Kilkenny's George Sherwood crammed in 10 incredible years competing in Ironman events across the world
In the space of 10 years George Sherwood’s love of triathlons took him to venues around the world. He tells Trevor Spillane all about how the adventure began
Given what was to come over the next decade, it’s no surprise that George Sherwood’s introduction to the triathlon world was anything but easy.
“My first plan was to do a triathlon, but I started with the Olympic distance and not sprint,” he said. “It was straight in!”
The Kilkennyman broke into a broad smile as he looked back on 10 years of triathlons.
Reflecting on an adventure which saw him complete eight Ironman and 22 Ironman 70.3 events across the world, it’s amazing to think it all started so close to home.
“My first triathlon was the Tri Athy, which was handy as it was just up the road,” he said. “I remember thinking that the Olympic distance (1.5km swim, followed by a 4okm cycle and finishing with a 10km run) would be ok, that I could handle it.
“That was in 2009,” he said. “By 2010 I had entered both a half Ironman (Ironman 70.3) and a full Ironman, both in Switzerland with about a month between them. That was before the club started in Kilkenny.”
Nowadays, should anyone want to tackle an Ironman triathlon, a world of information is at their fingertips. That wasn’t the case when Sherwood started out on the trail.
“I remember when I started looking into it I found there were only two other people in Kilkenny who had done an Ironman,” he recalled. “There was nothing online.
“For my first Ironman I had to wear two watches as the battery in the Garmin wouldn’t last the full 11 or 12 hours - I had to wear one for the swim and the bike and then change my watch for the marathon as the technology wasn’t available.
“There were no advanced turbo trainers you could use to prepare for the event, no data like what we have now. Any information I got was from a book, there wasn’t a lot online - no blogs or anything like that.”
The triathlon world was much smaller back then, as one of Sherwood’s souvenirs showed.
“I still have the T-shirt from that first Ironman in 2010,” he said. “There were only nine races in Europe that year - there could be nine on in one weekend now - and out of the nine there were only five full races, with four halves, so the entire European season consisted of five full Ironman races.”
And when it came to selecting a race location, Sherwood gave himself a real challenge.
“I had decided that if I was going to do one I’d do a tough one, so I picked Switzerland,” he said. “I’ve done eight full Ironman races, and it was the toughest bike section of the lot.
That was it. He was bitten by the bug.
“Every year after that I decided I’d do an Ironman or two, and would still do local races like the Kilkenny Triathlon, Athy or Dublin City, but I found the longer stuff suited me,” he added.
“From 2010 until about 2015 I did Barcelona three times, Copenhagen a few times and Challenge Roth in Germany in 2011, which is the original long distance triathlon. This was a bucket-list race I’d always wanted to do, so I was delighted to get the chance.
“I did Austria too and in 2016 I switched to the half distance - I’ve done 22 half Ironman (Ironman 70.3, so called because competitors complete a swim-bike-run course which is 70.3 miles long) events.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: George Sherwood presents gear to Kilkenny Triathlon Club representative Dara Fahy. The picture was taken in 2011 - some of the kit is still worn today!
“In 2016 I qualified for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Tennessee - I also qualified for the 2018 Championships in South Africa, but didn’t get to go. That one was held in Port Elizabeth and would have meant three flights, so logistically it didn’t work out.
“At the end of 2017 I had an issue with my hip, so after three more events in 2018 (Barcelona, Dublin and Cascais) I had a hip replacement,” he said. “I had the operation earlier this year, so can’t run any more, but I had some great years at it. I guess I ticked the box in terms of events, so now I’m back on the bike and doing a bit of swimming.”
So much has changed in the time he’s spent in the sport - not least in Kilkenny, which now boasts a proud number of Ironman participants.
“The Kilkenny Triathlon Club was formed in 2010 and brought in people of all levels and abilities,” he said. “We had maybe just one or two people who had done Ironman events but since then it’s taken off - there are almost more Ironman medals than All-Ireland medals in Kilkenny now! A lot of people have stepped up to it and completed these events.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise that triathlon has taken off in a sports-mad county, but it was also growing all over the country.
