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A massive congratulations to Lancaster University PhD student Sam Cusworth and Alumni Rob Fraser on their top ten finishes in the Bolton IRONMAN competition. Sam finished second to qualify for the 2021 IRONMAN World Championships in Hawaii, whilst Rob finished eighth; a fantastic achievement from both athletes. However, perhaps the biggest achievement of all is the £2600 they have raised for the Mind and Stroke Foundation as a result of their efforts (the link to donate can be found at the bottom of this article).
SCAN caught up with Sam to ask him about the event, and why he decided to partake in one of sport’s biggest challenges. To this Sam simply replied, “why not?” Having already achieved a number of feats during his years at Lancaster University, including captaining the University’s First XV Men’s Rugby Squad to their first win at Roses in over ten years, and climbing 33,600m across 14 days in the Lake Districts to raise £1600 for Mind charity, this attitude comes at no surprise. Beside the actual challenge, charity was also a big motivation for both Sam and Rob; they ran on behalf of Mind and Stroke Foundation: “two charities very close to our hearts”.
The journey to the Bolton IRONMAN Competition began after Sam and Rob ran the Yorkshire Three Peaks together; they decided that their “next logical step would be to sign up for an Ultramarathon”, and then from that, an IRONMAN. This decision led to a year of training that was designed to push themselves “both mentally and physically”. Whilst a year of training may seem a lot to you and me, when it’s for a triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon, a year suddenly seems like a worryingly short amount of time. Training would have to be intense; Sam’s consisted of, “10-14 hours a week of interval training. Riding until exhaustion and collapsing after brutal hill reps – all this just for one day”. Of course with such intense physical training comes intense mental strain, as Sam explained: “It calluses your mind and develops mental resilience, not pleasant, but it does the job”.
Sam and Rob were not without their inevitable COVID setback either, with their much-needed training at times limited. For most of the year, Sam “couldn’t train for swimming due to lockdown restrictions”. This further puts into perspective just how impressive Sam’s feat is. For someone who self-confesses that before his training he didn’t consider himself “good” at swimming, to swim 2.4 miles in open water ahead of 138 miles of competitive exercise is outrageous and hugely inspiring.
Despite limitations during training, Sam and Rob headed into the event with high aspirations, with it being both Sam’s and Rob’s goal “to finish under 12 hours” and in the top 10 for their age group. Incredibly, both smashed the latter goal despite unfavourable conditions with Sam finishing with a time of 11:38:33.
12 hours straight of racing is unfathomable, but Sam’s gripping story of the race does a good job of breaking it down:
“Before the event I was absolutely bricking it for the swim. I’d never swam that far before and the thought of doing it in open water panicked me even more. I didn’t feel comfortable at all. On race day my nerves were through the roof, I was panicking about the swim, but nothing else.
I lined up in my predicted swim ETA and waited. A klaxon goes off and people start moving forward slowly. You’ve just got to get on with it at that point, deep breaths and try to stay calm. After a few minutes, it was my time to go; I slid off the pontoon and off I went. Tangled in reeds for the first hundred metres I thought the worst, but I found my rhythm and got into it. I broke it up into little chunks, swam a bit further and set another goal. It went quite quickly and before I knew it, I was out of the water.
I ran through transition and onto the bike. Torrential rain the day before meant the already technical and hilly course was even more treacherous. I set off strong, maybe a bit too hopeful of my own ability. I eased off 50 miles in to reserve some energy for later.
Then the heavens opened. Torrential rain battered everyone in the hills, covering the roads, filling in potholes and making everything an absolute nightmare. I saw people being taken off the course in ambulances, sprawled on the road and cut up. Not a nice sight. I eased off a bit more and made sure I wasn’t going to fall victim of the same mistake. Admittedly, I went a bit rogue on a few sections, tucked in and prayed I wouldn’t come off.
Once everything cleared up, I only had 20 miles left on the bike. Still freezing and not being able to feel my fingers I did my best to keep warm. Coming into Bolton, I ditched my bike in transition and set off on the run. For the first half-marathon I felt so strong, chasing through the field and within sight of the lead for my age group. The second half was a different story, I crashed hard and started flagging.
Still keeping a good pace, I went through some dark miles where it was more of a mental battle than a physical one. Egged on by another competitor I kept pushing, gaining on the leader of my category. This is what everyone supporting could see, but I still had no clue where I was placed or how well I was doing.
Coming towards the finish I picked up the pace and savoured the final sprint down the red carpet. It was an absolute grind, struggling in the weather and on the last part of the run, but I made it. Over the moon.”
So, what’s in the future for these two aspiring athletes? Sam is already aiming to “get faster, stronger, and start winning races”, as well as “make the GB age group team” with Rob sharing similar aspirations. If you’d like to support their hugely inspiring story, the link to their fundraiser can be found below: