One of the great modern mysteries of multisport racing is how so many race organisers can set a schedule together as though one was waiting for a bus. You wait weeks for a signature race, then around 20 take place on the same weekend. And then on the second Bank Holiday weekend in May, the schedule is almost empty. As such, with only the St Helens GO TRI taking place at the Selwyn Jones centre over the past weekend, this week’s column is a review of all the St Helens Tri athletes who qualified for Team GB over the past few weeks with particular focus on the Southport Triathlon hosted by Epic Events.
We could start anywhere with such an illustrious list of names, but for simplicity purposes we will go in age group order and start with Emma Austin (Winner Fjunior), arguably the most exciting racer in the club at the moment. If you watch the BBC Sportsnight clip from November 1993 where Jimmy Hill describes the then-England national football team as a squad full of players who did not assimilate the required skills from an early age (the team which failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup under Graham Taylor), then perhaps you begin to understand why Emma is poised for a long career at the top level because of how early she began learning the technical aspects of multisport. Emma only started triathlon a couple of years ago having been a keen swimmer from a very early age. She took up running to help with her GCSE PE course and bought her first road bike 18 months ago, winning her division in the West Lancs Spring Triathlon on debut. In addition to repeating the victory last month and being first female home numerous times at the St Helens Parkrun she has also made valuable contributions to the club and was recently voted in as the female junior triathlon captain at the AGM. An overall “first lady home” title at a sprint distance triathlon is surely only a matter of time.
Next up we have Peter Fairclough (4th M30-34). A long-time runner with local club St Helens Striders, Peter really had his breakout season in 2017 when he won his age group at the Kendal Spring Triathlon and later led home team Splash Flash and Dash at the national club relays to eighth place in the country in the mixed 20-39 race. It’s rare that someone continually improves on all three disciplines while having such a strong focus for a sub-17 minute 5k but Peter managed exactly that towards the end of 2017, and translated that form into a carefully structured 2018 programme where he recovered from a difficult start to the year to really hit top form when it mattered most, his Southport Triathlon performance being crowned by a stunning 5k run split; for comparison only one person at the concurrent Nantwich Triathlon best the 18 minute mark (and not the person who won the race by nearly two minutes either). Peter is now looking forward to a summer of success with St Helens Tri as he also looks to further his coaching with his sister club.
In the same age group we had Jennifer Pybis (2nd F30-34). Jennifer has been a very quick runner from a young age and once starred in the Armagh Women’s 3k where she recorded a blistering 10:07. In 2015, having run for over a decade at Liverpool Harriers in Wavertree, she joined St Helens Tri shortly after the name change from Ashurst Bike Club and immediately impressed, winning her age group at the Wilmslow Triathlon on a wet and miserable spring day on the testing course near Manchester Airport. Jennifer’s skill set is similar to that of Peter Fairclough in that both could turn their abilities easily to draft legal triathlon (road bikes only and clip-on bars to go no further than the brakes); indeed another of her early successes was a fourth place in such an event shortly after the victory at Wilmslow. Plenty more opportunities to qualify for both formats of international racing surely await Jennifer in years to come.
Caroline Stalker (4th F35-39) has a rather different background to the three club members already covered, but made quite a name for herself in 2017 with a remarkable run of age group wins in the series of sprint distance events hosted by UK Triathlon, who host races as local as Nantwich and Shropshire and as far away as York, Birmingham and the South Coast. She has always been a very strong swimmer and, aboard a time trial bike, has slashed several minutes off her bike splits which is important in any race, but absolutely critical on the windswept arid lands of the north Merseyside coast. Also a member of the Splash Flash and Dash team from last year’s party in Nottingham, Caroline now deservedly gets her chance to parlay all of her race day experience into a result on the world stage.
Of all the pleasant surprises on Super Sunday May 20, perhaps the biggest feel good factor special came from Helen Broderick (8th F45-49). Helen took part in her first race for the club shortly after the aforementioned name change in the “race of the four seasons” at the Cheshire Triathlon in May 2015 but at the time no-one could have predicted what would transpire over the next three seasons. Come the autumn of 2016 she had posted on social media that she was entering Ironman UK just over a year after that unusually challenging race in Nantwich and immediately her posts turned into a plethora of (mini) panics about how to work her way up to the distances required. She not only managed exactly that, but she soaked up the support from the best supporters club in the world on Hunter’s Hill (to say nothing of the legendary banner a couple of superfans were holding up) and her long-distance strength made all the difference as she was off like a scalded squirrel at the Marine Lake to eventually finish fourth in her age group and earn her Team GB status, all driven along by the memories of that banner last July on the steep slopes of West Lancashire……….
Which brings us to the aforementioned banner-holder Dave Gaskell, the new club kit officer (4th M50-54). Dave has taken part in various sports, playing football as a goalkeeper and rugby until a prolapsed disc forced him out of the game. After a few years away he decided to attempt a marathon and one soon became four, with three in London and one in New York. It’s rare that someone begins their triathlon journey and attempts Ironman so early, but as per his marathon adventure he not only completed one Ironman, he managed seven before turning his attentions to qualifying for Team GB after numerous discussions with those who had qualified on previous occasions. Dave has not only made major improvements particularly in terms of short-distance running speed, but he has also been one of the first to put himself forward to help others in the club and together with Helen came up with one of the most popular results of a weekend that at times amounted to something of a sensory overload.
