I swam from Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands to Flanagan Island in the American Virgin Islands during a trip with SwimTrek.
The National Championships for double ironman distance triathlon. I became the Ladies’ British National Champion.
Great Britain Ultra Triathlon Championships – June 1st/2nd 2013 – Race Report
Up until a few days ago the weather in the UK had been miserable – a winter chill had settled, sending me on a frantic mission to Decathlon to purchase scuba diving gloves after suffering with curled up fingers swimming 5k at Datchet Lake. I’d been spending far too long recently researching homemade recipes for ingredients to coat my hands with, if the lake at Avon Tyrell, Hampshire, couldn’t warm up in time. I didn’t even know if I was allowed to wear neoprene gloves, but I knew that I didn’t want a repeat of the 15 minutes of numbness on my last (erm, only) long training swim.
This year I’ve endured flooded sportives, the biblical rain and wind at the South Downs Way 50 Mile Ultra, a washout in Mallorca and a DNF on Fred Whitton with hypothermia. My luck was about to change.
I had Friday off work, and headed down to the New Forest with Dave late morning, in a Landrover full of as much kit as you can imagine. Whilst stuck in stationary traffic on the M25 and every cross country route we tried, we boiled in the metal box – but thoughts were with how nicely the sun would be gently simmering the lake we had to swim in on Saturday morning.
Eventually arriving at the Avon Tyrell Outdoor Activity Centre, we set up camp and our gazebo in the “turning circle” (which we would later pass 74 times). We were joined by crew chief Nadya and Dave’s parents, all keen to help out with last minute prep and food acquiring. Rather than the planned relaxing in the sun, the rest of the day turned out to be quite busy. A recce of the run course (and sense of dread seeing the sheer number of exposed tree roots, branches and energy sapping slopes), a frightening race briefing (where I suddenly felt a little out of my depth), a blood test (not for drugs as I was led to believe but to make sure our haemoglobin levels were sufficient enough to compete, and I’m really not very good with needles), a recce of the bike course by car (after the warnings of locals deliberately vandalising the course in previous years) complete with wrong turning detours and last minute equipment panic meant we ended up in bed after 10:30. With an alarm planned for 4am (an hour later than I would normally for an Ironman) – this was not a good start.
At least I slept well. Not. Why is Southampton airport really busy between 10:30pm and 4am? The jumbos flew over so low, stirring me from my uneasy rest repeatedly and worrying me that the tent was about to explode in a plane crash. And to add to that, I could hear an owl. Was it the same owl, the infamous owl, that caused a competitor last year to crash out of the bike course on the last lap as the bird of prey targeted his front lights, hit his wheel and became impaled on his tri bars?
Enduroman is not like other triathlons I’ve done. The transitions are free form – set up where you want, rack as many bikes as you’d like, basically do your own thing. We’d set up T1 at the tent, given that I had to run past it on the 400m from the lake to the tennis courts where the bike was. Our kit was all laid out on a picnic blanket. For T2, I’d chosen to leave my run kit in a changing marquee not far from the bike racks. The gazebo was filled with our nutrition, extra clothes, spare parts and chairs for spectators.
The swim began at 6am. The sun was out and the water was glorious. 18 degrees allegedly. I began steadily as I hate getting involved in the washing machine mass start.
We had to do one anticlockwise lap before being funnelled down a buoyed off lane for lap counting (or to check we hadn’t drowned) each subsequent lap. My first mistake was to put my head straight back under water after shouting my race number to the counter and swim at full pelt into the wall. I hadn’t realised that the buoys turned the lane to the left. Ouch. After checking I still had all my front teeth, nose and eyes I headed for the next buoy. The course followed four sides of a square(ish) and I patiently counted my way around 26 laps. Halfway saw me with an Ironman distance swim time of 1:15, which dropped to 1:25 for the second half as my left rotator cuff gave up and I was as good as swimming right arm only for the good the left was doing. Felt good about the swim (it’s about my normal pace), helped along by the “tea cup stirring” effect of 50 people in such a small enclosure. Dave wasn’t having such a good time as I’d hear later from my supporters.
There’s a moment when you leave the water in a triathlon where all the horizontal blood suddenly rushes vertically. I had to steady myself before ambling up to T1 for my kit change. Nadya helped out and made sure I had everything to start out on the bike. I wasn’t cold at all (despite all the earlier weeks of worrying), but opted for a jacket to make sure I warmed up properly on the bike.
