On Saturday 13 October, Rob Drake, Jim Burdett and Gary Laybourne will be competing in the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.  This race is probably the most iconic race in triathlon – and many, many triathletes want to compete in it.  You can’t just apply for this race and turn up, though, however, you have to earn your place by completing a very long triathlon very quickly indeed.  Only the best can get in, and Rob, Jim and Gary have demonstrated they are among the best. 

We wish Rob, Jim and Gary all the best in Hawaii.  We’re incredibly proud that three members of South London Harriers will be competing in that race. 

Go well, Rob, Jim and Gary, and enjoy the experience.

The Ironman in Hawaii was started in 1977 with the intention of settling an argument.  Endurance sport had been popular on the island of Oahu for years and every year there was a marathon there, a cycle race all the way around the island, covering about 115 miles, and a sea swimming race covering almost 4km.  For years, the running club and swimming club there had debated, in a friendly way, who was fitter: runners or swimmers?

Of course, we all know the answer – it’s runners!  That’s why we’re all members of SLH, isn’t it?

Good job we weren’t there in 1977 then.  No-one present knew the answer.  And when a US Navy commander, John Collins, wondered if in fact cyclists were fitter still, he and a few others hatched a plan.  Why not create a race that combined all three of the endurance races taking part on the island of Oahu – swim, bike and run – and find out who was the fittest?

This wasn’t an entirely original idea because the sport of triathlon was just being born around this time, with a few races having been staged in San Diego, and John Collins had taken part in one of the first ones, in 1974.  So he knew what he was talking about.  But the distances involved in the race in Hawaii were something else again.  This would not just be some little race, and it would be a lot longer than the San Diego races.  Apart from having to shave three miles off the distance of the cycle race for logistical reasons, this new race would combine the full distances of all three of the existing races.

2.4 miles of swimming.  Then 112 miles of cycling.  Then, and only then, a full marathon.

Don’t try this at home, kids.  No wonder they called this race the Ironman.

So, they set up the race and invited anyone who fancied the challenge to take part.  But who would be foolish, or should that be brave, enough to try?  Fifteen men took up the challenge, not knowing if it would even be possible to complete the race.  Twelve of them did so.  In 1979 they repeated the race and fifty people took part.  Then the race got into the US sports media and people started coming to Hawaii just to do the race.  They had to move the race off Oahu onto Hawai’i Island, known as the Big Island, and the current race start at Kailua-Kona.

By 1982 over a thousand people wanted to take part and the race became not simply the Ironman but the Ironman World Championship, you had to qualify to do it.  Races started springing up all over the world over the same distance as the Hawai’i Ironman at Kona.  The Kona race is now run by the Chinese-owned World Triathlon Corporation who have trademarked the Ironman name, but rival companies also run events over the same distance, such as Challenge events and the Outlaw.  But you can’t qualify for Kona at an event that doesn’t have Ironman in its name.

For all that this might have become a competitive event for the very quickest, Ironman is like the marathon in that for everyone who does it, it’s a challenge just to finish.  There are time limits.  You have to complete the race in no more than 17 hours, or else you’ll be classed as a non-finisher and can’t call yourself an Ironman.  Similarly there are other cut-offs you have to meet along the way as well.  So you have to be really, really fit just to finish and make the cut-off.  At present, neither of the Brownlee brothers have attempted to complete an Ironman, though doubtless they will in the future.  It’s just a different kind of thing from the two hour triathlons they do.  Every Ironman race finish is a victory in some way.

So who exactly has been able to conquer the Ironman then?  Well actually, 26 athletes from SLH have done so at the time of writing.  A full list of their achievements over this distance is available on the Honours Board section of the SLH triathlon website.  Three of the 26 are women, and the athlete here who has done it the most times is Andy Collins, who has completed the Ironman 11 times so far.

As you can imagine, it takes an awful lot of training to do this.  Gary has spoken of all the mornings he’s had to get up early to train, the hours on the turbo trainer in his garage, the runs on his own that it took just to get him to complete his first Ironman, in Copenhagen on 19 August this year.  Now he openly spoke about his desire to get to Kona and so perhaps he was trying extra hard, but we all know what an outstanding athlete he is anyway, so it has been striking how much extra effort he has made to have to cover the extra distance involved in Ironman.

