Women's Sports: Lucy Charles-Barclay talks about what it's like being a professional Ironman

IRONMAN World Championship

Lucy Charles-Barclay picks up the phone midway through cleaning up after her new Mini Jack puppy, Lola who has just done a wee on the sofa.

Potty training a puppy is an activity that's far removed from what Charles-Barclay had been up to the week before, gearing up for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. 

The British triathlete competed in her third championships, winning the silver medal for the third time. Throughout the gruelling endurance event – where competitors complete a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and then run a marathon to finish – it looked like she was going to clinch top spot on the podium.

The event, however, had a dramatic finish in-store – Charles-Barclay was overtaken in the last ten kilometres of the run, before briefly dipping into third place.

The 2019 Ironman World Championships

It’s this fightback that made the 2019 World Championships one of the most special Ironmans she has competed in, she explains: "I'd never been in a battle at the end of a race and come off and won." 

In those last kilometres, Charles-Barclay recalls thinking that if she finished third it would be as if she was going backwards: “I managed to just find something in me. I think I've always been a fighter and I've always been far too competitive for my own good.”

She was telling herself: “You know what this is really, really going to hurt but it isn't going to hurt for that long and you're going to finish and really know that you couldn't have given any more to this race.”

Gearing up for Hawaii this year, Charles-Barclay says she felt the best she’s ever felt: “I felt like I had one of the best preps I've ever had, I felt more pressure because I honestly believed I could win it."

She says she left it all out on the course: "I couldn't have done any more. I was empty when I finished, I laid everything out."

Having led for the entire swim and bike ride, it’s the running that Charles-Barclay identifies as an area she will work on for next year’s World Championship. She says she gave it all she could though, an impressive feat as one kilometre into the run she noticed her legs starting to cramp: "That became more of a mental battle at that point to try and knock it out and ignore it ." Thankfully for Charles-Barclay, it did subside until towards the end.  

IRONMAN World Championship

Charles-Barclay explains she went into the event knowing the run would always be the hardest discipline in Hawaii: “It's actually such a mentally tough run because the majority of the run you're running out along this highway before you can turn around and come back so there's very little distraction and it's pretty lonely out there."

How to train for an Ironman

There’s also the heat and humidity of Hawaii that makes it difficult. To prepare she trained in Tenerife, then at Lanzarote’s multi-sport complex Club La Santa.

Charles-Barclay’s final preparation took place back at home, running in multiple layers, having hot baths straight after and doing all she could to get her core temperature up and sustain it for long periods. She laughs: "The heating bill goes through the roof."

Charles-Barclay’s training involves long swims of between five and six kilometres, five to six-hour indoor bike rides and at least one long run a week of over two hours. How does she stay motivated over such long distances?

It varies per discipline. Charles-Barclay was a competitive swimmer before she discovered the Ironman, so is used to swimming much further than she does now at around five to six kilometres per training session. For her longest run – 38 kilometres – before the championships, she ventured onto the trails of Epping Forest which she found “surprisingly nice”.

In contrast, bike training poses a real mental battle. It’s the technology that has come to Charles-Barclay’s aid. Whereas she used to have only her bike computer and iPhone for company, now she trains using Zwift – an online videogame that allows you to upload workouts and cycle in a virtual world with fellow cyclists. It has, says Charles-Barclay, “transformed my indoor riding”. 

Given the time-consuming and solitary-sounding nature of endurance training, it’s not surprising that she prefers racing: "Training is so much harder than the race. In the race, there's so much going on, you've got people supporting you, cheering you on, telling you you're amazing. Whereas in training you just have to tell yourself to get on with it."

Adrenaline helps too. She finds that competing “seems to hurt way less than it would in training."
This doesn’t mean she doesn’t need time to recover – after competing for over eight hours, it makes sense that she struggled to walk for two to three days after the event. Now Charles-Barclay is taking two weeks off to recuperate before starting to train again. In that time, only yoga is allowed.

Does Charles-Barclay have a favourite discipline? She explains that because she’s been swimming for such a long time it's less exciting. She switches between favouring the bike or runs depending on her mood: “If I'm feeling amazing on the run then the run is always my favourite, but I just have days where I feel so bad at running."

She adds: “If you can be good on the bike and love the bike it is such an advantage because the bike is obviously the longest part of your day, so I'm really happy and really motivated when I’m biking well because I know it's going to really help my racing.” 

DATEV Challenge Roth 2019

Back to where it all started

The Ironman is such a notoriously difficult event that it’s impossible not to wonder why it’s appealing. For Charles-Barclay she turned to the event as a challenge after quitting professional swimming. She explains that she was feeling low, didn't want to exercise and had "fallen out of love with the sport".

She was adjusting to full-time work and was looking for a new challenge to get exercising again. She recalls: "It needed to be something that was so scary that it made me want to go and train and commit fully again."

The Ironman fulfilled that brief, so along with her husband and now-coach Reece Charles-Barclay, in 2014 she signed up for the Ironman UK in Bolton. She became hooked.

Despite having won national medals swimming and competing internationally, Charles-Barclay remembers: "I'd never experienced such a buzz from finishing a race." She says it’s still the best feeling she's had from an Ironman, better than her first World Championship silver and this year’s inspiring fightback: "That first one I'll never beat because it was magic.” 

For other aspiring Ironmen, Charles-Barclay says you have to be aware of the fact you have to train night and day and establish how you can fit everything in before signing up: “There's no reason why you couldn’t do it but it's just looking at everything and saying is this reasonable, is my family going to support me doing it?"

She also didn’t realise how expensive it could be: “That was probably one of the biggest shocks for us when we did our first one was how much equipment we needed.”

That said, according to Charles-Barclay it gives you “bragging rights for life”! If that’s not enough, you can always promise yourself a puppy at the end of it, just like Charles-Barclay did this year with Lola.

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