Gary Schroeder, 36, explains how he beat his drink and drug habit to race Ironman UK. Words: Debbi Marco Photos: Charles Whittington Photography; Finisherpix.
Growing up I was quite a good footballer, and I started playing golf when I was 12. I got a job at the local golf course and I could have turned professional, but at the age of 17, I started drinking. Pretty soon I couldn’t hold down a job.
Any idea of turning pro went out the window and it gradually became clear I had an issue with alcohol. I can’t explain where it comes from as no one in my family drinks to excess, but for me when I put one in me, one is far too many and a thousand is not enough.
I would go for three to six months of drinking fairly socially and maintaining my job, but then I’d get to a point where I couldn’t get it back.
In my 20s, I started snorting cocaine too. I worked in commission-only sales jobs, which suited me as I’d make a few hundred quid on a Monday and Tuesday and then take the rest of the week off.
At the height of my addiction, I was spending £1,000 a week and would spend up to four nights at a time without food or sleep. My weight plummeted to seven stone, and I couldn’t manage 24 hours without having a drink.
I moved from London to Bournemouth and went to rehab. In Bournemouth, I was quite into the whole Mod thing and was obsessed with scooters and music from the late 50s and 60s. That’s how I came across cycling.
About four years ago, I put my scooter in to be re-sprayed, but as I needed to get about town I bought an old racer bike for £40.
When I started cycling I couldn’t believe my body could get me 10 miles up the rode on it’s own steam. Especially as six months before, I was in such a physically incapable state I could hardly walk to the kitchen.
Finally I could appreciate what my body was capable of. I joined the Bournemouth Arrows Cycling Club and would ride with them every Saturday. My first sportive was 20 miles, which felt like the longest endurance event at the time.
My recovery was back on track but when my younger sister, Caren, died in February 2013, it shook my resolve. I stayed sober for a few months after her death, but there were big changes. I moved back to London to look after my mum whose sight was failing and I started to work in another sales job, which had quite a big drinking culture.
At the beginning of 2014, I went through a bad stage where I hadn’t left the house and I started thinking about how short life is. I could carry on how I was, which was a quick way to die or stop everything I was doing and do something positive.
I started going out with London Phoenix Cycling Club in north London, and in May 2014 I went to support my brother-in-law who did the London triathlon in Hyde Park.
I loved watching all the TT bikes. I love their geometry both how they look and how they sound.
My cousin is Greg Behar, an agegrouper who lives in Switzerland, but I never thought I could do a triathlon, especially as even now, I can’t feel the right side of my leg because I fitted so many times through overdosing on cocaine.
But things were changing. I knew I could cycle the 20k and that I could run the 5k and that’s when I thought: I could do this. I signed up to the Redricks Lakes triathlon in Essex three months later, which was a longer Olympic distance.
I wasn’t much of a runner and I ran the 10k in 48 minutes but I won the bike leg which was 46km in 1hr 18m. However, the swim was just awful.
I stopped twice, I did doggy paddle and backstroke. I was ready to get out and I thought this was my first and last triathlon. The swim was about 33 minutes and when it was over it was a relief.
I was so surprised to finish the whole race in fifth position and I’m still really good friends with the guy that overtook me to take fourth place. It was a month or so later that I decided to sign up for Ironman UK Bolton.
I was doing voluntary work and working part time for the national careers service, as well as being a part-time carer for my mum. It meant I would have around 15 hours a week to train and most days I was training twice a day.
I followed Don Fink’s training programme and dedicated six months to my training. In July this year I completed Ironman UK and finished in the top 300 with a time of 12hrs and 47 seconds, despite getting an ear plug stuck in my ear and having to wait for a medic to come and yank it out with tweezers.
I took the bike really easy as I knew I had to run a marathon and the most I’d ever run was 24 miles. I knew how important it was to go off slowly, and let everyone overtake me on the first 10k.
Afterwards, I realised my heart rate zones had changed and I ran the Ironman in the top end of Zone 1 instead of middle of Zone 2 so I could have gone faster. I’m still pleased as it was a really good time and I raised money for Scope in Caren’s memory.
I feel like triathlon has changed my life. I’m not saying it has cured my addiction and depression, but one day at a time it’s allowed me to recover from a condition which many think there is no way out from. Finding like-minded individuals who love the sport as much
I do now has been a life-changing experience. I’m now 15 months clean and sober and have a job in the cycling industry.
I was talking to a coach yesterday about what sort of distance I want to think about. I think Olympic to mid-distance will suit me well, as I’m not fast enough for sprints. I’m deciding between Mallorca or Austria 70.3 and would like to do some GB qualifying events see where I’m at and what times I need to get my swim times and run times down to.
I’m also looking to do some Level 1 coaching course so I can help out at my club Crystal Palace Triathletes. I’ve just completed a cycling instructor course as well as a cycle technician mechanics course.
My girlfriend Frances has caught the cycling bug too and already does 30 mile rides with me, having never ridden a bike before. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle now. If there’s one sport an addict is going to be good at it’s triathlon.
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