The Fred is Not Enough – when triathlon interacts with insanity: Wasdale X

On 21 June 2015, DVRC member Ian Maddison competed in the Wasdale X triathlon wearing the colours of his “other” club – Ryton Tri. Here follows his race report, first published on Ryton Tri’s website, but be warned, this article is not for the faint-hearted. Firstly because of the poor quality of the jokes involved; secondly for the unjustly high level of abuse mercilessly meted out to his fellow Ryton Tri members; and finally the brutality of the event itself. If you dare, read on.

NB: Some of you may already know, or at least know of, the Ryton Tri legend known as “The Big E”, who gets a brief mention in Mr M’s article. Those who don’t, or would like to know more, can click here.

Wasdale X was new to the calendar this year, and was (sort of) a doubling-up of the half iron version which I did in 2013, along with the Big E, Gareth Huxley and Joe Horne. In line with its shorter version, it proclaimed itself to be the “hardest iron-distance race in the world”. Several other “extreme” triathlons make a similar claim – Norseman, Celtman, Embrunman, Blakieman, and Cleveland Sprints, among others. This is of course a subjective claim, and there are several ways to determine whether one race is “harder” than another. One of these, the most obvious, is the vertical distance climbed over the bike and run legs. On this basis, then the “X”, incorporating a jaunt around the Fred Whitton route, followed by a mountain marathon including Illgill Head (twice) and Scafell Pike, blows it’s established rivals out of the (very cold) water.

The Wasdale X took place on 21/6/15, and was contested for Ryton Tri by myself, the Big E and Scott Sanders. The Big E, of course, was actually very fortunate to make it to the start line, following the controversy he was involved in earlier this year. For those who aren’t aware, the Big E was involved in an incident concerning a volunteer at one of his many other Ironman races. In the recovery area at the end of the event, he was offered a plate of the local gruel. Eric decided he didn’t want this, but would prefer to have steak and chips. The volunteer informed him that, unfortunately, steak and chips were not available. “Listen you; I don’t think you know who you’re speaking to. I’m an all-world athlete, ranked number one in the UK. I’ve been to Kona twice, and I wear a gold swim hat. If I want steak and chips, then that is what I get!” He then proceeded to punch the volunteer in the face.

Of course this “uncharacteristic outburst” was followed by sincere public apologies, but these were not enough to stop the Ironman Corporation imposing a lengthy ban and thereby effectively relieving the Big E from his duties as their globe-trotting, brand-promoting ambassador. (Fortunately for the Big E, his other source of income remains intact, and in fact is stronger than ever. As you will be aware, the viewing figures for the immensely popular reality TV programme “Keeping Up With the Blakies” increased substantially when it was recently announced that one of the participants intended to undergo transgender surgery) There was talk of a very lucrative offer from Challenge, but this has as yet failed to materialise, leaving the Big E little choice but to enter low-profile, low-budget events such as the Wasdale X.

One of the “selling points” of the X is that Wast Water is the coldest lake in England. Unfortunately as race day approached, it got even colder, and the swim distance had to be halved. Now this was presumably good news for all of the Southern Softies in the field, but very bad news for me and our boys. You see, with the shortening of the swim came a reduction in the race cut-off from 20 hours to 19 hours. Shortening the swim distance would reduce swim time by only half an hour, leaving a net reduction in the time available to do the “hard” bits. This also led to a delay in the start from 3.30 am to the far more leisurely time of 4.30 am.

4.30 am on race day and it was dull and overcast, and the water really was absolutely freezing. Fortunately the organisers realised this, and didn’t keep us hanging around in the water. A very positive aspect of the X swim concerned the “booeys” (pronounced boooo – eeeeeeze). (For those who don’t know, these are the things that mark whereabouts to turn during an open water swim. I picked this word up in Colorado last year whilst doing Ironman Boulder, and it is just one of many Americanisms I shall be dropping into this and future articles, in order to portray myself as an affluent globe-trotting regular Ironman competitor – like the Big E.) As the race was originally due to start at 3.30, in the dark (and in fact it wasn’t exactly light at 4.30, with the skies as black as they were) the organisers had put flashing lights on the booeys. Brilliant – I can tell you that it’s far easier to swim towards a flashing light in the dark than it is towards a brightly coloured booey in broad daylight. Even Dr Bob (and perhaps Graham Robinson) may have been able to swim in a straight line.

Out of the swim, and by now it was chucking it down. Great. I ran into T1 and was shocked and stunned at this point to see that 2 competitors (1 male, 1 female) were, in flagrant breach of ITU rules, doing “the full monty” (although, crucially, they did keep their hats on). Normally this invokes automatic DQ, but the organisers didn’t seem bothered (and neither did the race photographer). Indeed, the results after the race show that no penalty was awarded for this infringement. It did transpire, however, that they had offended the Lakeland mountain gods, and were held responsible for the awful weather which persisted all day. Three days later there was a minor earthquake in the Wasdale valley, whereupon they were arrested and imprisoned.

