Mark Kleanthous is a founder member of the British Triathlon Association and member of the Great Britain triathlon team. Over the past 30 years, Mark has completed 71 marathons in under three hours and finished more than 420 triathlons, including 31 Ironmans and a double ironman. He recently stopped for long enough for us to ask him about his 30-year career.
How did you get into triathlon?
I ran in the very first London marathon in 1981 and used to cycle to work as part of my training. I then noticed in Runner’s World that the UK’s first triathlon was being held in Reading in June 1983, so I learnt to swim. The rest is history.
How has triathlon changed in the last 30 years?
Back in 1983 we didn’t have wetsuits and had to make do with steel bikes. We also had to rely on squash and bananas for fuel; there were no energy gels or isotonic drinks. The timing technology also has improved dramatically. We have instant chip timing now but back then the results came in the post, hand written, two weeks after the race – and only if you provided a self-addressed envelope. The profile of triathlon has also grown enormously; most people know about triathlon now and watch it on television. In 1983 very few people knew what a triathlon involved.
What has been the highlight of your triathlon career?
Four sporting moments come really close to being career highlights: I completed a double Ironman without stopping to set a British record of 23 hours 51 minutes. I competed in two triathlons in the same day – the Trentham Gardens Triathlon and the Nuneaton & Bedworth Triathlon – and came second in the latter. I’m proud to have raced faster in the Ironman World Championships in 2010 (aged 49) than I did at the same race in 1987 (aged 27). And finally, finishing third in the very first London Triathlon in 1984. It’s the only time my mother has ever watched me compete.
How do you stay motivated?
My father died when I was 10, so I realise that life is short. The ability to learn something new every day helps me to improve, then I put my new skills into practice by coaching others. I want to be the best I can be, no matter what age I am.
Who inspired you as a young triathlete?
Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, and their rivalry at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 when each won the other’s best distance.
Do you still get as much satisfaction racing now as when you first started?
I have the same enthusiasm for the sport now as I did 30 years ago. I am like a child on Christmas day every time I compete.
What’s the best piece of training or racing advice you’ve ever been given?
If in doubt, leave the session out. It’s ok to have days off. Resting is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength, and a few days’ rest is better than training the body to keep breaking down for the rest of your life. I listen to my body, and because triathlon is swim, bike, run and core fitness, you can always work on something different when a niggle or ache occurs.
How do you prepare in the hours building up to a race?
I like to finish my last main meal at least 14 hours before the competition, because most races start early the next morning. This allows me to digest my food before I go to bed, which helps me to sleep better. I then have a good breakfast of about 800 calories three hours before the start.
What are your strategies for pushing through the pain barrier?
Positive thinking and keeping our minds active can reduce the sensations of pain, so I try to focus on my technique when I’m swimming, cycling and running. I also think of those less fortunate and friends and family who are no longer with us to drive me to the finish line.
What is your favorite race?
Ironman Hawaii has a great swim over a coral reef and warm weather as well as really supportive crowds. But it’s still one of the toughest races on the planet.
What is your single most useful piece of kit?
Running shoes: I take them everywhere. Going for a run is easy, unlike having to find a swimming pool.
What advice would you give to Ironman novices?
Compete for at least three years in shorter triathlons and learn about your body and what nutrition works for you before competing in an Ironman triathlon.
Build up your distances gradually; increasing the distances too quickly will not only delay your progress but can also cause injury and result in a poor performance on race day.
How do you like to relax when you’re not coaching or training?
I update my triathlon website ironmate.co.uk which has over 700,000 words of helpful advice. For the last three years I have been writing a book – The Complete Book of Triathlon Training – which was published earlier this year.
Photo credit: Keith Greenough