Who are they, the Pirate Ship of Fools?

IM Zurich 2005: Lindi, Ratbag, Oxy, Zilla and Candy

The Runner’s World website started a triathlon forum in August 2003, after lots of members expressed an interest. That interest grew, and now the tri forum has its own instantly recognisable group of yellow-clad triathletes who compete in international Ironman events, originally one outing a year but now several – although the main one is a big group holiday event with its own awards ceremony post-race. So popular has the Pirate Ship of Fools become that smaller and shorter triathlon events too are beginning to take on a distinctly daffodil hue as the pirate influence spreads. As the Runner’s World online community grows, so does the number of runners that want to be triathletes, and the number of triathletes that want to be Pirates. But where did it all begin?

Is it a club? No, but it is a group of loyal and like-minded people. Is it a joke? No, but it is a laugh. Is it an attitude? Yes. And that attitude echoes the Ironman brand – Anything is Possible – then adds its own rider, ‘if you believe in yourself’. But what sets the Pirates apart is their sense of fun. They have turned into a huge presence within the world of triathlon, a world that can sometimes appear to the newcomer to be a little po-faced. Commentators, organisers and crowds at Ironman events around the world acknowledge the yellow and black kit both on and off the course – the supporters’ wear their own pirate gear with pride and a great deal of noise.

In The Beginning

It all began in 2004 with a single, almost accidental, skull and crossbones sticker. An inventive triathlete called Candy Ollier (a master at anagrams, this is how he keeps his true identity secret), developed a nifty Pringles dispenser for the top tube of Binky, his trusty Trek. He used an empty Smarties tube and Selotape to fashion a more aerodynamic piece of kit, then in his small daughter’s school bag he found the sticker, which sat happily on the front of the now legendary AeroPringles. Opinion is divided on the true aero qualities, as Candy’s subsequent time in Austria was a few seconds over 12:30. In time honoured fashion, he was beaten by a girl – Monique, who had come in exactly half an hour earlier.

Monique cruises round the Bala Middle Distance Triathlon

It was Candy and Monique’s comic double act in terms of their race reports – of their part in what’s regarded as one of the most gruelling endurance events in sport – that introduced the quintessential "numptiness" that became the essence of all things piratey. But to leave it there negates the success of the group in helping so many people achieve things they had never before thought possible – and in uncovering strength, tenacity, support and friendship that would otherwise have remained undiscovered.

Candy, known for his acerbic humour and scathing dismissal of any athletes who take themselves too seriously, is also revered for the advice and support he gives to the new Pirates who tentatively come on board almost weekly now. But he’s realistic too. Delighted that his germ of an idea three years ago now makes Jack’s beanstalk look more like a sprout, he said: "I didn’t have any real desire for the thing to be huge per se, but it’s great that the regular influx of new people keeps the pirate experience fresh and exciting. It’s a real pleasure to go for a weekend break to Bala and then a mini holiday to Switzerland or Germany or Austria each year, because the people are great.

The Story Behind The Name...

The group’s name didn’t actually come about until some time later, when Candy, clearly a cultured man, called the rapidly growing Runner’s World group of Ironman wannabes the following year a Ship of Fools – and added ‘Pirate’ in deference to that original sticker.

Forumite and Channel swimmer Dr Nic pointed out the comedic possibilities of the acronym, and a legend was begun. When graphic designer RichardM, himself a forumite and sub-10 Ironman, produced the final artwork for the PSOF kit, even he couldn’t have known how prophetic were his words: ‘people will wonder who the f**k all these pirates are.’

... And The DayGlo Kit

The story of the kit is central to the story of the Pirates. The Jolly Roger sticker stuck, so to speak, and Candy’s original idea was batted around by a few of the central Pirate coterie, one of whom was, fortuitously, a designer.

The whole story – plus a handy list of the original Pirates – is worth reading for anyone who has a spare hour and/or needs a laugh.

"I think it’s largely down to the fact that rising to the Ironman challenge in the first place needs a positive, can-do attitude, so negative people don’t even bother to register an interest. And then, when people join in, it quickly becomes apparent from the forums that a strong sense of humour is required; mutual piss-taking is the order of the day. So people who take themselves too seriously or demand respect because they reckon they are 'great triathletes' soon lose interest. So we are left with a great bunch of people, with a huge can-do attitude who aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves and each other in the process. That’s what the Pirates are all about."

Unfinished Business

IronMin first wore the Pirate kit in June 2007. It wasn’t for an Ironman event, it was for the Chester Olympic distance tri, but she said, "I was blown away by the support there – it just made such a difference to feel like someone in the crowd was bothered!"

In fact her plans were bigger, and she was aiming for a long distance event. "I first got into triathlon because one of the guys on the Scouse thread wanted to do one as a stag weekend for the Scouse crew. Somehow this grew into doing The Big Woody, so I entered that and started lurking on the tri forum. It became obvious that there was a lot of support, knowledge and experience there and when Lindi ran the next order for the kit I thought I might as well get myself some!"

Classic Pirate leg-pulling about the slightly shorter-than-Ironman course at the Big Woody left her feeling as though there was unfinished business, though, and she laughed, "To be honest, I still don’t consider myself to be a proper triathlete or a Pirate yet! I suppose I feel like something of a young pretender. I’m doing the Bala Middle Distance Triathlon (a big Pirate event) in June 2008 and I think that will feel more like it, but having said that, when the Pirates came to meet me on my last mile of the run at the Big Woody – that felt really special and gave me a sense of belonging.’

In fact, in her race report she said, "Then just towards the end, an amazing sight, the Pirates had come down to get me. I’m in goosebumps just thinking of that. I don’t know you guys really, but to think that you stayed out so late and pitched up in the dark to come and take me home was just overwhelming, just incredibly generous of you all."

Slummo crosses the line at IM Frankfurt 2006

Making History

The tri forum is full of determined people who have seen what the original Pirates achieved and want to be there too, and those who have seen and enjoyed the idea of the piratey spirit and want to join in and be part of it on some level.

All are welcome, said Candy. "The group was never meant to be exclusive, and it isn’t, so if wearing the kit just for short events improves anybody’s enjoyment, then that’s fantastic. But PSOF remains an Ironman-focused group, and specifically focused on the big annual holiday-competition, so other people need to accept that they will always be slightly peripheral to the core group.

"Occasionally there have been accusations of the group being cliquey because we know each other and have in-jokes and shared history. But that really is unfounded, because each year we not only welcome new members, but we actually seek them out and encourage them to join in – so they can become part of next year’s shared history."

What PSoF is...
...is a group of people that want something, work hard (despite popular misconception) and achieve it.

Cap'n Candy’s original argument – one that still causes raised eyebrows among 'serious triathletes' – was that non-cyclist, non-swimmers with a bit of running experience could train to do an Ironman in as little as nine months. And he was proved right.

At the last count there were more than 100 pirate Ironman finishers, of which more than 50 people did their first one in less than a year.

What it isn't...
...is an affiliated club. The core Pirates – those that were in at the start and took part in the first outing to Ironman Switzerland in 2005 - believe that the whole ethos of the group can be summed up by the phrase "JFDI"(Just Flipping Do It).

As Candy says, "Rather than 'JFDI if it’s properly proposed in a general meeting and then seconded by a member of the committee and then signed off in triplicate.' It clearly doesn’t need to be 'official', as it’s always worked out amazingly well and gone from strength to strength as it is. If it aint broke, don’t fix it..."