On this episode of The Kona Edge we join Ironman Age Group World Champion, Lucy Charles and follow the incredible story of how an elite swimmer turned to triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: We head to London now and we’re joined by an Ironman Age Group World Champion, Lucy Charles, Lucy, welcome onto The Kona Edge, it’s got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Ironman World Champion, it sounds fantastic.
LUCY CHARLES: Hi there Brad, oh, I can’t complain with that, I’m very happy with that title indeed.
BRAD BROWN: It’s been a few months now, has it sunk in?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, it’s really started to sink in. It took a good couple of weeks and I definitely had the Kona blues after coming back from the Ironman, now it’s sunk in and I can appreciate that title now.
BRAD BROWN: Now that you’ve done it and you’ve achieved it, is that something ticked off the list or is there unfinished business on the Big Island?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I’d definitely like to go back. I think I was really happy with my performance, but I’d like to go back and potentially be the fastest amateur, obviously had a good 30 minute win in my own age group, but the complete amateur title would be something I’d like to achieve.
Unfinished business at Kona?
BRAD BROWN: All right, so big goals indeed. I’m just looking at your splits, 52:20 swim, 5:38 bike, on the dot and a 3:44:18 run, I mean you absolutely cleaned up on the swim and the bike. The run, looking at the girl who finished second, she ran a 3:38, so 6 minutes faster than you, do you feel like there’s work you can do on the run?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I had a slight injury leading into the race and that was on the run, so I didn’t really run to my full potential and I could admit that I felt like the wheels were starting to come off on the run, certainly. So, definitely that’s where I can improve next year.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s take a step back Lucy and have a look where this all started and the journey. You’re very young, you’re doing endurance sport now, but where did your love for sport and particularly triathlon stem from?
LUCY CHARLES: I started swimming when I was about 8 years old and that really kicked off, sort of got to elite level at that early age of 17 and was swimming on the Great Britain Open Water squad and that was primarily really endurance stuff, 5km and 10km, so I guess that’s where the endurance stuff came in and then by the age of 20, I’d sort of lost the love for swimming really and wanted a new challenge, so I decided triathlon was what I wanted to do and I’d always wanted to do an Ironman, so I just thought, I’m going to go straight in, I’m just going to enter an Ironman. It was Ironman UK that I entered in 2014 and I thought I’d give that a go and that it was it really.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Can you remember the first time you had heard about an Ironman and your thoughts surrounding it?
LUCY CHARLES: A few of the master swimmers that I had known, they’d done Ironman and they’d tell me what it was and I thought it was absolutely crazy, but I was like, you know what, at one stage in my life I really want to have a go at that. I thought, why not now, more than ever, I’ve fallen out of love with one sport, let’s try a big, new challenge to get me going again.
BRAD BROWN: Were you tempted to walk away from swimming totally?
LUCY CHARLES: I kind of was tempted and I knew that I needed something to keep my going. I could have completely walked away from sport altogether but I’m really glad I didn’t now, obviously.
BRAD BROWN: What brought that on Lucy? Was it burnout? Was it a case of just training too much and racing too much and the pressure of everything that comes with that?
LUCY CHARLES: I suppose, yeah, it was a mix of a lot of things. Swimming is really relentless with the training you have to do. Nearly every morning up at about 4:30, doing a 2 hour swim in the morning, then off to school, then a gym session in the evening for about an hour and then another 2 hour swim to do in the evening. That sort of started to take its toll, I guess. I sort of built up a bit of a shoulder injury as well, so that was getting me down and lots of other different things going on, but yeah, I sort of definitely lost the love for swimming.
BRAD BROWN: Did you find the transition pretty easy?
LUCY CHARLES: Definitely on the swim side, that was not a problem and I know a lot of triathletes really struggle with that, so I definitely had the advantage there. I’d always been a decent runner, run for the school, done cross country and athletics, but cycling, not at all. I was absolutely hopeless. I could barely ride the bike and it’s amazing that I’ve actually managed to get to where I have on the bike.
BRAD BROWN: That’s fantastic. You’re also romantically involved with someone who we’ve had on the podcast here as well, Reece Barclay and living in a household with another Ironman, I think living with one must be challenging enough, but when there’s two in a household, that must come with its own set of challenges.
Living with a competitive Ironman Age Group World Champion
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, we do very well actually. We’re both extremely competitive, so that does help our training. It sometimes can get quite tough, but it definitely does help if one of us is going out training and the other one is not really up for it, we’re definitely going to be going because the other one is. We spur each other on and we definitely do help each other out.
