Triathlon X appeared on my radar a couple of years ago as I am somewhat drawn to these low key, challenging events and as I sat last year looking for a race to do in September, before I knew it I had clicked the enter button and I was in.
It brands itself as “The hardest half iron distance event in the world” and whilst I’m not sure how it knows to lay claim to that title, I do know that it is slightly more challenging than your normal half ironman. Based in Ambleside in the Lake District, the swim is the usual 1900m in Lake Windermere followed by 56 miles on the bike boasting around 7,000 feet of climbing over Kirkstone Pass, Wrynose (twice) and Hardknott (twice) and each of these climbs hitting 30% gradient in places. To finish off, the run takes you 13 miles to the top of Fairfield and back with a total ascent of slightly over 3000 feet. So, all in all a challenging day lay ahead.
A sleepless night in Ambleside Youth Hostel was compensated by the fact that the start and transitions were about 500m from the front door, so after a leisurely breakfast 130 of us lined up at 8:00am and plunged into the chilly (12.5 degrees) water for a simple triangular, single lap route.
After some early steamed up goggle issues and a bit of the usual argy bargy, I settled in to a rhythm and had a steady, fairly uneventful swim exiting in 31:21. It’s always nice to get in to T1 and still see lots of bikes there and despite my usual woefully slow transition I kitted up and headed off onto my most feared part of the day.
The first mile or so takes through the town of Ambleside but almost immediately you are onto the first climb of the day up Kirkstone Pass. The climb kicks up hard at the start and despite easing slightly in places, never really relents and as you reach the top it kicks you in the teeth with a 25% gradient over “The Struggle”. Having just replaced my old faithful Cube with a shiny new Giant I was still in the “new bike honeymoon” period but despite all the carbon and aero profiling, my smallest gear now was a 28 rather than my previous 32 and boy did I miss those extra 4 teeth!
Anyway, up and over and whizzing down the hill, the field was already very spaced out and so with no-one to chase I settled in and tried to conserve my energy for what lay ahead. The route is pretty much an out and back although with a slight extra loop on the outward leg but the real stars of the show were the double act of Wrynose and Hardknott passes which are well known in the cycling fraternity abut also recognised as the steepest tarmac roads in the UK(30%). The route took you up Wrynose, along the high pass at Cockley Bridge and then onto Hardnott before the terrifying drop down to the Eskdale Valley for 10 miles or so before looping back to the return trip.
I had attempted both these climbs when doing the Fred Whitton Sportive in April and had been defeated by Hardknott, having to shamefully unclip and push up the final switchback so I was determined this time that I would ride the full thing. Long story short, I did the walk of shame once more and click clacked my way up the final section. In my defence, the climbs were littered with my fellow competitors doing the same. Oh, how I miss those 4 teeth!
By now my legs were pretty goosed with flickers of cramp twitching my quads when I stood up in the pedals but once down the last descent it was a steady 8 miles back to T2. My time for 56 miles was 4hrs 29 mins – a personal worst by some margin but in context, it was the 42nd (out of 130) fastest ride of the day.
A quick change and on with my bag carrying the compulsory equipment and I set off along the short 2 mile road section to the base of the mountain stage to the top of Fairfield (2870 feet). The initial section involved a long stretch of steep switchbacks which was very much a case of head down and get into a rhythm. I had chosen to use walking poles on this section which I first used a few years ago when I did UTMB and although some people refer to them as “cheat sticks” I think they really help, especially when you’re tired and so up I went. As we climbed the weather closed in and by the time we reached the ridge it was pretty bleak with really strong winds and heavy rain but if ever there was an incentive to crack on, this was it. The turnaround at the top of Fairfield was marked by a marshal sticking his head out of a tent, shouting “well done – you can turn round now” and so without needing to be told twice, I started the long descent back from whence I came.
My legs felt surprisingly good and, other than the very technical steep sections, I managed to get a good pace going and finally emerged back onto the road for the last 2 miles back to the finish.
I found some form in these closing miles and even managed to pass someone as I came back into Ambleside and crossed the finish line in 8hrs 20mins 58secs. Not fast but good enough for 31st overall and 4th old guy (V50) out of 28.
It’s a very low key event but very friendly because of that and I think the challenging nature brings the competitors together more than other events I have done. Being at the end of September it’s a fitting close to my season and allows me now to concentrate on beer and cake for a few weeks before setting my sights on next years trip to IM Wales.
Is it the hardest half iron distance race in the world? – I don’t know but I don’t fancy trying a harder one!
posted by Graeme Reid on