As the seemingly never-ending quest to find the hardest triathlon on the planet continues, I come across one that is surely right on the edge of what is physically possible: the Wasdale X Triathlon. Words: Sean McFarlane, Pictures: Sam Mould & Stephen Ashwort.
This is a race of mind-blowing proportions. However, for an event you think would be laden with almost fulltime super athletes, it was very much a case of ordinary people for one day (and for some a bit more) being truly extraordinary.
Many readers will be all too familiar with the Fred Whitton cycle sportive. At a distance of 112 miles, the same as an ironman triathlon bike leg, I have always suspected that before too long some sadistic race organiser would design a multisport event incorporating the route.
Mark Blackburn, race organiser of the inaugural Wasdale X Triathlon did just that. He also added for good measure, both a swim in Wastwater and an off road marathon with over 6,000 feet of ascent conveniently ending with a run up and down England’s highest mountain, Scafell. Nice!
Wasdale, in the Lake District, is a truly stunning location. For so many of us it gives more than adequate inspiration to get out and swim, bike and run, albeit perhaps not quite to the extent involved here.
The area has long drawn people from all over the planet and this race does the same. Competitors include the usual splattering of Scandinavians; well groomed, friendly and with their perfect English putting us to shame.
The home nations are all very well represented too. Many competitors regale me with tales of their journey to get here, with plenty making the trip from Southern Europe. Their stories often involve hire cars and the challenges of driving on the Lake District’s narrow roads.
The USA are here too. In a fiercely competitive category, they seem to have the most impressive apparel from previous herculean races.
From far and wide they come but these are ordinary people. Some arrive very late the night before, having had to work a late shift, help with the family, arrange lifts and do all the things normal people do.
Their planned return journeys seem to also require the haste so familiar to us ordinary folk. Many seem to be here first and foremost to have a decent story to tell over Monday morning’s coffee break, as long as they’re finished by then!
With the water temperature measuring 12 degrees, the organisers decide to cut the swim short, making it a half ironman distance swim of 1.9 kilometres.
There are a few unhappy mutters but in the main everybody is happy, particularly with the later start time of 4.30am and the extra hour in bed.
As is to be expected there’s plenty of faces of fear and apprehension as the competitors rack their bikes and set up transition.
I walk round and see that each space seems to have enough calories to last a week. The bikes are nice but they do seem to lack the top end stuff so blatantly on show at other races. I see one time trial bike – good luck with that. I also see a mountain bike – even more good luck with that.
It’s almost race start and finally some natural light arrives, just in time. The guy giving the race briefing is funny but he’s clearly used to more receptive audiences.
There are more groans than laughs. Into the water they slowly go and at 4.30am right on the dot they’re off. It’s a triangular one- lap course.
Hugging the shoreline for the first 500 metres, they then turn to head into very deep water (the deepest in England) to then eventually come back to the start.
I place myself at the swim exit to help competitors as they come out of the water.
I’m thanked as I do, a lot. As the time ticks by the “Thankyous” become more vigorous, occasionally leading to a hug.
I’m reminded of how I treated the midwife on duty after the safe arrival of my daughter. Unsurprisingly in transition everybody takes their time.
It’s damp with rain forecast. Most seem to be opting for erring on the side of taking too much rather than too little. Eventually transition is clear and it feels like the day after a festival. What was all the fuss about?
The bike course is difficult to properly explain. It’s frankly ridiculous. For the statisticians amongst you, there’s 3,300 metres of ascent taking in Wrynose, Hardknott, the Struggle, Honister, Newlands and Whinlatter. Plus lots of other climbs.
Four bikes come to grief on the descent from Wrynose, all due to exploding carbon rims. No injuries thankfully. The bike leg goes on forever but everybody plugs away and carries on.
There’s lots of chewing and drinking going on in a somewhat urgent effort to at least partially replace those quickly burnt calories.
Back at transition, supporters have been for coffee, lunch and a check of emails. At last the first few racers come back, all shaking their heads in disbelief at what they’ve just done.
Wait til you see what’s next, I think. But I daren’t tell them. There are plenty of smiles though.
As the rest of the field gradually come back into transition, everyone seems remarkably happy, albeit in somewhat of a trance with the enormity of what they are doing.
There are plenty of tales of mechanical problems, with Karl Sherry telling me he enjoyed his coffee at Keswick bikes as they fixed his gears.
As the competitors head out on to the run, I’m sure I hear the phrase: “I may be some time”. Many of them are kitted out for a full day’s expedition. Yet others go for a minimalist approach, telling me about how they will “drink to thirst” and other such phrases, none of which I fully understand.
Let’s be honest, does anyone really know anything about nutrition?! The first section of the run heads up the Wasdale Screes and after a mere 26 kilometres and 1,400 metres of ascent later, goes to Wasdale Head for the final run up and down Scafell.
That initial section is brutally tough. From our very comfortable vantage point at the aid station at Wasdale Head, we point at the Screes. We marvel at the competitors as they slowly but steadily head up and then back down them. Our aid station is an interesting place to be.
As the leaders begin to arrive, the shapes involved constantly change. Andrew Brierley is lean and fit looking but his expression tells me he knows things are far from over.
Andrew Duggan is next and whilst they share the same forename, there’s at least a four-stone difference. Whispers of “ex rugby player” whizz around.
He looks like a hard guy but that’s a big unit to haul up a mountain. I try to encourage him to have a second Jelly baby!
Over the course of the next eight hours, the rest of the field comes through. I give fellow Scot Alistair Abbott an encouraging shout and he responds with: “Ach Sean I’m absolutely f***&d”.
Despite the pub being literally ten metres away, there’s only one place he’s going for now and that’s up. Mountain time. So off he plods.
The leaders are now almost done. The binoculars are passed around but there’s no confirmation so far of who is where. Then we see the slight figure of Ryan Brown closing in, followed very closely by the hulk-like Andrew Duggan; it’s like a minor but important twist of the biblical tale with Goliath this time chasing David.
Ryan wins in a seriously impressive time of 13 hours and 51 minutes. He then quickly tells me he doesn’t really do triathlons!
He’s an ultra runner. Ah yes, that’s what you need to be for this. Eight-stone soaking wet. But then Andrew Duggan arrives, less than a minute later, and we change our minds – it seems it takes all shapes and sizes.
The race continues for a long, long time. As some finish, others are just heading off up Scafell.
It’s a high-five bonanza. All day tourists have been asking me what’s going on and none seem to believe me when I tell them.
But many have that “very familiar friend” who would like this sort of thing. As competitors pass through on their way up the mountain, there’s much talk of aching joints but there’s clearly a collective pain for everyone that pushes them on. If you don’t have a sore knee, you’ve not tried hard enough… that sort of thing.
As the longest day of the year eventually begins to lose its light, I see the heard torches turning on up the mountain. Some had the target of getting finished by last orders, but with the pub now shut, just getting to the finish will do for others.
And slowly, very slowly, they do.
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