BRAD BROWN: I asked him this question as well, do you find that you race each other too much?
LUCY CHARLES: Certainly in the pool but that’s because we’ve both got the background there and not so much on the other two. However, we do tend to judge the gap between us, so we never seem to think we’re getting any better but that’s because the gap between us seems to stay the same, even though we keep progressing. We’re sort of, how come I’m not catching you up or whatever, but it is because we’re both kind of progressing at the same rate. We do well.
BRAD BROWN: What challenges does it come with? It’s funny, I’ve spoken to a couple of couples who race, not just do races, but race at this sort of level, does it come with its own set of challenges? Can you get away from the sport or is it always there?
LUCY CHARLES: We try to get away from it when we can and have our chill-out time, but it is quite difficult. I’m quite good at listening to my body and saying, you know what, I need a recovery week this week, I’m going to take it, whereas Reece doesn’t really like to do that and that can sometimes get on my nerves because I think, oh, for God’s sake, you need to take a rest as well. Yeah, there’s a bit of tension there sometimes and I suppose, as any elite athlete, you have to be selfish at times, so we have to almost be selfish, but try to keep helping each other as well, so it can be quite difficult.
BRAD BROWN: Who is the better athlete between the two of you?
LUCY CHARLES: I can’t answer that one!
BRAD BROWN: I’ll tell you what he said, but you have to tell me your answer first!
LUCY CHARLES: Oh, I don’t know, I’d probably say he is definitely very, very dedicated to it all the time, so he’s almost always researching and doing that side of the stuff, whereas I’m more, I’ll just get my head down and train and maybe not overthink it, but he’s very good at analyzing stuff, so he’ll do that side of things. He definitely, I’d say he does more work than I do, I’m being honest, so I’ll say he is.
BRAD BROWN: That was a very diplomatic answer Lucy! I love it! Lucy, talk to me about that first Ironman. You made the decision that you were going to go all in, there’s no messing around, we’re going to enter an Ironman, talk to me about the mental process, once you’ve got your entry and now it’s a case of the hard work has to be done, tell me a little bit about that.
LUCY CHARLES: I entered Ironman UK as my first Ironman, I thought I’d keep it fairly local, so I didn’t have to travel too far.
BRAD BROWN: It’s one of the easiest around too, isn’t it?
LUCY CHARLES: It’s got a fairly tough bike course, so I didn’t really look into that too much until I started my training and when I started my training I realized what I’d let myself in to and it was a lot bigger challenge than I thought. I mean originally I thought, oh, I’ll just get around on a mountain bike, it’ll be fine until I joined up with the local triathlon club and they were like, no chance, you’re definitely going to need a road bike and if you can get used to that, you might even want a time trial bike. I quickly had to learn a lot of things and quickly learn what I’d let myself in for. I actually would say that my first Ironman was easier than the second one because it was just about finishing that. All I wanted to do was get to the end, I wasn’t worried about competing against anyone, I just wanted to complete it. Yeah, I’d say that was slightly easier than my second one.
BRAD BROWN: How did you go in that first one, I love hear that. I lot of people do that, they go there and you know what, we’re not sure what to expect, we’re going to just try and finish this thing, how did you go, can you remember times-wise what you did to give the rest of us hope?
LUCY CHARLES: I still had a very decent swim although I had laid back on the swim because I knew I had to work on the bike and run, but I’m sure I still did about 52 minutes on the swim. I think there was only one pro lady that actually came out ahead of me on the swim, but that was definitely the only part where I had a good lead and the rest of the day was definitely getting overtaken. I believe on the bike I was about 6 and a half hours, so it was a fairly long day out on the bike and then the run I think I was about 4 hours 15 minutes, so not a bad run, got me around and there was some really good support out there, so that definitely helped.
BRAD BROWN: Was it a case of once you had done that first one the bug had bitten and you knew that this was it?
LUCY CHARLES: Yes, the second I crossed the line I knew I was doing another one. I’d said, originally, I just want to do one, get it done, get it out of my system, as soon as I crossed that line and saw my mom and dad, I was, you know what, I’m doing that again and they were like, you’re crazy, but I’ve got to do it again, I’ve got the bug for it now.
BRAD BROWN: Can you remember from an age group finish position that time around, where did you finish more or less in your age group?
Ironman Age Group winner – setting higher goals to get to Kona
LUCY CHARLES: I was second in my age group, so that was where I learned about Kona and realized that I’d just missed out on going, so that was another reason for definitely wanting to go back and try and win the age group.
