Helvellyn Triathlon isn’t an ordinary triathlon, if you like a challenge then this event should be on your to do list.
This race is one of the toughest triathlons in the world , you swim in the crystal clear Ullswater, the bike route includes the infamous “Struggle” to the top of the Kirkstone Pass (1489ft) and the run up and down Helvellyn (3118ft) which is the third highest mountain in England.
When I decided to take on the challenge of the Helvellyn Triathlon it wasn’t like entering the usual race which most of us train for, I knew if I wanted to be competitive then I would need to prioritise the demands of this race and all the training for the 8-10 weeks leading into it became specific to enable me to race to my best.
I did 3 recce days of the bike and run course, each time with a couple of weeks between, doing it this way was a good indication of how well the training was going and on each occasion I felt stronger and grew in confidence, one of the biggest benefits from doing such specific prep on the actual event course was the conditioning i developed from the punishing demands of the run route.
Although this race is slightly shorter in distance than a 70.3 race, the time you are competing isn’t to far from a middle distance event.
With the thought of the extreme run after a tough bike this would make most athletes take a cautious approach to pacing the swim and bike.
Pre race I had looked at the start list which had the course record holder Alex Lawton on, I train and race against Alex a lot so I know where his strengths are in comparison to my weakness, we have recce’d the Helvellyn routes together so I have witnessed first hand how well Alex climbs up the steep gradient of the struggle and how he is able to dance his way up the rocky steps to the peak of Helvellyn.
So with Alex excelling in the two aspects in this race which would be a challenge to my naturally larger body physique, I needed to attempt to combat this by gaining an advantage elsewhere.
On the start list there was some other good athletes but I set my sights on how I could win and that to me meant how could I get the better of Alex Lawton, this was never going to be easy, Alex is one of the best triathletes in the country and on this course he gets even better, I had a target of finishing in the top 2 minimum, some might see this as being negative and not being fully focused on the win, I see it as being respectful and of course winning is the aim but sometimes you have to realise that it might not be achievable.
My aim for the race was to swim hard, bike strong by working hard on the lesser gradient climbs and pushing it along the flatter undulating sections, the run would be a matter of how much I could suffer to get a result.
The Course Record
Helvellyn Triathlon is an iconic race, it draws people back year after year, there isn’t many races like it.
Back in 2007, a young Alistair Brownlee did the race and claimed the win with a course record which stood for 5 years until Martin Cain managed to get the better of it after a few attempts of trying, Alex Lawton first raced and won the Helvellyn Tri in 2014, he enjoyed the event that much that he came back and in 2015 claimed another win and a new course record to his name.
This year two of the course record holders raced but it was very nearly all three of the above with the new Olympic champion having to withdraw late in race week, there was also 3 previous winners on the start sheet of the race in 2016.
We camped over at a site situated within half a mile of the race venue, this took away the stresses of having to travel and allows more time in the morning to help keep relaxed and focused.
The race start was at 8:30am, the water temperature got announced at being 13 degree so I made extra effort in getting warmed up for the swim by doing some dynamic stretching and also using a stretch band to activate the specific swim muscles.
The Swim is 1600m and was 1 clockwise loop, I entered the water a few minutes before the start, this allowed me to get used to the water temperate but not get cold treading water for an unnessasary amount of time.
Within 100 meters of the start I had pulled away from everyone on my right, before I settled into a rhythm I took a few breaths to my left and noticed there was an athlete slightly in front of me, it was a fast start so straight away I knew that this person was a good swimmer, I would say it was at this point I made a decisive decision to bridge the gap and get onto the draft of the swimmer leading the swim, the remain of the swim was spent with full concentration aiming to stay within the draft and essentially come out of the swim with a fast time and an advantage over the main competitors without having to shell out as much energy as it would have taken to swim at the pace individually.
Out of the water second but out of transition 1 in first place.
The 60k bike is undulating for the first couple of miles, it then kicks up into a lengthy climb, the gradient isn’t to bad so I wanted to push hard up and over the top with the aim of getting out of sight of 2nd position and the chasing athletes, the fast swim and early effort on the bike worked well and occassionally glancing back on the longer sections and not seeing any chasing athlete gave me confidence I was riding strong and the race was going to plan.