My track record for the Fred Whitton has not been great. I’ve done the official event twice. Each time it has taken me around 10 hours, and I have suffered various combinations of: dehydration, hypothermia, punctures, snapped chains, buckled wheels and gravel rash. I set off fearing the worst, with the rain hammering down and bringing back memories of falling off on the descent of Wrynose in similar conditions. Twice. No problems though, as the old bike with its new chainset got up the climbs quite easily, and the brand new tyres and brakes got down the descents (coupled with the policy of descending like a wuss – allowing everyone I’d passed on the way up, and more, to fly past me on the way down) safely.

I got round the bike course quicker than I expected, although never quite quick enough to get ahead of the weather. Each time I approached one of the passes, I could see that the weather was much better in the next valley. Sadly, on each occasion, each time I reached the next valley, so did the rain. Strangely enough, the one section of the route where the weather was ok was Cold Fell – my (and everybody else’s, I believe) least favourite stretch. I don’t remember ever going over Cold Fell in anything other than howling gales, low cloud, and heavy rain. On X day though, it was actually quite pleasant. It was even possible to admire the view. Just a shame that it’s Sellafield.

Later, the Big E told me that when he rode across the Fell there were howling gales, low cloud, and heavy rain. Bad luck Eric!

Ian Maddison cycling up Hardknott Pass

I love Hardknott me!

I reached T2 having surprised myself with a bike split of not much more than 8 hours. This also surprised the WAG’s, to whom I had estimated a time of “no less than 9 hours”. The WAG’s for this race numbered only 2 – Lou and Dot, and they had not been in T2 very long when I arrived. I said a brief hello, and wished Lou a happy anniversary (29 years – what better way for either of us to spend it) and set off on the start of the run. At this point I was feeling great. 9 hours had elapsed between the start of the race and setting off on the run. This left me 10 hours to complete the run within the cut-off. Easy! In fact, if need be, I could probably walk, and still make the cut-off.

The start of the run route involved heading north along the Lake road for a mile, then through the campsite, and onto the path leading up the screes. Now I sort of knew this part of the route, as this is the path you run down at the end of the half. Now, according to the race details, you run up this path, and then onto the flat bit at the top, where you then spend several miles covering some gently undulating terrain. Sounds easy, which of course is what you want when you know that you’ve got to go up Scafell Pike later on. Well this isn’t quite how it turned out. At the top of the path, instead of going to the left, onto the flat bit where the half came from, you went to the right, which took you very steeply upwards. And then up again. Then up again. And again. And again. Then down a bit, but then up again. Then down a lot, but then up even more. And then up some more again. Of course the irritating thing for me was that the downhill bits were all “technical descents”. That means that unless you’re a “proper” fell runner, like Eric Blakie or Ruth Dance, you have to gently pussyfoot your way down, and not make up for any of the huge amounts of time you’ve lost on the steep climbs.

The weather hadn’t been bad down by the lake, but the cloud was low, so visibility deteriorated as I got higher. There was, however, plenty of marking tape, so navigation wasn’t a problem. Eventually I reached Illgill Head – the high point of this section of the route. After this it was mostly downhill to Irton Woods, which are at the same height as Wast Water – giving you a similar climb to look forward to on the way back. As I descended I eventually dropped out of the clouds and the visibility became perfect. Of course guess what is the most prominent thing you can see if you’re heading south from Illgill Head – yes, Sellafield.

I reached Irton Woods (about quarter distance) after a bit more than 2 hours. Then you had to do a lap around the woods, which was about a mile (and not flat) then head back the way you’d come from. At this point I became curious about where the Big E could be. As it was an out and back apart from the lap of the woods, you got to see everyone who was more than a mile ahead, or more than a mile behind, and I hadn’t seen the Big E (or Scott, for that matter). The Big E has yet to finish a swim ahead of me, so I was quite sure I’d started the bike before him. He’s usually quicker than me on the bike, but sometimes struggles on the climbs – although he caught me easily enough during the half. Then, although he seems to have done little other than a huge number of Ironman races for years, fell running is still, I believe “what Blakies do best”. So it was strange that, bearing in mind the ridiculously slow pace I was running at, he hadn’t caught me.

The drag back over Illgill Head was as slow, tedious, technical, windy and misty as the outward leg. At the bottom of the scree path you don’t turn left towards the lake, but turn right and follow the same path as the half to Wasdale Head. Wasdale Head was the 15 mile mark, and was also the race headquarters, the finish, the place where we were staying, and the place that the WAG’s had now relocated to. I reached Wasdale Head after 4 1/2 hours of running, by which time my legs were completely wrecked. Very slow, but still plenty time to hobble up and down the Pike before the cut-off. It was here that I saw the WAG’s again, and learned what had happened to the Big E.

The Big E had actually pulled out of the race suffering from Hypothermia. Fresh from races in Taiwan, Mexico, Hawaii, Malaysia and Arizona, he had found Wast Water a little on the cool side. Exiting the lake into the rain, he had resisted the temptation to keep his wetsuit on, but had put on every other piece of clothing he had brought with him for the bike (including his new Ryton Tri thermal onesie). He completed the bike route, but remained unable to warm himself up. He reached T2 and the WAG’s a freezing, shivering wreck. He then, reluctantly, decided to abandon the race. This presented a problem, as he was clearly hypothermic, but the Blakiemobile was some 2 miles away at Wasdale Head, the WAG’s having walked to T2 from there. He and Dot were actually staying at a posh hotel in Gosforth, even further away in the other direction.

After some deliberation, the WAG’s formulated a Blakie reheating plan. The Big E would get back on his bike, and ride the (flat) 2 miles to Wasdale Head. Lou and I were staying at the Wasdale Head Inn, so the Big E would go to reception and ask for our room key. Then he would thaw himself out in our bath. (He was given strict instructions not to ask for steak and chips) The WAG’s then walked back to the Inn. The bath did the trick, and the Big E was eventually able to make it to the bar and join the WAG’s for some food and some Lakeland ale. Eventually the time came when I was likely to be running past. The Big E didn’t feel up to going outside quite yet, so the WAG’s wrapped him in a warm duffle coat, gave him some marmalade sandwiches, and attached a label to him saying “please look after this Blakie”. (Strangely enough, Darkest Peru is now one of very few places in the world where The Big E hasn’t yet competed in an Ironman)

The Big E’s quite fond of Hardknott too!

The Big E’s quite fond of Hardknott too!

This still left unexplained why I also hadn’t yet seen Scott. I assumed that he too had DNF’d, but I had no idea why or when until I saw him at Monday swimming some weeks later. Seems he’d struggled on the bike and had some punctures. He’d finished the bike leg a bit outside of the bike cut-off, but been allowed to start the run, on the understanding that he would make up time on the first section. After running along the lake, however, he decided that he was unlikely to make the overall cut and dropped out. Never mind, he atoned for this 2 weeks later by entering and completing the Kielder Ironman. And then entering next year’s X.

Having passed Wasdale Head, I was feeling more positive again. I only had the Scafell Pike section to do, which would be hard, but, I’d done it (twice) before so knew what to expect. Unlike the first section which had taken me totally by surprise. Also, I had plenty time, and I had just learned that daughter Laura and her partner Stuart had set off some time earlier and were planning to meet me at the top of the Pike.

The weather, however, was starting to deteriorate again. It was raining, windy, cloudy, and starting to get cold. As I got higher, each of these things got steadily worse. When I reached Styhead Tarn, where you turn right onto the Corridor Route, I decided that it was time to put my running jacket on. I had a brief chat with the marshal as I was taking it out of the rucksack, and at some point he said, for reasons which weren’t clear to me, “Are you from Newcastle?” “I am indeed” I said. (Actually, I might have said “whey aye man”, but I can’t remember) “Are you expecting to see your daughter up here somewhere?” I replied, again, in the affirmative. “She passed here about half an hour ago. She’s expecting to meet you at the top”.

This was good news which gave me a lift. Not for very long though. It took me forever to cover the section from Styhead to the top of the Pike. By the time I got to the end of the Corridor Route I was totally exhausted and the weather had worsened again. The temperature was very low, it was blowing a gale, chucking it down, and visibility was next to nothing. There was a marshal at this point: “turn left here and climb straight up to the summit. It’ll take you about 15 minutes. There’s a marshal up there who’ll take your number. You should be able to see him, as he’s got a brightly coloured tent”.

“15 minutes” was about as accurate as the pre race description of the first part of the run. After about half an hour of blindly following the tape, not having a clue how near the summit I was, I saw the brightly coloured tent. Then I saw the marshal standing in front of it. Then I finally noticed that the tent was actually right up against the cairn. This is the massive cairn that you can usually see for miles around, which lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are at the top of Scafell Pike. I was less than 2 yards away, and could only see that it was there because of the tent. I learned later that this particular marshal had been in place since 2pm, and stayed there till after midnight. He didn’t have to do that, it was part of, I believe, a joint decision by the marshals and organisers to extend the original 11.30 pm cut-off to around 1.30 am. Even though I was in a miserable state myself, I still managed to feel sorry for this marshal, who had probably been landed with the worst job of the day. Possibly one of the worst jobs ever (perhaps even on a par with The Big E’s chiropodist).

