British Ironman athlete Lucy Charles-Barclay.
© Rick Guest
Triathlon

Built to win: Lucy Charles-Barclay

Lucy Charles-Barclay is one of the Ironman elite. She went from never having ridden a racing bike to world number two in just two-and-a-half years.
Written by Miriam Walker-Khan
15 min readPublished on
Yet she has never won the top prize: the World Championship in Hawaii. This is how she has rebuilt herself to do just that.
It’s a sunny morning in July, and as The Red Bulletin arrives at an unassuming 1930s semi-detached house in Essex, Lucy Charles-Barclay emerges through a garage door to greet us. This is the property of her mother and father-in-law. Calm, laid-back and full of smiles, the 27-year-old British triathlete leads us through the back garden – a giddy mess of twists and turns; her Jack Russell, Lola, energetically skipping around her heels – towards an outhouse at the far end. She calls this special place her ‘Pain Cave’.
Her husband Reece was just 10 years old when he built the Pain Cave with his father, Dean Barclay – a super welterweight from Enfield, north London, who boxed in the ’80s and ’90s. Charles-Barclay guides us past the endless pool, which she explains is “like a treadmill but for swimming”. It has a turbulent current to replicate open-water swimming. On one side of a boxing ring are Watto bike trainers, squat racks and rowing machines. There’s a mirror on one wall; on the other, life-size prints of her and Reece in competition. There are signs of family history, too: promotional flyers of Dean’s fights, and old photos of him boxing. The walls not covered in pictures hold shelves of trophies.
In many ways the Pain Cave is just a normal gym, but there’s an air of mystery about it. That might be due to the lighting, which Charles-Barclay explains can be set to any colour and changes depending on her mood. Or maybe it’s because this discrete base of operations is where one of the greatest triathletes in history hones herself to compete on the world stage.
Charles-Barclay sits down on beanbags in the centre of the boxing ring. She’s wearing training kit – leggings and a vest – her long, blond hair in neat French plaits, which she combs through with manicured turquoise nails. At 1.7m tall, she’s lean and lanky. She trains three times a day, and you can tell from the muscles in her arms and shoulders that she goes hard.
“Some might think I’m too skinny, but actually I’m strong,” she says, her voice soft-spoken. “I only look like this as a result of training. I do everything to make my body my machine.” Charles-Barclay says that others at school would make fun of her large shoulders: “But I didn’t mind, because they were my weapon – they make me an amazing swimmer. The thing about Ironman is that people who do well are all different sizes; there’s not one shape to win the race. People sometimes assume athletes are vain, but a lot of us aren’t. We just look at our form and technique.
Lucy Charles-Barclay photographed for The Red Bulletin.
"There’s not one shape to win," says Lucy Charles-Barclay of the Ironman
You need to embrace who you are. I’m Lucy Charles-Barclay and I’m not comparing myself to anyone else. I’m doing what I need to do to win world titles
And the one she most wants to win is the Ironman World Championship. Usually held every October in Kona, Hawaii, it’s the most important event on the triathlon calendar. Each year, more than 100,000 contestants compete in qualifiers across the world, but little over 2,000 make the big day: a race that starts with a 3.8km swim around Kailua Bay, followed by a 180km bike ride across lava fields and a 42.2km coastal marathon back to Kailua-Kona.
The first time Charles-Barclay competed as an adult at Kona was in 2017. It was just her sixth race as a professional triathlete. She’d also just recovered from a serious injury picked up the year before – a stress fracture in her tibia – and knew she should have had the injury checked out much sooner than she did, but being so new to the sport she felt she had a point to prove. “I ignored it and continued to train,” she recalls. “I raced to the point where [the fracture] had gone about 95 per cent of the way through the bone. I was told by the specialist if I did one more race, my leg probably would have snapped.
“It happened so early in my career. I’m now much smarter and wouldn’t do that again. I think you need a bit of stubbornness to be a good athlete. But that was stubbornness in a negative way.”
