Slowly, slowly, catchy Brutal…

September 12th, 2023 • Posted in News |

Brutal Triathlon report, 8th September 2023

The Brutal has been voted the ‘World’s Toughest Triathlon’ by Triathlon 220 magazine, and never has a name so perfectly encapsulated the race it’s attached to. Because The Brutal is always brutal, and just because this past weekend had ‘good’ weather doesn’t mean this classic race, based in Llanberis and taking in the glorious views and shattering terrain of Snowdonia, was in any way easier. It was just differently brutal. Brutally brutal. It was … you get the drift.

I’d previously raced the Brutal Half in 2017 and 2022, and in 2018 I took on the full distance. That year was dubbed ‘the brutalist Brutal ever’ after a severe red weather warning meant that the mountain was closed. We had to run two more laps of the lake to get up to marathon distance, in the dark and with 40 mph winds and rain, and that was, er, character building.

So I’ve always wanted to return to tick the box –– race the classic Full Brutal triathlon, including Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa! And after this weekend, I think the title ‘most brutalist Brutal ever’ just might have been taken.

A few stats first (and later I’ll talk about some more eye-opening stats): the race consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 116 mile bike ride, and a 25 mile run (which culminates with an ascent and descent of Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa). To put this in perspective, the winner this year finished in 12:28, and he was the only finisher under 13 hours. The 333rd finisher at Ironman Wales had that time this year. Most ironman races have a cut-off of 17 hours, but The Brutal is 21 hours.

So, it’s tough.

Me, Lyndon and Mike – Before

I had friends racing this weekend, which made it so much more enjoyable (I might use terms such as ‘enjoyable’, ‘fun’, or ‘delightful’ in this report, but they’re entirely subjective and relative –– as in, ‘doing that bike ride was enjoyable … compared to having your heels sanded with a cheese grater’, and I guess you have to be an endurance athlete to really understand what I’m getting at here). Mike and Charlie were doing the Half, Lyndon joined me on the Full, and Nathan Priest was taking on the mighty Double Brutal. Take those distances above and double them. Yep.

Friday consisted of driving up, finding our Air B&B, registering for the race, going to the briefing in the sauna* (*tent), finding out that my car had been scraped and dented outside our digs in a hit and run (I hope you can’t sleep at night, you selfish unthinking bastard, and that you damaged your parents’ car and they sent you to work at a local farm to pay for it and you have to shovel shit from cows that have fleas and a penchant for human flesh), carb loading, looking at the weather report, and staring at our kit bags for ten minutes at a time, all underscored by simmering panic and dread tinged with … yes, excitement. And fear. And another look at the weather forecast. More dread. And more staring at kits bags. I went to great efforts to hydrate properly for the day or two before the race, and that Friday night in bed I think I sweated it all out. Have I mentioned the heat? It was so hot!

The day of the race dawned warm and lovely, and Mike, Lydon and I negotiated our way through those awful 2 hours pre-race when you force yourself to eat, stare at your kit bags again for a while just in case someone’s unpacked them in the night and stolen your bike shoes, and then we walked down to the race base. It was really good having mates racing with me, as we managed a bit of banter. We swore a bit. Sweated a bit more.

Did I mention it was hot?

This race was my sixth ironman (I use the term as distance, not branding). And honestly, apart from my first ironman in 2013, this was the first I was actually wondering if I’d be able to finish. I did the half Brutal last year and found it staggeringly difficult, so for this one I had a plan that differed from my usual ‘start a race and eat a bit and see how it goes’.

This was all about nutrition. And with temperatures upward of 25 Centigrade and blazing sun and lots and lots of elevation (8000 feet on the bike, an eye-watering 4,500 feet on the run), it was even more about hydration. So this was my plan –– race slow, race smart, eat plenty of real food on the bike, and get those electrolytes and salt tabs into me! I was treating this more as an endurance event, not a race.

Spoiler alert –– it worked. But it wasn’t pretty.

