With a background in competitive swimming, Reece Barclay made the switch to Ironman and found his groove. His competitive streak has seen him qualify and race in Kona. This is his story.
On this episode of The Kona Edge we meet Reece Barclay who takes us on his journey of how he got to the big island of Kona. Not knowing anything about Ironman and increased confusion with talk of Kona until his appetite grew and he also wanted a taste of the competitive paradise on Kona.
BRAD BROWN: Reece Barclay joining us now, Reece, welcome onto The Kona Edge, thanks for taking the time to join us today.
REECE BARCLAY: No worries.
BRAD BROWN: Reece, you join us in London, I keep saying I’m based in Cape Town. Obviously it’s a beautiful summer day here as we’re recording it. You’re in London, not the greatest of weather at the moment, not really conducive for training outdoors. Are you spending lots of time on the indoor trainer, on the Turbo?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, many hours on the indoor Turbo at the moment. We had a good spell, I say a good spell, we had a warmish spell of weather over Christmas, so that was a bid of a bonus because normally we don’t get out too much but I was able to get out a little bit.
BRAD BROWN: I guess the Turbo does make you mentally tougher particularly on the longer sort of thing like in Ironman, I mean you need that mental strength. Do you find that the Turbo helps you do that?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, definitely, been able to sort of have everything indoors mentally just looking at numbers on the screen. There’s something about that that definitely toughens you up a little bit.
BRAD BROWN: Are you a big one for watching movies on the Turbo?
REECE BARCLAY: No, I never watch movies, I get too distracted, I can’t multitask, so I wouldn’t, not just, no not really pedalling and watching the movie, so I tend not to.
BRAD BROWN: I’m with you. I struggle to walk and chew gum at the same time. Reece, let’s take a step back and look at your sort of journey into triathlon before we get to your 2015 Kona performance, which I might add was phenomenal but we’ll get onto that in a moment. Where did your love for triathlon stem from?
REECE BARCLAY: I started two years ago. I was a swimmer for about ten years and never really thought about triathlon until one of, a good friend of mine, he used to come on a swimming camp with me to Lanzarote and he started getting into triathlon and then one thing led to another and before we knew it he was doing the Ironman Lanzarote. I didn’t know anything about Ironman until he explained to me and I thought he was nuts. I was like, that’s crazy, but yeah, after seeing him perform there, and really enjoying it, it kind of, you know, planted a seed in my head and about probably two years on from that my swimming career wasn’t going quite where I wanted it to go. So I kind of sporadically entered a race. Having never done a triathlon I decided to enter Ironman UK for charity and started my training there really. I had about nine months to get ready for it.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Was that your first race that you entered? I mean obviously you entered other races along the way but did you go, you know if I want to do this thing I’m going all in?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, I just went quid’s in. I thought if I’m going to do it I might as well do it fully. I needed something to, you know something so big to scare me into almost training properly for it, so you know I entered it. It was September 2013 and, but I sort of, oh well December time I was starting running and I didn’t actually get my bike until March 2014 because there was a problem with my order so I started cycling about three months before, which was in hindsight not the best idea.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. You’re obviously a competitive swimmer. In the build up to that, did you go into that first race with any sort of expectations? Did you think you wanted to go hard as you can or were you just hoping to survive that first one?
Draw on your Ironman strengths to keep you competitive at Kona
REECE BARCLAY: So, I knew that the swim, I was going to be one of the fastest swimmers. By the time I actually got the first race, the first Ironman, I’d done a few triathlons before then and yeah my swimming was obviously my strength but I was so far behind on the bike and not very strong on the run that most of my training in the build up to that was on the bike. I hardly did any swimming but fortunately because I’ve had such a long background as a swimmer I was still able to make it out the water in sort of first place on that one as an age grouper.
BRAD BROWN: And as far as growing up, I mean swimming was a big part of your life, but did you run and ride bikes as a kid at all or was this all fairly new to you?
REECE BARCLAY: No, I didn’t do any running. I played squash with my dad for a couple of years and I got quite competitive at that and really enjoyed it. I started swimming when I was about 14. I originally started that to kind of supplement the fitness levels for my squash but I found out I was actually useless at squash, I was rubbish and I was quite good at swimming. So I turned my attention towards that.
BRAD BROWN: Have you always been fairly competitive?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, I’m very competitive. My whole family is quite competitive really even though they’ll say they’re not, they are quite competitive, especially my dad.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think that’s a quality you need to have if you want to first of all qualify to race in Kona but perform well on that stage?
