Arch to Arc – going the distance

October 13, 2014

London, England

By Neil Hall

The Arch to Arc is billed as the hardest triathlon in the world. It is comprised of a 87 mile run from Marble Arch in London to Dover, a swim across the Channel to Calais in France, finishing with a 180 mile bike ride to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Paul Parrish swims as he takes part in the Arch to Arc triathlon in the channel between England and France

49-year-old charity worker, and recovering alcoholic, Paul Parrish hoped to be the oldest man to complete the event.

Paul Parrish has a meal break during the run of his Arch to Arch triathlon in south London

Parrish felt that training for the event has filled the gaps in his life that drinking left. “Alcoholism is grim … you can’t get much lower,” he said, adding that he looked forwards to celebrating completing the event with a cup of tea.

As he works full time and has a family, Parrish uses day-to-day life as an opportunity to train, running or cycling to work instead of driving.  He realizes the feat might seem extraordinary, but believes that “you need to make a leap of faith with yourself and give things a go.”

Paul Parrish poses for a portrait during a training session for his Arch to Arc triathlon attempt in Bray

I watched Paul through some of his training and followed him as he took part in the race.  The sheer size of the task was impressive, but it was only by traveling with him through his entire journey did I fully understand the hardships involved.

Fatigue is a huge issue, “Initially there is a sense of the body working well but gradually things break down, my muscles hurt and hills become hard. Everything becomes painful,” said Parrish.

Paul Parrish is warmed by a member of his support team after finishing the run section of his Arch to Arc triathlon in Dover

After the long run, which took place over 24 hours, we arrived in Dover where we found that there was only a 50/50 chance he would be allowed to make his swim. Luckily the weather gods were smiling but it turned out that no channel swim is straightforward.

This was the part that Paul feared most. With the cycle or run you can stop or rest, but during a swim you have to move constantly, or the tide will take you back. “During a long swim I don’t want to know anything about time. It’s just me and the water, when tiredness comes I feel like I’m going to pieces,” said Parrish.

Paul Parrish swims past ducks during a training session for his Arch to Arc triathlon attempt in Bray

Waves, fatigue, jellyfish, extreme cold all combine to make the swim difficult. The swimmer has to pass through shipping lanes – the busiest in the world – but it is the psychological challenge that Parrish saw as his biggest hurdle, “the biggest fear is not your body – but that your head will give up.”

Even eating was a challenge. A small boat carried food and a support crew who passed drinks to Parrish in a small milk bottles on a rope.

Members of Paul Parrish's support team throw him a drink attached to a rope during a meal break as he takes part in the Arch to Arc triathlon in the channel between England and France

The cycle from Calais to Paris was a long, slow journey. I traveled with a support vehicle, everyone was tired and irritable, and just keeping going was difficult, but it was worse for Parrish, “You feel every niggle, get worried about injury and aches and pains move around the body.”

Paul Parrish cycles as he takes part in the Arch to Arc triathlon in northern France

The journey through Paris at rush hour was dangerous. Parrish had been cycling for 20 hours and I was worried he’d be hit by a passing bus. In the end he reached the finish line – there was a small celebration but no great victory lap. Parrish had a brief sleep then turned back, pleased it was all over and probably wondering what his next challenge would be.

Paul Parrish cycles as he takes part in the Arch to Arc triathlon in Paris

As a photographer covering this story was a logistical challenge and a battle against fatigue – you need to be alert to get the best pictures. I suffer from sea-sickness, so the swimming stage was not a good experience for me, I was nauseous for about 12 hours and it’s not easy taking pictures when all you want to do is sit still and keep your head between you legs.

However, the length of the trip meant that I was gifted a lot of interesting scenery and lighting conditions, including the challenge of low-light night photography.

A passenger ferry passes by Paul Parrish as he takes part in the Arch to Arc triathlon in the channel between England and France

I could never put my finger on the motivation to take part in these events. I think it might be belonging to an elite club, which makes people stand out from the norm. “It is partly ego, to prove to other people or to gain confidence,” says Parrish.

I think people get a buzz from putting themselves in extreme situations and succeeding. This kind of event is addictive and each is a step to the next, bigger more difficult challenge. As Parrish puts it: “People want something to take them out of the humdrum of their life and transform themselves from the norm.”

Paul Parrish attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in St Albans

Parrish took 21 hours 55 mins for his run, 17 hours 25 min for his swim and 20 hours 44 min for his cycle. Including breaks between stages his total time completing the Arch to Arc was 84 hours 44 min. Parrish is the oldest person to complete the race, and the 7th fastest.

Paul Parrish warms himself afters an open water training session for his Arch to Arc triathlon attempt in Bray

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