The Brutal extreme triathlon – race report

September 17th, 2018 • Posted in News, Random Stuff |

They call it The Brutal.  That really should have given me a clue.  In truth I knew some of what to expect, because I did the half-iron distance last year and loved it so much––despite feeling like (and probably resembling) a gutted chicken by the time I’d finished––that I entered the full ironman this year.  The organisation, the stunning setting and scenery, the low-key atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the sense of achievement after completing the half convinced me that this should be my big race of the year.  And big it was.

So, so big, so long, so epic, it’s a day I’ll never forget.

So, where to begin?  How about the hotel the night before, the fight, the police, the raucous wedding, drunken 2am singing (not by me), the drive-by shootings* (*one of those did not happen).  My lovely wife came up to support, so I thought we’d treat ourselves and stay in the Royal Victoria hotel, only about 200 metres from race base.  It looked nice from the outside.  So did Fawlty Towers.  To be fair it wasn’t bad on the inside, possessing a sort of it-was-grand-here-30-years-ago charm that I guess I prefer to the sterile this-could-be-a-lunatic-asylum aura of a Premier Inn.  It had character.  So we checked in and decided to eat straight away.  It would be a stretch to call the allegedly thrice-cooked chips once-cooked, but the pizza I had was almost definitely a pizza.  Then it was off to do the usual pre-race stuff––register, eye the racing-snake competition and get scared and convinced I haven’t done enough training, rack my bike, go to the briefing, dump my stuff in transition so that I can claim a chair for myself, stand staring at my three big bags and mountain pack slowly convincing myself that I’ve forgotten just about everything.  All went well, and I was feeling pretty relaxed and eager to get going.

We then went back to the hotel to chill with a very small glass of wine (for me) and a nastily larger glass for my wife and a bit of mindless Friday evening TV.  Except we were destined to discover the TV didn’t work.  Oh well.  Entertainment came in another form, however, when a fellow guest had an argument on the second floor and punched his hand through the window, almost showering us with glass as we walked back.  We locked ourselves in our room and piled the furniture against the door (not really, but the thought was there), and watched two police cars and a van turn up.  This was all before 8pm.  It was looking to be a long night. 

Who needs sleep the night before what has been voted by Triathlon 220 magazine as ‘the world’s toughest ironman’? Eh? What am I, a wimp?

Luckily, the wedding guests seemed to have drunk themselves into a coma by about 1pm, their last shred of energy expended in a slurry rendition of a song I’m not sure even they recognised directly beneath our window.  And … I had one of my best night’s sleep before an ironman, ever!  I must have had 5 hours!  I sprang out of bed at 5am* (*crawled), the usual pre race nerves and chafe cream application (I did it myself … it wasn’t the time to get distracted), then it was down for the swim.

Temperature was announced as 16 degrees.  Applying the Brutal Quotient, I’d guess maybe 14, but after a bit of ice-cream head I set off and settled into a comfortable rhythm.  Lake Padarn is a stunning place to swim.  The water is clear and crisp, and whenever you turn for a breath you see staggeringly beautiful scenery.  Two laps and out over the timing mat for another two laps, and I was taking longer than I should.  It’s entirely likely that my 1:26 swim and 4200m recorded on my Garmin was due to my unique swimming technique* (*shit sighting and zig-zagging like someone dodging a sniper’s bullet), or perhaps it was that Brutal Quotient again.  What, was I expecting this to be easy?   

A power walk 200m back to transition with Tracey––up at 5am to support me, bless her!––and then I did something I’ve never done on an ironman, or any race, before.  Any guesses? 

A full change.

About now is when I should apologise to everyone else in the transition tent.  Although a) most other people were stripping off and showing various degrees of naked flesh, and b) after that cold swim no one would have noticed much.  T1 must have been 10 or 12 minutes, but every one of them needed.  I hadn’t really been focussed too much on time, and this was all about comfort.  The ride to come was long* and would be tough*.


A quick kiss from Tracey, then onto the bike.  Now, a comment here about the weather: right now it was OK.  Overcast, a little drizzly, but temperature-wise it was perfect, and I was very comfortable in bib short, a skin, jersey and arm warmers.  More about the weather later.  Oh yes.

5 miles into the bike, just after the steepest hill on the route (although far, far, far, far from the longest) I saw a guy by the road who appeared to be in trouble.  Still standing and holding his bike, he was wobbling and pretty much out of it.

“You okay mate?”

“No, I’m not….”

