Claire Danson first started triathlon in 2014, quickly becoming involved in the GB age-group team and racing in multiple European and World Championships.
In 2019, she won the European Age Group Championships for the 30-34 age group and came second overall. An age-group victory at Staffordshire 70.3 followed and her aim was to gain her professional racing licence. But then everything changed. In her own words, this is Claire’s story…
Becoming a paratriathlete
On 28 August 2019 I had a collision with a tractor while out on a training ride. This was an accident that I was lucky enough to survive, but in which I suffered some very significant injuries, including breaking all my ribs, both wrists, the head of my humerus, elbow, both shoulder blades, my back and my neck. I also punctured both of my lungs. However, my most significant injury was to the spinal cord, leaving me paralysed from the chest down.
From the moment I sustained my injury, I knew that I wanted to continue doing triathlon. The second word that I communicated to my family while in ICU on a ventilator was ‘para athlete’ (the first was ‘sorry’). I spent seven months in hospital, initially in ICU and then in a spinal unit where I learnt how to live a completely new life in a wheelchair.
A new kind of training
As soon as I left the spinal unit, I started to train again. I gradually built up my arm strength and stamina, and learned as much as I could about paratriathlon and what was involved, including all the equipment that I would need. The week that I came out of hospital was the start of the first lockdown, which slowed down how quickly I could really get going.
I did what I could during that time, buying a static hand bike from eBay and doing reps up and down a nearby hill in my wheelchair. In December 2020 I started structured training with Will Usher at Precision Coaching and we’ve been seeing big gains ever since then.
Leading up to the 255 Triathlon, I had already developed a good training base, but with the National Sprint Championships only three weeks before, it was certainly a challenge for my coach Will to fit in both sprint and endurance training. I did some long bikes, with the longest being five and a half hours, and long pushes [handcycles replace the run in a triathlon] of up to two hours. The longest training weeks before the event were up to 22 hours.
The 255 Triathlon
The race itself was magical and exceeded all of my expectations. I was able to race alongside so many of my friends and team mates who took part as relay teams. My friend Chris Feeley (and the first para triathlete I met after my injury) also raced, completing half of each discipline.
Mat and Dale (the race organisers) thought of absolutely everything to make the event truly inclusive, and to make us feel really welcome. This was massively important to me, as one of the things that I have always loved about triathlon is the sense of community that there is at races.
This was one of the things I was most worried about losing when I had my accident. The inclusivity that Mat and Dale provided on Sunday showed me that it was not lost and in fact, the community has become even stronger. The support that I received while on course was incredible. There was a camaraderie like no other. Everyone out there understands the dedication, hard work and commitment to taking part in a race like this, and everyone just wants all the other racers to succeed and achieve their goals.
Race day arrives
A very early 3am start was needed so I could eat breakfast and reach transition in time to get everything ready. The atmosphere was one of excitement and nerves as everyone set-up their equipment in T2 before heading to the swim start. I quickly found my friends, and we did the usual pre-race photos and good lucks before heading into the water.
The buzzer sounded and we set off on the four laps that made the five kilometre swim. It was a special moment starting right next to Wayne Frier, my friend from the team who signed up to do the whole race as soon as he heard that I was doing it. I felt great as I set off at a steady pace to ensure I could make it around the whole distance.
The wind meant that the water was super choppy and I remember thinking to myself that it felt more like being in the sea than in a lake! The swim was always going to be the toughest part for me and as I finished the third lap I needed to remind myself how lucky I was to be here to keep myself going.
There was a kayak with me the whole way, another measure from Mat and Dale to ensure I was safe, but I was definitely relieved to reach the swim exit, where I was helped out of the water and out of my wetsuit. In total, I was in the water for two hours and 51 minutes, which is the longest time I have ever swum for. As a result, I was pretty shivery. This led to a rather slow T1, getting a dry top on and trying to warm up.
Onto the bike
Soon it was onto the bike. We had a motorbike escort to get us safely along the road from the lake to the track, which was an excellent thought by Mat and Dale. Unfortunately, by this time the weather had well and truly come in on us and the rain was pouring down.
Once we were at the track it was 52 laps to reach the full 200km. Setting off on the first few laps, I realised that my arms were more tired than I was expecting, but took on some food and fluids and did my first 50km before stopping in the pit lanes for some more nutrition.
The lap style course was incredible because it meant that every time I rode past the pit lane, there were huge cheers and cow bells ringing which gave me such a boost. The extra special element for me on the day was racing on the same course as my friends and team mates from the Precision Race Team. Every time we saw each other there was smiles and encouragement, and it really lifted all of our spirits.
After another 50km I pulled in again and had a quick check in with coach Will. He asked how I was doing and was extremely observant as he saw me massaging my right shoulder. I was keen to keep going despite the pain, but he suggested a further six laps and then reassess the situation, with an intent to finish the bike there at 120km. After these extra laps, my heart was desperate to continue, but my head won the day and I started the push section.
The final push
Out onto the push and I felt great to start. The different action allowed my shoulder to settle again and I went off on three laps before I was joined by Fiona Talbot, who was my arm physio when I was in hospital. This was another amazing allowance I had from the race directors – I was allowed to have people who have played massively important roles in my recovery to run some of the laps with me.
My arm surgeon, Ali Philips; my neuro physio, Louis Martinelli; my sister and my brother-in-law also ran a lap each with me. At the start of the run, Will and I had another chat and agreed that 25km would be a great target, but I could keep going if I felt good. I got to 40km before deciding that that was enough.
Turning the corner to the finishing straight was incredible. All of my friends and family were on that corner cheering the loudest cheers that I’ve ever heard. I sprinted down that blue carpet and through the tape with the biggest smile ever (and narrowly missed taking the camera man out)!
Anything is possible
The icing on the cake was that the guys from 255 Triathlon awarded me a prize for ‘winning’ my category. They got me and all of ‘Team Claire’ up on the podium to award us all medals and gave me my prize. It was just the perfect end to the most perfect day. The smiles said it all, and tears of emotion were shared by many of us! Every person up on that podium played a huge part in supporting me to achieve more than anyone could ever have dreamed possible less than two years ago. Saying thank you will never be enough.
It’s hard to imagine that anything will ever top Sunday, but moving forwards, the next race that I have is the National Super Sprint Paratriathlon Championships on 11 September. My long term goal is to try to get to the Olympics in Paris 2024, but no matter whether I achieve this or not, I am going to have the most amazing time trying.
Since I had my accident, I’ve been determined that I wouldn’t let it control my life, define who I am, or stop me from doing any of the things that I want to do. The 255 Triathlon allowed me to be back doing the sport I love with the people that I love. I hope it shows others that even when you are dealt some difficult circumstances, anything is possible. You really can do anything that you want with the right people around you, so long as you never give up. Dreams really do come true.
What is the 255 Triathlon?
The 255 Triathlon calls itself the world’s longest single-day triathlon, with participants completing a 5km swim, 200km bike and 50km run all around Goodwood Motor Circuit in West Sussex. The event can be completed solo or in a relay format. Top paratriathlete Claire Danson’s awe-inspiring performance saw her tackle the 5km swim, a 120km hand bike and a final 40km wheelchair push to the line.
The inaugural 2021 event sees race organisers Mat and Dale setting a precedent for inclusivity within triathlon racing with the logistics, infrastructure and support on offer for paratriathletes and, with concessions made to match athlete’s abilities, the 255 truly embodies the inclusive and welcoming spirit of the sport.