After the injury disrupted her training, Charles-Barclay felt she had nothing to lose. Finishing in the top 10 at Kona that year would have been a “dream scenario”, she says. “There were points where I thought I wouldn’t even finish. I went into that race knowing I would be strong on the swim, but the bike and the run were unknowns.”
Incredibly, for the majority of the bike ride she led the pack. Only Swiss triathlete Daniela Ryf, the reigning champion and title holder for the previous two years, managed to overtake her. “I knew she would. She was the dominant athlete at the time,” says Charles-Barclay. “I wasn’t even disappointed – it’s the most emotional I’ve ever been finishing a race. I could not believe that I’d come second in my debut race off the back of the lack of training I’d had.”
Lucy Charles-Barclay photographed for The Red Bulletin.
Charles-Barclay has her sights set on the Ironman World Championship
Growing up, I had huge shoulders because I was a swimmer, and people would always make jokes about them. I didn’t mind, because they were like my weapon – they make me the amazing swimmer that I am
From rookie to the second best Ironman athlete in the world. For Charles-Barclay, there was only one target for 2018: number one.
“I’d describe myself as a born competitor. Growing up, it didn’t matter what we were doing – running up stairs or playing a board game – I had to win,” recalls Charles-Barclay. “My parents knew they needed to get me into sport at an early age, because I had too much energy.” Her heroes, naturally, were athletes.
“One of my biggest inspirations is Kelly Holmes,” she says of the British middle-distance icon who took gold in the 800m and 1,500m at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “I remember watching her and being amazed.” Charles-Barclay was nine at the time. “At school, one of my friends didn’t understand how an athlete could inspire you. We had to talk about our heroes, and I presented Kelly Holmes to the class. My friend said, ‘I get it now. I understand why you do sport, and how someone can inspire you.’”
Charles-Barclay says that Holmes overcoming her mental health struggles – which the now-Dame has opened up about in books and podcasts – motivated her, too. “I had a swimming coach and it felt like nothing was ever good enough for them. When I came into triathlon, I was beaten down and told, ‘You’re not good enough. You haven’t come through the system. You won’t do what you want to do.’ Before the World Championship in 2017 I was trying to pick up sponsors; I told them what I was about – that I would be first out of that water and I would lead on the bike for most of the day. They didn’t want to know. Being told you’re not good enough just makes you hungry to prove those people wrong.” It was that sense of determination she took into her second attempt at the Ironman World Championship.
Lucy Charles-Barclay photographed for The Red Bulletin.
In 2004, Charles-Barclay promised herself she would become an Olympian
Being told you’re not good enough, you want to prove them wrong
Heading into Kona in 2018, Charles-Barclay was filled with confidence. After a solid block of injury-free training, she was fitter than ever. By the end of the swimming stage she’d broken the swim-course record with a time of 48 minutes and 13 seconds. By the end of the race, she’d scored the second-fastest time in race history. As she mounted her bike for the second stage, Ryf was a clear 10 minutes behind her. “Daniela had a nightmare on the swim – apparently she was stung by a jellyfish,” Charles-Barclay says. “I biked so strongly. It was exactly how I wanted to bike.”
But somehow the Swiss triple-champion managed to catch her at exactly the same point of the cycle as before. “It was like déjà vu, but this time my mind was completely different, like, ‘How the hell have you done this?’ Because on the first 90km of the bike she wasn’t gaining much. Then, when we turned for the second half of the bike, that gap was getting eaten in chunks. I hadn’t slowed down, I was still biking super-strong, so when she caught me it was [a mix of] annoyance and disbelief. I was racing angry, because this was my race to win.”
Once more, Charles-Barclay finished in second place. “I feel I should have won that race. But I know I couldn’t have done anything more that day,” she says, contemplatively.