Grabbing my Trek Domane 5.2 (kindly supplied by Trek MK) from the tennis courts and putting my bike shoes on carefully, I set off on foot. Little point doing any clever time saving transitions here, as I had to carry the bike up a ramp, through an arch and up to the turning circle. It was going to be a long day. The bike route leaves through another gateway, up a drag called the Rat Run (newly tarmac-ed just for us, much to the annoyance of previous years’ competitors, eager to point out that we had it easy given the weather and road surface). The supporters were great in the turning circle – cheering on everyone coming and going. There were people camped out along the Rat Run, adding to the well-wishing.
I had 20 (11 mile / 18.6 km) laps ahead of me. I felt sick for the first 2. I couldn’t eat my trusted malt loaf, only managing a couple of bites but desperately tried to get some food and drink in. I couldn’t start under fed and watered. It was on the first lap that the dawning realisation of how difficult this was going to be hit me. Leaving the safety of the Outdoor Activity Centre via a cattle grid I was left to the mercy of unpredictable horses and cows – who choose to amble across the road as they please.
I enjoyed seeing the first long straight downhill on the recce on Friday, but what was this? A wall of headwind hit me on the turn and I struggled to get speed up. Coming into Burley, I had a couple of cheeky inclines to negotiate before weaving through the village centre (quiet first thing, but that was to change considerably on a hot summer Saturday), and then up the Burley Wiggle (using its Strava segment name) into Burley Street, spying the sharp right turn sign as I crested (where we’d first gone wrong in the car), turning left on the bend across the gravel and rapidly changing up gear for the descent down into Crow (I came to call this the Bike Lane descent, as it was the only place where a bike lane was intermittently marked and you could fly down the bendy hill at the end of it, keeping your speed up for a hump bridge). Not long after this there was a second cattle grid and another left turn (they were all left turns) signposted to Bransgore (not the second turn that we’d taken in the car for several miles).
The road to Bransgore became overly familiar – the section with the cross wind, the bend to the left that swept round to the right and brought you to a sudden junction (I only had to stop once in the night to give way), the sharp bend to the right (with plastic barrier to stop you falling into the trench alongside the eroded tarmac, later decorated with fluorescent orange paint and a big arrow), the forest with its huge potholes (I only hit one, and I soon worked out exactly where they were), the cottage with the porch that made it look like it had a moustache, the pretty house across the field that signalled my left turn was coming up (not very visible in the dark) and the pitiful sign (trying desperately not to attract the attention of those with malicious intent) indicating the turn to Braggers Lane for the last push before the lap. And it was a push, with bragging rights. Evil hill. It dragged and reached 6.5% (ordinarily not a problem, but boy did it start to be a problem come lap 12). It was so dark on the whole stage from Crow back to Avon Tyrell that I was grateful for my powerful Exposure lights (but also wary that they had a 3 hour battery life on full beam – more of that later).
I was worried at the end of lap 1. It had felt hard – I expected this from lap 15, not the first lap. I’d underestimated the bike course (casually saying it was a “bit rolling”, when I’d looked at the profile). Nadya was on hand to reassure me that I was proceeding as per the plan (and to remind me that this wasn’t an Ironman – I was doing Enduroman – I’d already swum for 2h 40mins).
I’d originally thought that I would get drink refills every 3 or 4 laps, but it was hot and I was trying to drink more, under the supervision of Nadya (telling me off, for not having finished my water on a lap). And so the turning circle became a haven from the outside world. Drinks and food were continuously supplied; whatever I’d asked for the previous lap was duly handed over at the next. I could mentally see the pile of food depleting in my head.
After a few laps I knew Dave was gaining time on me, and I asked after him each return to base. It was getting very busy out there, with touristy traffic (i.e. people towing caravans, thoughtless parking-space-spotters who don’t indicate and hoards of pedestrians stepping into the street in Burley). Each lap was fraught with danger and there were a few incidents with cars pulling out in front of me (no different from every day in London though). The horses were the best behaved of the lot – I only had to stop for one which parked itself in the middle of the road, inspecting the white line rather than the tasty grass on either side of the road. I even made friends with some horse riders (who I had warned that I was approaching from behind on a bicycle) – I’d told them I’d been riding horses the same time that I’d been riding bikes and knew what it was like. Actually I’m not sure this is true – but I do remember going on a horse ride with Rachel (our horse) and my brother on his bike when we were younger and Rachel dribbling grass filled saliva down his neck as we caught up with him. The horse riders in the New Forest seemed more polite.
