Andy Lovell

For those of you who don’t know Andy this is a small insight into one of Portsmouth Triathletes longstanding members and high achievers. Chat to him one Saturday at the beach hut and you will get to know a fascinating and passionate athlete, learn from his experiences from “back in the day” when triathlon and ironman was in its infancy, hear how he manages and overcomes health issues and just keeps on doing what he does! He joined Portsmouth Triathletes in 2003 and even held the position of club Chairman at one point, did you know Andy sanctioned the installation of the buoys in the water at Eastney? But first let us go back to Northampton in the 70s and 80s where Andy’s triathlon story began.

As a child Andy suffered with severe asthma, eczema and hayfever; in the late 60s and 70s there was no proper treatment for asthma apart from ventolin and he was told by doctors not to do sport or anything active, it wasn’t until he left school that Andy got fit. At age 19 Andy got into kickboxing through his brother, he turned up one day inhalers and tissues in hand to be told by the coach “What are they for? That’s not going to stop me punching you!” which rather set the tone for the years that followed and the athlete that Andy later became.

Between the age of 19 and 25 time in the kickboxing gym gave Andy his fitness and once he got fit his asthma greatly improved. Unfortunately Andy’s kickboxing career came to a premature end when he broke his leg during training. It was at this point Andy discovered swimming – what started as an obvious solution to aid his recovery and regain fitness became his first introduction to the sport of triathlon. He was spotted as a natural talent in the pool by a local tri coach who encouraged him to join his squad, and so in 1993 at age 26 Andy joined Northants (Northhamptonshire) Triathlon Club, and the rest is history.

Andy’s first triathlon was the Market Bosworth, Standard Distance in 1993. He swam in a windsurfing wetsuit (swimming specific wetsuits hadn’t been invented yet) his race bike was a Columbus steel frame, with 14-speed gearset, 36-spoke sprint rims (aluminium) with nylon disc covers on the back wheel. At the time there were very few races around and so as a novice he set out amongst a field with pros to complete his first race, finishing in an incredible time of 2hrs 8mins.

By 1996 things had moved on kit-wise. Andy was racing with a TT frame bike with 16 spoke aerofoil aluminium rims and it was the first time triathletes started using skinsuits. Prior to this he was racing in nothing more than Speedos and a vest. Andy did mostly sprint and Olympic distance in the first few years of his triathlon career but by 1996 he made the step up to half ironman.

Andy’s first half ironman was Ironbridge in Shropshire, which consisted of a 2.5k river swim, a hilly 90k 2-lap bike and 20k run on mixed road and trail. His TT bike was upgraded with trispoke wheels. Andy returned to Ironbridge for 3 years running and his top race perfomance there was in 1999 when he finished 14th in the 30-34 age group in a time of 5:09:41 amongst an elite field including Julian Jenkinson (winner of 1992 ETU championships) who finished 4th at that race in 4:32:22 and alongside Pompey Tri club member Mark Summerfield who finished 10th in the 45-49 age group in a time of 5:56:38.

Andy’s first iron distance race was The Longest Day in Wolverhampton in 1997. He lined up wearing race number 69 and put together an impressive debut performance finishing 50th overall in a time of 10:27:46 (Swim 56:50, Bike 5:10:23, Run 4:20:33). As a lot of us can testify things weren’t pretty by the end; he walked the last 10 miles of the marathon and wasn’t very well afterwards, but it certainly didn’t put him off. Andy returned to the start line of the Longest Day for the following 3 years.

Andy achieved his fastest time at Longest Day in 1999 finishing in a time of 10:16:17. But it was not his time that Andy remembers most about this race but what happened out on the course. At that time the infamous Mark Allen (9x podium and 6 times winner at Hawaii) had come over to the UK as an ambassador for Ironman. The Longest Day race organisers Tri UK were trying to get Ironman to bring their first race to the UK and Mark Allen was in the pace car during the race to check out the course. Andy came out the swim near the front and soon passed everyone to take the lead. At 15 miles into the race Julian Jenkinson came past to take the lead. Another 10 miles further down the road Andy got to a roundabout to find pace car with Mark Allen in the front and Julian Jenkinson following behind going round and round the roundabout. They were so far out ahead the marshal hadn’t yet turned up and they didn’t know which way to go! As Andy knew course having done it 3 times before he took the correct exit from the roundabout and the lead from Jenkinson who was moaning he had been going round the roundabout for 10 mins. Jenkinson said to Andy “you can go in front for a bit” but then proceeded to sit on Andy’s wheel to which Andy said “you’re getting paid for this – get your ass up the road!”. Needless to say Ironman didn’t come to the UK until 2005, we wonder if that experience had anything to do with it!!

