Prepare for the worst - Lessons from an extreme triathlon debut

By Chris Knight | 5 Minute Read

Sometimes long distance racing just isn't long enough, which is where ultra-endurance events come in. The prospect of signing up for such a race can be a daunting experience, especially for those who are stepping up in distance for the first time. 

220 Triathlon's 2015 Male Age Grouper of the Year, Charlie Pennington, made the move from racing IRONMAN to take part in The Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon, so we spoke to the Team Freespeed athlete to find out what advice he would give to athletes who are considering going longer...

 

Hi Charlie, what motivated you to sign up for The Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon?

Once I'd "won" a place for the race in Chile, I figured I couldn't turn it down: it was an opportunity to race in a unique event in a part of the world I've always wanted to travel to. The race aspect wasn't a motivation; it was more about the experience.

 

Did you make many changes from your 'usual' IRONMAN training regime to prepare yourself for The Patagonman's 3.8km swim, 180km bike leg and 42.2km run?

Well, following 16 years of regular service, I'm now a Royal Marines Reservist and was mobilised to deploy to Kenya for six months from April to November.

I deployed with only what I could carry in three bags so my usual training wasn't going to be an option. For example, it took me almost two months to get hold of a bike and turbo trainer!

 

Not ideal! How did you adapt your training set-up to cope with the lack of a bike and being away from home for six months?

Fortunately, I had access to a gym at the British High Commission. The pool was a communal one that was cold (good for training for the Patagonman I guess).

I was able to buy a bike and borrow a turbo trainer; it was pretty basic but it was better than nothing, even if my longest ride was only 2.5 hours because of issues with comfort, boredom and time constraints.

I wasn't on my usual set-up and I struggled with saddle sores for much of my time away...

 

Again, it doesn't seem like ideal preparation for the Patagonman and the 180km bike leg you'd face. How did you fit training in around your job?

Once I got a bike and turbo, my training plan looked something like this: 

Monday Gym at 6am for strength work
60-minute bike turbo session after work
Tuesday 7km run to work
2km swim after work
Wednesday Gym at 6am
60-minute bike turbo session after work
Thursday 7km run to work
Swim after work
Friday Gym at 6am
60-minute bike turbo session after work
Saturday Long club run (up to 35km) in the morning
Sunday 2 hours on the bike

 

Interesting, so once your deployment finished and you went back home in November, were you straight on the bike ahead of the Patagonman in December? 

I saved the focused stuff for the four weeks before the event as I was at home on leave then. I was finally able to get back to some 'proper' training and consistently include swimming and biking in my routine.

As you say, my biggest concern was the bike as I hadn't ridden properly for almost seven months, so my coach and I figured that just getting into a consistent routine was the most important aspect of my training. I got on the bike most days and focused on short, hard efforts, rather than long miles.

 

Charlie Pennington on the bike leg at Patagonman
Source: Charlie Pennington Instagram  
©

 

And once race-day rolled around, what were the overriding emotions for you as you prepared to jump into a fjord for the start of the swim at 5.30am?

I get nervous before any event and this was no different - I just wanted to get on with the thing and get in the water. 

The only thing I did think about was keeping warm before we started, so I found the comfy seats in the warm on the ferry rather than hang out in the vehicle deck like most people.

I saw the cold as my principle enemy, especially as I hadn't done any open water swimming all year up until three days before the race and wasn't sure how I would cope.

So, my overriding emotion was focusing on getting through the swim.

 

And once the race was underway, how did you and your support team approach nutrition and hydration for the race? 

My Team Freespeed colleague, Stuart Anderson, had raced Norseman in the past and was my support crew for the race - having someone alongside me who had been there and done an Xtreme Triathlon was invaluable and I'd recommend at least speaking to someone who's done an event like this before you reach the start line (on that note, I'd be happy to speak to anyone who is looking for advice).

We thought we were well prepared but the thing that we hadn't planned for was me getting very cold in the swim (it was 10 degrees in the water and I got tired from lack of training)...

I was unable to use my hands to get a bottle out of my cages until about 100 minutes into the bike ride, so I had to pull over to the side of the road and ask Stuart to do it for me! Definitely something to bear in mind and consider in future races...

Beyond this I relied on having two bottles on my bike: one of PH and the other a carbohydrate drink. I drank regularly and felt as though I was hydrating well and actually felt relatively good for the final 60km of the ride.

Apart from the aid stations at 10km and 20km on the run, I was on my own for the first 30km of the run - at which point Stuart could join me.

This meant having to carry my own fluids (about 1.2 litres) and top-ups of gels, SweatSalt Capsules and PH sachets, but I'd practised this during my running out in Kenya, so I wasn't too troubled by the vest and weight.

 

Charlie Pennington and Stu Anderson
Source: Charlie Pennington Instagram 
© 

 

You seemed to get plenty right as you secured a top-ten finish - congrats! How will you look back on this race? 

Initially, all I wanted to do was sit down!

Beyond that, I can honestly say that this is one of the best events I have done. It was truly awesome to race with only 200 other athletes in such a location and there are very few events in the world where you can race in this way.

It provided me with the opportunity to go back to the roots of long distance racing and enjoy it in a way that no other event I've raced has been able to do.

 

And is there anything you would do differently in your preparation if you could?

I would definitely do some cold open water training and get used to the kit - I purposely chose not to wear neoprene gloves for the swim as I hadn't had enough time to get used to them and I figured that the extra weight in my hands would be an issue given my lack of swim training, although the downside was that I knew I would get cold more quickly.

I would also spend more time on my TT bike.

 

And for anyone considering entering the Patagonman or their first extreme triathlon, what would be your best advice for them? 

The logistics are challenging but clearly not impossible. It's a long way to go but once you're there, the cost of living isn't too bad (except hiring cars!) and actually cheaper than we anticipated.

My advice to anyone thinking of racing an ultra-endurance event is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

 

Thanks Charlie, some sound advice there and plenty for any athlete who's thinking of going longer to consider...

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