This weekend, I spent an inspiring and humbling couple of days in the New Forest supporting my friend Suzy at the Enduroman Festival of Ultra Events. Within the grounds of an outdoor activities centre called Avon Tyrrell, a small, committed bunch of athletes were taking on challenges that most of us would find unimaginable.
Suzy was aiming to complete a Double Ironman – as fiendishly simple as it sounds. She would complete a full Ironman race on Saturday then, after a few hours of sleep, do it again on the Sunday. In addition to this, there was also a group aiming to complete the Continuous Double Ironman: an unrelenting 7.6km swim, 360km bike taking them through the rural unlit night, and a double Marathon to finish.
Peppered around these events were people doing long distance swims and ultra runs, with the 48 hour Run To The Max testing people’s physical stamina and mental fortitude – how far can you run in 48 hours?
As if the distances aren’t enough to physically test the athletes, there’s a real psychological element to the short repetitive circuit format. The lake was small enough to require thirteen laps to complete the 3.8km Iron distance. The bike took place around an 18km loop that Suzy completed ten times each day. The run was a tough, hilly 2km-ish trail loop around the Avon Tyrrell grounds. Karen Hathaway, the winner of the Run to The Max, ran 151 miles around that short lap in two days.
Let’s not beat around the bush here… all these people are a little bit barmy. They are universally lovely, and there’s a glorious community feel to this event, with probably no more than eighty people involved: competitors, support crew and officials. But there’s definitely a collective screw loose among the group.
Suzy is a case in point. Whilst obviously a very physically fit woman, Suzy is not what you might call an “elite athlete” in terms of her speed. What she has got, and what seems to separate her from most triathletes, is a head of concrete. She has something in her that enables her to keep going through the pain and beyond the rational impulse to stop. She has a screw loose, basically.
The first Ironman started at 0630 on Saturday in the freezing lake, my toes curling at the sight of it. The athletes leapt in and began their steady progress around the lap. Aside from the cold, the biggest problem was an angry goose protecting its nest in the shallows. Ignoring the social conventions of bird-human relations, the goose held his ground, causing the swimmers to take evasive action.
When the swimmers emerged, they disappeared into the campsite shower block to warm up. In an event like this, there’s no pressure on a fast transition, and the athletes took their time, showering and drying, eating porridge and drinking sweet hot tea to try to raise their core temperature.
Suzy got out onto the bike course, and we enjoyed some breakfast, expecting a 45-50 minute gap between her appearances. She would stop briefly each time, sometimes to refill her bottle, sometimes for a little longer to eat some real food (after we had cajoled her to do so). Suzy’s support crew consisted of her other half Malachi, “Aussie Bird” Helen, and me. Around the turning circle which housed the transition area and race HQ, there were also support crews for many of the other athletes. We formed a happy bond as we waited and worried about our friends and families over the weekend.
A little later in the day, I rode a lap with Suzy, being extra careful not to get ahead of her to allow her to draft! The organisers are reasonably flexible about giving the riders a bit of moral support, and so Malachi and I both provided some distraction as Suzy got towards the end of the bike. The loop is undulating but not too tricky as you ride around The New Forest. Some of the views are breathtaking, especially when the sun came out later in the day. There’s a final climb up Braggers Lane as you return to Avon Tyrrell which is not too taxing, but it’s definitely a small ring job, and after ten ascents, I can imagine it would start to get a bit wearing.
By the time I rode with Suzy, she’d been racing for almost seven hours, but her spirits were high, and I tried to distract her with banal talk about something and nothing, rather than focusing on how much it must have been starting to hurt.
When it came to the run, she again took plenty of time in transition to eat, change clothes and mentally prepare for the next leg. The loop was mostly rough track with a steep downhill taking the runners past the campsite, around the lake, and then back up to the turning circle. With one or two exceptions, most of the long distance runners had adopted a policy of running down the hill and round the lake, then walking back up to base. Knowing that she had to pace herself, Suzy did the same, and kept a reasonably consistent pace as dusk started to fall.
She finished at about quarter to eleven, and we dispersed pretty quickly, all four of us needing to sleep after a long day, conscious of the need to refresh before morning. Malachi and Suzy had taken a youth hostel-style room in the centre, whereas Helen had the full luxury of a nearby Premier Inn. I trudged down to the campsite and watched the eerie dancing lights of head torches shining through the trees. With roots and rocks covering the course, a night run just adds a further element of hardship. These were the Run to The Max competitors, now into their 32nd hour of running.
Sunday morning seemed to arrive very quickly, and we forced porridge into Suzy before gathering once more at the lake. The five surviving Double Ironman competitors were now joined by another dozen or so triathletes who were “just” doing a one day Ironman. The goose looked unimpressed with our swollen numbers.
She finished her swim a couple of minutes slower than the previous day’s and again had a hot shower before heading out onto the bike. This was when the support crew realised how tired we were after yesterday’s exertions, let alone Suzy. We spent the next two or three hours taking shifts in the room upstairs and grabbing a power nap while the others continued to keep our athlete serviced.
I had to leave at three o’clock to get back to Yorkshire, but Helen and Malachi were staying to the bitter end, so I decided to once again cycle a couple of laps with Suzy before I had to hit the road. If my arithmetic is correct, these two laps would have been her sixteenth and seventeenth. She joked about her by now intimate knowledge of the route, warning me about 300m in advance to avoid an upcoming dead pigeon on the road.
The last climb up Braggers Lane was getting a bit tiresome even for me, so Suzy’s fortitude was astounding. She stopped at the end of this lap for some food, so I could give her a big hug and wish her well for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
The rest of the story is told second hand from those who remained on the front line. Suzy finished the bike and once again took a substantial break to get her body and mind into the running zone. Whereas on Saturday she’d completed the Marathon in six hours and nine minutes, today it took her seven hours and ten minutes, finishing on the stroke of one o’clock. You might look at that and see it’s an hour slower, but I just can’t believe it’s possible to keep moving for that long after having done so much.
Her determination and steely minded focus is either a thing of great wonder, or clear evidence of deep insanity, depending on your perspective. Either way, she’s an incredible woman, and all the athletes here are similarly admirable. It was a real privilege to share the journey with them, and I am wondering which event I might pick next time, my own screw loosening with every passing year.