REECE BARCLAY: I certainly think so yeah. I mean everyone there is, well in Kona particularly everyone is competitive, everyone you know is, pushing their bodies to the limit. So if you’re not competing then you don’t really stand a chance against half of the people out there, so yeah, you’ve definitely, definitely got to be competitive.
BRAD BROWN: How much do you hate losing?
REECE BARCLAY: Well, yeah I really hate losing. My partner, Lucy Charles, me and her are just ridiculously competitive with each other.
BRAD BROWN: That, I was actually leading to that because she raced in Kona in 2015 as well. She won her age group so she’s –
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah and she beat me on the swim, I know.
BRAD BROWN: She’s got bragging rights there. How did that go down?
REECE BARCLAY: Oh ja, but that was like, I don’t know – I had a great race but the first thing I wanted to know was what was my swim time and what was Lucy’s but yeah, she’s a phenomenal swimmer to be honest. So having her in the house all day, every day keeps me sharp and keeps me competitive.
BRAD BROWN: How does that, I mean you obviously don’t know any different, but do you think that’s an advantage having someone in the house who’s also a competitive age grouper or do you think it’s a bit of a disadvantage because there’s really no way to disengage, it’s always there.
REECE BARCLAY: I suppose you can look at it, it is really. I mean we’ve sort of learnt to live with it and we both thrive off of each other really well but yeah, we definitely, definitely are very competitive in terms of, if she’s going out for a run and I’m looking at my training program and I’m questioning well, why haven’t I got a run today and then I start asking my coach, Lucy’s gone for a run, I want to go for a run and you know he does a good job of keeping us in check but yeah, it’s a good thing but sometimes if you don’t put a lid on it, it can be a little bit, you know, a risk of overtraining.
BRAD BROWN: And not just that too, it’s the intensity. I mean do you end up training together and if you do, do you end up trying to like beat each other? I mean that’s also a danger. I mean you don’t want to, yes there’s certain outcomes on certain training sessions, but the last thing you want to do is try and beat each other into the ground every session.
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, we generally do, do that actually. Like we’re, if we go swimming and one of us is feeling particularly good then the other one will either, even if they’ve got an easy day they will up their game or they’ll just get really annoyed and go in the other lane and pretend that they’re not seeing the other person swimming really well, so that’s how it goes really.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Reece, talk to me about that first Ironman UK. I mean the Ironman UK course is not one of the easiest in the world as far as Ironman’s goes. How was your first experience of an Ironman? What did you do and what did you think of it?
REECE BARCLAY: I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Looking back on it now I was so naïve going into that race. I knew that it was going to be a massive task and I didn’t really know just the extent of how long it is and how big of a mental occasion an Ironman was. I’d never seen an Ironman before then. I’d done a few races but I didn’t realize the atmosphere. It was more than anything I’ve ever seen in terms of swimming. I’ve been to nationals at swimming and the atmosphere at the Ironman UK you know, was far beyond that, so it gave me a great lift going into it.
BRAD BROWN: Reece, do you think going into it, and I don’t want to say blind, but going into it really naïve, for someone who’s maybe starting out in the sport’s not necessarily a bad thing and the reason I ask that because I did pretty much the same. My first race I also signed up for an Ironman having done absolutely nothing but I think my gut feel is a lot of people overthink the distance. Yes, it is big and it’s a huge achievement to finish one of those things but if you do the work, it’s not impossible and sometimes people just overthink and overanalyse what it takes to finish an Ironman.
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. In the build up to the first race we did, we did a marathon individually and the distance on the bike individually and I remember thinking after each of those, oh my word how am I going to finish both of those back to back together. It’s going to be crazy difficult and it really put me off but on the day it just, the time just seemed to fly. I mean I had the time of my life on that first one. I wasn’t competitive at all for the first time. All I wanted to do is just get to the finish line because I wasn’t even sure I was able to do it and I remember getting off the bike. I just wanted to finish that bike. I knew if I got off the bike I would, I didn’t mind if I walked, I would get to the finish line. So for me the finish line finished with the bike on that first race and I just remember running and feeling absolutely amazing for the whole marathon because it was something what I had achieved and I didn’t think possible.
BRAD BROWN: When did you start harbouring thoughts of, I could be competitive at this?
