A Week (and a Race) of Two Halves – St Helens Aquathlon and Snowman 2019

It’s been a quiet few weeks with not much in the way of races to report, but that all changed over the past seven days as I completed the 10th and 11th rounds of the 2019 season at the St Helens Tri/BeUrBest aquathlon and the Snowman Triathlon in North Wales. The week started off in fine style as improved knowledge of Eccleston Mere enabled me to exit the water after the 800m swim well up the field for once; again I seemed to be in a race of my own, unable to get anywhere near the frontrunners (some of whom were only doing the swim having raced without a wetsuit) but well clear of the newcomers and regular backmarkers. That set the tone for a run of just over a mile around the lake featuring a mix of road and off-road. It was great to see Sarah Taktak and Molli Forber cheering us on as we entered the woodland area just before the course loops back to the start; what I didn’t expect was that I would see the two fastest swimmers out of the water ahead of me with 100 metres to go. Well, they obviously didn’t read the Wythenshawe cross country report from last year and what happened then happened again; I sliced my way through the middle just as a few rabbit holes threatened to put all three of us on our rear ends but luckily everyone stayed upright and I crossed the line to win by just eight seconds in the most improbable come-from-behind walk-off win of the season!

And so it was on to Saturday, and the long drive from work to get to Capel Curig. A picturesque village in the heart of North Wales, Capel Curig is situated 10 miles east of Llanberis and is home to the Plas y Brenin National Mountain Sports Centre. I registered just as the race HQ was opening and then made my way to Llanberis, and the Heights bunkhouse to drop off the bike and my equipment, and make sure I got a bottom bunk. From here it was a bit of a scramble to find somewhere serving vegan food for dinner, and the Indian restaurant had people queuing out the door so that was a no-can-do, but I got seriously lucky when I found Pantri; that modern rarity of a homely tea-room which stays open until 9pm. And even better, they had a vegan chickpea curry, vegan chocolate cake and soya milk for coffee. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful and probably would have offered me a double helping if they’d known just how tough my race was going to be the next day, but in any case I’ll definitely keep this place in mind when I’m back in the area in September for the Llanrwst triathlon. With all the formalities complete it was back to the bunkhouse where I was only too keen for the mountaineers I was sharing the room with to keep quiet – fat chance there – and as such I awoke at 4am to be greeted with a load of guys who looked like they were big enough to play for Wales in the upcoming Rugby World Cup scrambling to get their equipment out of the room. I let them leave before getting my own space to do things as I wanted, used up my various rations of food downstairs in the bar, and with a slightly overfull stomach, drove the 10 miles back to Capel Curig and arrived at the race venue for the start. The briefing was delayed a little to allow the stragglers enough time to set up in transition and come 8:25 we made our way down to water’s edge just as the curious strains of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe played out over the soundsystem (obviously AC/DC got deleted from the playlist). I took position towards the back of the first wave with a few first-timers hoping to beat 24 minutes for the 1000 metres, which truth be told I wasn’t sure if I could manage myself. Finally, we got our 30 second countdown and the 2019 Snowman Triathlon was underway.

The cloudy, drizzly conditions made for tricky sighting at first but upon seeing the first red buoy things got a bit easier, although I did end up in a bit of an arm wrestle upon passing one of the aforementioned newbies and the turnaround was taken rather tighter than I would have liked. On the way back I tried to up my stroke rate but I got a bit disorientated seeing the odd bit of yellow ahead and not realising which one I was supposed to be aiming for. In the event I was relieved to get out of the water in around 24 minutes (timed at just over 25 once we included the run over the bridge into T1). At the first changeover I decided I couldn’t cope without my gloves so ended up spending a good 30 seconds giving myself extra security to grip the bar end shifters, covered my ears with both my skull cap and aero helmet and at long last I could begin the 70km rollercoaster bike course through the best of North Wales.

