Last Sunday, when most of us with full-time jobs struggled to complete a lap round the park, Ruth Purbrook was taking time off from her 60-hour working week in the City of London to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run 26.2 more.
She was competing in the Ironman Western Australia, in Busselton, near Perth. She finished 43rd of 1,129, eighth of 229 women, in a time of 9hr 17min. Which, while six minutes slower than her personal best, was a remarkable achievement. Because with it, Purbrook bettered dozens of full-time, professional athletes in the most demanding of endurance sports, while managing to hold down a job that would leave most of us with barely enough energy left at the end of a week to open another bottle of wine. Which is not something she often does.
“Actually I do have a drink,” she says, speaking to The Daily Telegraph just before heading to Australia. “After a race there is usually a pretty good party.”
To achieve what she has – at this year’s Kona World Championships in Hawaii she finished as the best female amateur – Purbrook has had to make sacrifices elsewhere in her life. Not least in sleep patterns.
“I don’t get very much sleep. A full-time Ironman triathlete will be looking for nine hours a night. I’m lucky if I get six.”
Since the 30-year-old competed in her first Ironman in 2017 (Perth was her seventh), her timetable has become extraordinary. Her alarm sounds at 4.30am, she does an hour and a half of training, either running or on the bike, before cycling from her home in south-west London to the City. She is at her desk at Lloyds Bank headquarters near St Paul’s Cathedral by seven. On a good day, she is finished by 5.30pm and can head to a City pool for a few lengths, before cycling home to another run. That is on a good day. There have been times, when demands have peaked, that she has worked until midnight. At weekends she does a couple of long runs and lengthy cycle rides, plus a long swim. This is an amateur competitor doing a professional’s training workload.
“My boss is incredibly supportive and understanding,” she says. “Though I admit he wouldn’t be that supportive or understanding if my work was suffering. So I make sure it doesn’t.” She does that by being organised. A self-confessed organisational nerd, every minute of her day is timetabled to precision: not a moment is wasted.
Mind, she does not have to travel far to train: much of her race preparation takes place in her garden shed. Though shed is a disparaging term for a place stuffed with sophisticated machinery and climate-control technology. Her sponsors Zwift have supplied her with the most modern training kit: a cycling treadmill system that enables her to wire up her £11,000 racing bike to a screen and watch an avatar of herself belting across various landscapes.
“For time sensitive people, this is one of the great inventions,” she says. “My coach programmes in really structured sessions, with intervals and peaks. You don’t have to think about it, just have to move your legs. It means when you get on the bike at five you are flying immediately.
“I think it would be really hard living in London to do the speed work without a static bike. Even if I went out to Richmond Park to cycle, there are dangers. An Olympic rider broke his back after colliding with a deer there. And you just can’t go as fast as you need to. There’s a speed limit of 20mph, which I’ve been in trouble for breaking in the past. Plus with all the traffic in London, it’s dangerous even to try to go at sustained speed.” As Purbrook found out to her cost back in May, when she collided with a car and broke her collarbone. Despite needing an operation, she was back training two days after the fall, which suggests this is someone addicted to getting physical.
“Training is my stress relief,” she says. “After you have done an Ironman, you have to take a rest, two weeks of doing nothing. I find during that rest time I really struggle at work. It’s just much harder to get through a day if I’ve not trained.” Though soon this will not be an issue. In a bid to fulfil her ambition to become the best in the world, in January she is turning professional. Not that she is giving up her day job entirely. She will still be employed one day a week.
“I think just as training makes me a better worker, work makes me a better competitor,” she says. “You’ve got to keep your brain active otherwise the mental challenges of the sport become really hard.” Which means later this week, despite engaging in a physical activity that would exhaust most of us, Purbrook will be back at her desk in the City, ready for yet another long working week.”
- Ruth Purbrook was a member of the 2019 Specialized Zwift Tri Academy, to be in with a chance of being part of the 2020 programme head to https://zwift.com/academy/tri2020