The site of the long standing Half Ironman (aka 70.3) event, and one of my favourite places in the summertime, I’ve often pondered the possibility of racing a full distance race from the venue. Renowned as one of the toughest courses on the 70.3 circuit, even that race stays close to the venue which is barely the edge of the moor, whereas with 180km to play with, there is a whole lot more fantastic riding to explore. So it was with real excitement that I heard of Xman Events ’s proposals to stage their first Iron-distance race from the venue, and much curiosity as to where they’d take the route. There would have been a few options to make it a more “average” ride, around the area - the lake is within 30 miles of the pan-flat Somerset Levels after all – but my hope was that they’d make the most of the stunning scenery and quiet roads one finds by heading deeper onto Exmoor.
Being locals themselves, of course this is what they did, and what fantastic a route they chose.
Fantastic, but with ~4000m of climbing on the bike route, and an entirely off-road marathon this would by no means be an easy feat. The fastest athletes could expect to take 2 hours more than they might on a regular iron-distance course, and the organisers weren’t shy in their statement that they expected a high proportion of the field would NOT finish at all. We needed all the daylight that was available, so as dawn broke on Sunday 31st July 2016, approximately 50 competitors started arriving to organise their equipment in transition for the adventure that lay ahead of them in the inaugural XXX Extreme Triathlon.
The weather forecast was good and the early morning air reflected that, as we listened to the final race briefing, surveyed the flat calm waters of Wimbleball lake and contemplated 4 laps of the triangular course that had been set out for us. A few people said that they thought it looked rather far –but, don’t people always think that?? 19 or 20 degrees and still, we had perfect conditions. I positioned myself close to the front and got a good start, remaining inside a pack for most of my first lap. Though not a strength of mine, my swim training in the pool has been going well recently, and I have been fortunate to have had quite a bit of open water swimming experience in my new BlueSeventy Helix suit thanks to the races with Team Reko, organised by Freak Events through the summer. I felt I was swimming well – drafting off one swimmer for most of my second lap, before their exit point (for the popular Intro distance race) at half way. As I swam I felt relatively strong but relaxed and able to enjoy the sight of ducks flying in “V” formation over head, the mist hanging over the water and the changing colour of the sky in the early morning sunshine, and appreciate what a wonderful experience I was having. On the third lap my left arm started to ache as usual, I found myself veering to the left if unchecked and was pretty desperate to reach dry land. But 75% good :o) I was disappointed with the apparent swim time of 1hr 08…but still, there were plenty of bikes left in transition, and it turns out that those “over distance” speculators were (probably) correct . I didn’t know it at the time but I was 3rd out of the water.
It wasn’t a rapid transition, I put on socks, a cycle jersey (with Powerbars loaded into the pockets) and - a first in a race for me - gloves. I knew it was going to be a long and tough ride, and my ‘plan’ was really not to treat it as a race but to just ride it steady and efficiently.
After an initial 20 km gradually ascending from the Lake to Wheddon Cross (a high point on this side of Exmoor) begins a 70km loop that begins with a very nice descent to Timberscombe. I’d set out at a fairly moderate pace, with no one in sight to chase or race, and following my stated plan to approach this challenging course as a “solid ride” rather than attempt to ride Race Pace. I was relaxing on this descent when Bonnie, who’d started a few minutes behind me, caught and passed. Perhaps I’m taking things just a little too steady, I wondered, and started pedalling a bit in order to maintain a small distance behind her. The route makes a turn at the bottom of the hill, and then winds and rolls up and down through a series of small typical Somerset-y lanes and hamlets. It was great fun chasing her along this terrain, though harder work, and somewhat more risky, than I felt sensible given my knowledge of the route ahead. We were only 2 hours into a very long day…so slightly reluctant I eased off and let her go, aware that she might be the only chance I had of company for the rest of the ride!! We emerged onto the A39, which provides a break from the intense concentration required in the lanes, and could see her flashing rear light in the distance. She obviously had her head down and was soon out of sight! This rolling section of A-road leads to Porlock Weir – a seaside town and foot of the first climb Porlock Toll Road. A favourite of the local cycle clubs who Time Trial up it’s relatively gentle “Alpine” 5% gradient, it’s just under 7km long finishing back up at 370m, with stunning views over of the Bristol Channel and Wales along the way. https://www.strava.com/activities/660680834/segments/16181172536.
