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Triathlon Plus Staff Writer Tom Ballard gives his exhaustive account of an exhausting day at Ironman 70.3 UK.

Tom jubilant at his finish with wife Shonsel, and club mates Kevin and Ed

There’s a reason Wimbleball is known as the toughest 70.3 race in the world apart from its monstrous bike and run courses and that’s because of the camping.

With weather so atrocious in the few days before the race that I’m sure many would have welcomed passport problems like Macca to avoid racing, the tent was duly pitched and pegged in the blustery wind.

As the field filled with other eager athletes – some with tiny pop-up tents, others with Everest base camps – it dawned on me just how special the event is that despite the downpours, we were all determined to get on with the business of racing.

Club mates soon arrived to greet me (and my better half) with nervous excitement and the path etched by cars into the grass across the field became thick, gloopy mud that squelched with every step. As Crocs and wellies become de rigueur selections and the festival atmosphere grew – bolstered by the many steaming pots of pasta bubbling away – it occurred to me that in spite of the rain, there was nowhere I would rather be. Muddy it might be but like drunk teenagers at Glastonbury, we couldn’t care less.

Then it was time to join the small queue already forming outside registration. On the way, we saw the new layout of the expo area, which had changed since the previous running of the event (where I was a spectator) to open up the bike racking area for all to see – a better prospect for friends and family to catch a glimpse of their athlete. The food stalls that would serve hundreds of ravenous athletes fatty luxuries like bacon and burgers following the race had also been moved – along with the bar – from the main enclosure to make way for the altered finish line, which now stood centrally in the main expo field to allow a better view of finishers completing the race.

Once the hospital-style wristbands were snapped on there was no escape possible from the absolute certainty that barring a lightening strike to the tent, I would be racing my first ever Ironman 70.3.

After slip-sliding through the mud back to camp, Friday night passed slowly with the howling of the wind and the constant fear that the canvas above us would at any moment be ripped away making it hard to drop off. Waking encouragingly refreshed on race-eve, the day’s meticulously planned race prep began. Just as this race was the biggest I had yet attempted, the amount of preparation, checking and double-checking of kit for this eclipsed anything I’d done before.

Sensibly deciding to pack my transition bags in the morning before nervous neuroses took hold completely, it was time to tinker with the bikes before certifying them “A-ok” as George, our workshop manager says. A pre-race flat due to my overzealous tightening of a valve extender meant another dash through mud and rain to the on-site race mechanic. With reassuring calmness, he’d soon sorted me out and then it was time to rack the bike – my metallic red Boardman Elite AiR giving an easy-to-find advantage among the masses of black and white – and hang the bags up before a walk through the next day’s path through the tents.

Planning an early night, it was food and chill out time in the afternoon with the fun of applying the water-on tattoo race numbers (a cool new addition) before turning in, the alarm set for five.

A surprisingly good sleep later – no doubt helped along by my subconscious’ knowledge that we’d packed loads of extra loo roll – and it was nearly time. Thanks, I presume, to the previous night’s Iron Prayer efforts, the rain had ceased and the wind lessened in intensity as race kit went on. Choking down breakfast and swigging High5, time seemed to speed up and before I knew it, we were making our way to transition.

For the first time ever, 70.3 UK was to feature two waves of athletes and after a nail-biting delay as racers tried to plough through the mud to reach the isolated venue for the start, we were led to the lake for the start of the race. I didn’t need to recall U.S. professional Jordan Rapp’s words about focusing on what was right in front of me to keep my attention on the looming race; I could think of nothing else. A mixture of excitement and trepidation jangled through me. Splashing in undignified manner into the lake, we pushed to a gap in the middle of the field. The national anthem swelled loudly, distorted by the echo of the Tannoy and the exuberant approximation of the tune by the athletes.

The tones fading, someone within the pack (not me) obviously decided that meant it was time to go and without claxon – well, I suppose you can’t false-start more than half the field – the race was underway.

