Lucy Charles and her partner and coach Reece Barclay have been supported by the GLL Sport Foundation for a number of years. They regularly use GLL centres to train, and this has obviously paid off with Lucy winning a fantastic silver at the World Ironman Championships earlier this month. Read more about Lucy’s background and result from the championships below.
“In the last five miles my legs were screaming at me to stop and I was praying I wouldn’t cramp up,” admits Lucy Charles, Britain’s new iron lady, as she reflects on her shock podium finish in her first Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, last week. “I kept willing my body to keep fighting that little bit longer, kept telling it ‘you can do this; just think about getting to the next aid station, then the next’ until the finish line finally arrived.”
At that moment Charles, a 24-year-old from Essex, lifted her arms to the sky and roared in delight – the pain and strain of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run in 30C heat giving way to dizzying exhilaration. Few had expected her to be a contender. Instead she led for much of the race and shattered her personal best to finish in 8hr 59min 48sec. Charles eventually came second to Switzerland’s Daniella Ryf, who retained the title she won in 2015 and 2016.
What makes Charles’ story so extraordinary is that until 2014 she had never ridden a racing bike. Instead her goal was to compete for Britain in the Olympics as a swimmer. She was not far away either. Not only was she talented enough to compete in the 800m trials for London 2012 alongside Rebecca Adlington but she also beat Keri-Anne Payne, who was chosen for the 10km open-water swim in London ahead of her, in the Great North swim a month before the Games.
Missing out on London 2012 disheartened me. It made me want to find something different to do
“The open-water swim was my best chance of making it,” she says. “There was a few other girls with a chance in the squad but we were all second best to Keri-Anne. It meant none of us got our shot of getting on the London 2012 team, which was a shame,” she says, the frustration evident.
“It disheartened me. I thought: ‘What’s the likelihood that in four years’ time the exact same thing is going to happen?’ It made me want to find something different to do.” That led Charles to enter an ironman event with her partner Reece Barclay on a whim, even though her knowledge of the event was almost non-existent.
“When I signed up to do my first one in 2014 I said to myself, ‘I’ve got a mountain bike, I can do it on that’,” she says, laughing. “I soon learned that it definitely wouldn’t be possible. Then it was a case of having to learn to ride a road bike – but I just kept falling off, because I kept forgetting that my feet were stuck to the pedals and I had to unclip before I stopped.”
“So many people would laugh at me,” she says. “They would say, ‘You can definitely swim but we don’t know whether you will be able to get through the other two disciplines.’ It’s crazy to think that three years ago I couldn’t ride a racing bike and now I’m the second best ironman athlete in the world.”
Charles got through her first ironman – it helped that she was a strong club runner as a teenager – and she progressed so rapidly that in 2015 she won the 18-24 age group in Kona as an amateur. That led to a professional contract but her hopes of making an immediate impact were ruined by a stress fracture in her leg.
“I was trying to get my name out there and because of that I raced an ironman and a half-ironman with a massive pain in my leg before I decided it was so sore that I needed to get a scan,” she says.
“The experts told me that, if I had done one more race, then I probably would have cleanly snapped the bone in my leg. They couldn’t believe I was even running. That’s probably one of my downfalls – I can’t give up, no matter how bad it gets. Sometimes I need to listen to my body more.”
Charles tells another story of winning a big middle-distance triathlon in Slovakia earlier this year, despite feeling so rotten beforehand due to food poisoning she nearly pulled out. She chuckles at suggestions she might be seen as a little stubborn.
“I train with Reece, who is a very good triathlete as well as my coach, and when we are in the pool doing time trial efforts I will never let him leave me,” she says. “I think it drives him mad but it is also what makes us work together so well.”
Until this year the pair were personal trainers in Chingford and, while they maintain an online business writing triathletes’ training programmes for £100 a month, Charles now spends most of her time preparing for races.
“We do a hell of a lot of intensity in our training, which I don’t think a lot of ironman athletes do,” she says.
“Most competitors do really long days at a pace that is pretty comfortable. But because we have such good endurance already from our swimming backgrounds we like to work at the top end and really be hurting in our sessions.”
One of her favourite routines involves doing 30 repetitions of one minute flat out, with one minute recovery, on a stationary bike. It sounds easy – until you try it.
You go through dark periods in a race. You have got to stay so strong in your own head
“That said, when we did eight weeks of warm weather training in Lanzarote before Kona we did do some very big days to simulate an ironman,” she adds. “That would be a pretty hard swim in the morning of about 5-6km, then the bike for a minimum of three hours but sometimes six to seven and then straight off the bike for a 10km run.”
Charles emphasises her sport is not only about arms, legs and lungs but the mind too. “The biggest thing is the mental strength because you are not far off your limits for nine hours. You go through dark periods in a race. Everyone does. You have got to stay so strong in your own head if you want to succeed.”
In Kona Charles went through some tough moments on the run but was spurred on by some on-course advice from Chrissie Wellington, Britain’s four-times ironman world champion, whom she met for the first time in Hawaii.
“Afterwards we spoke at the finish and she told me: ‘You’ve got to soak this up and enjoy it’,” Charles says. “I was thinking, ‘I am! I am! I’ve come here on my debut and come second at the world championships, I’m definitely enjoying it!”
Inevitably she is already being hailed as Britain’s next Wellington, a label she says is flattering but premature. “It’s incredible to be even compared to her because she is a huge hero and icon to me. If I can be even half as good as her, and provide half the inspiration to others that she has to me, then that would be amazing.”
The next aim for Charles is to emulate Wellington by going one better and becoming the world champion. “I used to think it would take me five years but after what happened in Kona my goal is to do it in 2018.“The good news is there is still so much I can improve on, across all three disciplines. I know I am only going to get faster.”
We’re very proud to be supporting Lucy and her training partner Reece. They will both be attending the GLL Communications Day in December to share their stories with GLL staff and community.