“The sport of triathlon was getting off the ground and started to get traction here,” said Sherwood. “When we started in Kilkenny there was a club in Waterford, a small one in Carlow which isn’t around anymore, but there weren’t that many local clubs.
That’s far from the case now, with the accessibility of the sport a huge part of the attraction.
“Anyone can do a triathlon,” he said. “People can swim (or learn!), you can borrow a bike and everyone can run. The longer the distance and the greater the challenge the more it appealed to me, but people can choose distances of all levels.
“You’re always learning, from the very first race you do,” he added. “Back then it was a case of learning by your mistakes, but nowadays the club in Kilkenny is so big there are plenty of people you can get in touch with to get advice. There’s a lot more information on tap now.
“Fortunately there are plenty of people in the club with experience you can draw on,” he said. “The club is great to help people out - the brick sessions they run here are fantastic and can help bring people on.
“In the early years we didn’t have much in the way of training sessions - people might have met for a cycle or run using the Fit4Life sessions - but it was different as everyone was doing their own thing. If I was doing an Ironman I wouldn’t go for an hour-long cycle with someone who might be doing a sprint race. You’d pair up with someone else doing an Ironman but most of the time it was by yourself.
“Ironman can be a selfish sport,” he said. “If you’re going for long cycles it’s four to six hours so you’re often up early. I remember getting up at 4.30 on summer mornings and going off to be back in time to go to work for nine.
“It can be tough but it’s great,” he added. “It appeals to any age, from young to old. It’s a fantastic sport in terms of age grouping.
“Everyone can compete, but effectively you’re competing against the best in your age group which is a real leveller.
“It’s a great sport for discipline too; you can really improve if you put your mind to it. I’d be an average swimmer and average enough on the bike but I put a lot of work into it and got better. I did a lot of time trials which really helped. My running only improved in the last few years as I learned what to do right - now I do some coaching with Peak Sports Performance so I can pass that information on to other athletes. It’s great to be able to give people information from the start rather than wasting a few years finding out what works and what doesn’t, when to rest and when to work hard. If I’d had that information back when I started things might have been a bit different for me.”
Coaching is only part of Sherwood’s busy schedule. He also set up the Irish leg of performance company Precision Hydration.
“Precision Hydration keeps me in touch with the triathlon scene,” he said. “I’ve met hundreds of people from all over the country in this end of the business - it’s great because you get to talk triathlon with people when they’re doing a 45-minute sweat test.”
Much like his introduction to triathlon, it was suffering which led Sherwood to his latest venture.
“I was in Barcelona in 2015 and I totally dehydrated on the run,” he recalled. “It wasn’t particularly warm, but when I finished the race I had nausea, headache, dizziness. I thought I’d drank enough but I hadn’t taken enough of the right fluids - I was losing too much salt and hadn’t been replacing it fast enough.
“I went to Precision Hydration and had a sweat test done online and got the high strength electrolytes and they made a huge difference on the long distance races in terms of fatigue - I was able to make the right decisions at the right time in the race; I was fresher and didn’t suffer from dehydration.
“I went to do a full test and found they didn’t have a sweat test centre in Ireland, so that’s how I ended up doing it.
“I do it for the entire country and cater for athletes of every sport,” he continued. “It gives a great insight into long distance endurance sports and the hydration requirements needed. Like I said, when I started triathlon there was nothing like this - you might have a bottle of Lucozade Sport and that would be it. For some people, when they do the test, they could find they’d have to take on five litres of that sports drink per hour just to replace the salt they lose.”
It’s not just triathlon-mad people who use Precision Hydration. The company also cater for Gaelic Games teams, including Cavan GAA, tennis players, long distance runners and Ireland’s Olympic modern pentathlon team. They also tested the Irish rugby team before they travelled to Japan for the World Cup last year.
TRI, TRI AGAIN: Kilkenny triathlete George Sherwood carves up the course at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee back in 2017. Competing in the event was a career highlight for Sherwood, who completed eight full Ironman and 22 Ironman 70.3 events in more than a decade in the sport
“A lot of people come with the same issues across all sports,” he said. “The reason we tested the Irish rugby team was because it would be so humid in Japan they wanted to test all the players to see who would be heavy sweaters and in danger of cramping and suffering a drop in performance.”
