RAF Regiment Ironmen
RAF REGIMENT IRONMEN
“You can keep going and your legs might hurt for a week or you can quit and your mind will hurt for a lifetime.”
Six-time Ironman World Champion
Sqn Ldr Darren (Daz) Priest, OC FP & Sy Sqn RAF Akrotiri, and Sgt Scott Hill (Hilly), SNCO Further Trg RAF Honington, qualified for and competed in the pinnacle of triathlon events representing the RAF at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on 13 October 2018. During the 40 years of the World Championships there have only ever been four RAF athletes to qualify and compete so to have two RAF Regiment personnel racing in the RAF’s Centenary made it all the more special. Moreover, Hilly’s qualification to the event saw him become the first RAF athlete to qualify and compete twice having previously raced in 2015.
An Ironman Triathlon is one of a series of long distance races consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.8 km) swim, 112-mile (180 km) cycle ride and 26.2-mile (42.195 km) run also known as a 140.6, the total distance, in miles, covered. Arguably considered one of the most challenging and physically demanding one-day endurance races, it requires countless hours of training and preparation to reach the start line. The professionals expect to finish in around 8 hours with the remaining athletes competing to finish before the 17-hour cut off. Kona is renowned for being a testing course due to an open ocean swim without wetsuit, a windy bike course with a 1300m ascent and hot and humid conditions throughout.
To secure a place at Kona, the aspirational event in a triathlete’s career, requires determination, patience and a will to succeed, all traits instilled as a serving member of the RAF Regiment. Qualification entails significant sacrifice to sustain the numerous hours of training and can often take years to achieve.
The Road to KONA
Sqn Ldr Daz Priest
After an injury filled season in 2017 Daz decided to ‘treat’ himself to a 70.3, half Ironman, event in Bahrain following mechanical failure at Ironman Bolton that prevented him from completing. Finishing 3rd male in his age group 45-49 he not only gained qualification to the 70.3 World Championships in South Africa but also the opportunity to represent GB age group at the International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Championships in Odense, Denmark in 2018. Furthermore, finishing 1st Military in the 40+ age group meant Daz successfully qualified for Kona utilising the Ironman allocated Military Division slots.
With not much planned for the first half of the year the training schedule was light with the aim of some strength work to aid in injury prevention and to train the body into accepting a new running style. A late entry into the Ayia Napa middle distance triathlon in early March would prove a sound development step for Daz. A challenging rough sea swim followed by a windy bike course and hot run saw Daz finish second in age group in a time of 4 hours 46 minutes, only 50 seconds behind the winner. This was the inspiration needed to kick start serious training.
Post Ayia Napa training began in earnest and would see Daz wake at 0430 most days to ensure a solid training session was achieved prior to the working day and essential to keeping lunch and after work sessions condensed. Sundays would always be a bike ride of up to 5 hours, which proved challenging during the Cyprus summer. It was on one of these rides 2 weeks prior to the ITU event in Denmark where Daz was involved in a bike accident injuring his shoulder, ribs and adductor. This did not deter Daz as he set his sights on an intense racing period of 92 days that would see him compete in 3 triathlon World Championship events plus the Inter Service Middle Distance Championships.
On 14 July Daz arrived in Denmark to represent GB age group at the ITU long course World Championships. Consisting of a 1.9-mile (3km) swim, a 74.5-mile (120km) bike and 19.26-mile (31km) run he finished in a time of 6 hours 44 minutes, 5th in his age group, 45-49. Unfortunately, Daz exacerbated his adductor injury which resulted in him not running until the week prior to his next event.
2 September saw Daz travel to Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa to compete in the 70.3 World Championships. A calm warm sea swim preceded a tough blustery hilly bike course. The run was three loops taking you along the sea front, which was packed with crowds, six times. The atmosphere was electric and carried Daz home in a time of 4 hours 46 minutes, 8th UK male in the 45-49 age group.
A rapid turnaround and just under a week later on 8 September, Daz competed in the Inter-Services Middle Distance Triathlon Championship (Vitruvian) at Rutland Water, Leicestershire. Having trained in the Cyprus heat Daz found the water was freezing which made for a difficult transition and almost unbearable first 10 miles on the bike. Daz was glad to finish the bike and get out on the run where his legs seemed to want to push from the start. Finishing the Half marathon in 1 hour 22 minutes 38 seconds and an overall time of 4 hours 29 minutes gave Daz the honour of winning the RAF Middle Distance veteran title and finishing 2nd RAF overall, beaten by son Flt Lt Kieran Priest, RAF Waddington.