I gave the marshal my number, and then asked him what he would doubtless look back on as being the silliest question of the day: “Is my daughter up here?” “No mate, there’s nobody’s daughter up here, only me. Now get yourself back down and finish the race”. I duly complied, the fact that it was downhill all the way from there being of no comfort whatsoever.

Just as I reached the previous “15 minutes” marshal and turned right, back onto the Corridor Route, a voice came from the mist: “Is that you Dad?” It was indeed Laura and Stuart, who had ended up behind me on the ascent, having taken a wrong turning – didn’t turn right at Styhead, apparently (see Mr Blakie for some navigation training please). So they joined me for the descent, during which time I inflicted a large amount of whinging on them: “Have you had a good race then Dad?” “No I most certainly have not, it’s been a disaster. I went well on the bike but the run’s been horrible. I’m never doing anything like this ever again. I’ve found my limits now, and learned that I’m not capable of doing extreme triathlons. I’m going to stick to mainstream Ironman from now on. Stupid races like this are for nutters like the Big E”. Etc. etc.

I’m not overly keen on the Corridor Route though.

I’m not overly keen on the Corridor Route though

Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of whinging as a means of keeping yourself going during extreme races. (It also works just as effectively during Daniel Flint’s running sessions)  I whinged my way down to Styhead, which was just below cloud level. From here it was back down Gable traverse, from which you could see Wasdale Head. It was rocky at the top, so I continued to hobble down, but lower down the path gets smoother, so I started to run. This surprised Laura (who is not a runner), whom I had informed earlier that I was no longer capable of running, so I would be walking all the way to the finish (and quite possibly not running ever again). “I’m feeling better now so I’m going to run to the finish. It’s down to the bottom of here, across a bridge, then a mile on the flat. Will you be able to keep up?” “Of course”.

So I “ran” to the finish, where I crossed the line with an exhausted, out-of-breath daughter. Finished. Job done. Never, never, again. Definitely.

My finish time was 17:48. The longest I’ve ever spent doing an event, and it included a run split of 8:45 – by far the longest it’s ever taken me to do a marathon. I was placed 64th out of 99 finishers (of which only 83 finished inside the original cut-off) and 132 starters. Amazingly, I was 6th V50. The Big E would have been surprised/gutted/indifferent to see that no V60’s finished the race at all.

A few days later, details were announced of next year’s race. Basing the race in Wasdale had proved too problematic, so next year it’s moving to (the considerably warmer) Windermere. Sadly, this means dropping “deepest” from the “deepest, steepest, highest, hardest” slogan. The other 3 words will remain in force though. The bike route will be the same, just joining the Fred loop at a different point. The run route still goes up Scafell Pike, but from the other side. So because of where Ambleside is, you have to go quite a way on the flat(ish) before you start to climb. Then, according to the Big E, the climb itself is easier and more pleasant than the Corridor Route. So, basically, it will be a doddle. So I’ve entered it. And so have Big E, Gareth Huxley and Scott Sanders. The race is nowhere near full yet, so we’ll welcome anybody else who fancies coming and having a go (assuming that they think they’re hard enough, obviously). I can’t wait.

by Ian Maddison

Next Time………….

A mere four weeks after Wasdale, Madders demonstrates that he and his sanity have surely now gone their separate ways, by suffering more horrendous weather and taking part in Ironman UK in Bolton, along with The Big E, Gareth Huxley, Hedley Fletcher, Matty Alderson, Graham Robinson and Rob Churnside.

  • Will the Big E thaw out in time for the rolling start in Pennington Flash reservoir?
  • Will the rain be so heavy during the swim that the competitors will be unable to see the booeys?
  • Will Madders stop saying booeys before somebody thumps him and/or shoves a booey down his throat?
  • Will there be any more Blakie jokes, or has Madders already exceeded his annual quota?
  • Will the Big E be dusting down his grass skirt for another trip to Kona, or will it stay in the wardrobe this year?
  • Will Gareth win his age group and claim a Kona slot, only for the poodles to then be denied US entry visas?
  • Will Hedley earn and claim a Kona slot, only to find that the sale proceeds of his 3 most valuable possessions (his disc wheel, his van and his body) won’t quite cover the air fare?
  • Will Gareth and Hedley actually go to Hawaii at all, or will they secretly slope off to a “Sons of the Desert” convention?
  • Even though they didn’t take part in the race, will Madders still squeeze in some humorous/offensive remarks about Diane Chaney, Philip Addyman and Bob Hogg?

All this and more will soon be revealed in:

Bolton – a Tri Too Far

(If Madders can ever be bothered to write it, obviously……………….)