Also qualifying in the sprint distance race was Myka Heard (2nd F50-54). Few club members have had quite so much fame and fortune in terms of wider (as in non-social) media as Myka, who has many years of swimming at Masters’ level behind her and was one of many who joined St Helens Tri at the perfect moment having also ran for many years at Penny Lane Striders in Garston. Myka has qualified for European and World Championship races on numerous occasions, and Southport 2018 was just the latest example, but after an off-season where she experienced the high of winning the St Helens Tri cross country title and the lows of being unable to run for a long period of time she made good on her goal of improving her speed and strength on the bike and as with Caroline this really proved decisive on the coastal road as she powered past many similarly experienced cyclists as though they were going backwards; the runner-up spot in her age group was a fine reward not only for her own work in training but the way she supports other club members including her son Che, who she famously presented with an Ironman entry on his 18th birthday.
Which leads us neatly onto the qualifiers from the standard distance race where the prize on offer was a trip to the 2019 ITU Standard Distance world championships on Australia’s Gold Coast, home of the recent Commonwealth Games. Che Heard (7th M20-24 in Southport) did indeed race on Marine Drive as something of a rehearsal for the big stage Down Under as he had already qualified earlier in the season at St Neots but he has improved immeasurably since that now legendary birthday celebration a couple of years ago and from completing the 2016 Chester Marathon in under five hours he crossed the line in Bolton last year just past the 14 hour mark. Since then he has been one of the stars in pretty much every discipline he has turned his hand to, including some increasingly fast times in the local 10 mile time trials, a star turn at the University Playing Fields cross country in Wythenshawe last December and being the recipient of numerous prizes at the club awards night in February. Che’s swimming has always been a major strength, indeed at Ironman 2017 he was easily the first club member out of Pennington Flash and his bike speed was never in doubt but from such a relatively modest beginning at the aforementioned 26.2 miler in Chester he has been recording sub-19 minute 5k splits with regularity in sprint triathlons. Now begins the long build-up process to the world stage in perhaps the perfect setting to complete the perfect story.
Mark Turner (5th M25-29, 3rd eligible qualifier) has a long and storied history of competing in various sports, including boxing and mixed martial arts but turned his attentions to triathlon after serving in the armed forces. He first rose to prominence in July 2016; on a weekend hen much of the focus was on Ironman UK he took part in the “Llandudno Duathlon” after the swim was cancelled and placed a stunning fourth. This confirmed him as something of a natural runner to go along with his fine technique in the water and after buying a very quick aero road bike, suitable for both versions of triathlon, he was all set to fly. And that is exactly what he has done since then, winning the 2017 St Helens Tri club duathlon, recording several sub-19 minute Parkrun times and regularly being at the sharp end of the field at the Manchester Cross Country league races. In Southprot he held off a later comeback from a Chester Tri Club member to place in the top five and after the results were dissected he found out that he was third qualifier allowing him to join Che in Australia.
Terry Bates (2nd M60-64) has been with the club ever since the Ashurst BC days and has coached more club sessions than most people have had post-race beers but in a similar vein to Myka he has a wealth of experience racing for Team GB mainly in Europe. In Southport he fought at the sharp end of his division throughout and after the bike stage looked to be in with a chance of a remarkable victory, before a particularly fast runner in his age group asserted his authority on the 10k run. Still, second place and a trip to Australia is a fine reward for someone who has put himself forward to not only be helpful but also a leader countless times (including his white pearls of wisdom about using toothpaste during the club relays last year, which no-one has quite worked out nine months later). His BeUrBest training programme and his warm weather training camps also become more popular each year and he is a fine example for fellow club members to aspire to.
And then there was Steve Williams (3rd M65-59), who did not race in Southport but was in Nottingham on the same weekend at the Outlaw half Ironman (did we mention the sensory overload earlier)……….Steve Williams only discovered the sport of triathlon a few years but has proven it is never too late to begin and competed very effectively aboard his first road bike against more experienced athletes. More recently he purchased a time trial bike from then-club member Mark Livingston and has been a proverbial rocketship aboard his new aero machine. In one of the more bizarre episodes of such a busy race weekend, he took his road bike to Nottingham not expecting to be able to race with bar-end shifters and then had to overcome a couple of mishaps before beginning the bike course but he still placed third in his age group which means he joins the sprint distance qualifiers from Southport in qualifying for the European Championships held later this year in Glasgow.
And so ends May 2018, probably the most memorable month in the four-year history of St Helens Tri. June has s similarly exciting schedule including the Deva Triathlon to kick things off, where various distances are on offer and Sarah Taktak attempts her first half Ironman distance. The ITU World Championship race in Leeds characterises the second weekend as the public race in the morning before watching the elites race for World Championship points in the afternoon, while the UK Triathlon season continues apace as they host the UK Ultimate Triathlon on Deva Day and they round off the month with the City of Birmingham Triathlon in Sutton Park on the day England face Panama in the World Cup. Entries for the Ultimate are now closed but Birmingham is still open at the time of writing.