The swim went surprisingly well. No black eyes or serious smacks to the head, nor delivering any myself, I swam, pulled along by the pack and my Zone3 Vanquish no doubt, to a 32:11 split – loads faster than I was hoping for. Up the steep hill to a slow and considered transition, it was time for the part of the race I’d been most excited, and full of dread, about: 56 miles and 1,800m of climbing on the bike.

Having recced the course, I knew what I was in for and that this was the most crucial stage of the race to stay calm. A rattling rear mech didn’t help things (I assume it was knocked in the night by one of its bullying neighbours on the rack) but a quick prayer to Chris Boardman and a few turns of the in-line adjusters sorted things out for me easily.

The climbing barely lets up on the Wimbleball bike course, but it gets even worse during the second half of each lap, with some horrible leg-sapping, heart-destroying gradients thrown in. It was the kind of misery that lessens in retrospect, but at the time it was both physically and mentally draining. Making sure I kept to my nutrition schedule of High5 IsoGels, Energy Source and plenty of water was all I could focus on to get through it.

Throwing a bit of a wobbler at the start of the second lap – where they’d rather unfairly made the hill leading up out of the valley out longer and harder while I’d been gone – I settled in for a few slower miles, sticking to racing my own race as others zipped by. The support of the marshals on the traffic-controlled course was spectacular throughout, as was the goose bump raising feeling of riding through the walls of cheering spectators who’d come out to support everyone through the ride.

I’m absolutely convinced that an aero road bike like the Boardman is the ideal companion for a hilly triathlon like Ironman UK 70.3 – aero benefit and the ability to change gear to make hill climbing as efficient as possible is the best of both worlds in my opinion – not to mention the comfort of riding on the hoods when needed, something instrumental in getting me though the bike leg.

Finally, excruciatingly, I crested the final climb and whirred into transition, clocking a time of 3:19:15 racking my bike with the promise it would get a full clean in gratitude for its perfect performance – or rather, just getting me to T2 in one piece!

Back into the tent to grab my running bag, one of the endlessly helpful and patient volunteers helped me change. Had I known about the swimming trunk-based fashion statement that Triathlon Plus columnist Phil Graves was making out on the run course, I might have dressed more provocatively too, but my retro Bondi Band and odd socks (I forgot to remove one of the outer ones I’d worn during the bike leg) had to suffice as I switched my Garmin to run mode and headed out onto the gloriously sunny bike course.

The first thing that struck me was just how fresh my legs felt considering ten minutes earlier I was completely shattered in body and mind. Within the first mile I was elated at my own certainty that I would at least complete the race. Still exhausted though, it was a slow, steady pace keeping the cadence up as best I could and blessing the comfort of my On Cloudsurfers, the deliciousness of Pepsi after a day surviving on gels and the support of all the spectators and volunteers pushing everyone on.

The second of the three laps was incredibly tough, like being in pain limbo where kilometres stretch so long you become suspicious that the race organisers and your GPS are conspiring against you. By contrast, the third lap was actually enjoyable, the thought that every step was one closer to the line not the beginning of another lap sustaining me through the last few miles as cramp struck.

Then grass changed to red carpet, the giant clock ticked away, the crowd cheered insanely, banging on the barriers and then it was over. 6:02:01 of the best race I’ve ever done. Thumbs up for the camera, a wave to a club mate and his family who were cheering from the stand at the finish and then, finally, a good sit down. Sipping water in the finisher’s tent, I felt proud and elated to be there among the others: young or old, male or female, cramp ridden or inexplicably bouncy, we’d all shared an amazing experience – and thanks to the organisers, a delicious hog roast!

Normally it takes a good few days for me to even consider racing another triathlon after an event, but barely an hour later I was thinking of how I would go two minutes, three seconds faster next year. It really is a magical race that’s well deserved of its mystique. The middle-of-nowhere location, crazy ascents, friendly atmosphere, amazing crowd and dedicated volunteers all add up to one of the best races you’ll ever do.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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