BRAD BROWN: How much did you hate that? Obviously coming from a competitive swimming background, figuring out that you finished second and you’d almost missed out on the big prize, that must have eaten you from the inside out.
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I suppose, but it definitely motivated me as well cause I knew I’d only been in triathlon for about 10 months, so I knew I had good ability and I could definitely improve.
BRAD BROWN: So the goal was set to go back, was the goal straight away set that you wanted to qualify for Kona?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, pretty much straight away I knew I wanted to go back, I wanted to win my age group and Kona was what I wanted to do the following year.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about what you changed from year one to year two with regards to your training, did you do anything radically different that allowed you to win your age group that year?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I’d say I changed quite a lot actually. The year before I’d just been learning to ride a bike and just getting out on the bike, but there was no real target every session, it was just getting miles in and building up the endurance but on the next year it was really knuckling down, getting some key sessions in that had real targets to hit. Improving the running was a big thing for me, as well as not letting the swim drop off because I felt I’d let my swim slip a little bit cause I’d been focusing on the bike so much. It was a real balancing act.
BRAD BROWN: As it stands now, obviously when you came into the sport the swim was your real strong discipline, do you feel it’s still out and out much stronger than the other two or do you feel the other two are catching up?
LUCY CHARLES: I’d like to say the other two are catching up. I’d definitely say they’re getting stronger, but the swim is still my standout discipline at the moment.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about qualifying for Kona and you’ve got the slot, you’ve won the age group at the next Ironman, tell me what that feels like, once you’ve crossed that line and you know that the goal that you set yourself and you’ve worked towards has become a reality?
LUCY CHARLES: It’s an overwhelming feeling really. If anyone has ever seen my finish line pictures from Bolton last year, they’ll be able to see what it meant to me, that all of those hours had paid off and I’d hit what I wanted to get. I just got to the big one and I was going to Kona and then at the awards ceremony when they play a big screen out in Bolton and it was the Kona video and it was almost not real that we were going to be going there. So, yeah, it meant the absolute world!
BRAD BROWN: How cool was it that you qualified with Reece?
LUCY CHARLES: That was even better really because when I was out on the run, one of the spectators said to me, Reece has just finished, he’s won his age group, so I felt I could almost relax a little bit because I knew he’d done his job. I knew I had a decent lead and I just had to finish and I would have got my slot as well. Yeah, it was absolutely amazing to be going together.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me your thoughts on Kona, just the word ‘Kona’, if I say Kona, what do you think Lucy?
Why is Kona so special?
LUCY CHARLES: It’s just, I can’t even put it into a word really, which is crazy. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I’ve been to some pretty big competitions, even as a swimmer, but there is just absolutely nothing like it.
BRAD BROWN: Do you talk about, just from the vibe, is it intimidating on that island or is it just that special that it’s a case, because it’s got so much history and who you’re there with at that specific time, it’s the best of the best, on the day, I mean what is it that makes Kona so special?
LUCY CHARLES: I wouldn’t say it was too intimidating, but by the time I’d got there, I knew I’d done absolutely everything I could to be there, so I was in the best shape I could be in. The whole place is just buzzing with triathlon and as I said, it’s just extremely busy leading into the Ironman, it’s just getting busier and busier, athletes everywhere, you feel like you’re just some sort of super-human triathlete when you’re there.
BRAD BROWN: Did you get caught up in all the side shows, the Underpants Run, the works?
LUCY CHARLES: I tried my best not to, so as much as the Underpants Run was almost like my A-race, that’s what I really wanted to go and do. I was not allowed to go there, my coach said no, you’re staying away from the hype, you’re not allowed to do it, so I did obey him, I didn’t go. However, next year I don’t know if I’ll be doing the same, I might have to go and give that a go. Yeah, so I registered for the Ironman, the first couple of days I’d have a look around the expo and see it all, but then I really kept myself away from it, so I didn’t get too worn out the week before.
BRAD BROWN: How long before race day did you arrive?
LUCY CHARLES: We were there a good two and a half weeks before, so it was fairly quiet when we first got there and we really started to notice it getting busier.
BRAD BROWN: As far as getting used to the conditions and acclimatizing, coming from a fairly cold climate compared to Kona, is that something you struggled with?
LUCY CHARLES: Reece and I were really lucky because we used the University of Bedfordshire, they have a heat chamber there, or a climate chamber, so we did two weeks before we left for Hawaii, we were in there every single day using the heat and humidity, so we were getting used to it in there and I would actually say that was even worse than what it was like in Hawaii, so when we got out to Hawaii, well, actually this isn’t too bad and we coped really well with the heat.
