Ritchie Humphreys has swapped a sport millions wish they could play for one very few even dare to attempt.
In July the former Sheffield Wednesday, Hartlepool and Chesterfield player completed his first ever Ironman competition – a gruelling race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
To put that in some context, he took on and finished the equivalent of 154 lengths of a 25m pool, then jumped on a bike to ride close to the distance between the Proact and Victoria Park in Hartlepool, then ran a marathon. All in one go.
It took him 12 hours, 40 minutes and 14 seconds to hear the words ‘you are an Ironman’ over the PA system.
But the journey to the finish line has taken several years. Before he’d even hung up the boots at the end of a 22-season career, he had dipped his toes in the waters of triathlon.
“Going back six or seven years I was still up at Hartlepool and I used to buy the Triathlon magazine,” he said.
“I thought it was something I might like to do when I finished, to keep fit. Even at amateur level, it could be a little bit competitive in case I missed that competitive feeling after football. I knew it interested me – a different sport I could get into. Certainly the cycling and swimming even if my knees had gone or something.”
Humphreys was still a Spireites player-coach when he entered the Last Minute Tri at Southwell, a sprint triathlon and a somewhat gentle introduction to the sport. By the time he finished it, he was hooked.
“I knew it was a short one, it would be over in one hour 20 or so and it was pool based. I had never done the transitions before and that was my first time. I had only been to coached swimming sessions for a number of weeks and my swimming was really weak at that point.
“But that was when I caught the bug for it. Because I wasn’t playing as regularly as I once did, I could do bits of running, biking to work and I was swimming a lot.”
At the end of his final season with Chesterfield he ramped up his triathlon training and completed the Outlaw Half at Nottingham. That in turn made up his mind to tackle the full distance.
But the longer training sessions brought new challenges, other than the physical effort required, for someone getting to grips with an ‘office job’ at the Professional Footballers Assocation. “It wasn’t my job to be fit anymore, I had a full-time job and like a lot of people who work, I was trying to organise my food, my equipment the night before so I could get out early on the bike for three or four hours,” he said.
“That was what I needed to do if I wanted to get through the Ironman distance.”
Humphreys used the 2018 Outlaw Half as a warm up event for the ‘big one’ in July: “I felt more nervous the second time I did the half because I knew I wanted to beat last year’s time,” he said.
“I wasn’t a full-time athlete this time round but I had done more specific training for it.”
To complicate matters in the run up to his Ironman debut, Humphreys suffered a calf injury in a charity football game at Bramall Lane two months prior to the race. And that made it a nervy morning in Bolton on July 15.
“On the morning of the Ironman the thing I was nervous about was a calf injury I suffered eight weeks out,” he said. “For six weeks building up to the Iornman I hadn’t been able to run, I was just doing swimming and riding the bike. I had never run further than half the distance in training.
“I would have got to 15 miles in training but injuries stopped me getting to that point. I was more excited about how it would all go and never expected to do a reasonable marathon time.”
For a man who played football at Wembley and performed in front of thousands at stadiums all over the country, the atmosphere at the Ironman race was perhaps surprisingly a highlight. “It was amazing,” he said.
“The build up that week I was anxious about England being in a World Cup final when I was in the middle of an Ironman. I think we got a bigger crowd because England weren’t playing, people were out in the streets. “It was the same on the run – they were cheering you on, giving you encouragement. The streets were filled with supporters and families and that was a big lift.”
The race itself was enjoyable – or so he claims.
“It was grueling but really enjoyable. The last three or four miles were painful.
“Coming down the carpet, hearing ‘you are an Ironman’ was amazing.
“The next day you get the email about signing up for next year but I’m not sure about that just yet.”
The support of his family and friends played a big part in getting him to the finish line and the icing on the cake was a sum of over £3,000 raised for Sheffield Children’s Hospital and Alzheimer’s Society.
“I’m so thankful and grateful to the people who donated to the two brilliant charities.
“Over all about £3,000 was raised so I’m really thankful for that.
“And my family were so supportive throughout it all.
“Not just my wife and kids, but friends and grandparents, helping with the kids when I needed to get some training in.”
“The support I got from my family, the kids making me a card with Ironman on it, that will be really nice to remember.”
Life as an Ironman begins at 40 for Humphreys and while he’s not aiming to take on the professionals in his new sport, retirement number two sounds a long way off.
“In the shorter distance stuff you can race your age group,” he said.
“At the Ironman distance it would take a lot of training to race, rather than just get through it like I did this time.
“I’d love to experience of doing one in another country, maybe incorporated with a holiday.
“There might be a challenging bike ride for charity that I might like to do.
“There’s lots of things out there.”