James Page has been doing triathlons since 2006 and has also completed a number of ultras, marathons and Ironmans (including The Brutal Double AND Triple and also The ONER Ultra Trail Run). In October this year, he was a crucial crew member for the Brutal Events Deca UK, witness to the pain, sheer determination, and emotion that the athletes experience.
This is his account of one of the toughest events on the planet...
I had the privilege of being asked to be involved in the first Brutal Events Deca UK. What is this madness, I hear you ask?! A Deca Iron Triathlon has two formats: the original classic which is 10 iron distance triathlons completed continuously, ie all the swim, all the bike and then all the run in a time limit of 14 days. The more modern format (multi-day) is an iron distance triathlon every day for 10 days. Yes, that’s 10 in a row.
Brutal Events decided on a modern format. This format is said to be harder than the classic and through history over the years the DNF (did not finish) rate is much higher on the multi-day format as opposed to the continuous one. At the start of the Deca UK it is said that only 85 people in the world have ever finished such a race, so it’s a pretty unique crowd of special individuals. So let’s put this into figures, what does it mean? An iron distance triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile cycle and a 26.2 mile run. The Deca UK, due to the constraints of the course, was slightly longer and ended up being a 2.4 mile swim, 114 mile cycle and a 27 mile run. Times this distance by 10 and then figures become mind boggling – especially when completed in just 10 days.
24 mile swim
1140 mile cycle
270 mile run
Brutal Events set up race HQ and the course at Dorney Lake, Windsor at the bottom end of the Olympic Rowing Venue. The course was as follows.
An 8-lap lake swim in water temperature of between 14-16 degrees. It was certainly 16 on the first day and I am sure got a little colder as the event went on. The water was crystal clear and the swimmers said you could see the bottom clearly as they swam. There was not too much of a current.
The bike course was 114 miles in length and consisted of 39 laps. The course was an out and back course of 3 miles in total, which effectively ran along the side of the lake through a nature reserve area. The course is flat but exposed to the wind, and had tight turning circles at both ends – this undoubtedly explained longer bike splits due to having to slow to almost a stop at both ends of the course. Other reasons may have been the road surface or wind. Added to this general fatigue of the athletes as the race developed, and it’s easy to imagine why!
The run course was also a flat out and back down the centre of the lake. A 2.25 mile run which consisted of 12 laps. A stunning course with lovely views across the two lakes and Windsor castle beyond.
So the Deca and Quin athletes arrived on Tuesday 2nd October to register and be briefed (as well the Deca, a Quin – 5 x iron distance – was starting on the same day). In two days’ time a triple would start, followed by a double and then a single iron. The course is very deceptive and I think athletes saw the profile of the course and may well have thought that it was flat and fast. The reality was that it was an open course subject to side winds and athletes having to reduce speed twice in every three miles to almost nothing and then having to build it back up.
The owners of Dorney Lake would not allow camping so athletes had to base themselves off site which had to be managed well by them, and would also eat into valuable recovery time.
Let the race begin
So day 1 started and the fourteen Deca UK athletes and the three Quinn athletes donned wetsuits and headed to the lakeside for a briefing and start of what was set to be an epic race/life experience - Deca athletes Graeme A, Martin, Simon B, Graham S, Rob, Anthony (TC), Simon J, Chris, Paul, Ziv, Gerard, Will, Tiernan, and Big Dave. Quin athletes Maarten, Gary and Steve.
The weather was bright and clear, albeit a little breezy. The atmosphere was bursting. At 07:25 the athletes entered the water ready for the klaxon to sound. At 07:30 the klaxon sounded and they were off, 8 laps to go. There was one other swimmer in the water with them that morning and every day for the whole duration. Andrew was a local man who was swimming 2.4 miles every day for 10 days. He was like a fish and led the swim every day. He was pretty smooth in the water and made the swim look super easy. Day in, day out he arrived, joined whoever was left in the race and swam with them. Headed off to work, to then return again the following morning. On the last day after he swam he went off to work arriving later that evening back at the venue to watch and support the remaining athletes into the finish, staying until the early hours. What an absolute sport. His support was very much appreciated by the others.
The athletes swam really well and no one had any issues, they were out, some colder than others and there was a mix of neoprene hats, gloves and boots, all of which were allowed due to the temperature. Some of the guys were clearly affected more by the cold than others. Endurance athletes are normally not skinny looking people, they normally carry a little more timber than you would expect to see, but don’t let this fool you. The slimmer guys seemed to be feeling it more.
