“If someone as amateurish as me can get through a double iron distance triathlon in Snowdonia, imagine what you can do.”
|Jen Lockett – First Woman to Finish the DB|
When Jen Lockett completed her first Ironman at Bolton 2011, she decided that competing at iron distance was next on the cards. But when an Achilles tear put paid to her intensive training plans, she knew that she needed a new challenge to inspire her.
In 2013, she became the first ever woman to complete the Double Brutal ultra triathlon by swimming, cycling and running her way to the 287.82 mile finish line in 37 hrs 38mins.
The Brutal Events
Claire set up the Brutal Events to start up a double iron distance that packed a bit more of a punch. “Typically, ultra long distance events tend to be on smaller, safer and flatter courses, and I felt that there was a market for an ‘extreme’ version of a double iron event.” Claire says.
Smith’s events are as beautiful as they are brutal, for the settings within which people swim, cycle and run their way to the Brutal finish line after tackling Mount Snowdon, are reminiscent of ads for holidaying in New Zealand, or of scenes in films about dragon slaying and ring finding. What’s more, whilst super tough, the events are renowned for their low-key and friendly vibe.
The Brutal Extreme Triathlons have four race options, a half, full, double and triple (as you do, next race to be held in 2017). A friendly vibe though there may be, Jen recalls quizzical looks of bemusement toward the rare breed of Double starters – in a total field of 139 (all three races combined) there were just 15 Doublers at the start line in 2013, and of those, just one woman – Jen.
|The Brutal Ascent up Snowdonia (But Jen wouldn’t be there until dark)|
During the swim section, hot tea in the exit/entry area is provided for those feeling the cold. The briefing pack states: ‘Anyone who is showing symptoms of hypothermia will be attended to. If the medics feel it is unsafe for you to continue, you will removed from the race. The medics decision is final.’ That would be me after lap one then!
Jen’s Journey to Double Brutal
Jen’s Double Brutal medal was 37 hours and 38 minutes in the making, well within the 42-hour cut-off. She started alongside the 138 other competitors doing the half, full and double, at 7am, and finished just after dark the following day along with just 13 others.
When asked about her sporting prowess, Jen’s extremely humble. “In races I often end up resorting to some form of doggy paddle,” she says. Jen describes her swimming technique as providing little forward propulsion, her body like a stone in the water, and her training discipline as haphazard at best, but it is clear that her mental attitude makes up for any technical difficulties she faces, such as ‘going backwards’ whilst doing the leg drills at tri club swim sessions.
“I can’t give you any great pearls of wisdom, tales of extreme talent or supreme dedication to training,” says Jen. “If someone as amateurish as me can get through a double iron distance triathlon in Snowdonia, imagine what you can do.”
|Jo’s on a course recce
Jen had always enjoyed sport, but found that work got in the way of committing to team sport, and so she took to running. After several years of suffering with Achilles injuries, she found herself looking for lower-impact options, and found swimming and cycling, and then triathlon. “I went to the triathlon show and jumped in with both feet,” she says. “I would go on loads of training weekends with my friend Max and thrash myself trying to keep up with him, we’d enter races and guilt trip the other into doing it.”
Jen and Max gradually progressed from sprint triathlons to standard distance, to challenging standards like the Hellvelyn triathlon and the Slateman – so it was a natural assumption for Jen that Max would be up for the Double Brutal. “Max refused to play,” Jen says. “And I started to question whether I’d gone a step too far when he said no to the double iron.”
Jen’s first Ironman
After a series of increasingly tough triathlons, Jen signed up for her first Ironman in 2011. “I took a haphazard approach to training, but fear of not finishing meant I gradually increased my cycling each weekend and introduced some brick sessions.
In what felt like no time at all, I’d arrived on the Ironman start line, ready to swim and cycle further than I ever had before, and then attempt to run a marathon. I was seriously concerned about the cut off times, my aim was to just get round.
As ever my body formed the shape of a very effective anchor on the swim, and on the second lap I got cramp in both calves and was sick! Eventually my doggy paddle got me to the end before cut off, much to my relief,” Jen says.
“The cycle went well until around 100 miles when I bonked. The last 12 miles were distressingly slow, and I sat in T2 eating a bag of nuts and got a grip.”
Jen surprised herself by finding the marathon fun. “There was a fantastic atmosphere, I finished the race hooked on endurance events.” She says.
Ironman finish in the bag, Jen was determined to improve her swimming and start competing at Iron distance. Unfortunately, three months after the race she partially tore her Achilles tendon, which meant high intensity training went out the window. A few months on, her work took her to a desk job in Afghanistan, and training suffered further. “I could only run one-mile circuit loops on uneven ground, cycling was an exercise bike in a tent, and swimming was non-existent,” Jen says.
