My original plan was to have a year off the long distance stuff for the 2018 season, and so far that has more or less gone as envisaged. Before the summer hols I did 2 Olympic distance races (Southport and Chester) and 2 sprints, both at Capernwray. The wheels came off completely after Chester because of a very nasty bug I picked up in the water due to a sewage release by Welsh Water (See blog post: “My worst birthday present ever“. This resulted in my non-appearance at the race I most wanted to do this year: Windsor. But, I recovered well enough to set a PB for sprint distance in July.
Considering which races to do in the autumn was tempered by the fact that the family holiday this year was in Asturias (blog post to follow) where I cycled up lots of mountains as well as doing a fair bit of trail running. This suggested that I might be best prepared for a hilly triathlon. On looking around, one race popped up as the obvious choice being local, iconic, and cheap: the Helvellyn Triathlon. It’s a bit of a hybrid distance, halfway between Olympic and Half Ironman, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up in difficulty. The swim is a mile in Ullswater (cold, deep and choppy in my only experience of this particular body of water) followed by a 38 mile ride. The route is not particularly demanding until you reach “The Struggle”. This climb is the direct route from Ambleside to Kirkstone Pass and has a reputation as one of the harder Lake District road climbs. The run is a 9 mile fell run up Helvellyn and back. I’m thinking sub 6 hour is a reasonable target for me. So, not really a short distance triathlon then, according to my original plan, but one that hopefully plays to my strengths, my recent training, and one that should be a lot of fun.
Until yesterday I had never ridden The Struggle so I suggested to another member of COLT, also racing, that we undertake a race recce of the bike route. Amid the last drops of the early morning rain, Andy Fellowes and I pulled into the carpark at Glenridding ready to ride. The early part of the route heads north over Matterdale End. This is a steady climb rather than a hard one but my lungs were struggling with the cool temperatures and damp conditions – they longed for the heat of Spain! It was only when the route swung south past Thirlmere that I began to get into my stride and got over Dunmail Raise and the countless other undulations on the route much more easily.
The Struggle climbs directly out of Ambleside past the Golden Rule Inn up to the summit of Kirkstone Pass. It consists of almost 4oom of ascent in its 4.5km at an average of 8.3%. This doesn’t tell the whole tail, since an easier middle section means that the start and finish are much harder, indeed, the last section up to the summit feels like a solid 20% all the way.
Interestingly, my favourite climb in Asturias, La Torneria, contains almost exactly the same amount of ascent, but being slightly longer (5.7km) has an easier average grade and is a much steadier climb (though still pretty steep in places). Comparing my performance on the two would be interesting.
The Struggle is at you right away with a seemingly endless set of steep ramps of up to 15% before the first easing of the grade. A further steep ramp leads to the easier middle section with some actual downhill allowing for breather before the final tortuous switchbacks up to the summit. I was right on my climbing limit for this last section and wanted an easier gear than the 28 tooth sprocket I had on my cassette. Luckily, for Sunday, I’ll have my road bike back, which is not only lighter than my aero bike, but will have a shiny new 32 tooth cassette. I’m hoping that this will allow me to get up the ascent with less of a struggle (sic). Andrew wondered whether being forewarned was actually an advantage on this triathlon such was the difficulty of the climb!
This climb is by far the hardest I’ve ever tackled on a triathlon and both Andrew and I agreed that because it comes so late in the bike ride (the summit is about 10 fast kilometres from the finish – little chance for recovery) that key to success in this race will be getting over it in as good a shape as possible in order for it not to affect the run. Bike choice is always a contentious issue and on this race, were it not for The Struggle, a TT bike would be the obvious choice. However, you’d need to be a really strong cyclist to get up the climb on a TT bike without a compact chainset and easy sprocket on the rear, and even if you are, the effort of wrestling the bike up the climb might well impact your run badly. For me, it’s an easy choice, my overall time on my road bike might be a few minutes slower than my aero bike, but I think I’ll be able to start the run much fresher. We’ll see on Sunday.
First published in 2010 and updated in 2015 and 2018
These are my favourite triathlons. Most of them I’ve done more than once, and you’ll notice that they are all lake or reservoir swims (except Windsor, which is a river swim, and Wales and Weymouth which are sea swims). They also all have countryside based bike legs. Not for me urban races with oily roads, stop/start 90° turns and roundabouts!
Tri 2004 at the Boundary Breeze
My recent return to sprint distance races was long overdue.
The Boundary Breeze is run by Manchester Tri Club near Holmes Chapel in Cheshire and is a very fast course, the bike and run could hardly be flatter, and the swim is very sheltered, in a lovely lake, so it’s a great event for beginners. It’s a popular race, too, so you need to get your entry in early. Usually run in July.
