What do you buy your adventure sports loving dad for his 60th?
He’s a former Royal Marine, ex-professional triathlete, ski mountaineer and cyclist – but he's got a dodgy knee.
The answer? A team entry to ÖTILLÖ Swimrun Utö in Sweden of course!
What could possibly go wrong?! Bernie Shrosbree tells us about being signed up to this epic endurance challenge by his 24-year-old daughter Danni, his extraordinary athletic career, the F1 legends he’s worked with – and the lessons today’s triathletes could learn from the past...
In the world of adventure sports, cycling and triathlon, the name Bernie Shrosbree frequently comes up. He’s the guy who whipped Ben Fogle and James Cracknell into shape before their journey to the South Pole. He’s been a performance coach to the likes of Mark Webber, Jenson Button and the late rally driver Colin McRae.
But it’s as an athlete where he gets really interesting.
His first sport was biathlon, which he took to after joining the Royal Marines. (He would serve for 16 years, including a stint in its special forces unit, the SBS.) At 18 he was competing for the team GB Nordic team and three years later, in 1981 was British Nordic ski champion.
In the mid 80s he was a three time winner of the UK’s Survival of the Fittest programme, a kind of 'ninja warrior meets multisport adventure race' TV contest, and runner-up at the Worlds.
Then he heard about this new sport taking off. It was called triathlon. It wasn’t long before he was captain of the national team, competing at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, where the sport made its inaugural appearance. He finished up ranked 12th in Europe and 25th in the world.
Since ‘retiring’ from competitive sport in the 90s, Bernie has cross-country skied 1,000km across Norway, canoed the Devizes to Westminster race with James Cracknell, raced with Pippa Middleton in the famous Patrouille de Glacier ski race from Zermatt to Verbier, competed in the brutal 10 day Mark Webber Challenge and cycled many sportives, including Paris to Monaco via the Alps which involved riding 240km three days in a row.
“I decided that at 60 I’m not going to sit at home and fade away,” he tells us. “My family is not going to be pushing me around a nursing home and the only way to avoid that is to continue.”
Signing him up to a swimrun event - a sport that has exploded in popularity in the last few years - would seem the logical gift.
“I saw his 60th as a great opportunity to stitch him up and do something together,” his daughter Danni explains.
“Over the years I’ve competed in sports to quite a high level and have always got a bit jealous watching dad doing all these amazing events. We’ve raced together but never as a team, which is why I thought ÖTILLÖ Utö would be a great opportunity.”
There’s just one problem.
“My left knee,” says Bernie. “Running was my greatest asset and it’s now my weakness.” Back in the day he could run a 2:32 marathon, a 69 min half, and the 1500m in 3:56.
But that all changed when he started experiencing patella tendon issues in the early 90s. Unable to train, he put on weight and suffered a year of depression. Eventually he saw a knee specialist.
“He said mine was like a dishcloth with holes in it.”
Bernie eventually opted for surgery, with the expectation that jogging might one day be possible. In the end he didn’t push his luck, transferring to other sports: kayaking, cycling and swimming.
“I’ve started jogging again, he says. “My knees are ok, I’m not running with a limp, but I haven’t run for years. My family knows I love a challenge and wanted to get back into running. Now I’ve got no choice – I have to.”
In theory, few people should be better qualified to get into shape than Bernie. Over the last 20 years he’s been a professional performance coach, particularly in motorsports, working with the likes of Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, before they became legends.
Working alongside him was a young Andy Blow, founder of Precision Hydration.
“He was a very talented athlete and knew his sport science,” says Bernie. “We nicknamed him ‘Pot Noodle’, not because he ate them, but because he was a student.”
The core of Bernie’s philosophy boils down to taking athletes outside of their comfort zones, breaking them down and rebuilding them back up via adventure sports. So the motorsports drivers would find themselves in a kayak or mountain bike, or on a steep alpine col.
“Everything we did evolved around multisport,” he said. “We were gym-based, but would use the outdoors for new skills. When you throw a racing driver onto a climbing wall you get them to expose themselves. It’s a military concept of stripping back and skilling-up to assess performance.”