“I needed something that would scare me into training.”
With minimal training opportunities, Jen was struggling to get motivated. “I just needed something that would scare me into training, and because of my Achilles, It had to be something where finishing was the challenge.”
Jen started researching a tough triathlon, and Extreme Events came up on a Google search. “I can never pick the easy option. When I discovered the Double Brutal I knew that would scare me into training,” she said. Jen got back to the UK with nine months to go until the race. “I hadn’t swum properly in a year, run more than a couple of miles at a time, or cycled for more than 2 hours,” she says. Jen booked a half iron and a full iron distance in as part of her training in the months that followed to the Double start line.
Double Brutal Race Morning
“There was a feeling of trepidation at the start. I had no idea how my body would cope with being submerged in chilly water for so long, but believed if I could make it through the swim, I had a chance of completing,” Jen says. “Not making it through the swim was my biggest fear.”
All three races and 139 Brutallers in total went off at 7am. “There was muttering about nutters in the general direction of the Double competitors,” Jen says.
“I had eight laps to swim, so the field quickly thinned out. I was slow but my body was coping aside from losing control of my mouth due to my face going completely numb – I struggled to eat jelly babies on the last feed station much to my support crews amusement!” Jen says.
“The canoeist looked hypothermic when I finally finished.”
“By the end of the swim, around three-and-a-half hours later, I felt incredibly guilty about the canoeist who had been next to me for the majority of the race and now looked on the verge of hypothermia, but I was euphoric about making the cut off. As usual, I approached the bike transition to see mine and just two other bikes.”
Jen started the incredibly beautiful bike course at 10:45am and finished it at 5:15am the following morning. “As I started the eight lap bike course, each lap just under 30 miles, I gradually regained the feeling in my hands and feet, and stopped shaking. I was pleased the route was pretty because I’d be looking at it for the rest of the day and all night,” she says.
“In the early hours I sang out loud to keep myself awake.”
Jen broke the course down by focusing on the next hill (there were two per lap) and the pit stop in Llanberis. “The course gradually got quieter until only the Double competitors remained. Luckily our cheering support crews prevented it from getting too lonely.”
“The fog came down overnight, there was an eerie feel when combined with exhaustion,” Jen recalls. “I set myself stupid challenges to maintain focus, for example maintaining a specific cadence or getting to a certain point in a set time, or getting a new top speed on the descents. In the early hours I sang out loud to keep myself awake,” Jen says.
Around 5.30am, and still in darkness, she headed out on the third section of the Double Brutal – the 51.1 mile ultra marathon. “There was just Mount Snowdon and two marathons between me and the finish line!”
“There was just Mount Snowdon and two marathons between me and the finish line.”
Max had agreed to act as Jen’s support crew on Snowdon. “Off we went. I could see a couple of other competitor’s head torches in the distance – we were all now fighting our own solo battles. I felt stronger than expected and maintained a consistent pace up Snowdon. I made it back down just after sunrise, still feeling in reasonable shape,” she says.
As the sun came up, Jen’s stomach started to rebel. “My bike computer gave up counting calories after 9999, but I hadn’t bonked, so the bananas, jacket potatoes, flapjacks, peanuts and wine gums must have done me proud” she says, “suddenly, all I wanted was savoury food. My support team dutifully supplied cheese toasties, chip and baked beans through the remainder of the day.”
“My bike computer gave up counting calories burned after 9999.”
Jen’s knee deteriorated, and Jen had to walk the latter part of the course. “I was paying for an eager start and a fast descent of Snowdon by slowing to a shuffle,” Jen says. “I finished just after dark, slower than I’d have liked.” Despite a better-than-expected sub-38 hour time, Jen says she will return to the Double Brutal and run the full ultra one day.
“I’d completed what I set out to do by getting my fitness back and inspiring a taste for unusual endurance events in picturesque locations.” The following year she completed an ultra marathon across Hadrian’s wall, a mountain bike ride from the west to east coast of the UK, she cycled from Wembley to Murrayfield, completed the City to Summit Iron distance triathlon and man vs mountain adventure run. Phew.
“Just go for it”.
“The key in completing endurance events is mental strength,” Jen says. “If there’s a challenge that appeals to you, but you’re not sure if you are up to it, just go for it! Better to try and fail than fail to try”.
Find out more about Brutal Events here.
Read Beth’s story, the second Double Brutal woman.