Helvellyn Triathlon Race Report - Sunday 6th September.
A peek through the curtains at 5.55am reveals the weather, for the moment at least, is not the rain that the BBC had forecast. It is, however, grey and not exactly warm. After a quick breakfast, we stick the bikes on the back of the car and drive the 8 miles from my cousin’s house in Penrith to Glenridding at the southern end of Ullswater – the starting point for the Helvellyn triathlon. Reputedly, this race is ranked amongst the Top 10 Hardest UK Triathlons.
There’s already a lot of triathletes racked and in their wetsuits – probably trying to keep warm. During the race briefing at 08:00 we are told the swim has been shortened from a mile to a kilometer because of the water temperature…the lake is an uninviting 11°C.
Being in the last of three waves, I watch as men and women (these are mixed starts) gingerly enter the water – their exclamations revealing how cold the water is. I decide to get in early to ‘warm up’ and to try to get used to breathing out in the face-numbing water. It’s surprisingly dark underwater: crystal clear I can see my hands, but beyond it’s pitch black. At 7:45, the horn sounds, we’re off. Not the manic start I experienced at London a month before starting in a wave of 415, the wave here is less than 200, and I’m out on the right. The first buoy appears quite quickly but, by now my hands, feet and face a pretty numb. By the second buoy I’ve slowed as my body temperature has clearly dropped. The last straight I try to pick up the pace: I just want to get out of the lake.
Unlike most triathlons I’ve done, there were no marshals hauling you out of the water as you exit by the lake shore. Transition is a field with only 6 racks, which makes it a lot easier to find my bike. It’s cold though so, before setting off, I pull on a t-shirt. But with numb hands this takes longer than it should. Without socks my feet feel like blocks of ice in my shoes so I start increasing the cadence to try to generate some heat.
The bike section is 38 miles, all on road. From the transition the bike route goes north along the lakeside for a few miles before turning off and climbing through Matterdale to the A66. The traffic on the A66 isn’t heavy, but it’s fast, so overtaking is done with extra care. We turn off and ride along the edge of Thirlmere before climbing to Dunmail Raise. Then a long wide decent to Grassmere and past Rydal Water before reaching the outskirts of Ambleside.
The mini-roundabout as you enter Ambleside, however, leads us on to Kirkstone Road and the start of the Kirkstone Pass. This is where the real work starts. The Kirkstone Pass is a long – 3 miles - steep climb. The last 500m, known locally as "The Struggle", is a 1 in 4 incline. Even before reaching The (aptly-named) Struggle, my legs and lungs are burning. There’s a crowd gathered for the last 100m to cheer racers on, just as they need some words of encouragement to get up the last few meters. With 50m to go I find some extra power in my legs and race up the last few yards, making up a few places in the process. It's then downhill – and fast: even with the brakes on the speedo’s still reading 47kmh; max speed 68kmh – before flattening out all the way back to Glenridding and transition.
The 9 mile run section is 90% on rough track and goes onto the highest fells in the country. For safety reasons, all competitors must take with them some form of bag containing full body cover, foil survival blanket, whistle, compass and map of the route: THIS IS FAR FROM AN ORDINARY TRIATHLON RUN ROUTE.
After nearly an hour of unrelenting ascent the route flattens out, for a while at least, and it’s an opportunity to step up from a walk to a run. But it’s short-lived. The route rises again; the final climb to the summit (or near-enough) – and I literally mean climb: the last 50m ascent is a scramble over rough rock faces, using hands as well as feet.
At 950m, Helvellyn is the third highest peak in England and the 360° views over the surrounding hills are stunning, breathtaking…I don’t have the words. But there’s no hanging around. It’s a quick descent, before rising, then falling, then rising again, then falling, then rising yet again – this is killing me: why doesn’t it just go down??? Ah, that was the last mini-climb. It’s all down hill from here – 3 miles to the bottom – but it’s far from easy: steep slopes and uneven ground mean you’re watching every footstep. Legs are jelly and a misplaced foot on a loose rock could be disaster.
Finally I’m back on smooth road and a few hundred yards from the finish. Back into the field and over the finish line. The sense of elation is huge; this is the toughest race I’ve taken on – by far – and I’ve finished within my target time of 5hrs.
I finished in a time of 4hrs 53 (swim: 25mins; bike: 2hrs 22; run: 2hrs 2) and positioned 256th out of 467 – delighted.
Q: Stuart – did I push it?
A: Of course I did.
Q: Was it the toughest thing I’ve ever done?
A: And then some.
Q: Would I do it again?
A: You bet!