Southampton legend Francis Benali is on a mission. In the past five years he has taken part in two huge challenges for charity, and the third starts on Apr. 29 and is his most demanding yet.
7 Ironman triathlons in 7 days. Yep, you read that correctly.
Benali, 50, has set himself a goal of raising £1 million ($1.3 million) for Cancer Research UK in his post-playing career, as the 13-year Premier League veteran, who spent his entire 16-year career at hometown club Southampton, pushes his body and mind to the limits with a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a 26.2-mile run each day, for seven days.
Let that sink in.
The “IronFran 2019” challenge will take him on a journey through England from Manchester to Southampton, and will take place from Apr. 29 to May 5, as it will finish with him completing the Southampton Marathon after seven gruelling days.
You can donate to support Benali by clicking here, or on the link above, as he aims to raise over $1.3 million to help Cancer Research UK.
Talking to Pro Soccer Talk about what spurs him on each and every day during these challenges, Benali revealed he thinks about the individuals and families suffering with cancer. That pushes him on to keep going.
“I have paid a visit to the local cancer ward at Southampton General Hospital recently and I’ve met a number of children, a few of whom are planning to be part on the last day of the challenge [the Southampton Marathon on May 5],” Benali said. “We’ve been touched by it as a family and we have had close friends who have either been diagnosed or lost to this awful disease since starting the first challenge a few years ago. That drives me on and reinforces the efforts we are trying to make on the fundraising side to enable the researchers and the scientists to find ways of treatment and ultimately to find a cure.
“That is very much a factor in my mind. Knowing that I’ve got a few aches and pains and may not want to go training or continue through a session, when your mind flips to people that are fighting this disease and who are affected by this terrible illness, not just the individuals themselves but their families and friends as well, it has a massive impact. It certainly drives me on and spurs me on during the difficult moments.”
A fiery left back during his playing says, Benali was a huge part of Southampton staving off relegation year after year in the 1990s, as the hometown hero led the battles at the Dell alongside the likes of Matt Le Tissier and James Beattie. He epitomizes the spirit of a true battler.
In recent years he’s turned his attention to raising money for Cancer Research UK with extreme endurance challenges, and has pushed himself to the limit by running between every Premier League stadium in 2014, covering over 1,000 miles on 21 consecutive days. In 2016 he then travelled between all 44 teams in the top two tiers of English soccer in just two weeks, covering 1400 miles which meant running a marathon then cycling at least 75 miles every day
Benali has now been training for months for IronFran, which is billed as his final big challenge to get over the £1 million marker as his current fundraising total now stands at just under £700,000.
As he enters the final days of his preparation for the incredible challenge, Benali admitted that making sure he gets the desired rest and refuelling in-between Ironman’s is just as challenging as completing the physical disciplines each day.
“I am really racking up the hours and distance on a daily basis to have the last final push to try and get my body accustomed to the pain and the aches I know are going to come on the challenge itself, and I know they will probably be a lot worse than what I am feeling now,” Benali explained. “It’s just getting my mind and body used to that uncomfortableness of the training and getting out of bed, and keeping moving really. I know from the previous experiences from the other challenges, it is sure as hell going to be the case. It is not just the physical and mental challenge of each of disciplines each day, it is as much a challenge to refuel and get the calories back in and start and get a good enough recovery process in. Including sleep, and what will be a lack of it, in order to get up the next morning to do it all over again the following day.”
The soccer world has rallied around Benali, just as it did in his previous two challenges in 2014 and 2016, with former and current professionals, Premier League and Football League clubs and personalities across the game in the UK and the world helping to spread the word about this mammoth challenge.
Benali admitted the support has been amazing to witness but ever the professional, he wants to make sure he finishes the challenge and do what he set out to do.
“It is wonderful to know you have that level of support and the well wishes coming in from colleagues and people I work with now,” Benali said. “At the same time it brings a pressure. I’ll be honest. The pressure to deliver the challenge, in my head, and complete it. The fundraising target is the main goal, but at the same time I ultimately want to complete what I set out to do. That certainly brings a few sleepless nights as well in my own mind.”
Asked if he fancies taking his incredible endurance events Stateside, Benali, of course, mentioned some of the toughest event as capturing his attention for the future if he fancies another big challenge.
“I’ve seen some stuff in America, with the Race Across America (RAAM) with cyclists, which is an incredible event. I’ve seen the Badwater Ultramarathon is something that looks right out there on the limits of extreme challenges,” Benali said. “There is stuff I’ve seen in the U.S. that has certainly captured my attention. Maybe one day I might be able to run, or get permission from my wife Karen, to give me the green light on something like that. We will get this challenge out of the way first.”
Benali has never shirked a challenge, and throughout his career in the Premier League he dug deep to keep his hometown club in the top-flight against all the odds and was a machine at left back for Saints.
With Southampton in their own relegation battle heading into the final weeks of this season, Benali believes the club he loves can pretty much seal their place in the Premier League by beating Newcastle on Saturday at St James’ Park (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).
Just like his challenges, the battle is far from over for Saints.
“I always thought two more wins would do it prior to the victory against Wolves last weekend, so I think having seen Cardiff’s victory against Brighton, that really throws them in the mix and keeps us in contention of being in a relegation place,” Benali said. “I’ve always had that confidence in Ralph Hasenhuttl and the squad to survive and stay up this season, and that is no different right now. Three points and a big victory at Newcastle would be a big step towards survival. I think that would probably be enough given the games that are left and the run-in that Cardiff have. Fingers crossed it will all go well for Saints, and it will be a great game for everyone to watch.”