The laps passed, and so was I. Several times by some of the lead men – but given that they included world Deca-Ironman champs and Kona qualifiers, I wasn’t worried. I was passing a few people myself – but never the lead woman. She was a machine. Having chicked every single guy in the swim – by a considerable margin – she was powering away at the bike course, like I would do a 10mile TT. She delivered an excellent (enviable) bike split – total respect.
The lowlight on lap 7 – I swallowed a non-vegetarian fly. At lap 10 I was rewarded with Skittles. My favourite training food – completely un-nutritious (but hey, this is a double ultra triathlon… I can eat anything).
As it started to get dark, I was asked by race officials to put my lights on the bike and wear a rather fetching fluorescent jacket – in pink, since you ask. Actually very wise and great for seeing other competitors in the distance. For, as night approached that was the only thing you could see. I only wish that the wildlife also wore fluorescent jackets. The owl was back – the hooting was unnerving (who/what/where was it going to strike?) A deer jumped out at me on lap 18, frightening the life out of me (as I was drifting off, in a sleep deprived stupor). It returned on lap 19, in exactly the same spot – but very sensibly chose not to cross the road this time. My lights were starting to fade during lap 19 and I was concerned that I was going to be stranded in the pitch black. Nadya kitted me out with borrowed front lights and I was ready to go again. I couldn’t wait to see the end of lap 20 (oh, and start a run…maybe not). As I went round the lap again, I audibly said goodbye to the passing landmarks and signs, wishing them well (as I hoped never to see them again). As I approached my favourite downhill (which I’d been getting increasingly confident on, even in the dark), I briefly thought about the owl incident and thought, “what are the chances of something appearing in the road now?” – I pedalled harder and must have been at about 45 km/h just as a suicidal badger scurried into my headlight beam. I slammed on the brakes (and swerved with a locked back wheel) around the startled creature. Thank goodness for the “staying upright” training from the Mallorca 312, on the wet roads of Palma. How I missed it, or stayed on, I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t cycle anywhere other than the middle of the road for the remaining 4 miles. I wasn’t going to become next year’s race statistic.
It was with great relief that I finished the bike course – all 232 miles (373 km). It had taken me 17h 48mins – considerably longer than I had anticipated, but I had no idea how the accumulative effects of racing ultra events back to back were starting to take hold. I naively thought, double my Ironman distance time and add a bit. I had miles in my legs – I could easily do the bike distance – but I saved energy on every hill in the hope I would have fresh legs at the end. Maybe I chatted too long in the turning circle – but I craved the catch-up and rest from the lap tedium. In some later laps I never saw another person, and was convinced I was the only person out there – a bit like when you play hide and seek as a kid and realise that everyone else has gone to tea ages ago, but you are still staying put.
I changed in the marquee, putting on quite few layers for the run. I normally run with music, so the iPod playlist was started, a second Garmin was adorned and head-torch was switched on. I’ve only ever run in the dark twice (for about 10 minutes max), so this was going to be interesting. I vaguely knew what the course looked like from the recce, but lucked out by encountering TC (Mr Deca Ironman himself) on his gazillionth lap as I entered the woods. He expertly guided me round, pointing out every detail with running commentary as I followed him. I felt fairly strong. The legs were moving OK – I wasn’t going to ever maintain his pace, but I was very grateful for the supervision for my first lap.
[The run course from 2012 is on youtube here – even watching this back now fills me with horror, as it’s imprinted on my brain already!]
As I entered the turning circle at the end of the lap, I saw Dave readying himself to start the run. He’d caught me up – I’d been expecting it for some time. We headed out on lap 2 and I tried to show him the ropes, as TC had done for me. He seemed to be running strongly too. I told him not to wait for me on lap 3 and carry on at his pace. I fully expected not to encounter him for the rest of the race, except when he lapped me. But something was going wrong – I was ticking laps away at the same speed as him. I was finding it difficult too. There weren’t any sections where you could get a rhythm going. You were either running downhill (tentatively in my case), clinging to an off-camber section awkwardly, tiptoeing over exposed roots (now glowing with orange chalk dust) or facing an uphill battle (which I walked, always). If the SDW50 had taught me one thing about my newly found ultra hobby, it was walk uphill – even if you could run it. Conserving energy for the distance was of upmost importance.