REECE BARCLAY: Pretty much as soon as I crossed the finish line to be honest. I was, yeah I remember thinking I just want to do one race and tick it off and say I’ve done it and then do you know I didn’t even know what Kona was until after the race. I went to the award ceremony because Lucy had finished second in her age group and I didn’t even know what Kona was. We were sitting there going, well what’s Kona, what does that mean, why is everyone talking about Kona and then as soon as I discovered what Kona was, yeah the cogs started turning in my brain and I started thinking ooh, I’d like to do that and that was the start of it really.
BRAD BROWN: That’s fantastic. I mean I always love hearing that process and it’s funny how it differs from age grouper to age grouper but the journey from there to really start taking it seriously, what did you do after that first Ironman UK, did you do that self-coached or did you go find a coach for that first one? What changed in you in order to become competitive and qualify for Kona?
REECE BARCLAY: Two things really, I mean I was fortunate enough to be part of a fantastic club, Hoddesdon Tri Club. Their head coach, Ant Collier, he’s absolutely brilliant in motivating everyone and just generally creating a great training atmosphere. So I thrived off of that environment and I coupled that up with, I did a sports science degree so I had the background knowledge from my studies to set up a half decent program and I think about a month, maybe two months after our first race, first Ironman I sat down with Lucy and I said, well shall we do it again next year with the intention of trying to qualify for Kona and pretty much from then onwards with the help from the club we set about training ourselves for a whole year and it worked really, really well and went into Ironman UK 2015 and we both finished first in our age group and qualified for Kona there, so that was a good year.
You and your coach – how important is it to get you to The Kona Edge?
BRAD BROWN: How important is it to get a coach? Obviously you’ve got the sort of background having studied it but for someone who possibly doesn’t have that background how important is having someone to help you get to Kona?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, I think it’s massively important. I should just point out, after 2015 Ironman, we then got a coach after that and that’s made a massive impact on our triathlon since then but yeah I definitely think even for someone who knows what they’re doing and doesn’t necessarily need to be told how to train, if you’ve got someone setting you something you almost feel accountable to do those sessions and I’m very disciplined in, if I set myself something nine times out of ten I will go out and do it but there is always that one occasion where I think well, maybe I could just you know leave that and not do that today but if someone else has set me that and is looking after that then I know that I will go and do it. It’s also very time consuming setting your own training, being your own coach is very time consuming, so having someone else map it all out for you is so much more relaxing to just follow what they’ve given you and trust in their program rather than worrying about it yourself.
BRAD BROWN: That’s what I was going to ask you, is it a case of you second guessing yourself if you doing it on your own, whereas if somebody’s writing you a program and you sell out to that person you don’t need to question anything. If your coach says X you go and do X, if your coach says Y you go and do Y?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, I think so. Although me and my coach, sometimes we have discussions about things like he might say do something and the competitive side in me will come out and I will question well, Lucy’s not doing that but I know I’m probably wrong in doing that but that’s just my competitive side but yeah, definitely much more relaxing having someone just set it out for you and trust in their programme. It’s definitely, definitely an advantage.
BRAD BROWN: What’s important to look for in a coach?
REECE BARCLAY: I think someone who understands you, and kind of adapts the program is very important I think because we live quite a hectic lifestyle balancing, well most age groupers do but balancing work around training, it sometimes a program can look great on paper but it’s not necessarily the best thing for you with the other commitments that you have so having somebody who understands that and can recognize that, I think is a key feature.
BRAD BROWN: Looking at that second Ironman UK where you and Lucy had both set the goal that you wanted to qualify did you feel pressure once that goal was set or did that help you knowing that, that’s what you’re working towards?
REECE BARCLAY: Not so much pressure, more just focus really. I don’t really get much nervousness or anything. I think I’ve been competing at sort of a national level for such a long time that I just get focused on the task at hand and I will always do the best I can do and if that’s not good enough then it’s not good enough. I won’t beat myself up. I’ve learnt not to beat myself up about that now.
BRAD BROWN: Describe the feeling to me when you’ve realized that you’ve qualified for Kona that you’ve put the work in, you’ve raced an Ironman UK, and you’ve got that sorted. When did you realise that? Was it on the route where, I mean did you have people telling you where the other age groupers in your age group were?
REECE BARCLAY: So, I knew that I would be first out of the swim and had a fairly strong bike, so I knew I was going to be up there on the run. I had no idea where I was until probably about halfway through the run where I saw one of my competitors, you’ve interviewed him, Aled Smith, you won’t mind me saying it.
