Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Bastion 2014: a long-haul triathlon

An aeroplane from Gatwick rumbles across a blue sky and the sun begins to fall behind me, casting a long shadow ahead on the trail. I look up at the plane and wonder where it’s off to, then down at the pair of unusually long legs created by the trick of the light; the shadow confirms they’re now moving at a mere shuffle. It’s 8.30pm and I’ve been running for nearly 5 hours.

It was an aeroplane flying over my hotel that woke me up at 4.30 this morning, not that I’d slept particularly soundly before that. My alarm bleeped shortly after, I forced down some muesli and coffee, and made my way to the start of The Bastion, a new ironman event from the Castle Triathlon Series at Hever Castle in Kent.

Iron-distance triathlons are a bit like long-haul flights: they make me very nervous before they start; you see a lot of people wearing compression socks throughout; and you only get to consume food in tiny portions. You also live in hope that you won’t need to go for a poo at any point during the process; if you do, there is likely to be a long queue for a very cramped toilet.

This was my second ironman, the first being an event that ran through the night last year; I was looking for a different challenge this time and the possibility of taking part in daylight was a bonus. Having tackled the hills of the half-iron version, The Gauntlet, at Hever last year too, no-one was more surprised than me when I signed up for what has been billed as one of the most challenging courses in the UK.

The 3.8 km swim took place beneath a drizzly sky in the early hours of Sunday morning; while posing no problem in the lake, the weather was causing a few anxious murmurs in the field about what this would mean for the bike course. My concerns lay less with what was falling from the sky and more with what lay ahead over the hills I’d be climbing.

Ashdown Forest summit
Taking in a total ascent of more than 2700 m over 180 km, I had questioned throughout my training whether I could actually finish the bike course within the time allowed. I promised to take it steady on the climbs, to keep fuelling, and to keep smiling. Within an hour or two, the clouds had cleared, drying the roads and making the descents an appealing change from the relentless peaks. With the sun high at midday, so too was the pollen count and the contents of my nose needed clearing all too frequently; I accepted that any weight loss must be helpful for climbing and continued to jettison snot rockets across the staggering countryside of Kent and East Sussex. Only when I made it to the top of Ashdown Forest, the highest point in the race, for the sixth time, did I start to believe that that cut-off time was within reach.

There’s a point in any flight when I look out of the window and think it’s all a bit too amazing that we’re still up in the sky. I know that the physics will explain how it’s happening but I prefer not to question it and I just have to believe that we’re going to stay up there. As I rolled into transition, there could be no doubt in my mind that I would finish the marathon ahead; not because my legs felt particularly fresh (they didn’t) or because marathon running is my strength (it isn't) but because I’d already completed something that I wasn’t really sure I could. Besides, if you let any doubts about finishing an ironman into your head, you’re likely to descend into a nosedive from which it is very difficult to regain control.

After stroopwafel #2
The key is to think of the run not as a marathon. So I started by thinking of it as 4 laps. Four beautiful, hilly, muddy, technical, off-road laps. At 7 km I reached a feed station with such an array of goodies I had to stop for a few minutes to consider carefully what I’d like. There, behind the plate of halved bananas and molten jelly babies, I spied an entire packet of Belgian stroopwafels and my eyes widened. These couldn’t be for us. This is the kind of thing that’s best kept on a very high shelf at home. “Help yourself!” announced the marshall. I prised away a biscuit from the top of the packet and scampered away merrily before anyone could stop me. Then it dawned on me that I would pass that aid station 3 more times. This was no longer a run of 4 laps, but an opportunity for 4 Belgian stroopwafels. I couldn’t be happier.

It’s approaching 9pm by the time I start my final lap; my hopes of finishing in daylight are dwindling so I grab my head torch and set off into the grounds of Hever Castle one last time. With light fading rapidly and a full moon glowing behind the clouds, I reset my goal to make it home before the planes stop flying over from Gatwick. There are no in-flight movies and I have to make my own entertainment: I sing as I run alone through cornfields; I chat to the lovely marshalls, who are still smiling after being there for hours; and finally, as I run down through the woods and another flight passes overhead, I stick out my arms and make aeroplane noises to join in. Rabbits, caught in the beam of my head torch, look unimpressed.

From the darkness, I hear the commentator spot my light and cheer me onto the runway towards the finish. There are high-fives from lovely boyfriend and my parents as I bank in for landing, and I’m allowed to run through the finishing tape, arms aloft, as if I’ve won the thing. A dedicated race organiser and his top notch crew are still there after a very long day, ready with hearty congratulations and a medal. The Bastion is no holiday but it truly is a first class event.

Back in my hotel room, waiting to drop off to sleep, another aeroplane rumbles overhead. A little smile creeps over my face: I’ve completed the toughest race I’ve ever tackled and I’ve beaten the planes. I’m also pleased I don’t live this close to an airport.

Thank you to Castle Triathlon Series for the race entry; The Bastion will be back on July 12th 2015, or they have lots of other stunning races to choose from throughout the year.
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