The last time I wrote a race report was for Wetherby Olympic Tri in 2012 so after a prompt from Dave Hinch I thought it was time I got my typing finger out! The other reason is to let you guys know about a truly great event that should really feature on your bucket list. Grab yourself a cuppa, it’s a long read.
Helvellyn Triathlon is one of a number of events organised by www.trihard.co.uk. and certainly this years event was very well organised. The event had been on my radar for a few years but I always managed to put off entering as: it’s going to be tough, it’s a long way to travel, doesn’t fit with other plans, etc. This year was almost the same, opting to have a go at the Leeds Triathlon a weekend later. The Sunday before Helvellyn, I realised Leeds wasn’t an option due to other family commitments. Better had get my entry in… fortunately a friend of a friend had an entry that he was deferring, bingo. Trihard we very quick and helpful at transferring the entry to me, especially considering it was a Sunday. Several emails later by Sunday night it was all confirmed, I was in.
Billed as “One of the toughest triathlons in the world, swim in crystal clear Ullswater, cycle includes the infamous “Struggle” to the top of the Kirkstone Pass (1489ft), run up and down Hellvellyn (3118ft)”. This should have been a big clue but reading the race information on the website started raising a few more questions. Mandatory kit list for the run to include bag with full body cover, foil blanket, map, whistle. A busy week was to follow organising camping, borrowing kit for the run, getting OS map, change of rear cassette, fit rear light (compulsary for bike section), digging out camping equipment.
I would be travelling up late on Saturday due to a football tournament with my sons. Hopefully I would get there before dark, didn’t fancy putting up a tent with a head torch, better still make the Saturday registration which closed at 18:45. I had already let Trihard know that I may need to use the emergency registration on the morning of the race. A break in the football tournament and some help from other parents meant I got away from the tournament before the end. Quick dash home to pack all my kit in the car and set off on the 3 hour drive to the Lakes. Great, the sat nav in my car decides to play up, oh well I had a rough idea of the route although I hadn’t been near the Lake District since I was a kid.
Wow what scenery as I turned of the main road near Penrith at the north end of Ullswater, the road runs along the side of the lake for miles and the sun was shining, perfect. Arriving at the south end of Ullswater at around 18:00 time to register. This was quick and easy, no queuing (much better than it was the following morning). Goody bag with a buff from A1 multi-sport and energy bars from 9 bar. Now to find the campsite.
Gillside camping was a traditional farm campsite which was only 0.7 mile from the start / transition area and with a path which was also the first part of the run route. There is no parking near transition so this was really convenient for the morning of the race, just a short walk, fortunately I had packed all my race kit in a holdall for this reason. The campsite was pretty full with triathletes, a local moto-cross event as well as the usual walkers. After finding the last bit of flattish ground I pitched up and warmed up my pasta meal. Even time for a walk around before dark. Trying to get a phone signal I set off up the nearest track to high ground only to find arrows marking the run route. Wow, this already looks tough really mixed stony ground underfoot and already quite steep for what us Lincolnshire folk are used to.
Oh well no phone signal, best get an early night ready for tomorrow. After a cold night under canvas I was awake around 5:30 and didn’t fancy leaving the sleeping bag for the very fresh conditions. Cold porridge whilst still embedded in my sleeping bag seemed preferable to rigging the stove up in the cold outside. After breakfast and a trip to the facilities it was time to strip down and don the Lincsquad trisuit, followed by quite a few other layers to prep the bike.
The path to the start was quite rough stone for about half the distance so ended up carrying my bike. Didn’t want to risk picking up any sharp bits to later push through and puncture. Transition was already quite busy and a queue at the registration tent. The usual safety checks on entering transition extended to rear bike light and checking of the run bag. I racked my back and got ready to race. Still undecided on the weather for the race I had more kit than usual next to my bike. I like to limit my choices in T1 and T2 to save time but figured that with the altitude today an extra minute in transition would be worth it over the 2+ hour bike / 2+ hour run.
A really thorough and clear race briefing with numerous bits to take note and then down to the lake ready for a start in the second wave at 8:33. Ullswater is always cold, but the surroundings as the sun started to climb over the misty water were amazing.
One mile lap around four buoys proved to be quite difficult for sighting with no intermediate buoy on the 600m ish long back straight. I resorted to sighting off the high viz worn by the safety kayakers as the lead boat were some distance in front. This lead to a very spread out field at some points and possibly a more wonky line than my usual efforts. More open water practice next year, I tell myself. At last into transition and decision time, what to wear on the bike section. I settled for a long sleeve cycle top instead of arm warmers which I could have taken with me and put on when I had dried off a bit.