Out on the bike all athletes were riding well. From a crew point of view maybe they all rode a bit too hard than they wanted to or should have. A couple in particular looked a little red faced as if riding too hard. It was to be expected because of the adrenaline of the race, and the fact that most had trained and built up to this day. The quickest Deca swim was 1:08 Rob and the slowest 1:48 Graeme A for Day 1.
At the end of the bike the fastest bike split was 7:05 (Simon B) and the slowest was 8:55 (Gerard). Once all the runners were out on the course they again were all running well using both the tarmac and sections of grass to alter terrain and variety. The day finished with fast overall times. Fastest run split was Will at 4:20 but due to knee issues was rowing a marathon on a concept 2 rower. The first runner proper was TC in 4:49. The slowest run split being 7:07 Martin.
One thing quickly became apparent on day 1 to me. That Gerard and his crew had not a single clue about bike maintenance, even down to being unable to change a tyre. There were multiple fixes on his bike and at one point even some minor positioning adjustments due to lower back issues he was having. I had now become his bike mechanic. I will leave it at that!
The day’s splits were interesting. The fastest was 13:39 by Graham S and the slowest at 16:02 was Martin C and Gerard. The three Quin athletes were just as fast on their splits. I am by no means an expert in anything but for me the guys seemed to have got carried away and pushed it a little bit too hard, bearing in mind they still had 9 days to go.
Day 1 took its first victim in Steve Wilson – running the Quin that night during the run, it would appear he misjudged his nutrition and by lap 5 he was almost asleep on the course and was DNF. Steve later returned in the week to complete a single iron distance which he smashed in 14:27. I was intrigued to see what day 2 would bring.
For the crew it meant that we all got to bed at a sensible hour and had around 5 hours sleep. This was enjoyed by us but we all knew it would not happen again! After a decent night’s sleep in a tent we set about filling water, preparing the aid station, filing heaters, general tiding up. The athletes started arriving around 6:30. They didn’t look as fresh as they had the previous day but were in good spirits. Tea and toast was the order of the day. I somehow became the toast, butter and jam chef. Martin C took a particular liking to it and it became his morning staple.
Gary from the Quin also pulled out for family reasons. The field was now down to 14 Deca athletes and 1 Quin. Spirits were still high and swim splits were slower than Day 1. Seeing them come out, the swimmers reacted as if the swim had been a bit chillier this morning. Rob was again strong in the water, followed closely by Gerard and Simon. Once out on the bike Paul had completed 1 lap of the bike. The wind had really whipped up after a windy night at Dorney.
During Paul’s second lap on the bike I had gone to the far end of the course to pick up the barriers which had blown over. As I headed back I came across him sitting on the floor next to his bike on some grass. I was shown a cracked helmet. I put a call into the medic who was quickly on the scene and took over. Paul had somehow launched himself into a gate post, cracking his head. He was the first Deca DNF as he headed off to hospital to be checked out. I am glad to report he was given the all clear and later released from hospital. Sadly his race was over though.
Bike times over this day also slowed as the guys battled into headwinds and side winds. You could see some very relieved faces getting off the bikes that day as the wind had battered them all!
Once on the run, moods lifted, the relief of not having to ride was apparent. Some of the guys were doing a run/walk to get through. Simon B looked to be in physical pain and his hips were causing him some issues. The overall times had slowed which was to be expected. Looking at Simon B’s face when he finished, I wasn’t sure I would see him tomorrow; he had suffered out on the run for sure. After Chris finished, he was still looking fresh and had finished in a decent time just under 17 hours (which for a deca is completely acceptable), he announced that he wasn’t enjoying it. I tried to convince him to go back, rest and come back in the morning. It had almost worked, however what didn’t help this was that his car keys had been taken by his daughter – he was given a lift home and had to climb a fence to get in!
Day 3 was soon upon us and Simon B had decided not to start and was DNF due to injury, Chris also decided not to start and moved to doing a marathon a day over 10 days. He later returned to start this with the other two athletes who had started this on Day 1. Mark and Michelle had been starting at 4pm each day for 10 days and running a marathon a day, the Deca guys would then join them after the bike on the same course.
Day 3 had now started with 1 Quin athlete, 11 Deca athletes. They were joined by Mark doing a triple, Suzy and Gordon doing a double (all arrived a day early). At the swim start I could see athletes looking around to see who was there. The register was called and they soon realised who was not present. Times remained similar to that of day 2, except the guys looked ever colder this time. So cold, in fact, that some of the athletes had now taken to getting in a hot shower. More toast with jam was needed this morning and the athletes were taking the advice given to them about wrapping up warm for the start of the ride until their body’s had heated up sufficiently. Tiernan was struggling with a lower leg injury and he looked in pain, but after the swim got onto the bike.
