I stood at the top of the hill, tears welling up in my eyes. The marshal looked at me…..”Are you sure?” she said. I nodded, possibly the most dejected movement of my head I’ve ever given in my life. She lifted the radio, spoke, and that was it. The moment my dream of completing The Bastion Triathlon, my first Iron distance race, came crashing down and became the first DNF I have experienced anywhere ever.
24 hours earlier I was in Hatfield, north of London, photographing a wedding. Everyone else taking part in the Bastion was at the pre-race briefing and having a trial swim in the lake at Hever. Many had their tents set up in the field and some were even staying in the luxury of Hever Castle itself. I was hoping to get away from the wedding at 8pm to make it back home for 10pm and 4.5 hours sleep. Unfortunately, at 6pm one of the guests suffered a heart attack. An ambulance was called and thankfully it seems the gentleman is ok. But being the self-absorbed narcissist that I am, all I could think about was that this was scuppering any chance I had of getting home in time to get some sleep.
Amazingly, by 8pm the cake had been cut and the first dance had come and gone. I was free to drive round the M25, down the M23 and along the A27 back to Worthing. I got home at just before 10pm and slept surprisingly well until the alarm went off at 2:40am. I think it’s possibly the earliest start I have ever had to a race. I sat on the edge of the bed and could quite easily have laid back down and slept another 7 hours. But I didn’t. I was in the car just after 3am with my bike and all my kit.
I was one of the first to park up in the field just north of Hever Castle. It was still dark but seeing as I had not attended the race briefing and I had no idea what to do, I thought I had better get there early to speak to the Race Director and get my gear ready. The Bastion Triathlon is part of the Castle Triathlon Series and it’s no walk in the park and as with any long course race, requires a lot of planning aside from training in each of the three disciplines. Everyone else had racked their bike the day before. Everyone else had put their run kit in a red bag, their bike kit in a blue bag and their end of race kit in a white bag. All bags were tagged and placed at different transition locations around the central hub of Event Control.
Hever Castle and its grounds are gorgeous. I have been here before many years ago, but I recall it was a rather wet miserable day. Everything looks better in the sunshine. It was built in the 13th century and was the home to two Annes. It’s not known if Anne Boleyn was born there but she certainly spent much of the youth at the castle. It later came in to the possession of Anne of Cleaves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. The lake, in which we were to swim, was constructed between 1904 to 1906. It was originally a field but owner William Waldorf Astor had the 38 acre lake dug out by 800 men working day and night until it was finished.
Time disappeared and soon the announcement went out that we had 10 minutes to get down to the lake for the briefing. It was a short walk through the Italian gardens to the beautiful loggia at the edge of the water. I am guessing most of what had been said the day before was repeated. Huge red buoys marked the route up the lake at 100m intervals. We would swim up the lake, turn round and then right down the River Eden eventually popping out back at the start. The course was supposedly 1900m and we would do it twice to make up the Bastion Triathlon 3.8km Iron distance swim. There was a minor technical hitch which meant we set off a little later than the advertised start time of 6am.
I positioned myself towards the back of the very wide start line. I am not a fast swimmer. I planned to complete the course in one and a half hours. Some of the faster swimmers would do the same distance in an hour. The hooter sounded and we were on our way. I stuck rigidly to my pace, aware that there was a long, long way to go. I found sighting a little easier in the large open lake although I regularly had to correct my position relative to the red buoys. The field spread out very quickly and an awful lots of swimmers seemed to shoot off and were way ahead of me. I felt like there were only 10-20 people behind me and in the later stages of the swim a few of them passed me too!
I felt comfortable during the first half, but in to the second half I began to feel cramp in both legs. If I stopped swimming for a moment it got worse and I did have one episode where a marshal came over to ask if I was ok as he could see me pulling at my toes. Furthermore, my goggles began to hurt my face, as though I had them too tight. That’s never happened before. The swim course was lovely. The large expanse of the lake and then the serenity of the river. However, the last time through the river it felt like it would never end!! I kept checking my watch and noticed that I seemed to be swimming a lot further than the official 3.8km distance. When I finally got out of the water and crossed the timing chip mat my watch said I had covered 4170m. Now, GPS watches are notoriously unreliable in water and I certainly did not swim in a direct straight line all the way by any means, so I assume the distance has been measured correctly. Just be aware that if you are planning to do the Bastion Triathlon you may well swim further than 3.8km and you need to take this in to account. I finished the swim in 1 hour 39 minutes, which, given the extra distance, was about right for what I was planning.