“We took Jenson to the Col de la Madone near Monaco, where all the drivers were based. It’s a famous climb which Lance Armstrong used to use as a test. Half way up, Jenson turns to me and says, ‘I f*cking hate cycling’! “Lance used to smash up it in about 30 minutes. We took about 50.”
Bernie definitely belongs to the old school when it comes to training and, like any athlete of his generation, there's a twinkle in the eye when he starts reminiscing about his own training days back when sport science was in its infancy.
But, whilst he's a fan of GPS watches, Wattbikes, online training plans and all the rest, he says there are lessons today’s athletes can learn from more analog days.
“We have become nutrition and tech nugget heads today,” he says. “Data and performance, it’s all become a bit too clinical. When I worked alongside Jürgen Gröbler [the coach at GB rowing], he used to say: ‘Bernie, show me the scientist with the medal around his neck.’ That’s what people were saying back then – it was all a bit hit and miss with sport science.
“We did all overtrain, back then Ron Hill was running 120 miles a week. In my generation, we all had full-time jobs. The guys I trained with would go out after eight or ten hours of manual labour, whatever the conditions, whether it was pissing with rain or not. And they wouldn’t wait if you got a puncture as time was so short. I’m not saying that’s the right way to go, but…”
By contrast, he says it’s very easy for today’s triathletes to become too dependent on power meters, HR monitors and all the rest. “Our mental state was better back then – we were better prepared for races in all conditions because that’s what we were used to.”
He also raises the question about why British running, at an elite local level, has declined since the Coe, Ovett and Cram glory days. “When I look at my local running club, today we have a guy who runs a 2:14 marathon and he qualifies for the Olympics, but in the 80s we had three guys who could run 2:13.”
But he’s under no illusions that it was all great. “Back in the 90s it was all ‘smash and survive’ in cycling and triathlon and if you couldn’t deal with that, you failed. I never believed in that. You’ve got to be technically efficient. We lost an incredible amount of good athletes in those days.”
Today he says we have the balance about right between sports science and old-school grit. Both will come into play when he teams up with his daughter Danni for the ÖTILLÖ swimrun in May.
Danni, 24, is a formidable athlete herself. She rowed at Oxford Brookes University in the eights, winning the European University Championships before injury prevented further progression. A couple of years ago she switched to cycling, joining CCL, where she’s been performing well at national series races.
Both she and Bernie are very strong swimmers. “We keep joking about who is going to pull who, but it’s about pulling together,” she says.
“He will hate me saying this, but I’ve been swimming since a young age and have kept it up and I might tow him on the swim. But for sure he’ll make up for it when the mental side comes into play.”
She says their strategy is to pace themselves, even though they both know that'll go out the window as soon as the start gun fires as they are both so competitive. “Dad is playing it down but when it comes down to it, he’s not going to want some guy taking him on the swim.”
We've been supporting the pair in both their athletic endeavours for many years. “I’ve used Precision Hydration throughout my cycling career and it’s been amazing,” says Danni. “It’s another source of life when you need it.”
“It’s the only stuff I use now,” adds Bernie. “I used it cycling Paris to the Alps and we had some hot days. It just works for me and gives exactly what you need, once you’ve done your Sweat Test.”
There’s now just a few weeks to go before ÖTILLÖ Utö, which takes place on May 18th. The 41km race packs 5.1km of cold-water swimming and 35.8km of running (in a wetsuit).
Bernie says that the biggest challenge has been to arrive at the startline uninjured and with a functioning knee. To do that he focused on strength training with CrossFit, rather than endurance, and swimming ~8-9km a week.
“The terrain is going to be pretty difficult. But I think we will make a good team,” says Danni.
“She'll be the boss,” adds Bernie. “We're all scared of the women in our lives – she’s very committed and a very good athlete and I’m scared to death to fail. Everyone thinks I'm hard but she's kicking me up the ass and I don't want to let her down...”