Wednesday 4 September 2019

Helvellyn Triathlon - Race Report

Pre Race

For quite a few weeks leading up to the race people were asking me if I was looking forward to banishing some demons, after crashing out in 2017, but I always said "no" because as far as I was aware I had no demons that needed exorcising. I hadn't really thought about that aspect of my reasons to race at Helvellyn again and, as far as I was concerned, I was just doing the race because I enjoy it, or so I thought. 

From late afternoon on the Saturday before the race I started getting flashbacks, not to the actual crash itself, but to what I felt like as I came round after it, with the medics there and the air ambulance, then to the following couple of weeks or so that I was in hospital. It was really weird and was something that I have never had before and it became a bit unsettling. As the evening wore on I was getting more and more anxious and despite going to bed early, due to the early start on Sunday, I ended up only having about 3 hours broken sleep. I didn't tell Ruth or Hannah how I was feeling because I knew that they were both also feeling anxious about me returning to the race that caused all of us so much pain and anguish in 2017. 

Going into the race I was fairly happy with my bike and swim fitness, neither were anything to shout about but not too bad, all things considered. I hadn't been able to run at all for 5 months, due to injury, leading up to the race, so I was hoping to just try and blag the run and get round as fast as possible. 

Race Day

My alarm went off at 0400, which is just ridiculous and shouldn't be allowed on a Sunday morning. I didn't bother trying to eat anything because I always struggle to eat first thing in a morning anyway and, besides which, I'd got a 90 minute drive up to the Lakes anyway, so could eat in the car and I already had a cold pizza saved from the night before, nothing beats cold pizza on race morning 😊. After checking I'd got everything that I needed for the race and being confident that I hadn't forgotten anything (ha, famous last words) I loaded the car and set off, meeting Jack just before the motorway we travelled up in convoy.
Arriving in Glenridding the outside temp was reading 7 degrees and we were having fairly regular torrential showers, wtf?!?! A bit of a contrast from the 28 degree heatwave from the previous weekend!!
Off to registration and getting that sorted out, then back to the car park and getting our bikes and kit out to take to transition. Setting up in Transition it turned out that I had actually forgotten a couple of bits of kit and I really could have done with my gilet for the bike and I had no gloves (so much for being confident that I'd packed everything). Luckily Jack had a spare pair of gloves that he lent me. I ended up trying to put my wetsuit on early because I was so cold and needed to warm up because I was soaked and we were still getting the frequent heavy showers, so I ended up fighting with that for a while because it was wet from the rain, then it was just a case of hanging around, waiting for the race briefing before getting in the water (which they told us was 13 degrees!). 


I was feeling surprisingly nervous before the race and was having all sorts of negative thoughts about racing, which was something that I haven't had for quite a few years now, so it all felt a bit alien, so just tried to push them to the back of my mind and focus on what was in front of me. The swim start was a bit bizarre, the starter said that the hooter "would be going at some point in the next minute", lol. Nothing like keeping you on your toes. People were still sorting goggles etc and getting in position when the hooter went and it was the usual swim start washing machine and there was lots of leaning on legs, bumping and shoving etc but I soon settled into my rhythm and kept hopping onto swimmers feet and drafting off them for a little while as the passed me. Although it had been pretty cold when we first got in the water, the swim wasn't as bad as I'd expected and after we'd been swimming for a few minutes my mind was focused on the race and my stroke, so the cold didn't really feature. Rounding buoys I was expecting the usual dunking and jostling for position but it all seemed like quite a civilised affair. Either that or everyone else was in front of me! Although totally uneventful, the swim felt like it took ages and I was sure I'd done a poor time, but getting out of the water at the end of the swim and glancing at my watch, it was a nice surprise to see around 27 mins being displayed, which was a pb for this race swim. Off into T1, with numb feet, grass everywhere and what felt like the slowest transition I'd ever done, wrestling with my twin layer socks that I was wearing in preparation for the mountain trail run that was still to come and drawing plenty of laughs from the other athletes around me. 


