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Paul Parish tackled one of the toughest triathlons there is, when he went from London to Paris under his own power. A journey he believes he could not have competed had it not been for his former dark days as an addict. 

Words: Cath Harris Pictures: Shutterstock, Alex Rankin & Jess Penny.

Paul Parrish does not jest when he says he’s been given another go at life. And such is his transformation from addict to ultra-distance athlete that his story is one that hardly seems plausible. Yet, having completed the Arch to Arc (A2A), Parrish looks back on his drink and tobacco-addled first 35 years as the fuel that has fired his achievements since.

“I probably wouldn’t have done what I’ve done if I hadn’t gone through that,” Parrish says. With the Enduroman Arch to Arc Triathlon tucked under the belt now fitting his lean torso, the charity fundraising director is eyeing new tests for his future.

Parrish, 49, was just 13-years-old when he was drunk for the first time. At 15, he was an alcoholic and at 17 he was regularly drinking alone.

“I had a very nice upbringing but drinking ran through the family. It was a bit of a social thing when you were growing up in the 70s.”

Smoking came easily too, and Parrish was soon consuming 30 to 40 cigarettes each day. Only after graduating he did reluctantly seek help for his addictions. “I was basically caning everything. But at that time, there was no way I could comprehend having a problem.

Alcoholics Anonymous was the last place I wanted to be. I wanted to be partying.”

Parrish had been a good runner at school but his activity levels dropped as the partying took its toll. “I got a job in advertising, wining and dining ad agencies. I would only take people out who could drink like me.”

His weight rose to 15.5-stone and he could no longer walk upstairs or as he says, “….use the tube because I would sweat so much. I was ashamed of who I was and what I had become. I would talk to almost no one else unless they were drinkers.”arch to arc 3

There was an exception to that anti-social rule, however – marathon runners, Parrish was intrigued by those who had completed the landmark distance. However, he couldn’t comprehend anyone running 26 miles.

Whether it was that fascination or something else that prompted Parrish to give up drinking he does not know. But on November 22, 2000, he turned his back on alcohol, committing himself to the 2001 London Marathon the very same day.

“I needed a cover for why I had given up drinking and signing up meant I actually had to run.”

Parrish had five months to train. “My first run was three miles and I just stopped and stopped and stopped.

But I built it up by half-mile increments and began to feel amazingly different.” He lost 2.5-stone before the marathon. “It was just brilliant to finish. I couldn’t believe I had done this thing that had fascinated me for so long. It’s still probably one of those great moments of my life.”

With his goal achieved, Parrish’s wife, Juliette feared he would be drawn back to drink. She was wrong:

“I felt that the marathon was just the end of the beginning. I gave up smoking the same year and felt amazingly different. I had a much more positive outlook on life.”

He continued running, initially without a hitch but injuries forced him to broaden his interests. In 2005 he completed his first sprint tri – with a buckled wheel after his bike fell from his car – followed by the gruelling Buttermere Triathlon and several Olympic distance events.

The aspiring triathlete quickly improved and between 2007 and 2013 he completed three ironman races, a double and then a triple. He had left the City to become Fundraising and Marketing Director at the charity Aspire. His biggest motivation was raising money.

However, Parrish was still not satisfied and sought something “grandiose” as his next challenge. The A2A beckoned – an 87-mile run from Marble Arch in London to Dover, a Channel swim – across the world’s busiest shipping lanes – followed by a 181-mile cycle from Calais to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

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Swimming was his weakest discipline and the Channel terrified him. “I had done two Channel relays. One took 15.5 hours with six of us and that was hard enough.” With 15 months left to train, Parrish wrote in his diary of the “sheer enormity” of the challenge, particularly the swim of which he wrote and feared as, “… a near impossible task for me. I feel sick.”

A2A start times are determined by the weather forecast for the Channel. Parrish left Marble Arch at 8pm on September 13, 2014 to catch the window of good weather for his crossing two days later.

“I ran through places where I used to drink in the really bad times. As I passed a pub in Camberwell I remembered seeing a woman eating the contents of an ash tray and thinking I hadn’t got that bad yet.”

He arrived in Dover in just under 22 hours – two hours ahead of schedule – and out of habit plunged briefly into the sea to help his legs repair.

“That was a mistake because I was too energy depleted. I got really cold and had to be helped out.” Parrish recovered but sensed from the hushed conversations of officials that conditions had changed and that his swim could be cancelled.

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“I was devastated and stayed up reading, then at 7.30am I was woken by a bang on the door and was told I was starting at midday.

“Because I thought it was off I hadn’t been worried and had slept really well. It was probably the best thing that could have happened.”

But as he hastily prepared, Parrish says he did two “stupid” things. “I told the crew not to tell me anything about my progress and to feed me each hour. That meant I was counting every hour so knew how long I was taking.”

After six hours of swimming, Parrish hit bad weather and boat pilot Mike Oram told the crew to feed him more often.

“I still thought I was being fed hourly and it seemed to be taking forever. I thought something had gone horrendously wrong.”

Parrish was familiar with the outline of Calais and convinced himself he could see the city’s lights and hear machinery at its port – sights and sounds that meant he had drifted too far north.

“The coast curves away at that point so I gave up hope of reaching land and decided to carry on swimming until they told me to get out. Then, Dan Earthquake [an A2A official] jumped in beside me and I realised the boat had disappeared. I felt sand under my arms. It was magical. I couldn’t believe I had made it.”

A2A rules allow organisers to help swimmers through coastal tides and onto land. “I was ecstatic, even though I couldn’t stand up. I knew then that I would finish and that I had transcended anything I had ever believed myself capable of.”

It was 5.25am. The swim had taken 17 hours and 25 minutes.

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Parrish was too excited to sleep and started cycling at 2pm the same day. “It was long, slow and tortuous but the French coastline south of Calais is beautiful. After it got dark I had great views of the Milky

Way. I was really happy.” Parrish spoke on the phone to his 15-year old daughter Lucy, who told her father she couldn’t be there and was at school enduring double maths.

“I reached Paris at 6am and hit the rush hour, but just 10 yards from the Arc I had to stop at a pedestrian crossing. Lucy had been kidding me and I could see her, Juliette, and my youngest son Ben waiting for me. It was surreal having to stop so close to the end. I kind of didn’t want it to finish. It had been a great adventure.”

Parrish says the A2A is his hardest sports challenge to date, he explains that it’s the, “… huge chunk of Channel that makes it so daunting.”

But it’s not just the stretching of his physical and mental limits that entices him to new tests, such as the Isoman Triathlon. As Parish explains:

“I have a massive thing about being outside and have had that from the first days I was sober. I love running into sunrises and through early mists, and seeing wildlife in the countryside.”

Parrish says that sport fills the voids left by drinking and now helps others struggling with addictions. He believes that addictive traits, “…. can be used to aid a better life”, adding: “When I stopped

drinking I thought I would lose all my choices but then realised I had all the choices. Looking back at my time as an addict, it was grim but now I realise I was given a second chance.”

THe best way to prepare for a race like this is by checking our Nutrition Section