As race crew we were aware of the level of support the athletes were getting; some had no crew, next to no crew and some had loads of crew. We kept an eye on all of the athletes. We would suggest food or rest but ultimately the decision of what athletes did was theirs. I was aware that Simon J had little crew and was struggling to eat a lot of the time, he was suffering from reflux. I kept trying to encourage him to eat. I was conscious of becoming an annoying nag. Simon J was probably one of the thinnest and fittest looking athletes there and maybe didn’t have the same fat reserves as some of the others. No offence meant! Once out on the bike I could see that athletes looked tired, the pace had slowed further and I was surprised to see so many of the athletes left pushing hard on their big chain rings. The bike ended and all went out on the run except for Will, he was suffering with knee pain and was unable to continue. He had been fuelling himself on his daily order from Pizza Hut he was having delivered. It was a real shame for Will as I know he had trained tirelessly for the Deca and he was upset, he was devastated and you could see in his face that if he could have carried on he would have, but the pain was overwhelming. Gutted!.
You could see that athletes were tired by this point. I touted myself out to anyone who needed or wanted support on the run. At this early stage, though there were no real takers. I did ride a couple of laps around the course on the folding bike (more on that later!). Day 10 seemed to be some distance away at this point. I wondered how many would be left at the end. At one point I even worried that no-one would finish! This course was hard, there was no doubt about that. Flat, windy, cold and long. Times slowed further for the athletes, and as a result the sleep time for us crew also suffered. It was important not to show this and remain upbeat with the athletes who were going through their own ups and downs, self-doubt appeared to be creeping in.
Run Day 3 and some of the athletes that finished after midnight looked tired and stressed over the small amount of sleep they would get. Out on the course the last person to finish that night was Maarteen doing the Quin, he had had problems with food and tiredness during the day and had had a couple of naps. He was then left chasing the time. I ran the last three laps with him. I was surprised by how fast he was running; in his mind he had already accepted that he was going to stop at the end of this marathon. We talked over the race so far as we ran, lap 10 was a reasonable pace, lap 11 was a very fast pace and Maarteen as we came to the end started to head up the finish line. He thought it was his last lap as he had miscalculated his laps, and sadly for him he still had one left. That explained why we had gone so fast. I told him he still had one to go and for a minute I thought he was going to scream at me. He then really calmly said ‘lets go’ and we headed out for his last lap.
We were moving fast, I spoke to him about getting up tomorrow for another day, but he was set, he was going to finish at three. The way he looked at it was that he had done three, he was really happy with that and had achieved what he had set out to do in his own mind, he had enjoyed the event so much and that if he carried on to the next day he would probably not enjoy it and didn’t want to spoil what had been a fantastic experience. We smashed that last lap and as he crossed the line, he was one happy man. So, so pleased that he had had such a great experience. He came back the following day and stayed for most of day 4 supporting the other guys and helping to fix some bikes.
Day 4 started pretty much the same as every other day up to now. It was like groundhog day. As I stood outside the HQ /transition tent awaiting the arrival of the athletes. Who would arrive? Who wouldn’t? The first athletes started to arrive. Martin and Simon J were normally some of the first to arrive. Both approached the tent walking slowly as if to either preserve energy or ease the aching bodies. The Ultra Zombies had arrived! Simon J approached first with Martin behind. I reached out to him said good morning and said to both “do you need a cuddle?” I gave Simon J a gentle but reassuring hug, he put his head into my shoulder. It was like he was allowing himself to tell someone “this was hard and I’m tired and hurting”. He was pointed into the tent. Martin looked at me like he wanted to rip my head off. I read the situation right and I hugged him too. I just wanted to let the guys know we were there for them whatever. As the days went by we were getting to know the guys and their crews better. We were seeing them with everything striped back, raw emotions near the surface. All athletes that were left by the end of day 3 started day 4.
Day 4 however would soon claim another athlete. After the swim Teirnan started out on the bike. After a number of laps (16) on the bike he called it a day due to injury as the pain was too much to continue. He was gutted but managed a smile, you could see in his face he had given it his all in both training and the race and this meant masses to him. Day 4 was much the same as the others on the bike and run.