Leaving T1 I didn't feel great, in fact I felt pretty crap and I felt tired and lethargic and just couldn't seem to get going on the bike. I'd put a jacket on for the bike leg because the forecast was for more strong winds, heavy showers and lower temperatures, but after 7 or 8 miles I was getting frustrated with it flapping in the wind, so I stopped and took it off. I think the Tailwind nutrition had also started kicking in by this point and the caffeine in it had certainly brought me round, so it was just a case of tapping out a rhythm on the climbs and making the most of the my extra "mass" on the descents and I'd find myself flying past people going downhill, only for them to catch me again on the next climb. This went on for about 20 miles or so, until I had really settled into my rhythm and the people who I passed on the descents were no longer coming back past me on the climbs. Going down the road towards Thirlmere we ended up in a line of traffic that was going slow and there were 3 or 4 of us who were stuck behind a line of slower moving cars which gave us chance for a breather and we even had a little chat between us for a few minutes, while we were being held up, but it soon dissipated after a couple of miles or so and we were able to start pushing on again. Going down one of the longer, straighter descents into Grasmere and I dared a glance at my Garmin bike computer and noticed I was nudging just over 47mph on the bike, but I felt really comfortable on it, with loads of confidence now in how it handled and braked. However, all through the bike leg I was keeping one eye on my power output and trying to keep it fairly consistent, with no big surges or pushes and I managed to do that reasonably well, keeping it to around 75 - 80% of my FTP. Plus, the knowledge that The Struggle was also looming ever closer as we got to Ambleside and was always in the back of my mind. 

Getting to the mini roundabout in Ambleside where we turn left and that marks the start of The Struggle I put my chain onto the small ring in preparation, but I ended up rattling through the rest of the gears on my cassette and was soon in 1st gear. 

The struggle is just bonkers, being a Cat. 2 climb and with an elevation gain of over 1400ft in less than 3 miles. The initial climb being around a mile long and at over 20% gradient is just a killer, which seems to be never ending. You round a corner expecting it to have levelled out a bit, but it's still there, the wall of tarmac. Through one reason and another and some external stresses I'd put a few lbs on in the weeks leading up to the race and as much of a benefit as it had been on the descents it was now a huge burden and all I could do is take it one pedal revolution at a time, each leg draining, lung bursting eyeball popping revolution was one closer to the top, but I took confidence in the fact that I was still catching and passing a few people though. Towards the end of The Struggle it kicks up again for the last few hundred metres and I honestly thought I was just going to stop and I'd have to push the bike up, it felt like I was pretty much doing a track stand in the middle of the road at one point because I was going so slow, but I managed a smile / grimace for the photographer at the top and then it was done, phew. 

Turning onto the Kirkstone descent and my mantra was "just tip toe round the corners", which I kept repeating to myself. I was on the brakes from the top, not letting the speed or bike get away from me and I managed to have a quick look over my shoulder and couldn't see anyone close behind me which felt great, meaning I wouldn't have anyone passing me and making me alter my line going into any of the corners. Going past the point at which I'd crashed in 2017 I made sure I hit the apex perfectly and it was as if a huge weight suddenly lifted as I went through the bend, quite a bizarre feeling really and from then on I got more and more confident in the bike and how well it braked and handled and by the time I was halfway down Kirkstone Pass I was braking later going into corners, knowing it'd slow down and handle brilliantly through the bend. I was absolutely loving it and really buzzing from the descent now. Only a couple of miles to go and I passed a couple more athletes through Patterdale before coming back in to Glenridding and turning into T2, putting any subliminal demons well and truly to rest. Ha, up yours Kirkstone!!