The swim was quite warm (a different type of Brutal), with the usual choppy start of fists and feet, but I really enjoyed it. It was nice having a quick chat with Sean Conway before the swim (he of the amazing 105 ironmans in 105 days record), and I chuckled when he told me this was his first triathlon. And he meant it! The Brutal Double was actually his first organised event! What a legend.

Swim done in 1:20 (I could have gone faster, but remember the title of this report?), and chuffed that I’d managed a wee in my wetsuit whilst swimming, I hit transition and took my time getting ready for the bike. Drink. Food. Water (always with electrolyte tabs dropped in). The transition tent was a steam room. Just before I left, Lyndon came in from the swim. I skipped out onto the bike, and he took 7 miles to catch me. You’re slacking, mate!

The bike course is without doubt the most beautiful route I’ve ever ridden, and it’s one of many reasons why the Brutal has always been my favourite race since my first time here. The views take away some of the pain. Some of it. And today especially, they were amazing.

Did I mention that it was hot? Not just hot. It was steaming. I mean … fucking hot. And I stuck to my plan, taking it slow and spinning fast, drinking plenty and eating (flapjacks, jam and peanut butter wraps, cheese wraps, an occasional gel).

But what does the sun bring, do you think? Mozzies? Nah. Sunburn? Not too bad. Sweat? Plenty, of course. But worst of all … tourists. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m often a tourist myself, but when you’re on your third or fourth lap up over Pen-y-Pass, and the cars and buses are getting impatient and overtaking when they shouldn’t, and people are heading up the mountain dressed in flip-flops and cut-off tee shirt and wandering across the road like lost sheep having apparently forgotten that sometimes they should look both ways, it becomes problematic. I had a couple of near misses on the bike, the closest of which was a motorcyclist overtaking a car coming up Pen-y-Pass while I was descending. I only wish he could have heard what I called him. Pucking frick.

I finished the 4-lap bike in about 9 hours. Slowly … slowly … And for a while I passed and was passed by fellow competitor Julie, so many times that it became funny. And when the bike was over, I was feeling good! I actually paused a couple of times to take photos, stopped at every feed station to stock up on water/electrolyte drink, eat, and generally check I was feeling OK. I was dropping a salt tab every half an hour, and though I was sweating in exactly the same extreme way that a certain Prince doesn’t, I even managed a pee during the bike leg.

Off the bike, I saw Mike in transition. He’d just finished the half, but had a bit of a nightmare on the mountain with a rough spell (thanks to the great medics for helping him), and then taking a tumble and skinning his arm and cutting his head. Brutal scars, mate! He did a great race in such conditions, and I’m sure he’ll be back. Charlie had also finished the Half, his first ever triathlon. In at the deep end! Full next year?

Then I was out onto the run. Three laps around the lake before heading up the mountain, drinking loads, still eating. I’d done a full change for the bike, and did another one for the run, changing into my club tri-suit which is just so comfortable (sorry to anyone in the tent, but I was beyond caring). This was the bit I’d been worrying about … but that title again. Slowly, slowly, I jogged the flat side of the lake and walked up the hills on the other side, and I was feeling good!

On lap 2 I met Lyndon, who was on his lap 3. “Oh shit!” was his response, as he’d been hoping we could do the mountain leg together. But he’d come off the bike at least an hour ahead of me, so he had to head off and finish his race. Great bloke, top athlete. It grew dark pretty quickly on this lap, and I finished by the light of my phone torch. I also called my wife Tracey on one of the uphills whilst walking, and she informed me about how hot she’d been sitting in our friends’ garden drinking Pimms that afternoon. Bless her. I asked if she was OK and sent thoughts and prayers. To be fair she was worried about me, she knows I’m not great in the heat, but …

But I was feeling OK. I tried not to get ahead of myself, but I’d started to think, ‘I really think I can finish this.’ Remember, though, I still had the mountain portion to go. The three lake laps amounts to about 16 miles, with the mountain another 9 miles up and down. And I’d be doing it in the dark.