A feed station at the top was a welcome short break (get off the bike to fill your own bottles) before the next section, along the top of the moor. This is an A-road (A39), so nice and open with a good surface, but still very little traffic passes here. It was great to have a chance to get down on the tri bars and into a rhythm for 15km to Countisbury and then it was time for the terrifyingly steep descent into Lynmouth Bay. Yup, this picturesque little fishing town is back down at sea level and that means only one thing….another climb! The longest climb of the route is 11km long with an average gradient of 4%, the road initially follows the river up through Watersmeet, then opens up onto moorland.
Fortunately, having fought the headwind along the A39 from Porlock, the wind was on our backs for this lengthy slope and we had the second feed station in Simonsbath to look forward to soon after we’d passed the summit. Friendly faces (who were probably just as pleased to see us a we were them, since the small field of athletes were spread across several hours even by this point in the first lap of the race) welcomed us with drinks gels and homemade treats to see us onto what I found to be the most challenging part of the loop.
Although from Simonsbath back to Wheddon cross you actually loose height, it’s reached by tackling a constant onslaught of short and sharp climbs and descents of 15% or more, which come upon you suddenly and are very draining.
Still, by the time I arrived back at Wheddon cross, I felt much fresher than I had ever on any training ride around the loop, and was quite happy to wave at the marshal as I made the left turn to repeat all of the above.
For the preceding hour, I’d been catching the occasional glimpse of Steven in his distinctive white EverydayTraining kit as it glinted in the sunshine, and realised that I was gradually gaining on him. Steven had entered the race somewhat last minute, and as an afterthought to his race season. As such, he was really viewing it as a training race, and I suspected keeping to his training heart-rate cap on the climbs, thus I was gaining on him on these sections. He tore away on the descent, but I knew I’d catch him in that section of lanes (where I’d been chasing Bonny some 3.5 hours earlier!) and it was nice to have a little bit of conversation. I asked if he was OK. He was fine, and confirmed just riding to his HR cap. He passed me back a little later whilst I took a pee break, and then sneakily decided to drop the heart-rate cap and hit the Porlock Toll road climb hard on his second round– just to mess with my head!!! I didn’t see him again after that, though the expectation of doing so did help provide motivation in the later stages of the ride….
5 and a half hours passed (I think I was in Lymnouth at 125km then) …then 6 hours ( Simonsbath, 140km – the last feed stop and at least on my way “home”) …then 6 and a half (at last, Wheddon Cross!!) and by then I was really counting down the kms – not because I really felt terrible ( to my surprise – I’d never felt so comfortable at this point in an Ironman – not that I’d ever got to 6.5 hours on the bike in an Ironman before! ) but because I’d just been out sooooo long I’d run out of stuff to think about. From Wheddon Cross it was 20km back to the Lake, the way we’d come - just another 45 minutes for me.
I’d estimated that, based on training rides, it could take me 7.5 hours to ride the loop, so at 7hr19 elapsed (7:13 ride time = 6 minutes of stoppage at aid stations and that toilet break) I was just ahead of schedule, and hitting T2 just before 3pm.
My friend Tanya had probably been waiting for some time to support me on the run. She gave me the best welcome ever, yelling “she’s here!!” and as I ran out of transition after a pretty comprehensive change of kit, immediately started offering me coke, redbull…and did I need her to run with me? I thought “ surely I don’t look that bad yet??” but I knew I had something to look forward to when I completed the first lap.