The bike route was soon going uphill with twists and turns and a few fast sections in between. Happy I wasn’t trying to put arm warmers on now. Also happy I had decided on my road bike with tri bars. Quite a few people were on TT bikes but I don’t think there was a big advantage to be had either way. After quite an undulating section it was on to the main A66 heading towards Keswick. This was quite busy but wide, so no scary moments with traffic. Before Keswick the route heads south on a quiet road past Thirlmere and Grasmere, very scenic and reasonably flat following the valley bottom. We were soon nearing Ambleside, eek that meant Kirkstone Road culminating in ‘The Struggle’. A turn off the main road and the start of the uphill route back over the ridge was right there, boom. Quickly hunting for a low gear saw me going the wrong way on the rear cassette, up the gears instead of down. I was soon having to stand up on the pedals and forced into changing back down under tension, usually a recipe for dropping a chain. Luckily I took it as carefully as I could and the chain held firm. Can’t imagine a standing start on this bit.
Now for 3 miles at an average gradient of 8.2% nothing like this in Lincolnshire? Fortunately this section of road was closed to traffic albeit the odd residents car passing on the lower section. I was finding this bit tough but quite happy that I was passing a few more than were passing me. People zig zagging all over the road and leaning well forward to stop the front wheel coming up. The final section of the Struggle was lined with spectators cheering you on. It was certainly appreciated as my legs were really tiring as the incline reached 17%.
At this point I was sweating big time in my longsleeve top, at slow speed all the cooling effect of the passing wind had gone. I was really looking forward to the downhill but also remembering the race brief about watching your speed due to the twisty nature of the road and stone walls both sides. The downhill was a pleasant change from the Struggle but I was soon to get caught up behind a long stream of cars, wisely using low gears on the steep downhill. Both brakes tightly squeezed were just holding me at a safe distance behind the cars ahead. I guess some free speed was really missed out on at this point but also happy to be keeping within the limits of my descending ability and staying safe.
It was a relative easy ride to T2 from here and tried to get another gel and and as much of my remaining drink down me as I could as there would be no feed stations on the run other than a water point on exit from transition.
In transition I quickly ditched my top and gloves and picked up my fuel belt and run bag. I had a windproof top in my run bag to use, as it can got cold at the top despite the temperature at the bottom. Setting off on the run I was surprised how tired my legs felt already! I’ve had surprisingly few rides of the same distance in training this year never mind rides with anywhere near 3376 feet of climbing. Running past my tent at the campsite was familiar but soon got me thinking about the climb to come. Nothing had prepared me for the imminent Birkhouse Moor climb of 1629 feet in 1.3 miles an average grade of 23.1% The surface underfoot kind of resembled stairs but was really just the hillside with the soil worn away leaving haphazard rocks at random spacing and height. Every footstep had to be picked carefully, fortunately no one else was doing anything resembling ‘running’ which made me feel marginally better. An average pace of 26 minutes/mile over this section turned out to be quite respectable!
Towards the top of this climb, one of the many walkers on their way down who offered encouragement, mentioned to take a second or two to look back down the valley. This was a god send, the view back down to Ullswater was amazing!
The route did flatten for a while before the climb on to Swirral Edge and the last push to the top of Helvellyn.
Run Route near Hole in the Wall.
The path can been seen running just feet below the ridge. In places the path very narrow and a crazy potential fall down the slope to Red Tarn in the valley below. I think only the number of other athletes along the same section of route made this seem ‘normal’ but breathtaking at the same time. The last push to the top was literally using all fours to climb up to the summit, picking hand and foot holds carefully. A last I thought now for a bit of respite, down hill at last. The downhill was over very mixed terrain mostly loose under foot and steep. At many points to come, the down hill was equally hard on the legs as I tried to brake my speed from what seemed unreasonably fast for the surface underfoot. A few people came past, experienced fell runners with a windmill action in their arms somehow controlling their ‘falling’. The path zig zags at the steepest points and to veer from the loose path or straighten out the route is a DQ offense due to further erosion of the route and shortening the distance. I was quite happy to stick to the route which was difficult enough. How much my legs ached by this point was warning enough of what was to come over the following week. The last mile was back onto a tarmac road which was a welcome relief and heading back to the finish line I was pleased to have made it without twisting an ankle, falling, major blisters or anything else that had crossed my mind over the two hours out on the 9 mile route.
A great end to a spectacular race. Happy with a finish time of 4:42:15 in 140th place out of 447 finishers. Thanks for reading and hope this tempts you to do this great race.