Bolton is an old mining town and, with it’s derelict cotton and textile mills on the outskirts of greater Manchester, isn’t the most glamorous location for a triathlon but it is home territory for me and the opportunity to race in front of my family was too appealing to ignore. IMUK was deemed as the 10th most challenging course in the world with an average DNS/DNF of 17% so for 2019 the organizers aimed to surpass Lanzarote as the most challenging by adding another 400m of elevation to the technical bike course!
The swim is in Pennington Flash which is a flooded belly in the earth caused by subsidence following years of coal mining. The flash or penny flash, as it is known, is now set in a beautiful green country park, tree lined along its perimeter and a real tourist attraction. The average IMUK water temperature is around 16 degrees so to get 20 degrees this year was fantastic as I’ve never swam in anything colder, still, it took a good minute to acclimate myself following the swim start and get my breathing under control in the dark silty water. After the initial shock I found a rhythm, feet and hips and the day had begun. Cloud cover made sighting easier and before I knew it one lap of the rectangular course was almost complete. I could hear the roar of support lining the 50m Aussie exit which got louder with every stroke towards it. Got straight into a rhythm on the second lap but found myself well wide of the far turning buoy almost doing a 180 degree turn around it to get back on course. On the home straight I locked arms with some dude who responded with a full and somewhat aggressive 2 handed shove to separate us. He clearly hadn’t been to a Thursday morning sea swim / sea wrestling session with Nick Watson before. I drifted wide of the final turn buoy before bee lining to the exit where swim angels helped me to my feet and on the way to transition. A quick glance at my watch told me I had completed in 1:23 which I was absolutely chuffed to bits with! Whilst not at torpedo speed the swim was very comfortable throughout meaning the sets with Brett and Paolo had clearly paid off. Short run to T1 where I had packed options for different weather conditions but it was dry and not too cold so I opted for single layer, loaded up with nutrition and hopped onto the bike.
The first thing that hits you on the ride is the condition of the road surface, the bike, every bone in your body and your skull just continually shake and vibrate. The next thing that hits you is the first hill, then the second hill, and the next hill and the next hill and so on! They got steeper, longer, closer together and were just relentless! Usually after a decent climb it’s possible to build up a head of steam and take advantage of the downhills but not in Bolton! The downhills were laden with obstacles, pot holes, man hole covers, parked cars, walls jutting out into the road, trees, 90 degree turns, live traffic, bushes, pavements and you name it! It was punishing to say the very least! I saw 2 crashes within the first hour and a couple of ambulances in action so the course was clearly taking its toll. The main climbs were amazingly supported and even before the ‘12 o clock rule’ people were bang on it with some residents having painted “free beer” signs. Not yet Bazza, not yet! I spotted some familiar flamingos and a panda, ‘don’t be silly’ I thought, ‘it can’t be them’.
The Wrestlers of sheephouse lane were a welcome site, instead of focusing on the grind uphill you end up distracted by the shadow wrestling and disco moves of a group of Mexican wrestlers waiting for you at the top! Every one of them is an IMUK finisher so they know what you’re going through. The scenery on the peaks was beautifully stunning and worth the effort to see. Into town and onto a Roubaix style cobbled section, which continues to shake the bones, and out for the second lap. Every ascent seemed steeper than the first and the descents even more challenging on tired and aching arms as well as legs. Quite a few competitors with upended bikes and plenty repairing punctures too. Some of the downhills turned into a procession if a less confident rider was ahead as the twists and turns meant it was often too dangerous to make a pass meaning the downhill advantage was spent feathering the brakes. The weather was so kind to us, around 20 degrees, completely dry and with cloud cover the whole time. The last 20km or so was along undulating roads but even the slightest incline made it feel like I was going backwards as the legs had completely gone. I rolled towards the dismount line but did not dare attempt the usual flying dismount on jelly legs after seven hours and 15 minutes of pure effort! I gingerly unclipped, cocked a leg but just couldn’t walk. I leant onto my tri bars to support my body weight and the realization that I still had a marathon to do on my shattered legs actually brought me to tears. My family and friends were around 10 meters away and were screaming at me to keep moving. In a flood of tears I managed to take a few steps forward, a little jog, walk, jog, walk, jog. Threw the bike at the rack and jogged into the transition tent still in a blubbering mess. Sat down and emptied the bag contents on the floor, talking to myself like a madman trying to convince myself that I could do this, even if I had to walk I could do it. Took a deep breath, faked a smile and set off on my way out of the tent. Within a few hundred meters the heavy cycling legs disappeared and my running legs kicked into gear. The run start takes you through a park with a bitch of a hill around 2km in, not very long but plenty steep enough to let you know it’s there! At the top I saw the familiar flamingos and panda confirming that it WAS the unbelievable TriBelles from Abu Dhabi I had seen on the bike course earlier on. High fives all around and a great morale boost! The rest of the run out of town is uphill gaining around 95m of elevation along 5.5km before turning around and running back down it into town. All went well until towards the end of lap 3, my smile again turned into a grimace and I was suffering immensely. I had a bit of a bonk in Austria in 2017 which soured my race a little so I was determined that I was running this one!
The 4 laps made the amazing support more condensed and meant I got to see friends and family more frequently than a single or double lap course. I needed every ounce of that encouragement on the 4th lap, I didn’t have it in my legs to climb ‘the bitch’ on the 4th lap so had to walk it, the only point during the run leg that I walked, but a hug from a TriBelle at the top signaled that I wouldn’t have to do it ever again! I started to think of the finish line and picked up the pace again, still grinding uphill to the turn around point but the adrenalin started to flow knowing that the finish line was just 5km away. The grimace turned into an ear to ear smile as I ran back through the town and towards the finish chute. After three hours and 54 minutes of running I slowed to completely absorbed the chute stopping for hugs and more tears (of joy this time) with family before releasing a huge roar of relief as I crossed that finish line to end an absolutely relentless challenge in twelve hours 45 minutes. This race is not for the faint hearted and should not be underestimated, 34% of competitors DNS/DNF this year and it genuinely doesn’t surprise me at all as it was so brutal!
I was very well prepared for this race after months in the mountains, early mornings and late nights and I was so lucky to have had a safe race without any mechanicals. The challenge makes it all the more satisfying to complete, I’m pretty sure I won’t be back but I will always remember IMUK for the challenge, the truly amazing support on the course and the unbelievably high feeling of accomplishment upon completing.