People Profile – Simon Flatau – Triathlete and Fitness Instructor

I have always lived in Surrey. I was born in March 1975 in Chertsey. My parents moved to Abinger Hammer and we lived there for years. I moved to Cranleigh about 18 years ago, so I’ve always lived around this area.

I was fortunate enough to go to the Royal Grammar school in Guildford. It’s a very good school. The only downside for me was the focus on academic studies. While I was quite academic, I didn’t thrive on it. I always felt like the odd one out because I wasn’t interested in the same things other boys were interested in.

My love of running started at school in PE lessons. There was a great deal of team sport at school, rugby and cricket in particular and I struggled with that until I discovered cross-country running. The RGS held an annual cross-country race where each runner represented their House. There were six Houses in the school. It seemed a silly event to me – an annual cross-country race when everyone had to take part. After I ran my first race, I thought it was absolutely terrible, though I finished the race and had an appetite to do better. I didn’t want to compete for the school. My aim was purely selfish, I just wanted to be a better runner. I began to realise how much I enjoyed being outdoors, running through mud, running in the woods and fields.

I made a conscious effort to train hard and ran a couple of times a week by myself. We would also occasionally have PE lessons where we’d run laps of the school grounds. The next year when the school held its annual cross-country race, I surprised everybody. The teachers had thought, ‘Simon Flatau is just muddling along’. But when I ended up in the top 10-15 runners, they recognised ‘Simon’s a runner!’

No one else in my family was sporty, not my mother nor my sister. My father was a member of a boat club many years ago but that’s about it. He went to Kingston Grammar School, with little emphasis on sport so he had no encouragement to get involved in sport.

I got into the cross-country club when I was at school and represented the school and the County. I actually ended up coming to Smithbrook Kilns, to the Running Shop (The Tortoise and the Hare) that used to be here. I wanted to buy some running shoes and asked the shop Owners there if they could give me any advice and they were fantastic. They persuaded me to have a go at some 5km and 10km running races. I’m still in contact with Malcom who ran the shop today, he’s a good friend. He’s very knowledgeable, if not slightly mad, but in a good way!

One of Allen organs we supply

I left school at 16 to work for our family business, called Abinger Organ Hire. We hire out Allen Organs, American made instrument from Allen Town Pensilvaina. Most of our work was with, churches, large orchestras, and we did a bit of work for the Royals too. I’ve been to the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival. They flew one of our organs out to Abu Dhabi because there was no one in the region who would hire such an instrument. They flew me out too to set it up for them. I’ve been to France a few times for festivals and a few years ago I went for the D-Day Celebrations. There was a small choir from Aldershot who were doing a concert in Northern France, so we went across with the organ to accompany them.

Some years later, when I was 28, a lady in the Cranleigh fitness studio, Nicky Coyne, noticed how much time I spent there and encourage me to get qualified as a Studio Instructor. I looked into the idea and decided upon a YMCA course, choosing the intensive option. They were running a course at the Southbank Club (at Vauxhall). I put myself through 10 days intensive training, had a week off and then began another week. I went for the YMCA course because the qualification is recognised worldwide and at the time it was one of the better options available. This was purely teaching related, studio-based fitness classes. I did my assessment about a month or two later and the rest is history. It was one of the more challenging qualifications I’ve done over the years. Writing, learning and then teaching Fitness Classes is not as easy as it looks, especially if you want to do it well! It has led on to other qualifications within the Fitness industry, from Aqua Aerobics to Bollywood Dance! And encouraged me to get qualified as a Coach for both British Triathlon and British Cycling.

I love working with people and my Teaching/Coaching allows me to help people to achieve their goals. The best compliment ever was from the wife of one of my regulars. After suffering a heart attack, John came back to Body Pimp, taking it easy and worming with him, he has recovered his health fully. She said I had given him a ‘second chance.’ If I never get another compliment, I can live with that one.

I fit my training and running around my work. For example, if I’m working at the Barbican Centre in London, I need to be there by 8am in the morning. To set up the organ can take I or 2 hours and then I’m not needed until the end of the concert at 9pm. I drive up, install the organ, meet and greet the organist and ensure they’re happy with the setup and then the rest of the day is my own! I spend some time catching up with paperwork initially. There’s a nice swimming pool round the corner so I might go for a swim. Or I go for a run as there’s no shortage of suitable places to run in London. I’m working through my track accreditation (or I was before lockdown), so I can try some track racing. There are always things to do with the available time each day.