Sgt Scott Hill (Hilly)
RAF Triathlon Dpt Hd Coach
During September 2017 Hilly took to Ironman Wales as part of what seems to be an annual fixture for him. Rated, as one of the most difficult Ironman events there is no hiding from the undulating course, sharp climbs and exposure to the harsh elements of the Welsh coastline. Finishing 7th age-group 35-39 in a time of 10 hours 17 minutes Hilly gained qualification to Kona.
2018 started as it meant to go on, busy; balancing work, family and endurance sport is a huge challenge with the family bearing the brunt of the long training sessions. Triathlon can be a lonely sport comprising 6-7-hour training sessions regardless of the weather conditions.
A major part of Hilly’s season has been his dedication to the development of other RAF athletes having trained, raced and coached them. As Deputy Head Coach for RAF Triathlon, Hilly attended RAF triathlon training camp in Mallorca. This two-week period in April enabled him to not only conduct two intensive warm weather training weeks for himself but also coach and mentor RAF triathletes ranging from novice to elite. Coaching for this sport is not as simple as it may seem, as sessions vary widely depending on the type of event to be raced. Here, Hilly ensured Olympic distance; 0.9-mile (1.5km) swim, 25-mile (40km) bike, 6.2-mile (10km) run, middle and long distance athletes were catered for.
Racing the Savage! Following the Mallorca camp Hilly was back in Wales to race a two-day event Savage known as the Savage. Not an event for the faint hearted, Hilly took day one by storm winning on what was a brutal course in the slate quarry. Day two was just as tough and saw Hilly finish fifth, his overall time from the two days placing him first to take the Slateman Savage title.
The RAF’s Centenary brought many events and opportunities for athletes of all abilities across the RAF. Wanting to be part of the celebrations, Hilly was a proud contributor when in May he participated as part of the group of 100 RAF runners breaking the world 100X10km relay record. Finishing in a time of 64 hours 36 minutes 22 seconds they improved on the previous record of 69 hours 6 minutes 52 seconds set by an American team in 2015 by over 4 hours.
June saw Hilly compete in his first long distance event of the season; the Lakeman. Despite encountering a few technical issues on a new course he managed to achieve a Personal Best (PB), crossing the line 5th overall, 2nd in age category with a time of 9 hours 48 minutes.
Automatic qualification to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2018 and 2019 was achieved as Hilly produced a phenomenal performance at the 70.3 event in Edinburgh, winning his age group in 4 hours 42 minutes. Due to an intense race season and his main focus of Kona, Hilly decided to forego the 2018 slot and accept the 2019 slot. More success followed at the shorter Olympic distance inter-service triathlon where Hilly showed his adaptability and crossed the line as the RAF’s 3rd athlete, contributing to the RAF Team podium for the 4th consecutive year.
Back to Wales, yet again, and a bigger challenge with the Long Course weekend which was used more as a training weekend rather than a race. Covering swim, bike, run, Ironman distances over three days is an event that is growing in popularity and more importantly it is not just a good weekend of training but a social event, something many triathletes are not used to. This event ran perfectly for Hilly and had him firing on all cylinders come the Outlaw full distance event in Nottingham. Finishing 10th overall and 2nd in age group Hilly achieved another PB in a time of 9 hours 27 minutes. More importantly, he was crowned the RAF Long Distance Champion 2018.
August also saw Hilly assist in the Royal British Legion as a ride captain cycling from London to Paris following the route of advance during the First World War. 300 people too part in the event.
KONA – 2018 Ironman World Championships
An epic journey from Cyprus and the UK respectively saw Daz and Hilly arrive on the scenic island of Hawaii around 11 days prior to the event. Early arrival at this event is essential to adjust body clock, try to acclimatise, recce the course, build and check your bike and soak up what is a surreal atmosphere.
Accommodated together, pre-race training was conducted together, a nice feeling to have someone to talk to for a change. The swim, an open water non-wetsuit race, is something that strikes fear into most triathletes as a wetsuit is their lifeline, providing buoyancy and faster times, but not in Kona. Skin suits are allowed and training swims were essential to get them right for race day so that there would be no chaffing. A swim to the famous Kona coffee boat approximately 500 meters off shore was also a must while on Island. Cycling along the main route with lava fields on either side was an amazing and unforgettable experience which warranted a photo stop. The large cycle lanes saw hundreds of athletes in training on all makes of bikes, some in excess of £10k, way beyond our budget. Training runs centred mainly around the ‘energy lab’, named due to the solar power site nearby. This was a sweat box and what would be the turn-a-round point for the run on race day. A good place to train and have it in your head mentally.
