I’ve only raced one Duathlon this year, since then I have really prioritised running and had some fun with time trialling. I’d not yet committed to returning to Rockingham for their Duathlon, but with that in mind, the opportunity to take part in a local, low key race was too tempting to ignore.
Sleaford Tri3 club are celebrating their their fourth birthday and to celebrate they were hosting a Duathlon, with the promise of free food and cake to follow. Sounded good. I held off entry to the very last minute; Storm Brian was coming across the country bringing with it the promise of some very strong winds. The prospect of being battered by winds on the Lincolnshire fens didn’t appeal; it was only when the forecast shifted somewhat, so that the strongest winds would arrive in the afternoon, did I commit to entering.
Joining me at the race was my time trialling nemesis Stpehen Hobday. We time trialled together at the opening Witham Wheelers 2-Up, where he carried me the entire way. I’ve got better over the course of the year since then, but he is at least two minutes quicker than me over a 25 mile course. His running continues to improve, but I had the comfort of knowing that over 5K I was at least 90 seconds quicker than him at our bests. Given that the Duathlon comprised a 5K run, a 40K bike and a 2.5K run to conclude, the prospect of an equally matched race was the stuff of much pre-race conjecture.
Not getting enough sleep thanks to an early morning finish working on the US GP at Austin, I arrived at Heckington a little later than planned with Stephen. Badly prepared, I was lucky that Stephen had a spare number belt for me and that the organisers did not insist on showing our race licences, as neither of us had ours on us. By the time I’d racked the bike, got changed and as ready as I could be, listened to the briefing and visited the loo, there was less than five minutes to the start. Normally I like at the very least a mile of running warm up – I got just two minutes.
Knowing that I was planning to race the Thoresby 10 mile race the next day, I knew that my game plan had to change somewhat, with compromises needing to be made. Rather than go flat out hard on the opening 5K, I would have to easy myself in as best I could. With around 40 taking part over the sprint and standard distances, we set off at 9:30am, the stiff wind blowing us along the opening half of the 5K run. I briefly sat in second place before taking the lead, with Stephen and another runner on my tail. I was running well within myself, clocking the first mile in 5:45, not that quick considering the tailwind and it being slightly downhill for the opening half mile.
Over the remainder of the run I was able to eek out a gap over Stephen and the other runner, but I knew it was nowhere near as much as it needed to be. The second mile was 5:56 and the third 6:01 as I battled with the headwind and the effects of not warming up properly. I ran the opening 5K in a relatively pedestrian 18:54. Transition was trouble free; I didn’t have time to elastic band the cycle shoes to the pedals so lost a few seconds putting them on, but I was soon into my cycling.
Perhaps thanks to the strengthening wind blowing me along, perhaps the new bargain Huub tri suit that I was wearing for the first time, but the cycle legs felt good from the off. Staying on the bike was proving much harder though with a gusting rear side crosswind making it extremely difficult to stay on the road. For the opening section I had to ignore the TT bars and hold on to the handlebars for dear life. Stephen came steaming past benefiting from being able to be in a TT position, and revelling in his rear disc wheel excelling in the winds (I hadn’t time in the morning to fit mine).
Knowing he’d past so soon meant that realistically the race was over. All I could do was try and hold onto him as best as possible, knowing that drafting was illegal, and perhaps hope that he’d pushed too hard on the run or that his new TT position that he was racing with for the first time, would prove to be too painful to hold. This though proved to be wishful thinking as he slowly but inexorably pulled away. We both enjoyed the run to North Kyme, the precursor to Storm Brian pushing us along at 32mph with barely any effort. We were both held up briefly by some inopportune roadwork traffic lights, but we were soon back into our own riding.
The two lap course meant that we would be faced with some headwind for part of the course. I was pleased that in my TT position I was able to maintain a relatively good pace. The second lap saw me once again nearly blown off my bike approaching a junction where the gusts were being whipped and funnelled into differing directions, making it really hard to hold onto the bike. By now I’d decided that survival was the best course of action with a healthy gap behind me and an insurmountable gap ahead. On the second lap I was held up for 70 seconds at the traffic lights, but even then I could see no one behind me. Knowing that this delay would be factored into our times, I relaxed and headed back towards the finish, happy that my NP watts of just under 240 was pretty much spot on what I had hoped to be riding. The average speed of 21.9 mph was also one of my best for a Duathlon bike leg.
There was a brief moment of pain when I tried to loosen my bike shoes before the second transition, the left hip briefly going into spasm. Fortunately nothing came of it and another smooth transition saw me off and running, attempting to close on Stephen. That we crossed paths on the out and back course well before I turned around confirmed that, although he was running fairly slowly, he wasn’t going to be caught. I pushed relatively hard, mainly as preparation for Rockingham, clocking 5:42 for the first mile and averaging 5:50 for the slight uphill drag to the finish.
I came home second. Stephen was a deserving winner. I was around 45 seconds quicker on the second run. I finished 1 minute 50 seconds behind him. It was probable that even if I’d run my quickest on the opening 5K run, he would have just had the better of me. At the time I was relieved to have survived the bike leg intact and with legs that felt like they hadn’t been overly taxed.
After a warm down and some cake and presentations, it was time to head home, back to work, and to prepare for Thoresby in less than 24 hours time.
Compared to running races, where I have at least 136 recorded finishes to my name, I have a grand total of one cycle race and not many more sportives on my palmares. For those who are not aware of the difference between a cycle race and a sportive, whereas a race usually sees everyone departing at the same time with the goal to find a winner and losers, a sportive is basically a group ride on a course against the clock. For legal reasons to do with road closures (lack of, primarily) and the like, in the UK a sportive can award riders with things like gold medals or distinctions for completing a ride in a certain time. What it cannot do is give you a finishing position – although a lot of results are published in such a way to make it fairly easy to sort by time and then add a column with position if you are curious to see how your performed relative to others.
My first sportive was in November 2007 when I took part in the Exmoor Beast – a tough introduction to group rides, which I thoroughly enjoyed despite the severity of the climbs and suffering a heavy cold at the time. Six months or so later I took part in the Dragon Ride in Wales – a bigger, more famous event, but in my opinion quite an easy ride in comparison to the Beast at the time. Not long after my eldest daughter was born and with the sudden lack of time available to train given the demands of parenthood and my job requiring a lot of overseas travel, cycling pretty much went out of the window for a good number of years.
It was when I fractured my sacrum in 2014, now living in Grantham, when I rekindled my love of cycling that I’ve had, on and off, ever since I began cycling at three years of age. Unable to run, or walk, but strangely able to ride, I joined a cycling club, Witham Wheelers, my first since a very brief membership with Leamington Cycling and Athletics Club back in 1999, I began taking part in group Sunday rides for the first time ever. The following spring I began taking part in their time trials, did badly in my first and only TLI organised bike race, then took part in a small sportive in Yorkshire called the Bronte – where I snapped my chain on the first hill and somehow managed to finish using gears not designed for 20% climbs.
Since 2015 my cycling has slowly increased in volume but has continued to play second fiddle to running. My participation in Duathlons has meant I’ve had to practice the Time Trial more than any other discipline – an event I’m not particularly good at, but need to work on to improve my Duathlons. In 2016, in another busy summer, I took part in two sportives on consecutive days in mid-July: the Wiggle Stratford (Warwick really) Tempest Sportive (Epic) and the Tour of the Cotswolds Sportive (Epic).
The current cycling boom has seen sportives transform from a fairly limited number of events often low in numbers to the current situation where there are literally hundreds of rides to choose from all over the country, some of the largest requiring a ballot to enter and having thousands of riders taking part. One such event is the Fred Whitton Challenge. A 112 mile ride in the Lake District which features 12,000 feet of vertical ascent and traverses some of the park’s most difficult climbs including – Kirkstone, Honister, Newlands, Whinlatter, Hardknott and Wrynose passes. The first Fred Whitton was in 1999 following the passing in 1998 of the Lakes Road Club Secretary whose name was given to the newly established event dedicated to his memory. It has now established itself as one of the largest sportives in the country, with over 2000 entrants, on the sportive calendar, and this year came under the indirect ownership of the ASO, organisers of the Tour de France no less.
I think I first became aware of the event back in 2007 when I was searching for my first sportive before settling on the Exmoor Beast. Back then the Fred was by the far the daddy of all British sportives, harder than any other and with a bigger reputation. Since then other sportives, such as the Prudential Ride London have become bigger in terms of participation and other sportives, such as the Tour of The Peak can rival the Fred Whitton in terms of the challenge on offer. But the Fred Whitton Challenge largely retains its position as one of the few must do sportives for any keen amateur cyclist.
I’d ducked out on entering in 2016 but entered the ballot in January 2017 for the ride taking place on May 7th. To my joy I was informed a few weeks into the year that my application was successful and I was taking part! One of the challenges of an early season event is that training for the event is not easy over the winter months. It’s more of an issue for myself in that the winter and spring months my training is heavily geared towards the London Marathon. So preparation for the Fred Whitton consisted of the Witham Wheelers Reliability Rides, spinning sessions at the gym and one specific training ride a month or so before the event – the 13 Hills of Belvoir Ride which took in the best of the local hills on a well know club route, done twice in one go. At 118 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation it wasn’t exactly the same as the Fred, but at least it was something.