The Royal Windsor. I’ve done the sprint at Windsor twice, including my first ever race. Windsor is a fantastic race to do. The bike leg is very fast through some lovely lanes and the return through Windsor Great Park is fabulous (although the bike leg is much longer than the standard 20km). The run through the town attracts loads of spectators and has a great atmosphere, although 3rd time up the castle hill will be a real stamina test. Very popular, so enter as soon as it goes live. Usually run in mid-June.
Capernwray Mid-Week Sprints. This is a series of mid-week races that takes advantage of the longer summer evenings. The swim is in the cleanest openwater in Britain (Capernwray Dive Centre) though it can be a little bit cold in cooler summers. The bike course, although slightly short, is tough, with several challenging hills. The run is a simple out and back along the towpath of the Lancaster and Kendal Canal. It’s a real rural treat, cheap to enter and throughly recommended.
Working hard to close in on a PB – Southport Tri
The Royal Windsor. As per the sprint, this is a great race to do. I did this on the hottest day of that particular year and found the run very demanding indeed. The bike course is fairly flat and fast and the swim in the Thames is usually fairly benign. This is a very popular race (and quite expensive), so keep an eye on the date when entries go live as it often sells out.
Bala standard distance. Llyn Tegid in North Wales is cold, and can be quite choppy so the swim can be pretty hard. The bike course is very fast, although far from completely flat. It’s also unusual in that it takes place on closed roads. The old run route was very tough, but now it’s a lot easier (and faster). Some years you can register on race day, but Bala is a lovely place for a weekend away. This race attracts a good quality field. The race was originally organised by Wrexham Tri Club and was set to fold. Luckily, Triathlon Wales seem to have recognised that losing this race would have been a disaster for the sport in Wales.
The Dambuster. This race is based on Rutland Water in Leicestershire. The bike route is quite open and has a number of rolling hills on it. It’s mostly on A roads but they are smooth and wide making it ideal for strong bike riders. The run is fast and flat around the lake itself. It’s a fast race attracting a high quality field. Very well organised by Pacesetter Events.
Southport. The swim is in a calm and warm briny lake behind the seafront at Southport. Both the bike and run are absolutely pan flat. This makes the event a great one for first timers but for one thing: wind. I’ve done this race three times and it is fast on a reasonably benign day, but the exposure on the bike course in particular can make it a tough proposition when the wind decides to blow. Well organised by Epic Events and good value. It’s run in May, but despite the early date, the swim is fairly warm.
The Vitruvian. Based around Rutland Water, this is a popular and well organised race that sells out every year and has won several awards. It’s run over the same course as the Dambuster making it demanding, but nothing to be afraid of. The run is pretty flat: a good one to set your half-marathon PB on (assuming you’ve got enough left in your legs). Being a September race it’s a great end of season target.
Ironman Weymouth 70.3 has taken over the mantle left by the sad demise of Ironman UK 70.3 run on Exmoor. The swim is a sea swim in Weymouth Bay which can be very benign, but it’s not a harbour swim so in bad weather, expect a challenge! The bike course is probably my favourite half Ironman course in the UK. There is plenty of climbing, but nothing severe and some superfast descents, all in beautiful countryside. The run is along Weymouth Promenade, and, although pan flat, can be unexpectedly challenging if the wind gets up. Well organised and supported in a great venue. It’s a big race so booking accommodation and being organised is essential – Weymouth is quite a distance from population centres. A great September race to round out your season.
A Day in the Lakes. This race is no ordinary half ironman. The swim is in Ullswater and can be fairly cold, the bike ride is a couple of loops around the lanes north and east of Ullswater, but it is the run that is the pièce de resistance. It is a full on fell run over the hills above Ullswater and a beast. The views are absolutely sensational and if you can cope with the course it’s a race you won’t forget. Well organised, very cheap and extremely good value.
Sheephouse Lane: the “Big Hill”, IMUK ’09
Ironman UK. I’ve done this race four times in 2009 and 2010, and latterly in 2016 and 2017. The course has changed considerably over the years but its character has not. The bike section is tough and on typical British roads. Expect the bike to be hard work, especially the ascent of Sheephouse Lane and Hunter’s Hill. The swim is as easy as it gets in an Ironman being in the shallow and warm Pennington Flash. Support for the event has grown since 2009 and there are now great crowds, especially at the legendary COLT Alley in Adlington and on Hunter’s Hill. The run is really hard, too with many climbs to contend with in July temperatures. Don’t underestimate this race, it’s one of the toughest Ironman races out there. The race is in July and usually sells outI
Ironman Wales. This race has a tough reputation: there’s a sea swim to start, followed by a bike that included over 2000m of ascent and a hilly marathon to finish. Each section on its own would be high in the world difficulty rankings, so combine them all and you’ve got one of the toughest, if not the toughest Ironman in the world. But, Tenby has taken this race to its heart and the crowds and atmosphere are fantastic all around the course. The venue is great for spectators and even though you won’t trouble your PB, you’ll certainly have a memorable day out! A September race and being a long way from population centres you need to be organised with accommodation.
