101 entrants, 15 starters, Seven thousand meters of elevation gain.

Is Triathlon X Extreme the hardest iron-distance race on the planet?

Triathlon 220 magazine Journalist Tim Heming ventures to the Lake District to find out
















101 entrants, 15 starters, Seven thousand meters of elevation gain.

Is Triathlon X Extreme the hardest iron-distance race on the planet?

Triathlon 220 magazine Journalist Tim Heming ventures to the Lake District to find out






“It's an experiment. I'm not sure whether anyone will finish”


The words of Mark Blackburn as he pores over a predictions spreadsheet on how the next 24 hours might unfurl. This isn't frivolous speculating from the race organiser, but essential planning for safety marshals and mountain rescue to be in the right location at the right time. After all, risks must be mitigated when you 've purposefully designed an event to be the hardest triathlon in the world.

It's a bold ambition, but in an effort to out-do the challenge of extreme UK iron- distance tests such as Celtman and The Brutal, and rival the upstart Evergreen 228 that summits Mont Blanc with 7,850m of vertical ascent, the Lake District is ready to host the inaugural Triathlon X Extreme.

"There's no Other route in England that could create this amount of climbing, "

adds Mark, highlighting its 12 mountain passes on the 191km bike leg, including four ascents of the legendary Hardknott Pass — England's steepest road that kicks up to 33% at its most formidable - before competitors twice summit the fells of Helvellyn on a 44km run that'll go deep into the night.

It's perhaps why, of the 101 entered, only 15 have turned Out. A punishing rate Of attrition, and we haven't even started. Whether anyone makes the 24hr cut-off remains to be seen, the only certainty here is that no-one has a clue what to expect..



with gentle reminders that the bike leg must be completed by 9pm -13 hours hence. Of these hardened ultra-warriors, surely no-one will take that long?


The 8am start in bright sunshine over an inviting Lake Windermere is the falsest of false dawns. This 3.8km swim to start the day feels less warm-up, more trivial inconsequence, the only chatter about this first leg being how much more civilised it is than the eerie zombies-through-the-mist vibe that greets the 4:30am klaxon of its sister event - Triathlon Full X - in June, another of Mark's Frankenstein-esque triathlon monsters of a race that 220 named the world's toughest iron-distance race in 2017. But there's also something ominous about the tranquillity, the sense a trap is being laid, with gentle reminders that the bike leg must be completed by 9pm -13 hours hence. Of these hardened ultra-warriors, surely no-one will take that long? None is more experienced than Anthony Gerundini from Cambridgeshire. A veteran of 161



"I'm looking for as much trouble as I can find.. and there's plenty to be found around here"


iron-distance and ultra-distance triathlons, TC, as he's known, has rolled into Ambleside in a battered Toyota Crown that looks like it has more miles on the clock than he has. Asking TC why he does this would be equivalent to asking Theresa May why she kept pushing her Broth withdrawal deal - it's way past the comprehension of rational folk. Last weekend's warm-up was the Enduroman in the New Forest, a continuous triple iron-distance slog. "A solid 55hrs training in the bank," he says. "Although I'll admit to being a bit frazzled this week." Will this be the hardest event he's done? "It's designed to be," he says. "That's its purpose and being. I'm looking for as much trouble as I can find... and there's plenty to be found around here." Navigation on the out-and-back swim shouldn't be included, yet bafflingly TC still can't swim in a straight line and emerges last from the lake. One triathlete who doesn't have that issue is Sarah Welsh from Torbay Tri Club in South Devon. Another veteran of numerous ultra-distance events, the 52-year-old is the only woman competing. "I hope that doesn't put too much pressure on to finish," she says. "I've no idea why more women don't take part. Perhaps we're more likely to underestimate our ability, but if anyone's worried about male bravado they might experience at shorter races, it's completely different here. People have scarily competent fitness levels but are the nicest and most supportive you'll ever meet."

 "I'm equal parts terrified and excited,"

she adds, and with good reason. In past visits to the Full X, with its cycle ride that replicates the popular 112 mile Fred Whitton sportive, she has DNF'd twice, once with heatstroke and last year bonking eight miles into the run, with her verdict delivered with the self-deprecation that's commonplace. "It was stupidity. I ignored my feed strategy." It's the prevailing attitude that means the extremity of they events is often downplayed by those taking part, the magnitude of the task normalised by what her partner Michael articulates as a "self-selecting band of nutters." For the other stalwart of Sarah's support crew, university friend Zoe, this location doesn't have quire the appeal of the ThorXtri in Stavanger, Norway, but the demands are the same. "It's a life of spreadsheets for logistics," Zoe says, "And always a debrief of lessons learnt. We now know that both cream cheese sandwiches and my homemade pasta salad go down well."


