Bitterly cold, ferociously hilly and very, very long. The Brutal is one of the toughest triathlons in the world.
So what’s it like to do it twice in one go? James Fargus recalls his hallucinatory weekend of starlit skies and giant squirrels…
With the 2018 Brutal just around the corner, we thought that the time was right to look back at an inspiring story from one of our long-standing club members – James. James was completing the event, raising funds for the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice.
It’s 5:52am on a Sunday morning and I was last asleep 23 hours ago. I’m freezing cold from the inside out and totally alone. I’ve been cycling in the dark for 10hrs. I long for a noise, a rustle of the wind, a passing car. There’s nothing but the voices in my head telling me it’s okay to stop. I’ve one bike lap to go before the double marathon run.
Finally, my arrogance has got the better of me. I wanted to find my limit and I’ve found it here in this cold, Welsh valley under what was a perfect starlit night, now smothered in freezing mist. There’s frost crystallising on my bike frame. One climb left and I can retire and be in bed warm, safe, asleep. I’m pulling the duvet over my head, bang, I hit a cat’s eye and wonder if I’ve just fallen asleep descending in the dark. I’ve nothing left to give. I’ve the last of my climbs up the Pen-y-Pass to do and then it’s a winding descent. Then bedtime. Abbo, my friend who passed away a year ago from cancer, and is the reason I’m here, would understand and tell me to stop.
I get halfway up the climb and I’m passed by a camper van, the first life I’ve heard for two hours. I need to stop for a wee and the van is now parked in the viewing area. It’s a beautiful spot, with great views of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. I can’t wee as the inhabitants of the van are wandering around the car park. I cycle up the road a further 50m to pee in the verge next to a slate wall that’s the only thing between me and a drop to the bottom of the valley. Above me is Snowdon, towering imperiously, misty clouds shrouding its uppermost secrets, one for those competitors strong enough to discover the rest. The rising sun makes a glow around the back of the mountain. The night is over and something inexplicable happens in my head. I’m alive, I’m not beaten. I should be here. I’ve trained hard enough and have come so far. I have one more climb on the bike and then I’m running up Snowdon. I’m going to complete the Double Brutal for Abbo, for my support crew and for me. I’m finishing this f**ker.
THIS IS REAL
The Brutal first started in 2012. It’s a savagely hard triathlon held over half, full, double and triple iron distances. Each discipline is set in the toughest circumstances. There’s no need for ceremony or pomp. The athletes here have come to find their limits. The swim is cold, the bike is mostly climbing, and the run is steep. This is no commercial- branded triathlon factory; this is real and you will get found out.
With a month to go before most iron-distance races, you ask questions like ‘have I trained enough’? For the Double Brutal, I’m asking if I’m insane, arrogant or stupid. My friends confirm all of the above. Apart from having arthritis, no cartilage left in my left knee due to a major accident, and various other minor niggles, I’ve learnt to live with them. The week before the Brutal is spent packing my kit into transition boxes, plus shopping for every conceivable food craving I may have over what’s likely to be 40hrs of exercising.
Friday is spent carb-loading in Llanberis, and an acclimatisation swim in the warmest part of the lake. The evening is spent making sandwiches, baked sweet potatoes and attending the race briefing conducted by Mark Yates, a former Triple Brutal completer, who I’ve been lucky enough to have as my Brutal mentor.
IT’S BUSINESS TIME
I wake up on Saturday, heart beating, my alarm hasn’t gone off. It’s 7am, I should be in the water.
I panic and check my phone. It’s only 2am. I was dreaming. Back to sleep for a couple of hours. At 5am my alarm goes off and I’m into my trunks. My rental house is just over the road from the race HQ. I have a bowl of porridge and make two large Thermos flasks of coffee for the days ahead. I have a couple of large cups and crank up the 1990s house tunes on my headphones. And we’re in business.
The 7.6km swim is in Llyn Padarn, with eight loops just shy of 1km. Athletes must exit every two laps no matter their distance. If you’re brave enough to swim hard right you can pick up some flow from the lake’s freezing feeder channel before turning left at the first buoy. There are two more buoys to navigate and then in for hot tea, biscuits, flapjacks and hot water down your suit! All served with smiles from the staff, a theme of the Brutal family led by Claire Smith.
The red-capped Double athletes share stories of apprehension, previous conquests and strategies. Everyone else is sh**ting themselves, too. The director calls 5mins. We huddle towards the water’s edge. The klaxon goes. I swim hard hoping to generate body heat so I can cope with the punch of the cold channel and enjoy the tow from the flow. I hit it 50 yards out and, wallop, the temp knocks my breath clean out. I start to panic, my heart races and I’m losing control. I exhale and fight the body’s survival instinct to fill my lungs with as much air as possible. I breath out slowly under the water. My swim coach, Ellery, said to imagine you’re surrounded by hot coals, and it works. I get my rhythm back and I’m soon shot to the first buoy by the cold stream. I’ll wait until I’m warmed-up properly before trying that stunt again.
I exit the water three times before my final two loops. I’m balancing pushing hard enough to keep warm and making sure I finish. I feel like I’m swimming through treacle wearing a woolly bear suit. I’m out of the water in 3:05hr and in 13th. Not too shabby. A quick check by the medic. I say I feel like I’ve had a sex change. He lets me carry on.