Another issue was that Fred Whitton comes just two weeks after the London Marathon. I’d expect it will take around a month to fully recover from a marathon. I made the mistake of maybe over doing the running post marathon, acquiring a minor overuse injury, but more worryingly suffering deep fatigue over a week post marathon, which saw my watts drop noticeable on the bike and elliptical trainer, and saw me dropped literally very early on during a chain gang on the Thursday before Fred. I made do with an easy 30 mile ride instead and the reassurance I had two days where I could rest up and recover as best as possible.
Originally the plan had been for the family to head en masse after school on the Friday and spend the weekend in Kendal in the caravan before somehow getting the kids back to school on the Monday morning. Ten days out though the logistics of this through work for my wife in particular meant this idea had to be shelved. Instead I opted to stay in a B&B on the Saturday night and drive home directly after the event. Booking so close to the ride meant very little local availability, but I settled on a The Old School B&B in Tebay. This is around a 50 minute drive from Grasmere, the host town of the Fred Whitton, but I reckoned this would not be too much of an issue with a very early start on the Sunday morning.
I drove up to the B&B on the Saturday afternoon. It was a really easy journey up the A1 to Scotch Corner then along the A66 – roads pretty quiet, weather good. I arrived at the B&& at around 4:30pm. Being the last to book I had been assigned a small broom cupboard of a room, but it was fine – I had a shower, a kettle, a bed and supefast wifi to hook onto and literally catch the last five minutes of the Giro stage. There was no room for the bike, that would have to stay in the boot of the car, but it was well hidden from view on a very quiet road and I felt fairly confident it would still be there in the morning.
With that watched I thought I’d go and loosen the legs with a half hour walk or so. I’d hoped for something super scenic, alas I mostly followed the path of the neighbouring M6 as I walked along the surprisingly sandy footpath alongside the river below.
The walk duly loosened the legs a little stiff having spent the best part of three hours driving and worked up an appetite. Luckily I’d sourced a pub nearby which was serving food. The Cross Keys Inn has been around for 100s of years. It certainly has a lovely view which we were encouraged to enjoy from the beer garden.
Alas it was a little too cold to be sitting outside so I had to make do with a pew inside, complete with a glass of wine to help unwind and hopefully send me to an early sleep. I turned up not long after 6pm hence the rather empty appearance of the pub. It wasn’t long after that the pub filled up quite nicely.
Food ordered I reread the final ride instructions for the event, taking good note especially of where the hardest climbs and most dangerous descents were. Fortunately the weather forecast was looking dry and not too windy, even if it was set to be a bit chilly first thing in the morning. The food arrived – a pie, which if I was brutally honest, wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but it served a purpose. I treated myself to a sticky toffee pudding for desert, reckoning I’d be riding plenty long enough in the morning to justify the extra calorie intake.
With dinner done and dusted by before 8pm I took another short walk before heading back to my little room – the sun setting offered the opportunity for some nice light as I walked part way up a short, sharp hill. On another day I could have explored for longer, but being sensible I headed back to put my feet up for an hour or so before attempting to get to sleep at around 10pm.
I’m not the best at sleeping in a strange bed, not the best at nodding off at an early hour, and not the best when the mattress is a little on the soft side. It took longer than I would have liked to finally get to sleep as I saw my clock tick over past 11pm, but it was better than it could have been. Paranoid that I wasn’t going to wake I set two alarms for 5am, as is fairly typical for me I woke up two minutes before the alarm went off…
I didn’t have long to get my groove on. The instructions said you could start from any time after 6am, with the last riders being allowed to leave at 8am. I had no intention of being one of the first off, but had plans of wanting to leave at around 7am. Back when I rode a sportive in Yorkshire and had my chain snap on me, I ran perilously close to being eliminated by the broom wagon as I’d set off late. I didn’t want to risk that again.
It was too early for the B&B to offer me any breakfast. I’d come prepared with oats and skimmed milk powder in a newly acquired food thermos. I got the kettle boiled, made myself a proper strong coffee, filled my oats with water and went about getting changed into my cycling shorts. I tried to eat a little breakfast but it was too early, so I packed it in my bag to eat at the start. I did though drink all my coffee before having one last check to make sure I’d not forgotten anything and headed to my car.
To my surprise on an early May morning the windscreen was covered in frost. The temperature read 2C! I hadn’t anticipated it being this cold! Luckily as I set off and headed to Grasmere the temperature soon increased to around 7C. Nippy, but much more comfortable to ride in than barely above freezing. That drive to Grasmere was glorious as the sat-nav avoided the M6 and I had a wonderful former A road all to myself. Even the run in from Kendal to Grasmere wasn’t too busy, albeit probably busier than it would be normally at 6:15am with tell tale bike racks aplenty.
As we approached Grasmere we were confronted by swarms of cyclists who had started the Fred Whitton. The adrenaline began to hit! Inexplicably rather than take the normal A road on the final miles to Grasmere, my SatNav took me the wrong way around the lake, taking in some pretty narrow, steep country lanes. Definitely not the fastest way, I breathed a sigh of relief that the only traffic I faced coming towards me were a couple of runners.
I arrived at the start at around 6:50. The makeshift car park was pretty packed already. Being so late I thought I’d be miles away from the HQ. As luck would have it I was guided in to a spot pretty much right next to the finish line!
There was plenty to do in a short space of time. First off I went to collect my number and helmet tag at ride HQ. I passed the Bike Channel TV crew on the way who were preparing to put their first piece of the day to camera (The event was filmed to be shown at some point). Number collection done far faster than expected, I returned to the car.
Boot lid wedged with old trainer (The struts don’t work in cold conditions!) I got out the porridge and began to eat – a few spoons at a time while preparing the bike. Luckily there wasn’t much to do aside from putting the front wheel on the bike and pumping the tyres, turning on the bike computer and calibrating the power meter pedals. With that done I got changed into my cycling kit and headed to the portaloos where I had to take off my cycling kit to do what I had to do before putting it all back on again. One day I’ll remember that bib shorts are not as easy to deal with in such situations as running shorts…
With the load suitably lightened I had little more to do other than a final bike check, make sure I had everything I needed with me such as malt loaf, gels, compulsory rain jacket, money, phone, car key, inner tubes and so on. By fortune a small saddle bag I’d bought during the week had turned up earlier than expected on the Saturday so I was able to put my tubes and so on in there – otherwise I think I will have struggled to carry everything.
At the start we were offered a banana which seemed to good to resist. A guy wanted me to wait with him so we could ride the first miles together, but he was taking too long so I decided to go it alone. Unlike a running race there is not a lot of fanfare with a sportive start as riders set off when they like, solo or in small groups. I set off solo but within a couple of minutes I was caught by a couple of riders and we then caught three or four more.
The first miles on the A591 to Ambleside are an easy introduction to the ride, being gently undulating at worst. I was trying to conserve energy but with the adrenaline pumping the HR crept a little high for those first miles as we averaged comfortably over 20mph. What wasn’t high was the power meter reading which, despite me feeling I wasn’t riding full gas yet, was showing very low figures, often less than half what I’d expect having ridden with them for several months now. I thought at the time maybe the calibration was wrong, indeed later in the ride during a stop I re-calibrated them to no avail. This lack of power information was a bit annoying as I’d been planning my ride around hitting certain power limits on the climbs especially. On the flip side it meant I had to do what I’ve done for most my life and ride the climbs based on how hard it feels rather than sticking to a prescribed limit. This may or may not have helped me.
(Post ride I was pretty annoyed by this and assumed the pedals to be faulty. The following day I did a Google search, as you do, and found the answer to my lack of power issue. My bike computer has two bike profiles for a Cervelo and a Trek. Normally I just choose the Trek no matter what I ride as the crucial bike measurements are the same. On the morning of the Fred I chose the Cervelo profile, which I assumed I’d checked thoroughly for discrepancies. Sadly there was one and it’s crucial for my pedal based power meter. The crank length, which is a standard 172.5mm, had for some unknown reason changed to 110mm, which is probably an eight year old bike’s crank size. They say a 2.5 mm difference can cause a 20% discrepancy in power readings, my 6.5 mm difference explains why I reckon my average watts was down by around 100 on what I’d expect.)
We swept through Ambleside – a town I’m familiar with on my numerous holidays around Lake Windermere and onto the road where I saw all the riders swoop past me earlier in the morning. The majority of the field had certainly left earlier than I had – it was 7:30 before I finally set off. I knew from driving in that we’d soon turn left off the main road and up the first hill of the day.
That first climb was Holbeck Lane – the Strava segment has it at 0.9 mile at an average gradient of 7%, I took it fairly easy up the climb using it as a good opportunity to try and wake the legs. They didn’t feel brilliant but they did feel as though they could come to life later in the ride. Feeling in my element on the hills I soon left all but one of the riders I had ridden the opening miles with. I left him not long after the steepest bit of the hill which we both remarked on being a good wake up for the legs. I soon began picking off more riders making their way up the hill. This was what I had hoped for by setting off quite late, working off passing up riders to give me more encouragement.
