How Hard Can It Be?
One Mans quest to show that age is but a number at the 2019 UltraMan 515
No need for the 4.30am alarm as I had been fully awake for at least 30 minutes, lying and listening to a Wood Pigeon’s constant calling as the sun prepared to rise on day one of what was going to be a very long weekend . The incessant coo-roo, coo-roo of the Pigeon amongst the increasing cacophony of other birds told me to get up and whilst my body was keen to do so, my brain was telling me to take every last bit of rest I could.
515km. Its only 320 miles. I am still not sure which sounds better, but either way it’s how far I had to go over the following threee days. When I say had to, it was completely my choice. Although a certain individual – David Southgate – had sown the seed one Sunday bike ride a few months before. As is his way he dropped the idea of an Ultra Triathlon as I passed him on a hill and when eventaully he caught up at the top I said, “Ultra, sounds good, how hard can it be?” before leaving him for dead on another incline. (unfortunately sense then Dave has lost weight, got even stronger and last ride was doing his best to help me stay on his wheel during an effort that I could not sustain.
Then, early in the new year as the freezing rain had put paid to another Sunday group ride, I had come across this merry North Walian jaunt whilst idly looking for events to spark the imagination and light the competitive fire for the coming year.
“Nobody said the quest for greatness would be easy,”
This was the statement on the Ultraman UK home page. To be honest I thought it sounded a bit naff, however reading on I saw it involved heading to Snowdonia National Park for a 10km swim in Lake Bala on the morning of day 1 followed by a 145km bike ride in the afternoon round Mount Snowdon. Then on day 2 a 276km bike ride taking in the delights of the coastline around Ceredigion Bay before finishing with a 84km run taking in Llanberis Pass to finish on day 3. And all this fun for less than £500.00, I was hooked.
The event is invitation only for safety reasons and so I began to carefully craft my request, feeling that my chances were slim due to my ‘senior’ age (55), and having no previous Ultra experience beyond Ironman distance. Still, nothing ventured nothing gained, I sent the application, switched off the computer and thought no more of it until switching it on for work the next day. Immediately a notification popped up that grabbed all my attention immediately. An email from Ben Peresson from Racing Quest.
Thank you for your interest in UMUK 2019.
We are very excited to confirm that we have reserved a place for you in UMUK 2019, which takes place between 29th August and 01st September 2019. We encourage you to read the UMUK Rules & Regulations and Guidelines once more to be sure that you understand the requirements and rules of the race’………………
As I read, I could feel a familiar knot of anticipation in the pit of my stomach which would not now fully unravel for 8 months and event completion.
A knock at my camping ‘Pod’ door finally got me out of bed and I let Madison, my daughter in. She looked at me as if to finally confirm I was actually going to go ahead with this madness and when she got her answer, nodded and asked what she could do. Feeling proud that she had come to help me before she had helped herself to any breakfast, I got her to make the porridge for us both and I made a strong coffee for me before we sat in companionable silence as the sun slowly peered over the age old Oak and Ash trees of Gwydir Forest that surrounds the Swallow Falls hotel/hostel where we were staying. At 14 Madison is an old head on young shoulders and she seemed to know exactly how I felt and what to do. She was with me not just as daughter but also as support team member due to her pragmatic outlook and matter of fact approach to things. She would be needed to make sure I was organized and doing the right things which is not easy when body and brain are frazzled. She did this admirably and brought a calm, supportive and positive influence to the weekend which had an effect far greater than she would ever believe.
Race / Swim start was at 7.00am at Lake Bala, approximately 45 minutes from accommodation and race HQ. I travelled in luxury with one of my 2 nominated support crew, Trevor, in his top of the range Audi, whilst the other nominated crew, Roy (my coach), drove the van with all the kit and rest of the crew, Madison, Lou, Kathy and Jen. On getting confirmation of the event back in January, I had had concerns about getting anyone to be my nominated support crew. Its a big commitment, (little did I know how big), and one that needed people who knew what they were doing. I needn’t have worried. Within 30 seconds of me mentioning it Trevor had offered his support. Around the same age as me, Trevor is an unbelievable Tri-Athlete, consistently ranking age group top 3 in European and world events. He had been involved in the Ultra running scene and most importantly has an attitude that on one hand never takes things too seriously and is always first with the light comment but on the other is fiercely competitive and focused on being the best possible athlete he can be.
I had also sat down with Roy my coach to let him know my plans and without hesitation he offered his time and to bring his expertise to the party. Now, if Trevor is competitive, Roy is off the scale. Retired from competitive Triathlon due to partly having won everything he possible could, but mainly due to having more injuries than can be counted, Roy set up Tri-Spoke Coaching and along with his associate Jane has created a Triathlon club that has developed a great reputation for producing outstanding age group athletes.
The one thing that was for sure with these two as my support, there was to be no giving up, no thinking that if it all got too much I could just stop. I knew that if I even thought about that, I would be finding my own way back home.
On arriving at Lake Bala just before 6.30am my brain immediately switched into race mode. It just shuts down from everything apart from that which is necessary. On the outside I become distant and vague but on the inside I am absolutely focused and in the moment. All thoughts of what has gone before and what will come fade away and what remains is what is happening now and what I need to do. Breathe.
The forecasted high winds were already picking up causing the grey waters of Wales’s largest natural lake to develop a swell that would make the 500m swim out to the turn bouy a real challenge. 10 laps of the course lay ahead and as I put on wet suit and full cold weather gear I looked around at the other competitors. There were only 5. A mixture of dropouts due to injury, the fact that it is a relatively new event and also an event that anyone of sound mind would avoid like the plague meant I was able to meet all my fellow competitors and still have time for a coffee before the start. Immediately I was drawn to a wild looking Spaniard called Anastasio who was warm friendly and really enthusiastic. There were the two Richards, looking relaxed if a little nervous and then Paul. He looked like I felt, confident, focused and ready to bring it on. We shook hands and wished each other good luck before, after a slightly delayed start due to the weather, the hooter sounded and we strode out for lap one.
I was the first into the water, which was a lot colder than it had any right to be given it was the end of August, but I had good kit on and I felt good as I stretched out and tried to get into an early rhythm. By 250 metres out, I wasn’t succeeding. The water had become really choppy and along with the swell made an even stroke and steady breathing really difficult. Difficult for me but not evidently for Anastasio who came gliding past making my forced efforts look distinctly amateurish. I generally hate being overtaken but was encouraged by his ability to cope with the conditions so re-focused and eventually got into a groove.
I had decided with Roy and Trevor to go with the broad plan of stopping every 2 laps (2km) but when the time came I decided to get one more lap in before then turning for the jetty to grab some Maurten energy drink. I have used this stuff for a couple of Ironman events and a fair few half Iron events and it has done the trick every time. It just gives you the energy you need at what seems to be a steady flow and there are never any stomach issues. It was to be my core fuel for the next few days and had a big part to play if I was going to get through this in one piece. One thing that was a little disconcerting when I stopped was how much I was shivering. I can’t remember feeling cold but I could barely get the bottle to my lips. I wondered whether that extra lap had been a good idea but it was too late now and without wanting to waste time and fall further behind Anastasi (who hadn’t yet stopped).
The next few hours went by in a blur, the water got rougher and made siting really difficult particularly coming back in. It was easy to lose focus and end up just swinging your arms around without gaining any forward movement and to also wander off line so swimming significantly further than necessary. It would often take an involuntary gulp of lake water to re-focus, get back on line and back to swimming with intent. I remember counting strokes and then going through every swim drill I could think of 50 times each.
