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Oct 5, 2018

Joe Skipper battling through the pain barrier to take the prize

Tony James talks to UK Ironman Triathlon champion Joe Skipper about his life and the hurdles he overcame to be a professional athlete

If you want to be the best in the world in your sport there can be no compromises. “The pain and suffering in a race is nothing compared to failing to finish,” is how Joe Skipper puts it. “Winning is absolutely what it’s all about.”

At 30, Skipper is the current UK Ironman triathlon champion and the country’s fastest Ironman. He is not yet the best in the world but that’s something he plans to try to remedy in October at the world Ironman championships in Hawaii. He’s participated in the race twice before and hopes it will be a case of third time lucky.

Skipper says he loves the “brutality” of Ironman racing. It’s reckoned among the toughest ordeals in sport and it’s not hard to see why. Olympic triathletes swim 1.5km, cycle 40km and run 10km, while a full Ironman involves a 3.8km swim, a 180km cycle ride and a full-length marathon.

An athlete’s Iife has not been easy for Skipper. On several occasions the struggle to make ends meet came close to forcing him from his sport. But with the support of his family and sponsors, he battled on.

“You can feel you’re not getting anywhere while your friends are getting decent jobs and buying houses. Mentally it’s hard to carry on. But if you have the support of people who are close to you telling you that you can do it, that makes a massive difference.”

His UK championship success in July and top performances in other major events are finally bringing the support every professional athlete needs, including sponsorship from running-shoe specialists Hoka One One.

“I’ve been using Hoka shoes since 2016,” Skipper says. “I was paying for them myself back then so I am delighted to become a Hoka ambassador and look forward to setting lots of fast times in Hoka shoes.”

Skipper admits the transition from amateur to professional athlete can be far from easy.

“Winning prize-money is really hard. The hardest time, mentally, is when you are trying to break through and you are thinking: ’Am I wasting my time here?’

“People have the image of pro athletes living the high life but I remember in the early days having my bank card refused when paying for shopping. I’ve never had any support from a national governing body. What I have had is a lot of support from my family and friends and a big belief that I can compete in the big races.”

Mad about sport for as long as he can remember, Skipper, originally from Lowestoft, wanted to be a footballer “but I knew I was rubbish at it.” He started serious cycling at university and raced as an amateur “I did my first triathlon in 2010 because I fancied the challenge,” he remembers.

“I trained at a local club and there were lots of athletes who could beat me at swimming and running and I loved the challenge of keeping up with them.” When he became British middle distance amateur champion the following year he began to think about turning pro despite just having completed a degree in sports management at Manchester Metropolitan University.

“I wanted to see if I could make it as a triathlete. I couldn’t afford to enter races as an amateur – you couldn’t win prize-money – so I took the plunge.

“To enable me to race and train more, I got the cheapest house I could find in Manchester. It was in one of the toughest districts but it was near the swimming pool. We were burgled during the night. It certainly wasn’t the Ritz!”

A job in Spain enabled Skipper to train full-time with other athletes, and was rewarded by third place in that year’s UK Ironman triathlon and £2,000 worth of sponsorship.

“It might not sound a lot but to me it felt as though I had won the lottery! It enabled me to carry on for the 2014 season.”

That was until that year’s Lanzarote Ironman, which he still regards as one of the blackest days of his career. “I felt physically terrible all week. I hoped I would feel better on race day but I didn’t.

“I had a rubbish swim and although not feeling too good on the bike, I pushed myself hard and managed to get into fifth place. Then I just couldn’t turn the pedals any more. I had nothing left to give and ended up lying down for half an hour in the desert!

“In fact that failure motivated me more than ever – I trained harder and pushed myself even harder in races. I never again want to feel like I did after Lanzarote.”

There was another major motivation the following year – lack of money. “I was in America in 2015 and funds started drying up. My focus was on the Texas Ironman and failure to get a result could have ended with me lining up at the job centre. I can’t tell you what a motivation that was!” As a result, Skipper stormed through the field to become second in the Texas race and claim the bike course record. It also meant he had gathered enough points to qualify for his first Kona world championships, finishing a creditable 13th.

This year’s UK win in seven hours 53 minutes and 34 seconds, despite an injured back, was seven minutes faster than his nearest rival and confirmed his qualification for this year’s Kona race.

What’s the attraction of an event which seems to have all the ingredients of unadulterated torture? “I’m just trying to beat people,” says Skipper, surprised by the obviousness of the question.

“That’s the main aim. I weigh them up. I know who my opposition is and their strengths and weaknesses, because that will affect how I approach the race. If I am confident I can beat them on the run I don’t have to worry about distancing them on the bike.

“Winning is massive. I hate being beaten by anyone. If I was taking part in a local running race it wouldn’t feel any less important than some massive international event.” Strangely, once past the winning post, the magic quickly fades.

“It’s awesome to win but then it’s on to the next race. I’m not one to look back. Once a race is finished I think “That’s done. What’s next?’”

Skipper’s guidelines for Ironman success are simple:Train hard but consistently and expect to feel like rubbish at some point in a race –it’s just a phase so push through it. If it really hurt, you’re probably going too fast. If it doesn’t hurt at all, you’re probably having a great day or not going fast enough!”

“I wouldn’t change anything in my career so far but it certainly hasn’t been easy,” Skipper says. “There are probably others in the same situation and I say to them: Don’t give up. A lifetime of regret is far worse than a couple of hard years. Self-belief goes a long way.”

His most memorable performance to date? “I beat my mate in a pizzaeating competition when I was 15. I went through 17 slices and that was tough.” We’re not certain that he was kidding.

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