The Brutal 2017 – Race Report

This is my race report from the middle distance Brutal triathlon, held in Snowdonia on September 17th 2017. My lows, my highs and my thoughts about the next one.

The Brutal Triathlon 2017

The day started with an anti-socially alarm at 05:25. Or at least it would have, had I not already been awake from 05:00 – awake with nervous anticipation of the day ahead. Peering out through the curtains, it was still fully dark, the road glistening with recent rain.

Rainbow over transition

I quietly started getting ready, having racked my bike and deposited my kit in transition the day before, and with a list of notes as to what to do in the morning helping me in my half-asleep state. Between waking and starting the event, an almost comical amount of time was spent in the bathroom. Was this the gastric distress that I’d read so much about? I was expecting this to happen halfway up Snowdon, not before racing began!

Breakfast at the B&B was with 3 other guys – one doing the Pig Ultra duathlon, and 2 doing the full Brutal. We swapped thoughts and notes, and I got down porridge, fruit and bananas. I ate more easily than I thought I would, and was keen to get real food in my stomach, in case I struggled with solids later in the day.

I got to transition slightly later than planned, and hastily set about getting into my wetsuit, booties and other swimming kit, while also trying to arrange my bike and run kit, and attempting to keep my dry clothes off the wet ground. The atmosphere in the marquee was one of focussed determination – with little in the way of banter or light conversation.

The swim

As we made our way to the lake shore, the sky was lightening, with wisps of mist on the surface of the lake, and growing light in the early Welsh morning. We waited expectantly in the chill air, before being informed of a delay due to one of the marker buoys being out of position – a key buoy designed to keep us out of the cold-water channel.

At 07:25 we were counted into the water. Having a long and difficult (but not recent) history with open water, I swam immediately to deep water to acclimatise, check my goggles, and put my face in the water. “Slightly chilly” is pretty apt. Fricking cold would describe it too. I felt good. Calm, and in control. I’d trained over winter at Tooting Bec lido, so the cold of the water didn’t bother me. I moved forwards in the waiting group, and to the right, away from the main pack.

I’d started working my way towards the back of the field when the hooter sounded. Immediately the washing machine got going, and I found myself being bumped as faster swimmers went past me at speed. It wasn’t aggressive – just people looking for space. I rapidly found myself falling back in the field, but this was where I wanted to be. I’d always planned to be at the back, and to one side.

I started well, but without warning, I had a minor panic/ anxiety attack, which I couldn’t control while still swimming. Even writing this, I’m angry at my brain for this, as I’ve worked tirelessly on open water swimming to combat it. I stopped swimming, and looked around me. The field was already strung out, and racing ahead. I looked at the safety kayak 50m away, and the idea of quitting flashed through my mind. “F..k that” I internalised – I was damned if I was stopping now, faced with the prospect of failure and humiliation.

The Brutal - swim
The Brutal - Swim

I pushed on, reaching the first marker, the second, the third and finally the end of the first lap. I was deliberately swimming within myself, determined to enjoy this as best I could, and determined not to push myself into further anxiety. The second lap seemed like a big ask, particularly as I was getting occasional minor cramp. I pushed on, resolute in my slowness, knowing I was near the back of the field, but knowing I had to finish. I would finish. I’ve routinely swum 3K open water through the season, so I knew stamina shouldn’t be an issue.

As I reached the first buoy on the second lap, I was lapped for the first time. To be fair, I was in awe of the speed and fluidity of these powerful swimmers. As I swam I was able to diagnose my technique, which isn’t amazing at the best of times. I knew I was swimming crappily, but something just wasn’t working. The cold was a factor, as was a determination to avoid cramp and further brain farts… Even in this situation though, I was bizarrely sight-seeing, looking at the mountains around me, revelling in the scenery. Maybe this was a distraction technique.

The home straight was a long time coming and happening, but I finally hit the shallower water and thankfully stood from the water – into the arms of the photographer!

“Are you on the half or full?” asked a marshal. My cold brain struggled to process the question, or formulate an answer. I heard one or two people uncharitably laugh. “The half” I replied a couple of seconds later, before thankfully taking my glasses from Jen, and walking up the field to transition. Thoughts of running and quick changes were not in my thinking – I needed to compose myself. Transition had about 4 other athletes, all expressing their views on the cold water in unambiguous terms. As I peeled off my wetsuit and started to dry myself, I felt oddly detached – almost dreamlike. Some hot tea, a flapjack bar, brisk towelling and with dry clothes I was on my way to the bike – resolute in my determination to finish, and believing that the worst was behind me.