I stopped twice more both after 2 laps as planned and this time when I stopped there was coffee and warmed Maurten Mix. The shivering was getting worse but I can honestly say I didn’t really notice, I was in my own little world and I didn’t have a great concerns apart from coming across Teggie – Lake Balas’ very own version of the Loch Ness Monster. No-one else had overtaken me and I was quite enjoying the swim drill practice. I swam the last 3 laps increasingly conscious of my shivering and as I finally climbed out having swum over 12km in 4 hours and 46 minutes, I suddenly felt seriously cold for the first time. The boys were on hand two help me out of the water and then a 6 person team swung into action to get me out of my suit, dress me for the bike and feed me with army ration Spaghetti Bolognese washed down with a strong Mocha coffee. About 20 minutes later I was put on the bike still shivering vigorously and told to ride fairly hard around the lake for a few kilometres to warm up where I would be met by the van and could get rid of some of the excess clothing. It didn’t take long and I was relieved to get rid of a few layers at the first stop about 10km down the road. I felt no great ill effects from the mornings exertions and was keen to see what Anastasio had to offer on the bike and whether I could catch him. The sun was shining and although there was a strong wind the road around the lake and beyond was relatively flat and I was making reasonable time. I had got word that Anastasio was about 30 minutes ahead but going slower than me, and the next competitor, Paul, was about 40 minutes behind.
Around 40km in and whether it was because I was enjoying the good weather, the fact I was doing ok, the fact I had begun to climb a bit or just plain old fatigue but I started to slow. I didn’t really notice as I tend to race based on perceived effort and don’t tend to look to much at my bike computer, but when I got to the next check point where Roy and Trevor were waiting with new bottles or fuel I noticed slightly concerned faces. “You ok?”, Roy asked. “Yeah fine”, I replied. “You need to push on a bit, the guy behind is making up some good time and we want to be back well inside cut off at 8.00pm. This was the first time I had ever really considered the cut off time and the fact that it was being bought into the conversation got me a little concerned. “Am I ok for time?”, I asked. “Yeah no problem now but we are heading for some climbs and need to keep a decent average pace up”. “Lets go then”, I said cheerfully and set off with renewed intent.
The road soon started to climb more steeply and I kept up the same cadence, eager to attack the hills. I like to think they are a strength of mine, not so much physically as mentally. Hills tend to put many into a negative mind set. They are difficult, painful and slow and the long relentless grind up them can put an end to many peoples race psychologically, and when the head goes the body won’t be far behind. I enjoy hills mainly because others don’t. I feed off the negative body language you can see in others as they begin to struggle. I can almost see little thought bubbles floating around them that say “this is hard”, “not sure how I’m going to get to the top”, “I can’t keep this up for much longer”, and like some the old ‘Pac Man’ video game I chase them down gathering in their negative bubbles as fuel for me.
There was only one problem in this race, I was on my own. No one to chase and no-one chasing me and that suddenly became a bit of a problem for me. I starting thinking of how far there was still to go and that there were several more decent climbs between me and making the cut off time. It also entered my head that this was supposed to be the easiest day of the three and that tomorrow I had to ride twice the distance and at quicker pace than I was going today if I was to make that cut off. I then started to worry about whether I would have enough in the tank for an 85km run on day 3 even if I did make it through the next two days. In short I started to worry, and that’s something I don’t really do very often and am not very good at. My wife is brilliant at worrying. If there was an Ultra worrying event she would win easily. Her mind seems to constantly find new and exciting ways to worry about things that have happened, are happening, will happen, won’t happen, should, could and might happen. Only last week she was worried that she couldn’t find anything to worry about.
So I thought of the ‘advice’ I am always giving my wife about letting go and living in the present and started to refocus on the things I could do something about, namely pedaling as fast as I could at a rate that I could sustain for another 100 or so kilometres. I zero’d in on my breathing and soon got lost again in my own little world where I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking or doing. I vaguely remember some stunning scenery, some painful climbs and some even more painful flat bits where the gale force wind was directly in my face for what seemed like hours. Strangely I also remember seeing some very large sheep (more about that later), but mainly I remember not a lot. I have no idea how many times I stopped for fuel, probably more than I should have done. I remember a period where I was constantly looking for the van at the side of the road so that I could stop, but I soon worked out that was not a very productive thing to be doing so forgot about that and went back counting the breath.
Around 5.00pm – 10 hours from the start – I had reached Llanberis and the knowledge that I only had about 10km to go. The Llanberis Pass lies between the Mountain massifs of Snowdon and the Glyderau, and rises steadily over about 5km to a height of 359 metres at Pen Y Pass the highest point of Llanberis Pass. No-one had told me that after 5 hours swimming and 5 hours biking I would have to pedal most of the last hour uphill, over 200m in elevation at a gradient averaging around 6% building to a gut busting 10% as you wind toward the summit. I don’t know whose clever idea it was to put Pen-Y-Pass on the route at the end of the day we had just had, but I’d like to punch them. It was painful, punishing and pretty bloody miserable but at the same time empowering. As I wound my way up the steeper final section, I felt an inner strength and resolve to not just finish the day in good time but the whole event. I stood out of the saddle for the last few hundred yards and crested the hill to be greeted by my support crew and be congratulated by some of the Racing Quest team. After a brief stop I headed off down the hill towards Betws-YCoed and rest.
I clearly remember spending the rest of the ride talking out loud to myself. Firstly with some self congratulations, then with taking me through what I needed to do when I got back and what I was going to do on tomorrows bike of 275 km based on what I had learnt today. This wasn’t too much as the bike had gone relatively smoothly with mechanical issues, however there a were a couple of things, that included:
- Nutrition / Hydration
As already mentioned my main nutrition / hydration was Maurten 360 mix. It is brilliant stuff which gives me the carbs/energy I need at a steady release rate. It works by forming a gel in the stomach that minimises upset. I had planned to drink 500ml per hour which would give me 80 grams of carbs, but I was pretty sure I had consumed more than that which wouldn’t do any harm, but it just meant I was needing to pee more than necessary and was wasting valuable supplies that I couldn’t replace or afford to be without. This came back to bite me hard on day 3. I was also using Cliff and Veloforte bars for something solid which worked well enough but I had struggled to eat due to a dry mouth. This was mainly due to ‘snacking’ on a mixture of nuts and dried fruit, which was fine except that I had made the error of adding some salted spiced cashews recently bought back from a work trip to Kuwait. The salt was good but the spice really didn’t go down well and put me off my nut mix for the rest of the event. Luckily my support crew found them to be rather pleasant and managed to make a significant dent in my supplies.
I had gotten into the habit of stopping pretty much every time I saw the support vehicle at the side of the road which was not a great idea. It was really there to make sure I went the right way and to refuel me when needed, but I had been using it for an excuse to stop and have a short break, which although welcome was not going to help me on day 2 when I was going to keep pushing to make the 12 hour cut off. When I had first looked at the course the thought of doing 275km/170 miles in 12 hours seemed relatively easy, a mere 25ish kmh/15mph was an easy proposition. However add in the fatigue, pit stops, climbs and then the weather which was forecast to be horrendous – strong winds and driving rain – and all of a sudden it dawned on me that rather than a pleasant cycle through Snowdonia National Park, my Saturday was going to be spent cold, wet, extremely knackered and under real pressure to make it to the run on day 3.
My body was in as good a shape as it could have been but that wasn’t necessarily saying much considering what I was putting it through. I had worked hard all year to manage old problems in my shoulders, ribs, feet and particularly back and hip. A fellow Tri-Spoke athlete Josh had recently set up Reflex-18, a physio practice in Colchester and he had been brilliant in getting me to the start line with half a chance of getting through this silliness. By the end of this first day I was really feeling the problem in my left hip which manifested as throbbing lower back pain. If I was going to spend almost 12 hours on the bike the following day I would need some sorting out. Cue Lou. Whilst Roy and Trevor got me through the event whilst on course it was Lou who got me through it off it. Lou and Dan run the Highwoods Health Clinic in Colchester where Lou had been both massaging and sticking needles in me for a year or so. When Lou expressed an interest in coming to Snowdonia for the week-end to watch the event I asked whether she would be prepared to help me recover with a massage or two. She gladly offered her skills which were soon going to be tested when I got back to my Pod.