One common thread between the athletes at Extreme X Is the wealth of experience of both triathletes and support crews. There's a respectful familiarity and fondness for the craggy Cumbrian terrain and most have endured at least one Triathlon X event since Mark's first iteration was scheduled to take place in 2012, then aborted on race morning due to storms of biblical proportions. Entry numbers are typically about 200 for the Full X and up to 300 for the Half X, the course records of 12:38hrs and 5:57hrs underlining the scale of the challenge.



"I'm under no illusion it'll be by far the hardest event I've competed in," Andrew says. "The bike course is just brutal." Just how brutal, he's about to find out.


One athlete who looks short of neither is Andrew Duggan, a doctor and father-of-three from Morpeth in Northumberland whose languid swim stroke belies its power. A perennial front runner, he emerges first from the water in 52mins - 13 mins clear. Duggan is another athlete who has history here, most notably in 2017 where he tried to compete just weeks after recovering from surgery for a ruptured appendix. He pulled out 3km into the run when overtaken for the lead and, having taken a year off, the Extreme X encouraged him to return. "I'm under no illusion it'll be by far the hardest event I've competed in," Andrew says. "The bike course is just brutal." Just how brutal, he's about to find out. The first section leaves Ambleside and heads north over the Kirkstone pass via a road fittingly named 'The Struggle' where it reaches a 25% gradient. It's an out-and-back route completed twice, meaning four times ascending to the car park at the summit - the highest point for an A road in the Lake District - where 220 is pinching a brew and chocolate biscuit from the support crew of Rochdale Tri competitor Phil Smallman.

All 15 triathletes, with just one time-trial bike in their number, are en route and bathed in early morning sunshine, and while all look fresh, this is the easy part. The second portion of the bike twice heads west to the Langdale valley on another pair of out-and-backs where triathletes will negotiate a few cattle grids and the mountain passes of Wrynose and the infamous Hardknott, and where 220 plans its second summit check-in.

But at the foot of Wrynose, calamity strikes. A cyclist who isn't part of the race has hit the tarmac, an air ambulance is on its way, and it's a sobering reminder of the danger of descending on these unforgiving slopes. The road is closed to motor vehicles and re-routing to the top of Hardknott will take over an hour, so instead we head back towards transition to see the first triathletes come in for the run.


"For the half, you can almost blag it.

For the full, you need cojones and ability.

For this? Well, we'll have to see."



On the return to Ambleside it's approaching 4pm and the first drops of rain fall. I ask Mark how the event is playing out. "Im really enjoying it," he says. "But I'm not out there." The spreadsheet before him lays out predicted timings for various checkpoints, spanning from infeasibly fast to dicing with the cut-off. From seeming remarkably precise earlier, the calculations have started to err towards optimistic. Each triathlete has been handed a GPS unit so they can be tracked and, while Andrew's lead has extended to almost 2hrs, behind him the battle is becoming interesting.

Many of the field still haven't returned to transition ahead of the final out-and-back, which means the likelihood of them completing the 191km bike course before the 9pm cut-off is dwindling. Mark then receives a call to say one athlete has pulled the plug at Wrynose, but it's unclear as to why. It's as if a loose thread on a jumper that was being teased is now being yanked and has the potential to unravel rather fast. The next few hours see a string of key decisions. Nine triathletes are still on target to finish the bike leg, the remaining five decide to dismount after 128km and head out to experience some of the 44km run. Sarah is among these determined that her support runner, James Wood, who volunteered via a Facebook forum and has made the trip from Sowerby Bridge, should enjoy some of the action, too.


The same is true of 46-year-old Dane Christian Bouet, who lives in York and, with two young children, professes to train fewer than four hours most weeks, going hell for leather on his bike trainer in an effort to improve his threshold power in every session. "In some bizarre way it seems to work for me. Why do I do this? Stupidity. A midlife crisis. Carbon bike bits. Excess income. The usual," he says with a wry grin. But even withstanding those who will cut short the bike leg, it's still Andrew who is first on to the run, with his brother Mark, a local physics teacher who set that Half X record last year, in support for added distraction, and some embedded front-line journalism, we join them for the 3km run Rydal and then climb to NabScar. It's early evening and Andrew,who retains the rugby-playing physique of his former sporting life, still covers the ground like a mountain goat. From here the brothers will head to the peak of Fairfield, before dropping and then climbing once more to Helvellyn at 950m and continuing towards Glenridding for the turnaround. And then do it all in reverse.





