It was 1987. Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up was at number one, the world’s stock markets were on
their way into a tailspin and 26-year old Mark Kleanthous was racing at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
Fast-forward 23 years – many financial doomsayers are warning of a double-dip recession, and Astley has seemingly given up, but Kleanthous is still going strong. He has a full-time job that involves driving 25,000 miles a year and in his ‘spare’ time he updates his popular website ironmate.co.uk, coaches triathletes, runs a triathlon training camp at Tri-Topia in France, marshals at Big Cow races, and is writing a book about triathlon. He somehow fits all this activity around his unofficial role as the UK’s most prolific triathlete.
Since he took part in the country’s first triathlon, at Kirtons Farm near Reading in June 1983, he has finished more than 420 triathlons, including 31 Ironman-distance races, around the world. He has also been working doggedly towards his goal of returning to Hawaii – this year he made it. We caught up with the inexhaustible Kleanthous as he put the finishing touches to his preparation for the world’s most famous Ironman competition.
Why did you take up triathlon?
I had run more than 40 marathons – with a personal best of 2:24:40 – but I couldn’t win one. My best place was second at the Kingston Marathon so I decided to give triathlon a go. At the Kirtons Farm race there were no set distances so we swam a mile, biked 40 miles and ran 13 miles. I was third in the London Triathlon in 1984 – that was the first and last time my mother came to watch me – and I was hooked.
How did you qualify for Hawaii this time around?
I won my place in the lottery. It’s around $40 to enter and you get a free CD on training, then there’s a draw for 50 international spots and 150 US spots.
The lottery was started because John Collins, who founded the race, thought that it was becoming too elitist; the lottery opened it up to people who might not otherwise qualify. All the money goes to charity. Two places are auctioned, but they can go for anything up to $60,000.
What’s your goal in Hawaii?
I would love to beat my time from 1987. At Ironman Switzerland last year I beat that time by 20 minutes so I’m hopeful that I can do it again. I’m faster on the bike these days purely thanks to advances in technology: a more aerodynamic bike, tri bars, compression kit etc. Very few people have gone back 10, 15 or 20 years later and beaten their previous time, but I’m wiser as well as older. I’ve never had a penalty in a race so I’d also like to keep that unblemished record.
What’s your favourite part of the race?
I love the hype, but it can be dangerous if you’re inexperienced. People can go wrong and instead of using the hype in Hawaii to their advantage, they use a lot of nervous energy or maybe go too fast because the crowds are yelling at them.
Will you ever retire from triathlon?
I’d like to keep going for as long as I can. My original plan was to stay in the sport for 10 years, but when I reached 20 years, I thought I’d try for 25 years, and this is now my 28th season. I want to keep trying to qualify for Hawaii. I was hoping to qualify at Ironman China earlier this year. I was second out of the swim, but then I had three punctures. Before that I’d only had a handful of punctures in more than 400 triathlons.
How do you stay motivated?
My motivation fluctuates but in general I’m as motivated now, at 50, as I was at 23. People often ask me how to get motivated but I find it a really hard question to answer. Everyone has highs and lows and you just need to work through them.
I always take about four weeks off every year and I’ll literally do nothing. I’m flexible rather than obsessive. I coach myself and while I don’t really stick to a plan, I know how fit I want to be before a race. My philosophy is that fitness should be going up towards race day rather than dipping because you’ve done too much. People worry about tapering and losing their fitness but the week before the race you should back off.
How do you approach race nutrition?
I practise in training. There’s a big over- reliance on sports nutrition as a shortcut to a faster time. Sometimes I go hungry and occasionally become dehydrated so I now know how it feels if it happens in a race. It’s important to have practised every possible race scenario. Most people go through a bad patch in a race where they have low energy levels, and low energy is linked to mood so you might start feeling demotivated, so if you have the experience you’ll know how to get through those tough patches. I might also sometimes try to eat a bit too much, which can also happen in a race. My top tip is to eat little and often. I eat solids on the bike and during the run I have gels and water. With 90 minutes to go I have flat Coke for a mental pick-up and fast-acting sugars.
You’ve done a double and triple Ironman. Why?
I had so much energy at the end of the Ironman that I wanted to see if I could do two. I did the double in 25:11 and decided to try to be the first Brit to finish in less than 24 hours. The following year I finished the double Ironman in Huntsville, Alabama in 23:51. Then I decided to do the triple. I will never do another: it was insane and it took me six months to recover. My body shut down completely and I struggled to even walk up the stairs weeks later.
How did you get into coaching?
People at my tri club, Team Milton Keynes, used to ask me questions, but since one size doesn’t fit all, I would try to tailor the advice to the individual. I have done levels one and two BTF coaching and I’m in the process of completing level three. My website, ironmate.co.uk, also gets more hits in a day now than I got in the whole of 2004, and I try to answer questions as fully as I can.
How do you stay injury-free?
I run off-road a lot and I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to pain, so I probably back off when something starts to hurt. I have a massage every few weeks, too. I try to do an Ironman a week in training; I train three or four times a week. I also train with my wife, Clare, and that’s helped me to stay injury-free, as I train slower with her. As well as training with Clare, I train on my own to give me mental strength in an Ironman.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
The triathlete Alex Hunter once said, “It’s the pace that kills.” In other words, if we all went 50 per cent slower we could do a race no problem. Never be afraid to slow down, take on board some energy and pace yourself sensibly. When we had the first UK Ironman-distance race, at Peterborough, I lost because I’d gone
off too fast.
What advice would you give to Ironman novices?
Learn from your mistakes, and if you have a problem, don’t get angry; work out a solution. In the old days there weren’t magazines like Triathlete’s World around to give people specialist advice so you really did just have to learn from your mistakes, but you learned quickly. Even if you do read up on the sport, the best way to learn is by experience. I’d also encourage all triathletes to have a go at marshalling. I’m a better competitor because I’ve marshalled. When I’m at a feed station now in a race I know it’s not easy handing out bike bottles when someone’s cycling past at speed.
What’s your favourite triathlon kit?
It’s my bike, because it gives the greatest performance benefits. I had a Litespeed Tachyon for 10 years, which seemed to mature and become more comfortable with age. It was titanium and my body didn’t feel battered when I got off the bike – even after a triple Ironman. I’ll be using a Scott Plasma at Kona.
Do you have a triathlon secret weapon?
It has to be my wife. We’ve been together for 25 years and she’s been to 99 per cent of all my races. At this stage I’d say she’s probably the most experienced spectator in the world.