In the 2017 edition of the race, when I did the sprint distance, the first couple of miles were all downhill enabling us to get the legs pumping quickly. The classic course sent us the opposite way and what a tough start it made for; despite passing a few early darters on time trial bikes, progress was painfully slow until we reached the first junction where the half iron entrants turned right for Llanberis and we carried straight on for Beddelgert. This signalled the start of the first downhill where a couple of cars happened to be going at the same speed as me, so naturally I ended up drafting them all the way down the descent until they pulled away on the first straight section. Part of their problem was that they had cyclists in front of them who were also competing in the race, and every time this happened I knew another pass was on pretty much straight away. That was fine for the aero position part of the ride, but what of the next segment? Well, I was very grateful that the local authority put a few 10% signs on the road forewarning us that we’d need the inner ring (which on TT bikes rarely gets used) and I was pleased that even on these uphill drags I was able to pass people on various starter road and more advanced aero road bikes including the obligatory 38 or so Cervelo S5’s you seem to see everywhere these days, although some bloke called Neil overtook me just before cresting the top of the climb. However, he was in the Legend Half so there was no need to worry about racing him, indeed there was a mix of bibs out there for the various race options, with pink being the 70.3, blue for my race and yellow for those doing the two-day event. Around the halfway point we turned into the village of Dolwyddelan, where we got the full Fred Whitton Challenge experience from 2017 as people were cheering and ringing the usual cow bells. So far so good.

Then the theme of “a race of two halves” kicked in and this was the first point where things started to get away from me. I followed a few riders ahead of me who in turn were being passed by motorbikes, not on the road, but up what turned out to be a path for a car park for the railway station. This necessitated a furious turnaround to get back on the road not unlike some of the recovery jobs later seen that day in the German Grand Prix, but in our case the changeable conditions had dried up somewhat so at least there was no danger of anyone spinning off the road. However, on the descent towards Blaenau Ffestiniog I heard something rattle off the bike, I looked down and saw my pump had gone. This meant that if I got a puncture, I was out of the race as I had no canisters to inflate a tyre with. At the 42km mark we arrived in Blaenau and I rounded up a lady rider on a Cervelo P2 just as she darted into the drinks station for more fluid. I was doing well in this regard – or so I thought – having only sipped on water a few times (clearly a week off the alcohol had done wonders) but the climb out of the village was a real leg-grinder and, worse still, I was struggling with my lower back having been very outstretched in the aero position for the first half of the ride. The only way to overcome the increasing agony in this joint was to spin out an easy gear and get out of the saddle, not that it mattered much as I was still overtaking a lot of other riders who were also tiring, and the descent towards Betws-Y-Coed gave me a chance to kick on towards the 50mph mark before I started feeling the dreaded speed wobble that comes with putting so much weight over the front wheel. As I reached Betws-Y-Coed I soaked up the energy from the locals and tourists alike who obviously must have been aware that there was a race on and gave us all encouragement on the way through the town even if I did have to squeeze down the left side of a bus to keep both feet in the pedals at one point, and from here it was back on the sprint route from 2017 as we began the final gentle climb into a much less demanding headwind than before to Capel Curig. Typically, a load of traffic on the road meant yet another round of drafting but at least this wasn’t the type which we could get into trouble for, and I even overtook the leading lady just before T2. It wouldn’t be the last I’d see of her either, because after downing a cereal bar and a few mouthfuls of water I was changing shoes once more to begin the final leg, the run to the top of the mountain and back.

