I spent last weekend in North Wales in a role not as a coach but as a member of a support team for a friend of mine, Paul ‘Bear’ Machin.
As you might expect from someone who’s adopted name is that of a large carnivoran mammal, he’s not your ‘average’ bear. The task at hand (for him at least) was the matter of a double Iron distance extreme triathlon Double Brutal.
Brutal is so tough that unlike regular Ironman, you’re allowed outside assistance. To form his three-person crew, I had been teamed up with Bear’s former coach, Viking warrior princess, Mari and long distance swimming legend Hazel, who’s the youngest person to have swum the English Channel. No pressure then!
Arriving on Friday evening, I was confronted by the most horrendous weather conditions I could have imagined, having left in my VW T5 day van, which was to be my home for the weekend, in just shorts and a tee shirt.
With best laid plans Bear had set up a base-camp of tents and van parking positions that should have provided us the perfect on-course set-up to support his epic undertaking. The weather had other ideas all but destroyed the camp and its content with high winds breaking tent poles like twigs and torrential rain soaking every piece of food, clothing equipment and morale. The only thing standing was the Viking warrior’s tent, which she kindly pointed out to us more than once over the course of the weekend.
The race briefing was a tense affair, the gravity of the undertaking was as obvious as the split in the crowd between the ultra-endurance athletes and their support crew:
The Brutal (just the single event) was recently voted “The toughest triathlon event in the world”. So for his next trick, Bear was to do it at double the distance.
The 2016 event included three races in one, with a half, full and double distance races all commencing at the same time, with athletes leaving the water and out onto the mountainous bike course in a steady stream, back to the red-capped double brutal swimmers who were the last to emerge.
Having done some long distance swimming myself in the past, I’m somewhat dismissive of the double iron distance swim of 7.6KM but as a start to the day, its challenging enough. The bike route is particularly difficult, departing Llanberis and heading out on a lap of Snowdonia, that takes in Pen-Y-Pass at 1,178 feet, just the 8-times for double participants.
The nature of the course dictates that ‘normal’ Iron distance cut-off times don’t apply. Armed with energy drinks, bars, solid food, hot drinks, milk shakes, clothes changes, additional lube, bike spares, tools and a bag of Werther’s Originals to keep the crew happy, we headed out onto the bike course. Our plan was to drive the route backward to meet Bear at pre-agreed locations around the 29-mile loop. Almost immediately the main problem presented itself. We couldn’t get there before he did. While the long grinding climbs slowed cyclists, they made up much more time on the sweeping descents and once a few hold ups for trucks and busses that were navigating the winding roads were thrown into the mix, we were moving at a snail’s pace in the crew van.
A few hand gestures, gasps of exasperation and ‘informed’ exchanges of information later, we switched to Plan B – leapfrogging Bear (and all the other cyclists), by driving the route. This gave us at least a fighting chance to reconfirm his requirements, make ad hoc additions to his support and of course cheer him on as he powered past our chosen lay by on non-feed stops. I drove the van while Hazel and Mari worked the various support needs for each stop as swiftly as possible before Bear rode into view and with F1-like efficiency gathered whatever he needed and rode away again, leaving us to pack up and pass him, in time for the next scheduled stop. For the whole day and through the night, we continued in this manner, feeding, hydrating, clothing, lighting, maintaining and cheering his ride until finally, he rode into Llanberis for the last time.
The end of the bike felt like a goal in itself. Anyone who’s ridden a century knows that feeling of a job well done. This was well over double the distance through extremely tough terrain. Like all extreme events, the drop-out rate is high!
There was no time for celebration though. Mari sprang into action and paced Bear on his ascent and descent of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, posting one of the fastest times of the day before rounding out her own accomplishment with a 5-mile lap of the lake, itself a challenging trail route for the most part. I took the opportunity to grab a couple of hours of sleep and readied myself to accompany Bear on laps 3 and 4. The two laps totaled 10.5 miles and I was pretty happy to have made it around without crying. Hanging my drenched kit out to dry, I chilled out with a milkshake in the company of a couple of athletes I coach, who were also at the event, taking on the Brutal half, which itself includes the ascent and descent of Snowdon as part of the ‘run’ route.
Feeling pretty relaxed, I returned to the event route and our make-shift support camp, to see Bear pass at the commencement of lap 7 of 8. He was starting to tire and asked if I could pace him around the next lap. Confirming that he meant me to start running ‘NOW’ I overcame my natural tendency to think of ten miles of trail to already be an acceptable training day. I quickly pulled back on my only set of running kit from earlier, which by that time had the odour of something that had spent time in the enclosures of both baboons and camels and started to tap out a pace that Bear could hold with encouragement. That’s when he slipped in the suggestion that I might help him on the last lap too… In for a penny…in for a pound!
We used a variety of run / walk / hike techniques playing the ultra-runner’s favourite mind game of “run from this fence post, to that bush, then we can hike the hill…”
In what felt like no time, we were around lap 7 and heading out onto the final lap. As we came through the timing mat we were joined by another competitor also starting his final lap. Bear looked at me, no words were spoken. A nod, we picked up the pace and held it. This isn’t the kind of pace that causes you to hear the sound track from Chariots of Fire but it did say, “there’s no WAY you’re taking this place on the finisher list, buddy.”
When in pitch darkness for the second night in a row, the climbing was over and we commenced the final descent, I began to feel giddy. Yes. I was pretty happy to have put in a 20-mile day but of course I hadn’t done the whole thing. I shared the euphoria with Bear “you do realise that you’re heading to the finish of the Double Brutal, don’t you?” “Yeah, I knew it was in the bag when we were still on the bike.”
“We.” He did say “we”. We were a team. Hazel, Mari, myself and of course Bear. For that weekend “we” were Team Bear.
After 37 hours 20 minutes and 8 seconds, Paul Bear Machin, YOU are Double Brutal!