At long last and rather late, here is my race report from Hever Castle half Ironman distance race, also known as “The Gauntlet”…, this was written about two weeks ago I just couldn’t get organized to post it..
I arrived at Hever on the Friday evening, the weather was warm and sunny and drive was reasonably easy although the last 20 miles was on smaller and smaller country lanes, and I noted that the quality of the roads was pretty bad, which didn’t bode well for a fast bike split.
But it was lovely to be deep in the British countryside, and the B&B I was staying st was directly behind the Castle (Hever is a smallish castle set in beautiful grounds, that was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn).
After check-in I took a wander around the grounds, followed by dinner at the local pub, then changing for a short run, delighted to see the rabbits and birds playing in the evening sun, before turning in for an early night.
Saturday was all about registration, although I was struck by how little ” race bustle” there was, with tourists going about their sight-seeing probably unaware a race was going to happen the next day. I went down to the lake for a practise swim, but it was pretty deserted so I had a chat to a few guys in canoes, who turned out to be the safety crew for the race, who also didn’t know what was happening. I wandered back to the tents that were beginning to go up, and after asking around discovered all was set to go, but a little delayed. To be honest I loved the relaxed atmosphere, very different from the hurly burly of previous races.
I managed to get in a swim with 3 others who turned up, the man-made lake was beautiful to look at but pretty dark and squishy under foot. Registration next was a doddle (with a really stylish T-shirt), racked my bike and back to my room to rest until dinner. The lack of “officialdom” was very nice if maybe a little disorganized.
Race day dawned with a beautiful sunny morning but the mists rolling in greatly reducing visibility. I was up very early as always so took a wander around transition and watched the full Ironman distance athletes prepare for their start one hour before mine, I really enjoyed the anticipation in the air and the energy was palpable. I learnt that due to the mists the start would be delayed so wandered back for breakfast knowing I could take my time.
Fast forward a couple of hours, and I was at the start, along with about 150 other Gauntlet competitors. The race director had us all sit on the ground in a circle where he quickly went through the race briefing, before we all slid into the murky waters and spread out between two buoys to await the start. We waited while the full distance competitors went around to start their second lap then we were off, starting what would become a very tough race for me.
My first problem was immediate. I had lost my normal race goggles so had to use my back-up spares. Within less than a couple of meters I realized I couldn’t see a thing, the scratches and the fogging on the lenses reducing visibility to about half a meter. Despite constant cleaning, spitting and washing they didn’t improve and I spent the race virtually blind. I was totally reliant on keeping on the feet of someone in front of me, and at one point I swam straight instead of turning, only to be alerted after maybe 25 meters by shouting from the race officials.
This apart, it was a very different swim, a beautiful but murky lake no deeper than shoulder height with the last half of the course up a narrow channel which only really allowed you to pass in single file, so of course lots of banging and thumping going on. It was quite a relief to get out and start the long run towards T1.
I’m used to reaching transition with only a few bikes still racked as my swim is rather slow, but with the small field of competitors it was pretty eerie to see such few bikes left. I managed to change into bike gear without incident and was on my way.
Again, almost immediately I became aware I had a problem. My legs felt tired on the first hill, I couldn’t believe how tired, and I knew this would be an issue. The course is very hilly, rated as one of the hardest in England, and I started considering retiring after the second incline. My bike split is never particularly fast but because my swim is so slow I usually start to overtake the faster swimmers pretty quickly, but this wasn’t happening at all, in fact I was being overtaken. I made my mind up then that I would push to get to the 22.5k point on the two lap course, thereby ensuring I would complete the first lap, which I reasoned would be fair enough. I often play mental games, doing deals with myself, promising I will allow my self to retire or walk or rest etc, as long as I make it point X, but this time I really didn’t think I had enough strength to make the full 90k bike, let alone attempt the 21k run.
I did manage to pass three people. One was a competitor who was actually slower than me, one was an athlete whose chain kept coming off, and the other was an old man, dressed in a suit, who I assume was on his way to church (the course was open to general traffic including cars, bikes and pedestrians). I gleefully shouted to the old gent ” you’re the first person I passed” as I went by and was happy to hear him laugh back at me. This set off a chain reaction in me, and I started talking and shouting out to many of the people I saw, the joking and laughing with them lifting my spirits and taking my mind off the struggle of riding, eventually getting me around not just the first lap but the second one too. I fed off their positive energy and ended up really enjoying my bike leg, even if it seemed more like a Sunday cycle then a race.
I was genuinely worried I would be stopped from going out on the run, as my combined swim and bike time had gone past 5.30 , and in a way I was a bit disappointed to be told there was no cut off for my race.
I struggled into the transition tent, but was cheered by the friendly volunteers, who remembered me from registration. I knew that whatever happened I could complete the run, even if I walked the whole thing, so I let myself relax. A reasonable transition and I started out on the run.
This run was again very different from what I’ve done before, as the majority was off-road, starting on a gravel track and quickly leading to a small muddy path where I was reminded how nettle stings feels!
Crossing in front of the castle, and then a nasty upwards slope, followed by many ups and downs, through fields, tracks and the occasional road tested the fitness much more than the usual road race.
The volunteers at the aid station were wonderful, full of encouragement, happily handing out drinks and various food stuffs, chatting away like old friends. As in the bike, I’m used to passing many people on the run as it’s my strongest split, but again this wasn’t really happening. The sun was pretty strong and everyone seemed to be suffering but I tried hard to only walk the uphill and aid stations, while running the flats and down segments. The course consisted of two laps and while I managed to run the majority of the first lap, I walked more than half of the second. However I enjoyed it, as mentioned the volunteers were fantastic, the scenery beautiful and the sunny weather while maybe not conducive for racing, was showing off the British countryside in all its summer glory.
Eventually after over 8 hours on the course I crossed the finish line. It was without doubt my slowest race ever, my lack of training and fitness plus the very hilly bike course and cross-country run combined to push me into the slowest 10%, but I finished and I actually enjoyed much more than many other races where I have been in much better shape.
My take away from the experience was that all races are different and sometimes it’s best to just relax and enjoy the situation. This race was the friendliest I have ever taken part in and the slightly disorganized approach actually added to the ” family feel”.
Additionally the mental aspect of racing was really highlighted here. I got around by adjusting my thinking and by ignoring the distances and effort involved , I instead focused on enjoying the atmosphere, the spectators and the amazing volunteers.
But I also know that I can’t rely on my underlying fitness anymore, and I am determined to train hard for my full Ironman in September. Don’t tell anyone but even with only 9 weeks between the races, I have a secret aim to go under 14 hours for the first time ever, which will require real dedication and for me to go outside my comfort zone, often and consistently.
Anyway, let’s see what happens but I have the niggling feeling I will be back at Hever Castle next year, better prepared to kick triathlon butt to enable me to get my revenge on the course that tested me harder than any before.