The first 400 metres was familiar from the sprint edition, but with a slower than usual average speed on the bike and cooler temperatures than had been expected, I was now power-walking up to the top of what felt like a never-ending climb and this was something of an ultimate disaster scenario; my balance is never the best even when I’m on top form but this course was more of a rock climb expedition for the likes of me who is used to running purely on roads with the odd bit of XC thrown in. On cross country courses you rarely have to contend with rocks, it’s typically consistent terrain even if very muddy, but this was like nothing I’ve ever done before. What’s more, the hill mist in the background made for difficult viewing as the gradient got ever steeper and by now I’d given up all hope of getting a top placing simply because I was sometimes on all fours trying to keep steady (maybe they should mandate helmets for the run next year? That would save time in T2 if nothing else!) I passed a Rossendale runner just before the top and after scrambling over the final few rocks, I touched the miniature tower denoting the summit. The very kind lady at the peak of the climb offered me a jelly baby, noting my rather shocked state but truth be told, I could have eaten all the vegan cake in the world and it wouldn’t have fixed the real problem. Over the past few months, a series of investigations have uncovered a partial branch block on the right side of my heart causing the blood pressure to drop out uncontrollably in certain situations. Normally, a triathlon is the last place I have to worry about it, because it’s flat-out all the way, but with the cold conditions and the slow slog of the run, I was now feeling extremely disorientated with reduced blood and oxygen flow to the head on the first few steps back down, and any attempt to run was tantamount to something of a suicide mission as time and again I battled thoughts of not finishing the race (and what would everyone have said to that) until all of a sudden some random guy watching the runners came to my rescue. He’s a regular mountain walker and rugby player and knows a thing or two about how to descend mountains, and he talked me through every step of the descent. This had the bonus effect of allowing me to relax a little knowing that if I followed his pointers I could at least complete the course, and I picked up a bit of spirit as I heard the announcers in the distance calling out names at the finish line; it was a bit like the scene out of Black Hawk Down when the US fighter pilots call out the name of the captive pilot “we won’t leave you behind”. Well, I was being left behind by plenty of much more confident descenders and by now even some of the competitors were worried for my own state, including one of the Tri Central guys who looked a lot more purposeful than me in their pursuit of the summit. Eventually, after the last stile was hurdled, I returned to the sprint route from 2017. I’d offered to buy Rugby Man a pint in the bar after the race not realising that I’d be offered an 800 metre sprint on much quicker terrain at the end to pick off as many runners as I could, and this I duly did, rounding up four before the left-hand hairpin and sprinting past one more guy in a yellow t-shirt just before the finish line. I’d never been more relieved to finish a race but over the line I went, completing the 2019 Snowman Triathlon in a time of 4:45:37, good enough for 78th overall on a day when 183 finished and Chris Silver took a deserved win in just over three hours.

First of all I must thank the team at Always Aim High Events for putting on such a well-organised race; they hosted my first ever open water adventure in 2017 and I’ll certainly be back to do more of their races, though I think I’ve run the course (in more ways than one) for this particular event, or maybe I’ll do the sprint next year to give myself a bit more of a chance. I’m certainly not taking up mountaineering any time soon (to the relief of the other competitors as well as the organisers). Also thank you to the rugby player who saved me from a major accident on the descent as well as offered me water; he’ll be relieved he doesn’t have to worry about saving me again next year. Special mention also to Pantri, the tea rooms in Llanberis for their pre-race meal (pictured below) I can see them getting a few takers in May 2020 when the Slateman rolls into town! Thank you also to Chris Forber who completed her first half Ironman earlier this year and whose reassuring words convinced me that I could do it; given that I put so much pressure on myself, I rarely tell myself to “just enjoy the experience” having been lucky enough to take a few wins here and there in shorter races closer to home, and given it was a day when a prize was always going to be a long shot, her words helped me survive the toughest, darkest moments out there (I’ll be going for it again at Manley Mere in two weeks’ time though!) And a big hand for Sarah Taktak who cheered us on at the Monday night aquathlon; she was the youngest competitor in IMUK this year and, at the age of 18, completed the course in just over 16 hours; I don’t think I could have got up the mountain, never mind down it, without reminding myself of her epic achievement; the spirit of Bolton kicked in long after my own spirit and character had left the proverbial building. Well done to all who raced, and hopefully see you at an AAH event next year!

Tour de Mon and Angelsey Sandman double header, anyone game for that?


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