The alarm went off at 04:15 – yes that’s quarter past four in the morning.
Exciting things happen on days when the alarm is that early and today was no exception. This was Ballbuster day, the ideal way to finish off a triathlon/duathlon season in challenging style.
The race is based on five 8-mile loops around Box Hill, each finishing with an ascent of the famous zig-zag road and is based at the National Trust car-park at the summit. The organisers (Human Race) have run this race for more than 20 years and have obviously worked hard to keep local residents happy (or not too unhappy) so an early Saturday morning start is required. They have also worked long and hard on the logistics - a friendly team pack over 400 cars like sardines in a space designed for less than 100 and registration dishes out race numbers, timing chips and a treasured hoodie in a friendly, efficient manner. Even with all this effort the event is almost getting too big for the location. Timing your arrival is key. If you arrive early, the queues to get parked, registered and toileted will be short but the car park packing means that you will wait an hour to leave after the race; arrive late and you suffer long queues before the event but benefit from a quick getaway.
Friendly marshals guide you to the transition area which is located in an open field atop Box Hill. The transition area is exposed and the weather is awful – cold, wet and windy. Bad weather is part of the Ballbuster tradition (what do you expect, the race is run the second weekend in November) but this year it feels even worse than normal. I make a last-minute decision to add gloves and a windproof cycling jacket but begin to question myself when I see so many fellow competitors in sleeveless tri-suits. There are some serious athletes here, some fresh from Kona, some in national kit and so I make sure I am not close to the front as the start approaches. The first loop, a run, is started in waves 10 seconds apart so runners are soon spread out all along the road. The first section of road undulates through a sleep Surrey village before a sharp turn and a long false-flat. The pack starts to shuffle itself with the quick guys moving to the front and the over-ambitious drifting back. I am feeling good, slowly getting my breathing sorted out. I always gasp and pant at race start but have learned that this is how my body reacts to the adrenaline surging through me and after 10 minutes things will settle down. I push hard, taking a lead from others around me and get the legs going on the long, twisty downhill sections that follow the false flat. The weather is quickly deteriorating and alarms bells are ringing as I scan the mud and grit being washed over the road – the bike loops are going to be a nightmare! The final section of the run is up the zig-zag road back to the start. Box Hill is famous with the Rapha-clad MAMIL-types that throng the Surrey hills each weekend but, in reality, it is a nothing hill – not much of a slope, not too steep and in today’s weather the one notable feature (the view at the top) is invisible. I get around the run close to target time and saddle up, getting ready for the next three loops. The first 15 minutes on the bike is all about getting on nutrition, settling in and safely overtaking the good runners who can’t ride a bike. The road surface is treacherous and I have to tip-toe around the corners, on a couple of occasions having to unclip as I approach feel like I am about to over-shoot. The first time down the long, twisty downhill section that was so enjoyable on the run is painfully cold and scarily wet. It is not often you sigh with relief when you get to an uphill section, glad of a chance to warm up and get more comfortable with the grip. Going into the second bike loop, I start to question my sanity but somehow this relaxes me and I start to get moving. The corners that were so scary first time are now manageable and the cold downhill section is sufferable. Going into the third bike loop, I struggle to get nutrition on-board. My fingers fumble to retrieve gel tubes from my back pockets and my shivering teeth can’t tear the strip. Feeling somewhat flustered I press on, but some of the motivation is waning. The cold really gets to me and I can feel everything shaking – if this gets any worse I am not sure I will be able to hold the handlebars. Mercifully just as I am hitting rock-bottom, I hit the final uphill section. I power up, glad of the opportunity to warm-up and I start thinking about the final run lap.
My fingers and feet are so cold I have a long fumble to get my shoes on (I heard stories at the finish line of people asking the marshals to tie their shoe laces) and I set off with the usual post-bike jelly legs emphasised ten-fold by my unresponsive ice-block feet. After 15 minutes I start to feel my feet and get into a rhythm. Alone of the course I try to lift my pace but without another runner to work off my attention wanders and I probably lose 10 minutes in a world of my own. Eventually someone powers past me and I snap out of it. The race can be entered as a relay and it is good to see that the runner who charged past me is wearing a red number rather than the solo green. I latch on to their pace and am dragged the final 2 miles to the finish. A final sprint flourish rounds off the pain and I am greeted by the friendly finish line team who process timing chips, post-race recovery etc. Sitting in the warmth of the car 10 minutes after finishing, I receive a text message from the race organisers with my race time and a link to the results website. I check and am delighted to see that I am first in the 50+ category and in the top-50 overall – mission over-accomplished!
As I wait to get out of the car park, I reflect on the morning. A great event that is well organised and brilliantly marshalled, I would recommend the Ballbuster to anyone who wants to test themselves and, if they want, really suffer. There are plenty of near-elite competitors but novices are made to feel welcome. The fact that no-one leaves until virtually the last competitor has finished means that there is an enthusiastic crowd to provide support.
See you at the wet, cold and windy start line next year?
Overall Score: 8 out of 10
Would You recommend this to a friend: Yes