But most memorable personal race experience for Andy at Longest Day was in 2000. Andy described having a terrible time on the bike, nothing felt right, and he was intending to pull out when he got back to T2. However when he came in to transition and sat down in changing tent, he got handed a can of red bull, and the TV camera was on him. He though that he should at least put on a show for the cameras and so ran out of T2 exiting via a lap of the stadium. Andy planned to just do one lap and sneak off round the back when no one was watching, but then he started running he suddenly found that he felt great! Everything just seemed to work, and he ended up running the marathon in a time 3:31:14. His total finish time of 10:24:42 was not his fastest time at Longest Day but he learned a valuable lesson. He looked back on the day and knew that it was poor equipment selection that contributed to his disappointing time (5:52:35) on the bike. Andy had chosen UFO tubs which were supposed to be “puncture proof” and therefore he didn’t have to carry spare, but they “just didn’t roll” and the extra drag from the tyres “felt like I was riding into a headwind all day”. Looking back now his learning point from that race: Its not over until its over – despite a poor bike performance he still managed to complete his fastest ever IM marathon time.

By 2000 Andy’s race bike was evolving; as one to constantly tinker and upgrade things, his “turn of the century bike” comprised of a 853 steel frame which was light and high quality, with bladed carbon aero forks,12-spoke 38mm aluminium campagnolo aero rims, 9-speed drivetrain with gears still on the frame, aerobars and normal brakes on the handlebars. The following year in 2001 Andy upgraded the same frame with an 18-speed drivetrain, drop handlebars with modern gear levers and clip on aerobars. This was because it was the year that Andy began his now annual pilgrimage to Ironman Lanzarote.

I asked Andy why Lanzarote? What is it about that race that has seen him return 12 times between 2001 and 2018? His answer – because it is the toughest race; its not a natural environment, the wind, the heat, the hills. He says he is never going to get a fast time at iron distance triathlon, so why not do the hardest race instead? I know I can identify with this, as I am sure many club members can too! And so if tough is what you are looking for in a race, Ironman Lanzarote definitely delivers. Andy’s best time at Lanzarote was in 2004 when he finished in 11:15:20 and finished 160th overall. His swim PB on the course is 49:53 and his bike PB is 6:15, which is a testament to the grueling conditions. When asked about his best Lanza race experience, Andy’s response was “I don’t know they were all pretty punishing!” He says last year’s race was satisfying because instead of worrying about times or performance he was just focusing on getting around. After a myriad of health problems the year before Andy thought he would never be able to race long course again so it was just a relief to be able to get out there and do the race.

This year will be Andy’s 13th Ironman Lanzarote. He is returning for his annual pilgrimage as he loves the island, the attitude of the people and the athletes there, and you know exactly what you are going to get – its windy and hot. He says he is going to keep going round that race as long as he can, to defy his health for as long as he can. So how is Andy going to prepare for Lanza this year? Andy’s training is far from conventional. Over the years he has learned how best to manage his health and prevent injury. He does very light training through the week and focuses his main sessions all on the weekend. A normal week of training involves a Saturday morning run and a Sunday morning swim and bike. Last week Andy did a total of 1:20 swimming, 1:40 on the bike and no running as he is injured. As he prepares for Lanzarote he will increase the duration of these three key sessions on the weekend and may add in some core work and a swim during the week, but nothing that will cause any damage or strain.

For past decade at Lanzarote Andy has preferred to race with a lightweight road bike and as a true weight weenie he measures all his components to the nearest gram. Extensive research and thought goes into each component he chooses for the bike. He has been racing on a superlight Planet X road frame with Campagnolo Bora 50mm section carbon tubs. He has this set up with Campag record 11-speed 39-53 chainrings, a 12-28 rear cassette and carbon drop handlebars with aluminium clip on aerobars. Total weight 6.6kg.