The first climb done there was a little respite before the first major climb of the day – Kirkstone Pass. This was actually the only climb of the day I’d ridden before, albeit on the previous occasion I think I started the climb from a different road perhaps lower down. Just like back then I didn’t find the climb that difficult at three miles long at an average gradient of 6%. Then again, I didn’t ride it that hard, taking time part way up the hill to consume the first of seven small slices of malt loaf I’d planned to take every ten miles. It was on this climb I hooked up with a rider I stuck almost like glue to for the best part of the next 40 miles. Of eastern Asian appearance with what looked like a German inspired cycling jersey I assumed that if he’d traveled from at least Germany to ride he must be pretty good to follow. I actually think he was from Yorkshire, but I liked the idea of having a continental peloton to ride with.
The only real reminder that we had been climbing for the best part of 30 minutes was when we passed the famous Kirkstone Pass Inn – the third highest pub in the UK – and continued climbing, temporarily losing the brilliant blue skies as we rode literally into the clouds. The high point of the ride at 1,489 feet, I was grateful that I was wearing a base layer under my cycling jersey and had opted to ride with full gloves, knee and arm warmers as I felt the chill when climbing, let alone when we started descending.
The first major climb done was followed by the first big descent. The first part was tricky with a 25% initial descent with some tight bends, but it soon leveled out, relatively speaking, and became less twisty, making for an enjoyable drop back down to around 500ft above sea level. The next ten miles were pretty flat. I rode with my German / Asian / White Rosed cycling buddy taking it in turns to keep the pace semi-decent before being caught by two quicker riders. We both sensed an opportunity for a quicker ride at a reduced effort by jumping on their wheels. This proved a success with the pace comfortably averaging over 20mph, despite being held up for a while by a slow moving horse box which allowed an large group of very swift riders to catch us. Staying on this train proved to be hard work, but the speed benefit was worth it as we approached the next climb, especially as we were heading north and into a slight headwind.
We hit the climb to Matterdale End at dead on 20 miles which was unfortunate timing to take on the malt loaf, struggling to swallow and breathe hard at the same time. This large group had some really good riders, some of whom proved to be a little too hot to keep up with. Me and my buddy stuck together on the climb with the two others we had ridden with, which was now proving pretty difficult as there were scores of riders scattered pretty much all over the road. At 1.3 miles and averaging 7.0% this was a challenging climb in that it was steeper in places that it looked making it mentally challenging. That said I rode up it fairly well, especially when we passed the small car park at Aria Force, which I had visited with our family last year – spurring me on to statistically my best climb of the day, as I currently sit 19th for the year on Strava for the hill segment (I assume that most of those times were set on the Fred).
Past Matterdale End came another climb steep at averaging 10%, but only half a mile long so not a big challenge. This took us to Troutbeck and a left hand turn on to the A66. This is a busy main road, one I’d driven on just the previous summer. We were encouraged to use the refuge inside the white line if possible, but I know that riding on this part of the road is an invitation to attract a puncture, so I, like nearly everyone else, rode close to, but just to the right of, the white line. Avoiding the raised cat’s eyes did prove something of a challenge at times as the train gently meandered left and right like a slithering snake. We were advised by the police apparently to ride single file and for the most part this was respected by the riders. I’m not totally sure but I think I was somewhere near the back of a long train of bikes (perhaps 30 long) which may have had some of the quick riders I’d tried to stay with on the Matterdale End Climb.
We rode on the A66 for ten miles and although not entirely effort free, it will be some of the easiest miles I’ve ridden while averaging close to 25mph. Mostly gently downhill and aided with a slight tailwind and the long train of bikes, it was a good opportunity to recover, take on another bit of malt loaf, drink some energy drink and prepare myself for the harder miles that lay ahead.
The A66 journey ended at a large roundabout 34 miles into the ride where my Garmin Edge 810 decided to turn itself off. Normally this leads to a corrupt post ride FIT file and the prospect of having no evidence of my efforts. I was calm though as I’d prepared for this eventuality and was riding with my Forerunner watch which was also recording the ride and has, touch wood, been infallible when recording long bike rides. I turned on the Edge and it slowly came to life, taking around a mile or so to find the satellites and remember what ride it was meant to be following. The only real annoyance was that I didn’t know the overall distance of the ride, nor my average speed without referring to my watch, which I find hard when riding. No major issue, but something to stew over as we continued meandering along some flat to gently undulating roads alongside Derwent Water.
The large group had split up braking for the roundabout and I now found myself in a small group of around six riders, still including my original group of two club mates and Asian / German / Yorkshire buddy, who I never actually talked to, but felt comfortable enough in his bike skills to follow his wheel like glue, unlike some others who were sometimes a little erratic in their braking. At this point we were slowed quite a bit for around five miles by a double decker sightseeing bus who was struggling to get past slower riders further up the road. A few decided to take some major risks passing the bus on the twisty, narrow, main road. I and most of the others in a swelling group opted to suck it and accept that these obstacles are part and parcel of a sportive held on open roads.
Thankfully we passed the bus when it stopped as we bid farewell to Derwent Water and we enjoyed our last few miles of easy terrain as we passed through Rosthwaite and Borrowdale. At 42 miles passing through Seatoller we had our third big climb of the day and by far the hardest so far in the ride – the Honister Pass. Like the Kirkstone Pass earlier in the ride we were riding up it in the opposite direction to what is recommended in my favourite cycling books 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs and Another 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs. Whereas Kirkstone Pass has a 7/10 for difficulty, Simon Warren rates Honister as 9/10 and the difference in difficulty was soon apparent (Incidentally for any Grantham based people reading this: for comparison, our most feared climb Terrace Hill, scrapes into the first 100 climbs, but is awarded a measly 1/10) . The Strava segments have the climb at 1.5 mile long averaging 10%, with the steepest 0.4 mile averaging a challenging 15%.
After an initial ramp of around 10% the climb soon got tough with a section of 25% to really test the legs. I was very thankful I’d invested in getting a 11-32 rear cassette on the bike – whereas in previous sportives I’ve been desperately trying to turn the pedals on a 25 sprocket, this larger cog at the back made it possible to keep the RPM at around 55 on the steepest sections as opposed to the 30 or less you can expect when trying to turn a bigger gear. It was here I said farewell to my continental / local friend as I pushed on, sticking to the wheel of the two club mates we had picked up way back at the descent of Kirkstone. With the sun shining for the first time I began to get a little warm in the kit I was wearing, but still not enough to justify stopping to strip off. The biggest issue now, aside from keeping going as the climb continued to alternate between stretches of anything from 8-25% was steering a path through the mass of riders all over the road trying to get up the hill with varying degrees of success. Add to that the odd car trying to creep down the hill to contend with and you had plenty on your plate trying to stay upright and in one piece.
I made it to the top, setting the 26th best time on the day for the steep bit on Strava, greeted by loads of spectators cheering us on. Plenty chose to stop and take a rest, I pushed on, albeit extremely carefully. The descent is described as the most beautiful of the lakes passes by Simon Warren when he was climbing it. It was frankly terrifying trying to tackle the 25% descents round hairpin bends on the opening section of the descent followed by technically an easier section made alarming by the huge slab boulders stuck randomly by the road side waiting to catch anyone who made the slightest error on the descent.
I followed the advice of the official instructions and began braking the moment I started to plummet and pretty much kept them on for the worst of the descent, briefly easing off to avoid too much heat build up on the rims. I was concerned by the number of bodies of fallen riders strewn by the side of the road, being tended to by concerned looking marshals and paramedics. I’m fairly sure I passed this poor chap who I believe, speaking to my car park neighbour after the ride, came to grief when his tyre exploded on the descent because of the brake rubbing tyre instead of rim (It may not have been the seriously injured man, but certainly someone crashed because of this on this descent).
My sense of mortality truly awakened by the descent I was relieved to finish the descent and have a fairly easy five miles as we passed through Gatesgarth and approached Buttermere. I heeded the advice of the instructions and took the opportunity to stop for a comfort break ahead of the first official feed station (although I used the trusted farmers’ gate rather than public toilets that I failed to see anywhere en route. My two club mates (Not my club mates but two riders who were probably mates who rode for the same club) had stopped for the same reason a little earlier on the road. I didn’t see them again. This break saw a two minute thirteen second pause as I also fiddled with my pedal calibration without joy, as noted previously above.
The first feed station was small in size, frantic with seemingly hundreds of riders milling around, but brilliantly organised by volunteers who had clearly manned at this point many times in the past. Unlike the Wiggle sportive last year where the first feed station saw a queue as long and as static as the M25 on any given Friday, we moved along the table packed with tempting morsels like an efficient factory conveyor belt. Acutely aware that we were less than half way into the ride and with much of the hardest miles yet to ride, I dived for the malt loaf, then took a piece covered with jam, took two pieces of flapjack, two jaffa cakes, a cheese and onion sandwich, two SIS energy bars, then one more piece of malt loaf and jam just for luck. I ate all of this except for the energy bars in the time it took me to walk back to my bike. I made the mistake of not bringing my empty bottle with me so had to return to have it filled with some electrolyte, costing me two or so more minutes. Removing my bike from the stone wall was a precision exercise as around 20 bikes were all relying one another to stay upright. Thankfully the rider next to me was leaving at the same time and we worked like a crack team to prise our bikes from the chain without mangling our or anybody else’s precious carbon. Six minutes seventeen seconds was the time taken at the first of two feed stations, which wasn’t too bad considering the business of the cramped venue.
