Phil’s expedition cut short due to Covid-19 threat

Phil’s expedition cut short due to Covid-19 threat

13 May 2020

WORLD record chaser Phil Martin took on more than he reckoned for when he travelled to Chile in March to complete a long distance triathlon and marathon at the highest altitude.

The Downpatrick man had self-financed the trip in order to challenge himself and to raise money and awareness  for his mental health recovery initiative, Broken Man.

Along with expedition leader and outdoor pursuits expert, Rob Hill, who’s also from Downpatrick, Phil trained hard to climb up the country’s highest mountain in the Andes, Ojos del Salado.

He was determined to give it his best shot, but never could have predicted the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on the South American country, which is also experiencing major civil unrest.

The father of two succeeded in completing a world record sprint triathlon – a 700m swim, followed by a 29km cycle and 5km run – at 14,850 feet, just hours before he and Rob were due to leave the country before it closed its airports. The highest previous sprint triathlon was done in Colorado at a height of 10,500 feet.

Now returned safe and sound to his wife and two daughters, Phil is also planning to do a full Ironman challenge in his back garden at the end of the month, complete with a recently purchased swimming pool.

He said that when he left Dublin Airport on March 9, Covid-19 was already taking its toll in Europe.

“We could really feel and see the effects it was having on travel and people’s behaviour, and to be honest, we questioned if we were doing the right thing going at this stage,” said Phil.

“Once we got to Santiago, we found our hotel had been closed. The booking agents didn’t tell us, so we had to find a hotel pretty quickly. The reason for the hotel closure was due to civil unrest with riots relating to a number of issues around the constitution and access to the likes of educational, medical care, pension reform etc.”

As Phil and Rob had plenty to do before leaving for the desert, they successfully managed to navigate their way around the demonstrations — although there was one incident when they, and other passers-by, had to flee from a government force vehicle in case they were mistaken for rioters.

Phil recalled: “We headed for the desert and started the acclimatisation process. It was an amazing place and probably the safest place to be during the crisis as it was like being on a different planet. We were getting limited information about what was happening in the outside world and just kept moving to try and reach our goal.

“We were met by the owner of the expedition company who drove to meet us with a resupply of food and fuel. However, he had bad news as Chile had issued a stage four national emergency and we would be best aborting and trying to get home, as they were already beginning to close the borders.”

Phil felt that they had no choice but to leave the next morning as there wasn’t enough time to do what they had originally planned.

He said: “We were at 4,500 metres or 14,700 feet elevation. The triathlon record stood at just over 10,000 feet so I decided that we couldn’t leave without having a go at the triathlon, albeit at a shorter distance, a sprint triathlon.”

They climbed to 5,800 metres the next day and, in Phil’s words, “went for it”.

“The water was the coldest I have ever swam in, between 6-8 degrees, and the mineral make up, which included arsenic, and salt content made the swim difficult as it wasn’t kind to the skin,” he said.

“From here we got the cycle and run done, packed the truck and hit the road for the airport.

“In the end, we were two days away from summiting the world’s highest  active volcano, however, that wasn’t to be nor the original world record attempts.”

A frantic 1,000km to the airport resulted in the truck breaking down and they had to wait six hours before a repair could be made.

Phil added: “Anything that could happen did happen, but that’s life. Once we got out of the desert, we were constantly trying to contact our airlines and booking agent to get our flights changed to get home. As we paid for flexible tickets, our flights ended up cancelled anyway.

“We were unable to make contact even when in the airport and had no choice but to book new flights home at a cost of £2,000. But thankfully we got home through Paris and Dublin and set a new world altitude triathlon record.”

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