I swapped cig­a­rettes for speed work

How tri turned this man's life around

Triathlon Plus - - Front Page - Words Fiona Duffy Pho­tos James Lam­pard

Sec­onds af­ter the alarm beeped, Andy Bax­ter groaned, sat up and was wracked by a vi­o­lent cough­ing fit. His wife Jongkon­nee, used to Andy’s reg­u­lar dawn cho­ruses, slept on. But this morn­ing – 29 June, 2011 – was dif­fer­ent. Af­ter 27 years, Andy was giv­ing up smok­ing.

He’d at­tempted it twice be­fore, only to suc­cumb again when stress reared its head. But this time, Andy had set him­self a goal. He had a 100-mile bike ride to train for. “I hated what smok­ing was do­ing to me. I was a 101kg, over­weight, un­fit in­som­niac,” he says. “At night all I could hear was the wheez­ing in my chest. With my 44th birth­day ap­proach­ing, I knew I had to do some­thing.”

The in­cen­tive came from a photo of a gleam­ing, new road bike posted on­line by a keen cy­cling friend. “I’ve never been sporty but I looked at this amaz­ing bike and thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind hav­ing a go at that’.” But he knew it would take more than a new ride to keep him mo­ti­vated.

Scour­ing the in­ter­net he came across the per­fect event. Be­fore he had time to think, he’d en­tered. He’d com­mit­ted him­self to a 100-mile bike ride for the Bri­tish Heart Foun­da­tion with 10 months to pre­pare. “My rea­son­ing was sim­ple,” he says. “If I smoked, I wouldn’t be able to do it – it re­ally was as sim­ple as that.”

Af­ter splash­ing out on a bike, he en­rolled on an NHS Quit pro­gramme at his lo­cal surgery in Nor­wich and high­lighted the start date on his cal­en­dar.

“I was con­vinced ev­ery­one would laugh [when I started] – es­pe­cially as my wife said the Ly­cra made me look like a sausage! Go­ing up the slight­est hill left me gasp­ing for breath. But I man­aged eight miles and it was a great feel­ing go­ing to bed at the end of a smoke-free day.”

When­ever he felt crav­ings strike, Andy would drink a glass of wa­ter, suck on a plas­tic in­haler and tune the TV to sports. “I found my­self brows­ing the TV chan­nels for cy­cling events. I dis­cov­ered the Tour de France and loved it.”

Within a few weeks, Andy had added The Great Bar­row Chal­lenge – a gru­elling 480-mile cy­cling, run­ning and walk­ing event run over four days – to his list of fu­ture races. “I started walk­ing, then jog­ging, in prepa­ra­tion. I en­tered a lo­cal 5k race and a se­ries of parkruns. My daugh­ter Ar­leya was so im­pressed she agreed to do them with me.”

Dur­ing one view­ing fest on Eurosport he came across a pro­gramme about Iron­man Wales. His eyes lit up. “I want to

“I’ve never been sporty but I looked at this amaz­ing bike and thought ‘I wouldn’t mind hav­ing a go at that!’”

do one of those,” he told Jongkon­nee.

There was just one prob­lem – or rather three. “I was a crap swim­mer (and could only swim breast­stroke), a crap run­ner and an over­weight cy­clist. But my dream was to, one day, be an Iron­man.”

He started a blog to in­spire him­self and oth­ers. “People started com­ment­ing on my weight loss and say­ing how well I was do­ing – which all helped.”

In Jan­uary 2012 Andy joined his lo­cal triathlon club, Tri-Anglia. “Coaches helped me with front crawl, but I re­ally strug­gled,” he re­calls.

In the mean­time, he was clock­ing up sportives and 10k races in prepa­ra­tion for two duathlons in Jan­uary. “I was see­ing a huge dif­fer­ence in my well­be­ing. I’d lost 6kg, the morn­ing cough was eas­ing and I was sleep­ing like a baby at night.”

In the spring, he en­tered his first triathlon, the East Coast Triathlon.

“I thought I’d be laughed at for do­ing breast­stroke but no one gave me a sec­ond glance. But I was still des­per­ate to swim front crawl prop­erly.

“When a fel­low club mem­ber rec­om­mended the To­tal Im­mer­sion pro­gramme, I found some YouTube videos and watched them over and over. I con­cen­trated on tak­ing long strokes and not get­ting out of breath. Af­ter eight months, I cracked it.”