As warned by the pre-race instructions, there was not a lot of time to keep down your food before the next big climb of the ride – Newlands Hause (#81 in the 100 Greatest Climbs). It was here that the organisers decided to stick in a KOM timed hill climb challenge. I didn’t get off to the best start when I was stuck behind some slower riders, but with them out of the way, i made really good progress, feeling like I made light work of the 8/10 ranked ride which Strava reckons averages 11% for the 1.2 mile ascent. The final results show I finished just outside the top 50 for the climb, which is pleasing in a field of over 2000. The organisers really went to town as we hit the steepest part at nearing the top of the climb with polka dot flags, music and enthusiastic supporters urging us on.
The five mile descent that followed was thankfully a lot less challenging and therefore pretty enjoyable once the steep opening section had been safely negotiated. By now I was largely riding solo, passing more riders than I was being passed by, although every now and then a small group of riders on another level ability wise would come shooting past me with no hope of me jumping on their wheel.
Immediately before the next climb there was a brief delay when another bus (Single decker this time) again struggled to thread its way through the oncoming traffic. Thankfully some highly efficient marshaling meant we our disruption was kept to a minimum and we could attack the next climb, #82 in the 100 Greatest Climbs – the Whinlatter Pass. This was probably my favourite climb of the ride. It only rates 5/10 in the good book which meant it was a challenging, but not overly taxing affair. I rode it well, feeling strong, buoyed on by the crowds of people who had been encouraged by the organisers to use this climb as a vantage point, and they did so, lining the road cheering us on like we were in the the Tour De Yorkshire or other less well spectated bike races, like the Tour De France.
With the descent that followed there was another five miles of fairly easy riding to the sixty mile point before the 20 mile section described amusingly on a Strava segment the shit bit. Whether this is a reference to the undulating terrain that begins to tax on a rapidly wearying body, or the relative lack of scenic surroundings compared to the majesty of the rest of the Lakes (we had a good view of Sellafield Nuclear Power Station by the Irish Sea at Calder Bridge) I’m not sure. Regardless I ploughed on, enjoying the challenges of such climbs as Fangs Brow at 65 miles and Burn Edge (#180 in Another 100 Greatest Climbs) at 75 miles. This one was a 6/10 and as Simon says, it’s a climb that cries wolf, appearing to end then going on again and again for what seems an eternity. It did end though, a gazebo with very loud music welcoming us with biscuits handed out on the fly if you were lucky enough to hold onto one (I managed, just).
That climb tackled there were a couple of tricky hairpins to contend with as we approached Calder Bridge and the second feed station at 82 miles. This was where my biggest mistakes of the day were made. I’d been feeding quite happily on the SIS Energy Bars, and still had a couple of bits of malt loaf and two Power Gels remaining. With 30 miles to go I should have just taken on more electrolyte, bagged another couple of energy bars, maybe a small piece of flapjack and been on my way. However I let the prospect of Hardknott Pass ten miles or so up the road interfere with rational thinking and so went on a ridiculous binge: a coffee while I returned to my bike to get the bottles I forgot again; I filled the bottles with electrolyte, then put the bottles back on the bike, to head back to the feed tables where I ate 3 or 4 bits of malt loaf with jam, three bits of flapjack, a couple of Jaffa Cakes, another cheese and onion sandwich, all stuffed down the gullet before I returned to my bike with another couple of energy bars stuffed into the back pocket. What with taking a minute to have some sun screen applied to the back of my neck (which I’d forgotten to do back at the B&B) and then removing the long fingered gloves and arm warmers, only to stop immediately after and put the arm warmers back on, I spent over eleven and a half minutes at the second feed station when I could have and should have spent a maximum of five, and could arguably have done without stopping at all.
Back on my way there was a brief section on the main coast road which wasn’t that pleasant before we headed onto a much more scenic road that would lead to Hardknott itself. Before then we had Irton Pike, which averaged 9% at it’s steepest part but wasn’t too troublesome. That tackled there was a section of four miles that was gently rising. It was here I began to feel the affects of taking on too much food. I felt distinctly queasy, nauseous, and at times quite dizzy. It was a little unsettling, the only thing I could be thankful for was that I was cycling and not running, so at least the stomach wasn’t being bounced around leading to inevitable, catastrophic, gastric distress.
We’d had warning signs a little way back that a road followed that should not be navigated by anything other than small, light vehicles, Then, in the distance I spotted a gap in the trees with a solitary red telephone box that I knew from The 100 Greatest Climbs meant the start of the hardest climb of the day – Hardknott Pass. Ranked as 10/10 for difficulty and described by Mr Warren as the king of climbs and arguably the hardest climb in the land. I’d seen the footage on Youtube and knew this was going to be tough – probably too tough with the way I felt right then, right now.
Past the telephone box and another set of severe warning signs there is a short steep climb through some woodland, over a cattle grid and out into the open where you are faced with the enormity of what awaits – a ribbon of narrow tarmac that just disappears off into the sky. Simon says the first switchbacks are 25% followed by a section of 30% before it levels off before it’s finale at the end where there is a section of some more 30% to battle up.
Sadly today I failed on the first 25% section. Feeling rubbish and swayed a little too easily by the pre-race instructions that suggested it’s almost more worthwhile walking than trying to cycle up, I unclipped at the first section of 25% and walked rather than risk grinding to a halt and falling off. At that moment the prospect of trying to ride up that hill seemed like the most ridiculously hard thing I’d ever been expected to do. So ridiculous, there was little point.
Detemined to minimise time lost I wasted no time in trying to walk up as quickly as you can up 1:4 and 1:3 roads in cycling shoes with their cleats pushing a bike and all that goes with it. It turned out that was almost as quick as trying to ride as many inched past me still in their saddles before I inched back past them feeling the strain in my calf muscles and hamstrings.
Once the road leveled a bit I was back on my bike, arm warmers down, jersey partially unzipped, working hard. Leveling though is a relative term with the gradient regularly in excess of 15%. The benefit of walking up the steepest bits was that, a bit fresher, I was able to re-pass a lot of the riders who had managed to ride past me and were now out of gas.
There was just the matter of the final kick of 30% to tackle. On another day with a happier digestive system and body that wasn’t having a blood sugar overload emergency on its hands, I would have given this climb a bloody good stab at riding the whole damned lot. With a compact crank on the front (that’s smaller chain rings attached to the cranks and the pedals) I would have definitely got up there. That’s why if you watch the video above some appear to be getting up with relatively little difficulty, whereas others are pedalling as though the cranks have been super glued, and others, like myself, have resorted to walking. The really sassy ones also fit mountain bike cassettes to their back wheel which means you can spin up 30% climbs with relative ease, not relatively quickly, but you look cool still on your bike as opposed to the failures who have resorted to walking.
So with those excuses put on the table – I walked the final section, along with around half those around me. I did though mount the bike before reaching the very top. The brutal part of a climb like this is that, unless, you stop and have a moment to compose yourself, you have to concentrate hard on the very dangerous descent that follows immediately after. There was no time to recover, it was full on pulling the brake levers as hard as I could just to keep the speed under check, let alone consider coming to a halt. There were moments I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop, like two guys just a few moments before me, who had just gone done and literally gone off the mountain, falling hard apparently onto some form of ravine.
There were cries from spectators for help, for medical assistance. It didn’t sound good. Other riders offered up to stop and assist but we were informed that there were already people down there trying to assist. Just like in London I felt I was in no position to help, so the best course was to try and get down avoiding the distinct possibility of joining them on the casualty list. (As far as I know those riders were not badly injured in the accident).
Thankfully just when I thought my upper body could not hold onto the brakes much longer, the steepness of the descent subsided and I was able to recover somewhat. In another moment of questionable tactics I stopped at Cockley Beck where someone was handing out bottles of water. I had a full 750ml bottle of electrolyte remaining which would have easily lasted the 15 or so remaining miles, but the preservation instinct kicked in and I spent the best part of two minutes slowly filling my bottle. When I got home and lifted my bike with and without the two nearly full water bottles (I didn’t take on much more liquid after Hardknott), I realised how much extra weight I was unnecessarily taking with me on the final hard climb of the day that immediately followed.
Wrynose is #85in the book, ranked 10/10 and described as the queen to it’s neighbouring king (Hardknott). This coming at nigh on 100 miles into the ride and so quickly after Hardknott meant it was a real beast. I knew it was coming and was warned, but much less is made of it than Hardknott. Mentally that made it easier, for although some of the gradients were in excess of 25% the climb, apart from the last little section (which I may or may not have walked – I genuinely cannot remember, although my cadence data suggests I walked 🙁 ) it wasn’t as taxing and I made it up with minimal distress, starting to feel a little less nauseous.