The run portion of the race really was what I had been concerned about. I’ve been “managing” a minor but persistent niggle in my left calf and foot, which has limited my run mileage for the last few months. Some days I can run, some days I just can’t. put weight on it. So distance of longest my run all year was a painful 24km (on this very course 2 weeks prior) and overall run volume has been low, and my confidence with it. But, as I hit the grass at Wimbleball Lake that afternoon, I was feeling fantastic! I’d decided that rather than asking organisers to send “special needs” nutrition out to aid stations for me, I was going to be self sufficient– at least to the extent of carrying it with me and depositing it at the far aid station myself to pick up on subsequent laps. But within the first few hundred, meters I was already so annoyed by the large water bottle in my belt and the food pouch in my hand that I threw them in a bush (to retrieve later). It was a warm afternoon and almost immediately I began doubting that was a good idea. However, it gave me something to worry about for the next hour, and having something other than my foot to worry about was quite comforting.
The run course was very simply 3 laps of the footpath around the perimeter of the lake. A lovely trail run – with a variety of terrain to keep us focused. My favourite parts were the rooty single-track sections through the woods – requiring intense concentration, but flat and cool and solid under foot. The toughest parts were, rather surprisingly, as we emerged from the woods to cross grassy meadows . Not only were we in direct sunshine, but the ground was cambered, uneven and cluttered with clumps of long grass. Very wearing indeed, and these were also the most inaccessible sections so it was a long stretch between aid stations. I was super pleased to come across Lydia, who’d been positioned as a marshal in the middle of this hell, and happened to have a drink of water when I asked her on my first lap. Only 8km in and I was parched and really feeling that I needed to take a gel but was now carrying nothing to wash that down with. So she saved me there by giving me her own water. Telling me that there was an extra aid station laid on at the Bridge too helped to keep me going through to that 12km point.
By the time I’d completed my first 14km lap – passing Steven again in the process ( he wasn’t moving well and confirmed that he was going to with draw at the end of one lap) - I was still feeling really good, and had not even a twinge of discomfort in that troublesome foot. Tanya had found herself a job on the aid-station too! Actually that was a relief to me since a) it enabled me to take the coke, red bull and peanut Kit Kat that she’d brought me without accepting “outside assistance”, but also b) I was worried about how bored she’d get waiting for me to come round each time. She was giving me rough splits to Bonnie, who’d continued her pace on the bike, putting almost half an hour into me by T1. Fortunately the time gap was so great I felt no need to push my pace and chase her down. I’ll just keep going and see what happens. That time gap remained pretty constant, and I continued to feel unbelievably comfortable! More so than I’d ever felt in an Ironman before, where I’d either been racing hard or blown up and suffering in an entirely different way. Today I was just out on my longest run of the year, in a wonderful location, in the sunshine. And every now and then along the way I’d stop briefly for someone to give me a drink and tell me how well I was doing! I was also rather enjoying eating solid food on the run (or semi melted Mars bars and kit kats!) rather than just squeezing gels and slurping coke…..In all, I felt very happy for most of the run. Of course, by the time I was on the 3rd lap, legs were getting a bit heavy, and a little bit “walky” when we came across any sort of incline if I did not keep an eye on them. I also had to watch out for even the smallest stone or twig, which could very easily jump up and trip me over. I made a few great stumbling saves (though only I was there to congratulate myself) and had just one “miss”. I heard strange cracking noises from my index finger, which took the full impact of the fall, heroically bending fully back on itself, which made me feel a bit sick. But I was able to wiggle it and despite swelling and going purple, I think it was just seeking attention which, to be honest, was a welcome distraction from the increasing strain of the running.
I’d estimated that a good run on that course, for me, would take 4 hours. I ran 4hrs 15, and accumulated 13 minutes of stoppage on top of that to finish in just under 4.5hrs….completing the Xman XXX Extreme Triathlon, Exmoor in just over 13 hours!
The fact that I was 5th overall, and 2nd woman (Bonnie actually placed 2nd overall) and 1st in my Age Group meant little to me compared to how satisfied I was to have completed this extremely challenging event, to have paced it well and felt so strong all day, and had a genuinely great time!
By the way – organisers were dead right – only a about a dozen finished the full Xman XXX this year (and so far in history) ….so if this sounds like you’re cup of tea, get your name in for 2017 !