At 6.02pm I turned the corner into the Swallowfalls Hotel car park and rode the final few yards to the finish line and straight into Madison, my daughter, who luckily held firm and kept me upright. The gang were all there and they immediately went to work taking my bike away, hosing it down and getting it ready for the next day. Madison helped me back to my Pod and left me to shower which suddenly wasn’t quite as strait forward as it had been yesterday. The shower block was about 20 metres from the Pod across what now seemed to be something the organisers of a Tough Mudder would have been be proud of. 12 hours ago it had been a few uneven steps, a gentle slope down towards a children’s play area, round a gnarly oak tree with extending roots and a set of steepish moss covered stone steps down into the shower block. With my legs quickly seizing up I grabbed my towel and set off. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t going to be easy but invoking the spirit of the day I dug in and waddled my way through each hazard. The stone steps were a real challenge but I was determined and I eventually pushed the open old, creaky wooden door and found myself in the sanctuary of the shower room. Apart from the smell of disinfectant, the pair of dirty underpants hanging from a hook and a cracked mirror over the sink, the shower room couldn’t have been a more welcome place for me right now. I sat on the wooden bench and stiffly removed my sweat stained cycling jersey, bib shorts and socks. It was as I was about to leverage myself back up and into the shower cubicle I realised that I had left my shower gel back at the ‘Pod’. For the first time that day I was truly beaten. There was no way I had the energy, strength or will power to go and get it so I started to trawl the other showers in the vain hope that someone had left their shower accoutrements behind. No such luck so I resorted to getting myself wet and then hobbling to the sinks to fill my hands with the soap from the dispensers which whilst smelling remarkably like cat pee did the job and got me clean and feeling a little fresher. Another 10 minutes in the shower and 10 more to get back to my Pod and I was ready for Lou to work her magic.
The gang were heading out into Betws-Y-Coed for a pizza that evening but I decided to stay put. I had a packet of ricotta and spinach tortellini that I was intending to boil up and eat with a mixed salad I had pre-prepared. I spent a relaxing hour sitting outside in the evening sunshine stuffing as much pasta as I could into my fairly unwilling stomach. I had already put the days efforts behind me and I had no interest in looking ahead to tomorrow, so the hour before bed was spent peacefully watching a group of rabbits in the field go about their business and listening to the evening birdsong. About 8.30pm I headed inside, set my alarm for 5.00am and crawled into bed for what turned out to be a long deep sleep.
I was awake and up well before the alarm. As I got out of bed I realised that my back and legs felt ok. A combination of Lou’s healing hands and a good 9 hours sleep had seemed to have done wonders and I was feeling up for the challenge of day 2. As I was cooking my porridge Madison came up and chatted me through where they had been last night. They had found an excellent pizzeria that had been full of athletes and supporters for the Brutal Extreme Triathlon that was happening over the week end. The Brutal is an Ironman distanced event that includes a run up Snowdon which I had considered earlier in the year as there is double and triple option which appealed. However it felt a bit bigger and more commercial than Ultraman UK and I wanted smaller, friendly, and more laid back and that’s definitely what I got with the Racing Quest team, not to mention professional, organised and really supportive.
The angel Lou arrived and taped my hip/back and administered a cream called ‘AMP Human’ I had acquired a few days before. I had seen this stuff on Facebook and it came highly recommended by a whole raft of professional athletes. It is a Bicarb formula that is supposed to neutralise acid in the muscles and allow you to ‘push harder for longer’. I had read through all the studies and tried to understand the science so as to determine whether this could really help but in the end it was Lucy Charles Barclay that sold it to me in a video. In my world if its good enough for Lucy its good enough for me!
Taped and creamed up I made my way to the start area sipping a final cup of strong black coffee. I found myself once again automatically ‘going into the zone’, immediately getting more inward focused and less aware of all the stuff going on around me that didn’t directly affect me. The weather forecast was not good for the day, strong winds and driving rain but at 7.00am as we set off down the hill the weather was fine, I felt as good as could be expected and was looking forward to what the day had to bring.
I had decided to have a look at Paul who had made time up on me the previous day with an impressive bike time. I tend to be better when I have someone to chase and I wanted to know what I was up against in case this became a race further on down the line. This was further than I had ever cycled before and I didn’t really have any kind of plan. As already mentioned I don’t really use metrics when racing, preferring to go by feel and perceived effort. I was more than happy to see what others were doing for a while before working out what felt good for me. Paul set off at a good pace but one that I was pretty comfortable with and, as it seemed no one else was willing to take it on at this early stage, I settled in to an easy rhythm behind him and kind of just switched off everything mental and physical that wasn’t required.
The day 275km 2 course had us heading through the Snowdonia National Park towards Ceredigion Bay with one steep ascent early on in the proceedings. After that there is a relatively flat 100km or so where I had figured I could get in aero and push a pace that would give me plenty of time for the second half of the course which was pretty much all up and down hill with around 1000m of ascent over 3 main climbs.
After around 25km, as we started up the first of the main climbs, I noticed that Paul was looking fairly laboured. I was taking it easy and still closing in on him so had to back off more than I really wanted to, to stay behind him. It was decision time, keep following and risk getting sucked into his race or, go now, find my own pace and hope I was smart enough to be able to get it right over the course of the day. I stood up on the peddles and got the legs going at a working pace. I quickly closed down the 10 metres or so to Paul, said hi and pushed on, enjoying the feeling of being comfortable with the lung busting effort and looking forward to meeting the car and a stopping briefly for a refuel somewhere near Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Reliable as ever Roy and Trevor were waiting for me with supplies and pleased to see I was in the lead and looking strong. I didn’t stop long, keen to be on my way, so headed off without really listening to what I was being told. If I had, I would have registered the “don’t forget you need to turn left just up the road” instruction. I must have registered something because a couple of minutes later I noticed a turning to the left but chose not to take it, preferring to stick to the main road. Unfortunately for me the road was a fairly steep hill that half way up I realised, was probably not the right pace to be. I reached for my phone and whilst still peddling hard tied to phone Roy & Trevor but without success as there was no signal. I stopped and tried again but with the same result, I was pretty sure I was wrong now as I would have seen the car pass me on the way to the next stop off point so I turned round and took off down the hill shouting and swearing to myself loudly enough to raise a few looks from those out walking their dogs and picking up their morning papers. At the bottom of the hill I saw Trev on the corner waving furiously to go right and so head down I blasted past, still cussing and trying but failing to blame someone other than myself for not only losing what was only 5 or 6 minutes of time but hurting my legs on a hill Hadn’t needed to climb. I was comforted though by the fact that it had only been a few minutes and I was still ahead of Paul who I reckoned to be only 2 or 3 minutes behind by now. I had a long flattish section ahead and just needed to regroup, get into aero and hold a pace of around 17/18 miles an hour for a while. Yeah right! I hadn’t factored in the wind that had been gradually increasing and the rain that had been doing the same whilst I had been sheltered by a bloody big hill. With the left turn I was now headed into a full blown gale and averaging about 14 mph on a flat road feeling like I was going backwards. There are times when you just don’t want to be doing what you are doing and thoughts of ‘why the bloody hell am I doing this?’ come to the fore. All of a sudden I was in a fairly dark place where I was having to push much harder than I wanted to or even could, with the thought that it was not enough and that I was only about a quarter through with much tougher to come. I’d love to say I found a great tactic to get me through this particular time such as some self talk, positive affirmation or perhaps a distraction technique but the reality is I think I just toughed it out. I had a simple thought – either stop or keep peddling, your choice – so dumbly I just kept peddling.
As I neared the coast any thoughts of having some wonderful sea views to boost the spirits were dashed by the monsoon that came in. Visibility went to a couple of metres, the wind howled and the roads became flooded. In short it became dangerous and after about an hour of this I was very grateful to see the car ahead and Trevor with a hot cup of coffee. I think it was for him, but being the kind of guy he is he passed it straight to me and with one sip I started to feel better. Roy told me that Anastasio had had an accident, come off his bike in the rain and been taken to A&E. At this stage it sounded like he was ok but his race was over and that left only Paul and I formally in the race with the others having missed the cut off times yesterday. I asked Roy how far ahead of Paul I was, hoping that I had made up the time I had lost going off course only to be told that Paul was about 12 minutes ahead having overtaken me when I went wrong. This was a bit of a blow as he evidently wasn’t as knackered as I had assumed and that he had actually taken a bit more time out of me. The worst news though was that I was behind schedule and at this rate I would miss the cut off. Considering this was supposed to be the fast section I was in trouble, but whether it was the coffee, the weather or the fact that I didn’t think it could get any worse from here on in, I was upbeat and thought ‘I can only do my best, so crack on and see where it takes you’. With encouragement from Roy I passed Trevor back an empty cup, thanked him and set off.