Transition was a little less than 10 minutes. I couldn’t have cared less if it had been 25.

There’s been much discussion about the water temperature in the 2017 Brutal triathlon. It certainly varied massively in the lake, with some bitterly cold zones. I’ve read accounts from experienced triathletes putting it between 9c and 11c, and based on my own experience of cold swimming, I’d put it at 10c. I’ve also read James Fargus’ (my club mate) account of his Double Brutal who talks about the cold channel on the right, with the feed into the lake. I can’t help but wonder whether I strayed into the coldest area, and got caught unawares by the lower temperature.

I’d set a time of 47 minutes, and took 56.

Bike

Heading out through Llanberis on my bike my mood immediately lifted. I wasn’t down as such, but the anxiety and the cold of the swim had taken something out of me mentally. The morning air was cold on my bare legs, and my tri suit under my cycling top was slightly soggy. I worried that I might get chilled, but cracked on with the job in hand. Turning left towards Ceunant I knew there were some minor hills to come as we went through Ceunant, and I cranked these out while revelling in the views towards Anglesey and the Menai Strait. It was truly beautiful, and with the fast run downhill to Waunfawr afterwards, the whole event was transformed in my mind.

The first lap was mostly about grinning at the experience, the beauty of the surroundings, and the privilege of competing on such a course. A fast descent into Bedgellert brought childish whoops and hollers, and a big shit-eating grin, before the 8Km drag up to Pen-y-Pass. The climbs were longish but not taxing, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow would be hooning down the Llanberis pass back to transition. As I crested out at the summit by Pen-y-Pass, I set the GoPro running, and pushed the pedals harder until my courage ran out on the fast sweeping corners with their unforgiving rock walls.

Lap 2 was a carbon copy, with the highlight drafting a piece of agricultural machinery down into Waunfawr, chatting to some other competitors as we bimbled along inhaling the farmer’s cigarette smoke. For the second time the feed station on the Bedgellert downhill approach flashed past, and I ground out the climb up to Pen-y-Pass. Then it was the final descent down the Llanberis Pass, following an Audi A4, but by now I was mentally preparing for the run. The run was what this event was all about, and I just wanted to get started on Snowdon.

I’d set a bike time of 2 hours per lap, and with one thing or another, took a little over 4:10 in total.

Run

I took my time in transition, having a bite to eat, some more tea, and a few minutes with my support crew (Jen). Just as I was about to exit the transition tent the air temperature dropped 5c, and the rain started! I donned an extra 2 layers of clothing and set off. Within 5 minutes I was along the lakeside, and it was immediately warmer and dry… The running was flat and easy, and my legs appeared to be playing ball. I checked by speed (5:30 per km) and settled in, more or less alone, save one other competitor behind me who I saw from time to time.

The lake lap was uneventful, and I stopped at the feed station for more sweet, sticky stuff, and a chat with the volunteer who was a top bloke. I knew I was a back-marker, and today was about completing and enjoying, rather than trying to eek every last second off the clock. Before I knew it, I was into transition, a quick wrestle with my mountain pack, and I was being inspected for my fitness to continue. “Was I in a good condition?” Hell, yes!

I set out through Llanberis, towards the foot of the Snowdon mountain path, having resolved I’d walk the tarmac given it’s inhospitable gradient. As I hit the steepest section of tarmac, I saw to my horror 2 competitors barrelling down the hill towards me. I’d figured it would take me 4 hours to do Snowdon, so were they really 4 hours ahead???

Getting onto the lower part of the Llanberis path, the practicality of running on this surface on my legs 6.5 hours into an event hit me, and I power walked to begin with, until the surface improved slightly, and I started running. I’d done a fair amount of hill training, and was able to jog the better sections. Before I knew it, Half-Way House and Jen hove into view.

On I pushed, walking and running alternately, determined that this was a triathlon, and not a day out. The section running immediately up to Clogwyn station, and beyond was frankly a dog, and running was off the agenda for me – in some part down to a stomach full of coke that I’d downed at HalfWay House… Finally, the gradient relented, and I got my legs running again, with the summit within reach but not in sight. The cloud had closed in, it was raining and the temperature dropped with each passing metre of altitude gained. I briefly pondered donning a layer over my tri suit, but now just wanted to summit and get down.

