Steve Trew remembers a legend of age-group triathlon racing – the late Patrick Barnes.

Patrick Barnes (Illustration: Peter Greenwood)

I first met Patrick Barnes at the inaugural London Triathlon back in 1984. He rode a bike named Beelzebub – an old-fashioned ‘sit up and beg’ complete with basket and panniers – was over 70 and had just started competing in triathlon. A legend was born!

A couple of years later, we met again at a day training camp in west London. One of the guest speakers, an international athlete, was talking – rather pretentiously, I have to say – about mental attitude. “When I’m racing,” she said, “I have the letters ‘GUTS’ taped to my handlebars to remind me that I have to dig down deep when it starts hurting.” We all nodded knowingly.

Then a hand rose at the back of the room and a voice spoke in melodious tones. “I can certainly understand that,” said the stately gentleman – an Old Etonian, I’ll have you know. “When I race, I have the initials ‘CAT’ taped to my handlebars…” We waited expectantly for the words of wisdom, and he didn’t disappoint. “… to remind me that I must get some food for my cat when I’ve finished the event!” A rather deflated international athlete was left gasping.

Patrick remained a legend, competing through his 70s and into his 80s, and I mean no disrespect when I say that he must have been a race organiser’s worst nightmare. He was never the fastest of athletes and, of course, as he aged, he slowed. I remember him being watched and/or accompanied through races – Steve Newsome was a magnificent helper many, many times.

Alarm bells at the Worlds

In 1997, Patrick had qualified for the ITU Triathlon World Champs in Perth, Australia (again, no disrespect, but the over-80 category didn’t have quite as many competitors as, say, the 30-34 age group)and with a great show of common sense, the organisers allowed him to start his race two hours ahead of schedule. A lone figure entered the large expanse of open water accompanied by a safety canoe. The first hiccup was the tide turning during the swim. After treading water for 45 minutes, and to fantastic applause – a lot of competitors were just arriving as he exited the water – he made his way into transition.

Onto the bike, and as Patrick entered his third hour of racing, a safety motorbike accompanied him on his adventure. At the feeding stations, Patrick would dismount, take a drink, thank the volunteers and get back on his trusty steed. Alarm bells started ringing when the motorbike marshal noticed discolouring in one of his discarded bottles. Was it blood? A dash to the nearest doctor’s confirmed that it was indeed a foreign substance – chocolate!

Patrick started out on his final discipline just as the elite women entered the water. It was a hot day in Perth – 95°F in the shade, and there wasn’t any shade. He walked and jogged, stumbled and ran, out and back, out and back. As he turned for his final 2.5km, almost five-and-a-half hours into his race, the women started their run. It was amazingly competitive. Emma Carney, Jackie Gallagher, Michellie Jones, all Aussies competing on home territory – there was never any quarter going to be given here. And still Patrick ran, while behind him the women closed.

A little bit of emotion

I was in the commentary box alongside my good friend Marc Dragan, probably the first Aussie pro-triathlete. Drags was visibly moved by Patrick’s efforts, and said to me: “We need to do something special, Steve.” Wow – praise indeed! “OK, we’ll cue up the national anthem and when he crosses the line, we’ll play it.” The finish was on a slightly raised area so the massed crowds could see the winners. As Patrick turned off the burning Tarmac for his final 30 metres, they cheered and shouted and applauded.

When he was five yards from the finish, we put on the national anthem and three things happened. Patrick stopped on the finish line, stood erect and saluted. My good friend Drags started to cry (OK, so did I!). And behind Patrick, the three elite women screamed down on him. They were perhaps just five metres away when he finally strolled over the line to even more applause – not just for the best of the women, but also very much for him. Patrick took the silver medal in his age group and was the proudest man there. RIP Patrick. Sleep softly – we still miss you.