The end of the coastal section saw an end to the rain and from there it was only the gale force winds to contend with. This time though they were on my back and all of a sudden the speed I had lacked all day came out of no where and I was motoring along at 22 miles an hour with non of the effort required earlier. I started to dry out and got back to enjoying the experience by singing to myself a whole range of mainly 80’s songs which had been triggered by 8 hours in the car on the way up to Wales listening to Absolute 80’s (leaving Madison with a psychological scar she is still trying to deal with). I was trying to out do Trevor with my encyclopaedic knowledge of the music of that time, however, I had come up against an 80’s geek who is also more competitive than me and so when he identified ‘Whip It’ from Devo within the first 4 bars of the one hit wonders round of the music quiz I gave up, beaten by the better man. The singing kept me going at a good pace and soon enough the first of the 3 (ish) climbs on the homeward leg approached.
Starting with a relatively steep 400m vertical ascent the Dinas Mawddwy was actually quite pleasant. It was good to be able to stand up in the saddle a bit and although the pace was slow I was now back in the game in terms of time and so felt no real concerns about being able to cope with what was to come. This confidence bordering on arrogance came back to bite me hard in the next few hours but for now I was in a good place and, as the top of the mountain came into view and I could see the boys waiting to give me fuel, guidance and encouragement. I stopped to stretch my back out a bit and take in some of the stunning views. I was conscious not to stop for long and had been more disciplined today about stopping which had definitely helped me keep up the necessary average speed. The downside to this was because I was on a primarily liquid diet I was needing to pee frequently. I had practised the skill of peeing downhill on a bike at previous Ironman events, but this event had me mastering the art of peeing both on the flat and now, at the top of this hill, I could say I could now pee on a climb. When I say mastered, I would like to say I could pee without it going over me, my drinks bottles and into my shoes but that would be a lie and to be honest at that stage I couldn’t give a s**t.
I don’t really remember the downhill sections, it didn’t really feel like there were any, but I was still making ok progress so I must have been picking up speed somewhere. I knew Paul was about 10 minutes in front at this stage and that had remained fairly constant for a while. This gave me a lead of about 15 minutes overall but at this stage it was of far more interest to Roy and Trevor than me. They were now really into the swing of this thing and had got into full race mode getting great pleasure in finding new and ingenious ways to gain an edge over the other support crews and be a general pain in the arse. There was’nt much to smile about through the fatigue at this stage but their antics definitely made me chuckle and I began to look forward to the next sight of the crews to see what they were up to.
The 2nd climb was a series of 3 peaks with a decent climb to start before dropping down for a second less challenging climb and then a final hill to cap that section off at around 220km. The riding itself was fine and I was enjoying the focus that the climbs and descents required, but I was getting tired, very, very tired. Fatigue just seemed to have found a way to seep its way into my core and It didn’t seem there was much I could do about it. I was fully fuelled and feeling fit but I was just really tired. It didn’t help that the breeze was still strong and the descents were mainly into a cross / headwind which required concentration and more effort than I was wanting to give.Whereas in the morning I had worked hard to get over the pain of the gale force headwind I now just didn’t seem to have it in me to even give myself a good talking to. This came to a head on a flat straight just before the final big climb of the day. I was labouring into a strong headwind on an arrow straight road that just kept going as far as the eye could see. There were no cars, nothing around and I remember I just stopped peddling and coasted to a halt. I unclipped and just stood there astride my bike as if I was just waiting for the support car to turn up and take me home. I would like to think if the car had turned up I wouldn’t have got in but I am not sure. It is probably worth noting that there would have been no-way the boys would have let me get in even if I had begged them. They were not going to give up their whole weekend to look after me for me to just give up due to a bit of tiredness. They are both like the Black Knight in Monty Python and a “mere flesh wound’ would not have stopped them so they would not have let it stop me).
With the Black Knight in my head I set off again but I can’t say it was with any great drive or vigour. Eventually I could see an end to the flat road and the beginning of the ‘final’ climb of the day. As the hill approached I could see with great relief Trevors red Audi with hazard flashing pulled in at the next layby. I was desperate to stop for a few minutes to gather myself. Now was the time I needed to offload on someone to let them know how I felt and to have a sympathetic ear to my pain, fatigue and misery. As I ground my final few peddle strokes before a blissful few minutes rest the Audis hazard lights went off, the indicator went on and a hand appeared from the window giving me a thumbs up before the bastards drove off. I nearly cried.
During the Summer I had completed a lot of my bike training on North Hill in Chelmsford. It it about the only half decent hill within 30 miles. It climbs up 90m in around 2km with a couple of short ramps up to 9% gradient and I used to rep it on average a dozen times in sets of 3. 1 spin, 1 seated in as high a gear as I could manage and still hold form and the final rep standing, again in as high a gear as I could manage without keeling over sideways due to lack of forward motion, (which happened several times). This training stood me in good stead now as I crawled up the final 5 or 6km at a pace that 12 months before I would not have been able to hold without falling off. Still, I was making progress and before the long, I would begin the long descent down into Betws-Y-Coed and the haven of my pod at the Swallow Falls hotel. It went on forever but gradually I could see the top where there again the Audi was waiting. I grimaced at a photographer as I hit the last pitch and rolled into the car park where the boys were waiting. I kept quite about what I had gone through over the past hour and particularly at the bottom of the hill. I had cracked it and it was all downhill from here. “Just one more climb to go and its all downhill from there” Trevor chirped. I choked on my drink and looked at him to check that he was just winding me up. He didn’t look like he was. “your kidding” I replied, “I thought that was the last climb”. “No” he said very matter of factly. “This is not the top, it drops for a bit and then you have the final climb and then it’s not too far from there and all down hill”. Externally I just nodded, internally I felt my energy levels drop another notch and I remember shivering with cold for the first time since the rain earlier in the day. I got on my bike with words of encouragement from Roy and the news I had gained a few minutes on Paul. “Great,” I said, ‘I don’t give a toss,’ I thought.
And so began the longest hour of my life.
Sure enough a few kilometres later the road started to rise and with only energy that knowledge that this is your final climb can bring I set my legs to work. My back was now making sure I knew that it was no longer going to put up with this punishment any longer by spasming every time I pushed down on my left pedal, but it was the last hill and I was going to make it. It was only about 3km but at risk of sounding too dramatic it felt like 30. Heart pumping, breath rasping (those that have biked and run with me when I’m knackered will attest to the ungodly noise I make), I got to the top and literally cheered. I relaxed into my stubby, sticky tri bars, stretched my back out and blissfully stopped peddling as I coasted down a progressively steep slope. I knew there was a short climb back to the hotel from Betws-Y-Coed but in my head that was no issue as I had a 20 minute or so descent to recover. Bad 80’s songs came back and started to replace the train like noises I had been making a few minutes before and whilst probably sounding just as bad, made me feel much better. I would love to say I was singing songs like Nothings Going To Stop Us Now, Eye of the Tiger and Don’t Stop Believin’, but sadly I got stuck on Abba songs and could be heard by surprised locals belting out ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Voulez Vous’ as I hurtled down the hill. I was so busy singing that it took a moment to register that I was slowing down and needing to pedal. Figuring it was just a short rise before I could go back to singing I stuck an effort in and hammered round the corner to be met by a steep hill that rose majestically into the distance. Except majestic wasn’t the word I was thinking. Majestic means beautiful and causing admiration. This was causing dis-belief, distress and despair which unless checked quickly would have seen me throw my bike down and jump up and down on it until it was broken enough to not be able to carry me any further – ever. So I checked, and channeled my upset at Roy and Trevor for telling me there was only one climb to go. I reset and got back in to the familiar climbing rhythm and cussed Roy on my left peddle stroke and Trevor with my right. I used all the swear words in the English dictionary before moving to French, Italian and even Greek. Malakka,s I shouted to the (large) sheep who I thought were looking at me as if I wasn’t the first cyclist to be swearing in several languages going up the hill. (It was probably fair to say I was getting a bit illusional). My frustration turned to anger and then the anger turned to aggression meaning that I probably cycled that hill quicker than I had any other that day.
