By SFC Media Wed 24 Apr Club

Saints legend's £1m charity bid sees him take on seven ironman triathlons in seven days

Ever tried swimming non-stop for 2.4 miles?

How about attempting to cycle 112 miles in one go?

Or have you ever embarked on the gruelling 26.2 miles of a marathon?

Now, imagine doing all three of those back-to-back... And then doing that each day for an entire week.

That is the scale of the task facing Southampton legend Franny Benali, as he finishes his trilogy of ultra-endurance events with the aim of reaching his £1m fundraising total for Cancer Research UK.

Dubbed IronFran, the 50-year-old's latest challenge will see him fight to complete seven ironman triathlons across seven consecutive days, beginning on Monday 29th April and finishing on Sunday 5th May.

we're looking at potentially between 16 and 18 hours that we could be on the go.

francis benali
on ironfran 2019

Already, Benali has raised about £700,000 through his two previous epic undertakings – Benali's Big Run, in which he ran more than 1,000 miles between each Premier League ground in 2014, and then Benali's Big Race, which saw him cover 1,400 miles across a fortnight as he ran and cycled to all 44 top-flight and Championship stadiums in 2016.

But if those two sound hard – and, however tough you think they were, they were probably far worse – this one might be the most punishing of all.

"I'm probably pushing the boundaries of what a day looks like with this challenge," said Benali.

"We're looking at potentially between 16 and 18 hours that we could be on the go – and that's not allowing for any recovery or sleep."

It sounds like something few people would wish on their own worst enemy, so Benali must surely have been in a dark place when he opted to inflict such pain and suffering on himself?

"It was while we were on holiday actually, lying on a sunbed on a cruise, that we came up with the idea," he said.

Oh.

"I was chatting with my wife, Karen, and she was saying 'Can you do something a little bit shorter?' hence coming up with the week-long idea," he continued. 

"It was almost like a natural format to add a third discipline, adding a swim to make it an ironman triathlon, but do it over a week and come up with a concept that would catch people's imaginations and push me beyond anything I've done on the other challenges as well."

Benali is certainly as fit a 50-year-old as you will ever meet – in fact, few people half his age could claim to even come close to his physical levels – but just how far can he realistically push himself?

"Naturally, I don't want to do anything that's going to affect my body long-term, but I guess I just don't know what impact it's going to have on me, and that's a little bit scary in some ways," he said.

"I know it's a concern of the family's as well that I'm undertaking something, like I have done in the past, that might have an impact on my health.

"I just know how I felt on the previous challenges and it's a frightening one, it's a bit scary.

"It's going to take a huge amount of physical and mental effort to complete it, but if there's a way to approach it, like I have done the other challenges, it's going to be breaking it down into bitesize chunks that will allow me to hit little milestones in my head to get me through each day.

"I've been through two ultra-endurance challenges now, so there's an element of knowing to a degree what it takes to get through a day.

"But, at the same time, when you see some footage or look back at photographs it almost takes you back to that moment on a challenge and, in some ways, it takes you back to a dark place.

"But I've been very fortunate with the support I've had, and the ability to push my body and mind through those situations I've encountered to this point gives me a bit of a grounding I guess of how to approach this upcoming challenge.

support franny by donating to cancer research uk

"But it's going to certainly push me beyond anything I've done before, because I know how long the days were on the last challenge. I'm going to be running the same distance as the last one, but the bike side is going to be about 40 miles further than what I was cycling each day and then there's the swim element, which is completely out of my comfort zone. So it should be an interesting one."

Mind-boggling might be a better description. And that's before you think of the training hours – and mileage – that need to be completed in order to prepare properly.

If there is one particular focus from Benali within all that then it is definitely the swimming.

"I'm getting some coaching, and there's a nice connection with that, because I'm getting coaching from a lady who taught Luke and Kenzie, my son and daughter, when they were children," he said.

"So it's almost gone full circle, and she's now teaching dad to swim much better and effectively. I'm seeing progress in the pool, especially in recent weeks, which gives me a bit more confidence.

"The swimming has been a real challenge for me. It's something that's been not just a physical thing to overcome, but also something in my own head as well, because it's something that I underestimated the technique required to become an efficient swimmer, to be able to swim that kind of distance each day."

Franny Benali finishes Benali's Big Race, at St Mary's, in 2016

One thing that Benali is doing to help push past the thoughts of the struggles that may lie ahead is to think about the finish.

In his two previous challenges, the former left-back had his homecoming at St Mary's Stadium in front of packed crowds at a Southampton home game.

This time around, he knows the numbers cheering him over the finish line will be smaller – he is likely to ride into the Guildhall Square area late at night on his bike, having run the Southampton Marathon earlier in the day – but it makes thoughts of it no less special.

"I can't wait. The finish line, and that last day, is something that I very much do play in my mind, what that will look like," he said.

"I did it on the previous challenges, and coming into St Mary's on them was always something that was in my mind and a celebration of completing the challenge, and I'm doing that already for this upcoming one as well.

"I regularly play over what crossing the finishing line will be like and those feelings I will be going through on the last day."

The greatest feeling of all for Benali, though, will come if he surpasses the £1m fundraising target.

"It would be absolutely incredible," he said. "We're so grateful of the donations that have been made to this point.

"It's still a huge amount of money that we've managed to raise so far, and that's been with an awful lot of hard work and support from so many people.

"I'm very hopeful that by the time we finish we will be through that million-pound mark and not just stumbling over the line, but it would be great to smash through it and raise even more money for them. That's going to be a big factor in my mind, along with a number of other things that will hopefully be driving me each day.

"It's been a long relationship with Cancer Research UK now. We've been touched by cancer as a family, and even since the beginning of the first challenge in 2014 there are friends and family who have been diagnosed with cancer, and one or two still in the middle of their fight with that, and it just reinforces the desire and the want to continue to fundraise and to raise the money for research.

"There's a stat that one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage of our lives, and that's not a good statistic at all. But the positive side of it is there's more fundraising going on, the research that's going in is improving treatments and recovery from it, and that just fuels my desire to want to continue the fundraising to enable them to do their fantastic work."

the support of the southampton fans is difficult to put into words.

francis benali
on the backing he's received from saints supporters

And what of perhaps his most ardent supporters, beyond his family and friends? That backing from the Saints fans?

"It's quite mind-blowing," said Benali. "It's difficult to put into words in a way. I see day-to-day the support I get from my family, the support team and from friends, and then there's people I may have never even met before who are making donations, or I have people come up to me when I'm here at games and they're coming up to me putting cash in my hands and saying 'There you go, that's towards your fundraising.'

"The generosity and the warmth that people show is so encouraging for me. There's a lot of negativity out in the world and we see that on a day-to-day basis in the press and the media, and that almost gives you that faith in humanity that there's a lot of good people out there and people willing to do things and support challenges like this in a positive way, so that gives me a lot of hope and optimism."

Benali will need more than just that to complete his latest, and what he says will likely be his final, ultra-endurance effort, but there can be little doubting just how big a part the support will play.

To donate £5 or £10, text FRAN5 or FRAN10 to 70200, or visit ironfran.co.uk to donate any other amount.

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