And when his eyes started rolling and he hit the deck, I knew he was in trouble.  I called the race medic immediately (had the number programmed into my phone.  Top tip: ALWAYS DO THIS).  In my race-head state and still a bit wobbly myself from the swim, the mileage I gave them was 14 (my average pace to then) instead of mile 5, but luckily they called back 2 minutes later to confirm and I corrected myself.  What a numpty.  Meanwhile the guy was sitting against a wall and he’d come around a bit––still dizzy, and with pains in his neck that were worrying me a lot.  So we chatted for a while, talked about races we’d done and wanted to do, all the usual triathlete talk, until the medic rocked up. Phew!  After chatting to the medic about what I’d seen I shook the guy’s hand, wished him luck, and went on my way.  I checked in later, and he was OK, but obviously they’d pulled him from the race.  Sad, but better safe than…

This half hour stop knocked me for a bit, and it took me a while to settle back into my bike.  The beautiful scenery helped.  I really can’t think of a more gorgeous place to race––the mountains, the vast skies, the deep, stunning scenery, streams tinkling by the roadside … just wonderful.  It took my mind off the pain.  For now.

So, the bike was four epic laps, each about 29 miles.  The big part of each lap, and the most stunning, was the climb out of Bedgelert and then up and over Pen-Y-Pas, with a nice descent back into Llanberis. Each lap was around 2,500 feet or so of climbing, the the Pen-Y-Pas climb was a long slow drag, but none of it was too steep.

The first lap felt great, and I’d have done it in about 1:50 without the stop.  A quick bottle fill-up, then I was out onto lap 2.  I saw a guy a few miles in being helped into the medic’s car with blood all over his face, but that was the only accident or mechanical I saw.  Considering the weather later in the day, that was a miracle.  Within a few miles my main concern was that I needed a wee.  I was trying to take on a litre of water per hour to keep up with my prolific sweat rate (sorry about the detail, but hey ho).  Now, around where I live close to Abergavenny there are always field gateways and little nooks and crannies where you can stop, but North Wales seems to be Solid Stone Wall country!  I swept down into Bedgelert––a lovely descent, and a beautiful town with people sitting outside coffee shops having a lovelty cappuccino and cake…––and a few miles later I found what will, henceforth, be known as Tim’s Quarry.  Three stops, three pees, observed only by a confused goat.

At the end of lap 2 I saw Tracey, had a hug, and she helped me with nutrition––more gels, more flapjacks, two more bottles of water, and a bag of mini cheddars which went down a treat.  Then it was on to Lap 3. 

This was getting tougher.

But looming out of the distance, like a giant hauling itself from the rocky terrain of Wales, snarling and drooling and with me, and only me, in its sights, was Lap 4.

This was when the wind picked up.  I’m not sure what speed, but by the time I’d hauled my sorry ass to the top of Pen-Y-Pas and started on that lovely descent back to the end of the bike ride, I was almost having to pedal to move downhill.  Two things struck me at this point (beside the heather, litter, and assorted sheep being blown around by the hurricane force winds):

  1. If I’d brought my Canyon, I’d have been blown off (not in a good way) and ended up in a wall or a hedge or halfway down a rocky slope.
  2. I do this for fun.

It was a tough lap, lap 4.  It made me question things.  Myself.  Bike manufacturers.  The Brutal Quotient, that means that this ironman bike ride is 116 miles, not 112.  But hey, no one said it was going to be easy.  I was very happy to get off the bike and hit the changing tent.  May I hereby issue apology #2 for any of those who caught an eyeful when I changed, but really by now I was past caring, and I’d just spent almost 9 hours on a bike so GIVE ME A BREAK!

Also on lap 4 I feared I was starting to hallucinate.  When one boy racer whizzed past me in a souped up red Renault Clio, so close that I felt the breeze against my legs when he roared by with a splutter of oversized exhaust and fat tyres, I thought it was odd enough.  Then two more came.  Two more.  Two more.  I shook my head, blinked a few times.

Two more.

Is this a North Wales thing?  That all boy racers are legally obliged to buy a red Renault Clio?  Very odd.  Very funny.  Apart from the tosser who almost hit me.

It’s time for the run.  Three laps of the lake, and then up and down Snowdon.  By this time Tracey had gone on her own brutal adventure to climb the mountain on her own, and I planned on seeing her while I was on the way up and she was coming down.  I sort of hoped she might have bought a pasty for me.

The wind was really up now, and the mountain tops were no longer in view.  On Lap 1 I hooked up with Simon and James, a lovely couple of guys who were probably running a little too fast for me, but they dragged me around that lap and we had a good chat. Unfortunately, they were also bearers of bad news––the mountain had been closed due to a red weather warning, and we’d have to finish our marathon with 2 extra laps of the lake.

My first thought: bollocks.  Snowdon is what makes the Brutal brutal. It’s iconic, and although I was tired and aching and hurting in places I wasn’t sure I’d ever been aware of before, I’d been looking forward to it.  But I needn’t have worried … the brutality of those lake laps were destined to come back and bite me.

