As far as extreme sports go, an Ironman race in thirty-plus degrees in near total humidity on a remote Hawaiian island is about as extreme as you can get. Throw in two children under the age of five to look after and the difficult race seems to border on the impossible.
This is what Sophie Bubb, amateur Ironman competitor (the correct term for a female participant so she tells me), has just completed.
This particular event was the World Ironman Championships in Kona, and Sophie defied the odds by coming in the top ten in her category and even beating professional racers along the way.
“With Kona it’s a whole different event, the conditions are really challenging with the heat and the humidity and the course and then it really is the world’s best,” Bubb explained to me.
This was her second year competing at the World Championships, and she felt she had a score to settle this time around.
“Last year when I went I sort of got a bit overawed by the event because it is just such a massive event and it is very easy to be overwhelmed.
“This year I went to it much fresher and with a totally different attitude. I wasn’t really racing anyone else, I was just racing myself from the previous year and I had the most amazing race.
“To come top ten in my category and to be so close to the leaders, I felt myself really bridging the gap. I dropped an hour from my time the previous year and my bike, which has generally been my weak discipline, was the same time as the girl who won, pretty much.”
This is an incredible achievement even without considering the fact that she only began racing after her second son was born in October 2015. In fact, as Bubb says, she had only planned on entering one race.
“I had quite a difficult second pregnancy. I had my children 16 months apart, so I had two consecutive summers on maternity leave and I was actually feeling a bit low. I wanted to do something for myself that I could just concentrate on that was for me.
“I thought it [an Ironman race] was one of the biggest challenges I could give myself.
“It’s quite a selfish sport in the way that you’ve got to train so much for it and certainly from a racing perspective, it is an individual sport – it’s all about yourself. I just wanted to reclaim my body and all I wanted to do was finish one race.”
Unbeknown to Bubb, the race she entered was ‘Challenge Weymouth 2015’ – the European Long Distance Triathlon Championships. She finished as the first amateur and so automatically qualified for the Worlds in Oklahoma the following summer.”
Ever since then, it has been success after success, with Bubb being crowned Ironman UK Amateur Champion in 2016 & 2017, whilst also picking up medals (amateur) at both the last two Long Distance Triathlon World Championships.
“I just entered the nearest race to my location and the cheapest place I could find. All I was focusing on was finishing the race which I did, but to end up as European Amateur Champion was a huge surprise!”
Reflecting on how this sudden rise to prominence has affected her day-to-day life, Sophie laughs as she recounts how she fits what most other person would consider an unworkable amount of activities in to just 24 hours.
“I used to get the majority of my training done when the boys were asleep. I’ve got a turbo trainer at home – which makes me feel like a hamster in a wheel – as you sit on the bike in the house, and now I’ve got a treadmill too, so I can do a lot of biking and running at home.
“It’s basically been a massive team effort between my husband and my mum sort of looking after the boys and I do a lot of my training late at night when they’re in bed.
“They both nap at lunch so I usually get an hour in when they’re napping as well.”
One of the biggest bonuses that has come from her experience on the Ironman circuit, is how well her family have come to work as a team, both in the run up to the race and during the event itself.
“It’s definitely brought my husband and myself closer together because he’s been so supportive,” Bubb tells me. “We’ve learnt to operate as a great team so that would certainly be one of the biggest highs that has come out of it all – how we operate as a family.
“On our days out I quite often end up training around them. We sail a lot and spend a lot of time on the water and on the beach and I’ll just disappear off for an hour to go swimming and they’ll follow me in the boat or play on the beach and wait for me to get it done.
“It’s the same at the weekend. To try and tie in long runs or bikes they might cycle to the pub for lunch and I’ll run. I quite often meet them somewhere even in the middle of my training so that they are included. To be honest I don’t want to miss out on family fun either so it sort of works for us all.
“It sounds a bit weird but it has become a family activity somehow – it’s the only way we’ve got it to work.”
One particular incident in training has Sophie laughing again, as she remembers being tracked down by her husband Nick in the middle of the New Forest to feed her infant son, Billy, despite being in the middle of a cycle.
“Leading into a race you quite often have to do 100-mile bike races in training and when I was still breastfeeding in the early days, Nick would have to bring Billy with him and meet me somewhere. He would bring the boys and Rory would have an ice cream while I fed Billy.”
This type of occurrence, she assures me, is commonplace in her daily juggling act between being a world-class sportsperson, a phrase she clearly still finds a little uncomfortable, and a mother to two young children.
This is an act that she would encourage new mothers to undertake though – but perhaps not to the same extreme lengths.
“I think especially around pregnancy it is very easy to become absorbed by your baby and forget about yourself to a certain extent. If the mum is happy then the baby is happy too.