This year however Andy is going back to aero with his Lanza bike “just for a change”. He has dug his QuintanoRoo Lucero carbon TT frame out the loft (had for about 10 years) and upgraded the forks to be able to put on rear-facing brakes to make it more aero, but will be using the same wheels. He is changing to a single 11-speed cyclocross 52-tooth oval chainring, with an 11-34 cassette. Andy is venturing away from his long-standing dedication to campagnolo to use SRAM force components as they are designed to be used for single chainring set-ups. Having only 1 gear shifter, saves weight, is more aerodynamic and means there is less to think about, plus no front mech gives a 15-watt saving! Limitations of this set up are that there are wider gaps between the lower gears, which may prove tricky on the Lanzarote terrain, but Andy’s plan is to have his training bike set up with similar gearing but with a narrower ratio rear cassette. This means he has the extra gears for race day! Andy trains with power but chooses not to race with a power meter, or even a HRM, just experience and feel guiding him on race day. This year’s shift from weight to aero is really just a reason to upgrade his race bike according to Andy (who is always looking for ways to improve and can’t let anything be – according to Jo!). He considers and researches every piece of kit and often thinks outside of the box, even making his own saddles when things don’t quite suit.

So how does Andy approach race day at Lanzarote? He embraces the heat, as he “never does well in the cold”. His strategy on the bike is to just keep drinking, it never bothers him that much and then on the run to keep ice under a hat. Nutrition wise things have come a long way over the years. Back in the days of the Longest Day in the mid 90s the only option was High 5 sports drink and not much else, there was no food and nothing like energy gels, as we know them today. High 5 had L-carnitine, B-vitamins and amino acids in as far as Andy can remember but this has now all been taken out. These days Andy has a tried and tested nutrition ritual for Ironman. He uses TORQ gels on the bike, which he puts all into 1 bottle, 18 gels in total, that he consumes over the bike course. He gets water from feed stations but takes no on-course nutrition and doesn’t stop for special needs. On the run he alternates Torq gel and High 5 gels to mix up tastes. High 5 is smaller gel with a sweeter and lighter taste; Torq is thicker and richer. Last year at Lanzarote Andy deviated from plan and had something else on the run that he had not used before and suffered for it so will definitely be sticking to the plan this year.

Even though Andy has pretty much dedicated his life to racing long course, he says he is actually much better at racing shorter distances. In his early 30s he was regularly finishing standard distance tris in around 2hrs. His fastest Olympic triathlon was the Northampton Classic 2004 when he finished in first place beating two pros in a time of 1:52:58. And his top result of all was winning the Portsmouth Triathletes stroke and stride 2004 (oh yes!) in a time of 21:44 pulling off a storming 15:42 5km run.

Andy’s top stats:

  • 50m swim 0:28s
  • 100m swim 1:03min
  • 1500m swim 19:15 Northampton Triathlon (2012)
  • 10 mile TT – 21:03
  • 25 mile TT – 56:15
  • 6mile run 33:32 (1999)
  • 5K run 15:42 (aquathon 2004)
  • 10K run 34min (triathlon)
  • GSR 56:15 (2004)
  • Standard: 1:52:58 Northampton Classic (2004)
  • Half ironman: 4:31:38 Weymouth (2000)
  • Ironman: 10:16:17 Longest day (1999)

So the final part of Andy’s fascinating athletic story that must not be ignored is how he has fought lifelong health issues and still continues to do what he does. Besides severe asthma, hayfever and eczema he is also severe allergy to nuts and fish and is intolerant of egg. He has vascular and bleeding problems related to the long term drugs for asthma, and high blood pressure requiring medication which causes side effects that reduce his athletic performance. He is very susceptible to bronchitis and very injury prone. All of these things would put most people off returning year after year to face the music at Ironman Lanzarote but it has only served to strengthen Andy’s resolve to keep on going back and keep defying his own health. Andy says that training and keeping fit keeps him well, but that he is too lazy to keep fit without having a race to train for. He finds that long slow races like Ironman are better for his health and fitness than blasting it on short distances where he is more likely to get injured. Soon to be 52 years of age, Andy’s triathlon story is far from over. He explains that as he has become older his focus has changed and now that he has the experience and wealth of knowledge of an older athlete his advice is to keep on going however you can and for as long as you can – don’t pack up just because you are getting slow!

*Interview by Bex Hughes