I had built up a good rapport with Graeme A by this time; he was an amazing cyclist, a real power house for such a small guy, he was out-cycling most of the other bigger more powerful guys on the bike. Looks can be so deceiving in ultra-sport and I have learnt over the years never to judge a book by its cover. On the bike daily Graeme would thrash his bike round the course and then hit a wall come to the aid station, he knew he wanted something to eat but didn’t know what. I would continuously ask him what he wanted to be met with “I just don’t know”. I started giving him food which would be good for him at the same time as enjoyable. He seemed to like this arrangement. Refuelled, often on tomato soup and a cheese and ham sandwich he would then get up, mount his bike and then ride off at speed, zoom around the course for a number of laps and then we would repeat the process. Once he got going on the course he was like a car whizzing around a Scaletrix track. I give you Mr Scaletrix.
Day 4 however was going to be a late one for sure. Martin finished in almost 21 hours reducing his recovery time to around 2 ½ hours. He remained upbeat despite this.
Day 5 was a bright day and the sun was trying to peep through. We were missing one athlete at the beginning of the swim. TC hadn’t arrived and about 20 minutes after the swim start he arrived late. What followed then was his confusion and disorganisation around a ripped wetsuit, cold water affecting him which resulted in him missing the swim cut off of 2 ½ hours by around 20 minutes. As a result of this and the effect of the cold water it was decided that he was going to finish the day and effectively have finished a Quin. This in itself is a massive achievement although I know it was not what he had set out to do. As an observer, it always appeared that TC struggled with the swim, although he has made massive inroads to this, he often sits at the back of the pack with regards to swimming and then makes time up on consistent bike and run splits. He also has next to no body fat so the cold really affects him.
The bike and run were slow for lots of athletes. What they had achieved up to this point was massive. I was so impressed to watch them pushing beyond their limits. After Martin’s first long day and his almost inability to run due to injury he had resigned himself to speed walking the marathon. Nothing was going to stop him, he seemed mentally strong and was always looking forward talking about after the deca, like it was always going to happen regardless of what happened on the course. So although out of all the athletes he was having the least amount of sleep, it was him I had the most faith in for finishing.
During the first few laps of the run Graeme A came into the tent and was really angry, angry with himself for being so pathetic; he was having this dialogue with himself about being useless and to stop being so pathetic, he was cross with himself and announced to no longer be nice to him and if he starts this pathetic behaviour to tell him to just get on with it.
At one point during the run Claire, Graham S’s wife (and support crew) asked me to help her with him if he got low. Due to injury to his achilles, Graham was struggling and negative thoughts had crept in to his race. He had been going great guns up until his injury to his achilles. He had begun to not listen to her. I was stood at the turning point for the run and someone came back in and said Graham is struggling about 1 km from the turn around and needed help. I whizzed out on the Prendergast folding bike to see what was going on.
When I arrived with him he was staggering with Claire. I watched him stagger back towards the turn point with his head dropped wearing a Dry Robe, and hardly moving forward. His spirit had gone. I asked if everything was ok, he started talking about it being over and that he could no longer run, that there was no way he would be able to complete another five marathons over the proceeding days, let alone the swimming and biking he had to do. Claire indicated for me to come into the tent with them whilst he assessed what he was going to do. I followed them in and watched him snap at her. I was well aware what training Graham had put into this Deca and out of everyone there that I knew if anyone had trained their socks off for the Deca then it was him, he had been 200% committed and hit every target during training.
From an outsider’s point of view I am no expert. But I could see that Graham had a well formulated plan and an idea how the Deca would play out. He was going to race it from the off and had aspirations to win, I can only respect him for that. But for me his plan had been derailed due to injury and suddenly the plan was not working. Maybe it didn’t have enough contingency, maybe it did. In front of me I could see a man who had given his all and more to this race, so had his wife Claire and it was falling down around them. He sat there with his head in his hands, was grey in colour and looked like he had aged around 15 years. Everything was tumbling down around him. He was saying all sorts of negative stuff.
I managed to get him to pick his head up and he agreed to come and walk a lap with me. We set off talking about the race and how it had gone. I was explaining about Martin and his lack of sleep, the fact he was walking laps due to his tendons and that he pushed through it and that Graham could do the same. It was like magic and as if I had planned it, at that exact moment Martin appeared from the dark running towards us, this was a man the previous night who could hardly walk let alone run and he had turned things around. I told Graham that tomorrow he too could be like Martin and be back running, and not to give up hope. We talked all about all manner of things not race related and I gradually just increased the pace we were walking. By the end of the lap Graham had picked up a good pace without even knowing it. I had brought a huge selection of food and drink too, he ate it all. He was back in the game and referred to our chat as Mr T would say – “my jibber jabber”. He finished the lap positive and happy and then went onto do a further lap with Claire. I had really enjoyed my time with Graham, he is a great guy and an awesome athlete. Sometimes people just need to feel like crap, talk it over and realise that their bodies are capable of so much more than they think. I was so chuffed for him and Claire.
