Every September, pro triathletes and aspiring amateurs alike flock to the little tropical island of Hawaii to slaughter themselves on an unforgiving course in unrelenting conditions. This is the Mecca of the long distance triathlon world, the pinnacle of every Ironman’s perfect racing season and reward for all the hours of gruelling training.
The infamous Kona Iron Man World Championships consist of a 2.4 mile swim in open water followed by a 112 mile bike ride, with the athletes jumping off their speed machines at transition 2, whipping on their running trainers and proceeding to run a whole marathon. This is more than 4 times the distance raced at Olympic level. Factoring in the extreme heat and humidity, slowly sapping any vestiges of energy that might still be left in the athletes, its clear that the event certainly lives up to its title.
People who not only successfully complete events such as this, but race them at blistering paces, must be made of some higher matter. It is, arguably one of the hardest and most demanding one-day sporting events in the world. (No, extreme ironing does not qualify)
Philip Graves isn’t one to boast about his, ahem, physical prowess though; at 20 years old he’s been enjoying his first professional season of racing long-distance triathlons, but still remains remarkably modest and jovial about his achievements thus far. I’ve been on a few training rides with Phil, currently a third year student at York St.John’s, but never realised quite to what extent his talent stretched. He was just another student, albeit quite a lot better than me at riding a bicycle, and certainly on another planet altogether when it came to running and swimming. He holds back a bit, keeping the beast firmly leashed, to prevent us mere York University cyclists from killing ourselves trying to catch his wheel. I managed to catch up with Phil and throw a few questions in his direction whilst at a café stop in Otley.
We sit down in our conspicuous attire of colour-coordinated lycra, behind a framed picture of a dog on board a bicycle leading out a racing team, and I fire away.
Has a desire for sporting competition always run through your veins, even since you were a young boy?
Yes, I suppose so, I have been racing cross country and swimming galas since I was an under 11, so racing is something that I have always done, and something that I want to do continue to do for as long as possible!
When did you discover you had an exceptional talent for triathlon, and what aspirations did you have in mind when you started training seriously?
I won the National Youth championships in 2005 along with a whole host of other national races. I felt I’d found something that I could really excel at and fully pursue, to the point where I could become a professional athlete.
What prompted the decision to move on to the longer distance triathlon events, as opposed to sticking with the Olympic distance races?
I have always been a strong biker and I couldn’t utilise this strength effectively at Olympic distance, because the ruling on drafting meant other riders could cling onto my wheel. I’ve got good endurance but don’t have huge amounts of speed, so knew I could probably make some sort of an impact at long distance, it was just a matter of waiting until I was old enough! I even wanted to do Ironman Uk at 16 but was too young; it just goes to show how long I have wanted to race long-distance.
What goes through your mind in a race situation? Do you ever find it difficult to maintain the high concentration levels and mental determination, especially when your body feels like it can go no longer?
To be honest the time just flies by, especially on the run. Looking back at Ironman UK, in the swim I was trying to save as much energy as possible, and on the bike and run I was simply concentrating too hard to think about anything else! Because the race is multi-lap, I was passing age group athletes all the time and it takes a lot of concentration to pass them all the time!
In August you entered your first Iron Man championship, the IronManUk, and won it, beating seasoned pro Steven Bayliss. What went through your mind immediately after you crossed that finish line?
It was just sheer relief as I knew I had that performance in me, it was just a matter of finding the right platform to put it out on. After winning the 70.3 (half-distance) I was really emotional but after IM it was a completely different situation. IMUK was so much bigger then the 70.3, Wimbleball was much more of an intimate surrounding and it felt very special. After winning I came to see IMUK almost as an eventuality, especially after the performances I had been putting in, in the weeks leading up to the race.
Phil is clearly not lacking in confidence, but I find it hard to distinguish whether its youthful, bolshie arrogance or just an innate belief in his own athletic abilities; its probably a bit of both. In September’s Hawaii Championships after leading the bike leg for 60km, smashing the record for youngest competing athlete ever whilst gaining a wealth of experience.
“There was so, so much that I learned in the whole two weeks I was in Hawaii, far too much to list! I learnt what I need to do to win the race and I don’t think I could take anything more important away with me!” he said.
You have a no holds barred, fearless approach to racing, an attitude that some of your critics interpret as arrogance; is this simply part and parcel of your racing philosophy?
There is no point sitting back, you have to dictate the race and make it your own and by taking on the race. I find it easier to race from the front with others chasing, ultimately it makes it more exciting for everyone.
What is your stance on the nature/ environment debate in regards to producing a world- class athlete? One interviewer recently concluded you have ‘good genes’; indeed your sister holds a European triathlon title, competing at elite levels herself. Does natural talent override rigorous and disciplined training?
I think that anyone can make it! Looking at myself I don’t see myself as anything special, I have just worked my arse off and have a strong work ethic; anyone can do that. Obviously my parents have set a good environment for me to perform optimally, but genetically-wise I don’t think there is anything specifically special here.
You have been training this past year with Alistair Brownlee, another outstanding, Yorkshire triathlete who has recently become ITU world champion. Did training with him improve your own game?/ does success breed success?
It’s hard to say, we don’t train with each other that much but we have been racing and competing against each other for a long period of time and for sure we have been on loads of training camps together etc. I think its just that we push each other and have done from such an early age it has made a difference.
Do you think triathlon gets the media coverage it deserves as a sport? Cycling’s profile in the UK has been growing rapidly, with the successful Tour of Britain and London Skyride taking place recently, but how does triathlon match up?
Of course triathlon doesn’t get the media coverage it deserves. The sport is relatively young, 30 years old this year so it has achieved so much in such a small amount of time, hopefully in another 30 years the sport can be not only one of the most successful but also most popular sports, not only in this country but the world!
In between the rigorous and demanding training, you manage to fit studying towards a degree in history. Do you ever find the time to simply sit back and relax, or it is always go,go,go!
No, I do just like to relax and recover, you have to in order to stay sane! The last few months have been such a whirlwind I am looking forward to just finishing my season, going on a bit of a holiday and then getting back to winter training!
What do you hope to achieve in your future as a triathlete?
There is so much I want to achieve, but mainly I just want to enjoy the journey and be able to retire, happy knowing had I the opportunity to do it once again, I wouldn’t have done anything different!
Phil has an insatiable drive for success, an unquenchable fire that fuels him to train and train, striving to achieve his maximum physical potential. This steadfast and uncompromising attitude is something we can surely all aspire to emulate, in our sporting aspirations, or indeed outside of sport.