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It’s an odd phenomenon that even though it was you who set the time on the alarm – it’s still a shock when the blasted thing goes off!!! At 3:30 on Sunday, September 27th, that was suddenly alarmingly clear to me – if you’ll pardon the pun. Almost trying to delay the inevitable, I stared blankly at the ceiling for a couple of minutes before rolling gently from four hours slumber to pick up the iPhone on the bedside table and check the weather for Hever. A full 20 minutes later, I was staring down at a bowl of porridge and a Beetroot Juice shot – which at 03:50 in the morning was about as appealing as having Jeremy Corbyn appointed your ‘Personal Shopper’!!!
Perfect performance, they say, begins with planning. And, on that count, I thought I was squeaky clean. Not only had I accepted the kind offer from a club mate for a lift to Hever to register the day before the race – but my own personal Race Day Checklist had been followed (almost) to the letter. The trouble with good plans though is that it only takes the smallest act of God – or some idiot outside of your control – in order for them to come crumbling down around you.
Leaving the house at 04:30 for the drive to the race, I’d figured that I had plenty of time for a relaxed drive there, bike build, and be into Transition before 06:00. That would give me a full hour of meticulously laying out my kit (in the one square foot of space provided) and generally chilling before the off. And, to be fair, this plan ran like clockwork – right up until four miles away from Hever where the car Sat Nav decided to shut down! No problem though – by this time, I knew where I was going and then just followed the yellow signs to the car park.
Given my early start, I was convinced that I would be the only car there at that time. So it was concerning (or confusing at least) to find a solid queue of vehicles in the lane leading to the entrance. What was odder was that no one was moving. I stepped out to have a chat with a few others and was informed that the chaos was because the car park attendant hadn’t yet arrived!! Ye Gods!!
After 25 minutes, we were finally allowed in. But, as anyone who went to Hever this weekend will tell you, the car parking fields were so boggy that even 4 x 4s were struggling to get traction. Ahead of me cars slithered, bogged down and ground to a halt – it was utter, utter pandemonium. Fortunately, the Mini does not weigh a lot and with front wheel drive on it’s side made reasonable progress. I was directed to a random location and the marshal said, “I’d just leave it there mate!” By now I was well behind schedule but I tried not to let it phase me. In a matter of minutes, I’d extracted the bike from the carrier and was, with the aid of a head torch, headed for Transition.
Although I’d already lost a lot of time, the fact that I’d pre-registered did mean that I wouldn’t lose any more actually getting into Transition to set up – or so I thought. As others queued for their race packs and struggled in the dim early light to stick race numbers to wet bikes and helmets, I strolled casually past – with the smugness of a man who’d done his prep properly.
Pausing for the Transition entry check, that smugness suddenly smashed down around me as the marshal said, “Where’s your bike number – the one with the timing chip on?” Looking down at the small section of paper clinging to the front of the seat post, my heart sank. Clearly, sticking the race number to the bike the night before had been a mistake. Unlike the seat post number I’d got at Fambridge (which would be the last thing left in the event of a nuclear war) the flimsy paper affair supplied by The Castle Triathlon Series had been ripped from the bike on the drive down!! I was ordered back to the registration tent – where I was provided with a different number for the bike. Back at the Transition entry I then had the further indignity of having my new bike race number written on my spare hand whist all the others I’d strode past minutes earlier were now racking bikes!! By now my carefully planned setup was in pieces. Frankly, I almost threw the bike and kit into the rack before climbing into
my wetsuit and heading for the Loggia by the lake for the race briefing.
At least I’d got to the briefing early!! And after a very pleasant chat with another competitor was beginning to relax. In fact I relaxed right up to the point where I realised that my ankle timing chip was not around my ankle!! Bollocks!!! In my frenzied setup, I’d completely overlooked this. Bang goes that pre-race chill – instead, I had a 600 Metre return sprint in wetsuit and bare feet to collect it from my Transition Bag. If nothing else, it was a good warm up!! I got back just as the briefing commenced.
Standing by the lake – with the brilliant morning sun creeping over the tree line and a gentle haze rising gently from the mill pond like surface – you could have been fooled into thinking that the water temperature was going to be almost bath like. That illusion was shattered however as soon as you entered the water. Taking the plunge and launching myself straight in from the starting pontoon was a huge shock to the system!! Seriously, I’ve never known cold like it – just putting your head into the water was like having daggers stuck into your face. But, to be fair, by the time the claxon sounded, my face was so numb that the pain was manageable.
