IRONGRAN - An unconventional journey to six-time ITU World Champion

By Chris Knight | 7 Minute Read

Sarah Barrett's route to becoming a six-time ITU Age Group World Champion hasn't exactly been conventional - she didn't start running until she was 37 and raced in her first triathlon at the age of 52.

Precision Hydration simply had to find out about her secrets to success, so we spoke to the 72-year-old - who has three children and five grandchildren - after she retained her world championship title for a fourth year running at the 2019 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Lausanne, Switzerland...

 

Hi Sarah, thanks for chatting with us. Firstly, congratulations on your win in Lausanne - how did that sixth world championship title feel and how on earth do you keep complacency at bay after enjoying such a sustained period of success? 

It felt great - it always feels good when I win!

I don't know about complacency but I know I’m definitely the person to beat. Some people think I’m always going to win, which is rubbish. 

And all this business of winning stuff, I think sometimes people think it’s easy if you do it too often. Somebody told me that I always know I'm going to win, so I replied, "Oh, really? Have you not noticed that I train? Come on."

If I thought I was going to win every time and was lethargic about it, I wouldn’t. If you don’t do the training, you can’t get there.

And the older you are, the more you have to keep it going as it’s easy to slip down the slope. Once you slip, it’s so much harder to climb up again.

 

How do you avoid that slippery slope and what do your put your continued success down to?

I’m very competitive and I enjoy training, but it helps if I’ve got an end aim. I think for me, the winning feeling is fantastic, but I still always want to finish an Olympic-distance race in a time of under 3 hours.

 

 

So, how did this all come about? Were you quite sporty as a youngster?

It was all team sports at my private school, so I didn’t start running until I was 37 and I was effectively a veteran.

A lady in my village knocked on my door and asked if I'd be interested in joining a 'ladies-only' running group. They'd set up this 6-week training programme for a women's only 10K race, and I ended up coming 3rd in the race. 

After that I couldn’t seem to run more than about 6 or 7 miles on my own, so I joined the local running club, which is now a very well-known running club called JAFFA [Jogging and Fitness For All]. They were absolutely fantastic and welcomed newcomers of all different abilities. 

I then ran my first marathon that year and JAFFA produced all of these beautiful training schedules for beginners, mediums, elites, and they’d often gear them to whatever time you wanted to do. 

I followed my schedule to the letter, and I won the marathon!

I suppose I then realised I was probably going to be reasonable at long distance racing. 

Although after my first marathon I said, “never, ever again. Don’t you make me bloody do that.”

The next week I’m thinking, “what can I sign up for?”

 

I think that's a thought process that many of us can relate to! So, how did you get into triathlon from there? 

I moved to Bournemouth in 1991 and I’d been swimming in the pool, where there was a section roped off for some guys having a training session. One of them stood up and said, “Sarah, I know you can run. I see you can swim. Why don’t you buy a bike and have a go at triathlon?”

Later on, I had a cyclist friend who asked, “are you doing Fareham Triathlon?

I said, “No...”

She said, “Right, I’m ringing now and I’m going to get you in.”

Heck. I was 52 years old at the time and I don’t remember much about that first one. I don’t think I had time to be worried about it.

I swam at school and that definitely helped, because I didn’t swim for over 20 years until I started triathlon, and I thought, “somebody’s going to try and change my swimming stroke. They must do, because I’m sure things will have changed a bit.”

Nobody’s really changed it very much at all.

 

I imagine our readers are wondering how much training you put in to keeping finishing on top of podiums - with that in mind, what does your training plan look like at the moment? 

I’ve been a member of the Zoom Tri Club since they started and I usually run up to about 8 miles with them, although that includes my own jog to warm myself up because I’m the oldest by far!

My coach, Will Newbery, is fantastic and I think a lot of his winter spinning sessions - which are triathlon-specific and done to your threshold - have made a huge difference. I wouldn’t have expected to still be as good as I am and doing the times I still am.

My training schedule involves about 12 hours or so a week. Probably a bit more in the summer because I’m outdoors more. It’s quite a lot of training, but I’ve got the time now.

I do a Body Balance class twice a week, Pilates once a week, go to the gym twice a week, and do an hour in the gym.

