From Belmont to the Bright Lights of Bolton – A Bastille Day Like No Other

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It may well transpire at the end of 2019 that we look back on July 14 and anoint it as the most extraordinary sporting day of the year. While the greatest Wimbledon Final ever played out on Centre Court and England’s cricket team won a stunning World Cup Final in extra overs, the roads of Lancashire and particularly the streets of Bolton were pure theatre as thousands of athletes from all over the country and beyond descended on the hometown of Peter Kay for Ironman UK, this year’s race featuring a tougher than ever bike course through Ramsbottom and up Winter Hill (interesting how as running race courses get flatter, Ironman courses get tougher). St Helens Tri had 11 entrants in the annual 140.6 challenge and with all having a story to tell, we have decided to defer the Ullswater and Deva Divas results until next week’s report with a far lighter schedule on tap, while also dividing this week’s column into segments for each individual participant.

Eddie Hirst, 11:14:21, 61st overall, 7th M40-44: Eddie Hirst is no stranger to the ultimate distance, all the more remarkable when you consider he only did his first half marathon in 2015 and his first multisport at the St Helens Triathlon in 2015 (for which this year’s date is now set for September 7th, entries are now open). Eddie was seeded in the sub-65 area at the start and he lived up to his role as the club’s leader for the day, as he was out of the water near the head of the field and came within a whisker of a sub-6 hour bike time averaging nearly 30kmh on a course not necessarily suited to time trial bikes. His run form at the Friday night track sessions, both in terms of speed and technique, is second to none and so it proved as he continued to move up the field during the run to take a phenomenal seventh in his age group, leaving him two deferrals away from a slot in next year’s World Championships in Kona. He even had enough energy to join the club support for the next six hours as well – an all round club legend!

Andrew Gaskell, 298th overall, 12:47:45: Andrew was always going to be one of the club’s quickest swimmers on the day and he didn’t disappoint, as he was out of the water in under 70 minutes. His bike stage was remarkably consistent given how so many fell apart on the toughest part of the course, and despite having to take on fluids at nearly every feed station on the run course he finished with some spectacular kicks of pace in the final few miles and crossed the line in well under 13 hours to take the accolade of second club member home.

Kevin Dunbar, 328th overall, 13:07:14: Going back to the Ashurst Bike Club days (which some of the longer-serving members can still remember, surely) there was a time when the running joke doing the rounds was that Kevin was on a mission to set a new world record for most races run in a calendar year. It was not unusual for him to do two midweek races plus a Parkrun on a Saturday, if not a longer race on the Sunday as well. He will no doubt look back on September 24 2017 when he joined his teammates in the South Lakes for the Kendal Sprint Triathlon as the day when he began his “armbands to Ironman” journey (his own words there). As such it was always going to be fascinating to see if his superior strength from years of marathon running would pay off in the water and on the bike. He would certainly have appreciated the superherous on the top of Belmont given his previous “experience” in such a regard at the Snowdonia Marathon and in one of the most popular results of the day, he finished in the top quarter in his age group in a little over thirteen hours looking just as strong on the final lap of the run as he did at the crack of dawn.

Matthew Range, 568th overall, 13:41:27: Having only joined the club at the beginning of the season Matthew was always going to be one of the more unknown quantities going into the race, but despite giving away time to his fellow club members in the water he made up considerable ground throughout the bike stage, gaining places where others struggled to even keep the pedals turning. What really impressed, though, was his speed and consistency on the run as he was undeterred by the scale of the challenge and the presence of more seasoned competitors around him, and as such he was suitably delighted to finish in the top 600 and in the top half of his age group.

Mark Eccleston, 605th overall, 13:48:52: It’s not often that someone makes great strides forward to the point where they can knock whole hours off their Ironman times after several years in the sport, but Mark has had, in many ways, the most remarkable season of any of the St Helens Tri participants in this year’s race. As well as taking his BTF level 1 coaching course at Edge Hill University and completing both the Fred Whitton Challenge and Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire, he has been an excellent example of how covering off all the small details with regards to lifestyle and cultural conditioning can add up to a huge difference. These differences began with a strong swim where he got out of the water in just under 75 minutes, before a sub-7:30 bike split put him in position to zone in on a final time of under 14 hours. The warm conditions caught out many seasoned marathon runners but despite a small dip just after the halfway point, he picked up the pace well on the final lap and crossed the line well under the 14 hour mark to a standing ovation.

Will Bardin, 645th overall, 13:57:05: Will is in his second season with the club and has improved immeasurably in all three disciplines particularly in long-distance open water swimming, as a regular at structured training sessions. The swim round the Flash didn’t seem to have taken too much out of him on the bike course either, as he stuck to his plan knowing that he had a very strong run to come, and so it proved as he ran negative splits for the marathon finishing with a flourish to beat the 14-hour mark by just three minutes.

