When the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve of 2019, there can't be too many pro triathletes who'd have thought that they'd have to wait until September for their first race of 2020.
Several athletes with Precision Fuel & Hydration electrolytes in their bottles finally did get to a start line at the Helvellyn Triathlon recently though as the PTO stepped in to offer a $15,000 prize pot and the event offered an unusual format of racing.
Rather than the usual gender-divided races, the women received a calculated head-start of 28:03 and then the first-across-the-finish line determined the order and allocation of the 10 prize cheques.
It proved to be a triumphant first major money pro race in the UK for 2020, despite the fact that the British weather lived up to its reputation with rain, wind and mist, while the course served up eye-wateringly cold water temperatures and a 61.2km bike route that included a host of 20% ascents, including the infamous appearance of ‘The Struggle’ - a climb of 400m in 5km over Kirkstone Pass.
It was a brutal event and we spoke to pro triathletes Ruth Astle, Tara Grosvenor and Fergus Roberts about how lockdown prepared them for a return to racing at Helvellyn in a separate blog, before getting their thoughts on how the future of racing might look for athletes around the world...
Hi guys, how did you feel about the style of racing at Helvellyn (i.e. with places and prize money based on where you crossed the finishing line, regardless of gender), did it change the race dynamic at all?
» Ruth Astle, who finished runner-up in the women's division at Helvellyn:
It did change the dynamic slightly as we knew the men would be hunting us down. I didn’t think the time gap would be enough given the pedigree of the men’s field and how many of them have some experience of fell-running.
I think it's a good idea in general as a bonus on top of podium prizes, as I think it made it more exciting for people following the race.
I was more focused on winning against the women - when someone like Ali Brownlee is on the start list I’m not sure many people would back themselves to beat him, even with a 28-minute head start!
I think it's good to have something a bit different, but it's really hard to work out a fair handicap for a race like Helvellyn - how fair the handicap is depends very much on the depth of the field.
» Professional long distance triathlete Fergus Roberts:
I really like the concept of handicap racing in triathlon. I think it works very well at this type of race because the number of athletes was low, so it adds a bit more competition for both men and women and highlights who are the strongest athletes of the day in the conditions, regardless of gender.
I don't think it changed the dynamic of the race too much. It's the type of course where it is just about moving forward at your own pace especially when you get onto the run.
» Tara Grosvenor, who finished 4th in the women's division at Helvellyn:
It was really exciting having a gender neutral race and refreshing to try a different format for this reason.
I'm not sure it changed the race dynamic for me - ultimately, it’s a race and you go as hard as you can until the end. It made the race interesting and fun having the boys chasing from behind; especially as my coach was racing in the male field and I was keen for him not to catch me.
From the outside looking in, Helvellyn felt like a refreshing step back to old-school triathlon when people just turned up on the morning, racked up and raced. Did you enjoy that or do you prefer the fanfare around IRONMAN and big events?
» Ruth: I love the low-key nature of small events. I think it often makes them feel less pressured and takes you back to some of the first triathlons you did.
That being said, sometimes it is good to have some of the fanfare and you can’t really beat the feeling running into the stadium at Roth with all of the spectators - even if it feels like those kind of races are a long way from happening again at the moment.
» Fergus: I completely agree. It was a step back into where triathlon all started for me.
It was great, I would definitely encourage elites and pros to race the occasional local event during a season. It's a nice way to appreciate the sport and gives an opportunity to practice race skills with less pressure and against some great athletes.
I enjoy the big events too but there's nothing wrong with a mixture of both throughout a season.
It really would be great to see some more races like this in the future in the UK. There are already a few like London and Windsor Triathlons but I suppose they are organised by bigger companies.
I don't see why Helvellyn cannot continue to run like this. If organisations like the PTO support some of these events in the future, this could be a great way of helping up-and-coming athletes gain more exposure and support within the triathlon community.
» Tara: I think there is definitely a place for both styles of racing.
I loved the simplicity of this weekend and supporting a local race organiser in such a well organised event. It was great to see so many friendly faces, both racing and supporting at the event.
This weekend was so gritty and hard for different reasons it added to the fun. Running through ankle deep mud at T2 was a particular highlight which just added to the atmosphere and challenges of the day.
It will be exciting to get back to a big event (hopefully) next year – but I don’t think it will feel the same unless it's the ‘full deal’ where we can share a hug with our fellow competitors, high-five the supporters down the finish line and have an after-party in unity to celebrate.
Is the ‘rough and ready’ nature of the Helvellyn Triathlon course something you’d like to see more of on the circuit?
» Tara: 100%. Bringing prestige and attention to local and independent races supports local business and communities that usually would be overlooked (especially by the professional triathlon community) due to busy race schedules.
It’s only when the IM / Challenge calendar stopped due to the current situation that you realise just how dominant that calendar was; with races held almost every weekend of the year with multiple races on different continents on the same day at times.
It doesn’t allow much time to consider races outside of the hectic schedule. So maybe some good can come out of the pandemic which will shake up the ‘normal’ circuit for the better.
» Ruth: I would love to see some more challenging courses have pro fields and see more variety in the races the professionals do.
It's great to see how much it broke up the field and how the pros coped with the conditions differently.
I definitely think that my training in Yorkshire has helped my bike handling, although there's still a lot of room for improvement!
» Fergus: Yeah, I love that kind of course profile. In fact, I think I'm going to move my focus towards this style of racing in the future.
I think it is already becoming a more popular format with swimrun taking off and the XTri world series standard becoming more and more competitive.
There was plenty to take away from a first race of the year but what would be the one big lesson you learned from this particular event?
» Ruth: I think the biggest lesson would be 'just keep going' - so many things can happen in a triathlon so it's always worth continuing to press on and see what happens.
I was still 6-8 minutes down on the three leading women coming into T2 at Helvellyn but managed to catch two of them on the run.
» Tara: Even a professional triathlete is still a rookie at heart; and I proved it this weekend with the numerous ‘mistakes’ I made.
Taking the pressure off yourself though and just laughing it off and enjoying the day makes for a much better experience.
» Fergus: For me, it was just nice to put a bib on again, so thanks to all involved for making it happen and congrats to everyone that finished.