I often do a swim on a Monday as well, and then a swim in the evening, with half an hour in the evening with my coach Will Newbery. And then we have an hour on the bike. Wednesday we have three-quarters of an hour swim and an hour on the bike. 

When it comes to using gadgets for training, I’m hopeless, and I just mislaid my Garmin, which I only really use to help guide my pace and distance for running. But I don’t use heart rate monitors or anything. I think I’m experienced enough to go by feel!

 

You've had an Advanced Sweat Test and worked with Precision Hydration to help refine your hydration strategy. Why did you take a test and how has PH impacted on your performance? 

I used to get cramps in my quads when I came off the bike and was bending down to get my running shoes. I can’t do my shoes on the bike and put my feet into them. I’ve never been flexible and I started triathlon too late in life to be able to do that. 

So in transition, I'd bend down and would be like, "oh God", "ooh" and the cramps would kick in. 

So, I went to Sandown Park and PH were offering Sweat Tests, so I thought, “okay, go on.” 

So after that, I started using Precision Hydration. It’s been great and made a difference to my cramps.

I use the PH 1000 and I also use the PH 1500 in the summer, particularly the day before an event, and I usually have one the morning of the race as part of my preload.

 

And what are your plans going forward - continue to dominate in Olympic distance races?

Will asked me the other day, “would you think of doing something a bit different, Sarah? You’re not a bit tired of Olympic distance?”

I replied, “No. I like winning, Will!”....

But I have just entered a 70.3 in Barcelona and that will be my first half Ironman in about 16 years.

I signed up for that because I could potentially qualify for the 70.3 World Championships in New Zealand, which would be a nice opportunity to hook a holiday onto an event, although my children often say, “are you ever going to have a holiday that isn’t involved with sports?”.

 

Sounds like a decent way to holiday to us! Do you find having events lined up helps to maintain your motivation for racing? And are there any plans to try shorter or longer distances?

I definitely like having something to aim for and having a focus, so I’ve entered Leeds Triathlon again and I’ve done that since the first disastrous one. And I’m actually due to go to the Olympic Distance World Championships in Edmonton, which are now in August.

I’ve done one Ironman, in Austria back in 2005, but I’ve turned down three opportunities to go to Hawaii. Now, boy, do I regret it.

At the time, you could qualify for Hawaii on a 70.3 and I won my age group at a 70.3, so I could’ve gone to Hawaii then, but it would’ve been for the following year. At the time I just thought, “I’ve given up marathon running.”

The next year I won a 70.3 again, but they’d moved the goalposts. The goalpost then was, “you can go to Hawaii, but it’s this year.”

Well, I didn’t know that. If I’d known that, I would’ve done different training. I would’ve been more prepared and ready for an Ironman. 

Then when I won the Ironman in Austria, I could’ve gone, but again it was 6 weeks later. I thought, “how can I run another Ironman at my age in 6 weeks' time?”

I'd done an enormous amount of training and it took me 6 months to get in shape to win that race. I didn’t understand how I would be able to manage, so I declined it.

 

Would you consider another crack at full distance racing if it meant qualifying for the IM World Championships?

I'd have to do another Ironman to have the opportunity to qualify for Kona, so I think that ship might have sailed, but I don't really know.

 

Andy was telling us that he remembers first meeting you 20 years ago when he was still racing. You've managed to outlast him, but do you have plans to follow AB into retirement or will you keep racing?

People keep saying, “when are you going to retire? When are you going to stop?”, and some of my friends ask, "when are you going to give up?”.

I’m still competitive. I’m still fit. I’ll go on doing it.

Why should I retire? I’m lucky to be fit enough to be able to do it, and that’s a big plus.

 

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone considering moving into triathlon later in life?

Have a go. For anybody older starting, I’d say try to find somebody or a local triathlon club to get some advice. There’s lots of information on the internet too.

Age is absolutely no barrier at all. You just need to have a go.

Triathlon is fun and who knows where it can take you - from little acorns, big trees can grow.

I would never have expected to get to this level when I started triathlon. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could win medals. But I'm so proud to represent GB and feel privileged to be able to wear the national team kit.

 

Brilliant, thanks Sarah. Congratulations on your latest World Championship win and good luck for an exciting year ahead. 

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