Race day. All the prep was done, it had been a long year and your body was somehow still, sort of, holding itself together. Up early and eating the same breakfast you have for months, kit prep completed the night before so just a case of getting to the start area and completing the last few checks, all vital elements that can make or break a race – race numbers tattooed onto the body by the hundreds of helpers, sun cream and Vaseline applied, bike checked over, nutrition storage and tyre inflation – then just a matter of waiting for the professional men and women to head off and watch the clock tick over to your start time.
0735, 13 October 2018 treading water with all other male athletes and the gun goes off, absolute carnage! People describe mass starts as ‘the washing machine’ and they are not wrong, you take your life in your hands. Unless you are a high standard swimmer you will not see clear water to swim in, instead you have to battle the whole way through the 2.4 miles. People swimming over the top of you, fists landing on your head, feet being hit constantly and goggles being knocked off is just a part of it. All you can do is smile, soak it up and say in your head ‘enjoy it, you’re at the World Champs in Kona’.
1 hour 5 minutes saw Hilly out of the water with Daz seven minutes behind in 1 hour 12 minutes, into transition, trying hard to settle the breathing and get orientated for the bike bag pick up followed by the bike.
Out on the bike course Hilly was flying as he pumped out the power averaging 24.55 mph for the 112 miles to finish in a time of 4 hours 34 minutes, another PB. Daz was also experiencing a good ride which was only hindered by his Garmin and power meter failing from the off. This resulted in riding on feel, something not experienced for a long time, 112 miles in 5 hours 34 minutes. To complete the bike course for all triathletes in any race is a major psychological boost as so many things can and do go wrong. People were seen running with or pushing their bikes with over 10k to transition, this is the mentality you are dealing with!
Only a marathon in high temperatures and humidity to go. During his outstanding bike Hilly’s feet had swollen in his cycle shoes impacting him from the off. Blisters under his toe nails and soles of the feet resulted in a 26 mile struggle where normal running form was out of the window, it was all about survival and a finish in a time he was not happy with, a major disappointment as an Ironman PB was on the cards following the bike. With this, the heat and humidity Hilly crossed the line not feeling too good and resulted in a trip to the medical tent. Daz came to the event looking for a comfortable 3 hour 15 minute marathon but this was soon forgotten as he hit the run course feeling the humidity from the outset. Not normally one for stopping at aid stations Daz felt no choice but to walk every one on this occasion finishing 3 hours 42 minutes later.
Hilly completed the pinnacle of triathlon races in 9 hours 48 minutes finishing 7th UK male in the 35-39 age group. Daz, after saying for a year its all about the t-shirt and medal, finished 13th UK male in the 45-49 age group in 10 hours 37 minutes.
Competing in triathlon is not easy, competing in middle and full distance Ironmen is insane and will never be easy. If you have the right mind-set ‘you can achieve your dreams’.
What is there left to do when you’ve raced your dreams? Rest, recuperation, retirement?
For Daz it is the Cyprus 4-day challenge, a 6/11/21/10k event held over 4 days in November. It’s amazing what you sign up to when you are feeling good – this was pre-Kona. Following this it will be time away from Cyprus to see his family in the UK and Australia over the festive season and a chance to consider races and goals for 2019.
Hilly will focus on recovery and family time prior to preparation for the 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Nice. During the build-up there will also be RAF triathlon training camps to coach and participate in. With the mental and physical strength gained this season there will hopefully be more PB’s in the near future.
An unbelievable year for RAF Regiment athletes showcasing their talents around the world and promoting both the RAF and Regiment throughout. To have two serving corps members compete in the pinnacle of triathlon events in the same year is an amazing achievement. To train for and compete in these events whilst maintaining your primary output; coordinating and maintaining the protection of the Akrotiri peninsular for Daz and developing the next generation of Regiment NCO’s for Hilly, is not easy and personal sacrifices have to be made along the way. Hilly has taken the seasons achievements one stage further by being selected to be the Royal British Legion sports ambassador, the only one across the military.
Triathlon is a financially draining sport which at times is hard to justify to yourself let alone your family. To receive funding of any amount is always greatly appreciated. Daz and Hilly would like to express their heartfelt gratitude to the Centurion Fund for its support in aiding them to compete in the Ironman World Championships. It’s been a long and testing but immensely rewarding road.
If you are interested in getting into triathlon or duathlon (run, bike, run) then please visit https://www.rafsportsfederation.uk/sports/raf-triathlon-association/ for details.
Sqn Ldr Daz Priest