In May 2012, Andy took part in his big goal – the 100-mile bike ride. By now, the dis­tance was a breeze. The fol­low­ing month, Andy swam front crawl for an en­tire open-wa­ter triathlon. Once again, his thoughts turned to Iron­man. On the an­niver­sary of his smoke-free year, in July, and nearly 13kg lighter, Andy de­cided to give him­self a time trial. “I just wanted to see if I could swim 2.4 miles within the al­lo­cated time slot of two and a half hours. If I couldn’t do it I knew I’d have to put Iron­man dreams to one side.

“My first at­tempt took two hours and 20 min­utes. My sec­ond, a week later, was 10 min­utes faster. I knew that what­ever hap­pened, I’d be able to fin­ish in time. I de­cided to en­ter Iron­man UK for the fol­low­ing year.” There was no go­ing back.

More races fol­lowed, in­clud­ing a half-Iron­man in six hours 40 min­utes. Then in Jan­uary 2013 he be­gan his Iron­man prepa­ra­tion. “As the race grew nearer my wife was ter­ri­fied. She wanted me to go to the doc­tors to check I wasn’t go­ing to have a heart at­tack on the day!”

When the big weekend ar­rived, Andy

“It’s amaz­ing to think how much my life has changed in two years. It has been a fan­tas­tic jour­ney”

proudly cheered on Ar­leya in the Ironkids race be­fore tak­ing his own po­si­tion on the start line the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

“The swim was a bit rough, but I fin­ished in one hour 42 min­utes,” he says. “The steep bike sec­tions were bru­tal. In fact, af­ter the first lap I won­dered how I’d get up twice more but the crowds worked won­ders. The at­mos­phere was in­cred­i­ble.

“To­wards the end of the bike I started to think ‘I’m two thirds of the way there – I can do this’.”

Run­ning a marathon in wet shoes left Andy with blis­ters and sore toe­nails. So he was ec­static to ap­proach the fin­ish line well in­side his dream goal of 15 hours.

“It was a won­der­ful feel­ing zigzag­ging ec­stat­i­cally from one bar­rier to the other high-fiv­ing the crowd, punch­ing the air as the com­men­ta­tor an­nounced, ‘Andy Bax­ter, you are an Iron­man.’

“It was such an iconic mo­ment I had a quiv­er­ing bot­tom lip think­ing about how far I’d come.” Andy had gone from ‘fat­man’ to Iron­man in a time of 14:46.

“I’d planned to sink a few post-race beers to cel­e­brate, but was good for noth­ing ex­cept col­laps­ing into bed.” The fol­low­ing day, Andy cel­e­brated in an­other way – with an Iron­man tat­too.

But once the eu­pho­ria had worn off, he started to feel lost. “It’s such a mas­sive thing to do an Iron­man. But I had noth­ing planned af­ter it. I sud­denly thought, ‘What am I go­ing to do now?’

At the same time, Andy was served a re­dun­dancy no­tice from his job and was posted to In­dia for two months. “It was a stress­ful time,” he says. “I re­ally missed my fam­ily, and the train­ing.”

Much to Andy’s shame the in­evitable hap­pened. Some­one of­fered him a cig­a­rette, and he took it. “Af­ter 15 months, I’d slipped. Just like that,” he says. “I was ap­palled at my­self.”

Af­ter nine weeks abroad Andy, now 45, re­turned to the UK and quit all over again. Now, he knows that to stay cig­a­rette free he needs to have a fit­ness goal. “Af­ter the Iron­man, there was sud­denly this void in my life and noth­ing to fill it with. I won’t ever make that mis­take again,” he says.

“I’ve launched my own busi­ness and am work­ing seven days a week. But I’m plan­ning on do­ing an ul­tra­ma­rathon next year and an­other Iron­man.

“It’s amaz­ing to think how much my life has changed in two years. It’s been a fan­tas­tic jour­ney. Not just quit­ting the fags, get­ting fit and los­ing 19kg, but mak­ing some fan­tas­tic friend­ships and rais­ing £1,300 for Help for He­roes and The Royal Anglian Benev­o­lent Fund.

“In a way, I’ve swapped one ad­dic­tion for an­other but I’m a changed man – and far health­ier. If I can do it, any­one can.”

Now Andy knows that to stay smoke-free, he needs to have a chal­lenge to fo­cus on

It took Andy a while to get to grips with run­ning, but his times quickly came down

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