Lucy Charles-Barclay began swimming at the age of eight. At nine, she won her county championships. It was in that year, which coincided with the 2004 Athens Games, that she promised herself she would one day become an Olympian. Everyone at both primary and secondary school knew she wanted to compete at the 2012 London Olympics. “I was fixed on that idea from a young age,” she smiles.
At 16, she began training in a performance-driven squad at Hatfield Swimming Club. As she started winning national medals, that Olympic dream felt tangible. When she had to choose between becoming a butterfly swimmer or going down the route of distance freestyle, she chose the latter, “because it was the more difficult event”. A year later, she took up open-water swimming after being drawn to even longer distances like the 10km. It was in this event that Charles-Barclay decided she’d most likely qualify for the Olympics.
However, she experienced her first taste of sporting heartbreak after the 2012 Olympic trials, when Team GB said they could only take one athlete for the event. That turned out to be Keri-anne Payne after she won gold at the 2011 Shanghai World Championships. As Charles-Barclay recounts the story, there are tears in her eyes: “I remember watching her at Hyde Park. It was so difficult because obviously I really wanted to be there.”
Lucy Charles-Barclay photographed for The Red Bulletin.
Throughout 2022, the pursuit of triathlon victories will continue
Charles-Barclay told herself she would dedicate the next four years to qualifying for the Rio Games. But in 2013, when she finished fourth in the 1,500m freestyle at the British Championships – a career best – she knew something was missing. “I finished that race and just didn’t feel anything,” she says.
It was then that Charles-Barclay wondered if she could keep it up for another four years. “It coming so close to the home Olympics, which I’d worked towards since I was a kid, was really difficult,” she says. “Yes, there was another Olympics, but it wasn’t the one I wanted. I just hated every session.” A month later, she gave up on the sport completely.
What followed was an apprenticeship at a local zoo. As an animal lover, Charles-Barclay was in her element, but it wasn’t long before the competitor inside her re-emerged. A month in, she signed up for an Ironman event on a whim. “I didn’t really know what it would entail in terms of the training and equipment, but I knew I needed a goal that scared me enough to start training again.”
At the start, that goal was simply to have fun. “A part of me didn’t even want to be good, I just wanted to enjoy it. But it didn’t take long before that competitive edge took over and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do sport and be average at it. That’s not who I am.’”
Her friends and family thought she was crazy – not only did she have just 11 months to train for the event, but, having never ridden a road bike before, she told them she could do it on a mountain bike. “We soon learned you definitely can’t do it on a mountain bike,” she laughs. “At traffic lights I’d forget I was clipped in and would just fall off. I’d come from a sport where all you needed was a swimsuit, cap and goggles. To be a triathlete you almost need to become a mechanic, because things can go wrong in the race and you need to know how to fix it.”
She’d wake at 5am, swim 4km, then run a half marathon – all before 10am. Going from a zero-impact sport to pounding pavement, Charles-Barclay struggled with the dangers of training on open roads – a huge contrast to the safe zone of a pool, and a valid concern after her bike was hit by a car. “That really set me back, because I was nervous to return. When you’re descending a mountain at speed, you don’t want to think about what can go wrong. You have to think about exactly what you’re doing. It’s completely different from swimming.”
That wasn’t the only challenge: “Mentally, it’s even harder. In training you’re doing the physical toll, but race day is 90 per cent mental, 10 per cent physical. It can be super-hard when you’re three hours into the bike with two left and then you’re running a marathon.” Fortunately, she wasn’t on the journey alone – husband Reece is also a pro triathlete and her coach. She describes him as “a weapon. He’s that bit better, so I’m always striving to catch him”.
Lucy Charles-Barclay photographed for The Red Bulletin.
“That burning desire to go to the Olympics is still there."
You need to do 10,000 hours in a sport to excel at it. In cycling, I still haven’t reached that point
Lucy Charles and Reece Barclay met as swimmers in 2011. Barclay studied sports science at the University of Hertfordshire, which had links to the elite swimming squad at Hatfield. “We got engaged in 2012, and after our mad triathlon journey took off in 2014 we didn’t get married until December 2018,” Charles-Barclay says. “We still haven’t had a honeymoon, due to our busy schedule. I hope that if we have kids, sport is what they want to do, because they should have really good genes. It’d be cool to tell them about all the things we’ve done.”
