‘The Brutal’ double ironman distance triathlon in Snowdonia certainly lived up to its name and more, being dubbed ‘the most ‘brutalist brutal’ due to the high winds and rain.
It started at 7 am on Saturday 15th September 2018 in the lake (Llyn Padarn) at Llanberis where I was one of 23 competitors with a red ‘double’ swimming hat in a mass of green hats worn by those doing either the half or full ironman races.
It was supposed to be 16 degrees, but I am not so sure, and it seemed freezing even with a wetsuit. With my previous Channel attempts, I have been used to cold water swimming without a wetsuit, but the lake was fed by cold water streams from the mountains and I was struggling with the cold as early as the second of 8 laps. Fortunately, we had to get out every 2 laps and the hot drinks were very welcome. By lap 4 the green hats had finished and it was a bit lonely with just the 23 of us spread out round the course. Laps 5 and 6 were tough and on reflection, possibly the hardest part of the overall event. The organisers obviously knew it was cold (I heard someone mention is was probably nearer 14C) and at one point I was approached by a safety canoeist and asked what my race number was, presumably to check I was compos mentis. I heard them ask another guy, so it wasn’t just me, but it was a case of digging deep and putting up with it. I finished the 4.8 mile swim after 3 hours 25 minutes, well outside my 3 hour forecast, but with a number of swimmers still in the water: they must have struggled too.
It was anything but quick getting back to the Race HQ marquee to change and start the bike leg (24 minutes in total) still shivering, which made the first few miles ‘interesting’ before I warmed up.
The bike leg was due to be 8 laps of a 29 mile loop round the base of Snowdon. From the race HQ at Llanberis, we left the Snowdonia National Park and went through the villages of Ceunant and Waunfawr with glorious views to the West Wales coast but also some nasty short but steep hills. Then it was back into the National Park and probably the best part of the course, lovely scenery with the Snowdon summit in view and easy cycling followed by a nice gentle descent into the beautiful village of Beddgelert. A few miles on and the main climb started, nearly 4 miles and steep in places, particularly the final part of the climb to Pen-y-Pass. Hard work but the scenery in this valley is stunning, as it is was for the descent the other side, but more difficult to appreciate as it was a very fast steep and twisty descent for about a mile or so before becoming a gentler downhill back into Llanberis and race HQ.
The first lap took 2 hours 4 minutes, virtually bang on schedule despite the shivering and also a cramp stop, as was lap 2. I then stopped for a meal and what ended up being the only food of any significance that I managed to take on board during the race (after that having anything more than a nibble caused stomach problems).
The long climb and steep descent (which required maximum concentration) made the ride hard, but the first few laps were probably the most enjoyable part of the race, beautiful scenery, great camaraderie with the other competitors and reasonable weather, but we had been warned it would deteriorate. The wind started to get up late afternoon and by the evening it was blowing a gale with torrential rain.
By that point it wasn’t just me that had to work hard. Once it got dark my crew, girlfriend Mary and 2 of my kids Katie and Tom had to drive the course to provide support while I was on the bike. Mary and Katie did the evening stint and started by driving a mile ahead, waiting for me to go by and then leap frogging again. That continued into late Saturday evening when I had some stomach problems and was persuaded to have a quick kip in the car half way round the course. A 25 minute nap seemed to help and shortly after I continued they realised that there was so little traffic on the roads they basically crawled along behind me. By this time the weather had worsened and the conditions were dreadful, particularly on the highest part of the course at Pen-y-Pass. The fast descent then became more treacherous as you were buffeted by the winds (probably 40/50 mph by this point), although having a car behind gave protection from other traffic and I could take a line virtually in the middle of the road. Having the car lights behind also helped, although every now and again it would go dark round corners until the car caught up.
After 5 laps and approx. 150 miles in, the organisers decided the highest part of the bike route was too dangerous because of the high winds and changed the course. We may have lost the 4 mile climb and subsequent descent with the reroute, but instead had to endure twice as much of the short steep climbs on the lower part of the course, which unfortunately were directly into the wind and lashing rain. Now it was 6 shorter laps to go.
The re-route also including a diversion and on my first lap I missed one of the signs. Realising that something was wrong I signalled for Tom (who was driving at the time) to come along side me, but his interpretation was that I wanted him to overtake me and go ahead. I then had to sprint to get past him again, which even when I was doing it seemed strangely funny. It was in the early hours of Sunday morning, pouring with rain and lost! We did manage to find the correct route and it only added a couple of extra miles, but a bigger problem was to come. I realised I kept closing my eyes on the bike, probably only for a few seconds but I had to concentrate hard to get back to the HQ and had a 10 minute power nap in the car. Tom said I went out like a light. Mary took over the driving with 3 laps to go and we then realised that time was a problem. I was in danger of missing the 9 am (26 hour) cut off to finish the bike. We had heard a rumour that the cut offs were not being enforced because of the weather, but didn’t want to take the chance. I had been averaging 1 hour 15 minutes for the shorter laps and had to speed up for the last 2 laps. It helped that it was beginning to get light, but I had to really put a big effort in and managed to do each lap in approx. 1 hour which allowed me about 15 minutes to change and get out on the run virtually bang on the 9 am cut off. It wasn’t actually enforced and there were 2 others behind me who were allowed to continue, but I felt better that I had kept within the rules.
I then found out that the up and down Snowdon part of the run route had also closed because of the weather, so it was 10 times round a 5.2 lap of the Lyn Pardarn lake rather than Snowdon and 8 laps. I wasn’t sure if my daughter Katie was pleased or not. She had trained to accompany me (it was compulsory to have someone with you) on the 10 mile Snowdon part of the run, but instead joined me on 3 of the lake laps and my son Tom did another 2. The course had a very steep hill and rocky section, but also some good flat running and the weather did finally improve. The rain stopped in the morning and we even had a bit of late afternoon sunshine and pleasant evening to finish the run in the early hours of Monday morning, ably supported by my family, ‘the crew’, in 41 hours 38 minutes and 1 second. 13th place and the last to make the official 42 hour cut off (2 others given more time because of the weather) and well over ½ a stone lighter than when I started. Of the 23 starters 15 finished, with 7 of the 8 non-finishers dropping out during the bike stage.
Fun? Possibly not, but definitely an experience!
A couple more points.
Firstly, as well as my crew I owe thanks to ‘JP’ at Quest Adventure in Worthing. I had experienced ‘wheel wobble’ when descending Bury Hill (near Arundel) in training and JP set up my bike so it handled brilliantly throughout including the steep descents.
Secondly, a few people often ask how you train for such an event and it is simply a case of getting used to long sessions. I did an ironman 7 weeks before and then my ‘big’ weekend over a Bank Holiday 3 weeks before. That was a 105 mile bike ride on the Saturday, another 100 mile on the bike on the Sunday and a 31 mile run of the Monday. As it happens the weather on the Sunday ride was dreadful, as was the ironman, so very good training for the ‘most brutalist brutal’.