Lake laps completed, still feeling OK, I grabbed my mountain bag (water, food, various bits of survival kit in case something happened up there), and once the mountain leader Pouch (top bloke) gave me the OK, I was off. This was always going to be a walk up, not a run, and I kept a pretty good pace. I met quite a few people coming down and started to think, ‘Am I last?’ Then I met Lyndon on his descent, and he told me it was another hour to the top. Eech. So I kept going, one foot in front of the other (honestly, that’s pretty essential), and finally I reached the top of mountain.

Here, I took an extra ten minutes to go up to the trig point, turn off my head torch, and look around. And I’m not afraid to admit I had A Bit Of A Moment up there. It was still so warm at one in the morning that I wasn’t chilly even in a sweat-soaked tri suit. The views were stunning. The sky was clear, and I could see more stars than I’d ever been able to see anywhere before. It was peaceful, still, glorious, I was completely alone, and I said, “I’ve done it.” I laughed, and might have shed a tear. A moment I won’t forget.

Then it was the long walk down. I saw some bats, a mouse, some frogs, two drunk lads climbing the mountain in the dark (I wonder if one of them owns a dented car), and a few more athletes on their way up. Ah, so I wasn’t last. Not that I’d have minded if I was. I actually felt good enough to run some of the way down, and I finally crossed the line in a little over nineteen hours. It was so good to be done. I gathered my sweaty, smelly, frankly offensive kit, staggered back to the house. It was almost 3am, and I had a shower and some food and a few sips of beer before hitting the sack.

The next morning brought one of my favouirite parts of a race, The Discussion. Mike, Lyndon and I went to a great local cafe for breakfast and talked about our day, how bloody tough it had been, and how there’s ‘absolutely no way we’ll ever do it again, nope, you must be mad, and certainly not the Double’.

We’ll see, chaps.

I mainlined coffee all the way home. And to round it all off, Wales (just about) won the rugby, which I watched with a curry and some beer. And Tracey, of course, who after her hot-while-drinking-Pimms trauma still helped me unpack and sort my kit, despite not owning any protective breathing apparatus.

Now, a few more stats:

According to my sports watch I burned over 13,000 calories during the race, but I’m pretty sure I inhaled about 543,978 calories in flapjacks alone.

The lake laps and mountain consisted of 78,000 steps.

By my rough estimation I drank 18 litres of water throughout the day (about 32 pints).

I ate flapjacks, gels, Jelly Babies, pizza (cooked the day before and kept in transition for halfway through my bike ride … top tip!), cheese wraps, Haribou (thanks to someone else’s support team on the bike, thanks guys!), and some other bits and pieces.

The DNF rate for the Full Brutal was 23%.

I was 28th out of 34 finishers, and I’m fine with that. I was delighted to find I was 2nd in my age group, but Lyndon was 1st (hats off mate), so I think there was just two of us. Still. Podium.

I had a different mindset for this race than any other I’ve ever done (including 5 ironmans and over a dozen halfs), because I just wanted to finish. My favourite saying is ‘If you think you can do something, or think you can’t, you’re probably right’, and I thought I could. Slowly … slowly … caught me The Brutal. I’m definitely built for endurance, not speed.

Big shout-out to the Brutal crew. Claire and Jim run the show, and they rock. And everyone involved, from the marshals to the transition crews, tech people and medics, and the massage guys (nice to see you again!), are all lovely, encouraging, positive. They say if you ever question human nature, do a triathlon. I say, do the Brutal. It’s been my favourite race for years, and this year just confirmed that even more.

Top job Lyndon, Mike, Charlie, and especially Nathan who was 3rd in the Double! Bonkers but brilliant.

And to those great marshals who were constantly trying to talk me into doing the Double … I’ll never say never.

Me, Lyndon and Mike – After

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4 comments on “Slowly, slowly, catchy Brutal…”

  1. Matt Wise says:

    Love this race report Tim. A real life tale of horror and dark fantasy!! Made me feel like i’d been right there experiencing it myself. Great job and thank you for taking the time to create such an enjoyable and detailed report 👍👍

  2. Peter Evans says:

    Great report thanks, hoping to do this myself in 2024

  3. Tim Lebbon says:

    It’s an amazing race!

  4. Tim Lebbon says:

    Glad you enjoyed it!

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