I love this swim. If you’ve not done it, it’s worth booking a Tri at Hever for on its own. Out across the castle lake and then, for the Gauntlet competitors, a turn in the far corner to bring you back across and into the River Eden. You basically then follow the river all the way back to the Loggia where you will be dragged from the water by the Speedo Swim Crew.
After 400 Metres I was settled into a steady rhythm and absolutely loving my new Huub wetsuit. Keeping with the pack I was being a bit lazy with my sighting though – using other competitors as my reference rather than whipping my face back out of the water for a regular check on the buoys. That strategy worked almost right up to the far corner turn where a few of us gave ourselves a very meandering route to the far buoy. From there, I became more diligent – looking out for myself so to speak.
As you make the turn into the river the water becomes very shallow. At one point I honestly thought I’d have to stand and walk because there was so little depth. But once into the river section you are back in a deeply dredged channel which is far more relaxing.
Personally, I actually quite enjoy a bit of hand-to-hand combat in the water. And, in this respect, the race was delivering most splendidly. Not only had I enjoyed a good fight with another guy turning into the river but, in the river section, I managed to engage in fisticuffs with at least four other competitors. But one of the great things about this sport is that everyone knows the score and no one gets stressed about it – it’s part and parcel of the swim; isn’t it. In a shade over 46 minutes, I was back at the Loggia and being pulled from the water. Not a bad swim time – I’ll take that!!
My T1 was frankly a shambles!! Not only did I struggle getting out of my wetsuit which became bunched up over the timing chip (oh, the irony) but I was so cold that I could not feel my fingers which then struggled to fasten my helmet. Six and a half minutes is a long time to spend doing anything; but in T1, its unforgivable!!! I could have made a cup of tea and some sandwiches in that time!! But I guessed I could make some of this up on the bike so, kitted up, I ran the bike out.
The bike mount line is well away from any properly metaled roads. You mount and then have to negotiate a muddy / grassy stretch followed by about 200 metres of stone chippings. At this time in the morning the whole stretch was treacherous – the muddy parts were as slippery as ice and the stony bit not much better. I opted to run the bike all the way to the road and felt justified in that decision as a lady behind me said, “I wish I’d done that!”
From the moment you spin the pedals at Hever, you are into a climb. The road from the castle estate ascends steadily and there are also a couple of speed humps to deal with. Throughout this stretch I could not get my right foot clipped in. Convinced that the cleat had become jammed with mud, I stopped the bike and used a finger to clean it up as much as I could. But, turning out onto the Hever Road, it was still not working and, for some reason, rather than stop and deal properly with the issue I decided that I’d just have to live with it. If nothing else, I thought that 56 miles through the hills of Kent with just one foot clipped in might give me some superb bragging rights.
There is only one word to describe the Gauntlet bike course; brutal. Seriously, there is not a flat bit on it – when you’re not crawling your way up a climb with speed in single figures, you’re smashing down a descent at nickable speeds and the climbing starts in earnest as soon as you hit the Hever Road. By the end of the first climb the pain in my right knee was telling me that I did in fact need to stop and sort that cleat before we hit any of the tastier hills further in. Half way along the second climb, I found a farm entrance, pulled over and whipped my shoe off. The problem was easy to see and relatively easy to fix – in the run from Transition, a stone had wedged itself into the cleat; stopping it from engaging with the pedal platform. A couple of minutes with a multi-tool and it was sorted. Now fully back in the game, two-legs Tovell set out to claw back some lost minutes.
The majority of the outward half of the lap is a grind up to the very top of the Ashdown forest. It’s a long and soul-destroying climb. At the highest point of the Ashdown, you turn and head back north where your labours will be rewarded with some of the fastest descents you’ll find in this part of the country. Along this stretch, I managed a top speed of 49 MPH – which, at the time, was great fun. The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, was discovering at the bottom of that descent that I’d not closed the quick release on the rear brakes when I put the wheel in!!! That was, what my mate would call, a proper 50p / 20p moment!! My rational brain told me to stop and fix it whereas my racing brain told me to just live with it. But, having lost a good 5 minutes to the Cleatgate incident, the racing brain won.
