By Malcolm Bradbrook
Half X in Ambleside was the race that was never meant to be.
I first entered in 2016, only to fail to do any training and sheepishly withdraw a month before. Then I entered in 2019 and trained pretty hard but at short notice was sent by Outdoor Fitness to compete in the Braveheart Triathlon in Fort William six days before the event and a combination of sore legs from running up and down Ben Nevis and horrific weather saw me DNF before the major descents and retire to the pub with Gope and Tracy (it’s ok – we had a good time).
This year I had lower hopes after taking a long time to recover from a bad crash last year, but it was all about enjoying and finishing.
There were about 20 Oxford Tri folk in 2019 but just the hardy three this time of myself, Andy Queralt and Simon Wareing, who had forgotten he had entered until I texted him the day before! Fortunately he’s as a fit as a fiddle and was in the north so he popped over on the morning to give it a go.
I made the mistake of checking the weather forecast on the Tuesday before the race, which showed lovely, calm and rain-free until about 4pm. It got my hopes up but then I saw the forecast gradually worsen over the ensuing four days and, sure enough, as we entered the water for the swim the rain started the fall and stayed for the day.The swim is great. A triangular course of 1.9km and a small field made it a pleasant experience. I had been very worried about how my newly mended rotator cuff would cope if pulled and bashed in the washing machines I have experience at other races so this was a big relief.
The swim is great. A triangular course of 1.9km and a small field made it a pleasant experience. I had been very worried about how my newly mended rotator cuff would cope if pulled and bashed in the washing machines I have experience at other races so this was a big relief.
The brutal bike starts with just over one km of flat warm up before attacking the infamous Struggle, a climb of 4.5km at an average of 8.3% and with a few ramps of 25%. I can’t climb out of the saddle as I used to as my femur injury still throbs if I demand too much so I whacked my easiest gear in and enjoyed spinning to the top.
I was a rubbish descender before I crashed and, as you can imagine, my steel has not increased since proper messing myself up. However, Kirkstone Pass was a great start to the event as it was long and gradual without major ramps to get the heart racing.
You’re then treated to a nice 15km of flat before the next climb of Blea Tarn, which was then followed by Wrynose and Hardknott both ways. My aim was to save my out-of the-saddle legs for the return up Hardknott and its 33% ramps. Blea Tarn is ok – steeper and longer than anything we can access from Oxford but manageable, but Wrynose is brutal with limited respite, and about 100m from the top I slowed to the point that when my front wheel lifted from sitting in the saddle, I couldn’t keep pedalling and took the walk of shame.
The persistent rain of the previous couple of hours increased to ‘very heavy’ which made the steep descents very tricky and I think every cyclist locked up more than once on the day – some taking a very heavy fall and a rider just in front of me dislocated his shoulder.
One unlucky faller was our own Andy who managed to break the scaphoid bone in his wrist but get back on his bike and finish the 50km ride and 21km run and ending up in 12th. He was in fifth when he fell and lost at least 15 minutes being assessed by medics plus who knows what to the discomfort so it was a fantastic result.
Hardnott from this direction was pleasingly straightforward and I tootled off round Eskdale for about 8km of ‘recovery’ before the main event of Hardknott return. Unfortunately, that recovery also included the Irton Pike, which barely registers in The Lakes but in Oxfordshire would be a Mecca for hill training.
I did the Fred Whitton two years ago and failed Hardknott on the first major ramp so was pleased to get well beyond that point. I couldn’t quite keep going when I hit the final 33% ramp near the top and again had to ‘do a Froome’ and walk for a bit. I only dismounted twice after then and neither was for a descent as the rain had made cattle grids lethal and I decided that finishing was priority one and walked the grids.
As I came into T2 I realized that I was ravenous having been on the go for about six hours but only had sugary snacks left – a rummage in my bag found a banana so I skipped out onto the run in reasonable spirits.
Having run up Ben Nevis two years ago I felt quite confident, but Fairfield Peak was a very different challenge as the incline was brutal from 2.5km to the summit at 10.5km. The narrow paths made running nigh-on impossible on the way up and proper tricky on the way down. Helpful people were saying ‘only a mile to the top’ but when you’re moving at 20mins per mile it doesn’t seem that helpful at all.
Despite the challenging conditions of thick cloud cover and rain, which made visibility down to about 50m from halfway, I really enjoyed the ‘run’ and only really struggled when I returned to the flat tarmac. My legs alternated between jelly and supertight guitar strings and I was helpless as two people overtook.
In short, I massively recommend this to anyone. It’s a huge challenge in beautiful scenery and the enormity of the challenge brings out the best in everyone.
Our glorious chairman has already pledged to go back and do the Full X with me next year (or at least, that’s my interpretation Nick?).