“Gosh, this is awful” were the words a fellow competitor muttered to me as he ran past. We were 10 minutes into the fifth and final lap of the Ballbuster Duathlon organised by Human Race Events. We had been racing for over three hours and had another 10km to run before crossing the finish line.
Having just come off the bike, my legs were shot and the prospect of another run up Box Hill was a heavy weight on my mind. Branded as the UK’s toughest duathlon, it consists of an 12km mile run, 38km bike and a 12km run – all on a 12km loop around Box Hill in Surrey.
It was tough. Tougher than I was ready for. It kind of broke me. When I crossed the finish line I couldn’t breathe, and the moment I steadied my breathing I burst into tears. I stumbled back to transition to find there weren’t very many bikes left and all my friends had gone home (or so I thought). I spotted a bench basking in sunlight and headed towards it. I took a few moments to sit in the sun and let everything sink in.
What had I just been through? What was going on inside my body and mind to make me feel this way? How did I actually feel? I needed to establish if I was actually upset or if this emotion was just the impact of having pushed myself outside of my comfort zone and the result of the inner turmoil I had been going through for the past four hours.
The first inkling I’d had that this wasn’t going to be my finest performance was 20mins into the race when my pace dropped off, significantly. By the end of the first run lap at least 50 people had overtaken me. I’d gone off too hard at the start and not been able to maintain the pace. “It’s ok,” I consoled myself; “once I get on the bike, I’ll catch up”. And I did.
I overtook 30 people until lap three began, when most of them over took me again. At this stage, I stopped counting. Instead I focused my energies on trying to find that extra gear, that depth to my performance, that oomph I usually have. I focused on managing the turmoil that was going on in my head as a result of not being able to find that power.
My inner turmoil was precisely this: on the one hand, completing this event is a great achievement in itself. It places me in a very small, niche and perhaps slightly mad group of the population who are willing and able to complete it. Being female makes it more unusual. Out of the 300 competitors, only 35 were female. No matter how I race and what time I get, I should be proud, right?
Wrong. Anyone who likes to challenge their comfort zone and compete in these type of events for fun, will know it’s not as simple as that.
In competition to this line of thinking, and fuelling the conflict going on in my head, were the ‘shoulds’. You tell yourself you should be faster, fitter or further up the field. That I should be enjoying this more! I look around me and can’t help but notice I’m probably half the age of most the competitors going at my speed. Gulp. Keep pushing. Maybe it will come. I kept trying but somewhere along the line I realised this wasn’t going to be my day.
There’s a communal suffering that goes on in these events. You can feel the pain of the people you are racing with, you can see it in their faces.
It’s now the final lap up Box Hill, only a mile or so left to go. No-one is talking now. Everyone is shuffling. My IT Band is playing havoc, I stretch it out. The sun is up, the view is stunning and I try to use it as distraction. I remind myself I’m lucky to be here, I tell myself I’m happy to be here, that I am enjoying this. It doesn’t work.
I come round the final hairpin and I can almost smell the finish line. I look at my legs and urge them to push a little bit faster. It feels as though the communication between my mind and my legs has gone awry. I just don’t have that ability to dig deep, those reserves I normally rely on. I’ve been through worse, I’ve run further, I’ve suffered more. Why am I finding this race so challenging?
Cause and effect
Perhaps I’ll never know why. I can analyse it until I’m blue in the face. I can debate about my training, diet, sleep and preparation choices. Or, I can accept that every choice I make has an effect and in this case, the result of my choices is how I raced on the day.
I don’t take on these events to win, I do them to learn, grow and live. Through challenging myself, I stretch my limits. I push myself to do more, to train harder and to be more. I learn about myself, I come to terms with who I am and above all, I live. It’s through challenging myself that I get my heart, lungs and legs pumping. That I take control of my life and create something new. A new experience, motivation or friendship.
The BallBuster was certainly a challenge. I am proud of having completed the race as a standalone achievement, but I am also motivated to improve. I know my weaknesses and I need to work on them. This race broke me but I put myself back together again and it will make me stronger. A stronger triathlete, yes, but moreover a stronger person.
This is why I do it and what I love.
Sophie Radcliffe is a cyclist, Ironman, mountaineer and writer. Get in touch with her here: