Matt Barnes studied Environmental Science at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at Lancaster culminating in a PhD in 2015.
“Are you here to drop off your son or daughter?”
“Err no, I’m here for me”. This was my introduction to County West as a mature student back in 2007. Despite this small misunderstanding I was made to feel very welcome by my flatmates, all of whom were nearly half my age. In Freshers' Week I amazed some of them by cooking an omelette, but what I had been really looking forward to was Freshers' Fair. I intended to make the most of my time at Uni by joining several clubs and societies, so I was a little disappointed to find out that there wasn’t a Triathlon Club, my chosen sport for many years.
Four years later I had another opportunity to attend Freshers' Fair as I had stayed on after completing my BSc in Environmental Science and an MSc in Environmental Informatics for a PhD looking at urban air pollution. This time I was pleased to find a couple of "young 'uns" manning a table for the newly formed Lancaster University Triathlon Club. During my PhD I had the pleasure of representing Lancaster University at BUCS four times in the Sprint Triathlon championships and four times in the Duathlon championships, making some great friends and hopefully I was able to impart some of my experience onto a new generation of triathletes.
I finished my PhD in September 2014 and moved to the other side of the country to work for North Lincolnshire Council as their air quality technical officer. I continued to race and finished 3rd Vet 40 in the Hull Triathlon in 2015, as well as completing a short sprint race in Kendal later in the year.
For many triathletes the ultimate race is an Ironman, which comprises a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a full marathon. Ironman UK is based in Bolton and attracts over 2000 competitors from all over the world. I had completed this distance three times and was looking for a greater challenge. After long discussions with my partner I entered the Enduroman Continuous Triple Ironman distance race, which involved a 7.2 mile open water swim, a 336 mile bike ride and then finishing with three marathons (78.6 miles) back to back. If that wasn’t enough, the run route would be incredibly hilly. The event was to be held in the New Forest, near Southampton, an epic journey in itself.
One good thing about the race was that it was starting at the reasonable time of 9am, and bang on time 18 hardy fools set off. The swim was in a smallish lake which meant that there would be 39 laps. I decided that I would swim 8 laps and then stop for an energy gel and a drink. The photo above was from lap 32 and I’m smiling because the swim is almost over.
The swim took me just under four hours, but unlike a regular triathlon I dried off and changed into cycling gear before sitting down for a large lunch. It was then time for the mammoth bike split, usually my best discipline. The route comprised 29 laps each one approximately 11 and a half miles with a nasty little climb at the end of each lap. The course on the whole was fairly good, although the New Forest ponies don’t stop for cyclists, and neither do the tourists eating ice-creams in the village of Burley. After seven laps I stopped for another hot meal and then had to don lights and reflective clothes as it was getting dark. After 14 laps, almost half way on the bike I stopped for a couple of hours sleep as I was beginning to nod off.
The next morning after a quick four laps I stopped for breakfast and a quick power nap. I then tried to get a move on to finish the bike segment before darkness fell once again, although by this point both knees, my wrist, neck and back were all in pain. Just before 7pm I finished cycling and immediately sat down for more hot food, feeling relieved that I only had the run left.
After changing into running gear I set off on the first of 72 hilly laps. My plan was to run the downhill and flat sections and walk the uphill bits. Feeling good I soon ticked off the first 20 miles, although a couple of miles later the long day took its toll and I once again stopped for a couple of hours sleep. The next morning feeling fresh I knocked out the laps and it wasn’t too long before I was half way through the run. Another half marathon later and I stopped for more food and a rest, and also to watch the first and second place athletes sprint for the line, which was incomprehensible after 51 hours of racing.
With only one marathon left I knew that I would finish, although due to the nature of the course this would take another seven hours. Mentally this was the toughest point in the race, being so close but yet still so far. After an emotional hug with my fiancée I set off once again. My feet were by this time a complete mess and every step was agony. With 15 miles to go I stopped for a foot massage, which in hindsight wasn’t a good idea as my legs seized up and it took another two laps to get going again, but once I got moving I vowed to not stop until the end. A couple of hours later and I crossed the finish line, a complete physical and emotional wreck, with a total time of 58 hours and 23 minutes which was good enough for 7th place. I inhaled some food and promptly fell asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I have to add that I couldn’t have done this without my support crew, Chris Wild, a good friend from COLT, the local triathlon club in Lancaster, and my future wife Helen Wilson. I can also add that I have no intention of ever doing anything as stupid as this again.