With the rear brakes now largely redundant, the front brake was working double-time and making this known by emitting a shrill screech every time I used it in anger. I’m not sure if it was overheating or what was going on but it was bloody embarrassing – to the extent that I tried to use the brakes as little as possible. That’s easy to say but, on this course, hard to do. A number of the longer downhill stretches lead into villages where you are just waiting for an OAP to roll out of a side road in a Nissan Micra as you steam into them at nigh-on 50 MPH. And, in a few places, the long downward run terminates with a 90 degree off-camber bend covered in a road surface so bad that you’d believe you were riding through a war zone – rather than the lanes of Kent.
The downhill fun is over when you get to the foot of Groombridge Hill. This cheeky little rise is 1.2 KM long with an average gradient of 7% - although at one point it does kick up to just short of 11%. You hit this about halfway through the lap so you get to enjoy it once at about 27K and then again at about 62K. It’s the second climb that kills you. By that time, the grind to the Ashdown will have sucked most of the freshness from your legs and the fast descent let you get cold. All you can do is drop into the small ring, put the rear mech onto your biggest cog and spin slowly up it. Spinning easily toward the top on my second lap, I passed a guy labouring over a Planet X TT bike – the very one that I have. He clearly wasn’t having a good time and I was almost tempted to remind him by saying, “I’ve got one of those. But looking at you right now, I’m glad I didn’t bring it!!” But I resisted – instead just giving a cheery, “Morning” as I passed and taking some comfort from the pained expression on his face.
In order to distract myself from the pain in my legs, throughout the bike I’d been contemplating which trainers to take out on the run with me. I know it’s really bad to give yourself choices in Transition – and I hadn’t planned to. But during my hasty setup, I’d laid out my trail trainers – dropping my roadies into my Transition Box. Although trail runners was plan A, by the time I got back to Transition, I’d decided it would be roadies for this one.
Given what I’ve said about the state of the car parks, that may sound an odd choice. And in all honesty, I’ve probably made better calls in my life. But the bike had taken quite a bit out of me and I reasoned that I’d happily trade some traction for some increased comfort on the run.
T2 was a shade over 4 minutes – by the time I’d pulled the road shoes from the box and slipped some socks on. In a way, the long transitions felt justified somehow (well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). And, if nothing else, the brief respite was very welcome – especially in T2. But, all too soon, I was setting out for 21KM through the woods and lanes of the Kentish countryside.
Much like the bike course, the run kicks up from the very start. As soon as you’re out of the Transition area, you turn left into the woods and a stretch that the organisers lovingly refer to as ‘Shite Lane’. This twists and turns upward before delivering you to the split point in the run courses; Olympic turn left and Gauntlet turn right. I recall running past this on last year’s Olympic and thinking how glad I was – at that point – to be turning left and not right. But this year I turned for the long course. In a way the middle distance run is nicer than the shorter Olympic 10K. Whereas the Olympic keeps fairly close to the castle at all times, the Gauntlet course take you out through woodland and open countryside toward Chidingstone Castle – where you turn back, eventually re-joining the Olympic course.
By now, I’d slipped into ‘Resource Management Mode’ – setting the cruise control to ‘Steady Jog’ I shortened my stride and consciously backed off – aiming to keep Zone 3(ish) and just see it through. The plan worked and I even found myself in an almost meditative state on some of the longer stretches – running alone across open fields and through some most fantastic woodland. But my sense of inner peace did fall apart a little as I approached a sharp turn shortly after the split point. The marshal ahead shouted, “Take care on the turn”, but I don’t need warnings like that; I’m a tough Half Ironman, aren’t I!! I ignored it, pressed on and then promptly went arse-over-tit on the gravelly 90 degree bend!!! What a knob!!!
Approaching Chidingstone, the smell of food cooking in the local pub wafted toward me and, even on the first lap, I was already in a fit state to eat my own arm if given half a chance. Having to run past as people sat outside the pub with pints of beer and freshly cooked food was purgatory – even if they did cheer us all on. In contrast, passing Triathletes are presented with their own refreshment stop, where the delights of flat coke, jelly babies and bananas could be ‘enjoyed’.
