Francis Benali: Ex-Southampton defender completes five Ironmans in a week

Francis Benali
Francis Benali played more than 300 games for Southampton

He pushed his body so close to its limit that he started to lose his vision.

He swam 12 miles, ran five marathons, cycled 560 miles, burned almost 61,000 calories and ended up in hospital as part of his 'IronFran' challenge.

And yet, after completing five Ironmans in a week, the ever-modest Francis Benali says his body is simply "quite achy".

This is a man who, you suspect, doesn't quite realise the magnitude of what he has done.

He's eager, and quite rightly so, to pay tribute to his support team, to the thousands of people who have cheered him on from the start in Manchester to the finish line in Southampton - his home city.

But it's former Saints defender Benali who deserves all the plaudits. A petition has even been launched calling for him to be given a knighthood.

Since his retirement from football, he has raised nearly £1m for Cancer Research UK. That total currently stands at £960,000.

In 2014, he ran to all 20 Premier League stadiums and, in 2016, ran and cycled to every Premier League and Championship ground in two weeks.

This time, the 50-year-old aimed to complete seven Ironmans in seven days - swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and running a full marathon each day.

As to be expected, it wasn't easy. He was ruled out of days five and six on medical grounds, such was the extent of his physical exhaustion.

He'd wanted to carry on, evident by the video he posted on social media showing him in tears, but Benali is a man who simply doesn't give up when the chips are down.

Refuelled and re-energised, he completed the challenge on Sunday. He sums it up nicely: "It's an incredible achievement."

Francis Benali
Benali underwent hospital tests during the challenge

'My body didn't want me to eat' - dealing with sickness and pain

Benali had sounded quite excited by the amount of food he was permitted to consume during his 'IronFran' challenge. "It's a licence to eat," he told BBC Sport in early April.

But while taking in 10,000 calories a day sounds like quite an inviting prospect, it proved to be a challenge in itself for Benali.

"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," he says.

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

From day one of the challenge, last Monday in Manchester, Benali was eating and drinking at every opportunity.

But whether it was poolside, in the water, on the bike or run, or during a transition, it was a struggle. In the end, it almost ended his challenge.

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

"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."

'I couldn't pick my feet up' - withdrawing on doctor's orders

Benali suffer blurred vision on day four as the end of the marathon slowly drew to a close.

They knew before, of course, but this was giving his team serious "warning signs" that all was not well.

"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.

"They started to recognise that I was getting to a stage where physically I was almost unable to continue."

The next morning, the decision was made that Benali would take no part in that day's Ironman, or as time proved, the following day.

Instead, his friends, family and team completed it themselves, as he was taken to hospital for a check-up. Thankfully, he'd caused no lasting damage.

"It was difficult to take at the time," he says.

"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."

Francis Benali
In 2016, Benali ran and cycled to every Premier League and Championship ground, finishing at St Mary's

'I owe it to my family' - completing the challenge and taking some time out

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

Many others probably thought the same when they learned what Benali was preparing to put himself through.

He had been here before, but nothing has quite compared to the "amazing feeling" he experienced upon cycling across the finish line in Southampton on Sunday.

"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," he says.

"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."

The Benali family is a tight-knit unit. His wife Karen was in support throughout, with both her and their son Luke among the team who rallied on Friday and Saturday to complete the challenge in his absence.

Prior to IronFran, Benali had promised his family it would be his final challenge. But how does he feel about that now?

"My mind isn't in a place to even consider another challenge," he says.

"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."