I had a reasonable T2 time (no need to wrestle with the socks this time), picked up my back pack and set off for a nice 9.5 mile jaunt up and over the 3rd highest (and my favourite) mountain in England. Coming out of T2 and I saw Gary, Jack's dad, so I asked him how far ahead Jack was and was surprised that it was only about 10 mins, so I set off trying to peg him back a bit, but it turned out that I was confusing ambition with ability and no sooner had I had that thought when my legs just laughed at me for trying to make them do something they hadn't done for 5 months and decided they weren't going to play. The usual pain in my back had kicked in as soon as I'd started the run so I'd taken a couple of painkillers and it was just a matter of waiting for them to kick in. 

The run route for Helvellyn Tri is a "run" in the very loosest sense of the word. You can run for the first half mile at the most, then for most of us mere mortals it's a really tough slog up towards Hole In The Wall before bearing right and being able to run a bit more down towards Red Tarn, before heading up to Swirrell Edge. My ascent was really slow and weary, such was the lack of conditioning in my legs and I was losing loads of time but just kept putting one foot in front of the other and chatting with a few people as they passed me. I'd started cramping by the time I got to the bottom of Swirrell Edge and as is typical it was in my adductors, a really difficult muscle to stretch out the cramp. So there I am, half way up a mountain, getting battered by the wind and I'm punching my leg like I'm trying to tenderise a piece of steak, just to try and release the cramp. Luckily it worked, surprisingly, so I just cracked on with the ascent, stopping every so often when the cramp returned. I love Helvellyn and some of the routes to the summit are brilliant, with Swirrell Edge being among my favourites and because of my rock climbing experience and confidence I managed to make up about half a dozen places during the final scramble to the summit, where the wind and rain was horrendous. 40 odd mph wind and horizontal rain was whipping at my body and feeling like thousands of pin pricks on any exposed flesh, so on with the windproof jacket and try to jog off the summit. 

It's a surprisingly long way from the summit to where we drop down Keppel Cove to begin the steep descent and my legs were absolutely battered by this point, so when it got to the steeper parts of the descent I could only shuffle. It became quite frustrating and I was soon haemorrhaging time and race positions, so all I could do was to just keep moving forwards as best I could. I knew well before this point that my target time for the race had gone out of the window so it just became a war of attrition and a case of getting to the finish line. I ran and shuffled as much as I could but I'm sure that valley has got longer since I last did this race! Eventually though, I was passing the old mines and YHA and knew that it was only a mile or so from there so just kept my head down and spirits up, plodding along to the finish area. Coming through Glenridding Village and into the finish chute, it was great to see Jack and Gary there, Jack having had a great race and finished in a superb time, it was good to finally cross the line.


Up until the day before the race I was feeling fine about taking on Helvellyn Triathlon again and I'd had no nerves or apprehension about doing it, so when the flashbacks and anxiety kicked in on the day before the race it was a really bizarre feeling, so maybe there was something in my subconscious that was drawing me back there, who knows. Maybe I did feel like I needed to get rid of some demons from that descent at Kirkstone. I'm so glad that I didn't shy away from this race after what happened in 2017, but I've never been one for dwelling on things like that and there's a really good phrase that I like using "don't let your worst enemy live between your own two ears". If you suffer adversity, keep looking forward, stay positive and draw strength from those around you, never be afraid of telling people how you feel or asking for help, whether it's sport related or in life in general and never let things get out of control and stop you from doing something you love. Take stock of things, reflect and evaluate things, but always, always try to remain positive and looking forward.

One thing I do know is that Helvellyn Triathlon is the toughest race of this distance that I know of, but it's a fantastic test of strength, determination and skill. I'm not totally happy with my finish time, but knowing the reasons behind that, I know that the next time I race here I'll be in better condition for the run and will hopefully achieve the result that's eluded me on the three previous attempts on this course. Lastly, it was great to race alongside Jack, a fellow team mate from Invictus Tri, who has gone through a remarkable transformation as a triathlete over the past few years and who was doing Helvellyn Triathlon for the first time, he had a great result and I'm sure he'll be back there again in the future, along with a few other amazing team mates from Invictus Tri in Wigan, who are also looking for a new challenge. 

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