From chopper to Kona – 99% focus, 1% fear
99% FOCUS, 1% FEAR
A killer instinct can come in many guises, in the case of Lucy Charles it’s a smile and open warmth that immediately encompasses you as we sit down with her in her local café. Naturally loquacious in her Essex lilt it’s easy to forget that if you put her in water, on a bike or in a pair of trainers competitiveness is her fuel and taking prisoners isn’t an option.
This level of focus and drive is what helped her secure second place in her first Ironman World Championships as a professional in 2017. At 24 years of age this meteoric talent still hasn’t reached its highest point.
Charles’ athletic ability was first developed at a young age by swimming, she says whilst simultaneously pointing at her shoulders: “How could I not have been a swimmer with shoulders as wide as these?”
Swim training is brutal, 5am starts on most days to train before school as well as after more often than not. There’s a level of discipline or madness to commit to a sport so time consuming at the age of nine. Let alone convinced that at eight years old you already know you want to be an Olympian. Momentarily let your mind wander back to what you were envisaging for yourself at the age of eight...
“My sole goal from probably 8 years old was - I want to be in the Olympics for swimming - or in the Olympics for something” there isn’t a slither of diffidence in her recall.”
As with many stories of top level athletes, disappointment is always a part of the development process. By her late teens Charles was racing for Team GB in long distance swimming. Becoming an Olympian was within arm’s reach at London 2012 but the selectors hedged their bets on another athlete. Devastated and disillusioned with her childhood dream – contemplating if waiting another four years was emotionally feasible – a decision had to be made.
“When I decided that I didn’t want to swim anymore I almost felt guilty because my parents had dedicated my whole upbringing to swimming and taking me to the pool” she explains. Attempting to be an Olympian can be heart wrenching, missing out on selection means a four year wait until the next Games. Quitting everything can feel futile, but being so disappointed with the sport left Charles with no other conceivable option. So what is the natural next step after you’ve given up on an Olympic dream?
“I basically quit everything and my Mum and Dad said ’well you’ve got to get a job‘ so I ended up working in a zoo, completely random, it was the local zoo and I worked in marketing for them”. Of course, the obvious natural progression. “But after two months I was like, what am I doing with my life I need something else, I need sport”.
DON’T SET CHALLENGES BY HALF
When entering an Ironman the majority of people have an inkling of what they are letting themselves in for. A 3.8km swim followed by a 180km bike ride then a marathon to seal it. It’s worth doing a bit of research on. But then sometimes naivety is a beautiful thing. The date was set – July 2014 was to be Charles’ Ironman debut in Bolton.
“As a kid I’d had a mountain bike and at the time I thought, well I’ve got a mountain bike at home I can use that, then I soon learnt, hell no. I don’t think you’re even allowed to, it was a big learning curve” she laughs. Learning how to ride with clip-in pedals posed challenging enough, here she self-confesses to being a ‘right chopper’ when setting out. Turning up to club sessions on her bike wearing running kit warranted playful jibes. You learn quickly that some rules should not be.
Finishing 2nd in her age group at Ironman UK and hearing about the World Championships in Kona the lure of podiums and dreams of being the world’s best were re-ignited. In 2015 her rise continued after qualifying for Kona. Going there as an amateur she impressively won her age group: “So I decided ’OK, I’m going to go professional now.”
“I can never do something for the fun of just getting round, I just want to try and be the best at it.”
If you haven’t realised by now there are no half measures with Charles, it’s all or nothing: “I can never do something for the fun of just getting round, I just want to try and be the best at it”. That attitude can invite trouble and after hammering her body through training and racing, Charles soon found out that the effect running has on a body is not the same as swimming. A body unused to high impact sport started to spiral into injury.
“The year  that I had the leg injury I actually did a whole Ironman and a half Ironman with a stress fracture in my leg. I didn’t know what it was, but it got so bad I thought, ‘OK I’m probably going to have to get a scan on it now.”