Whilst all this was going on Ziv was struggling to tick over the laps and Martin was back to walking and pounding out laps. I did a couple of laps with Martin as his brother Derek had been worn out over the days and needed a break. Again great to chat with him and get his take on everything. It became apparent from this that the athletes had really bonded with one another and during the run they would exchange feelings, emotions and stories. Martin finished again late with little sleep, as did Graham. Ziv however kept trucking on. He crossed the finish line on day 5 at 06:05 and had completed a Quin. He announced he was finished and I could tell there was no chance of talking him around. I suggested that he could get at least an hour’s sleep and be back ready at the lake for 07:30. He just laughed. We took some photos of him with his medal. He had the biggest smile and was so pleased with what he had achieved on such a hard course. His smile just made my lack of sleep so worth it. By the time he had packed his stuff and left the athletes were arriving for day 6. This event was unreal.
Day 6 began and into the tent came Rob, Martin, Gerard, Dave, Simon J, Graham S, and Graeme A. It was mad, we were only half way through and already we were down to 50% of athletes starting.
Today was going to be a tough day. The guys had covered so much already and still had the same to do again. You could see it in their faces. We headed down to the lake, and the seven remaining athletes got into the water. As they started swimming they seemed slower than they had been previously; the cold added to the fatigue, lack of calorie intake and battered muscles was clearly taking its toll. Graeme A had really dropped off the pace and from the shore we were willing him on, he seemed to stop further up the course at one of the farthest buoys, he was approached by a kayaker and we were hoping he was not stopping. Graeme had found the swims cold and we didn’t want him to stop. It was communicated from the kayaker he was struggling with his goggles. Clive B who had joined us to crew for the event went running from his temporary tea table back to the HQ tent to get Graeme’s other goggles, and as he ran back down the bank to the rescue he launched himself into a forward roll in clothing not appropriate for forward rolling. New goggles and he was off again. We were just willing him on, he was slow but still moving, maybe not moving enough.
As we watched the swim unfold the athletes began to get out, they were cold, they were very cold. Rob and Andy were out first and they were pretty good and needed no assistance. I was helping the guys out of the water, they were suffering. Next was Gerard and Simon. Simon was cold, he was shivering uncontrollably, Dryrobe on, hot tea and then started to help him get his wetsuit off, I got it down half way and was just about to pull it down over his legs, luckily I stopped just in time as he informed me that he was naked underneath. I really appreciated this, otherwise I would have had been far too close for comfort! After he was sorted I headed back to the lake.
I was looking after Dave and he needed helping out of the water. He exited the water like it was the coldest thing on earth desperate to get out but not having the power and strength in his body to move quickly enough. He came out of the water buckled over screaming and shouting out, he wasn’t shouting anything in particular, just making noises of pain and discomfort. I walked him, supporting him to the hot shower that was waiting. He climbed in, I had to help him get his swim kit off as he was almost overcome with cold. He was given tea in the shower and just as he finished, Graeme was driven to the shower by Paul the medic, Graeme was put in the shower. He looked terrified, like he had just seen something that had made him lose his speech. He was cold – in fact, it is really hard to express just how cold these guys were.
I got Dave back into the tent, Paul indicated to me that Graeme was out due to the cold. I was absolutely gutted, but I had to get Dave sorted and get him on the bike. I ran around as I did most days making toast (with jam and butter of course) and cups of tea, helping the guys get coats, gloves and other bike kit on. I then looked for Graeme and was told he had gone back to the lake to get back in and finish his last laps. He had apparently made the decision to get back in but at the waterside he decided against it being unable to continue with the cold torture.
I then saw Graeme come back into the tent. I could see on his face what this meant to him and the fact that he was not continuing. I welled up. I couldn’t speak. I wanted to go and cuddle him and tell him it was ok, but something stopped me. I could see he just needed a minute and so did I. I left the tent and welled up, cried. Derek passed me and could see that I was upset and knew exactly why. He just put his hand on my shoulder and indicated ‘you ok’. We had spent only six days with the guys but we had got to know them quickly, when everything is stripped back and emotions are right there on the surface. I really felt for Graeme. He was such a great guy, really great fun to be around and I had enjoyed getting to know him. I busied myself around getting myself together. I then went back to speak with Graeme. He was lost for words, so was I, the cold had got the better of him but he survived to fight another day and that he will. He would be a massive loss to the race and the Brutal family that was forming.