The final major challenge of the day was getting safely down Wrynose. Although not as steep as Hardknott, the section where near permanent braking is required is longer. My arms were by now killing me and I had to shout to myself to summon the energy to keep on braking. It’s a ridiculous situation where you are working nearly as hard downhill as you are uphill. The rather uncomfortable situation was amplified by some alarming squeals coming from the front brakes as I kept on plummeting down the hill while braking fully. Luckily just as I thought that something catastrophic was going to happen we had a long stretch of straight descent and I could release the brakes and allow them to recover. On inspection at the end of the ride I noticed they had worn significantly over the ride, but I think the squeal was more to do with heat build up than impending brake failure.
With 100 miles in the bag I knew from the instructions that the final 12 miles to the finish were relatively easy. On quite a technical descent I got on the back of two riders who encouraged me to join their train. This was quite beneficial as the lead rider seemed to have good knowedge of the roads and I could follow his quite fast lines fairly safely. I thought I would be able to hitch onto their train for the remainder of the ride but on the last little drag on the ride they slowed and then eased up to wait for a friend they had dropped.
Feeling quite fresh after the strains of the two previous passes I pushed on as best I could with a rider stuck firmly to my rear wheel (He thanked me at the end for the free ride, which was kind of him). Like many others arriving back into Grasmere at that time of day I lost a couple of minutes with slow moving traffic that had to be safely navigated. This made it impossible to give it full gas, thankfully any hopes of a super-sub-7 hour ride had long since passed and i was just riding to the finish.
That I did safely and relatively fresh after my uncomfortable section at 95 miles. My official time was 7:16. There are no finishing positions in a sportive, but a re-sorting of the results suggests I was around the 120th fastest rider on the day and I was awarded a First Class Distinction, a gold medal, so to speak, based on my finishing time. My Garmin time which takes out the stops, was 6:42:43, but I think that misses out a fair chunk of Hardknott when I walked and the computer auto paused. Still it means that the cherished sub 7 hour ride was within grasp, as it was for two guys who finished just behind me, almost in tears and hugging each other having cracked 7-hours on their tenth attempt. With knowledge of the course, more nouse at the feed stations and probably a compact crank, I think I can do it too. For the record only 10 riders broke the magic 6 hour barrier, the fastest Nick Williamson in 5:45.
There was a bit of a queue at the finish as riders stopped to collect their print out of the results and their commemorative pint glass – filled with Erdinger alcohol free beer if you so wished (I politely declined). I phoned my wife as soon as I returned to my car to let her know I had finished safely. Originally I planned to hang around and recover for an hour or two before driving home. However, after packing the bike and having a quick wander around (Where I picked up my finishing certificate), I realised that I was probably best off trying to leave the still pretty full car park before the majority of the field attempted to do so. There was little to stay for as the the queue for the free post race meal was horrendous and I felt like I would never have to eat again after the second feed station (It took until 10pm that evening before I felt like doing so).
I left shortly before 4pm. For reasons best known to my satnav, rather than take me on the easy, mostly dual carriageway route I took getting to the Lakes, it would take me on a tortuous run through to Bradford. before finally hitting the via the M62. It took over an hour to cover the first 12 miles, it would be four and a half long hours before I got home, almost more painful than the ride itself thanks to some sciatic pain.
To conclude…. An amazing ride, as hard and as brilliant as I thought it would be – Hardknott perhaps harder. The organisation is quite informal but quietly slick, the marshaling and signposting exemplary. I can see why it is still arguably considered the daddy of all the tough sportives we now have in this country. I will definitely want to do it again – an official sub-7 as enticing as a sub 2:45 marathon. Whether I’d do it in heavy rain or wind is another matter. It’s a hard and at times dangerous ride without those elements bringing more dangers. We were blessed with near perfect conditions, it was nearly a perfect ride. Damn you Hardknott and too much food!!!
I also would love to do the ride in a more informal manner, taking in the majesty of one of the my most favourite places in the world (Except when it is full of tourists, which is most of the time…), fully enjoying the breathtaking views and treating the feed stations more like relaxed coffee stops than the raids they turned into.
Thoroughly recommended, not for the novice cyclist, but a ride that any cyclist who likes their hills should be looking to complete.
With the London Marathon again taking early year priority, my participation in the Clumber Park Duathlon has been very much considered a side project. I’ve continued to do my post Sunday morning bike ride brick runs and have cycled over the winter to a similar, perhaps slightly higher volume than in 2016, but there has been no specific peaking for the event, nor any taper to speak of.
I was though meant to have some shiny new aero wheels for the event. My bargain buy a week or so before the event, alas, turned out to end in something of a disaster as the front wheel turned out to be faulty and the entire wheel set needed to be returned. With my training wheels fitted with an 11-32 rear cassette in anticipation of the forthcoming Fred Whitton sportive, I was looking at not even using my TT bike for the event – not wanting to risk derailleur failure with an ill-advised gear change on to a big-big combination.
Fortunately a brief encounter with a friend post spinning session a few days earlier led to an offer of his HED tri spoke aero wheels. It was 10 speed, which meant some iffy gear changes, but I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to ride my TT bike on the day – after all it was why I spent so much money on the thing for events like these. I fitted them to the bike a couple of days before and had all of 10 minutes to give them a quick spin – they worked!
Originally I had no plans of using the race as an opportunity to enter an ITU Championships event, knowing that I was unwilling and unable to take part in the 2017 Worlds taking place in Canada. However with a day or two to spare I succumbed to the temptation and paid the £10 fee that meant I’d stated my intention to qualify for the 2018 European Standard Distance Duathlon Championships, on a date and at a venue that is yet to be determined. The race now had a purpose, at least.
I woke at 5:30am on the Saturday morning and began the military style operation to get myself and the entire family out of the door by 6:30am. We finally departed at 6:40am, which wasn’t too much of a disaster – we arrived at Clumber Park just the two hours before my planned start time. That said I pretty much needed all of those two hours to get ready – there is so much more to organise in a multi-sport event than in a running race: assemble the bike; pump the tyres; check the bike over; collect your entry; fix all the required stickers in the right places; take bike to transition and set up; listen to the briefing; warm up etc…
Despite all that I was ready with around 20 minutes to spare, the start was delayed by ten minutes so I had the chance to watch with my family the sprint competitors start their race. I even got chance to have a pre-race family photo, which sees me looking far fresher than a post race one!
I lined up in my wave a few minutes before the off. I felt fairly pumped for the race, more than at the recent Newton’s Fraction. I did though not feel particularly healthy, coming down with a cold the youngest had suffered with for much of the week. Setting off in a wave containing pretty much just runners in my age group, I eyed up the competition. There was one familiar face – someone who beat me at the World’s in 2016. It was no surprise when we started that he surged to the front of the field and edged slowly, but inexorably, away from me. He was briefly followed by one other runner, but he had started a little too exuberantly and I was soon able to catch and past him on the first of a few little climbs on the opening 10K run.
The run course was an out and back 5K loop – constantly rolling with a couple of mild hills to tackle. We started just a couple of minutes behind the women’s wave and so it wasn’t long before we began to catch and pass a fairly steady stream of runners. I quite enjoyed this – it’s more interesting targeting the next runner to catch rather than stare into empty space. Being an out and back too I could regularly see how far the leader was in front of me, and how those behind me were doing. My pace was solid, if unspectacular, averaging around 5:50 a mile. I could definitely feel the effects of the cold in my legs, they were suspiciously heavy and lacking any zip. That said I couldn’t complain too much as I came into transition second in my age group and only passed by a couple of young whipper snappers who had started their race a couple of minutes after I did.
Transition was solid and a million miles away from twelve months earlier at Rutland Water where I completely screwed up my transitions, posting some of the slowest times of the race – down with those who literally like to change their clothes, have a snack, and some drink, perhaps even a little sit down before setting off. In and out in just over a minute, sixth fastest in my age group, losing just six seconds to the fastest. I had chance to share a few words with my family – who helpfully had parked themselves pretty close to where my bike was – mindful that at Rutland Water I couldn’t find it! I’d opted for the shoes attached to pedals option (Another pre-race chore to set up). I didn’t quite manage the flying mount but I was soon up to something close to full speed.
From the off the cycle leg felt like a real struggle. I’m used to the quads aching for the opening few miles as they transition from running to cycling, but they just ached relentless for the entire ride. I also struggled hugely to maintain a TT tuck position, by far the worse I have ever been. It wasn’t helped by the wind. It wasn’t as strong as first feared and we were well sheltered in the forest of Clumber Park, but out on the road we were subject to a stiff breeze which, when it was a cross wind, had a habit of trying to blow me across the road.
It wasn’t long before I was passed by the first cyclist – looking far stronger and more settled on the bike than I. Then another passed, and another. Indeed a steady stream of cyclists passed me for the entire ride. It was somewhat demoralising, if not entirely unexpected – I’ve still not cracked the ride leg on a Duathlon and if ever there was a course that wouldn’t suit me this was it – constant small rollers that the big guys can power up while I struggle. Watts wise it wasn’t even that bad a ride – 234 of them was the average, which isn’t far off what I averaged a few days earlier on a 40 minute spin session – and here I was riding for over an hour. The main issue was definitely not being able to hold a tuck position. Post ride I’m thinking it may be something to do with saddle position – I’m going to spend the next few weeks and months tinkering with that to see if I can find a sweet spot.
Finally, after an hour and six minutes the bike ride came to an end. I came into transition, once again cheered on by my family, who told me I was doing really well. I wasn’t convinced, having been passed by far too many riders – twenty two were quicker than me in my age group alone, over one hundred across all the age groups. At least there was no calf cramp in transition – a regular foe and at dead on one minute transition was again pleasingly swift, eleven seconds slower than the quickest in my age group – fourteenth best on the day. I did though have to stop briefly after transition – the tongue on my left trainer was not sitting right and not wishing to risk injury through irritation, decided to stop and adjust to taste.
I left transition with two or three other runners. I had fears this was going to be a hellish 5k, but as I swiftly passed them and set about closing down others in front of me, I knew that this was going to be a bearable conclusion to the race. I didn’t feel like I was trying that hard or going that fast, but did notice that my mile splits were getting faster: 6:00, 5:50, and then 5:46 as we approached the finish. My legs were actually getting better all the time and I cruised in passed the finish line at 5:24, feeling that, had I needed to, I could have run that leg much faster.
There were some technical issues on the day – there were no results published until the Sunday. I had no idea where I finished other than my wife letting me know I was around the 24th to cross the finish line. When I got the email receiving the final results it transpired I was 40th overall, and third in my age group – setting the fastest time in the final run leg by 48 seconds in the age group and the thirteenth fastest overall. With the first four finishers in their age group kind of guaranteed a place in their chosen ITU Championships, the odds are favourable that I have done enough to qualify. There is a clause in the regulations that could see some 39 year olds take my place, but I have no way of knowing if that is going to happen. Given that at Rutland I failed to finish in the top 10 in my age group and wound up qualifying for the Worlds’, I am hopeful.
Post race was pretty understated – with no medals and not fancying the alcohol free beer handed out to finishers, I collected my bike and headed back to the car. We had planned a post race picnic by the lake, but just as the picnic basket was pulled out of the boot, the rain began to fall and we abandoned those plans for lunch back at home in the conservatory.
Reflections on the race are a mixed bag. I don’t feel as though I performed to my full potential. The cold I came down with certainly didn’t help. My form is also yo-yoing a lot at the moment – a lackluster Newton’s Fraction was followed six days later by a very comfortable 2:51 marathon in training. The ride – in particular the failure to hold a TT position, was disappointing and something I really need to work on. But when I compare the effort to the shambles of Rutland Water in March 2016 it is clear I’ve made a lot of progress since then and given the strength of the field at Clumber Park this year, I’m not doing that badly in the grand scheme of things.
Unless there is a dramatic change of plan, that is now the racing done, bar a a couple of Club Time Trials, until the London Marathon. Some important weeks of training lie ahead – it’s where it all fell apart this time last year, I’m keen to avoid a repeat this time!
I had two weeks following the success of the Holdenby Duathlon to prepare for the Rockingham Duathlon, where I was taking part in the standard distance – 10k run, 38k bike, and a 5k run to conclude. The week following was a mostly easy affair recovering from the duathlon which had certainly taken it out of me. It was the first time since early September where I tried to resume running relatively normally. The left Achilles continues to be a source of some pain and frustration. I was testing out my new Hoka Hoka One Clifton 2 trainers, which were certainly packed with cushioning and pretty light with it. Both Wednesday and Thursday’s run were noticeable for the high heart rate for the pace, a legacy of the racing and the lack of running miles in recent weeks. Thursday’s run saw the Achilles ache a fair amount. I was most enthused by Saturday’s run though. Out of the door later than usual thanks to late night working on Mexican time, I was back in my Brooks and I managed 13.4 miles around town with barely a whiff of Achilles aching and coming in just under seven minute per mile average.
Sunday saw a rare excursion with the Witham Wheelers on a 55 mile or so ride which was mostly gentle in pace. Still feeling fresh once home I headed out for a brick run which turned into a ten km effort. With the first mile an easy 6:27 and the second a still comfortable 6:10 I was enjoying this run loads, even if the left Achilles was grumbling away. I kept the effort up, putting on a near flat out effort on the Auf Widersehen Pet Strava segment to regain my KOM which I’d lost a couple of days earlier. This effort proved a useful fartlek style effort as I returned from sub five minute mile pace to run the final mile and a half at 5:40 pace. Sub 38 minutes for any training 10k is pleasing, more so off the back of a bike ride and with a crazy fast effort two thirds of the way into a run.
The week before the Duathlon saw less running – a rare intervals session on Tuesday with the Harlaxton Harriers was run at 80% effort as I was feeling tired after a long weekend of work and exercise. I put in two easy effort two hour efforts on the elliptical trainer, an easy turbo trainer session and a GRC town run where I was hopeful of experiencing no Achilles pain, but came away disappointed to see it the worst it has been for some time. That aching meant I reluctantly opted not to take part in the first anniversary of Belton House parkrun, putting the time to good effect with an extensive stretching routine on the left calf especially, hoping (believing) that the source of the Achilles discomfort is coming mostly from the calf muscles.
After a particularly mild and dry October, weather forecasts for race day were looking fairly appalling, with strong winds direct from the Arctic feeding heavy rain showers over Rockingham Motor Speedway from 9am through to early afternoon. Thankfully when I awoke on race day morning, although it was dark I could see that the skies above Grantham were clear – an indication that the weather forecast was maybe not quite 100% accurate. What was apparent though was that it was cold – temperatures only three or so degrees above freezing. What with the cold weather and the onset of a cold brewing (I was full of cold by late afternoon) I opted to eschew some aero performance and wear a long sleeved thermal base layer below my tri suit, tights over the top of the shorts, with long socks and half overshoes for the bike leg – hastily purchased midweek when forecasts predicted the cold snap. I even went with the buff worn around the neck to offer some extra warmth on the bike leg in particular. I did though opt to not wear my thick cycling gloves and made do with the same thin running gloves underneath the cycling mitts used at Holdenby. It was a bit of a gamble but I had big problems at Rutland Water in March trying to fasten the helmet with big gloves on, so I was prepared to risk a bit of frostbite for a swift transition.
Rockingham Motor Speedway may be something of a white elephant when it comes to motor sport – the number of races actually held on the oval are probably in single figures – but it makes for a pretty good sporting venue when cycling and running is concerned. As with most motor racing circuits, facilities are better than most races with ample parking spaces, plenty of places to warm up and ample permanent toilet facilities. I arrived 80 minutes before the start with my family in tow. Registration was painless and I was pretty relaxed before the start, making sure the bike was okay, my transition area was prepared, and my warm up done with the minimum of fuss, even if there was a little aching in the Achilles. I had the chance to meet some club mates from Belvoir Tri Club and my good friend and work colleague Russell, who is making his first steps in the world of duathlon and had an impressive fourth place finish on his debut a few weeks previous.
I headed to the start ten minutes from the off for a pre-race briefing. All seemed fairly straight forward, and I was pretty relaxed as we were called to the start line at the pit lane exit at 9:30am. With a countdown from ten we were off.
I made a bit of a tardy start but soon found myself third behind the two runners leading above who quickly established a gap on the rest of the field. I put in a bit of an effort in the opening couple of minutes of the race to catch them then, as we made a U-turn off the oval and onto the infield circuit and into the stiff headwind, tucked myself nicely behind the two of them, trying to seek as much shelter as possible. We were soon faced with something I wasn’t expecting – a small incline which saw the runner in the grey top drop back. I kept with the blue-shirted runner as we passed through the first mile in 5:41. I kept on this guys heels for around half a mile further as we endured the worst of the wind, but I sensed the pace was dropping so I pulled alongside and passed him, pulling clear fairly comfortably as I clocked 5:46 for the second mile.
At this point I had a runner in the sprint event come haring up to us and past us just after he inquired which way we should be going. I laughed inside at his inability to follow the course, I wasn’t laughing so much a few minutes later as we headed back to the pit lane to complete the first lap. I wasn’t sure whether I should follow him on the inner pit lane entry or bear right and take the later exit or even stay on the oval itself by passing the pits. I went for the later exit and very nearly headed down the main straight before a marshal guided me the right way.
Approaching transition and with 5:58 clocked for mile three, another marshal assumed I was second in the sprint event and tried to send me into the transition zone. It was only at the very last minute another marshal realised I was in the longer event and sent me down the correct pit lane path. It was stress I could have done without and sent the adrenaline pumping. Looking back to see that no-one was behind me, I made a conscious effort to ease the effort. That said the fourth mile was still fairly fast at 5:43, although this was all within my half marathon HR parameters, so I felt comfortable.
While trying not to exert too much energy I knew I couldn’t relax too much on the run for I was likely not to be the quickest on the bike. Mile 4 was 5:43, mile 5 a 5:56 and mile 6 slowing a touch to 6:01 as I battled with the headwind and the slight incline.
As I approached transition I tried to relax, remembering that my bike was racked by garage 22. I clocked the 10k in 36:05, which was the fastest by one minute fifty four seconds. It also transpired that this was just six seconds slower than the winning time in the supporting 10k road race held after the Duathlon.
Despite rehearsing the run into my pit box a couple of times, I still managed to run a few yards past my bike, but, thankfully, only lost a few seconds and managed to not panic following this slight error. Attempting the elastic bands securing the bike shoes to the pedals trick for the first time in a race, all that needed doing was trainers taking off and helmet putting on. I spent a couple of extra seconds making sure the trainers were neatly placed for the second run, but other than that transition went well. It turned to be the third fastest of the race. Given that some efforts in other races have seen me near the bottom three this was pleasing. I didn’t quite manage the flying mount, preferring to stop and get one foot in a shoe before heading off, but it wasn’t long before I all in and racing along.
I enjoyed around 30 seconds of tailwind riding before turning into the headwind. The easy 30 mph quickly became a battle to break 15 mph as there wasn’t just a stiff cold wind to contend with but an imperceptible ascent to climb too. With 16 laps of this I settled into a rather dull, repetitive ride of a minute or so of easy fast riding and three minutes of headwind hell. Although I’m feeling far more comfortable in the TT tuck position of late I opted to sit up on the tailwind sections, partly to try and catch the wind and also to stress different parts of the quads which I feared could suffer if I maintained the same position for over an hour of riding which afforded absolutely no opportunity to stop pedaling.
The ride was pretty monotonous – riding around in fairly small circles, completing each lap in a shade over four minutes. What kept things mildly interesting was the volume of traffic to negotiate with over a hundred sprint and standard distance cyclists on the circuit at one point. The speed differential between slowest and fastest was significant, thankfully the oval circuit is very wide and it wasn’t difficult to sweep around the outside of riders.
I didn’t think I was having the best of rides – I felt unable to give it absolute full gas. That said the lack of people passing me was relatively reassuring. I was passed by one other rider at around halfway who soon pulled clear. I wasn’t totally convinced though he was actually ahead of me in the race, reckoning he may have unlapped himself, so to speak. One other rider approached me and sat on my wheel for a little while before being warned by the race referee for drafting. I didn’t see him again. Another rider pulled up to me, passed me, then didn’t move ahead as I rode fairly close behind him for 2/3s of a lap, pulling out wide on the banking to make it clear to anyone watching that I wasn’t drafting. I was then able to pass him on the main straight and he quite quickly dropped back, presumably having made a big effort to catch and gone too fat into the red doing so.
It was at around this point, after around 12 laps, when I began to to get very concerned over how many laps I had completed and how many I had left to ride. I had used the auto lap feature on the Garmin to lap every 1.48 miles, this being the official length of the oval. However this was proving to be none too reliable thanks, in part, to forgetting to attach the speed and cadence sensor to my bike and so relying on GPS. Lap one was clocked at the start of turn one, by lap 12 it was nearing the approach to turn 2, pretty much halfway around the lap. That wasn’t helping. In the heat of the racing I also couldn’t decide whether I needed to complete 16 full laps or come in at the end of the fifteenth lap. With perhaps one or two laps to go, my support crew (the wife) didn’t seem too sure either when I began gesticulating with a couple of laps to go – they suggested I needed two and I decided to err on the side of caution and complete sixteen full laps.
I headed into transition, successfully removing my feet from the shoes and dismounting before the line. I found my rack position and got the trainers on without cramping up the left calf – a first in my brief duathlon history. I had time to ask two spectators what position I was in. ‘Third or fourth’ came the reply. Bugger! Something was amiss. The scenarios quickly ran through my head as I left transition (in the third quickest time, I’m pleased to report retrospectively). Either I had done too many laps; two or three competitors had done too few; or the spectators had mistaken the standard distance competitors for straggling sprint competitors. Whatever the scenario I was pleased that I was quickly into my running; a quick look at the average pace suggested that comfortably sub six minute miles was attainable, should it be needed.
In reality the final 5k was uneventful. The nearest competitor behind was the one who had passed me on the bike leg, but he looked to be several minutes behind. Other than a couple of sprint event stragglers I passed, there was no-one within visual distance in front of me for the entirety of the run. The legs felt okay, but the right glute in particular felt a little numb, cold from the wind chill on the bike. I opted to keep a steady pace as I clocked the three miles in a 5k in 5:54; 6:00; and 6:09 – pretty much even paced when the hills and wind were taken into account. The biggest issue I had was trying to keep my number visible and actually on the belt, the wind having ripped it clear from three of the four attaching pins.
As I came to the finish line it was strangely quiet. My wife and family cheered me home but there was no-one at the finish line. The PA, which I’d vaguely heard while on the bike, was quiet. I hadn’t celebrated as I crossed the finish line, I got the impression I hadn’t finished first. I turned the corner and headed into the race HQ building to be handed my medal and to be told I finished fourth. I was pretty upset, but managed to remain relatively calm. I explained that only one rider had passed me and he was still out running. If I had completed the correct number of laps I could not have legitimately lost the lead.
I was told to try and find the race officials, who I found near transition in a van huddled around the timing system. As it happened they were trying to work out the discrepancies in the bike leg times between the top five finishers. I was six minutes slower than the rider who had come in first. Either he and the top three had ridden one lap too few or I had ridden one lap too many. It was when I went to collect my bike and see that my bike computer logged 24.6 miles that I feared the worst. 38km is 23.75 miles, evidently I’d ridden a lap too many (Post race Strava analysis suggests those who rode the correct number of laps rode 23.1 miles – it also suggests around 10% of the field made the same mistake I did, including Russell, who would have finished well inside the top ten had he not committed the same faux pas I did).
When this unfortunate result was confirmed to me I was disappointed but far less upset than when I first thought I’d been robbed of victory by competitors who had ridden too few laps. I made a mistake, lesson learned, and it won’t be made again. I didn’t miscount the number of laps, no elastic band or tape system would have helped with that. I just got confused out on the circuit what 16 laps meant. In hindsight it was obvious, the 10k run required two laps which saw us head into transition at the end of the second lap. I should have swapped bike for trainers at the end of the fifteenth lap, rather than the end of the sixteenth. Something to do with how the brain treats large numbers differently to small numbers is what I blame – that and not fully prepping myself before the race. At least I wasn’t the only one!
So rather than the winners’ trophy to take home, I was resigned to just taking the rather snazzy medal and first place in my Age Group (No prizes for that, alas). My final 5k run was timed at 18:57, which was 39 seconds faster than the next quickest (A guy who finished 11th) and 90 seconds quicker than the winner. It is estimated that had I completed the right number of laps I would have won by over a minute. The actual winner was genuinely around two minutes quicker than me on the bike, but I was three minutes quicker on the runs and around 30 seconds quicker through transitions.
A disappointing outcome but there were plenty of positives to take from the race. After a couple of miles the Achilles ache disappeared and I didn’t feel it again for the rest of the race. My transitions were light years better than they were back in March when I took part in my first proper duathlon. My runs were solid but with room for more, as was the case on the bike – a different helmet (the pointy bit was too high in the air a lot of the time), some proper wheels and wearing aero kit are all free improvements to be gained in the future (As well as improving the actual riding bit). Most pleasingly, I stayed mostly calm at the end of the race and didn’t make a total idiot of myself (A little one maybe….) At the end of the day we were just running and cycling around in circles. There are far more important things in life – such as seeing Russell’s new baby daughter for the first time at the end of the race. That, I am sure, was the moment I lost any anger from the outcome of the race. As long as I stay fit and healthy there will be other opportunities to race and hopefully do well. For now I have a tell to tell of the race I through away by not being able to count. I’ll see the funny side of it one day!
Following the unexpected success at the Stilton Stumble I had just seven days to recover and prepare for the Holdenby Duathlon, a race I’d been targeting for some time, but only entered a day or two before the Stumble. The left Achilles was pretty stiff and sore following the race so I opted to spend as little time running as possible to give it a chance to recover.
Monday saw an hour on the elliptical trainer then a spin session in the evening operating at half gas. Considering the efforts of the day before that felt pretty good. Tuesday saw an hour on the elliptical trainer and an hour on the turbo following an easy program on TrainerRoad. These felt somewhat harder than Monday’s efforts.
Wednesday I headed out on the bike using the summer road bike I had planned to use with the addition of tri bars. This ride was something of an alarm call – the quads had absolutely nothing to give as soon as I went into the TT position. The HR was really low, but not in a good way low, more a something is not quite right low. It was a two hour ride that felt longer and harder.
Thursday saw two hours on the elliptical trainer, which wasn’t too arduous but felt as if I was fighting a cold trying to erupt. By Friday I had changed my mind over what bike to ride for the duathlon. A tip off by Hywel Davies on Strava who had recced the course on Wednesday, he suggested that a TT bike was definitely the way to go, even if the first half of the course was a little lumpy, and the second half had road surfaces of dubious quality.
