised around £,7000 for the Appeal. We’re looking to organise similar events in the future, so watch this space!
Last year you also recorded a song for the Blazeman Foundation. Can you tell us more about the charity and who else was involved in the making of the song?
In 2007, at my first Ironman World Championships, I saw Leanda Cave reach the finish line, lie down, stretch her arms out over her head and proceed to roll over it. I asked someone why she had done it, and they explained to me the story of Jon Blais, aka ‘The Blazeman’. Jon, a teacher of children with special needs, had died less than six months earlier, aged 37, of ALS, a form of motor neurone disease. He had been diagnosed with the incurable condition in May 2005. Later that year, at Kona, he fulfilled a long-held dream to race in an Ironman and in so doing became the first, and so far the only, person to complete an Ironman with ALS. His worsening condition had meant he had not been able to train for the race. His doctors had told him he would have to be rolled over the finish line. After 16 and a half hours of agony, only half an hour before the cut-off time, Jon proved them wrong by finally reaching that line. Whereupon he rolled over it, in what is now known as ‘Blazeman’ style.
I met Jon’s parents, Bob and Mary Ann, and was so moved by his story that I followed Leanda and a few other professionals in becoming a patron of the Blazeman Foundation. We are part of a team of Blazeman Warriors around the world, committed to promoting awareness of the condition and raising funds for further research – ‘So Others May Live’, to quote the foundation’s slogan. In 2010, as part of the awareness and fundraising efforts, a number of triathletes joined forces with some well known musicians to record the song ‘Iron Blazeman’ – all sales of the song went to support the charity. I am not sure I have a future as a singer, but what I lacked in musical talent I made up for in effort!
We’ve just heard your plans to take a step back from racing in 2012, and you cited wanting to work more closely with your chosen charities. Do you know what that will involve at this stage?
You’re right, my desire to work a lot more actively with all of my chosen charities was a key reason for my decision to step back from full-time training and racing for a little while. I have an amazing opportunity to use my platform to raise funds and awareness for causes that are important to me, and simply felt that I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to do whilst also trying to be the best athlete I could be.
I haven’t made any firm plans yet, but such activities might include organising specific events in aid of these charities (such as ‘Runs with Chrissie’ or the dinner I hosted for member of GOTRIbal); promoting these organisations in the media; attending clinics, events, races and so forth; auctioning items of memorabilia, as well as working directly with some of the beneficiaries of these charities, such as those of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I am also fortunate to be able to use other projects (such as the recently launched motivation and training downloads I made with Audiofuel) as a vehicle to support worthwhile causes.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give to a first-time triathlete?
I would firstly congratulate them on taking up the challenge and beginning a wonderful, exciting and rewarding journey!
We all have our own personal barriers, be they mental or physical. We’re all nervous about trying new things and giving ourselves bigger mountains to climb. We all worry about the ‘what if’s’. But you can do anything you want to – the only limits are those that exist in your mind. Four years ago I was asked whether I would ever do an Ironman. My response? ‘No way, you must be completely mad to do something like that!’ Imagine if I had never gone back on my word, if I hadn’t changed ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’, if I hadn’t dared to push myself harder, and most importantly what if I hadn’t had people to support, encourage, mentor and most of all make me believe in ME? So, my advice is simple – go for it!
I would encourage newcomers to join a club and find friends to train with. The network of 600 or so clubs here in the UK provides a cocoon of support, friendship, advice and coaching for the first-time novice to the elite level athlete, and everyone in between. Women could also join GOTRIbal (www.gotribalnow.com), which is an organisation that links women together around the world who love sport and triathlon, and – using a pay it forward model – empowers them to do anything they may not have thought possible.
I think it’s very important for people to set short- and long-term goals, talking to a coach or trusted athletes for advice if necessary. These goals can be for each training session, and then longer-term goals are races that you want to do. Each day is a stepping stone. It’s also important to reward yourself when you achieve your goal – have a bar of chocolate or a nice glass of wine! Make sure you celebrate your victories and try to learn from your mistakes or your ‘bad days’. Remember that above all it is supposed to be fun – so smile and enjoy it.
A couple of things I have learnt along the way are to really listen to your body. The more you rely on gadgets such as heart rate monitors the more difficult it is to develop a deep intuition about your body and its reactions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more is necessarily better (for example, more miles and hours does not necessarily mean faster and stronger).
Ultimately, never ever give up. You might not succeed at first but never stop trying – you can achieve your dreams. Just be patient and have faith in yourself and most of all, enjoy the journey!
And now some banal questions…
Where’s your favourite place to train?
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world, both now and before I was a professional triathlete. I spent two years travelling in Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand between my undergraduate and masters degrees, in 1998-2000. I travelled to many different countries as part of my job as a government policy advisor on international development; I’ve worked in the US, lived in Switzerland and I spent over a year living and working in Nepal managing development projects there. And now as a professional triathlete, I am so blessed and fortunate to be able to combine my passions – sport and seeing beautiful places. It’s really hard to pick one favourite location to live and work – each country I have been to has been special for a wide variety of reasons – the people, the food, the landscapes, the experiences I have had. But top of my list are New Zealand, Hawaii, Colorado, Indonesia, Nepal, the European Alps and of course my home, in Norfolk, in the UK.
What would be your luxury item on a desert island?
Can I have three?! My family and friends (including Tom), goggles (for snorkelling!) and some form of musical instrument so I could use the opportunity to finally learn to play one!
Who’s your sporting hero?
I really admire people like Rick and Dick Hoyt, Scott Rigsby and Jane Tomlinson who have faced adversity and still achieved great things. But also athletes like Sir Steve Redgrave, Paula Radcliffe, Daley Thompson, Dame Kelly Holmes, and growing up, Zola Budd and Sharon Davies were also athletes I looked up to.
What do you do to relax?
I find it incredibly difficult to rest my body and mind – up until a few years ago I saw rest as being tantamount to weakness, but this is slowly changing. Rest and recovery are an essential part of making me stronger, and ensuring I’ve been able to reach my sporting goals: that is, rest and recovery are as important as the swim/bike/run training sessions themselves.
In terms of rest from swim/bike/run, I only have one or two days off every six weeks. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but you must remember that professional athletes are able to incorporate recovery into our daily schedules. During these rare days off I sit on my backside, catch up on admin, such as interviews and sponsor commitments, talk to family and friends, read and watch a good DVD.
I also have six weeks as an ‘off season’ after Kona in October. I take two weeks totally off, with no training whatsoever and after that I introduce unstructured physical exercise that may not be swim/bike/run – enough to keep my body ticking over, but making sure I’m taking a break from the volume and intensity of my normal programme. This off-season is vital to enable me to rest and recover and rejuvenate body and mind. During this period relaxation comprises nights out with friends, relaxing dinners, good bottles of wine, as well as hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, visiting new places, going to the theatre or simply having a lie in or luxuriating in a warm bath!
What keeps you awake at night (keep it clean!)?
My own snoring!
Who would be your dream dinner date?
Aside from my friends and family, it would have to be a large table comprising Sir Richard Attenborough, Tony Blair, Ghandi, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Dame Kelly Holmes and Sir Steve Redgrave and the moderator could be Stephen Fry.
PHOTO CREDITS: Timothy Carlson