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, yeah, no worries.
REECE BARCLAY: I saw him and he was having a storming run and I just remember keep seeing him thinking oh God, he’s catching me, he’s catching me but it didn’t really matter too much because I knew that there was two slots up for grabs so it was going to be me and him regardless but I got to the last lap and Lucy’s dad said to me he’s right behind you even though he was about ten minutes back at that point and I just absolutely emptied the tank. I don’t really remember finishing to be honest. I collapsed and ended up in the tent after that because I thought he was behind me breathing down my neck and just remember just thinking right just go, just go, just go. So yeah, a great experience up until the last 25 minutes which I don’t remember.
BRAD BROWN: You also qualified, if I’m correct, you qualified for 70.3 World Champs in 2015 as well.
Don’t let setbacks dent your confidence on your way to The Kona Edge
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, so Staffordshire was the qualification race. That was another, I have some bad luck when it comes to races sometimes and I’ve never actually done a 70.3 race where something hasn’t gone wrong and at Staffordshire I got two flat tyres within the first ten miles and remember thinking, well that’s the end of that then, so after fixing the first puncture and then the second puncture I just thought I’ll just time trial the rest of the bike and just to get a good training day out of it really because otherwise it would have been a complete waste of a day, but actually got off the bike, managed to get off the bike. I didn’t think I would and felt really good. So started running and someone told me, “You’re in first in your age group”, so it turned out to be actually quite a good race in the end.
BRAD BROWN: And you talk about bad luck, you also didn’t have the best of times at 70.3 World Champs.
REECE BARCLAY: No unfortunately, I had another nightmare there where my wheel was damaged in transit and consequently it buckled, which meant that every time I applied the brake it basically jammed on and unfortunately coming down the switchbacks after the main climb I came off had quite a nasty fall, which wasn’t good really but managed to get to the end but was a bad experience all in all.
BRAD BROWN: This is all in the build up to Kona 2015. How did that and those two performances dent your confidence in the build up to Kona?
REECE BARCLAY: It could have gone two ways really but initially I was angry and annoyed about the situation but then I flipped it on its head and thought, well you know what, I knew I was in the top five. At that point I was top five in my age group before I came off and I turned it on its head and I said, well if I can be top five in the age group at the 70.3 World’s then there’s no reason why I can’t go to Kona and replicate the same performance, so that was in the back of my mind the whole time and it turned a bad situation into a motivating factor.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about arriving in Kona. I mean that just in itself, you said your first Ironman you didn’t have a clue what Kona was. You’d obviously figured that out on the way to Kona. Was it a, I mean describe the feeling of touching down in the Big Island knowing that you’ve done the work to qualify, you’ve done the work in training and this is it.
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, so touching down in Kona literally was a massive relief for me, two reasons, one because we’d done so much training and so much intense training going into it. It was like oh, finally we can taper down and relax and the second part of it was, sounds silly but we both hate flying and that’s a big, long trip from London so that was quite a nerve wracking experience but to be honest it was actually fine I wouldn’t have even have noticed I was on the plane the whole way there, so I don’t know why I had that irrational fear and fortunately it’s gone now so.
BRAD BROWN: Reece, you look at the athletes on that island, it’s the best of the best, it’s the bodies. You look at the Underpants Run, it is extremely intimidating. Were you intimidated at all? I mean you obviously swam competitively so you’re used to being in that sort of environment. Did it freak you out at all or were you pretty comfortable and felt like you belong from minute one?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah everyone, our coach sort of warned us and said oh, don’t be intimidated but I wasn’t really intimidated at all really. I think it comes from as you say, being a swimmer you’ve got all eyes on eight people in the pool at any one time and I’m quite used to dealing with the pressure and everyone as you say was super fit but it didn’t really get to me to be honest. I knew I was in good shape, so yeah it wasn’t that intimidating. I think it really helped as well we were staying in a house full of super athletes and also staying with two really, really good pros as well so anyone I saw out and who looked really good, I was like well, they’re probably not as good as the people that we’re sharing an apartment with and so that kind of helped.
BRAD BROWN: Reece, you’ve written a pretty lengthy sort of race report on your Kona and I’ll pop the link into the show notes for this episode, so I’m not going to go into too much detail of the race itself but going into it, did you set any goals? I mean did you go there, you had set the goal you wanted to qualify, was it a case of you wanted to be competitive in Kona or were you just going there to lap it up and soak up the experience?