Paul Booth, 740th overall, 14:14:19: Like Matthew and Will, Paul is one of the club’s more recent new members and as such is yet to rack up the experience in club trainig sessions. However, he had trained consistently and with plenty of energy for the challenge and was straight into the thick of things in the water as he recorded a pace of under two minutes per 100m for the first lap. A small drop-off on lap 2 was put right with a battling display on the slopes of Lancashire and a very good run where he somehow saved some of his fastest miles for the final lap lifted him into the top 750 overall, just missing out on the top 100 in his age group.

Neil Wallace, 937th overall, 14:56:19: Neil’s pace on the bike was already well-known before the race began, but here it was his swim that caught the eye, as he was one of the quicker club members around the Flash and was in the top 15 in his age group upon exiting the water. His bike speed set him him for a good crack at the run where he stuck to a pace of around 7:50 per kilometre, edging his pace up a little bit towards the end, just to make sure he got home under the 15 hour mark, which he duly did to the tune of nearly four minutes.

Steve Gavin, 1065th overall, 15:29:35: Stephen is no stranger to the Ironman distance having competed in many long haul challenges during his career and his steady diet of endurance training sessions paid off on race day as he was comfortably out of the water in just over 80 minutes. The bike leg was slayed in just over eight hours and his ability to hold form over a full day’s racing proved pivotal on the run as while others struggled to find a rhythm he managed to record a sub-5:45 time for the 26.2 miles which lifted him into a position where all he needed was a sprint finish to duck under the 15:30 mark which he managed to the tune of 25 seconds.

Paul McGregor, 1315th overall, 16:34:44: Paul entered the race so late his name didn’t even show up as St Helens Tri on the IMUK tracker, but he was still well up for the challenge and perhaps embodied the spirit of competition more than anyone else as he acknowledged the Saints support at the foot of Belmont on his drive to make up places from the swim, having completed the 3.8k around the Flash in just under 1hr45. He had more left in the tank than most for the marathon though, and was able to pass some tiring runners in the closing stages to easily beat the cut-off time finishing in just over sixteen and a half hours.

Sarah Taktak, 1268th overall, 5th F18, 16:13:18: As they say, save the best until last. While Eddie Hirst led the way with a gap of over 90 minutes to his nearest teammate, no St Helens Tri member had a more epic story to tell. Sarah’s journey began on her 18th birthday when her card contained an IMUK entry and she celebrated by going for an 18 mile run with Isabella Rose teammate Bethany Forber. Quite a unique way to mark your 18th, and it served notice of her intent to go where few teenagers go, and complete the ultimate challenge. She was always one of the club’s quickest swimmers even as a junior and, incredibly, was the third St Helens Tri entrant out of the water recording a sub-70 minute time. Surrounded by more experienced cyclists, she made good use of her newly-tweaked setup on the bike course and kept her average speed up to the level to make the cut-off with room to spare. From here it was onto the marathon, and a chance for everyone including those club mmebers who had alreay finished to share in the pure theatre of drama unfolding as daylight gave way to dusk, darkness and floodlights. The question was whether she could keep her head up as the laps ticked down, and it’s not stretching things to say that everyone had now switched over from the cricket and tennis to follow her progress on the app and count down the minutes to her estimated finish time, which would come just after the Belmont Lunatics Club had arrived, complete with masks, in front of the town hall. As the clock ticked past 10:15pm, with this year’s best new song from Lewis Capaldi blazing out of the soundsystem, she came round the final right-hander and headed down the finishing straight through a near-defeaning wall of sound to finish the 2019 Ironman UK in a time of 16:13:18 and write her name into the history books, even getting a mention on the Bolton Town Council social media pages as the youngest athlete in the race. The “coronation” of her walk-off out of the finisher’s area (pictured below) was akin to a miniature version of the Liverpool FC Champions League parade, or so it seemed, played out as already mentioned under the bright lights of Bolton. An undisputed winner of the people’s champion award and a sure fire winner for the St Helens Tri story of the year, if not the century.

And so ended a day so cinematic that it would never have actually passed for a script, or if it had bene written, it would never had bene believed. Indeed, it was so inspiring to actually be there and watch the thousands of athletes take on the ultimate challenge that the date for the 2020 edition has already been set for July 12, once again in Bolton. As well as recognising the achievements of those who participated, a huge amount of credit must go to those who spent the entire day travelling around the area in cars or on bikes (and in some cases, on trains as well) to support, as well as the event management team who once again proved to be a shining example of how to stage a spectacular event. Thanks for the memories – and onto next year when we do it all over again!

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