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Ex-Premier League star completes fifth Ironman in a week

Southampton legend Francis Benali close to hitting £1 million fundraising target for Cancer Research

Former Southampton footballer Francis Benali has completed his fifth Ironman distance triathlon in a week as he nears his goal of raising £1 million for Cancer Research.

The 50-year-old had planned to undertake swims of 2.4 miles, 112-mile bike rides and 26.2-mile marathon-distance runs on each of seven consecutive days.

By Thursday evening, his 16-hour-a-day effort was starting to take a physical toll and he ended up in hospital – and in tears – as doctors ordered him to end his Ironfran challenge.

Her sat out two days – but was back in his native Southampton, yesterday to complete the final leg, including taking part in the city’s annual marathon.

Benali got through an average of 10,000 calories a day – but says it was the sheer volume of food he had to eat to refuel that lay at the root of his health issues, including his vision deteriorating.

He told BBC Sport: "I tend to be a bit of a grazer naturally and I'm quite a slow eater, so it was almost like being constantly given food to try and get it inside me at every opportunity.

“It became near impossible, it got to the stage where my body just did not want to consume it.

"I was feeling nauseous, it was a feeling of constantly being full, yet I was putting more food or drink in me.

"It was a horrible feeling that ultimately left me running on empty.

"Doing the length of the days we were doing, and getting about four hours' sleep each night, it meant I was physically unable to continue at the end of day four."

Speaking of the problems with his eyesight, he said: "I couldn't see my device that showed how far I'd run or the time I was running," he says.

"I was stumbling a lot, I wasn't going along quickly but I had difficulty picking my feet up to step up kerbs.”

He revealed that his support team had noticed something was wrong, explaining: "They started to recognise that I was getting to a stage where physically I was almost unable to continue."

While he was undergoing tests in hospital on Friday and Saturday, friends, family members and his support team carried on the challenge in his name.

"It was difficult to take at the time," he said. "I wanted to continue, but I also realised that I was at a point that I couldn't. I was at a point of exhaustion.

"If you can't put the fuel in the engine, the vehicle isn't going to run and that's where I was physically.

"There were very often times when I wondered what I was doing, even before the challenge started."

Reflecting on completing the challenge on Sunday, he said: "I had a huge lift from the moment I woke up, knowing it was the last day, finishing the swim in a pool in which I had trained for many hours, and then going to take part in the Southampton Marathon with the thousands of other people who were also running.

"The support we received was something that will live with me forever and I'll never forget it.

"I'm proud to say I did five Ironmans in seven days. It's a big achievement and an incredible one, too, for the family and my support team."

Benali, who played more than 300 Premier League games for Southampton, scoring one goal, said that he had made a pledge to his family that this would be the last big fundraising effort he would make.

"My mind isn't in a place to even consider another challenge," he explained. "I need to spend some time with my family, I owe that to them.

"I've listened to them telling me how hard it was for them to see me doing it knowing the struggle that I was going through.

“I never fully appreciated that, but now I've seen them go out and do it for me, it's not nice to see your loved ones struggle.

"It's something that I have put them through for three challenges now, so I need to ease off the gas now in terms of pushing my body to its limits," he added.

At the time of writing, the total amount raised by Benali through his three challenges – in 2014 he ran between all 20 Premier League football grounds while in 2016 he ran a marathon and cycled 120 kilometres each day between 44 stadiums in England and Wales – has raised more than £960,000, according to his website.

He began the third and final challenge in Manchester last Monday – and had a very near miss on the bike leg during the opening day when a motorist ignored a red light and almost hit him, his coach and a support rider as they cycled through a junction.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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