“Whilst I didn’t necessarily get depression with either of my pregnancies – I was lucky – I did definitely find myself feeling quite down with the first one.
“People say to you it’s just tiredness and to sleep when the baby sleeps but actually getting up and getting out of the house and going for a gentle run or walking the dog made me feel better.
“Doing something and giving yourself some time to think and get a little bit of separation is really important as well as the feeling of achievement you get from doing exercise. I definitely recommend it!”
It’s safe to say that plunging into extreme endurance racing is an unusual post pregnancy pastime and Bubb does admit that she came across her fair share of sceptics.
“When I was doing it, some people were quite scathing saying: ‘Oh you’ve got to let your body recover’. But if it’s done right and you’re careful then I definitely encourage it for mental wellbeing and for all sorts of reasons.”
Bubb was also keen to reinforce the accessibility of the sport, although admitting it is fairly male-dominated at the moment.
“The one thing I’d say is that anyone can do it; it’s just getting to the start line, actually placing is secondary. As a family we haven’t got too involved in the social side of our local tri-club in Lymington, or indeed on the Ironman circuit, as we simple don’t have the time but people are always so friendly it doesn’t really matter if you’re in a group or not.
“When I first started doing it I did it because all I wanted to do was finish. The time I finished in and the position I finished in were irrelevant.
“Almost anyone that wants to do an Ironman can do it, with proper preparation and planning. People say there are lots of barriers to entry like “I can’t run”, “I can’t swim”, “I can’t bike” but everyone starts off at that point and you don’t need all the fancy kit on day one. I raced Challenge Weymouth in 2015 on a 10 year old bike bought off eBay for a few hundred pounds.”
Bubb describes the sport in such passionate terms and there was a real romance coming through as she recounted her experiences on the circuit. It sounded similar to the Olympics of old where only real amateurs could compete.
“What I absolutely love about Ironman is that at amateur level you are still racing at the very, very top level in terms of competitors, the equipment, the dedication and everything that goes with it. I feel like it’s a really unique sport.
“When you get to Kona, to look around is just incredible. It’s really inspiring just being there looking at everyone that’s made it there.
“Every single person on the start line has had to sacrifice and dedicate themselves and push themselves. You know it isn’t just an individual as well, quite a lot of the time they have families and each person behind them has to give them lots of support to get them there, so it is a really awe-inspiring and motivating place to be.”
Believe it or not, Bubb was not always passionate about endurance racing. Her husband, Nick, competed in several Ironman events while she was pregnant with oldest son Rory, and Bubb recalls questioning his sanity as he stood there in his wetsuit.
“I remember standing there pregnant when he was doing one of his Ironmans thinking ‘You have to be absolutely bonkers!’. I had absolutely no concept why he was doing it, I just thought he was mad.”
It is fair to say that the roles have well and truly been reversed as Bubb goes from strength to strength on the circuit. She is, however, yet to turn professional.
“At one point, it was something I was thinking about, it certainly sounds glamorous but there is a stringent criteria for British athletes, which I haven’t quite met yet and to be honest I feel like I’ve got into it a bit too late to become professional and I’m really enjoying racing as an amateur on a level playing field.
“I’m not sure racing as a pro would offer me any more than what I’m doing right now. If I became a pro it would put too many pressures on it and I always want to keep my family as the number one priority.
“I wouldn’t be racing any harder than I am now if I was a professional and I wouldn’t be able to train any harder than I am now. My times would be a bit quicker as you undoubtedly get various advantages but nothing huge.”
Rather than going down the professional route, Bubb has instead started getting her coaching qualifications. It is fitting for someone who has put so much emphasis on the support of those closest to her, that she is keen to give something back to the sport.
“I genuinely think it is such an amazing sport and it’s done so much for me. It’s so much more than just fitness, it’s mental wellbeing and to be able to pass that onto other people would be a real privilege. I feel very lucky to have done what I’ve done.”
As in her life, she saves her last words of the interview for her family.
“I am just trying to find a way of balancing life so that I can be around for the boys. I love the idea of being able to pick them up from the school gate over the next few years and to manage my time during school holidays, so I thought doing the coaching would be a great way of balancing life.
“I haven’t quite worked out if it will be mainly teaching youngsters to swim, or helping enthusiastic amateurs tackle some of the big events I’ve been lucky enough to get involved with but I’m sure a path will emerge.
“I certainly haven’t finished racing yet either and have big plans for the Ironman Worlds in 2018! Thanks entirely to the ongoing support of my main sponsor, Z hotels, I’m also off to Western Australia in late November to tackle Ironman there and see if I can end 2017 on top of the global age-group rankings. Right now I’m second so it would be amazing to make that little step up!
“Whatever I do, I’ve always got to fit it around my family and they’ve always got to come first.”
Featured Image Credit: Sophie Bubb