And so it dawned, July 15 2018, the ultimate stage being set for the ultimate challenge, Ironman UK. This year’s roster of St Helens Tri entrants was markedly different to previous editions with a particularly pleasing array of first time participants, some being used to the middle distance variant, others coming from seemingly nowhere to make their mark on the biggest race of the year. They set off in the waters of Pennington Flash at 6am to the sound of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, climbed Hunter’s Hill twice amidst crazy crowds and a soundsystem playing 1990’s club classics, and finished off in Bolton town centre with a marathon and a red carpet for the last few hundred metres. Star performer of the day for St Helens Tri was Kevin Dudley who made quite a name for himself over the winter at club days out including the Manchester cross country league and the Good Friday duathlon but here he was leading the club by example, getting a huge cheer from the hordes of supporters at the base of Hunter’s Hill as he came round for the second time; indeed the club tifosi included many who have been suitably inspired by yesterday to sign up for the 2019 race. Back to the 2018 edition, Kevin not only finished in 11:25:50, he made the top 75 in his age group and well inside the top 500 overall, clocking some particularly impressive run splits at either end of the marathon. Behind him a cracking five-way battle was developing between Paul Booth, Michael Forber, Mike Gregory, Will Bardin, Andrew Gaskell and Alan Ralfs to not only beat the 12-hour mark but also be next club member home. Paul Booth’s superior bike speed proved to be decisive as although Michael Forber repeated his Chester middle distance trick of a rapid run, Paul had enough in him to come out on top by just four seconds – after nearly twelve hours of racing! Next up was Mike Gregory, a St Helens Parkrun regular who was closing in on both Paul and Michael by the end, however he eventually ran out of time to catch the dynamic duo ahead as he finished in 11:53:53. Will Bardin actually got out of the water ahead of the trio ahead of him and very close to Kevin Dudley, and while he could not quite keep pace with the teammates around him he still had more than enough in him to put in some quick segments on the run and cross the line just over four minutes inside the twelve-hour mark. The hard luck story of the day, however, had to be that of Alan Ralfs who did everything right, kept Andrew Gaskell in sight and even managed some of the quickest transition times all day, but being so unlucky in missing the sub-12 club by a matter of seconds; in cooler conditions he would have undoubtedly beat that coveted benchmark with plenty of room to spare, as would have Dave O’Connor who finished less than fifteen minutes behind Alan.
With seven club members home and dry there were six still out on the course, and the next man up was Neil Jackson, mirroring the typical pacing strategy of those ahead of him en route to a time of 12:30:32. Neil also enjoyed a cracking battle with Mark Eccleston, a regular helper at the Tuesday night bike/run session, who was also raising money for wounded combat veterans, even having his own custom tri suit with both the charity and the St Helens Tri club logo on it! For a while it looked as though he might beat the 12:30 mark and come in ahead, but Neil had enough run speed in the end to edge clear in the final few miles and beat him to the flag by less than two minutes. It was a frantic scramble to the line for Ryan Hume to beat the 13 hour barrier, but thanks to some calm pacing of the run and a cool head in very hot conditions he had enough in hand to make it, as he finished in 12:55:13. Jamie Tomkinson was next to finish having been close to the pace of Ryan Hume for much of the event, but not quite having the same speed on the run. Nevertheless, a 13:16:00 was a very satisfactory time to take home with him, while Debra Rayment, a longtime star of many a long distance triathlon, stepped up for the first time to Ironman and all that winter training on the turbo paid off as she completed the UK’s toughest triathlon in well under fifteen hours. It wasn’t long before Azzam Taktak finished with the biggest smile and the biggest cheer of the day as he put in a hard effort on the run in his efforts to catch Debra, but eventually finished in a time of 14:46:57 around three minutes behind his teammate amidst a wave of support from the St Helens Tri community.
So a thrilling day on the slopes of Lancashire and the streets of Bolton, yet there were more stories developing a little further afield. Lynette and George Houghton may have already qualified for the Spartan OCR world championships but they rarely pass up an opportunity to get some more practice in and they were in action at the sprint event at Market Harborough. They were both relieved to not be doing such a long course in such heat (this course being rather less sheltered than Delamere a fortnight earlier) but they still recorded impressive results, George being the runner-up in his age category and Lynette placing in the top five. Lee Stinch didn’t quite go so far south but he went to the Stoke Festival of Running for the marathon which claims to be “flat” but actually includes 4 miles of trail running just to test the legs yet more. However, Lee was more than equal to the conditions and came away with one of his best performance of 2018 finishing in under 3hr50. Mal Balmer was one of the few club members opting for a shorter event as he joined a few friends at the UK Triathlon sprint distance race in York, where he completed the swim in just over seven minutes and followed it up with a strong bike and even stronger run to lift himself to 23rd position overall and third in his age group, while in the ladies’ race Caroline Stalker came up with a major improvement on the bike course to not only finish fourth but also win her age group by nearly a minute. The juniors were not to be left out either as two of them made the trip east to Holmfirth for the annual junior triathlon. Sally Bearon was star of the show as she set the fastest bike split in her category en route to placing second at Tristars Start level, while Sally’s sister Naomi put in a gritty effort to place 23rd in the T3 event and round off a thrilling two-part week of racing where the efforts of Myka and Che Heard in Ullswater were followed up in style as the club got six Ironmen home in under 12 hours, Debra Rayment performed wonders as our sole lady entrant to beat the 15 hour mark and Sally Bearon and Caroline Stalker starred in Yorkshire. Entries for Ironman 2019 open today with next year’s race date set for 14 July; it will be intriguing to see how many club members inspired by yesterday’s epic endeavours will make that step to the ultimate challenge.