About 2km later the road started down again and I finally stopped the unabated abuse of my support crew and took a drink. Empty. Bollocks. In an instant I had changed from thinking about how I was going to rip Trevors head off and give Roy and right royal piece of my mind to hoping they had mixed my Maurten thoroughly and ensured they had opened the wrapper of my Veloforte bar to make it easier to eat. I was oblivious to this ambivalence at the time but my cognitive dissonance and the steepness of the descent kept my brain busy until I saw the road level out and the Audi come into view. I suddenly felt a bit guilty for my thoughts over the past half hour as there was Trevor with a drinks bottle in his hand and Roy clapping me in. I took the drinks that had been prepared and allowed myself a wry smile as Roy handed me an unwrapped Veloforte bar. I looked at my watch and saw it was 3.30pm. If I had been more with it I would have realised that there was still around 90 minutes and 30+km to go rather than the 10 minutes 3km I was somehow figuring. My relaxed and easy frame of mind was shocked back into focus when as I got back in the saddle Trevor said ‘Nearly there mate, last hill coming up”. I think I just looked at him blankly as I had the strongest sense of Déjà vu. Hadn’t we been here before not so very long ago, hadn’t Trevor said something about one last climb to go and being all downhill from there? Hadn’t he got that wrong and hadn’t I forced my way up another hill that shouldn’t have existed according to him and now he was telling me there was one more! How many more was he hiding from me? How much bloody further did I have to go? This time though rather than have another downer I laughed. I don’t know where it came from but all of a sudden it all became really amusing. No doubt it was the endorphins at work trying to combat tiredness but I think it was at this point where the event changed for me. As I rode off toward the 3rd final hill I remembered why I was doing this thing. Because it was tough – one of the toughest – and I had wanted the challenge. It was supposed to push me to places I didn’t want to go to, to see what I would do when there. I remember thinking that if got through the event without digging seriously deep and going way beyond where I had been before, I would leave Snowdonia tomorrow night disappointed. And with the thought of ok, lets see how tough we can make this, I pushed up the ‘final’ hill as hard as I could.
At 5.27pm I rolled down the finish carpet to be welcomed by Madison, Lou, Kath and Jen. They were about to grab my bike and take it away but luckily for them I had enough about me to let them know any part of the bike behind the handlebars really didn’t want to be touched by human hands. I am not sure who the brave soul was (I think Kath), but someone gingerly took hold of the handlebars and wheeled my trusty Felt away to be washed and packed away. It had done its job magnificently with not a single technical hitch in over 400km of hard riding. A week before the event I had passed the bike to a local guy called Mark Pamment who had been highly recommended by friends. He was absolutely meticulous and put the bike into better shape than when I bought it. As I hobbled off back to my pod I mentally thanked Mark for the job he had done and breathed a little sigh of relief that I had got through the bike still in the race, albeit with a reduced margin over Paul, who had had a great day and brought the gap between us down to 91/2 minutes. He had shown what a strong rider he was and I had no doubt he was a pretty decent runner too which was going to make tomorrow interesting. There was good and bad news on Anastasio who had tried to re-start the race after going to Accident and Emergency following his crash. Good news was he was ok, but the bad news was that he had lost too much time and was unable to complete the bike in time so had withdrawn from the race. It was a real shame as he was a lovely bloke who was obviously very good at this Ultra thing. And it would have been great to have had him competing on the run. I hope you return next year my friend and finish the job.
After the longest shower I have ever had which was made easier today by Madison making sure I had all my stuff, I made the decision to head out to town with the gang and dive into a pizza. I was heartily sick of Tesco filled pasta at this stage and I wanted to have some company rather than be on my own mulling over what tomorrow was going to bring. Once Lou had again bought a degree of life back to my legs I wasn’t really in shape to paint the town red but I could walk and that was good enough for me. The pizza was indeed very good and I only closed my eyes once, for a short while, as the warmth and comfort of the restaurant wrapped its ambience around me, but it was long enough for sharp shot Madison to record it for posterity.
As we were finishing, the restaurant was starting to fill with those that had completed the Brutal event that day. We chatted to a young guy who had just completed his first Iron distance event and he was talking about how the run had killed him. It got me thinking about the next day and the 85km I had to run before I could rest up for the rest of the year. I decided that I would see what Paul bought to the table tomorrow and sit in behind him for as long as I could and see what happened. If he was too quick for me so be it, I was going into uncharted territory in terms of fatigue, never mind distance, and I had no idea what the two combined were going to do to me. I had never run further than Marathon distance before and this year the longest had been 30km at the ITU World Championships in Spain. Apart from that there were a fair few 20km jaunts round Mersea Island where I live, plenty of 10 – 15km brick runs off the bike and then regular Tri-Spoke Coached hill and drill sessions on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. Running 85km was something I hadn’t really thought much about before the event, it was too far for me to comprehend, so I didn’t bother to try. I never really doubted I could do it, I just had nothing to base that on.
‘Plan’ made for the next day, I enjoyed the rest of the evening before I got back to my ‘pod’ at around 9.00, climbed into bed and closed my eyes. Next I knew the alarm was belting out Disco 2000 by ‘Pulp’, it was 5.00am and time to get serious again.
Madison, bless her, was up early and cooking me my porridge in the guest kitchen/dining area of the bunk blocks. She looked more tired than me, which was fair enough as she had swum in Lake Bala on Thursday morning when we did our recce, and, given that she is 14 and only been swimming properly for about 18 months, she had had to keep up in rough water with some pretty quick Tri-athlete swimmers. Thursday afternoon had seen her trying to keep up with same gang on the bike as Trevor, (a biking monster), had led them on a 70km jaunt taking in as many hills as they could before tea. She had then run the next day with Kath and Lou. Kath was in training for several long distance run events and so was keen to give her legs a good workout, meaning once again Madison was stretched and pushed a long way out of her comfort zone. Luckily for her she is a masochist and a bit of a chip off the old block when it comes to wanting to push beyond boundaries. Doesn’t mean you don’t get tired though, and take it from someone who knows what tired is, she was tired. Still, it didn’t stop her getting up early and fixing her old man breakfast before he ventured off into the unknown for the day. It was much appreciated, as was Lou’s appearance to give me a final massage and lathering of PR lotion.
The atmosphere seemed apprehensive at the start line. We were down to four and the efforts of the last couple of days had evidently taken their toll on all of us. I was dressed for the cold with a jacket, hat and gloves, whilst Paul had turned up ready to race in t-shirt and shorts. I was also carrying a couple of 500ml water bottles in my running vest whereas Paul carried nothing. It felt like he was better prepared than me and confirmation that he almost certainly was came when I saw he was going to run with one of his support crew. Now that definitely hadn’t crossed my mind and I remember thinking that it was something that I probably should have considered and I wondered what difference it might now make. Too late to think further, it was 7.00am, the hooter was sounding for the last time and we were off. We set off down the hill and quickly found our positions. Paul and his running partner at the front, me, then the two Richards. I felt pretty ok considering what I had put my body through over the past couple of days and I was very glad to be off the bike. The sun was shining and I was going to spend the day taking in some of the most stunning scenery the British Isles had to offer, what was there not to like?
About a kilometer down the road we turned left off the road and onto a wooded path that dropped down towards what I presumed (wrongly) to be Swallow Falls. It was a beautiful place and as we were about to cross a little wooded bridge I half jokingly commented tooth others that we should stop for a selfie. For a split second we all hesitated and then Paul pushed on over the bridge and I followed, moment gone. It would’ve been good to get a shot of that moment with us together, but having said that, I think if I had stopped I am not sure if I would have got going again.