When I look back on my life, a conversation I had with an old friend reminded me, I’ve always been the odd one out. When I was at the RGS I felt different as I mentioned earlier. I later proved I wasn’t the usual student, by having a motorcycle at 16 and would ride to school. My father had motorcycles for years, and I shared his passion, I loved motorbikes and still do.

Starting a triathlon is always an adrenaline rush for me

It doesn’t bother me that I’m the only sporty member of my family, that I had other interests at school than my peers. I am not good at doing whatever everyone else does. I’ve never followed the crowd.

I work at Cranleigh Leisure Centre now for 16 years, where I was for a long time the only male instructor on the team. There are other guys who work in the gym and now two other Indoor Cycling Instructors. But in the Studio, it’s only me.

I run because I enjoy it though it can be quite a solitary sport but I love the closeness with nature and being outdoors. I don’t understand people who don’t like running, in my opinion it’s brilliant! I see people wearing headphones when they run, I don’t get that either. We’re very fortunate with the area we live in, I run up in the local hills and never wear headphones. You can’t compete in a race wearing headphones with music playing, so I don’t train with music. Especially if you run first thing in the morning when nature is ‘waking up’, why would you listen to music? There are things to hear all around, it’s a beautiful part of the world, with so much out there to enjoy. The trees and fauna, the bird life and calmness. When wearing headphones, I think the tendency is to focus inwardly. If I’m running, I want to engage with the environment around me.

The family business takes me all over the country, and to other countries and I always take my running shoes with me. I’ll go for a run somewhere in the vicinity and often get lost but it’s a great way to explore places.

Soon after I began teaching at the Leisure Centre the swimming coordinator, Melinda Henden, asked me as I was getting out of the pool one day, ‘‘Simon would you do a triathlon with me?’ I agreed immediately though I had no idea what a triathlon was! She explained the event and together with Melinda and another instructor, Tammy Atkins, we signed up to do a triathlon and began training.

Melinda was always polite but said I looked as if I was drowning at speed in the pool, and helped me to improve my swimming style. In return I helped her and Tammy with their running. The cycle training, we did between us. I’d done mountain biking before but not road biking.

I’ve discovered that triathlon is a very inclusive event compared to other sports where there’s often bias against class, disability, race or sex. In triathlon it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, able or disabled, in and Ironman Triathlon, everyone does a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycle, followed by a marathon. It’s a good attitude. The only concession I’ve seen at a triathlon is the organisers allow the para-triathlete to have their handchair and wheelchair in prime position for the transition. I can accept that, it’s not a big deal.

The first type of triathlon I did with Melinda and Tammy was called the ‘Thame Turbo’ held at the outdoor pool at Hampton and I’ve done this race for a number of years. They use an odd length pool; the distances are 426m swim, 21km cycle and a 5km run. It’s a really good race and still runs today. It used to happen every Bank Holiday Monday but it’s been reduced to just 2 or 3 times a year now.

My eldest son Ben, giving me the thumbs up

For anyone interested in taking part I would always recommend doing this triathlon, it’s a good one to do because it’s low-key. There’s a rare element in this triathlon, there is a no compete zone. Normally in a triathlon you swim, then transition, you get on the bike, then transition, then you run. But in the Thames Turbo there’s a set of traffic lights to negotiate on the A318 which affects the cycle. At this point you have to stop, allowing 7 minutes to get back to transition. By riding gently you can do it in about 5 minutes, so it’s a really nice way for novices to calm down before doing the run. I remember after the first race, sitting looking at the results online, thinking ‘I bet I can go quicker next time!’ It was a slippery slope, that led to 16 years of racing.

After growing confident in the triathlons, in 2011 I stepped things up to take part in a Half Ironman in Zell am See in Austria. This is a 1.2 mile Swim, 56 mile Bike and a 13.1 mile run. Just like my first race, I finished convinced I could go faster next time! That has always been a driving factor for me, it’s not where I’ve finished, but how I’ve done. If I can look at myself in the mirror and say I gave everything, it’s worth it. It’s nice to win a race and it does make you feel good, but even if you don’t win, there’s that lovely sense of achievement. I didn’t quite get the time I wanted in a Full Ironman, but a coach said I’d achieved more than a lot of people did, there were a lot of participants classified as ‘DNFs’ ‘Did Not Finish’. I’d got through and that’s a badge I could wear with pride.

