Half X Triathlon, Ambleside 2018

The Half X triathlon.  It is billed as the World’s toughest half distance triathlon; I just thought the Lake Distract would be a fantastic backdrop for a race…

Sunday morning started at a reasonable hour, but as ever I was feeling decidedly unprepared for the event.  I’d not run much over the summer nursing a niggle on my Achilles, and not swam the distance for a good six months.

photo by Coast to Coast Photography

It didn’t help as I went into transition, with more kit than a well equipped sports shop totally unsure of what to wear, and racked my bike up against a road bike.  This was next to another road bike…  In fact there were an awful lot of road bikes there, and I was decidedly the odd man out with a TT.  Just how much had I underestimated the course.  As it was a calm morning I’d kept the deeper section wheels on the bike as well, again quite a unique choice looking around the racks.

I gave up deciding what to wear on the bike and run at that point, the weather being too difficult to predict, and I just left a broad array of clothes in some plastic bags next to the bike to cope with most eventualities.

Transition cleared quickly and everyone walked over the road to the banks of Windermere for the race brief.  The water was still and almost looked inviting.  My concern about the distance to the first buoy (on the far side of the lake) was quickly allayed when we were told it would be a one lap swim, not two as in the pre-race notes!  This built my confidence a bit, but I kept repeating the mantra ‘complete not compete’.  Going off too hard today would cause a bucket load of pain later in the day.

After the briefing we were counted in for a deep water start.  There were about 150 of us in total going off in a single wave.  The water was cold, stinging my hands and feet I and hoped for a quick acclimatisation.  Without delay we were set off.  I hung back at the start and opted for an energy saving breaststroke swim.  I hooked up on someone’s toes and tried to glide as much as possible.  I switched to short bursts of crawl when I needed to swap to different set of legs to follow.

The swim flowed much better than I had feared.  The water was beautifully clear; I kept relaxed and was comfortably warm once the initial cold shock had worn off.  I even started to enjoy it!

We were soon out the water and into transition.  Unusually there was no chip timing at the event and we were all meticulously logged in and out of transition manually, which made a friendly change.

The bike started as it meant to go on.  After a gentle mile through the quiet streets of Ambleside it was straight into the first of the days big climbs Kirkstone pass via the aptly named ‘The Struggle’!  3 miles, 1300 ft topping 25%. Although I was on a TT bike, I hadn’t neglected to change the gearing and went straight to the dinner plate on the back – and was glad it was there.  The unforgiving incline produced a bike race in slow motion, edging past others at a snails pace.  Slow and steady was the aim.  Keep the power down, no surges, steady to the top.

Once up, it was straight back down the other gentler side, round the lake past transition and out through Langdale to the first attack on the big two: Wrynose and Hardknott.  Wrynose East was to be a long, but gradual climb, winding up the side of a large U shaped valley, throwing in the odd 25% ramp to keep you in check.  The scenery took your breath away as much as the climb. Pulling over the top the wind suddenly picked up, but luckily it was straight on the nose so no cross winds to contend with.

The initial decent was steep, and I stayed hard on the brakes keeping the speed in check.  The gradient soon eased, opening into a rollercoaster section of road; small rolling ups and downs, bends left and right.  A welcome break of fun after the climb.  This was to be short lived and Hardknott East was quickly upon me.

Hardknott, one of the steepest sections of road in the UK kicking in at 33%, was mayhem.  The road, barely wide enough for a single car was being attacked by several unorganised car rallies from both directions – and a triathlon.  The road was jammed with cars waiting to pass by each other, with the gradient preventing anyone from backing up.  I did my best to pick my way around the waiting cars, but then felt obliged to attack the steeper sections so as to not hold anyone up.

I passed several bikes that had lost momentum and were walking up. As the top came into sight vanity kicked in and I pulled myself over the ridge, determined to ride it all.  As soon as I was over I knew I had made a mistake. Slow and steady had gone out the window; I had burnt some matches and would pay later.

With Hardknott behind, the route settled into a much quieter gentle out and back loop through the Eskdale valley.  The climb at Iron Pike hardly registering with what had come before.  The traffic had eased, and the out and back gave a chance to see some of the other triathletes, reassuring that I was still on the right route!.

Before long the route returned to Hardknott from the West, where an inclined cattle grid at the start of the climb gave me my biggest scare of the day. My back wheel started to spin on the wet metal rungs; luckily I had enough momentum to carry me over back onto solid road.  However the earlier push up the East side quickly came back to pay, and I dismounted for the steeper sections of the return.

Clearing the top, I felt no better but pushed on towards the return over Wrynose.  My perennial problem of not eating enough had caught me early so I stopped in the valley to take on some more food.  I remembered I do these events to enjoy them, so lifted my head up to take in the scenery and pulled myself back over Wrynose – the final climb of the day.

From here it was mainly down hill back to Ambleside, made slightly more interesting by the earlier car rallies that had dropped oil all the way down the wet decent.  I’m not a quick descender at the best of times.  With the steepness, wet, oil and shear drops on the bends, my forearms were aching by the bottom.

The ride back to Ambleside was much better.  The food had kicked in, the roads were rolling nicely and I focused on keeping a good bike position and staying easy on the power.  I returned to transition feeling positive; two down, only the run to do.  I took my time changing, grabbed the mandated bag of mountain kit and headed out for the run.

It very quickly became apparent that the run wasn’t going to be much of a run, and my run walk strategy was forced into play much earlier than I had hoped.  I was lacking energy and knew I needed to eat more, but despite having plenty of food on me, I just didn’t feel like it so pressed on.

The run took us out via the back roads to Rydal  where we were clocked onto the mountain section.  Once we hit the mountain no one was running anymore.  The climb took us steeply up Rydal Fell before levelling out onto a long ridge leading to Great Rigg.  The weather started to close in at this point so I put on waterproofs a forced down a crunch bar and some Jelly babies.

By the final push up to the summit of Fairfield the cloud had come down and the wind and drizzle had picked up.  Rather than make things harder, the worsening conditions lifted my spirits.  I’ve climbed many a mountain in much worse, and slogging on in the rain brought a strange comfort.  At last the summit turn point came into view; the marshals safely tucked away in a tent peering out through the tiniest zip hole.

Then that was it, I was on the return.  Running was so much easier going down!  Within 10 minutes of clearing the summit the clouds thinned and the sun came out (typical!). The way home to the finish was laid out to see: along the ridge, down the hill and then along to the top of Windermere shining blue in the distance.  I wasn’t there yet, but knew for certain I soon would be.  Every step now was one nearer the end, and the end was in sight.

For the first time in the day I started looking at my time.  I’d made several estimates before the event, with being around in under 9 hours my expectation.  The mental math’s kept me going to the finish. My Garmin had got knocked and stopped when I was faffing with my waterproof, so I didn’t know exactly how much further I had to go.  I was still woefully low on energy, but didn’t want to stop now to eat.

I finally pulled over the line in 8h36m, just inside the top 50.  It was an incredible day and a great event.  I must learn to eat more as I suffered badly as a result.  Stopping to eat before the run would have made the final leg much easier, quicker and more enjoyable.

So hardest half in the world?  I expect many events have a claim to that, but it was certainly the toughest I have attempted.  Fantastic backdrop for a race?  Most definitely yes.  It was without doubt the most stunning location I have had ever the pleasure to race.

Keith Loudon