So how good do you have to be to qualify for Kona?  The overall standard varies a bit from year to year and between age groups, but basically for amateur athletes you have to be in the first two to five finishers in your five year age groups (for example males aged 35 to 39 years old for Gary).  Before his race Gary estimated that he would have to complete the entire race distance in about nine hours to qualify.  In the event, 252 men entered Ironman Copenhagen in Gary’s age group.  Gary finished fifth out of those 252 in a time of 8 hours 55 minutes and 44 seconds.  The standard was even higher than Gary thought it would be, but his time was enough to get him to Kona.

But still, he had to finish fifth out of 252!

Gary’s response to qualifying for Kona summed it up (speaking to his sponsor, Presca Teamwear):

“I’m still in shock!  I had no idea how it would go, and that is being 100% honest.  I knew very early on that with a 5 and 3 year old I only really get to see at weekends around a busy UK wide job, long rides and runs were just not going to happen.  So I chose to train every day (I did 100 consecutive days in January to April!) with most sessions being around one to three hours maximum, of varying intensity.  This meant that I felt in great shape going into Copenhagen but unsure if I would be able to last the distance.

After a really enjoyable swim, I was pleased to clock 55 minutes and feel super comfy.  The bike was great and despite going out a little hard, again, really happy to come into T2 in just over 4hr 45 feeling pretty good.  My run is my strength so coming through the halfway stage in 1hr 25, feeling super strong, I knew it was mine to lose… and I nearly did!  I had the most insane quad cramps ever from mile 15 so had to walk-run so much of the last part of the race, but still managed to sum up the energy to clock 3hr 6 mins and critically go under the 9 hour mark overall.  I was ecstatic but then had the long wait to see if I had had my Kona place as it had been an insanely fast year!”

Rob’s achievement too was immense.  He qualified for Kona 2018 back in September 2017 at Ironman Barcelona and he was kind enough to write a report on that race for us, which appeared on page 27 of this year’s spring Gazette.  Rob holds the record for the fastest time recorded by an SLH athlete in an Ironman race.  On the whiteboard in the main hall downstairs in the SLH clubhouse, Andy Collins has written up a Top Gear-style leaderboard with the top Ironman times for male and female athletes from SLH.  Rob is at the top of the list.

For Jim, Kona is actually not a new experience.  He has already qualified for the race once before, in 2011.  Until now, he has been the only club member to take part in the Kona race.  Jim qualified for Kona 2018 at the same venue he qualified for Kona 2011, at the only Ironman branded race in England, Ironman UK.  This is based in Bolton.  This year’s race took place on World Cup final day, 15 July, in the middle of this summer’s heat wave.  Unfortunately, there was a terrible heath fire on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire in July this year, and the bike course had to be re-routed to keep the riders away from the fire.  The bike course was shortened a bit to 95 miles from the usual 112.  Rob was taking part in that race too, even though he’d already qualified for Kona.

I don’t know what it was like to take part in that race, but it was certainly epic to follow it as several of the club triathletes were following the live timings of the race on the Ironman website and keeping the rest of us up to date with it!  Jim exited the swim well up in his age group and was among the very quickest cyclists in it, as always.  In no time he was into second place in his age group and the top 50 amateur athletes across all the age groups.  He kept closing on the man in front of him throughout the bike ride, and got even closer once they transitioned into the marathon run.  Then, just before halfway through the marathon, he caught the leader of his age group and passed him.

Now in the lead of the age group, he started to pull away and got further and further away… but another athlete coming from further behind was running even faster and started closing on Jim!  Jim kicked again and with 1500m to go he had 20 seconds of lead.  In the end, after 9 hours, 15 minutes and 28 seconds of racing, he won his age group by four seconds.

Meanwhile Rob finished second out of all the amateur athletes in all the age groups in eight hours 22 minutes.

These are not ordinary times.  As I say, to finish one of these races within 17 hours is a triumph, never mind nine.  All three performances received recognition on the on the UK triathlon website (for example of Rob, the editor John Levison said: “Fastest British AG athlete was Robert Drake, who won the 30-34 division in 8:39:17. That made him the third fastest AG athlete across all divisions. As debuts go, that is rather impressive…”)

I think it’s no exaggeration to say these guys are our heroes.  We’re so proud that they will be racing in Kona and we will be supporting them on 13 October.

A fuller interview with Gary is available online at