The Struggle is at around 50k into the bike course, I knew this was my biggest weakness in comparison to Alex Lawton, I had seen first hand how well Alex can climb and with the 20% plus gradients I knew that my larger physique would play a big factor, I was confident I was hitting the climb with a good gap of 2 to 3 minutes but still wasn’t sure this would be enough to crest the climb in first place, the climb itself can be mentally split into two sections, there is a false flat in the middle before a short descent to take you into the final steep section of ascent, it was at this point I glanced back and my race was going to take a turn with the current record holder and the winner of the last two years races Alex Lawton came past, he said we had a big gap from 3rd so I concentrated on keeping controlled and hit the top where I had family and friends cheering me on as well as all the other spectators waiting for there athlete to fight the “struggle”.
VIDEO – The Struggle
After the gruelling climb you are left with a fast technical descent of kirkstone pass and then 3 miles of rolling roads into transition 2, I took the descent cautiously with it being wet, and then got back onto the power at the bottom, at this point my supporters from the top of the struggle had drove down and was driving behind me for the remaining couple of miles, this was an amazing experience with my niece and nephew shouting encouragement from the Windows and for them all to see the live action and for my mum to know I was safe.
Off the bike and into transition, as I was entering Alex was leaving, my transition was equal to my swim to bike and was fastest of the day to gain a few seconds back on the light footed Lawton.
The Run… 9 miles fell
This isn’t a run leg which you can afford to set off to hard, there is a lot of support in Glen Ridding so it’s important to stay in control as the adrenaline is high.
One thing I noticed when starting at the foot of the ascent to Helvellyn was how intense the sun felt and although I was taking a run / walk approach for the steep rocky sections i was still working hard and feeling the heat.
As I looked on up the rocky ascent I could see there was know sign of Alex faultering and he was dancing his way up and shy of an accident he had this win wrapped up.
My focus from now was to keep it moving at my own pace and intensity, I had done this route enough to know the places to pick the pace up on the run able sections and shorten the strides on the steep sections.
I had my Auntie and my Sisters partner around 3/4 of the way up, they was positioned with a group of spectators at the crest of a real tough section of climbing, at this point I was in a lot of pain through my glutes, I wasn’t moving fast but the important thing was I was moving consistently up step by step, rock by rock.
Reaching Swirrel Edge was a boost and although it’s a very tough section I knew I could short stride my way up to the body sized rocks which you scramble up and over to reach the summit of Helvellyn, from this point it’s practically down hill which doesn’t mean it turns easy in the slightest.
At the summit it was in the clouds, this made visibility bad and even knowing the route there was times when I questioned I was on the correct path.
The descent is made up of loose rocks and technically zig zags down to lead you into a final tarmac section, I knew I could get down fast if the legs allowed, I relaxed and got to work with full concentration, a fall at this point would hurt and could potential put an end to my race.
2 miles to go and off the loose surface and onto the more runnable solid ground, I started to feel the race taking hold and could tell from experience that I was running out of energy fast, I had taken a drink and gel during the run but I was dry and could only focus now on getting to the finish, I knew I had a sizeable gap from the chasing 3rd placed athlete so wasn’t to concerned about being caught as long as I could keep moving.
Entering the last few hundred meters and my body was empty, through the finish line and I clapsed in a heap exhausted but very happy I had achieved my goal for the race and a hard earned 2nd position.
Post race and after a couple of cans of Coke I had come back from the dead and could enjoy some time in the sun with my family and friends, I soaked the legs in the cold ullswater lake and had a light massage in a hope it would aid recovery and maybe ease the muscle soreness, writing this report 2 days later and I can confirm the muscle soreness is top level DOMS (coming downstairs on your bum).
I don’t often have my niece and nephew at the races so having them there to cheer me on and see how proud and inspired they was really does make me smile, triathlon is a sport for everyone to enjoy and if I can inspire people along my journey then that is an achievement greater than getting the results.
I couldn’t of got anymore out of my body, I felt in great shape, fresh and race ready for the demands of this challenging event.
Being beaten is never in the plan but I hold a lot of respect for the race winner Alex Lawton and the talents he has, on this course and on this day it wasn’t possible for me to race head to head and come out on top with his skills out numbering mine, well done mate.
Helvellyn is one of those races which makes you want to race each year, maybe I will loose 2-3 stones in weight and be able to fly up the relentless climb of the Struggle.
Massive thanks to my supporters, they played a big part in my day.
As always, I was racing with some of the best kit supplied by sponsors of my team ChampionSystem/vcuk
Mark Lomax Chartered Accountants