Back to his early Kilkenny days. As his interest in the sport grew alongside the club’s growth, it was inevitable they would be connected. That was cemented when the club wore the Sherwoods logo on an early kit - some of which you’ll still find at events across the world!
“There are a few old jerseys still knocking around, but the kit has evolved over the years,” he said. “Everyone buys that first bike but within six months you’re looking to change it for something faster and lighter.
“The whole thing is faster, faster, faster. It can be an expensive sport to get into in the first few years - you’re buying your wetsuit, bike, Garmins and helmets - but once you get over the initial expense your investment is made.”
Triathlon has been a huge part of Sherwood’s life. It’s tough not to be able to take part any longer, but he has no regrets.
“My surgeon said I could still do an Ironman,” he said with a smile. “He told me I could swim, bike and walk!”
“I never thought I’d do eight Ironman events and 22 halves, as well as 50 other races and duathlons” he said.
“I did it for 10 years and saw plenty of the world, but in the last year I had enough of the suffering. My hip was getting sore and I knew I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted to - bone was rubbing off bone - in training and couldn’t do more than an hour in training.
“I always said I’d stop when my performance started to drop,” he added. “The only race I did last year was the Kilkenny Triathlon. Normally I’d have 10 races done at that stage of the year, but it was a good time to finish up. If anything I’m busier in triathlon terms now with Precision Hydration and training people than when I was training myself. I can’t race anymore, but I get a great kick out of passing information on to other athletes.”
And he can still look back on some incredible highlights.
“Out of all the events Challenge Roth in Germany was the best,” he said. “It’s an iconic race in triathlon, the oldest running long distance race.
“The people there are mad for triathlon,” he added. “There’s a section there called Solar Hill, which is like something out of the Tour de France as it could be 80 people deep on either side of the road, forcing you to squeeze through a gap in the middle.
“You have to do that twice,” he continued. “The first time you do it, you hear the noise before you come around the bend and it’s an amazing sight. The real problem is, the second time you do it, the people are gone to watch the professionals on the run and where once there were 20,000 people now there might only be 100! You really feel the hill on that run!
“Not many people from Kilkenny have done that race as it’s very difficult to get into,” he added. “When I did it the demand wasn’t as high, but nowadays you’ve practically seconds to secure a spot before the event is sold out.
Roth was tops, but the American adventure in Chattanooga ran it pretty close
“The whole experience in Tennessee was something else,” he said. “You had the best of the best from all over the world at the event.”
Sherwood qualified for the World Championships in Tennessee thanks to his performance at Dublin in August 2016. Even though it was in the States, there was a strong local presence.
“It’s funny as I did that event with Ivan Sheridan,” he recalled with a smile. “We were laughing; here we are, two boys from Kells, at the Ironman World Championships.
“It was great to be there among thousands of athletes for a few days. Ironman is big, but that was huge. It was a tough course, the bike was really hilly while the run was hilly and hot. Despite that it was probably the pinnacle of my triathlon career.”
So, is he surprised to see it become so popular?
“It’s been great to see the sport grow over the years,” he said. “As I’ve said, anyone can do a triathlon, and it’s a great way to get friends involved.
“You’d see people tag friends in events, getting them to come along or maybe even work as a relay team.
“Once people get involved and get a taste for it they’re hooked,” he added. “It has exploded over the last 10 years, but it will become more and more popular. When I did Athy the first time it was a small race, even though it was their third or fourth year to host it. After that the numbers went through the roof. It might be hard to get back to such levels this year with the coronavirus - it would be hard to implement social distancing in a transition zone, or afterwards - but next year it could bounce back.
“There’s great camaraderie in triathlon,” he said. “It’s impossible to go to an event and not bump into someone either from the Kilkenny club or people from other clubs that you’ve met over the years.
“Unlike other sports it’s also very encouraging. I’ve often seen guys stopped on the side of the road with a puncture and others have stopped to help them out, or you’d see people giving a hand when someone is struggling on the run.
“Other sports can be dog-eat-dog but in triathlon you’d get a lot more people stopping to help or even just to ask if they need a hand or a gas cylinder for a puncture,” he finished. “I guess it’s because everyone is suffering together!”