The rest of the day went down without much drama. The mood was low due to Graeme not making the swim. The athletes appeared in shock, this was far from over and so much more to do. The enormity of the race was lurking in people’s minds.
Day 7 started and at 06:30. I was in the tent drinking tea, I had cued up The Proclaimers and 500 miles on my phone and had cued it up to play when Martin walked in, as we had joked about it previously. As he hobbled into the tent there was something I saw in his face which stopped me from pressing play, and in hindsight I was glad I did. I saw Derek look at me and could see he was quite upset and had started to cry. Martin sat in front of me. He looked vacant and then started feeling his leg which was swollen. The man had massive calfs anyway so it would have been hard to tell. He rubbed his leg and said “I’m broken, I’m done” and his face looked empty like it had all come to an end. I knew immediately he wasn’t joking, Derek left upset, leaving Martin alone with me.
I managed to talk him round into getting into the water, told him to just treat it as cold water therapy and not to look at it as a swim. If he didn’t want to carry on after then he would have benefited from the cold on his legs and injury. I was winning him round, in fact I could see he wasn’t ready to give up yet, his brain was trying to have over his body. He couldn’t see himself being able to ride his bike or run with his injury. I discovered that since day 1 he had been pushing out his big gears on the bike ring. I talked through the benefits of spinning the small chain ring and saving his legs for the run. He was sleep deprived but he had been for days and had already proved he could survive on next to no sleep. His face looked puzzled like I was somehow trying to screw his race up getting him to change the way he cycled. He was now talking about cycling and there was no way he wasn’t carrying on. He was sold on the idea and we sealed the deal with toast with butter and jam and a cup of tea which seems to make everything ok.
Graeme had come along to watch the guys start the swim, he was unsure about whether to come or not, but I know the guys left in the race really appreciated it. It was interesting speaking to him, getting his view on the race from an observer and after watching them get out of the water, and in particular Dave who was really affected by the water, he knew he had made the right decision not to continue.
All got into the water and the day had again started. I was worried about Simon, he was carrying an injury and I had watched him rejecting food, we had tried a number of times to get him to eat without taking over from the friends and family who turned up throughout the days. No matter how he felt he was always smiling. He was so polite, positive, friendly and appreciative. He was better today coming out of the water and wearing three swim hats I suggested really helped to retain the heat and made a difference. Once out on the bike he pushed on still smiling – or was it grimacing!?
Day 7 was another long one. I ran/walked a few laps with some of the guys. Their mental states were good, their bodies not so, and I still wondered whether that mad push at the start on Day 1 had affected them. Simon was looking like he was in pain on his legs. He finished very late, but remained upbeat.
Day 8 and the six remaining athletes arrived at the tent. I was stood outside when I saw Simon walking towards the tent, he was barely moving, limping towards me. I greeted him which was met with a smile – normal for him, always smiling. I was surprised to see Simon this morning as he had looked like he was battling the previous night (well just a few hours previously). He was giving it his all and some. Matt Pritchard and Lemmy also arrived to give the guys some support. As did Mark Kleanthous (Ironmate Mark) triathlon coach. The swim was as previous swims, cold. The wind had really picked up today and would batter the guys on the bike. Gerard was buzzing today, he had his wife and kids arriving from Ireland and he was pretty excited. His face was an absolute picture when he realised they had finally arrived.
The bike was again much the same as previous days but with much more wind. Into the run and it was going to be a very late one. At one point I had a conversation with Simon during the run who at some stupid hour was brushing his teeth. It’s just the little things that help when doing these things. I ran/walked three laps with Martin this night. He was talking ‘jibberish’ at times, which was very funny. On one of the laps, at most bridges we came to, we laid on it to rest – the stars were out and this was a nice interlude. Martin finished after 04:00 as was now usual, and Simon was still out on the course. I remember seeing him on those last the laps, he was in a Dryrobe with the hood up and had become quite communicative. As he rolled over the finish line at 06:05 he could not even pick his head up, all he could muster was “can I go to bed now”. I was surprised he had even started Day 8 let alone finish it after watching him fight through injury the previous day. An absolute hero.