A family ride to Hampton Court last summer

The Iron Man swim is an open-water swim. The first time I ever did an open-water swim was at Dorney Lake in Eton, the ‘super sprints’ and I had a nightmare, a bit of a panic attack half way round and didn’t enjoy it. The British Triathlon offer open-water swim training to members. They have a group of coaches who had just finished their course and needed guinea pigs for their assessment. I said yes and got coached by two guys from Haywards Heath who were lovely. They got me doing nice simple drills which improved my confidence in the water and from then on, it went well. I also went to Thorpe Park lake and trained with some friends which was lovely. I went from being nervous about open-water to loving it. The day before an event in Austria I was swimming in the lake, and if someone had said to me to forget the race and just swim for a few more hours, I’d have quite happily continued swimming, I was simply loving it.

I have had races where the weather’s been so cold and wet that I’m not enjoying it but determination keeps me going and knowing I still have the run at the end to look forward to. I wish I could explain what drives me, but I can’t, it just works for me.

My wife Teena, getting very muddy

If I’m honest, I have struggled occasionally over the years with mental health issues when I’ve used sport for the wrong reason sometimes. You can over train and take your frustrations out on yourself. But on the flip side Sport can be a really good thing, it helps people, because of the release of endorphins and the beneficial chemical balance it restores. Sometimes it gives you somewhere else to be. By going to a class for example, if you’re anything like me you’ll chat to others doing the class and realise your mutual enjoyment and make a connection with those people. The more you talk, the more open you become and you make friends. I’ve seen it happen to people attending my classes over the years which is so encouraging.

It never occurred to me that I was a role model to my children, until they grew old enough to join a cycle club. They started doing low-key races at the club and loved it. It came back to how I felt, about sport being my escape and a way to deal with pressures and whatever else I was dealing with. This attitude can go too far however. I have a close friend, who I don’t see often but when we meet up, if he sees I’m overworked he says ‘Can I have a word?’ and bless him he’s very good and flags up that I might need to slow down.

My youngest son Will, no. 2 on the podium

With my two sons, Ben and Will, my wife (Teena) and I always said, ‘Race if you want to but don’t feel like you have to’. The result is my eldest son who is 16, is racing at junior level, and he definitely wants to race. His path in his sport is being driven by him, and my wife and I support him in that. I’ve seen too many kids drop out of cycling because their parents pushed them too much. If the boys come away with anything more than a passion to keep fit, then we’ve done our job. Leave the kids to it, give them a chance and debrief at the end of the race. The last thing my children need is me breathing down their neck, telling them how to race. To be honest, neither of them really need my help when they’re racing. Will is a powerful, determined rider. And Ben, well he’s a tactical racer and a great bike handler.

A helpful comment I heard from another dad at a juniors’ race was he asked his son to tell him two things he’d done well and two things he’d improve next time. That was it! No parental pressure, just encouragement to enjoy the sport for himself.

I cycle with my eldest child, Ben a lot at the moment. He has a Race Team for this season (Elite Cycling, based at Crystal Palace). Just the other day we did a four-hour cycle ride just for fun. We rode together and chatted the whole way, except when we were too out of breath!

Me, no. 167 racing at Preston Park

On one occasion before my son Ben started a race I said, ‘Remember, have fun. You’re here for a laugh first and foremost. If you make a fool of yourself who cares.’ We live in a world where everyone is terrified of what others think. I believe if you want to get fit, do it your way safely and pace yourself. No one’s going to judge you for the kit you wear. You might not like the sport you chose in the end, but at least you made that choice yourself. Just go and try it.

If people are wanting to get fit, there’s so many online courses available, so many ways you can keep fit at home. The biggest issue is people saying they don’t have time, though in our current climate this will have changed.

We’re all at home and may have more time available for fitness. On the other hand, if travelling to work for example, if you work up in London, get off the tube one stop early and walk the rest of the way. Community helps as well. By doing a fitness activity with your friends, you’re more inclined to continue to do it. I’m the odd one out, I do it for personal drive. Most people are social animals and for some that social aspect can be the main drive, it’s whatever works for you. The more you try, the more you discover your call to keep fit.

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