Couch potatoes find the iron men within

Herts lecturer whips average people into shape for gruelling super-triathlon. Chris Parr reports

August 8, 2013

Wanted: everyday people to take part in a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a bike ride equivalent to a stage of the Tour de France (112 miles) and then a marathon (just over 26 miles), all in the name of academic research.

Getting people to participate in university research can be difficult at the best of times, so when a University of Hertfordshire lecturer set out to recruit 80 averagely fit people to take part in the Challenge Barcelona-Maresme super-triathlon in October, he did not expect much of a response.

“I thought I’d get about 20 complete nutters writing back to me saying: ‘Yeah, OK. I’ll have a go,’” said Justin Roberts, senior lecturer and researcher specialising in performance nutrition and physiology.

However, the response to the advert for Dr Roberts’ project, which will measure how much structured exercise can improve individuals’ performance in extreme endurance activities, exceeded his expectations.

“We got hundreds of applications from around the world,” he said. “What I’ve ended up with is about seven or eight good but recreational athletes, about 60 who are mediocre and another 10 who are very low-key athletes: in fact, ‘athletes’ is a very strong word for them.”

Dr Roberts got the idea for the project after taking part in a series of endurance events himself.

“I’ve watched middle-aged corporate businessmen deciding to do one of these crazy challenges, and then wondering why they end up lying at the side of the road with a drip in their arm,” he explained.

“I wanted to learn about normal people who take on these challenges and the extent to which the exercise they do affects them.”

In June, a 30-year-old British man was killed after his bike crashed into a wall during an Ironman event in Nice, while in January it was reported that two male athletes died after suffering heart attacks during the swimming leg of an Ironman competition in East London, South Africa.

Dr Roberts acknowledged that there are risks involved, but said that all the study’s participants – including several Hertfordshire students and staff – will complete the race successfully and unscathed.

The volunteers are on a strict training regimen designed to take them from recreational exercise to a full-on Ironman-level fitness programme. Throughout the build-up their progress will be monitored constantly.

“I think there will be at least 10 people who will have a long, hard and challenging day. But the medical teams are brilliant, and if something does go wrong they will be aware very quickly,” Dr Roberts said.

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