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Castle Triathlon Series: The Bastion, Hever Castle

On 9th July 2017 Mark Birrell, in a moment of madness, thought it would be a good idea to tackle the Bastion Triathlon at Hever castle. The Bastion is a full distance triathlon and is a notoriously challenging course! Never one to take the easy option, Mark shares his experience of The Bastion!

“Run tall, breath deep and relax the shoulders” is my mantra when trying to get through a tough bit on a training run. On lap 1 of 4 of the run part of the Hever Bastion full distance triathlon, it was getting very tough.

For me, doing the Bastion started 2 years ago when I arrived for an Aquabike training event in preparation before attempting my first half distance triathlon later in the year (The Gauntlet). In a stroke of marketing genius, Castle Triathlon Series offer a range of options from just swim, run, or combinations of swim/bike/run on the day of The Bastion. On the day of the Aquabike, I saw some of The Bastion competitors at various stages, saw what doing it meant to them and the massive sense of achievement they felt on completion. From that point, I knew it was something I would have to try one day.

This is a well-organised event, comparatively well priced (I paid £260), local (for HT members at least) with loads of free goodies. A few of us camped the night before (£22 – the site has all the things you need and it is close to the event but it is also on a very busy flight path that runs throughout the night – which means no sleep, but that is fairly normal for me before events). The swim is 2 laps of a circuit made up of the castle lake and the adjacent river. This part I was least concerned about – this bit is flat! We finished sorting out gear for T1 and T2, and then walked down to the swim start for the 5:45 briefing. Instead of being greeted by views across the beautiful lake in the early morning sun, we had fog and we couldn’t even see the first marker buoy. For safety reasons we had to wait for the fog to clear. Given that it is a very friendly, low-key event this wasn’t too bad as you got to chat to other competitors while we waited which actually helped to calm the nerves a little (I suffer with them for days before events, loads of self-doubt). At around 6:30 it was decided that the fog had lifted enough for us to get going (essentially, they had 70 athletes sweating in wet suits and if they didn’t start them off soon it would ruin the schedule for the rest of the day’s events). We swam out to the start line and waited for the countdown – for me the nerves go when the gun goes. Okay the water isn’t the clearest, it’s shallow in parts and swimming into lilly pads freaked me out a little (must work on my sighting) but I enjoyed the swim part. I wasn’t concerned about times, just finishing the whole event; so I did an easy, relaxed swim.

The bike part is three 60km laps made up of roads with generally good surfaces; it is not a closed road race but the traffic is far from busy. The views are very special; it is in a beautiful part of the world. The only downside to the route is there are NO flat bits, anywhere! Each lap is around 1000 meters of climbing; at the end my Garmin was showing a total climb of around 9600 feet (my watch is set to old-school metrics). During the preparations for the event, I got some great advice from club members about how to tackle the hills and not ruin my legs for the run: essentially use higher cadence and cardio fitness and avoid using up muscle strength. The first lap went ok, the climbs up through the forest were tough but the descents were ace (I hit 56 mph at one point – scared the bejesus out of me). The second lap was a grind – it seemed a long way until the end (James, you did warn me). The third was exhausting; I did most of it in the small ring with the lower gears. It was a tough bike ride, but that feeling of finishing and turning back into the estate was so brilliant. But then came the run….

“Run tall, breath deep and relax the shoulders….starting the second lap was daunting, it was very hot, there was no breeze and you knew what to expect. It is a cross-country course with lots of lumpy bits, which are tough going up but also, with ruined quads from the bike, painful going down too (around 1800ft of ascent during the 26.2 miles). In addition, on the main Hever Castle grounds, there is some support but on the course, all you see is occasionally another suffering competitor and the stewards at the food/drink stations (OMG, it was good to see them). Moreover, psychologically, for me, starting lap 2 seemed a world away from finishing.

“Run tall, breath deep and relax the shoulders… the third lap I was really struggling, my legs were cramping up, my stomach was in knots and I felt very nauseous. I couldn’t take on any more gels and hope to keep them down. Running out of energy and not being able to finishing the event was a real concern, all I wanted to do was stop running, lie down and not get up……ever. Then I started to think about all the sacrifices my family have made, and continue to make, so I can do this crazy sport we love so much. How much time had gone into training, the brilliant support from other members of HT, and oddly, how disappointed Les would be if I gave up (don’t ask).

“Run tall, breath deep and relax the shoulders…..I managed to make it around the third lap, I didn’t have much left but then saw my wife Deb had arrived, it was so good to see her. I stopped and held her, vaguely aware of the commentator saying something and the small crowd cheering. I drag my poor family to these events (let’s face it they are not the most interesting to watch, especially if you are only 3 and 5 years old) or, like this one, leave them for the weekend. Deb had found someone to look after the kids and got a lift down so she could be there at the end and get me home. Her being there, and the little pep talk, was enough to get me started on the last 10.5K lap.

“Run tall, breath…. Boll#~ks, just keep moving forward! I plodded on, ticking off the km markers as I passed them, 1, 2, coke/water/sponge, 3, 4, etc, at about 8K my stomach finally decided enough was enough (actually made me felt better) by the 9K marker I was beginning to realise that I might actually do this. The last 1.5k was a bit of blur but then hearing the commentator calling in my approach and knowing I could turn into the finishing chute was an amazing feeling – there is nothing quite like it.

In summary, it was a tough day but a great event, really well run, very friendly – and although at times it seemed like hell, I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a local, relatively cheap, challenge.

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