Personally, I’ve never been very good with fuelling during races but I’d made a conscious decision before Hever to take full advantage of the on-course hospitality. It certainly worked but the payback of taking on water every half lap was that I soon felt the discomfort of a full bladder. Fortunately, a moment of solitude in a wooded area provided the opportunity to offload the extra fluid. Even if that did cost me another 30 seconds or so, the relief was worth it and I actually felt my pace quicken immediately afterwards – just to get away from anyone who’d witnessed the act!
Crowd support was fantastic throughout the race – from the ‘Go Ian’ shouted by club mates as I exited the swim to the lone cyclist frantically ringing a cowbell and shouting, “Heya, heya, heya” to all passing triathletes. During the castle grounds section of every lap, there was support from everywhere and, passing the Transition area, the East Essex Massive were on hand to cheer on the blue and yellow army. That was a real lift to the spirits and, as I’ve said before, better than any energy product or pain killer I know.
But, support aside, by the mid-point of the second run lap, you know you’ve had a properly hard day at the office. My goal had been (water stops aside) to run the whole of the run course. And I did. But, as the miles ticked by, I watched my average pace gradually decline. By the time I re-joined the Olympic route for the final time, I was running just over 11 minute miles. In my head, 11 minute miles was the threshold so I dug in to maintain as close to that as possible. The only part of the entire run where walking seemed like an option was the steep winding gravel path about half a mile from the finish. Approaching this for the second time, I briefly considered joining the other walkers (in fact – that was everybody on it at that point). But with the East Essex colours proudly on my back, I resolved to do them justice and push myself. Leaning forward, with arms pumping I ground it out to the top. Passing, each walker, I glanced at their race numbers to see if there were any Gauntlet folks there – but they were all Olympic (or one of the other races that was taking place later in the day). In a way that gave me a lift - spurring me onward toward the top. And then, minutes later, I heard the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard as a marshal said, “Straight on to the finish or right for your second lap”.
As always, I’d saved some for a sprint finish. As I ran into the finishing straight, a club mate shouted, “Go on Ian Tovell”; leaning over the railings to high five me. I responded with a proudly shouted, “Ave it East Essex” and strode long to the finish where I was greeted by him for the obligatory finish line Facebook photo (clearly he’d had beaten me to the finish – so even in a hoodie, track suit bottoms, running through a crowd he’s faster than me in trainers and Tri Suit in a finish straight!!!) Why is it that when someone points a camera at you – post finish – and says it’s for Facebook that you immediately feel the need to strike a stupid arms aloft pose……or is that just me!!! I crossed the line in 7 hours, 6 minutes and 23 seconds – placing myself 256 overall (out of 480 finishers and 13 DNFs) and 80th out of 208 in Age Group. I’ll take that!
After some stretches, and picking up my kit from transition, I made my way across to the EETC crew where I took full advantage of their kind offer of cocktail sausages and scotch eggs. Getting some food on board that was not composed mainly of sugary carbs was, at that point, heaven. I actually found out after the event that I was entitled to a free burger and sports massage – that’ll teach me to read the competitor guide a little more thoroughly next time, eh!! I chilled for a while with the guys and then – when I’d regained my composure, began the slow trudge with bike and kit across the muddy fields to the car. Although the underfoot conditions were a little better than when I’d arrived I was still mightily glad to see a fleet of Land Rovers standing by to pull me out of the field if needed. Thankfully, I didn’t need their services… but I shall be employing the help of a good valet to put my wife’s car back the way I found it!!!
The Hever Triathlon is the biggest Triathlon event in Europe. And that is clear when you arrive there. It’s generally well organised (although the car park situation this year was a bit of a fiasco) and, as an athlete, you are very well supported at all times when you are racing. Given that there are distance to suit everyone – from those who only want to dip a toe in the water through to those who would rather rip their legs off on Groombridge Hill before a muddy half marathon – there really is something for everyone. Equally, there’s plenty to keep your support crew occupied whilst you are out smashing out a PB (although, be warned, spectators have to pay £7.50 to watch your suffering so for a family, that could be quite expensive).
I’m not sure if I will be going back to Hever in 2016 as next year’s focus is now Ironman Vichy. Although that’s going to be double the distance, as my club mate observed, compared to Hever, it’ll be easy!! I’ll be holding you to that sir!!