It's obviously been a tough year for athletes as race plans have gone awry but there was a welcome return to racing for several triathletes with PH in their bottles at the Helvellyn Triathlon in September.

We spoke to pro triathletes about the race that saw women start 28:03 ahead of the men and the allocation of prize cheques were determined by how athletes crossed the line, regardless of gender.

We caught up with top Age-Grouper Joanne Clarke to hear about her experience of racing with the pro's and how it felt to return to racing...

After all of the months of indoor training and virtual races, how prepared did you feel for your first race of 2020?

Going into the race, I was just really excited to be part of an event again with other triathletes. No virtual event can recreate the feeling of being on the start-line with other athletes and friends and taking on a challenging race.

Of course, I hoped that I could produce a performance I was proud of as I had still worked hard over lockdown, but this race was mainly just about enjoying being out there again and not putting any pressure on myself.

The format of Helvellyn Triathlon meant that the female athletes enjoyed the benefit of a 28:03 head start. How did it feel to be lining up with so many world-class athletes at an event in the Lake District?

I'm not currently a professional athlete, but the PTO gave top age-groupers the opportunity to race in the professional/elite wave if they met certain criteria. The chance to toe the start line with world-class athletes was a great experience and an opportunity for me to learn and develop, without any kind of pressure or expectations.

The new style of racing that the PTO introduced made my first elite start even more exciting. Not only was I trying to finish as close as I could to the female professionals, I was also seeing how long I could hold off the male professionals for.

It's a bit like a giant game of cat and mouse and makes each athlete more important, irrespective of gender.

You mentioned on social media that the run course was “character building”, can you expand on that?

The fell run up Helvellyn was unknown territory for most of us, no one really knew what to expect or how others would fare on this course. As with most of the field, I walked/scrambled up the majority of the uphill section. It still hurt, but in a totally different way than your typical all-out half marathon on a flatter course and was also more mentally stimulating.

The slower pace also meant you could interact with supporters and other athletes on the course, rather than just flying past them (or maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough!).

I think we were all looking forward to the downhill but that was a challenge in itself. I definitely wasn’t very elegant in my descent but pleased to have got back down to Glenridding in relatively good time and without falling over.

We definitely all now have a whole new level of respect for fell runners after that race and it made for an interesting de-brief between us all – much more to talk about than a normal triathlon.

It would be really great to see more ‘extreme’ triathlons like this supported by the PTO. This race was a last-minute sign-up for most of the athletes, but with some specific training, alongside some live coverage on the course, it could be a really interesting addition to the typical IRONMAN and Challenge races we are all used to seeing.

Everyone was buzzing afterwards and there was a really great atmosphere having completed such a challenge.

We saw you suffered a trapped nerve in your neck which meant you weren't going to be able to take the start line at Challenge Davos - which was eventually cancelled because of a thunderstorm in August. How did the injury affect your preparation for Helvellyn?

I effectively had a double taper for Helvellyn Triathlon after trapping a nerve in my neck two days before my initial planned race at Challenge Davos. As you say, it turned out that race was never meant to be as it got cancelled mid-way through the swim due to storms so flying home before the quarantine rules kicked in was a good decision. My neck took a few days to sort itself out so it wasn’t the best lead up to Helvellyn but I was excited to have the chance to race. 

I absolutely loved the rough and ready nature of the course and I will definitely be looking to do more of these ‘extreme’ triathlons in the future.

In fact, I would love to come back to Helvellyn and do this race with some proper training – or just a bit of fell running practice. I always thought I would love to do a race like Patagonman but I don’t do well in cold water and Helvellyn has served to remind me that that might be an issue.  

Image Credit: Jo Clarke Instagram©

On that note, did you make any special kit changes to account for this water temperatures and challenging course?

I did make a few kit changes for this course. I borrowed a thermal wetsuit from fellow Precision Race Team athlete, Ruth Astle, and it probably saved my skin (or perhaps I just need to learn to swim harder and faster in my normal wetsuit).

I also opted for a TT bike and definitely think this was the right decision as there are some fast sections on the course. I missed my road bike on the climbs but overall I think you would lose quite a bit of time. I also changed my gear set-up on my TT bike as there was no way I was getting up "The Struggle" at Kirkstone Pass on my usual 53-42 set-up.

For the run, I wore trail shoes which helped a lot – it was wet and rocky and we already all looked like Bambi on ice as it was! 

Was it enjoyable to take part in a race that felt like a reminder of 'old school' triathlon?

I loved going back to basics and taking part in a grassroots triathlon. The organisers did an incredible job so hats off to them.

The support was also amazing and the whole thing felt more personal and friendly, so I definitely enjoyed this kind of racing and it made a refreshing change from the big events. 

And what was the main lesson you learned from this race?

That running downhill hurts like hell the day after. But seriously, this race just highlighted the need to enjoy the process, and break it down. Keep things simple and smile whilst you’re on your way.

Great advice, thanks Jo. Best of luck for your next race!