BRAD BROWN: I remember Reece telling me about that and for him, the first couple of sessions in that heat chamber, he said it really took it out of him, did you find it the same? Did you find the adjustment easy to make or was it really tough?
LUCY CHARLES: It was really tough and originally we’d planned to do additional sessions outside of the chamber, but to begin with that was not possible at all. We were really aware it was taking a huge amount out of us and that was when we realized that it was that important to be doing that really.
Ironman coaching and how it helps to achieve your Kona dream
BRAD BROWN: Lucy, talk to me about your coach and having a coach. I chat to a lot of athletes who swear by having a coach and I speak to some who are self-coached. What’s your take on having a coach? Obviously swimming competitively growing up, you’ve always had somebody on the outside of the pool helping, it’s pretty much part of your life when it comes to competitive sport in your career isn’t it?
LUCY CHARLES: Oh definitely. Me and Reece were self-coached up until Ironman UK and then we decided we’d take on a coach leading into Kona to see what difference that made and it did make a big difference because you’re dedicated to what they’re setting you as well. When you set your own training, then there’s an aspect of like, well, I’m not really feeling it today, I’ll skip that session, but when it’s a coach that’s put it together for you, you’re like, I’m definitely doing this, they’ve set this for me, there must be a reason why I’m doing it. So it keeps you that little bit more motivated and on the ball I think.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about your race in Kona. You mentioned your first Ironman, you just wanted to get through it and get around the course and experience it. The second one you went back and the goal was to qualify, heading into Kona, what were your expectations?
LUCY CHARLES: Originally I just wanted to do the same. I wanted to soak up the experience and I wanted to finish, but once I’d qualified and got a slot, I decided that I wanted to win, that’s what I was going all the way to Hawaii, I didn’t want to just mess around, I wanted to go there and I really wanted to give it some.
BRAD BROWN: Were you surprised at your margin of victory?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah definitely, I didn’t expect it to be that big. I knew I’d have a good lead from the swim, but I expected to sort of get caught up on the bike and have to really battle it out on the run, but I was quite pleasantly surprised.
BRAD BROWN: For someone who says that out of the three disciplines the bike was the one that you had to do the most work on, that bike split was pretty impressive and fastest in that age group by a long way as well.
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I was really surprised by that actually. I know I had done a huge amount of work on the bike, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by that, but it did still surprise me.
BRAD BROWN: Lucy, talk to me about the race itself and the day or two leading up to it. Do you have specific pre-race routines that you go through regardless of what the race is, that you sort of try and stick to and those routines?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I try and keep all three of the sports ticking over, whether it’s just a short 30 minute session on each, just to keep the feel. Leading into the Ironman in Kona, my biking was fairly horrendous. My power was so low and I was really quite stressed about it, I was thinking, I think I’ve messed up my taper, I must have gotten unfit already and I’m not at that peak place, but however, on the day, it seemed to all come together, so the taper must have been right.
BRAD BROWN: I’m so glad to hear you say that because I thought I was the only person who sort of second guesses things in the race week, but it’s good to hear someone who is actually good at this sport feels the same way, which is incredible.
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, I think I need to get used to it because it seems to be the way leading into every single race I’ve done, I doubt myself because truly, I don’t really like tapering, I’d rather just keep ploughing on, but I know it’s the best thing for me to do, but it does mean sometimes my numbers are off or my heart rate is not where it should be, but I just need to trust what I’m doing a little bit more.
BRAD BROWN: The night before, what do you do the night before a big race, like a Kona or Bolton?
LUCY CHARLES: I try and get to bed early, it doesn’t always happen. I always make sure that the night before that I’ve had a really good night’s sleep, so if the night before the race I can’t sleep, I know it’s not the end of the world. I’ll usually have quite a big dinner, normally quite high carb dinner or whatever I really fancy the night before the race, a bit of a treat really and then I’ll try and have that fairly early and try and get as much sleep as I can.
BRAD BROWN: Race morning, talk me through strategy of race morning, how long before you set off do you wake up and what’s the routine?
LUCY CHARLES: I like to wake up fairly early before the race, just so I can go through everything in my head. I normally have porridge as my breakfast, that’s what I have on race morning, so I have that fairly early and so especially in Kona, the key thing was to start getting hydrated as early as possible. I was drinking throughout the night and then I was making sure I was hydrated when we headed over to the race.
BRAD BROWN: What’s it like being in that water? That swim start is iconic, just the water quality, how clean it is and the setting you’re in, it must almost feel surreal once you’re in that water, waiting for that cannon to go.