Day 9 – ‘tapering for an ironman’ as Martin put it. How funny that this was the attitude of an athlete taking on such a massive challenge. I was standing outside the tent, I hadn’t bothered going to sleep and just was willing Simon to start back, he was being collected at 07:00 by his crew mate Gary for the day. At 07:00 I saw him limping towards the tent in what appeared to be the same state he had left me only 55 minutes earlier. He didn’t look good. I said good morning and just gave him some space. He stopped outside the tent as if he couldn’t go in, I saw Gary with his arm around him and Simon was upset. Gary beckoned me over as if to help him with Simon. I could see Gary wanted me to help get him started. I looked at Simon, he looked completely drained, the smile had gone from his face that I had been so use to seeing. His energy levels were completely depleted and he was battling inside with his head and body. Simon had given everything to the Deca. Gary and I got him to at least go into the tent out of the cold as he was shivering already. Once inside, he could see how he is and maybe get his wetsuit on and give it a go.
Once inside, he sat looking grey, empty, dishevelled. I was aware due to the lateness of his finish and the fact that athletes had to be deemed safe to continue from a safety and medical point of view. After all, these guys were pushing their bodies to places they should probably not go. Safety was paramount. Claire, the race director, went to see how he was and on speaking to him, she made the difficult call to pull him from the race for safety and medical reasons. When he was told he was in floods of tears, he was like a small child begging his mother to do something, he pleaded with her to carry on, to try 1 lap to see if he could do it. Sadly for Simon it was the end of his Deca journey. He had completed 8 iron distance triathlons in 8 days; an almighty feat for any human. And you must remember these guys are not paid athletes, they are not sponsored athletes – they are guys with full time jobs and families juggling home life and training, yet they achieve so much. I welled up, I just wanted to hold him and tell him it was alright. Nobody could ask anything more from him, he had done everything he could to stay in the race, but had been overcome by injury and lack of energy reserves. We left Simon in the tent still beside himself with his friend Gary devastated. The swim started and the mood was low. Simon, one of their ‘brothers in arms’ was not there with them. Gerard had not come into the tent that morning and hadn’t realised until he got to the water and asked where Simon was. They had swum together for 8 days matching each other stroke for stroke and Gerard was moved not to be there with him. You could really see it in his face. Swim over and all back out on the bike going through the motions, ‘tapering for an ironman’.
After I pulled myself together I sat with Simon and talked over things, you could not ask for anything else from the guy, he was a true gent in every respect. A devoted family man who loved his family. I was deeply moved by how sincere he was. He would be missed both as an athlete and a friend. He stayed around for the day cheering the other guys on. I know this was immensely difficult for him and I respect him greatly for this.
I ran a lap with Graham, he was a different person to that of day 5 – what a turn around! We had a fantastic lap run/walking and talking together. What a truly lovely guy. A late finish was had by Martin and Graham but they were in good spirits.
On day 10 the mood was electric, smiling faces and playing on a loud speaker was Kyle and Jason’s ‘Especially for you’. The crew for the athletes were all smiles. It was as if the race was finished, although funny as there was still an ironman to do. We all went down to the lake, the athletes faces seemed to change somewhat when the reality of having another long day ahead of them hit home. As they got in the water and the klaxon went off, there was a sense of relief from the crews. Crew emotions were high, we were embracing one another. This really was a group of people who had come together and formed a bond. Derek, Martin’s brother was pretty emotional, he had tirelessly supported his brother for the duration of the event. He too had had very little sleep, when offered food for himself, he always kept it for his brother first and he would eat what was left. I had spent most of my time with Derek getting to know him. We shared many a moment sitting in the dark and cold waiting for Martin to arrive. He was great company and a true hero for Martin whose support undoubtedly helped Martin get to the finish line. Claire S during the swim was upset, crying, she was overwhelmed. They had devoted the last year to the Deca for Graham, actually for both of them. She was all over his support covering every aspect and she was overcome with emotion. They were tears of joy, tears of relief and probably tears of ‘thank the lord this is almost over’. I have always said that supporting is harder than competing and my views on that hasn’t changed. Paula, Gerard’s sister was also pretty emotional, she had been an absolute star over the race. I would have her on my support crew any day.
The swim concluded, again I assisted athletes out of the water. The water again felt cold. As I reached down to grab Dave’s hand it was if he was in a trance, he later told me in his mind at that point he was still swimming. He was making coughing, yelling noises of pain. I took him up to the shower helped him get undressed as he was so cold. He looked like he was having an emotional release so I gave him time to come to terms with what he had achieved. For him the Deca was now nailed. I went with him back into the tent. He had a huge smile and cried, so did I – emotions were there right on the surface. I was so pleased for him. So pleased for him.
