26.2 miles with the Southampton legend
It’s about 5pm on the evening of Thursday 2 May.
Franny Benali comes bounding out of the IronFran team’s motorhome and straight into what can only be described as torrential rain.
Running in the rain is often a therapeutic experience but the conditions above and under foot didn’t at all reflect that.
Regardless, the 50-year-old, who had just completed the 112-mile bike leg of his fourth consecutive full Ironman distance triathlon, was ready to wrap-up the day with a marathon. As you do.
On the face of it, the Southampton legend seems remarkably fresh – quickly apologising to photographer Stuart Martin for forgetting he had to stop for a brief photo before setting off.
That is, as many people would say who are close to him, one of Fran’s greatest and most endearing qualities – he always puts others first.
Having, like many others, been glued to the IronFran social media channels throughout the course of his third mammoth challenge and fundraising effort for Cancer Research UK, I was in awe of his efforts like everybody else but also found it very difficult to watch various videos which showed Benali in tortuous physical pain.
This, certainly occupied my thoughts as I travelled to the bike-run transition point at Reading Rugby Football Club on that Thursday to support and run with Fran for 26.2 miles.
As documented by his team, day four – especially the cycle phase – felt like a breaking point moment physically for Fran and the challenge.
At first glance, though, all seemed well as the marathon run began. Southampton fan Matt Ashmead also joined in at the start as we followed cyclist and run lead Deano; and the support vehicles (see full route on STRAVA).
Right from the off, Fran was ‘in the zone’. Being in a bubble of concentration is a sign of immense mental strength, which Fran has in abundance, but tunnel vision can often prove problematic during extreme endurance activities – because it is all too easy to forget the pain and suffering you are putting your body through. In essence, you don’t know when to stop.
Having interviewed Fran on numerous occasions over the years and assisted with digital content at the IronFran launch night at St Mary’s Stadium back in February, I had gained a unique insight into his character and desire to keep going against all the odds.
But, after a bit of chit-chat over the first few miles – I was particularly keen to leave him to it.
The rain was teeming down and energy sapping – we were all quickly soaked to the skin. Hardly ideal, especially when running on narrow pavements during busy rush hour traffic.
The role of Fran’s superb support team, rightly so, has been well-documented throughout his challenges. He has said on many occasions himself that they are the difference between reaching the finishing line or not.
— Stuart Appleby (@Stuart_Appleby) May 2, 2019
And I could see why. Quite simply, family and friends were there with Fran for every stride of the marathon, as they had been for the previous three-and-a-bit Ironmans and the two previous challenges during his one-man crusade against cancer.
Deano ran the first 10km just in front of us – acting as a focal point and lead when it came to the route. Two support vehicles (among them Stu Amey, Jenny Makin and many others – apologies, I don’t have everyone’s name to reference!), with one almost side by side for the first part of the marathon, were there offering assistance as and when needed.
At around nine miles, we stopped for a breather. Fran changed into dry kit and spoke to sports therapist Kelly Rutledge. Fran’s calorie intake, or lack of, had been a particular concern during the challenge. Digesting and keeping down food was a real problem, which of course meant fuel in the tank was low.
Nevertheless, we were soon back out there. Headphones in and hood up, Fran led the running pack, Deano switched to his bike and the two support vehicles worked in tandem, with one in front of us, and one behind, as we navigated along, up, down and through plenty of fast countryside roads, with limited pavements.
The public’s support all through the route was testament to the measure of the man. Shouts of “Go on Fran”, “BENALI!” and honks of horns were frequent – again showing how his challenge had captured the imagination.
The rain stopped nine miles or so in. It was a chilly evening but the route was relatively (and kindly) flat for the most part. We passed Arborfield and soon reached the half-marathon marker at a good pace.
Fran, still very much focused on the job in hand and getting to the finishing point in Farnborough, seemed strong but Kelly was monitoring his hydration levels closely. Post-event, Fran said that he had began to experience blurred vision and felt like he was swaying during his fourth marathon on the bounce. I can honestly say I didn’t really notice much evidence of this until the last six miles.
As you can see from the video documentary (below), I wore a backpack for the run and carried some light hydration. Having completed Madrid Marathon a few days earlier, this run was the first chance I’d had to shake out my legs and I felt really comfortable.
However, given I wasn’t really familiar with the route, I sunk into a bit of a daydream for large parts of the run myself. Matt Alford joined us at the 16-mile mark and from then on in the most noticeable thing was the fading light – which made for trickier conditions.
After mile 20, and with several more runners in support, Fran wanted to slow down and walk for the next few hundred yards. I stopped and started my watch a number of times in a 10-minute period (which played havoc with my mileage a bit) – but time didn’t matter one iota anyway.
Fatigue had clearly set in for Fran (of course it had – this was his fourth Ironman in a row!) but he was still able to stop for well-wishers. Earlier, a Southampton supporting father and son jogged with us for about a mile, stopped, and then re-joined us at a later point.
Fran’s first thought when we saw them again was to say, “would you like a photo, you didn’t get one last time did you?”. I thought that was another lovely touch.
The last few miles towards the Holiday Inn in Farnborough were steady and by that point there were around seven to eight people running, as well as a cyclist or two assisting with the route – which made for a memorable and pretty emotional finish.
My day ended with an ice bath at 11.30pm and an early checkout the next morning, when I came to learn of the decision made by Fran’s team to halt day five of IronFran on medical grounds.
It was sad but the right call for Fran’s future health and let’s not forget he still bounced back and finished his fifth Ironman in seven days on the Sunday – while his team and the general public completed the other two.
Over three weeks have passed since he returned home to Southampton’s Guildhall Square and received a nerve-tingling and deserving hero’s welcome.
I very much doubt this is the end of Fran’s endurance exploits but you would think it is time to put the feet up for a bit and reflect on what he has achieved.
There is no doubt he has changed and will change many more peoples’ lives moving forward with his £1m fundraising target now complete.
Congratulations again, Fran and it was a pleasure to run with you.