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, it’s very surreal is definitely the right word. It’s absolutely incredible under that water. It’s hard not to get distracted at all the things that are going on under there. I’ve never seen so many different fish and colors under the water. Luckily when the cannon went, I wasn’t too bothered about what was going on under there, I had my head on and I was ready to go.
BRAD BROWN: Definitely beats the local Virgin Active doesn’t it?
LUCY CHARLES: It definitely does!
BRAD BROWN: Lucy as far as your strategy for the swim, talk to me about it. You’re a good swimmer, do you get up to the front and just go as hard as you can and obviously get out in front and stay there, how do you approach the swim generally?
LUCY CHARLES: Generally in all triathlon I will make sure I’m right at the very front and I normally go off very fast so I’ve got the clear water straight away. When I was in Kona I was actually quite surprised that after about 10 strokes I had absolutely no one near me, so I could quite quickly settle into my stroke. Before we went out to Kona I had looked at what the swim record was because my aim was to try and get as near to that, if not beat it, but I was a little way off that, so that’s definitely going to be a future target, is to try and break that record. I think it’s about 48 minutes, which is crazy fast. So, I did go for it in the swim, I wanted to get a good, solid start.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, that’s fighting talk! The bike, you’d obviously gone into that race with expectations on how tough it was going to be, from a humidity and heat perspective, but also from a terrain perspective, what was the bike like? Did it live up to expectations from a difficulty point of view, was it tougher, was it easier?
LUCY CHARLES: I’d say physically I didn’t find it as hard as Ironman UK, but mentally it’s very tough because it pretty much is, you’re on that road, you know you’re going out to a point and until you get to that point, you’re not coming back. Once you get past the halfway point, you know it’s all sort of downhill on the way back, although it was a fairly strong headwind on the way back, so that did make that quite tough. Yeah, it was a great course, I really enjoyed it and it did start to get very hot on the way back as well.
BRAD BROWN: As far as when you knew that the victory was in the bag, you just needed to keep moving, at what point in the race did that come?
The sweet taste of victory at Kona
LUCY CHARLES: As soon as I was off the bike I knew I had a fairly decent lead. I’m sure there was someone out on the course who had told me that I had about, at least a 25 minute lead, so I am still very competitive though, so that didn’t mean I was going to slow down and I couldn’t trust that someone on the sidelines is giving me the right advice. So, I tried to hold my position, even sort of women in different age categories, I didn’t want them going past me, so I wouldn’t say that I stopped pushing it at any point on the run.
BRAD BROWN: When did you know that it was in the bag, that you could almost start celebrating? Was it – you hit the carpet or was it before then?
LUCY CHARLES: I suppose definitely from the turnaround point, I could start to see the women and check their numbers on the way back, so I knew people weren’t in my age group, although I never, ever, ever trust the, I’m getting it right and I feel that there could be someone right behind me. I don’t know, I had that the same at the 70.3 worlds, I just assume there must be someone on my shoulder. I almost can’t believe that I’m leading. So, I wouldn’t say that I could relax until that point when I hit the carpet, I knew, no one is going to go past me now and I can sort of soak this up.
BRAD BROWN: Finishing an Ironman just generally is a pretty special feeling, how special was hitting that carpet?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, there’s absolutely nothing like that. The crowds there are so deep on that carpet, the roar that you’re getting as you come up to that line is overwhelming and it’s sort of finishing the most iconic triathlon, you really cannot describe how that feels really.
BRAD BROWN: Do you miss the competitive swimming, has this replaced it?
LUCY CHARLES: Yeah, it was definitely the competitive side and the racing of swimming that I missed. I definitely didn’t miss the training side. This new love of triathlon has definitely filled that gap.
BRAD BROWN: What do you still want to achieve in the sport Lucy?
LUCY CHARLES: Ultimately I want to go professional, whether that is this year, I’m not sure, it might be the following year, but ultimately I would like to win Kona as a pro, that is my goal.
BRAD BROWN: Who do you look up to as an athlete?
LUCY CHARLES: I get on really well with Lucy Gossage who is another British athlete. I actually stayed with her in Kona, so she’s a real inspiration to me and obviously Daniela Ryf is putting out some storming times and that is definitely the level that I want to get to.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Lucy, thank you so much for your time on The Kona Edge, I think you’re an inspiration and your story is going to inspire a lot of, particularly younger triathletes because it’s a sport that often people think, oh, you need to get into it when you’re slightly older, but you’ve blown that out the water and you’ve shown that you can do this when you’re young and you can perform really well too.
LUCY CHARLES: Definitely, excellent.