Everyone was out onto the bike. Claire and Matt had rigged up some music which was playing out. There was a real party atmosphere. The athletes seemed totally in control, the glory lap was in full swing. As you can imagine the crew and race crew were quite excited about this. Some of the athletes towards the end of the bike didn’t necessary appreciate the cheering and whopping and I totally get that. We wound back our excitement which I think was appreciated.
With everyone on the run, the party continued. Gerard was storming around the course. He had been so consistent over the 10 days and had paced the Deca to perfection. I managed to run a lap with Big Dave, as we set off we started talking and walking, I thought he must have his own pattern about when he walks and runs. After around 500 metres he apologised to me and said he had to run. He had been walking for my benefit alone, if I hadn’t been there he would have been running. After our misunderstanding we set off running. The guy is a machine; after 10 days of an iron distance triathlon every day the guy was still smashing out the run at a very decent pace too. It was great to finally get a chance to run with him, find out how it had all been for him and again apologise to him for trying to kill him with some pineapple. (Dave will understand this and it needs no further explanation). He was on fire.
Before too long Gerard was on his last lap and was heading towards the finish. The Irish contingent was in full swing at the finish line and as Gerard stormed towards the line filming to everyone back home on Facebook live, the moment he crossed the line champagne was being sprayed all over the place and the singing began. What a finish – it took him 158 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds. This was one of the best finishes I have ever had the privilege to witness. Team Prendergast were awesome. A quick acknowledgement for his sister Paula who had been there every day to support him, feed him, massage him, drive the camper and she took care of everything, she is one lady you need on your support crew when doing something like this.
Not long after this and Big Dave was finishing, he finished in his own understated way. Cool as a cucumber and totally in control of everything. The smile on his face reached 360 degrees around his head. What an absolute gent of a guy, not afraid to admit I was pretty emotional about Dave and had a little cry of happiness.
Next up in was Mr consistent Rob, who throughout the event kept himself within his own bubble and consistently swam, cycled and ran the course to a well formulated set plan. He was super strong throughout, consistent and focussed. It was a delight to watch him swim and on one of the days I managed to get a run in with him too. Well he was running and I was on a child’s folding ‘bike in a bag’ (part of the Prendergast support crew equipment) which was just as good as I probably would have struggled to keep up.
There was now a bit of a lull before the final two athletes were due to finish. Andy, the 10 swims in 10 days guy who was the quiet type had turned up to watch the run unfold and remained at the race until everyone finished that day. I know the athletes were touched by this which shows a real camaraderie amongst the athletes.
The break in proceedings was a welcome from all the emotion of the finishes. Martin wanted me to run a lap with him, although due to injury he was now walking. Martin had pushed through this and was so determined to finish. He had a very dry sense of humour, and this is why we probably got on. Derek had organised a surprise T shirt for Martin to finish in, along with a kilt to wear. A friend of mine, Duane, had driven about 200 miles with a kilt for Martin to wear on his last lap. Derek, Martin and myself were extremely grateful for this kindness by Duane.
Claire S asked me to run a lap with Big G Graham. I had the privilege of running his penultimate lap with him. Graham was on great form. It was nice to see how much he had enjoyed himself. Graham was next to finish and again raw emotion was shown by nearly everyone at the finish line. It was lovely to see both Graham and Claire S celebrating what had been a completely devoted year nailed to almost perfection.
I ran a lap with Martin, then his mate Stevie did and then Martin wanted to run the last lap with myself, Derek and Stevie. I was touched to be part of his last lap. We walked at a decent pace together laughing and joking about a host of things, not to be disclosed because as Stevie put it ‘what happens on the deca lap stays on the deca lap’. As we approached the finish line, Martin was presented with his T- shirt from Derek, given the kilt to wear and walked it to the line. Amazing stuff, by an amazing athlete who pushed through just about everything to be ‘that guy who’s done a Deca’.
The Deca UK was an amazing experience in which I made some great friends, witnessed boundaries being pushed and it was a privilege to be part of it. My fellow crew mates Matt, Paul, Justin and Claire Smith were fantastic company, we laughed and cried and there was never a bad word said between us. Wouldn’t have changed the crew at all. It is difficult to put into words the respect and admiration I have for all the athletes and crew that turned up to Deca UK. They are awesome!!!!!
A special thanks go to Claire Smith from Brutal Events who put the race on for a number of people to be given an opportunity to complete a Deca, only the third in this country and to fulfil their dreams. Thank you Claire, from all of us.
Photos by Kathi Harman klickchickphotography.com