This change of mind meant I needed to head out on the TT bike which I hadn’t ridden outside since the end of July. Riding the Witham Wheelers TT course the bike felt fine, save the Garmin mount which was somewhat broken, but the legs, if anything, felt worse than they did on Wednesday. I had little choice but to ride easy, rest up and hope for the best. That I kind of did, straight after a one mile brick run – a test of the Achilles and a test of the Hoka Hoka Clifton 2 trainers I’d bought a couple of months earlier and hadn’t got around to trying. They felt pretty good and the legs felt more lively running than when cycling.
Rest should mean rest but I read somewhere over lunch that Achilles problems can be caused by issues in the hip / glute area. This part of the body has been giving me a few issues recently, probably because the weekly core strength and conditioning programme has, let’s say, slipped over the past few months to not really doing anything at all save for some planks.
Friday I did twenty minutes and felt no ill effects. Saturday came and I was still feeling the effects of the ‘Stumble and by now suffering the consequences of being on Austin, Texas time covering the F1 by night and being on British Summer Time by day (i.e. being awake most of the time). Nonetheless I was keen to put in another S&T session, focusing on the glute medius muscle. All was going well until a set off crossover crunches saw my right hamstring tighten alarmingly near the glutes. The session was quickly abandoned for half an hour intense massage and stretching before needing to start work. By the evening and still walking with a little limp I considering not bothering to take part – the lure of a lie in was strong. Only the fact I had parted with a sum of hard cash persuaded me to set the alarm for 6am as I headed to bed shortly before 2am on Sunday morning.
Knowing that I would be pretty much comatose while staggering around the house Sunday morning, I had prepared as best I could to ensure an easy departure. This was achieved, leaving just a few minutes later than planned, but then 10 minutes into the journey I had a panic that I’d not remembered my trainers! I fretted all the way to my doorstep before remembering they were safely packed in my rucksack! Annoyed I went in anyway and picked up my rain jacket – a token gesture to suggest the return wasn’t entirely wasted – it was after all raining quite heavily in Grantham. Thankfully I was able to make up a little time en route to Holdenby and the rain was a distant memory when I pulled into the field to park. While the right hamstring was happily almost pain free I did manage to complicate matters by finding a tender spot in the right quad while poking around bored on the A1. This caused quite a deep long lasting pain which forced some frantic quad stretching on my arrival.
It was immediately apparent this was no World Championship event, this was a fairly low key relaxed race, albeit still with proper transition areas, chip timing and the like. I had just over an hour to get prepared. This is not as straightforward a task as when running – there is a bike to set-up and check, things to put in boxes, things to keep and not keep in transition. I must have fretted away 30 minutes before I made my final trip into transition shortly before the start and was satisfied I was ready.
The warm up was a token mile jogging slowly back and forth. Thankfully there was just a subtle ache in the Achilles, the right hamstring was fine, the right quad felt a little fuzzy, but bearable. I joined the rest of the field for an organised warm up session. I normally baulk at such an undertaking, but after a minute or so I realised that they were doing pretty much all the same exercises I was doing, so joined in – and felt better for it.
The final instructions were more important than normal to listen to. There was to be a foot down rule at a junction we had been warned about. There was also some temporary roadworks on the bike route covered by traffic lights. This was clearly not an ideal state of affairs. The thought of being unjustly held up by a costly red light already had me seeing red before the race had begun. Still there was nothing that could be done and there was always the chance this random luck / bad luck generator could play into my favour.
The warm up over we were greeted with a loud buzzing noise and the somewhat off putting sight of a drone hovering somewhat unsteadily just above us. We were encouraged to wave; I felt more inclined to duck for cover. Thankfully we were promptly given the countdown from five to begin and once off we were soon we were clear of the flying camera which, I presume, wasn’t seen again. I felt a little conspicuous to be taking part in my Team GB tri-suit. This wasn’t bragging, more the reality of only having one tri-suit. Hopefully soon I can get hold of a less conspicuous one.
As with the Stumble I instantly found myself at the head of the field from the off, but this time there was two or three who were quickly keen to take the pace, passed me and pulled out a small gap chasing the lead vehicle which would accompany us for most of the first lap only. I wasn’t overly concerned, but was a little bemused when after around three minutes of running we came down a short sharp descent and was swamped by five or six minutes hurtling down as if the finish was at the bottom of the hill! Admittedly I was taking it fairly gingerly here – I didn’t want to stress the quads, already showing signs of fragility and which have form for cramping up early in races on a descent.
Thankfully the quads and all the other aching bits survived and, lo and behold, it wasn’t too many yards later where I began to pretty much all of the runners who flew past me a minute earlier and were now already beginning to show signs of paying the consequences. The first mile was swift – 5:41 but it was mostly downhill, so a 6:05 according to Strava GAP. The run was off road but the kind of off-road I’m agreeable with – firm underfoot and, for the most, part fairly even and not rutted.
The second mile was where i established my position in the race. I found myself moving up to third as we tackled the big steep hill on the climb. The lead two were around 20 seconds ahead but as looked at them I began to wonder whether they were actually competitors. I remembered that as well as the standard distance Duathlon with its 10km opening run leg, there was a sprint Duathlon with a 5k opening run leg, and also a 10km standalone running race. This explained why one of the lead two was wearing a baggy vest and shorts, which would be awfully casual attire for the lycra obsessed multi-sport world.
As I struggled with a section of hills and hollows coming in to complete the first lap the lycra clad runner peeled off to collect his bike in transition. I was now at worst second and likely to be leading the Standard distanced race. I very nearly ended up throwing it all away at the start of the second lap when I was confused by a poorly posted direction sign (It pointed left when it should have been straight ahead) and a gate that had become partially closed suggesting we should indeed turn left. This I did, but after a few seconds guessed that we hadn’t run through a farmyard on the first lap and had probably taken a wrong turn. I lost around 10-15 seconds but no one had passed me.
The run was proving to be hard but sustainable in terms of effort – mile 2 was 6:14 (5:50 GAP), mile 3 6:26, mile 4 6:13 and mile 5 6:02. There was no problem with low heart rate today, if anything it was a struggle to keep it down – the weeks of running inactivity beginning to show. The penultimate climb of the big hill was a struggle but I was pulling well clear of those behind me. Mile six was the slowest of the full mile of the run at 6:32 and there was a another 3/5s of a mile tackling before the the pesky hollows approaching transition to complete. It was here I received confirmation via the PA system that the runner ahead was indeed a runner and not planning on taking to a bicycle.
My transition to bike went really well and was commented on by a couple of spectators watching intently. As we were on wet grass and with the start of the bike leg tricky, I saw no point in attempting to run barefoot with bike shoes attached to bike. I calmly put helmet on first, took off trainers, put on bike shoes, unracked the bike and headed off to the mount point.
The bike leg was largely uneventful and played somewhat to my strengths. A two lap course, the first half of the lap was mostly uphill with two long descents. It meant that although I was on my TT bike there was little benefit of spending too much time in the TT position and I could put power through my quads in a more upright position. Also to save the quads I pedaled at a fairly high average cadence. I got myself in the TT position on the few flat sections of the course and on the gentle descents where the poor road conditions allowed. It transpired the road that had traffic lights had some of the most appalling road quality I’ve encountered – so rough that my bike mount broke and I had to hold onto the Garmin for dear life to avoid losing it altogether.
It was tricky to know how I was fairing on the bike as I was soon passing riders taking part in the sprint event. What I did know was that no-one passed me and no-one was in sight for the entire ride. I was fortunate in that on the two laps I was only held up for a few seconds at the traffic lights, and then again for 20 seconds or so coming into the village near Holdenby where parked cars were wreaking havoc.
An hour and nine minutes or so and the bike leg was over. I opted again to leave the bike shoes on when dismounting rather than get the socks wet. There was a little drama when the left calf wanted to cramp when taking the shoe off (Just as at Aviles) but again I was able to quickly stretch the calf and the pain passed. It wasn’t the quickest transition of the day but by now I was relaxed, confident that as long as the legs wanted to play ball on the run I was going to win.
Thankfully despite a little hip discomfort from the bike ride, the legs were soon up to speed, even if they didn’t feel like they were. The first mile was a 6:06 and half a mile later I was able to take a look back where I could see for nearly half a mile and I could no-one behind me. I relaxed as I settled to 6:16 for the second mile and almost allowed myself the luxury of walking up the last hill as mile three was a pedestrian 6:48 (6:15 Strava GAP). The last 0.3 mile was a little tortuous on the hollows but I was receiving congratulations from the Sprint athletes as they came to the finish too.
As I crossed the line there was a small celebration but little in the way of elation. I’m not sure why I wasn’t happier, I think it was sheer relief that I managed to get around largely in one piece. There was also the matter of not being able to hang around too much as there was work at home to be done. I quickly changed and packed the bike in the car before a short podium presentation, minus the trophy I am still waiting for, which apparently hadn’t arrived and will be posted.
And that was that. My second win in as many weeks! They will be days I look back on with affection, for these victories are unlikely to happen very often. In the end I won by over three minutes – fastest on both the run legs and, pleasingly second fastest on the bike leg. The field may not have been the biggest or strongest, but, as they say, a win is a win is a win!