The main transition tent that houses the Half and Full entrants is now fairly empty, with only strewn wetsuits and half-eaten bananas evidence that this was total chaos an hour ago. Us Double/Triple competitors have our own private annex where we’ve set up camp beds, food prep areas and kit boxes. It’s like a scene from M*A*S*H, with shaking, gibbering wrecks of humans being helped out of their wetsuits and fed. I’ve mashed sweet potato with beans and cream cheese and put it in a thermos food container. The heat goes straight to my core. I put on my warm bike clothes, as the weather can change on a sixpence here.
Onto my WyndyMilla bike and the climbs are evil, starting with the ride up to Ceunant in a series of dog- legs that start steep and get steeper. I then hit the best part of the 48km loop, the fast swooping descent down to Beddgelert. The left turn out of town sees the ‘Llanberis 14 miles’ sign. I’m halfway round. Time for my sandwich poker. Is it Marmite, tuna or jam? It’s the small things that keep you sane. Halfway also signifies the impending climb after Llyn Dinas, through the Nant Gwynant valley before the killer climb over the Nant Peris Pass.
From the top, it’s a fast, tight
and jinking downhill, with a tight right-hand bend over a stone walled bridge with a sheer drop down to certain death. It’s tough in the dry, let alone in the wet and dark later. My plan is to do two loops at a time, and have some hot food and stock up. When I get in from my third double-lap I’m greeted by my crew, Sarah and Darren Frost, two ultra runners who have coached me on hill running and using poles. They feed me hot rice that I eat too quickly, swap my bottles and send me on my way. It’s early evening and the sun has three hours left in the sky. As I pass Llyn Dinas, the stars break through. The sunset and the mountain range behind is reflected in the perfectly still water. It’s more perfect than the best HD.
Lap five is the first night lap. With no cloud or light pollution, the perfect stars look like a fake Hollywood set. Orion’s Belt looks touchable. My mind starts to float into outer space as I’ve been riding now for 8hrs flat. I see a shooting star and start to cry as I remember Abbo and why I’m out here. Did he send that star? I think so. I start to break down the laps into segments from random points. I start looking forward to seeing a fallen branch, some horse poo or road kill.
By lap six, the clear night sky becomes obscured by freezing cold mist. I spot a badger. Yes, I’ve been having mild hallucinations, but as I pass him I hear his long claws scratching along the bitumen. As I continue on, I hear them getting louder. I know badgers can be aggressive, but chasing a cyclist? I sprint as hard as I can. I daren’t look behind.
By now the first climb to Ceaunt has been renamed. I struggle up it out of my saddle, push, pull, push, wobble, pull. I get to the top and don’t care about the view. At the Nant Peris climb there’s a function room where I’ve watched a wedding progress throughout the day. All that’s left now is an empty hall with a few dying balloons outside.
Coming through Llanberis for my final lap, I’ve now been on the go for 24hrs. Sarah and Darren are asleep, ready for the run up Snowdon with me. I should stop to take on some hot food and company. My stomach is hurting; I’m cold to the bone and having no fun. My head and legs are gone. I wobble on the frosty climb and hit a bush. Enough is enough.
I need my bed. I cry and my tears feel like they’re frozen. I text Sarah saying I’m done. I hope she comes to pick me up. She doesn’t. Thank god, thank Abbo. I carry on, the sun rises and so do my spirits.
I finish the bike in 20:53hrs and I’m now in 10th place. I know I’ll lose some places on the run, but I’m here to finish. I’m greeted by the sight of Sarah in ultra-running kit and a cafetière of fresh Bolivian marching powder. Coffee drunk, kit changed, hot soup consumed and we’re off…
The three of us ascend and descend Snowdon in 4hrs. I feel great. The sun is powering my soul and the company is making such a difference after 20hrs+ of solo riding. I say bye to Sarah and Darren at race HQ and set off on my first of the eight 14km lake loops. The first section is a flat run along lakeside paths. I try and run for 5mins and walk for two. I get passed by a number of competitors but I’m happy for their company. I’m even happier when they tell me they’re a few laps behind. I can do this.
The miles pass by. Long flat round the lake. Jog, walk, jog, walk. Long climb up the road that gets steeper every lap. Eat, walk, stomp. Repeat. Before the quad-smashing run down through the forests, I pass a 6ft 4in marine who doesn’t help my hallucinations as he’s dressed as a squirrel. This is a journey to the strangest places of my mind.
I’m now staggering like an old drunk. The rocks are changing colours and the trees are forming into moving living objects. Every lap Mark Yates has asked if he needs me to run with him. I decline. It’s now Sunday night, and my next lap will be in the dark. I’m tripping like a raver from the 90s at the end of a long weekend. I’ve 24km out of 84km to go. I need Mark’s help. I set off at a jog, feeling fresher now I have a run partner. Mark suggests I try a lap without running and just walk hard. Everyone is walking the hills and the downhills are a painful shuffle. It works. Mark’s experience is vital. We do my fastest lap with minimum effort. We talk for the next 15 hilly miles about life and civvy street. Soon there’s a lap to go. I’m now in 14th. I swallow some coffee and Co-codamol, and set off to nick a place or two.
We power through the night to finish the 84km in just under 17hrs. Mark lets me run the last 200m on my own. The rain is now lashing down. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I complete the Double in 40:53.03, get my medal, have some photos taken and report in to my loved ones who’ve been tracking me. I open the beer that I’d kept in my cool box. I walk across the road, have a shower and fall asleep.
I wake the next day and pick my gear up from race HQ. I see one of the Triple competitors going out for another lap. I’d been asked the night before what was next for me. Now I know. This was a journey into the darkest depths of both my mind and my physical ability. I’d conquered it. Surely that’s enough? I wish it was…
This article was originally published in 220 Triathlon Magazine, and has been re-published with their kind permission.