My next door neighbour Mike is the Triathlon England NW talent coach and back in November 2017, he came round to speak to me with an interesting proposition. He'd just come back from a training camp at Loughborough which included para-triathletes, where he had been chatting to a blind athlete called Haseeb Ahmad. Mike told me "there's this guy Haseeb and he wants to break the world record for Ironman, to become the fastest blind athlete to complete the distance, but he can't find a guide... I told him you'd do it".
So that's how it started and from there the project has materialised into something quite real. I did a bit of research on Haseeb and we had a chat on the phone. He immediately seemed like a nice guy and easy to get on with (which is always useful) and we seemed to have things in common. I'm 45 and Haseeb is a couple of years older, so I'd say we're both at that stage of life where we are wanting to achieve stuff and appreciate stuff before before the slowing down begins and this was a great project to motivate us both.
Haseeb told me he was interested in breaking the world record and wanted to aim for 10 hours 30 at Barcelona which would be a fast course. We'd be swimming tethered, riding a tandem and running tethered. It seemed like a great idea, but I thought we might be setting the bar low... "what time can you run for a marathon?" I asked... "I ran 2:59 at London the other year" came the reply... "well we need to go for sub 10 hours then" was my immediate response. "Here's the thing, the record might get broken in the future, but you'll always be the first to go under 10 hours..." There was little hesitation or consideration before Haseeb replied "ok, let's go under 10".
Haseeb lives in Leicester so we spoke a few times on the phone and chatted by email and in the weeks to follow I started to think about the reality of the task we would face. I've never guided a blind athlete so have zero experience and the more I thought about it, even the simplest things started to become difficult. How do we get through transitions, changing kit, collecting nutrition on the course. It truth, they're the minor worries, one of my main questions was 'how big are your balls if you're willing to do an Ironman beach mass start with 2000+ other people, sprinting into rough water and swimming / battling through 3.8k with no sight?' I came to the conclusion that 'large' was the answer.
We planned to meet up on the first week on January in Wigan to do some bike testing and talk though the plan. Haseeb came on the train with his wife Mary and the first task of the day was bike testing, we did a metabolic assessment and then max testing to get enough data to structure a plan. Following that we talked through the training in the coming months and potential events. Haseeb is running London marathon and we're penciled in for Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire, but the main focus will be Barcelona in October. In terms of splits, our targets are 1:10 for the swim, 5:00 or better on the bike, 10 minutes for the transitions, leaving us with 3:40 for the marathon.
After our chat, we got changed to go out for a run. Haseeb gave me some simple instructions in terms of how to guide an direct him before we left the shop and I would be lying if i said I wasn't nervous. We took 4 steps and Hasseb stopped me... "Marc, we've only gone 4 steps and I've hit the door frame". At this stage I doubted whether he was going to trust me to get him round an Ironman but we were soon out and running. After a few minutes we were flowing pretty well and Haseeb told me how to adjust to the right or left and to keep watching for potholes all the time. It started to feel a little more natural after 10 minutes and we were running and chatting with ease... we'd planned to do 4 miles and at half way I was thinking to myself "Jesus... are we going to run this pace all the way?" There was no hiding my breathing rate and had to suck it up when Haseeb calmly asked "you ok at this speed?"
The day was very positive and reaffirmed for both of us that sub 10 hours is on the cards and we were both committed to the project. Ironman is a tricky race, it doesn't matter how much you train, it can go very wrong on the day and it's fair to say that 'the stars have to align' for any athlete to have their perfect day. My concern was that it has to happen for both of us, if I have a bad day, then Haseeb's race goes out of the window and vice versa.
It's going to be a long journey and a fantastic experience with a few stories along the way. We'll be blogging on a regular basis and giving you updates. You can follow Haseeb on Facebook and you can also see his book 'Blindman to Ironman' on Amazon, and we have some copies in store if you're passing!