It was my son who inspired me to start triathlon. He is paraplegic after falling 60ft onto rocks while climbing in the Gower, sadly his girlfriend – who was a fellow Sandhurst graduate – died. Jimmy was only 26 at the time and a promising lieutenant in the army. But he rebuilt his life and became part of the Paralympic triathlon squad, and I went to support him competing in Budapest at the world championships. I loved it so much, I thought I’d give it a go myself.
I hadn’t really been sporty for many years. I was a runner in my youth right up to my late 30s, and I even ran for the Royal Air Force vets team, but I was far from a superstar. All that stopped when I left the force in the mid-90s though and then I did nothing for the best part of 20 years.
I’d never swam more than a length before, and couldn’t even do freestyle. I’d not ridden a bike since I was kid and so I was pretty much starting from scratch, the only thing I had was running. Swimming was a big problem to be honest, but I took to biking pretty quickly – it’s really about putting in the hours and then you’ll get there. But even though I wasn’t very fit, I took to it quickly and got pretty competitive for my age.
It was open water swimming that was my one big fear. The rest of it I thought I could cope with, but I think when you’re older and haven’t learnt swimming like this and you’re up against the youngsters, it can be the most difficult. It’s the unknown of the open water, the roughness of waves, cold water breathing – it can be a very intimidating environment, but to me that was the challenge of the triathlon
In my first triathlon, I did some front crawl, some breaststroke… And it was a shallow lake so I could put my feet down, but then there were weeds – that was awful. I’m always one for challenges and so I persevered and it was uncomfortable and I hated some of it, but gradually you just get better. I must have done about 30 triathlons now and each one gets slightly better. Swimming’s still not my favourite though.
My greatest moment came at the world championships in Auckland. I finished fourth and everything just clicked. I did all my preparations right, I’d visualised how the race would go and it went like that, I chose the right wheels, everything. I beat a lot of people I’d never beaten before and in a beautiful country too.
The most important part of kit is running shoes, I’m like the Imelda Marcos of triathlon. I have a wardrobe full of shoes, I have a shoe for every eventuality. My advice for beginners is that you don’t need expensive kit, you can get away with the basic kit without all the bells and whistles. But if you do start to want to spend money, make sure you spend it on things that make you go faster, it can go to marginal gains, on wheels for your bike for instance.
At 60 people tend to give up on major activities, but they shouldn’t. I was lucky enough to just get in there at the right time and I’ve never looked back. Even though I train with everyone of all ages, they don’t look at your age, they just see you as another triathlete – they expect you to keep up! And when I compete it’s against people of my age, so I can be competitive. The key is to just muck in, do what you can, if you can’t keep up, don’t hold them up and, don’t worry, at a race there’s always someone you’ll be the same pace as.
Age isn’t a barrier. You do slow down a little but you can be relative to your peers and be very fit. It’s kept my fitness going and provided me with huge opportunities to travel, I’ve been to China, New Zealand, USA, Canada and even the London Olympics. This year I’m off to Mexico City too. I’d have even been lucky enough to train with the Brownlees!
My son Jimmy is always an inspiration – he’s a very inspiring young man. He’s a good public speaker and, within three years of accident, he became the first-ever person to climb Kilimanjaro in a wheelchair. And we did it together too, which makes it one of my greatest moments too.
To view Mike’s top ten training trips, click here