The GoPro will have to go
I jogged back through the Italian gardens to transition where got myself sorted for the bike section, only to discover that the zip on my trisuit had broken!! No matter how I tried I couldn’t get it to zip up. So I had no choice but to wear it open. I put my Solomon backpack on to hold food which helped me feel a little more sealed up at the front! Then, as I left transition, a woman approached me wearing a British Triathlon Federation sweatshirt. “I am afraid the GoPro will have to go” she said in a stern voice. “But it’s my job” said I, “That’s why I’m here!”. Luckily a few of the marshals were around to back me up. “There’s been emails back a forth with Brian (Race Director) for months!” I argued. Faced with mounting opposition the lady said ”Well ok, if it’s your job. But I’ll need to speak to Brian about this”. With that, off I went with my bike.
The Bastion cycle route is arguably the toughest triathlon route in the UK. Around 3000 metres of elevation gain over three, 60km laps. I set out hoping to cover the course in around 7 hours. However, it was clear by half way through that I was going to be nearer 8 hours and more. I am not a confident rider. I struggle going up hills and I am fearful on the descents! Not good for an undulating bike course! To add to my worries, it was also raining lightly so my brakes felt somewhat unresponsive. From the outset, I had riders passing me. Initially there were 3 or 4 other Bastion competitors who flew by. But then once The Gauntlet started – The Gauntlet is the half iron distance race – there was one bike after another easing past every few minutes. I was thankful that not many other Bastion riders seemed to pass me, but I soon realised that it was because I was in pretty much last place!! At least I think I was.
At home on the indoor smart trainer (A Kickr which has computer controlled resistance) I would say I can cover 60km of undulating terrain in around 2 hours. I have done 50km in 1 hour 15 when I really went for it one day. However, real world conditions are much more demanding and the first lap took me 2 hours 50 minutes. If I was to maintain that pace I could cover the 112 miles in 8 hours 40. I resolved that that would have to do and I could make up time and places in the marathon. I set out on lap two feeling ok. The climb out of Hever seemed to go on much longer the second time though and it was getting wetter. The course has two big hills, both on the B2026. The first starts at the village of Hartfield, where people park to walk to Pooh Bridge. We had to cycle all the way up Jib Jacks Hill to the top of Ashdown Forest. We the rode along the top and down the other side almost as far as Uckfield. We did a small loop through Maresfield and then back up to the top. These two climbs came at between 15 and 30km. It was by no means the end of the climbing and in fact some of the small sharp inclines towards the end of the loop were almost as energy sapping.
However, I had successfully negotiated both climbs twice and I was on my way back in good time to start my third and final loop. I was speeding down the hill on the B2176 Penshurst Road and was just about to see the 50km marker (110km in reality) when I hit a small but violent bump in the road. I immediately knew a tyre had burst. Luckily this had happened right beside a marshal with a radio. Unluckily, once I got off the bike I realised that not one but two tyres had punctured. I couldn’t believe it. What are the chances?! I had been foolish enough to think that there’s no way I could have two flats in one race, and so had only brought one inner tube with me. I was up a certain creek without a paddle.
You do the Maths
I was about to throw in the towel and get the marshal to radio Event Control when another cyclist rode by. He saw that the wheels were off my bike. “Do you need any kit?” he asked. “I’ve only got one inner tube” I explained. He threw me another. “Have you got a pump?”. “No, I’ve only got one compressed air canister”. He handed over his pump and went on his way. Such generosity and kindness. If you are reading this and you were that guy, thank you. By now another marshal had arrived in his car. Between the three of us we managed to change both tyres and I was on my way again. However, it had taken over half an hour and the set backs were not over. I got on the bike and pedalled away. I was so immersed in thinking about my splits and how much time I’d lost, that I completely missed the left turn at the 50km sign. I took another rider with me for a kilometre the wrong way down a hill.
We got to the bottom and immediately realised we had gone wrong. I apologised profusely to the girl I was with and she was very chilled about it. We dragged ourselves back up the hill, which added another 10 minutes to my time. Eventually, I completed the loop and arrived at the aid station outside Hever Castle. They seemed to be packing up. It was only then I learned just how much of a setback the punctures and wrong turn had been. One of the marshals indicated for me to turn left in to the castle grounds. I shook my head and said I still had one more lap to do. Another marshal approached and asked if I was going to make it. “You’ve got to be out of run transition by 4:45pm. How fast are you doing your loops?” she asked. “About 2 hours 10 minutes” I said. It was 2:20pm “Go on then. But you’ll have to fly” she said. Off I went on lap three. Suddenly, I felt very alone.