When they scanned her tibia, doctors reported that the fracture had almost gone the whole way along the bone. One more race running on it, and it would have sheared the bone. It was obvious there was still a lot to be learned, not only about her body but racing at this level in general.
NO LONGER AN IMPOSTER
Such a furious rise to the top can sometimes bring with it imposter syndrome. Especially when the majority of your competitors have spent time earning their stripes and getting to know the sport. Was there a moment when you started to take yourself seriously and realise you had the potential?
“Yeah I think winning Lanzarote 2017 changed my mind-set a lot. I started to think, ‘actually you’re pretty good at this‘ as I came off the bike with a 20 minute lead. When I first entered triathlon I thought I was useless at cycling. Then when I finished Lanzarote my Dad said to me ’You do know you broke the bike course record?’ and I was like, ‘shut up, no I didn’t!’” Performances like that create pressure, everyone sits up, takes note. The rookie tag becomes redundant and expectations can start to weigh heavy.
KONA – HAWAIIAN MADNESS
“My sole aim in that race was to finish in the top 10, it was ambitious”. Charles is unapologetic about how lofty an ambition that truly was. “But then I also had this secret ambition that I wanted to be on the podium, but I didn’t know if it would be doable so I didn’t want to throw it out there too much”.
It was doable, and not only did she do it, she led for well over half the race, not being caught by Daniela Ryf, the reigning World Champion, until the last few kilometres of the bike leg.
“My sole aim in that race was to finish in the top 10, it was ambitious”
“I think because I was leading for such a long way on the bike then I fell into second place and everyone was asking post-race how did it feel dropping into second? I was just thinking, ‘I don’t care I’m still way in the top ten this is great.’” So phenomenal was her performance that Ryf on the finish line told Charles she had given her one of the hardest races of her life. Quite the compliment from the world’s best.
If 2017 was her breakout year then 2018 has started just as impressively, already claiming 1st at both Ironman South Africa and Cannes. So far so good with handling the pressure I ask? “I’ve always been quite confident in my ability. Although there is the flipside and I look back and it wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t ride a bike without falling off. Sometimes I almost imagine I’m still there so it can be difficult to realise just how much I have progressed. I’m definitely a lot more confident now, I used to just brake the whole way down a hill because I’d be petrified” she laughs.
WHO DO YOU WANT TO BE?
When asked about her past and the advice she would give to her 12 year old self, she considers her response, “It’s difficult because in a way I feel like the mentality I had then was almost perfect because it’s led me to this place, but I think there were times when I put too much pressure on myself at a very young age, I should have still just been enjoying it.”
A meteoric rise can overload the sense of reality; it can cloud a true measurement of progress. Leaving you with a lack of appreciation for what has actually been achieved. Everyone has an opinion on who you are, who you’re going to be and what you’re going to achieve: “A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh you’re going to be the next Chrissie Wellington‘, but I don’t want to be the next someone. I just want to be me and what I want to do. I want to do things that no-one has ever done before. No-one had ever used overshoes in an Ironman before and then after I did it everyone was like, ‘Of course why hadn’t we thought of doing that before.’”
“I’ve sacrificed everything from such a young age, I never went out with friends, I always had to say no. I guess most of them are used to me letting them down throughout my whole childhood, but it’s all worth it”
The self-amelioration that Charles expresses is evidently been building from within since the age of eight years old. There’s no imposter syndrome there because sacrifice to become the best alleviates that: “I’ve sacrificed everything from such a young age, I never went out with friends, I always had to say no. I guess most of them are used to me letting them down throughout my whole childhood, but it’s all worth it”.
What is unmistakable, is that to become the best in the world the ability to balance a tunnel vision to success needs enjoyment in co-existence. So far for Charles, harmony between the two is clearly visible. That killer instinct behind the smile is still hungry and enjoying the hunt.
FOOTNOTES Words by Hannah Troop. Images by Brakethrough Media & Eilidh McKibbin.
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