Why do an Ironman distance race when you can do 10 Ironman distance races over 10 days? That is the question that I can’t quite get my head around. But one man who certainly had all the answers is Mullingar’s very own Gerry Duffy. He has not only completed this stunning challenge but has also taken the title of Enduroman European Deca Triathlon Champion following his efforts at Avon Tyrrell in England’s New Forest. This was the world’s largest ever gathering of ultra triathletes covering various distances from Ironman to deca. The deca and quintuple would do an Ironman each day, while the triple and double would swim, bike and run in the usual style – only longer. Throw in a single Ironman and a 100 mile foot race and you have an extraordinary festival of endurance.
I arrived on site last Friday and joined Gerry for a few hundred metres as he tackled the marathon run leg on his 8th day. He was in remarkable form: his usual calm, focused, amiable self. It was amazing to witness how in control he was. Not long after that, Waterford’s Ian Walsh stepped off his bike ready to start his day three run as he tackled the quintuple event. For anyone who is familiar with that ‘morning after Ironman’ feeling, just imagine doing it again and again and again.
This type of racing pushes triathletes to the limit. A perfect balance of race effort and recovery has to be found so that the 6:00am swim start can be achieved next morning. Many competitors were finishing their run in the early hours, just able to catch just a few hours sleep before once again struggling into a wetsuit. In one case, an athlete started her day 9 swim and had to get out of the lake after 2km in order to sleep. After two hours, she dived back into the water to complete the swim leg and headed onto the bike course, only to withdraw after just 5km, pulling into the race supporting cycle shop and once again falling asleep. Athletes faced this punishing sleep deprivation, a challenging course and a final day of brutal weather conditions.
I was joining Hi-Elbow’s Andy Hassard and Killarney’s Paul Gosney in the Double Enduroman, beginning at 9:00am on the Saturday with a 7.6km lake swim before hitting the 375km bike on what can best be described as a testing course. With overnight temperatures dropping to just 5°C, things got pretty cold but the camaraderie among racers was a fantastic example of what our sport is about. We even had a story about one of the deca competitors stopping to assist with a puncture repair as he chased the cut-off time on day 10 in the midst of a hail storm. Due to the nature of the racing, rules on outside assistance had been relaxed!!
Dawn arrived on Sunday morning accompanied by an ominous blanket of black cloud. Then the rain came. Those heading onto the bike course faced the worst conditions imaginable. In all my years involved in triathlon, the only comparable day would be Ballyronan in 2008. One competitor has since referred to it as ‘a meteorological Armageddon of biblical intensity’. As the day progressed, the off-road, one mile run lap turned into a quagmire and the number of DNFs increased steadily. Late in the afternoon Ian came past me as he started his run – boots rather than runners being the order of the day for him. Andy was tiring but was having a really solid race. Gerry was hurting badly on his third lap but somehow got things back on track. Paul had been forced to rest by a medic following his cycle but, despite serious blisters, he had a storming last 10 miles. Triangle’s Paddy Weir, clocking up his 10th Ironman distance finish, had survived the gales and falling branches on the bike course and was also now in the mud. Being a short lap around the athlete’s tented village and finish area, the atmosphere was terrific as competitors, supporters and organisers battled the elements. The area has variously been described as a cross between the Somme and the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.
To finish a triathlon wearing trail shoes, sealskin waterproof socks, long cycling bib tights, two long sleeve base layers, a Gore-tex bike jacket and a rain jacket is not normal – but this was not a normal triathlon or normal weather. For their last lap, competitors were turned and sent back the opposite direction giving an opportunity to absorb the congratulations from fellow athletes. This was a great touch, even when done by head torch into the early hours.
Andy Hassard was our first to finish, completing the double in 34:15 for 6th place early on Sunday evening. Then not long before midnight, we had the charge of the Irish. This included Paul, who qualifies by living in Killarney! Paddy clocked 17:45 for 10th place in the single which had been won in a time of 13:31. An indication of how tough things had been. Within minutes Paul finished the double in 38:53 while I dragged my sorry ass over the line a minute later. We then waited just another few minutes before Gerry appeared up the final straight to finish his epic challenge. It was just after 1:00am when Ian broke the tape and claimed third place in the quintuple event.
The adversity overcome by the finishers can only be appreciated when the DNFs are studied. Only 3 out of twenty starters completed the deca. Only half finished the quintuple. Eleven out of 16 completed the triple and 25 out of 42 the double. Less than half reached the finish line of the single. With such a high drop out rate, please note that all the Irish completed their respective challenges! Better prepared or just bloody stubborn?
It was described as hard core triathlon, which must make Gerry Duffy the man with the absolute hardest core! It was a pleasure to be around such characters during the weekend witnessing the humility, determination and decency of so many triathletes. Great credit also has to go to the competitors’ support crews who make completion of these events possible. Sitting for hours on end under a gazebo in pouring rain at a bike turnaround point is not glamorous, but they provided the competitors with a friendly smile and the necessary encouragement to get the job done.
Gerry was crowned Enduroman Deca Champion on Monday morning and in his acceptance speech stated: ‘we all forget that we are here because we are capable of being here and capable of doing what we do.. so many others are not so lucky.’ A mark of the man. Our congratulations go to all those who represented Triathlon Ireland over the weekend.
Race Report: Conal Heatley, Double Ironman finisher.