My first concern after Lap 1 was to check that Tracey was OK. I called and she was on the way back down, having been evacuated from the cafe at the top and told to get back down ASAP just a minute after buying a big cup of tea and a pasty.  Yes, she got me one too!  But knowing she was Ok meant I was OK to head off on four more 5 mile laps of the lake.

Simon and James were a bit too speedy for me so I told them to go on ahead … and thus began a very lonely few hours.  It soon became dark, and by Lap 3 I had to use my head torch full-time.  There were a few pockets of support––I’d call them pouches instead of pockets, though they were very vocal and fun––but other than that it was me against the elements.  

And the elements were giving it everything.  Wind roared and howled along the lake.  Pitch darkness fell.  A couple of times I found myself walking up slopes with my eyes closed.  The feed station on the far side of the lake was an oasis of human contact, light, and mini cheddars, but I was started to find it really hard going.  At one point, mounting a rise, the wind nearly blew me over, and it took my breath away.

There was about 2 solid miles on the far side of the lake which was tough and technical trail running, terrain lit only by the limited splash of my head torch.  It was slippery in places, and for tired legs this was very hard going.

4th lap was the worst.  I was in a dark place, and also in a dark place. Exhausted, more tired than I’d ever been in a race, I ran 100 seconds and walked for 30.  Then walked uphill, and staggered down the trails, careful not to trip and fall.  It really was …. brutal.

And then the finish line.  There was a marshal with my medal, and Tracey, and that was it.  The most subdued finish line I’ve ever seen, but also the most welcome.  I had a hug from Tracey––I might have sobbed a little––and the marshal, and then wobbled into the tent for a cup of soup, tea, and a sit down.

Bloody hell.  I’d done it.  16:58 hours of racing in the most beautiful, rugged, brutal landscape nature has to offer.  I’d never really had a time in mind, but I’m happy with 17 hours.  48th out of 81 finishers is fine with me.

Physically and psychologically, this was the hardest race I’d ever done, and there were times––long moments––when I really wasn’t enjoying it and wondered just what the hell I was doing.  But as usual you forget the pain and the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment kick in.  Big thanks to my coach James, couldn’t have done it without you, mate.  A big shout-out to the NEWTs, best tri club there is, for all your support and help and for tracking me through what turned out to be a Very Long Day.  Probably for you as well as me!  Also kudos to Brutal Events, the marshals, organisers, and everyone else involved in putting on a stunning event, keeping us safe, and doing everything they can to ensure the athletes achieve their aims.

And finally a massive thanks to my lovely wife Tracey for coming along to support me in every way possible, as always.  I definitely couldn’t do this mad sport without you. Love you.  

On reflection, I’m not too disappointed the mountain section of the race was closed.  It doesn’t detract from how tough this race is. The extra two laps ensured it was iron distance, and that last ten miles for me was the hardest couple of hours I’ve ever spent doing anything, ever.

Brutal by name…


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7 comments on “The Brutal extreme triathlon – race report”

  1. Dominique Wedge says:

    Well done Tim, brilliant achievement and great race report. I feel proud to call myself a pouch!

  2. Martin says:

    Nice write up!! – I think i photobombed your picture at the run aid station …… just seen on Facebook. Agreed how incredibly tough it was, even without the Snowdon section!

  3. Anthony Gerundini (TC) says:

    Crackin report (have you ever thought of … 😉 ) , and a fantastic performance on a truly Brutal Day. Massive congratulations on taming this Beast. Spread the Word!

  4. TC Anthony Gerundini says:

    crackin report and an oarsum performance on a truly Brutal Day. Massive Respect

  5. Liz & Chris says:

    Tim, We enjoyed reading about your “Brutal” experience. We felt for you and admired you greatly! Thank you for your honest description of the hell that the brutal event must be for the competitors and their supporters. It has been a big insight for us who have in the past stood on the sidelines wondering what makes them do this!!!!! We are the proud parents of Simon who you met with his friend James on your way around the lake! Unfortunately we were not able to be there to cheer him on and witness the hard work he had put in to take part in this event as we were sunning ourselves in the South of France whilst trying to get internet access to track his progress.

    Thanks once again, and well done!! Are you going to compete in another one???

  6. Tim Lebbon says:

    Thanks everyone. Hi martin, I love that pic!

    Liz & Chris, Simon and James dragged me around one lap, lovely guys. They did great! And as for competing in another, I have Ironman Canada next year. On my 50th!

  7. Andy says:

    Thanks for the write up. Racing this in 2 weeks and inevitably filled with dread. Your report hasn’t helped with the fear, but certainly making me prepare for some mental challenges and digging very deep. Chapeau for racing, and a great write up!

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