Brian Tilley didn’t let a serious crash get in the way of his Ironman dreams
Perhaps a lesser amateur athlete would allow a tumultuous bike crash, severe pain and blackouts to put them off completing a race. Not Brian Tilley.
The 40-year-old project manager from London has been enjoying triathlons since his footballing days came to an end and he wanted to remain active. Since 2000, when he did his first triathlon in California, he has travelled the globe pursuing his competitive dream. Even his little daughters have been roped into – and love – the sport.
Last autumn Brian reached the pinnacle of his racing career so far, coming 12th in his age group (40-44), and 159th overall (out of over 2,000 athletes), in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. But the road to this achievement was no easy ride for the Crawley Tri Club member.
During his build up to Hawaii, August’s Ironman UK race in Bolton was vital to qualification. After seeing eldest daughters Robyn, seven, and Abigail, four, complete their Ironkids races, Brian was confident in completing his. But early into his 180km ride, disaster struck. Brian was flung off the bike in a high-speed crash – his first real experience of a serious racing accident.
“In my build-up to Bolton I trained really well,” says Brian. “I was as fast as I had ever been and I felt very confident, I knew I was on top form. I had an amazing swim – my fastest time – and the bike was going well.
“Then it happened so quickly. I came off the bike. I was in shock first of all. But then the pain and discomfort kicked in. Fortunately my back wasn’t damaged. I dusted myself down and, bleeding from my mouth, nose and shoulder, got back on. I had heavily bruised my thigh and torn shoulder ligaments, so cycling hurt.
“In hindsight I was really lucky. I thought, ‘I need to get off the road’. Elements of my life were flashing before my eyes. I checked the bike, nothing seemed to be broken, so I started pedalling again. I just needed to finish the race. I finished off the bike much slower than I normally would have and knew I was in trouble when I tried to put my running shoes on. My shoulder and leg were in agony.”
Not the type of person to give up easily, Brian kept going and set out on the 42.2km run, which is his strongest discipline. Amazingly he managed to fight his way to first place with just 7km to go. But then he passed out.
“I’m not sure if it was from the pain, or from blood loss,” he added. “I came to and a paramedic was asking me if I could get into the ambulance. I felt my dream slipping away. I knew I had to make it to the finish line. I struggled on and was over the moon when I came in at 6th place. Then I got taken straight to the hospital for an X-ray.”
This fighting spirit and determination is evident from Brian’s earliest attempts at triathlons. “For my first triathlon I hadn’t done much swimming for a long time,” he says. “By the time the next one came around I swam so hard I was exhausted. But I still found it enjoyable and exciting.
“For six years in races I improved year on year. I’m very competitive – but it never bothered me where I was placing, only that I was improving. When I realised I was okay at running I kept on upping the distance. I did Ironman UK around 2009 and came through it.”
After completing his first Ironman distance in Nottingham 2010, Brian set his heart on his first Ironman World Championship in 2011. Despite completing the race, Brian knew he could do better and for two years he hurtled towards his second attempt at what he calls his “Everest”.
“I was definitely mentally prepared for how hard Kona is,” he says. “It’s the toughest race I’ve ever done and ever will do.” How did he deal with the heat and the tough course? “Psychologically I did a lot more in 2013 to prepare for the heat. For example, training in the conservatory, with the heating on!
“Kona is the pinnacle of sport and it’s an amazing experience. It’s the top race in the world, the world championship of triathlon. And you are racing against the best in the world.”
However, he trained for the 2013 event with an injury. “I had a torn shoulder – I really couldn’t swim. The Ironman in Austria was the first time I’d had a wetsuit on since the accident. But it held up. I had picked up my bike training deliberately. It was more about speed than endurance and it was comfortable.”
Not only did Brian have to train for Austria and his second Hawaii trip, but he also raced at the age-group aquathlon and triathlon World Championships at the PruHealth World Triathlon Grand Final London in September.
The hard work paid off. When he returned to Hawaii, in blistering heat, he finished 12th in his age group and 157th overall, in nine hours and 21 minutes.
“It taught me three things,” he says. “One, how much it meant to me – if I was going to put myself through all this pain. And two, it taught me how much I could endure. I put myself in this painful, dark place so I could push myself further. It really focussed me and I trained so hard, but it paid dividends. I had never pushed myself that hard. The third thing it taught me was to enjoy it.”
Now Brian can relax and he’s keen to spend time with his three daughters and wife, Clarissa – none of whom are shy of mucking in with training.
“There was very little down time during the time I was training,” says Brian. “So at the moment I’m enjoying some of that. I’m still training, and I’m not the sort of person who goes on holiday and sits around reading a book.
“Apart from Hawaii the girls have been to each of the races I’ve done. They’ve seen how hard I train and I could see them wanting to take part. When I came back from Hawaii my daughter wanted to take my medal into school for a show and tell lesson. They are proud of me.
“My wife is a good swimmer too. We ride our bikes together, I even factor them into my training, the two littlest ones.” Who knows – perhaps one day there will be more than one member of the Tilley family crossing the line in Kona…