Written by Ben Price
I was really excited about having a crack at this famous race until I made a comment on Instagram in advance of the big day.
I posted something fairly innocuous along the lines of looking forward to taking part in this iconic race and thought nothing of it. However, I was quickly inundated with responses from friends and acquaintances in the duathlon/triathlon world who wanted to tell me just how tough it was. I knew it was hard: it doesn’t take a genius to work out that 8 miles of hilly running with over 200m of vertical climbing (including an ascent of Box Hill) followed by 24 miles of hilly cycling (3 laps of the aforementioned run course) followed by a final repeat of the first 8 mile run, is going to be tough! But I have been training well and like hard races. However, as the comments came in, my excitement was gradually replaced by anxiety and a fair bit of dread! It was clear I was in for some serious pain!
As we gathered by the start line for the briefing many of us had the impending pain on our minds – the athletes around me were unusually quiet, almost subdued. There was very little in the way of laughter or joviality. We were clearly dwelling on what lay ahead; wondering why in the world we had signed up for it!
The start was not your usual elbows and arms scramble. Instead, we headed off in groups of four every 6 seconds: a ‘pulsed start’. This was, in fact, rather civilised. ‘You go ahead’. ‘No, you’re welcome to’. ‘Honestly, I really must insist….’ Etc Etc. Civilised? Or just trying to prolong the inevitable as long as possible?!
I was in the group just behind last year’s winner and a few other contenders that I wanted to run with so as soon as I crossed the line I made a quick effort to get across to them and settled in. Nicolas Besson was the defending champion and I knew he would run strongly having recorded 2.28 in the recent Frankfurt Marathon. He and I soon pulled clear of the field and pushed hard on the rolling opening miles before reaching the steady downhill section at the back end of the course. At this point, I managed to open a slight gap and heard his footsteps fading. This was really encouraging and gave me the confidence to push on. But not long before we started the long climb up Box Hill to the start/finish I stole a quick look over my shoulder and saw Nicolas he was not far behind. We made the sharp turn off the Old London Road onto the famous Zig Zag road up to Box Hill and started heading up for what would be just over 10 and a half minutes back to transition at the top. I was soon joined by Nicolas and his high cadence and light steps made me feel rather cumbersome in my 6.3’ frame and size 12 feet! He moved ahead of me and pushed on. He later told me this was a plan to test me out. He pushed his heart rate up to 180 (near his limit) and tried to break me. I held on and we entered T1 together. I was a little quicker through T1 and headed out onto the bike in 1st place. I put my head down and tried to drill it.
I was sporting the new Huub Anemoi tri-suit – reputably the fastest tri-suit around – so was tucking into aero as much as possible to get the best gains. However, the course is undulating and with quite a number of parked cars, oncoming traffic, runners still on their run lap, damp corners and tricky descents, it was not always possible to smash it out. I had opted for full aero gear on the TT bike with my beautiful Kinetic-One K1-80s (80mm) on the front and full K1 Disc on the back. This gave me an advantage on the flats and downhills where I could tuck in and hit decent speeds but it was a heavy setup. As a result, despite working really hard, I lost time to the very light Nicolas on the Zig Zag road to Box Hill. This pattern repeated itself for the three laps: I pulled away on the fast sections and lost time on the climb. However, I stayed ahead and pulled into T2 with a 28-second lead which I increased to 38 seconds with a quick transition as I headed out for the final 8-mile run battle. Running off the bike is usually my strength and I felt confident leaving transition that I would hold on. However, a slight strain in my side came on and made things uncomfortable, so I was labouring a little through the first mile when I wanted to be tapping it out and finding a fast rhythm. I tried to stay relax and gradually, very gradually, the pain in my side began to recede and I started to run more freely. My confidence grew, but then on the first slight downhill section, my quads started giving me jip. My right quad, in particular, felt very solid and ripe for a bit of cramp! You’d think the downhills are easier but in fact, I find them harder off the bike because the eccentric loading really hurts. It’s no wonder, really, that with 2 hours of hard racing, including 4 ascents of Box Hill that my quads were feeling dodgy on the descents! It’s so easy to change your running technique and gait to account for this pain, but that often only makes matters worse. This was certainly not the run leg to have any self-doubts on and with 6 more miles including the 10minute ascent of Box Hill to finish, I was worried! The very real possibility of cramping up and slowly grinding to a halt loomed large in my mind. Stay relaxed. Hold it together!
Miles 3 to 6 are pretty much a long downhill and by the end of this, I was on the verge of having a major issue. Throughout that time I was actually looking forward to getting to the climb up to Box Hill which would take some of the pressure off the quads! Eventually, and still, in one piece, I made the turn onto the Zig Zag road and headed up the slope. A few looks over my shoulder told me I had a clear gap and that gave me a great feeling. I was confident that I could hold it together from here and I pushed on up the hill, rounded the final right-hander in the trees, then took the slight left, saw the crowd and crossed the finish line. It was a great feeling! Not so much for the victory as ending what was a painful 2 hours and 39 minutes of racing!! Nicolas crossed the line not far behind me and not far behind him was John Franklin who nailed the final run.
It was a really great race. I am always moved by the camaraderie and sense of community at multi-sport events and this was no exception. The number of people who said well done to me on my final run lap as they came past on their bikes was amazing! I tried to utter some words of encouragement back as best I could but found it quite hard as I was in my own little world of the ordeal!
The race certainly lived up to the hype. It was both brutally tough and beautiful. Incorporating the famous Box Hill climb and stealing some quick glances between deep breaths as we headed up the Zig Zag road was brilliant. The organisation was spot on and the marshals were excellent on the course: encouraging but also very good at warning us as we headed towards the tricky corners.
I can barely walk today (two days day after), but it is certainly worth it – the Ballbuster is an iconic race on the domestic multisport calendar and should be on any triathlete/duathletes bucket list… assuming you’re happy to suffer for a LONG period of time!
Ben Price is a duathlete who has represented GB at elite level over the past two years. He came to the sport in his late 20s and since then has progressed through the age group ranks until he was selected for the elite team in 2017. You can follow Ben’s training on Instagram through his daily posts.