As soon as we had crossed the bridge I was reminded to what state my legs were really in as we had to scramble up a steepish bank using the large moss covered stones as steps to gain leverage. My legs drained of whatever energy I thought they had and the lactic acid came coursing through to render them nigh on useless. I slowed and looked up to see Paul moving smoothly upwards and away. I was almost pleased, he was obviously a very good runner and I didn’t want to risk not finishing by chasing him at a pace I could not hold. So I mentally conceded to him there and then (admittedly with a little relief) and focused on running my own race. When Paul reached the top, turned left and out of sight, I relaxed, picked my route and continued, content with my new mindset. When I crested the hill I saw that the track flattened out a bit and then dropped down again. I opened up my stride to loosen the legs up and in the relaxed state I found myself in running at a decent pace that, 5 minutes later, found me turning a corner and almost into the back of Paul and partner. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration as he was still about 20 metres in front but it felt like I was right on top of them and I had to put the brakes on a bit. They were chatting away oblivious or unconcerned about my renewed presence whilst I went through a bit of mental torture unable to decide whether I was pleased that they had not got away or disappointed that I was now back to running their pace. Either way it was what is was and stayed that way for the day with the pattern that, if the terrain went up, I lost a bit of ground and when it went down I gained it back again with the flat keeping us at the same pace.
Around 5km in we came back out onto the A5, ready to head up towards Capel Curig. As we came out of the woodland everyone was there to give us support and encouragement which was great. I heard without seeing, Madison say “Good Luck Daddy” and I remember thinking rather strangely, I don’t need luck, I just need to run, just keep running, no luck needed. I got rid of my excess kit to Trevor as I was overheating, and now, in only t-shirt and shorts I set myself 10 metres behind Paul – now running on his own -and set my brain and legs to maintain that gap whatever now happened.
10km in and there was the Audi as expected, but what was not expected was to see Trevor in his running gear, warming up and looking for all the world like he was ready to run up a mountain. Roy had decided that if I was going to win this race they were going to need to help by doing more than sitting in a car passing me drinks and pointing which way to go. They were going to take a leaf out of Paul’s book and run with me. I am not sure if Roy knew what was coming up in the next 5km, but if he did he was smart enough to give Trevor the first stint as unknown by me (I don’t think I ever looked at the run route), and possibly Trevor, we were about to head back up to Pen Y Pass scene of much pain on day 1. As I drew up to the car there was little said, Trevor passed me a bottle, offered me a cliff bar that I refused (still struggling to eat solids on the move), and dropped in next to me. It was good to have someone to run with although not something I am really used to on long runs. There was a small part of me that was a little concerned that it would distract me and that I would feel the need to talk which whilst I do constantly at work, do not do much socially, even at the best of times. There was no need to worry, any conversation that did happen was good to have, and for the rest of the time the silence was comfortable enabling me to find a place and pace that would get me to 65km more comfortably than I could ever imagine. Unfortunately the run was 85km.
I had cycled Pen-Y-Pass on Day 1 and that had been really painful as it was right at the end of the ride. Today we were still only really warming up to the day and so the run up was pretty comfortable. We chatted to walkers and cyclists on our way up and, when we got there, I was able to take much more in than I had on the bike and could really appreciate the stunning scenery.
If I remember right, Trevor was looking at stunning scenery of another kind as a couple of very lovely Scandinavian looking ladies passed by and smiled at him, (or so he said). I just remember feeling pretty good at this stage and for pretty much the first (and probably only) time this weekend I could say I was actually enjoying myself. Heading down towards Llanberis I think Roy took over and as with Trevor, it was good to have his (significant) presence running alongside me after being on my own for two days. In fact it seems that the other support crews had taken to calling Roy and Trevor my minders as they jogged alongside me making sure I was not going to get abducted by other teams trying to stop me winning!
We passed Lake Padarn where the Brutal Triathlon swim had been held. There were swimmers over on the far side and I felt for them, hoping they weren’t going to spend as long in the water as I had a couple of days before. It seemed like a long time ago now, but I had since then travelled almost 450km. This meant there was only 65km to go which didn’t seem so far, and the way I was feeling, I was confident that I would be home before the 12 hour cut off. Whether I would be home in first place was another matter as Paul was keeping up a really good steady pace. In fact, as we hit the half way mark I was holding a 5:55 mins per km / 9:00 mins per mile pace which meant we had just completed a 4 hour marathon. Given the circumstances tat was good going in my book.
We were now in a steady rhythm of Roy & Trevor doing around 10km stints with me, all the while we staying 5 – 10metres behind Paul. When he stopped we stopped, whether that was to drink, eat or pee. We never spoke, both caught up in our own worlds, but both of us I am sure, were acutely aware of the other and were looking for signs of weakness and fatigue. This was where I had the advantage as I could watch Pauls’ every move from behind, but hard as I looked, I hadn’t yet seen any sign that he was on the decline. In fact if anything it was the opposite, he was running just as well as at the start, whereas I was not. My left foot was in agony with my Mortons Neuroma flaring up badly. Morton’s neuroma is a painful condition that affects the ball of your foot and involves a thickening of the tissue around one of the nerves leading to your toes. This caused me a sharp, stabbing pain around the third and fourth toes which 5 months ago had left me rolling around on the road in agony half way through a 20km run. I was praying it would get no worse and I said nothing to either of my running companions so that it didn’t become a topic of conversation and of focus. I concentrated on finding a running step that felt relatively comfortable and spent the next good while perfecting it, so that by the time we turned off the main road and into the second and much longer ‘off road’ section of the day through Dolfriog Woods I had worked out a way to manage the pain and to a point make it insignificant. We were now around 56km / 35 miles into the run and the pace had slightly increased to an average of about 5.30 min per km. I didn’t know it at the time but we now had a 10km run through the woods with no vehicle support which meant no drink replenishment. Stupidly I didn’t top up at the last stop and so had only about 250ml left in a bottle being held by Trevor. This was better than him who had nothing. It was a pleasure for a while to be off the road and running on softer ground, the weather was now quite warm and the wind of the past few days seemed to have abated a bit allowing the sun to increase the temperature to a comfortable level. The pleasure didn’t last long, as the first part of the woods was pretty much all uphill and, as before, I was struggling to keep up with Pauls pace on the ascents. I resorted to power walking up the steeper bits which worked well but was not quite as quick as Paul who somehow managed to keep an even pace whatever the terrain. Trevor was going strong next to me and, aware that I was struggling a bit, started becoming a bit more vocal in his encouragement. He began to guide my pacing a little, and where I would have slowed significantly in parts he pushed a pace that forced me to stay with him, and ultimately stay in the game. It hurt a lot and I was getting very thirsty but Paul was still only a few metres in front of me, unable to get rid of this annoying pest sat behind who was determined to make this as painful as possible for him
8km into the woods and I could feel Trevor was labouring a bit now, not that he would show or admit it. Trevor is the same age as me (55), and not a small bloke. On the plus side of 6ft and weighing around 85kg he is a powerhouse of an athlete with a dodgy ankle that is fused from an old injury. A beast in the water and on the bike he is consistently in the top 3 when it comes to World Age Group Aquabike Competition. He is also no mean runner, particularly in Sprint/Olympic distance events, but having now run around 30km with me after being sat in a car supporting for several days and with no specific training he was definitely feeling it. This would normally have made me feel better as I get sick of chasing him in training, particularly on a bike, and anytime he shows signs of being human I rejoice. This time though I had nothing but empathy and gratefulness for his willingness to do this for me.
There were some really tough bits in the last couple of km of the woods, but I was buggered if I was going to let Paul go now. He had dragged me round 65km at a pace I would never have believed I was capable of and now there was only another 20km to go. He still had to make up 10 minutes in that distance which by my reckoning was going to take one hell of a push. Trouble was he looked capable of doing it, whereas I was very definitely starting to hang on.
