In swapping bad diet and heavy smoking for triathlon, Andy Baxter formed a new addiction
Seconds after the alarm beeped, Andy Baxter groaned, sat up and was wracked by a violent coughing fit. His wife Jongkonnee, used to Andy’s regular dawn choruses, slept on. But this morning – 29 June, 2011 – was different. After 27 years, Andy was giving up smoking.
He’d attempted it twice before, only to succumb again when stress reared its head. But this time, Andy had set himself a goal. He had a 100-mile bike ride to train for. “I hated what smoking was doing to me. I was a 101kg, overweight, unfit insomniac,” he says. “At night all I could hear was the wheezing in my chest. With my 44th birthday approaching, I knew I had to do something.”
The incentive came from a photo of a gleaming, new road bike posted online by a keen cycling friend. “I’ve never been sporty but I looked at this amazing bike and thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go at that’.” But he knew it would take more than a new ride to keep him motivated.
Scouring the internet he came across the perfect event. Before he had time to think, he’d entered. He’d committed himself to a 100-mile bike ride for the British Heart Foundation with 10 months to prepare. “My reasoning was simple,” he says. “If I smoked, I wouldn’t be able to do it – it really was as simple as that.”
After splashing out on a bike, he enrolled on an NHS Quit programme at his local surgery in Norwich and highlighted the start date on his calendar.“I was convinced everyone would laugh [when I started] – especially as my wife said the Lycra made me look like a sausage! Going up the slightest hill left me gasping for breath. But I managed eight miles and it was a great feeling going to bed at the end of a smoke-free day.”
Whenever he felt cravings strike, Andy would drink a glass of water, suck on a plastic inhaler and tune the TV to sports. “I found myself browsing the TV channels for cycling events. I discovered the Tour de France and loved it.”
Within a few weeks, Andy had added The Great Barrow Challenge – a gruelling 480-mile cycling, running and walking event run over four days – to his list of future races. “I started walking, then jogging, in preparation. I entered a local 5k race and a series of parkruns. My daughter Arleya was so impressed she agreed to do them with me.”
During one viewing fest on Eurosport he came across a programme about Ironman Wales. His eyes lit up. “I want to do one of those,” he told Jongkonnee. There was just one problem – or rather three. “I was a crap swimmer (and could only swim breaststroke), a crap runner and an overweight cyclist. But my dream was to, one day, be an Ironman.”
He started a blog to inspire himself and others. “People started commenting on my weight loss and saying how well I was doing – which all helped.” In January 2012 Andy joined his local triathlon club, Tri-Anglia. “Coaches helped me with front crawl, but I really struggled,” he recalls. In the meantime, he was clocking up sportives and 10k races in preparation for two duathlons in January. “I was seeing a huge difference in my wellbeing. I’d lost 6kg, the morning cough was easing and I was sleeping like a baby at night.”
In the spring, he entered his first triathlon, the East Coast Triathlon. “I thought I’d be laughed at for doing breaststroke but no one gave me a second glance. But I was still desperate to swim front crawl properly. “When a fellow club member recommended the Total Immersion programme, I found some YouTube videos and watched them over and over. I concentrated on taking long strokes and not getting out of breath. After eight months, I cracked it.”
In May 2012, Andy took part in his big goal – the 100-mile bike ride. By now, the distance was a breeze. The following month, Andy swam front crawl for an entire open-water triathlon. Once again, his thoughts turned to Ironman. On the anniversary of his smoke-free year, in July, and nearly 13kg lighter, Andy decided to give himself a time trial. “I just wanted to see if I could swim 2.4 miles within the allocated time slot of two and a half hours. If I couldn’t do it I knew I’d have to put Ironman dreams to one side.
“My first attempt took two hours and 20 minutes. My second, a week later, was 10 minutes faster. I knew that whatever happened, I’d be able to finish in time. I decided to enter Ironman UK for the following year.” There was no going back.
More races followed, including a half-Ironman in six hours 40 minutes. Then in January 2013 he began his Ironman preparation. “As the race grew nearer my wife was terrified. She wanted me to go to the doctors to check I wasn’t going to have a heart attack on the day!”
When the big weekend arrived, Andy proudly cheered on Arleya in the Ironkids race before taking his own position on the start line the following morning. “The swim was a bit rough, but I finished in one hour 42 minutes,” he says. “The steep bike sections were brutal. In fact, after the first lap I wondered how I’d get up twice more but the crowds worked wonders. The atmosphere was incredible. Towards the end of the bike I started to think ‘I’m two thirds of the way there – I can do this’.”
Running a marathon in wet shoes left Andy with blisters and sore toenails. So he was ecstatic to approach the finish line well inside his dream goal of 15 hours. “It was a wonderful feeling zigzagging ecstatically from one barrier to the other high-fiving the crowd, punching the air as the commentator announced, ‘Andy Baxter, you are an Ironman.’
“It was such an iconic moment I had a quivering bottom lip thinking about how far I’d come.” Andy had gone from ‘fatman’ to Ironman in a time of 14:46. I’d planned to sink a few post-race beers to celebrate, but was good for nothing except collapsing into bed.” The following day, Andy celebrated in another way – with an Ironman tattoo.
But once the euphoria had worn off, he started to feel lost. “It’s such a massive thing to do an Ironman. But I had nothing planned after it. I suddenly thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ At the same time, Andy was served a redundancy notice from his job and was posted to India for two months. “It was a stressful time,” he says. “I really missed my family, and the training.”
Much to Andy’s shame the inevitable happened. Someone offered him a cigarette, and he took it. “After 15 months, I’d slipped. Just like that,” he says. “I was appalled at myself.”
After nine weeks abroad Andy, now 45, returned to the UK and quit all over again. Now he knows that to stay cigarette free he needs to have a fitness goal. “After the Ironman, there was suddenly this void in my life and nothing to fill it with. I won’t ever make that mistake again,” he says.
“I’ve launched my own business and am working seven days a week. But I’m planning on doing an ultramarathon next year and another Ironman.
“It’s amazing to think how much my life has changed in two years. It’s been a fantastic journey. Not just quitting the fags, getting fit and losing 19kg, but making some fantastic friendships and raising £1,300 for Help for Heroes and The Royal Anglian Benevolent Fund.
“In a way, I’ve swapped one addiction for another but I’m a changed man – and far healthier. If I can do it, anyone can.”
Read Andy’s blog at clearseaz-timetogetfit.blogspot.co.uk
Photos: James Lampard