I have listed just a few races at each distance that I would have no hesitaion in recommending, but if you want to find a race closer to home or at a specific time of year then the British Triathon events database is the best place to start searching.
First off, as my wife will testify, I have never been Froome’s biggest fan. His rise from small pro team to Grand Tour winner was so meteoric that questions about him were always going to dog him. However, as an asthmatic myself, I’m pleased the question mark over his adverse analytical finding has been lifted. An AAF is not a failed dope test, it’s a finding that levels of a substance (in this instance Salbutamol) above a permitted level has been found. Incredibly, the Professor behind the Salbutamol rules has admitted that they were designed and tested only on swimmers after one hour of exercise, at which point they had no trouble producing very dilute urine samples because they went into the pool properly hydrated and exited with full bladders. Unlike some, elite swimmers don’t wee in their workplace. Pro cyclists, on the other hand, tend to produce very concentrated urine samples at the end of bike races purely down to to dehydration. The professor goes so far as to state that Alessandro Petacchi who was sanctioned by the UCI back in 2007 was innocent! So, it’s clear that UCI and WADA would never have stood Froome’s case up in court at very great expense. The real issue in this process was how was information about the AAF leaked as these things are supposed to be examined in private? In this case Froome has been hung out to dry and the anti-Sky brigade aren’t going to let a small fact such as the Professor who designed the test admitting that it’s flawed stand in the way of their attacks. One last thing, Salbutamol is not EPO and if you asked me which I’d prefer, to not be asthmatic or to be able to race with a few puffs on an inhaler, I’d pick the former every time.
There are, as always, some unanswered questions. If, as Froome’s defence suggests, the level for Salbutamol in endurance athletes is set too low due to the test not allowing for the highly concentrated urine typically produced by cyclists at the end of a hot Grand Tour stage, then we’d expect their to be lots of similar AAFs among pro cyclists and marathon runners etc. Where are they? Have they all been thrown out by sporting governing bodies? And if that was the case, why has it taken so long for the UCI and WADA to clear Froome of any wrong doing. A highly unsatisfactory outcome that leaves him in a very vulnerable position going in to a Tour starting this weekend.
On Sunday I will be opening my 2018 account at the Montane Grizedale Trail 13. This is my favourite trail race, mainly because Grizedale is a lovely place to go running, but also because by the beginning of February I’m looking forward to the coming season and this race is the ideal way to blow out the Winter Blues.
This year’s race comes after a particularly poor winter where motivation to get out on the bike has been thin on the ground. Last year I rode 471km in January compared to a miserly 32km this year. A lot of that is down to miserable weather, but some of it has been down to preferring to go out running instead. In preparation for Grizedale I have been trail running in the Lune Valley, exploring the banks of the river via the public footpath upstream from Woodies, the famous snack kiosk at the Crook o Lune car park, all the way to Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale. Although largely flat, this route should not be underestimated. Sections are very muddy at this time of year and some of the paths through the woods can be slippery. The open field sections are exposed to the elements and rough underfoot. In all, I’d estimate that close to 99% of the route is off road, making trail shoes essential. It makes for a tough half marathon that you’ll do well to get done in two hours. You’ve also got logistics to consider in that the route is a point to point so you need to leave a car at Devil’s Bridge to ferry you back to the start. Fortunately, parking at Devil’s Bridge is unrestricted and free, although if you are planning to do the route on a fine summer’s weekend it does get busy so an early start would be advised. Parking at the start only costs £1 for all day, too.
If you pluck up the courage to do the route you will be rewarded by stunning views across the Lune Valley dominated by Ingleborough on your right, an abundance of wildlife and almost complete solitude. Oh, and whichever direction you choose, there’s a cracking bacon butty and brew to be had in the snack kiosks at the end.
The Lune towards the Kirkby Lonsdale end of the run.
I’ve created a Strava Route of the run: link here.
Hopefully, with a few hill runs under my belt and a bit of speedwork it will be ideal preparation for Grizedale. I’ve been doing some plyometrics, weights and yoga to improve strength and agility, too. Every little helps… Will it be enough to set a pb on the course? Being a trail run much is dependent on the conditions. Last time out it was a typically damp and cold February outing, but the time before it was well below zero throughout the race. 2:12:28 is my target time which I hope I’m in good enough condition to beat.