We eventually came out of the trees and off road paths back onto road to be greeted by the support crews. I was desperate for some liquid carbs as I could feel my body start to bonk. Bonking is described as ‘the point at which the body’s glycogen stores are depleted and the body starts to fatigue and burn fat making it a real battle of mind over matter to keep going’. I knew I was on the ropes but that a steady replenishment of carbs would give me enough to keep going for another couple of hours to the finish, particularly as the last 10km or so was going to be pretty much downhill. (Where had I heard that before)?
Roy was ready to take over from Trevor and he thankfully had a bottle of liquid gold in his hand. However as I reached to grab it he gave me the devastating news that what I was now holding was the last of the supplies. It was a real body blow and as I sipped the much weakened mixture I felt a twinge of panic and wondered how the hell I was now going to get through this last part of the chase, especially knowing that the pace was only going to increase from here on in.
I also now suddenly felt a bit of a mess in regard to being very sweaty and rather sticky from the occasions when I had missed my mouth trying to take a drink. Paul had stopped and changed into fresh kit a while back which I then saw as a bit pointless. It had given me a chance to slow to a walk for a bit a have a pleasant chat with Roy whilst we waited for Paul to catch back up and take the lead. Not that the conversation was particularly highbrow, I think we were discussing the relative size of the sheep in these parts, as Trevor had observed (with relish) how large they were on the first day of travelling through the Welsh countryside to Lake Bala. His enthusiasm for the Welsh Mountain Sheep had continued and he had become a bit of an expert, now being able to separately identify the Badger Faced variety from the common Welsh Mountain breed. Roy ten went on to tell me that the day before when they had been stopped in a lay-by waiting for me to come by, Trevor had decided to take a pee. As he turned to face the field and unzipped he mentioned to Roy that these sheep were particularly large and much bigger than back home. What Trevor didn’t realise was that the farmer had appeared from a track behind him and was watching in horror as Trevor, waving himself around admired his unusually large flock!
As I set off with Roy and my last supplies I half wished I had made a change of clothes to make me feel a touch fresher than I did. Psychologically I am sure it would have given me a bit more of a spring in my step than I had at this moment. But it was too late now, there was no way I was going to give Paul a chance to break away whilst I literally and figuratively had my pants round my ankles, so, dirty, grubby and no doubt very smelly I ran on. We were on a flattish section for a while and it seemed Paul had actually slowed a little (no doubt preparing for his final push top break me), but this also allowed me to re-gather myself when I really needed to.
I had Roy talking to me more frequently now. It was one way as I had given up speaking, wanting to use every bit of energy I had for breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Roy was alternating between encouragement and instruction, getting me in the main, to run the shortest line possible. He had noticed that Paul was following the contours of the road whereas by cutting the corners we could save a metre or two on each bend. This not only helped practically insofar as I am sure I ran a little less distance than Paul, but it also gave me a focus and a degree of alertness that I might have lacked on my own. It also allowed me to see and respond to any pace changes Paul made which as expected were now becoming more frequent as he sought to finally to break the invisible thread that bound us. Kilometre by kilometre the pace imperceptibly increased and as it did I dug a little deeper into stores I did not have. My legs were gone and the only thing keeping me going was sheer bloody mindedness. I am pretty sure that if what happened next had’nt happened I would have let Paul go at this point. What happened was Jen appeared. I don’t know to this day whether she appeared because she had come to find us and watch, or, whether she had gone for a bike ride and happened upon us but either way what Jen had was what this man needed right now and that was Gels. It was great to see Jen and I very much appreciated her support but did I not make the connection with her and carbs, that’s was Roy, and he lost no time in purloining Jen of all but one of the gels she was carrying. To be fair to Jen she would have gladly given her last gel in my cause but the 3 Torro’s Roy now had in his hands made the difference between me getting home with a chance of winning or just grinding to a halt and having to walk/crawl to the finish. (Not finishing was now an absolute non option). I normally hate gels but this one was better than any I had ever tasted before. It may have been psychological but immediately I felt better and back in the fight. Paul may have been looking strong but I was going to make him earn every second he gained on me and as we began the last long, long mountain climb I promised myself that I would not get to the finish line and have one drop of energy left in either physical or mental tank. I had come here to find out how deep I could dig and what I was capable of. Without sounding to dramatic I was going to make damned sure I left with an answer that I could live with after.
With Roy as my Sat Nav – “Dave hug the wall, now start moving to the middle of the road, aim for the post on the left 20 metres ahead” – I went ‘back into my zone. ‘The Zone’. That place where time stands still and you just exist, where performance happens without thought. I had trained long and hard over the past two years and I was as fit and strong as I have ever been, I now needed to trust that what I had done was good enough and to just let go and allow whatever was driving me inside to take over.
So my recollection of the final climb is sketchy. Roys voice, my rasping breath and my feet slapping the road all fused together to provide a rhythm that propelled me forward and up. If I had been more compos mentis I would have berated myself for my feet slapping. Again, I had worked hard all year to have better running form and to be able to run lightly. My thought process had always been run easy and smooth not hard and fast, but now that was gone and all I had left was the old mantra ‘just get one foot in front of the other then repea’.
The bit I do remember was the final 20 metres before the road turned right and descended back to Betws-Y-Coed and the Swallow Falls Hotel where the finish line awaited. It was as if some mischievous road builder had thought it would be funny to stick a steep ramp on at the end of the hill so that any idiot stupid enough to try and run up it would really suffer in the last few metres. Suffer I did as my legs, that had tried so hard to do what my brain had been asking of them up to now, finally gave up and tried to grind to a halt. My brain sent a message to my mouth, to say to my legs, something like “come on legs, just a few more metres and the rest is downhill,” but my neural pathways were a bit scrambled and what came out was “aaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!.” This desperate noise, thanks to Jen happening to be standing on the corner videoing, is recorded as a constant reminder of the suffering I went through in that moment. It worked though, and as the last gghhh!!! left my mouth the road flattened out and the long descent began.
I think Trevor took back over at this stage but I’m not sure. It seemed Trevor and Roy had morphed into one (which is a really frightening thought), and as I let momentum take me down the hill I just remember either/both of them saying ‘nearly there, nearly there’. If I had had the energy I would have told them to shut the f**k up as there was still around 10km to go and even though it was all almost all downhill, I was gone. I now could see Paul again around 200-300 metres ahead and pulling away. He was running with his coach and making his final bid to take first place. Where he had the strength to pick up the pace again I have no idea and this time it was not a case of me letting him go as if I had any say in it. He was just gone, and for the first time since around 8.15am when I had almost given up the race on the scramble up the bank at Swallow Falls, I almost gave up up again, I just had nothing to respond with.
Nothing that is except some part of my ‘Chimp’* brain which just doesn’t know when to shut up or give up. My Chimp didn’t have much in the way of coherent thought (it rarely does), but two words did start forming and trying to make themselves understood. “Its Mine”. It was the best my grey matter could come up with, but it was clear and with every step the thought became clearer. This was mine. I was not going to get this far and not win. I was not going to be one of those you read about that snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, because if I had, I would have to then come back nest year to try again and that just didn’t bear thinking about. It’s Mine, It’s Mine, It’s Mine. The more I said it the more pissed off I got with Paul for trying to take it away and the more determined I became to keep what I now thought of as mine. Exactly what ‘Mine’ was, is still unclear even today. I suppose it was first place, the win, but contrary to what most other people that know me think, I am not really bothered by winning, never have been. What does drive me though is doing my best and that my best is good. I have always pushed myself in all the sports I have ever done, and there have been a fair few. Lindsey my wife is now used to my 5 year cycles of finding a new sport and then becoming completely obsessed with doing my best and the need to become good before moving on. This has from childhood included Football, Table Tennis, Waterskiing, Parachuting, Tai-Kwondo, Kayaking, Sailing, Tennis, Golf, Tai Chi, Kitesurfing and now Triathlon. (Yoga is starting to take hold as I write). In all of things I have reached a good level before needing a new challenge and I wonder now whether the time is right to move on or whether I will find there is still more in Long Distance Triathlon to find and challenge myself with.
