The path to ITU Sprint Distance Duathlon World Championships was a lonely one for Norfolk athlete
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
GAVIN CANEY tells the story of how one sportsman's dedication looks set to reap the rewards it deserves.
As the biting wind cut across his freezing face, Steven Barnes pedalled even harder into the dark.
With just his bicycle for company – as well as the very rare dog-walker or hugely committed fisherman – there were miles to be done. And in the sub-zero conditions during that early January morning there was only one way to do them; quickly.
Rotation by rotation, Barnes edged ever closer to his final, and warm, destination. Unfortunately for the 37-year-old though when he reached it his work was not done. There were computer problems to fix – as well as more exercise waiting around the corner at lunchtime.
And when the IT technician at the UEA clocked off for the evening there was still no time to wind down. Because of course there was only one way he could get back home to Brundall. Through the broads, out into the wilderness, and with only himself for encouragement.
You could have forgiven Barnes for opting to ditch his two-wheel approach when his alarm went off the next day. Had he have stepped into his car and turned up the heating to full power at 6am many would have understood. But that would have been the easy option. And fitness fanatics – who dream of being a success in endurance competitions – don't tend to give up easily.
Barnes said: 'It is much easier at this time of the year. Being out there in January and February when there wasn't anyone out there was harder. At times it was very bleak, remote, and that made it hard going.
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'I've never really wanted to join a club as I love the mental challenge of doing it alone. Some days I get up thinking I don't want to bike to work as it's windy or raining but I enjoy making myself get out there and getting on with it. All year round, even when it's icy, it makes me feel so much better. It's rewarding for me and it's like a pat on my own back for getting out there and doing it.'
That relentless dedication to running and cycling – as well as drawing up his own strict nutritional and training programme – paid off in handsome style in March when, during his first ever duathlon, the Norfolk athlete finished 28th out of 479. More importantly, a seventh-placed age-group (35-39) position landed him a Great Britain spot for the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Sprint Distance Duathlon World Championships (3.1-mile run, 12.4-mile bike and 1.55-mile run) in Australia in October.
That place is now under serious threat though as Barnes looks to make up a huge financial shortfall to fund the sporting trip of his lifetime. He has until the end of the month to find £3,000 or all of his efforts will go to waste.
'I didn't ever set out to represent GB,' admitted the amateur athlete.
'I didn't want to just be a runner as I knew I wasn't going to be able to commit to it all the time as I didn't want to get injured again (suffered a recurring muscular leg injury in 2011). I'm awful at swimming yet I biked to work so I thought I might link that and running and give it a go. I trained solidly for three months and to my astonishment I did really well in my first duathlon (Worksop, March, British championships). I'd never thought about competing at a world championships but now I've got the chance I'm desperate to do it.'
'It's nice to get out and just be in the fresh air'
A promising cross country career as a teenager has no doubt helped the duathlon novice achieve great success.
But despite running for Norfolk while he was at secondary school, it was football that became Steve Barnes' sporting passion when he turned 15.
The amateur athlete joked: 'I was only ever good at football as I was the central midfielder who could run all day and kick people. I always had someone skilful next to me so I'd just give the ball to them.
'I'm just lucky that I was naturally fit, liked working hard and had lots of determination. I'd say I was a far more talented runner but I really did enjoy football until I got a few niggles, had a family, and thought I'd give up while I could. I took up road running as I needed to do something as I find I get frustrated if I'm not doing exercise.'
At the age of 33, after long stints with a host of well-respected grassroots outfits including Anglian Combination Premier Division Cromer Town and Acle United, Barnes swapped his boots for his running shoes and bike. It's a decision he has never regretted.
'After football I tried squash and golf and they just weren't doing it for me,' he said.
'Football is all about challenging yourself against an opponent and being part of a team and a dressing room. Running is entirely different. It's just a time to be by myself, with my own thoughts, and presents a chance to push myself.
'It's really hard work but I can find it quite peaceful when I'm going around the Broads and the lake at the UEA. It's nice to get out and just be in the fresh air.'
- To support Barnes' cause visit http://www.gofundme.com/BarnesWorldChamps or contact him directly on 07786362029 or via e-mail at email@example.com
* Video shot and edited by Simon Finlay. Voiceover by Gavin Caney