REECE BARCLAY: Initially after I qualified at Ironman UK I just wanted to go there and you know, soak up the experience but after the 70.3 World Champs, yeah I had a little bit of a bee in my bonnet and I wanted to actually prove that my performance there was, you know I was top five until I came off. I wanted to replicate that at Kona and also having seen Lucy do so amazingly well it was… I knew that we had both worked so hard towards it and it was definitely something that was possibly achievable. I didn’t think I would get quite top five when I was on the bike. I thought that was my day over once I got a drafting penalty but when I got on the run I felt really, really good, so I was back on the contention.
Train your Ironman nutrition to benefit on the big island of Kona
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest lesson you learnt in Kona in 2015?
REECE BARCLAY: I would say my nutrition strategy was definitely the best lesson I’ve learnt, something that is just a very valuable lesson in terms of how to manage the heat, how to keep cool, and what to take and when to take. That’s something I’d never done properly in the previous two Ironman’s, so having that, well I had a lot of help from the team at the University of Bedfordshire before that. Those guys were really, really helpful. Dr Andrew Mitchell and his team basically completely rewrote everything that me and Lucy should be doing in terms of nutrition on the bike and we practiced it thoroughly before we went and I think that had a huge impact on our performance.
BRAD BROWN: When are you going back?
REECE BARCLAY: Well, Lucy’s got an automatic qualification.
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, so no pressure on you, I’m just saying.
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, well that’s it. That’s what I mean. I’ve entered Lanzarote. I know it’s a big occasion this year because it’s the 25th one and to be honest, Lanzarote was the first one I ever witnessed and is the one I’ve always really, really wanted to do was Lanzarote, so hopefully if I qualify there that will be, yeah that will be me off to Kona in October.
BRAD BROWN: You’re still fairly young. I mean in endurance sport there’s obviously, the debate rage is about whether you should be doing these sort of long endurance type events when you’re young. What’s your school of, what’s your thought on it?
REECE BARCLAY: Yeah, a lot of people have said that like you know I shouldn’t do it too young, you should stick to the faster races but I don’t see why that should be the case. I mean even an Olympic distance triathlon, it’s still endurance at the end of the day. It’s a two hour race. It’s not as if it’s sprint that like you would be doing in the pool like a two minute race. It’s not like that, so I can’t see the argument for not doing it until you’re older to be honest.
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, it is an interesting one. You’ve mentioned you want to qualify at Lanzarote. What, if you go back, do you want to go back and win your age group, are you that competitive, you know what I had a good day on the Big Island in 2015 but I want to win it?
REECE BARCLAY: It’s hard to say really because I’ve gone up in age group now. I’m in the 25 to 29 and I’m yet to do a race as that age group, so it’s hard to gauge where I’m at but roughly looking at my times I wouldn’t be that competitive in this age group but if you look at my times and how they’ve progressed from day one until now, if that trend continues there’s no reason why I couldn’t be out there and competing amongst the top.
BRAD BROWN: What do you still want to achieve in the sport of triathlon?
REECE BARCLAY: I would really like to replicate a podium performance at Kona at some point. For me that’s definitely, if I’m to do that again I know I’m going to have to be one of the fastest age groupers in the world, so sort of looking at pushing on the doors of a nine hour finish at Kona, maybe sub nine hours so if I’m to get on the podium again that would be a massive, massive achievement for me.
BRAD BROWN: You’re fairly new in the sport. You’ve swum competitively as you said. Do you kind of wish you had discovered the sport like long ago if that makes sense so that you would have been further down the line and you could have been possibly achieving more than you’ve achieved now?
REECE BARCLAY: Sometimes I think like that. I think what if I had started when I was 18 or something like that. I would have had so many more years of experience on the bike, on the run but then I look back and I think, well I had so many great times as a competitive swimmer. Had I done that then, then I wouldn’t have had those and I wouldn’t have met Lucy had I not carried on swimming, so I guess that’s a great positive as well.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant stuff. Reece, I look forward to chatting again on The Kona Edge and I want to touch base and chat about your swimming because I think that’s quite a big one and we can learn quite a bit from you but I also wanted to touch on the other disciplines on the bike and the run and I’m keen to find out more about the nutrition strategy as well but we’ll save that for another time. I look forward to catching up again soon. Thanks for your time today.
REECE BARCLAY: Thanks Brad, appreciate it.