A VICAR from Cirencester has returned to work after taking a sabbatical to compete in an Ironman Triathlon in Sweden.

The Reverend Howard Gilbert, associate vicar of Cirencester Holy Trinity Church, took just 14 hours and 17 minutes to swim, cycle and run more than 140 miles non-stop.

“My head's been spinning since I got back,” said Howard, who completed the triathlon in August in Kalmar and raised over £5,000 for charity Mercy Ships.

“Certainly, I found after the event that I got addicted to exercise, so you have to come down slowly. I did very little for a few days and suddenly felt very depressed. I went for a run and suddenly felt like I was me again.

“It’s my drug at the moment,” he joked.

Howard, 43, who believes he is the first member of the clergy to ever complete such a gruelling feat, said he woke up at 4am on the morning of the event and his caravan was “rocking in a storm”.

“It was being lashed by winds and rain, and I thought: oh, my life, what have I done?”

Luckily, however, the weather cleared before competitors began entering the water at 7am for the two-and-a-half-mile swim, including one man with a broken arm in a cast.

“I was in trepidation about that, at least with my Bathophobia, which is a word I've learnt – fear of deep water,” said Howard, who completed the swim in one hour and 48 minutes.

“Earlier on, whilst we'd been training around Scandinavia, I'd had a panic attack in a Norwegian fjord, deep dark water, very scary stuff.

“So, I was a bit nervous, but actually it was lovely water, nice people, and I came in about 10 minutes ahead of my schedule, which is really good.”

He said during the bike ride, “it felt like being on the Tour de France”.

“There were cheering crowds in every gate way and every turning. It was incredible, the number of people supporting, shouting and cheering. By the time I'd finished the bike, I was thinking my training has really set me up well for this,” he said. “Seven hours 30 on the bike and I'm still feeling pretty good.

“The week before, you do less and less training each day, so your body is just sort of raring to go,” explained Howard, who at the peak of his six-month regime was doing 20 hours of training a week.

He said he was “rather surprised to find most people walking” during the marathon.

“Suddenly I was overtaking people by the dozen. It seemed like the standard way of attack people were using was flat out on the swim and the bike and just try and survive the run.

“It hadn't struck me anyone might be walking, but I was determined, partly because so many people had sponsored me and I had raised a lot of money, I was absolutely determined to run every step of the way and do it properly.”

But then, 13 hours in, things started to change; with fatigue setting in, Howard said he was in a “whole world of pain and darkness”.

“It was a three-lap course and I did my last lap in the dark and half the crowds were going home now. My legs were slower; the last hour I was in a dark place.”

“Literally, an hour before I'd been thinking, gosh this is too easy, this is going too well. It's not half as epic as I thought it was going to be. It delivered in the end,” he said.

“The muscles in my legs began to ache; I think they were just saying: ‘actually I've had enough now, I can't do anymore’ and I was saying: ‘shut up legs! We're not stopping until I tell you,’ and just kept them turning over.

“And part of that, because I was going slower and slower, lactic acid builds up and you start to seize up, but you just think it's only pain, you've got to just push through this, and I flushed my legs through a bit and felt much better afterwards.”

As he ran down the last stretch to the finish line, Howard said it “was like a rock concert” with people “waving their phones around” before the host on a microphone announced: “Howard Gilbert, you are an Iron Man!”

He said he hoped that completing such a challenge would help to encourage a greater link between the church and sports.

“We should be whole people, we should all be aiming to be in good shape, physically and mentally and spiritually.

“I think the church is quite good at spiritual and intellectual side of things, but I like to think we should encourage and help people to get fit. Wouldn't it be great if we had exercise bikes in church?”

Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard:

The Reverend Howard Gilbert, associate vicar of Cirencester Holy Trinity Church