The run leg will be 2,700m of ascent on foot in total, but the extremity of the challenge only really dawns when we bid farewell, turn to retrace our steps and are suddenly staring into the descending mist. As we drop back below cloud level and negotiate the greasy descent, it's evident how one false step could mean catastrophe. And while we could do without the embarrassment of mountain rescue being called for a clumsy journalist with a sprained ankle, there's a deeper unease at how Andrew and co will fare in the dead of night, conditions worsening, visibility all-but-nil and in a severely-depleted state.

I don't see a soul until I'm back on the road to Ambleside, where a few cheery triathletes are embarking on their outward journeys. After a shower and fish and chip supper, I'm back in the transition tent to find Mark and crew peering at the tracker.


The next few hours are anxious. Sarah opts for discretion and calls time early. She'll fight another day. Christian, having contemplated over a pork pie somewhere near Dollywaggon Pike, also calls it quits and returns to base, reporting that visibility is down to just a few metres and thankful for his GPS watch's breadcrumb trace that wouldn't let him stray more than a metre or two off-course. TC has taken a wrong turn at Fairfield. He's not the only one. Andrew makes the turnaround point in a shade over Ors. Then his tracker packs up and he's off-grid. As the clock ticks past midnight, the trackers converge and seem to show the triathletes almost on top of one another. In the fallout we'll learn that those who've become disorientated in the fog manage to regroup and decide to stick together, just following the feet in front to make headway.


At one remarkable juncture, they meet a returning Andrew and, for all the vastness of the fells and duration of this event, you could've thrown a blanket over every competitor still standing. By 1am, with progress stalling, Mark makes the difficult decision to send a dispatch mountain rescue team to the turnaround. Having taken over 5hrs to reach that point, the safety officials consent that they're unlikely to make the 24hr cut-off. It leaves only Andrew and his brother Mark on the course, together with the hardy marshals stationed near Helvellyn, who have decided to hunker down for the night because it's too dangerous to come down off the fell. Approaching 3am, the Duggans make the final descent from Nab Scar and head for the finish. It's an astonishing feat of resilience. Perhaps the best way to give perspective to the run is to acknowledge it took Andrew 40mins longer to complete than the bike leg. Both are shattered but elated, Andrew finishes in 18:52:58 and still finds the strength to raise the slate slab of a trophy weighing some 3okg.


A few hours later, napping in his car waiting for the local leisure centre to open to shower, I find Martin Clarke from Lincoln Tri club. As one of the runners stopped halfway through the marathon, would he go again? "Of course. The bike was easier than expected, the run harder. It was a harsh decision to pull us out, but I understand why. We all had the bravado to keep going, but I'm not sure we'd have made it back safely for 8am." Sarah agrees. "Decision making and taking in the stunning surroundings takes up all my headspace. My body switches to autopilot. Would I go back? Well, it's unfinished business now isn't it..." But as a masochistic experiment of human endeavour, can Triathlon X Extreme really return next year? "It's going to have to," Mark says. "We've 40 triathletes signed up already." As for being the hardest triathlon in the world, it has some serious competition, but when the bike leg is this extreme, the run surpasses it, and there's only one finisher, it certainly has a justifiable claim. From this objective observer, it was attritional enough just following it around the course - the triathletes might feel burnt out, but they've got nothing on the clutch of 220's car.




How the Extreme compares to some of the world's toughest triathlons




Bike leg elevation 4,637m

Run leg elevaation 2,700m

DNF rate 93%

2019 winner's time 18:52:58





Bike leg elevation 5,028m

Run leg elevaation 2,607m

DNF rate 31%

2017 winner's time 16:19:19












DISTANCE : 140 MILES (226 km)

ELEVATION GAIN : 19,291 ft (5,880 m) 














Bike leg elevation 5,500m

Run leg elevaation 820m

DNF rate 14%

2017 winner's time 12:20:22





Bike leg elevation 3,923m

Run leg elevaation 1,863m

DNF rate 13%

2017 winner's time 11:13:45