It’s mile 98 of the Wales Sportive. My chest is burning, my breath panting, my thighs trembling as they struggle to push the pedals on my bike. Another steep hill looms ahead and fitter people are flying past me, their T-shirts a blur of colours. But I’m happy. In fact, I’d do all this again, and more. You see, I’m doing this to save my daughter, and I’ll withstand any amount of pain for that.
Not so long ago, I was a stressed out around 111kg man on the brink. Today I’m training for my first Ironman. The reason? Beatrice. Everything changed when she was born. My wife, Amy, and I had been together for eight years before we decided to have children. The pregnancy was difficult. One of my worst memories is of sitting in hospital at 3am, when Amy was five months pregnant, listening to a chirpy Scottish doctor telling me, “It’s not a question of ‘if’ you miscarry, it’s a case of ‘when’.”
Fortunately he was full of crap, and I have a daughter, Beatrice, to attest to this! We were beyond relieved when she was born safely in December 2008. There’s no way of describing it; knowing you’ve created something, someone you would literally do anything for. It’s overwhelming.
But in June 2010 our world was turned upside when Beatrice was diagnosed with type two spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). It’s a genetic condition that means she has really low muscle tone; she has a weak core, and can’t use her legs to bear any weight. It leads to problems with breathing too, and if she gets ill she can easily end up in hospital.
Being told your daughter’s never going to walk, when she’s only 18 months, is horrible. All the future you thought you had, the plans and dreams you made for her, they all go straight out the window.
What made everything worse was that Amy was already pregnant again. When we realised it was a genetic condition we were devastated: there was a one in four chance our baby would have SMA. We were offered a termination. But we thought: if we have another child like Beatrice we’ll be lucky – so we went ahead.
While Beatrice was being diagnosed, I took a long look at myself. Physically and mentally I was a wreck. I was 111kg and in the worst shape of my life. It occurred to me that with a daughter to look after, I needed to get into shape. I had a bad patch for a few weeks where everything went to pot and then I realised that I was no use to anyone like that. So I started eating better and doing a walk-run plan. I had a mountain bike that I began riding occasionally and Amy loved swimming, so she started dragging me down to the pool. Then someone at work said to me, “You might as well do a triathlon!”
I had a think about it, and entered the Lincoln Sprint in July 2010. I decided to swap a bit of sleep for training, so I’d get up at 5am, go out and train, and be back by 7am, when Beatrice would be waking up. I’d look after her for a couple of hours to let Amy recharge her batteries and then she’d take over at 9am when I went to work. My first breakthrough came almost immediately. Until 2010 I’d never been able to swim any stroke with my head underwater – I’d had this irrational fear of drowning. My first pool sessions were spent doing breaststroke with my head out of the water. But when I got myself some full-face goggles, it was like someone had flicked a switch in my head.
For some reason having more space around my eyes tapped into being a kid snorkelling again, and all of a sudden I was swimming proper breaststroke. I did that first sprint tri in 1:35. My transitions weren’t great at around three minutes each. God knows what I was doing. I made a bit of a cock-up with my nutrition too. I’d got it into my head that you needed loads of gels for a sprint, so I spent time obsessing about my nutrition. I suffered chronically on the drive home… I had the bug though and finished my second tri, the Leeds Express, in 1:38. It was another learning curve. I was so obsessed with not getting DQ’d for racking my bike without my helmet on, that I sprinted off at full pelt at T2 – with my helmet still on. I felt like a right plonker when I realised.
Over that summer we found out that the nhs doesn’t fund the electric wheelchairs to get Beatrice mobile. The thought of her never having any independence just wasn’t an option. We had to buy her one. There was just one problem: the wheelchair cost £20,295 and would need replacing every five years as she grew. So in September 2010 the fundraising began.
Raising our game
By christmas we’d raised the full value of the chair, through the website (www.justgiving.com/getbeatricemobile), grants from charities, personal donations, company donations and different events. It was a great feeling. But I knew that in five years’ time we’d need another £20k to cover her next wheelchair. So we decided to keep going.
I decided I wanted to do something spectacularly stupid – and let’s face it: being unfit for most of your life, doing a couple of sprints and going straight to Ironman doesn’t have sensible written all over it. Everyone who knows me thinks I’m loony, because they’ve known me my entire life and lost count of the times I’ve started losing weight and piled it back on, started running and then stopped. So they’re thinking, ‘Here he goes again…’. But I’ve never had the same motivation I have now. And it’s a powerful thing.
Our son Henry was born just before Christmas that year. When the doctor told me Henry was clear, I burst into tears. But it made me all the more determined to help Beatrice.
Talk is good
I started writing in forums to drum up support, and that’s when I discovered the Bridgetown Cona Testa Triathlon Team (www.bcttt.com). It’s an online club set up by a man who was trying to bring together like-minded individuals from around the world. I have received such immense support from these guys. Without their help I wouldn’t be the triathlete I am now. I would have blown myself out through injury; but whenever I start doing anything wrong, one of them will call and rein me in.
Through the club I met Ben Laws, who races with his son Ewan for Team Laws. Ewan has cerebral palsy. When they swim Ben tows him in a kayak, when they bike Ewan sits in a little side carriage. Their determination is incredible. Meeting him was a real turning point. We haven’t trained together as he’s in London and I’m in Yorkshire, but we’re racing together soon, so we’re going to meet up. What I loved about triathlon was the sense of control it gave me, whereas with Beatrice, everything was out of my hands and I felt so powerless. I got a buzz from being able to transport my body quickly, and having gone from 39% body fat to 18%, I felt proud of my body in a way I haven’t since I got my black belt in karate, aged 16.
Once i committed to IM Wales, I needed to increase my distances, so I started traininglonger at lower intensity, doing steady base building and trying to put my miles in. Looking back on my training diary was hilarious. My ‘long’ rides used to be nine miles, now I was riding 26 miles just to try and find some hills to train on! I got to put it into practice at the Long Course Weekend in west Wales in June 2011.
How did it go? I ended up getting picked up by a lifeboat! There was an unexpectedly strong current that made it really challenging. I didn’t even make it to the second buoy, at 700m. I had the feeling I was swimming on the spot but it was my first proper open-water race and I was disoriented. A chap in a kayak came up to me and said: “Dude, you haven’t moved in ten minutes”. I was utterly exhausted and it was getting to the point where I didn’t have anything left so I put my hand in the air. As it turned out, a lot of people did the same thing. But at the time that didn’t make it any better.
The next day I got the chance to redeem myself at the Wales Sportive: 112 miles of biking, on the IM Wales course. The furthest I’d cycled until that day was 60 miles – so it was nearly double my longest ride. The one thing going through my mind was ‘I just need to finish.’ And I did, in 9:35. Not the greatest time. But it’s a beast of a course. There’s a hill that’s a 16 per cent incline. It’s bad when you do it at mile 65, but it’s even worse at mile 103. There’s nothing more disheartening than reaching the finish and watching people run the timing mat back out because it was packed up.
I’m utterly terrified about Ironman Wales. But I believe I can do it; I’ll finish it. And when I look into my daughter’s eyes I know anything is possible.
This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe