Full throttle Charlie Pennington

Charlie Pennington is a British age group athlete who was the fifth overall amateur in Kona, and 2nd to Dan Stubleski in M35-39. This 16-year military veteran started in ITU racing but is now full speed long course.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Charlie.

Charlie Pennington: Herbert, thank you for the opportunity. I’m a fan of the site so it’s a real honor to be invited to conduct an interview. Hopefully I’ll provide some interesting answers for you and your readers without boring them too much

ST: Have you survived the holidays without gaining too much weight?

Charlie: Do you know what, I’m not sure! I used to weigh myself and take my resting heart rate each morning but these days I don’t tend to get too focused on my weight. I know what I should feel like and that’s more important than the actual weight. I suspect I’m a little heavier now than when I raced in Kona last year but I’m not worried about that. I did keep up a decent enough training regime over the Christmas period but equally I enjoyed the time with my family. Although I did get some exercise done on Christmas day, it wasn’t at the expense of family time – I took the dog out for a run on my mountain bike. He needed his daily exercise so it was win-win.

ST: How about New Year’s Eve? Did you go out or did you hit the sack early?

Charlie: Herbert, I have 2 kids (2 boys, 7 and 4) who live a pretty binary life: either full gas or asleep, plus a crazy Hungarian Vizsla that needs at least an hour and a half of exercise each day. Do the math. My wife and I were in bed by 11pm! We aren’t particularly worried about New Year’s Eve these days – it’s way too expensive to go out anyway.

ST: You spent 16 years in the British Royal Marines. Was it a bit odd not having that structure when you finally walked away?

Charlie: My final day in the Royal Marines was the end of August 2015 so civilian life is still pretty new to me. That said, the discipline that I picked up from my time there will no doubt stay with me for the rest of my life (much to my family’s annoyance I’m sure!). I admit that I like structure to my day, especially if I’m trying to fit training in around family or work. I have learned the hard way to be flexible as the kids don’t always stick to the plan but I like to think that I don’t stress as much as I used to about stuff like that.

ST: What exactly do you do now?

Charlie: I’m a Senior Consultant for Deloitte and work in the Technology Consultancy arm in the UK. I can’t tell you exactly what I do because of client confidentiality but I mostly work in London which allows me to travel home each day, something that I haven’t done in a while. It’s great to get home each day but commuting is wasted time as far as I’m concerned. I’m trying to work out how to better utilize it for training but cycling into and out of London is definitely one risk that I don’t yet want to take.

ST: Would you say that you are a disciplined person in general?

Charlie: I think you could probably say I am well indoctrinated! My father was in the Army many many years ago and was pretty disciplined; I attended a military secondary (high) school, was a military reservist at university and then joined the Royal Marines straight after. So yeah, I’d say I’m pretty disciplined! Although there are many negatives with this trait I think that is one of my strengths: I get stuff done. From a training perspective it is what gets me out of bed each morning to get in the pool at 0600. I don’t like being in the pool at that time – I’d much rather be in bed – but I know that if I want to be successful in this sport then I need to be in the pool. It carries over to the other training I do and manifests itself as quality rather than quantity. I do some sessions which aren’t much fun but I have the discipline to get them done.

ST: How much time do you spend training, on average a week and how do you juggle seeing your wife and kids?

Charlie: If I had a training mantra it would be “consistent quality”. I generally average 15 hours of training a week, with 4 swims, 3 runs, 3 bikes, and I tend to get it done early mornings before work or after the kids have gone to bed although I do try and get a long ride done each Sunday. Saturday I swim early with a club and then the rest of the day is family time. It works ok and means that I get to see the kids and my wife each day although I tend to get home from work only 30 minutes before the kids go to bed. I have dinner, spend some time with them, put them to bed, relax with my wife for 20 minutes and then get some training done prior to washing and going to bed to get up at 0530 to start it all again. The discipline and structuring my day really help me to fit it all in but I admit it isn’t ideal. My wife and I are like ships in the night most days so the weekends become important family time. That’s great unless you have a race or some crazy training plan that needs to fit in there too. Things like cycling home from a trip out with the family can help fit training in and make use of wasted traveling time.

ST: 1998 was the year when you first dabbled in triathlon, but those first years in the Royal Marines had you otherwise busy.

Charlie: I ran and swam a bit before university although I did neither to any real degree of success. I continued to do both at university as a means to keep fit and because I enjoyed them. A friend in the Army reserves suggested I try triathlon and he sold me a bike, so that I could. Perhaps I misunderstood his ulterior motive, and I was hooked. It was perfect for a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” like me and I liked the autonomy it gave. Upon joining the Royal Marines I had to put it on the back-burner but I continued to train once I had finished the 13 months of Officer training. I guess I raced on-and-off for a couple of years but without any real focus.

ST: When did you pick it back up, and when did it become serious?

Charlie: In 2002 I was lucky enough to land a post on an island called Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It was a tiny island with only military or contractors working there with one 13 mile road to train on. I found some like-minded folks and put some serious mileage up and down that one road plus swimming and running. There was a really good set-up for recreational activities and almost every week there was a 5k run, open water swim, mini-triathlon or similar so I lapped it up. One of the American Navy officers I trained with had stories of these mythical Ironman races he had done and it sowed a seed… When I returned to the UK I got involved with the Royal Navy triathlon team and also managed to qualify as an Age Group athlete for the ITU Worlds in Hawaii, 2005. It’s probably fair to say that this is when I started to race again although I did so with varying degrees of success without any real break-through results. I was linked up with a coach, Chris Roberts, by a mutual friend in 2010 and this brought about those break-throughs. Chris and I get on really well and we are still working together and aiming for more success.

ST: At the ITU Worlds in Budapest you finished 5th and I think that was your best short course result. Is that when you decided about going longer?

Charlie: Probably. I think I had realized that 5th position was the culmination of quite a bit of hard work and that I probably couldn’t get much quicker over that distance without significant changes to my life. I was 32 at the time it just made sense to have a go at the longer stuff – it didn’t need a great deal more training each week and to be honest I think I was quite disillusioned with ITU racing. Budapest was a good case in point: I had invested a substantial amount of time, effort and money to race yet I didn’t feel that Age Groupers got a decent return on their investment. I recall that the transition area was waterlogged and it seemed as though we were an afterthought, albeit one that generated the income that paid for the whole circus. ITU Age Group racing in the UK was also getting more commercial and I wanted to try something different.

ST: What was the first Half you did, and how did it go?

Charlie: I had done IM70.3 Wimbleball back in 2008 and it went quite well. I swam well and then biked through most of the pro field to come into T2 inside the top 10 (much to the surprise of the announcers as they had no idea who I was!). I paid the price for my biking prowess on the run and slipped back a few slots but I won my age group, was 2nd amateur and 14th overall. I didn’t take the World Championship slot but it gave me some indicators that with some correct training I might/could do better. I would love to say that the next one (IM70.3 California in 2010) went much better but the reality was that it went much worse and I was really lucky to scrape a slot to Clearwater on the roll-down.

ST: I think you finished 4th, 2nd and 5th respectively at 70.3 Worlds. That is pretty solid, but I think you wanted more.

Charlie: My first trip to the 70.3 World Championships was 2010 in Clearwater. I came a credible 4th there, which was a relief after only just scraping a slot at Oceanside, and then drew up a 2-year plan to qualify again. I qualified for 2012 at IM70.3 Austin where I was the 1st amateur to finish and had the fastest amateur run-split. I remember it being a hot day but it gave me confidence for Vegas, the venue for the 70.3 Worlds. I then came 2nd by 17 seconds at that race in what were miserably hot conditions. I went away and did my homework but only managed a 5th place in 2013 despite being almost 10 minutes quicker over the course. I posted the 2nd fastest amateur run split in the process. I then realized that I had gone away and done all the right things but the game had changed. The guy who won biked almost 15 minutes quicker than me and I knew that wasn’t something I could change sufficiently to win. It was time to move on.

ST: How had you decided on doing Lanzarote?

Charlie: Lanzarote was a culmination of a number of things: desire to go long, proximity, cost, time of year and the ability to get out there and race. I set myself the goal of qualifying for Kona at it but as things turned out, I underestimated the distance and struggled to finish in just over 10 hours and way outside a Kona slot. I went to a dark place on the run but my discipline kicked in and I got it done, albeit I vowed never to do it again. Ever. A week later I signed up for IM Wales.

ST: What was the biggest struggle for you changing from 70.3 to the full distance?

Charlie: Nutrition. The training side of things didn’t need a huge change albeit I had never run a marathon ever so ended up running the London marathon that year (2:39) and doing marathon-distance training runs to see how my body would respond. The key to it all though was nutrition. At this point I was also really lucky to get invited to join an amateur triathlon team, Team Freespeed Skechers Performance and this helped me to dial-in my nutrition and hydration strategy. I found that Clif Shots worked really well for me as did the H2Pro tailored hydration. I had managed to get through most of the 70.3s with very little food or drink, I think I had 1 gel at the 70.3 Worlds in 2012, but Lanzarote proved to me that this was not a workable strategy for IM.

ST: Ironman Wales worked better for you. Talk about that experience?

Charlie: Indeed it was. I struggled in the swim but then had a sublime bike and run. I biked comfortably and then ran 35kms comfortably before the wheels started to fall off a little. By then I was inside the top-10 and finished 7th overall, with the 3rd fastest run of the day. I spent most of the run running alongside the winner. I won my age group by 45 minutes and qualified for Kona 2015 in the process. In many respects the poor result at Lanzarote was exactly what I needed to focus properly and give the distance the respect it deserves. I worked on my nutrition strategy better and it seemed to work pretty well in Wales. Wales is also a fantastic course with awesome spectator support, especially on the run. That almost certainly helped.

ST: Although you already had qualified for Kona you raced IM Austria too. Was that good for your confidence?

Charlie: I went there without any pressure to KQ but the reason for racing Austria was 2-fold: confidence and vanity. I wanted to work on a few things before racing Kona and I also wanted to see if I could race sub-9 hours. As it turned out, despite having paid for the travel and accommodation I almost didn’t race at all because I hadn’t actually entered. This is a long story, so don’t ask, but Nirvana Europe sorted me out and got me a place 2 weeks before the race. Due to the late entry I was unable to race in the “fast swim” wave and started in my age group wave. This was probably a good thing as it took the pressure off even more, although it did mean I had a whole load of people ahead of me to swim over. I swam 52 minutes, biked a comfortable 4:52 and ran a comfortable 2:52 to finish in what seemed a comfortable 8:45. It placed me 9th overall and 1st amateur in what was a quality field of athletes. That I was able to race within my boundaries was really good for my confidence and set me up perfectly for Kona. I had a bunch of other races in the UK that I didn’t perform so well at so this was great to prove that the training and focus was working.

ST: Going into Kona I think you were thinking about that age group title. Was it mostly your age group or did you think you might get it overall?

Charlie: Interesting question. I’d be lying if I said that the overall title wasn’t on my radar but having heard so many apocryphal stories of people aiming too high in Kona and falling hard as a consequence, we laid out a plan to put me near or at the top of my age group. It’s a competitive age group and therefore I knew if I won it, I would probably be near or at the overall title too. My coach and I have always focused on the process, not the outcome so I knew what I could do – where it would put me overall was always in doubt but I knew it would be close.

ST: Talk about that race.

Charlie: As a newbie to Kona it was really difficult to temper all the advice and necessity to respect the race with the confidence I had in my ability. I didn’t want to repeat Macca’s lessons but equally I really was on the island to compete, not to complete. I was really fortunate that the timing of the event worked well with my transition from military to civilian life and I purposely took a work hiatus in order to get out to Kona 3 weeks before the race. Watching the build-up of the event was incredible and fascinating to see the quiet town go nuts on an exponential scale as the race got closer. Again, I focused on the things that I needed to do and didn’t get carried away with anything excessive – in fact, I lived like a hermit for the first week except for training with a team mate who was also there early until more friends arrived. The race itself went much to plan. I had set myself 3 goals (win AG, run sub-3hours, finish sub-9 hours) but had been quite formulaic in my strategy to achieve those goals. I swam conservatively in 57minutes and then biked 4:57. My plan was to run sub-3 and if I put those things together, then that should be a pretty decent shot at the win. In the end I did run sub-3 (2:58) but with my T1 and T2 times I didn’t then manage to win or go sub-9 (9:01). I was beaten by 6 seconds by Dan Stubleski and was 5th amateur overall. Perhaps I was too conservative on the bike but the reality is that all the decisions that I made on-course I made for the right reasons at the time and that, despite looking back with frustration, I had done all that I could do on the day. It was frustrating to come 2nd at a World Championships again though and I do admit to needing a bit of time away from the chaos of the finish area to compose myself. My wife, Deanna, was awesome as always.

ST: How often did you see Dan Stubleski, and did you know about the German, Aussie and the Belgian further up the road?

Charlie: As I mentioned earlier, I always focused on the process not the outcome. Sure, I would have seen guys ride away but I didn’t try to worry about them. My experience had shown that these guys were likely to come back either on the bike or on the run. However, it is Kona and it is REALLY difficult not to worry. A less mature version of might have worried more but I stuck to my plan. I don’t really recall seeing anyone in particular up the road although I must have seen them on the initial out-and-back up Alii Drive. I was concentrating on my pace, nutrition and heat regulation more than the competition. Perhaps I should have paid more attention! I knew that the race would come down to the last 10km of the run and I had prepared for this. Unfortunately I started to cramp a little and had to walk a bit in the last 10km. I also had no idea where I was placed and whilst I was given some information on course, you are never quite sure. With hindsight, I probably could have utilised my support to track competitors better. I thought I was either in the lead or a few minutes behind coming down Palani. It was only when I crossed the line after almost catching (but not really trying to) the guy ahead that I extended my hand to shake his that I realised from his race number that he was in my age group (It was Dan). I had seen his back from a distance and had assumed he was a pro and therefore hadn’t focused on trying to catch him. The reality of those last 10kms are that you are generally not really racing but surviving – those that survive best do the best overall. I don’t think I could have upped the pace but I was gutted to be so close.
I think IM racing might have something to learn from ITU racing here – it was always easy to spot those in your Age Group by a letter written on their calf. I’m not suggesting that IM do the same but there has to be a way to make it clearer in an era where most top AGers have sponsor logos everywhere and are easy to confuse with pros.

ST: You were tested a few times in 2015. Is that so and was that first time for you?

Charlie: Yes. The first was an out-of-competition test 0600 on a Monday morning. Luckily I had not already left for the swimming pool but it was with surprise that I opened the door in my boxer shorts and let the testers into my house. I’m really happy to have done so and really happy that IM felt that they should test people (it’s a clause in the KQ contract you sign). It was also a confidence boost that someone felt my performances were #NotNormal. I don’t know the system in the US but I don’t know of any other UK AGer that has been out-of-competition tested. I really think it is a great idea and I’m an advocate of the concept – I’m just not sure how it will be paid for and whether or not AGers would be required to fill out their whereabouts. This test was then backed up with another after registration in Kona, again great to see.

ST: Do you think age group doping is a big issue or concern?

Charlie: I’ll be honeST: I naively haven’t really thought about it enough. There is nothing I can do about it so I don’t want to waste energy stressing about it. I guess my introduction to its effects was at the 70.3 Worlds where a former pro cyclist won by a huge margin. He was banned from cycling for doping yet was able to race cleanly or otherwise at the 70.3 Worlds. That pissed me off but there is nothing I could do about it other than taking my money elsewhere. However, if you want to be the best in the world you have to compete with the best in the world and IM own that particular race so my choices were slim at best.

ST: Should qualified athletes be tested more often, and especially more often out of competition?

Charlie: Yes. Racing Kona is the pinnacle of the sport for us amateurs and represents a long hard journey for most of us to have even got there in the first place. If you have been denied a slot because someone who is cheating took it, then it seems clear to me that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. I think the problem is bigger than KQ but I recognise that, as a priority, this is where the focus should be. Quite how this will work, noting that most of the pro field are disparaging at best about the testing regime, I don’t know. What I do know is that there is real desire from AGers to be tested more but I don’t think that the majority would be willing to pay yet more entry money to enable it to happen.

ST: Would you be open to whereabouts registration as an age grouper?

Charlie: In theory yes, however I think that the reality of making this happen will be extremely difficult especially for those with busy and constantly changing work diaries. Would a national anti-doping agent turn up at my work? How would they get in? We already know that some countries are better than others at conducting anti doping checks so how would IM ensure parity across its demographic? Who would be checked - just the AWA Gold athletes? For me there are too many questions but I think it's a really important debate to have especially as age group racing seems to be blurring the boundaries between pro and amateur already.

ST: So what is next?

Charlie: Mainly get my feet under the desk in my new job. I’m certainly not aiming for Kona in 2016 but I have a 2 year plan to get there in 2017 and rectify those 6 seconds. Doing well at Kona took up a significant amount of my resources last year (money, time away, prioritising training instead of family) and I figure I need to give something back to my family, especially as I don’t yet know how the new job will pan out. That said, I’ve a number of UK races starting with the London Marathon and then the next real focus will be racing IM Weymouth in September this year, where I will be aiming to win overall (no pro field) and KQ in the process.

ST: Anything else we should know?

Charlie: After 16 years in the Royal Marines, I have lots of tales you would probably love to know but I think you are referring to triathlon related stuff. It seems a bit trite to say it because everyone does, but I am able to race because of the support of others: be it my wife, my kids, the Royal Navy (I captained their triathlon team for 5 years and they helped get me focused on the sport) and Team Freespeed Skechers Performance who I now race for. We have some great sponsors who make getting out the door to train or race much easier than it might otherwise be and for all this I am truly grateful.

I see more and more people getting really serious about this sport, some way too serious for their own good, and whilst that is great for the sport and sport in general too often we (and I count myself in this) forget to enjoy it. It’s great to have goals and aim for them but don’t do so at the expense of everything else otherwise what is it all for. Thanks for the hospitality!