By the summit railway station I found the marshal/ medic who ticked me off his list, and said that I was done, and I could turn around. Bollocks to that – I’ve not come this far to not actually summit! I made my way through the throngs of hikers in their full waterproofs in my all too revealing skin-suit, unceremoniously made my way to the front, snapped a picture of the trig point and got the hell out of dodge. It was too cold to be hanging around!

As I descended in the sub-zero air, with wind and whirling mist, my elation started to rise. Barring a fall, I’d only gone and done it! 10 minutes of running down and the clouds lifted, and I could see the spine of the mountain, Clogwyn station, the old slate quarry that I’d run up in May in the Slateman, the steam train and Llyn Padarn below.

I won’t lie. At this point I choked with emotion – looking at what I’d achieved. A quick reprimand about not being a soppy tit, an espresso gel for alertness and I was off again. I was now the runner coming down the mountain, greeting my fellow competitors as others had been greeting me on my way up. The path was dry, and I ran with increasing confidence all the way to the tarmac, and then into Llanberis.

As I made my way through town past the Snowdon mountain railway, I became aware of another competitor gaining on me, being egged on vociferously by his supporters. “Come on Tony – Reel him in.”, “You’ve got him”, “You’re right on him!”. “Screw that for a laugh” I said to myself as I upped my pace, frantically looking for the way to the field and the finish funnel. I darted the wrong way towards the lake railway, before correcting myself, and charging towards the final gate.

I ripped the gate open, barrelled through and uncharitably let it slam shut behind me – losing my footing as I cornered. With “Tony” now only a few paces behind me, I broke into a final sprint to the line, at full tilt after 8 hours and 41 minutes of endeavour.

I’d set a target time for the mountain of 4 hours, and took 2:21, finishing 16/ 90.

The Brutal - view from Snowdon

Reflection

By the start of the 2017 tri season in May I’d done a bunch of super sprint and sprint triathlons, and one Challenge distance. I knew that getting to the Half Brutal triathlon in 6 months would demand a lot of time, planning and sacrifice. A key part was also joining a triathlon club – in my case Phoenix Triathlon in Guildford – getting support, advice, guidance and motivation from a group of like-minded people. Also having “crew” on the day has an inestimable value. Thank you Jen.

I’ve logged over 290 hours of training on Strava this year across the 3 disciplines. 4,000Km on the bike, 770Km of running and 125Km of swimming. It’s been a big commitment, but there’s no question in my mind that it’s been totally and utterly worth it. The sense of achievement is immense – knowing that it’s one of the toughest triathlons in the country, but more than that, it’s set in such rugged, beautiful and captivating surroundings.

As a course, it demands mental and physical self-sufficiency, and I believe also thorough planning in terms of clothing, equipment and nutrition. The marshals are fantastic, and the support from locals and other “crew” makes a real difference. Even other competitors acknowledge and support one-another – something I’ve not seen often before.

I imagine there are other events like it, but I found myself almost mumbling that I was doing “only the half”, given that I was surrounded by people doing double, four times or even six times what I was doing. Just by making the start line, you’re in pretty good (if slightly un-hinged?!) company. I finished 71/72 (last male) on the swim in a time that even for me was terrible, but I made the start of the swim, and I made the finish of the run, and that can’t be taken away from me, and nor the can views indelibly etched in my mind’s eye and the sense of pride. I finished 9/21 in my category, and just outside the top-half in my gender and just inside the top half overall – having made up good time on the run. I’ve also learnt about me, pushed me, and found a better me. I don’t believe that training for lesser events would have resulted in the same outcome.

If you’re wondering whether to take part or not, I’d finish with this.

Take the plunge. Enter. Train hard. Plan carefully. Enjoy the anticipation. Learn about yourself along the way. Take a friend. Enjoy the day. Eat food not gels. Live with the life-time of memories.

If you don’t, you just won’t know what an experience you’re missing out on.

The odd thing is this. I can’t face not doing the Brutal triathlon again. I need to shoulder my mountain pack, and set off for the summit of Snowdon once more. Among a group of like-minded nutters.

P.S. Why  did I look at my standings? Because the swim was so crap, that I have to remind myself of the good bits! :o)

The Brutal Finish