The trouble with good is it depends on whose making the judgement. I have frequent conversations with Madison on this subject as she is constantly concerned about what others think and she judges her performance based on whether they think she is any good. I have learnt (or perhaps always was this way inclined) to decide for myself what good looks like and to find my own benchmark to judge myself against. Unfortunately for me I had decided the likes of Roy, Trevor and Jen were the benchmarks, along with others at Tri Spoke Coaching, such as Dan C, Dan G, Sergio and Martin. Each phenomenal athletes in their own way and each I tried to take bits from to make a ‘Good Barnacle’. Right now my new Benchmark was Paul, and for me to be ‘good’, I needed to make sure I finished less than 10 minutes behind him. This was becoming problematical.
The downhill slope was really the only thing keeping me moving. I can’t honestly say I was adding much in terms of momentum. It was all I could do to pick my legs up enough to allow gravity to send me one step further down the road. With around 5km to go I had Roy at my side and he kept telling me that Kath was waiting for me ahead to take me through the next bit and then Madison wold join me for the finish. He was telling me how proud she was and how much she was looking forward to running with me through final few hundred metres and to the finish line. Kath turned up at the right time because I think both Roy and Trevor had also run out of gas. I still can’t believe they were both willing and able to run almost a marathon each to ensure I was where I was at that moment. I have no idea of what would have happened without them but the one thing is for sure the memories would not have been nearly as good. Poor Kath now had to help the helpless to run another 5km which must have been really difficult for her because I was a dribbling, rasping, shuffling wreck. However her words of encouragement and calm demeanour allowed me to focus and keep going even on a slight uphill. I think I asked her how far Paul was ahead, and although I can’t remember her response (or even if there was one), but I took it to be not good and I started to think that maybe I had not done enough and Paul had managed to take the ten minute lead from me. Its Mine, Its Mine, Its Mine, came back loud and strong and with the site of Madison ahead telling me I had about a kilometre to go I gave it one last hurrah. And, as always, at the last, you find something there. I was done and dusted, cooked, fried, burnt and blown and yet from somewhere there came a spark that lit a flame that ignited the body into something resembling a run. Kath stepped out and Madison stepped in to see me to the end. I cant remember if we spoke, but if we did it was unnecessary, she knew instinctively where I was at and how to respond, so much so that I noticed our legs were in rhythm and we were hitting the ground at the same time. I also noted with satisfaction that even now she was treading more heavily than me. Her familiar stomp now becoming comforting rather than something I needed to pull her up on – again! The final few familiar bends came up and even though Paul had now finished I cut the corners to shave of another second or two. I think this confused Madison a bit because at the final corner I veered across the road, towards the entrance of the hotel and the finish line leaving her stranded on the wrong side of the road with a bus coming. Rather than wait a second to have the pleasure of the magical dad, daughter run through the finish line I ‘sprinted’ through towards the tape leaving Madison trailing in my wake.
Lou, Kath and Jen were all there to see me in and I could have chosen to fall into any of their arms. But somehow instead I chose Trevor!??! I can only assume I did this because I didn’t trust myself to stand up anymore and I figured he was the most stable thing to hold onto.
I am not sure when or how I found out that I had won by 4 minutes but unbelievably I had managed to run a double marathon in just over 8 hours to complete the full event in 29 hours, 41 minutes and 53 seconds. Paul had finished in 29.46:08. There was no way in this world I would have run that time without him to chase and in many ways I felt guilty for putting him through what must have been the torture of having me just tail him all the way. Paul had beaten me on both bike legs and the run but had lost to my swim, which is hugely ironic as I have never been known for that discipline. In fact Roy had even said to me a few months before that I was never going win a Triathlon on my swim, but here I was having just done exactly that. I am sure the weather helped and my experience in swimming in rough water gained me more time over Paul that would have been the case if it was calm, but it was what is was, and here we were winner of Ultraman UK 2019. There was little doubt that Paul was gutted but he was the first to congratulate me and his team were all very complimentary. My respect and best wishes to them all.
Medals handed out and photos taken the job was done. I had never had any sort of plan beyond turn up, swim, bike and run until the end and that is what I had done. I would love to say I was ecstatic with the outcome but I wasn’t, I was just tired. I wanted a shower, a beer, something to eat and then I wanted to go home. We had planned to stay another night to celebrate whatever the result but others had work to get back to and I now just wanted to wake up in my own bed the next morning.
I had a full support crew to get me to the shower and Lou and Kath stood guard outside to make sure I didn’t collapse. This was fine except I needed a number 2 and having them stand outside the window asking me every couple of minutes if I was ok as I cleared the system was a little off putting. I was though, extremely thankful for their help as they lifted me up the stairs and back to my Pod. It took 10 minutes to pack my stuff and then another 10 minutes to walk the 15 metres to the bar. This was one of the things I had been looking forward to from the get go, the beer at the end. I hadn’t had anything more than a small bottle of beer or couple of sips of wine for 5 or 6 months, but I had been looking forward to the beer at the end of this for that long. I had pictured myself getting to the end of the race and enjoying a lively pint or two with the gang, but what transpired was that they were all busy packing their own kit and I was left in the pub sat on my own unable to now walk, even to the bar. When. Kath came in and asked me what I wanted to drink I started to say lager but then stopped. I really didn’t want a beer at all, I couldn’t face the thought of any alcohol so opted for a coke which hit the spot with the first few sips and then tasted like I was drinking pure sugar (which I suppose I was), so was left on the table unfinished. The gang drifted in but everyone was now in go home mode so it wasn’t long before we headed for the cars. I levered myself into Trevor’s Audi, waved a farewell to the fantastic Racing Quest Team eased the seat back and said quietly to myself, “Its Mine”.
What they don’t tell you is that the event is really 4 days not 3, and day 4 is possibly the hardest. Having had an uneventful journey home listening to more Absolute 80’s (again much to Madisons disdain), and stopping at a KFC to fulfil my second wish of lots of food (which I never ate), I woke up next morning to an empty house. School had started for Charlie our youngest daughter, Lindsey was working and Madison was in bed dead to the world. Every muscle in my body felt like it was being torn to shreds if moved and thus had seized itself solid so as to make motion nearly impossible even if I wanted to bear the pain. I was starving and desperate for a full English breakfast but the fridge was empty. It had taken me 10 minutes to get to the kitchen from the bedroom so the thought of me able to walk to the shops 5 minutes away was more daunting than the thought of using to run 85klm. I gave up and contented myself with a cup of tea that by the time I had made it to the sofa in the front room, was almost empty as my Ataxic Gait had made me spill most of it. It was 2 hours before Madison woke up and grudgingly went out and got breakfast. She had done her bit over the week end and now the event was finished she felt I should be able to look after myself. I think that was fair enough.
Things very quickly got back to normal but the memory of the 30 August to the 1 September 2019 burns bright. 2 months on and I would like to say I have fully recovered but I don’t think I have. Any effort of any intensity and both body and brain don’t want to know. If I override them I pay for it the day after so I am learning to listen to my body better and find something people call patience. This search for recovery has taught me other things that I will try to document over the coming months, as I think its something anyone doing any kind of exercise/activity could benefit from doing better.
One important thing I have done is to make sure I have something new to aim for and so 2020 has been sorted. Ironman Lanzarote, Long Course Week End Wales and the ITU Long Course World Championships in Almere, Holland are the main events in the diary. It would be good to qualify for Kona and be age group World Champion, but I won’t set my sights too high!
As for UltraMan UK – I’ll be back. The event is special in so many ways and in the hands of Ben and his team at Racing Quest I have no doubt it will continue grow and develop to become an Iconic race for those having just completed an Ironman and are sat in the pub on a Winters evening talking to their mates saying ‘Ultra Triathlon’….. “How Hard Can It Be!”
The 2020 event is 3rd – 6th September. If you, like me like a friendly challenge and fancy taking on one of the toughest triathlons in the world, go to http://www.racingquest.co.uk/ and maybe I’ll see you at the Swallow Falls start line next autumn. (I’ll be the one in the yellow marshals vest!)
In Search Of Recovery.
Whilst most people just rest, I struggle with not wanting to stop but not feeling able to go on.