Go and do the Run
As I climbed the first hill I started doing the maths in my head. 2 hours 10 minutes? I thought. I can’t do 60km in 2 hours 10 minutes. What was I on about? It took me 2 hours 50 minutes to do the first loop and it would have taken me about the same amount of time on the second loop, had I not had the punctures and gone the wrong way. So if it’s going to take me 2 hours 50 minutes and I only have 2 hours 25 minutes to get back there’s no way I’m going to make it. I was really tired and there was no chance of me putting in a massive shift to get round 25 minutes faster. I got to the top of the first hill where there was a marshall. I stopped. “I’m not going to make it” I said. The marshal looked at me…..”Are you sure?” she said. I nodded, possibly the most dejected movement of my head I’ve ever given in my life. She lifted the radio, spoke, and that was it. The moment my dream of completing The Bastion Triathlon, my first Iron distance race came crashing down and became the first DNF I have experienced anywhere ever.
I cycled back down the hill feeling pretty dejected. I was greeted by the marshals outside the castle who could see how down I was. They all said something I really didn’t expect. “Go and do the run”. They were firmly of the opinion that it would make me feel better. If I’m honest it was the last thing I wanted to hear! I had resigned myself to sitting on the grass feeling sorry for myself for a few hours! But I decided that perhaps I would go for a run. Not the whole marathon, but perhaps one loop of the run route so as to capture it on film. I sat quietly in run transition for a few minutes, got changed and set out. I ran with Andy for a while. He was struggling and would eventually drop out after two laps of the run. By now, in contrast to the rain of the bike leg, it was very hot and sunny. My legs were desperately trying to function but my heart wasn’t it in.
The run course is very pretty. Lots of nice fields, lakes, wooded paths, streams and a waterfall. It’s also a little undulating. You might not think so if you run it on its own. But after a 4km swim and 180kms on the bike, you might well argue it’s hilly. I do wonder what would have happened had I made it to the run. Perhaps my legs would have eventually got moving. Perhaps I would have slowly eased in to the marathon. But perhaps I’m not ready. Perhaps I needed this experience to tell me that. If I had been quicker in the swim and on the bike, I could have dealt with the double puncture and still made it round in time. I need to improve in those disciplines and I have gained valuable experience. I completed one lap of the Bastion run course and the race director allowed me to cross the finish line. I was also given a medal, which I certainly don’t deserve.
I spent a long time chilling out by the finish line afterwards. I had a burger and a coffee and lots of free Chocolate flavoured coconut water and lay on the grass. A couple of Castle Triathlon Series staff came over to ask if I was ok. I had a long chat with one lady who told me the fuss that had been caused by the BTF observers, who had taken great exception to my filming the event, due to Health and Safety concerns. I can understand that and if it’s against the rules then it’s against the rules. But if it is at the Race Director’s discretion then they can’t argue. I’m not going to be suing anyone if I fall off my bike because I’m holding my camera rather than the handle bars!!
A DNF Hurts
All in all I am grateful to have had the experience of racing the Bastion Triathlon. What a fantastic location and what a brutal course. It’s a difficult one to rate really because it is a very family friendly relaxed set up. The start/finish area is in a gorgeous location. There is entertainment for spectators aside from watching the runners doing their loops. There’s the castle to visit too. So as a family day out it works. But if you are doing the full distance Bastion Triathlon you need to know that it is very tough. Everyone, those who finished and those who did not, will agree that the bike course is brutal. If you are planning on doing it as your first full distance triathlon, you need to beware. I’m not saying don’t do it. Just be fully informed as to what you’re getting yourself in to!
You will find the staff incredibly friendly, efficient and willing to help you out as best they can. You will find the organisation second to none and all three courses beautiful to look at and swim, bike and run through. I hope to be back at Hever Castle soon to take part in a shorter event and I will be back to conquer the Bastion Triathlon another day. I will return hungrier, hopefully faster and certainly less green. A first DNF hurt and I don’t want to have that feeling very often, or ever again if I can help it.
A great big thank you to all the staff and volunteers, who I found to be incredibly supportive and friendly. Despite the DNF I had a great time and I will be back to take part in another Castle Triathlon Series event very soon. As always, if you have enjoyed reading this Bastion Triathlon race report and the accompanying video, please do share it on Facebook and give it a like. Do comment down below if you have any race disasters you would like to share. Don’t forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel by clicking here. Thank for reading.