After Ironman 2018, Charles-Barclay took two months off training to “refresh my mind”. When she returned, she decided the only way to win was to get better at cycling. “They say you need to do 10,000 hours in a sport to excel at it. I’d done that in swimming, but in cycling I still haven’t reached that point,” she admits. Even when training at a high intensity, she does less volume than most triathletes. “Normally, I’m out front because I’ve had a great swim. It always feels like my race to lose, like I’ve got the target on my back and the girls are chasing me.” Going into Kona 2019, that was exactly the case. Towards the end of the cycle stage, Charles-Barclay was leading and, powered by euphoria, began pedalling harder than ever. Then came the calf cramp.
Halfway through the running stage, she was overtaken by Germany’s Anne Haug, one of the best runners in long-course triathlon. “When she came past I thought, ‘I’m glad it’s her,’ because I have so much respect for her,” says Charles-Barclay. Haug won, and 2019 ended the same way for the Brit as the previous two years: second again.
“It was hard, but I finished that race knowing I’d given everything I could. I’ve had a different emotion after each of those races. People might think I haven’t progressed, but every year I’ve got stronger, become more mentally resilient, and my performance has improved – the progress for me has been huge.”
After Kona 2019, Charles-Barclay went back to the drawing board. “I was like, ‘I rolled the dice and it went slightly wrong, but we can learn from it – now it’s about improving the run.’ I was really motivated. Then the pandemic happened.”
Back in the Pain Cave, Charles-Barclay is trying not to laugh as she tells off Lola the dog for always being the centre of attention. But, seconds later, she gets her to perform a trick – a run and jump over a weights bar.
For eight weeks in spring 2020, there was a double bed in the middle of the boxing ring as she and Reece stayed here during the first lockdown. The pandemic meant her 2020 competitions were cancelled, but in true Charles-Barclay fashion she’s positive: “It taught me you have to enjoy each win, because you don’t know how many you’ll get.”
This year, she has grabbed any opportunity to compete, even going back to her roots and entering the Tokyo 2020 swimming trials, which she says she didn’t expect to qualify for, but felt was necessary to drag her out of her comfort zone. She also entered an Olympic-distance triathlon – two hours instead of the usual eight-and-a-half of Ironman. “I get the most satisfaction from hard, intense sessions. I feel I could make an Olympics in the shorter-distance triathlon while also having success in the long course. Less than a handful of athletes have managed to do that.”
That desire to go to the Olympics is still there. I can’t shut it down
And then there’s Ironman in Kona. Charles-Barclay was set for her rematch with destiny this October when a surge of COVID cases in Hawaii forced its postponement to February. She remains undeterred. “I feel that this time I can win this race,” she says. “I know what to do. I’ve committed to the right training and I’m listening to my body. There are still things I need to tick off mentally, but I’m in a good place.”
As for her past nemeses, Charles-Barclay says her focus is firmly on herself rather than on other athletes: “My biggest detriment, which I’m happy to admit, is that I never believe I’ve done enough. I drive my husband mental saying that, and he always says, ‘But how could you possibly have done more?’”
Throughout 2022, the pursuit of triathlon victories will continue, but Charles-Barclay will also attempt to break the eight-hour barrier for an Ironman distance and claim the women’s world record, which currently stands at 8h 18m 13s, held by fellow Brit Chrissie Wellington. And she’s hoping to make the Olympic team for Paris 2024.
“That burning desire to go to the Olympics is still there and I can’t shut it down,” says Charles-Barclay. “I believe I could win the Olympic gold medal, and I never really dreamt of that in swimming. I want to be an amazing athlete. But I also just want to be a nice person and someone who will inspire others.”