DUBAI // Julie Hall was training for the triathlon world championship when her coach was in an accident as he cycled behind her. He died five weeks later. Consumed with grief, she abandoned training. Now she is about to go to Australia to compete in his memory. reports She has completed far tougher physical challenges in the course of her six ironman contests, but Julie Hall will have more than mere victory on her mind as she takes part in the Long Course Triathlon World Championship this month.
Hall will be competing in memory of her coach, Mark Pringle, who died after an unexplained cycling accident in Abu Dhabi on July 24. Pringle, 49, sustained fatal head injuries during an early-morning training session with Hall and another athlete, Clint Theil. He died after five weeks in a medically induced coma. Hall, 40, who lives in Dubai, will represent Britain in Perth, Australia, on October 26 in the world championship, which comprises running, cycling and swimming.
Pringle, a champion triathlete in his native Australia, had been coaching Hall and was confident that she was on course for a good performance. "He was inspirational because, as a coach myself, I find I end up giving away my energy to my clients," Hall says. "I'm so busy that my training takes a back seat." Hall says the accident affected her profoundly. She could not make herself train for two months, and, a week following the incident, she took 16-and-a-half hours to complete an ironman event in Bolton, UK, that should have taken her around 12-and-a-half.
"Triathlon is such a big part of my life and he was a major influence and dear friend, and August and September were wiped out," she says. "That ironman was the hardest I ever did, and I cried the whole time. "Mentally, I wasn't in the right place. I just couldn't train." Hall is stronger now, but cannot forget the morning of the accident. "It haunts me. I go over and over it, asking if we could have done anything different," she says.
"I was supposed to be at a triathlon in New York that weekend but changed my plans because of financial considerations. It's a selfish way to think, but I question whether he would still be alive if I had gone. "Perhaps he wouldn't have been cycling that morning." The three athletes were training with a regular Friday morning group, but started half an hour earlier and were planning to finish half an hour later. They were cycling along Al Khaleej al Arabi Street towards Abu Dhabi International Airport.
"It was about 5am and dark. We were as safe as we could be, with flashing lights and riding on the hard shoulder," says Hall. "We were a bit behind, so Mark suggested we take turns drafting as speed training to catch up." (Drafting involves following the "draft" in the leader's slipstream.) "They were making fun of me because I kept missing my 30 seconds at the front. I finally got there and Clint followed and took his turn. I was focused on Clint's rear tyre and suddenly thought 'that's a long 30 seconds'.
"I looked behind but couldn't see Mark's lights, so I looked over my other shoulder to see if he had come up the other side. Mark had been complaining about a tight calf and I thought he might have stopped to stretch or tinker with his bike." Then a car pulled up and told Hall a cyclist was lying in the road. "We went back, but still didn't think anything was wrong. You couldn't imagine anything happening to a guy like Mark," says Hall.
"But he was lying in the first lane, still on his bike. There was not a scratch on him anywhere else apart from the back of his head, which was pouring blood." Pringle's helmet was caved in at the back and Hall knelt next to him, talking to him while Theil called an ambulance. "I just put my hand on him and spoke to him so he knew he wasn't alone," she says. "He gave no indication he could hear and never spoke again; he was not conscious but he was moving."
When the ambulance arrived, Hall, by now covered in blood and trying to keep calm, went with Pringle to Mafraq Hospital, where he was kept under sedation. Pringle's wife, Jennifer, was visiting Australia at the time and had therefore missed a chance to say "be careful" to her husband that day. "It's the only day I'd never said it to him," she said. "His motto was 'train safe', and now people know why."
Mrs Pringle has appealed for witnesses to come forward, but the cause of her husband's death remains a mystery. Hall is afraid that the case will never be solved. "We'll never know what happened," she says. "There was very little traffic, and cars came by in the fast lane, not the lane near the hard shoulder." Still, the police are continuing to treat the case as a hit-and-run accident. Mrs Pringle was "inconsolable" after the husband she called "Superman" lost a five-week battle for survival in which he amazed doctors who had originally given him just 24 hours to live.
"His true inner strength is the real reason this man fought as long as he did," said Mrs Pringle. Her husband coached at Al Raha International School. He won 33 triathlons, including the Australian title during a decade-long career. "His fit body became his prison," said Mrs Pringle, who also teaches at the school. "He kept outliving the doctors' expectations. His peak physical condition is the thing which helped him fight for this long.
"Mark died doing something he loved. In his professional career he won many races but he never lost the love of cycling as a hobby and he loved teaching others. Mark loved the Emirates and embraced and enjoyed learning about the culture." Hall planned to pull out of the world championship, but thinks Pringle would have wanted her to compete. Her trip to Perth is being sponsored by the Dubai construction company Al Futtaim Carillion.
"I earned the chance to race and Mark was as excited as I was," she says. "I'm not well-prepared but my goal has changed from trying for a place to being there and representing my country and Mark. "I may be the duffer of the British team, but you never know. There may be someone having a worse day than me and I may surprise myself." email@example.com