By now, I was starting to fall asleep on the run, as I had on the bike. I felt drunk and light headed, and I knew my eyelids were struggling to stay open (like when you’re in a really hot lecture room and someone is droning on about environment engineering – that was a course I didn’t enjoy at uni). At one point, I was on a section involving a steep root covered climb which winds through some trees and emerges out onto the descent back to the turning circle. Except that I wasn’t! I was staggering around in some bushes. I had slept walked off the course. I was disorientated and slightly delirious. This sleepiness happened a few times, and I couldn’t place my feet. I literally wobbled along some sections.
I didn’t have to run/walk with the head-torch or my many layers for very long. The sun appeared not long after 4am and so I started to dispense with kit, to be replaced with bags of food (nuts, coffee sweets, Skittles, Twiglets).
And so it went on… I fell over roots and landed in the soft-ish ground 3 times, but my luck was running out. I was running pretty well when I didn’t see the ridge of concrete slightly raised on the slipway into the lake, as the canoe crew and swim director were setting up for the start of the half Enduroman and single Enduroman races (maybe 5:30am?). My toe caught it and I flew about a metre and a half before crashing to the ground on my left kneecap. The girl manning the canoe rushed to my aid, having heard the thud. I sat on the ground as blood started to pour from my knee, visible through the huge hole gaping in my expensive soon-to-be-made-into-shorts Nike running leggings. My bag of Twiglets was crushed and full of dust – I was heartbroken. I limped back to the turning circle for some (new Twiglets and) first aid treatment from Dave’s mate Gaz (who had joined us during the night, to help crew). Having a nurse for a mum prepared him for cleaning up my knee and making me go to the medical tent for steri-strips. I know it was just your average “playground scuffed knee with grit embedded” incident but it really started to hurt after 65km!
Dave didn’t appear to be fairing any better and we started to do laps together after about lap 18. He was ahead by one. I was still falling asleep but thankfully Dave was watching out for me and making sure I didn’t come a cropper again. We made a good team, keeping each other pushing on with those damn, draining, never-ending laps. 48 doesn’t seem that big a number, until you are trying to reduce it slowly by 1, every 15 minutes or so. It went on and on. We had some good sections where we could jog, and religiously walked the sections where it would be stupid to run. By now of course the “little” races were in mid-flow and we were jealous of competitors sprinting past us and flying up the hills at full pelt – oh to have their legs (and to only have to do 12 laps)! There was a bond between the 100 milers and the doublers – we’d been here all night… and we were going to finish. Even if we had to walk every hill.
We decided to finish together. This of course meant that I needed to catch up a lap at some point – so duly went out for one solo around lap 30 whilst Dave had some food. We split up the remaining laps into intervals: 4 or 5 laps in a block where we would only take sips of drink between laps, but food between blocks. It started to work – we were counting down and the crew were getting buoyed by our progress – marking off the laps on our team blackboard. A borrowed knee brace from our neighbouring crew helped support my painful wincing injury for the last 5 laps.
One of the excellent features of Enduroman events is that everybody does their last lap in reverse so that they pass the remaining competitors on the course and receive well earned congratulations. I loved this – we got to see lots of people finishing half, single, double and 100 mile Enduromans. There was admiration all round. Soon enough, our last lap came. We got confirmation from the timers that indeed it was our turn to set off in reverse – we’d been waiting a long time. The course was completely different – no surprise – and we took our time. Finally we came back into the turning circle for the final time and crossed the finishing line together. Job done – 52.4 miles (84 km) – final overall time 35:54:22. Another silly challenge complete – until the next one 😉
I was the 2nd female finisher, behind the truly awesome Danish winner, Helle Soegaard. However, as the 1st British finisher in the Championship, I become the current GB National Ultra Triathlon Champion!
None of this was possible without the support of my crew chief Nadya, and support from Gareth, Sue and Mike. They were awesome all day and all night and well into the next day! And of course, Dave – he was brilliant as usual!
The original UK swimrun event – running 37km across the Lake District wearing a wetsuit and swimming 6km across Buttermere and Crummock lakes wearing trainers!