25 Years of the Blaenafon Triathlon

Beginning to End? By Dr Gareth Buffett, 2008

So let me tell you the story of our little race.

Doesn’t seem that long ago when a severe calf strain put a temporary stop to my running and in an attempt to keep my weight under control, swimming was the only option. Being an awful swimmer, a few lengths was all I could do at first, but over the next three months, with lots of tips and help from the pool attendants, I was up to a mile, which meant that I was now capable of trying this new sport I had read about called Triathlon.

I had tried some duathlon type events, which I had enjoyed and was doing lots of fell running and marathons, so I figured I should be ok.

There weren’t many about those days back in the early 80’s, so I ended up entering The 1st Yorkshire Dales Triathlon. I was hooked and, although one of the last out of the water, managed to finish 28th out of 70 or so starters.

Going home to the Welsh Valleys, it occurred to me that we had all it takes for a triathlon in Blaenafon. So I set to designing a course along the lines of what I had experienced in Yorkshire, and two weeks later I was back up North for the so called British and European Championships in Sunderland, armed with a pile of leaflets for The 1st Blaenavon Triathlon to be held two months later.

This was back in 1984, and I can still recall that bucket of goose grease that we all liberally applied in the bus shelter on the water front (no wetsuits in those days) and the numbingly cold water at about 15 degrees. I was so cold I didn’t start to shiver till 10 miles into the bike.

With a winning time of 6hrs I was well pleased with 34th place in 7hrs 17min, just behind Richard Crane (no idea if he was the one of Himalayan run fame).

So there I was, enthused about hosting a race myself. I had been organising fell races for a few years, so I reckoned I knew what to do! But gradually the reality dawned. Fortunately I had opted for a pool swim, which my friends from the swimming club were able to cope with admirably, as they do to this day.

The bike came as a bit of a shock though, as it hadn’t occurred to me initially that one needed to inform the police. They were very nice about it but still wrote one of those letters threatening dire retribution if anything went wrong. So there was a mad panic painting up signs on odd bits of wood and press ganging almost everyone I knew into helping out marshalling.

The run I wasn’t too concerned about, a few bits of tape and a couple of drinks stations, just like a fell race, I thought.

So around came the race weekend and the reality of putting out 35 miles of signs, eight of them on mountain tracks. Where to start? It seemed logical to leave the cycle route till last, as these were the most likely to be vandalized, so I dropped some tapes at strategic road crossings and set off, and was amazed at how long it takes when you have to stop and put out perhaps a hundred tapes and stakes. A quick snack and off on the cycle route. Now we know where to put the signs, but for the first time we were trying different sites and going back to see if they were visible enough, nailing some and tying others with string. It was after dark when we finally got back to the sports centre to chat with some of the competitors and have a well earned drink.

I then made my biggest mistake, I decided to do the race myself (well you do in fell races). The swim went smoothly as always and I set off on the bike and was really enjoying myself till I got back to transition where there was a degree of chaos, someone was lost, someone had a broken bike and needed rescue etc. So I spent twenty minutes organising rescue and set off nervously on the run only, to find two miles of my signs had completely vanished and there were people scattered to all points of the compass over our local mountain. I rounded up as many as I could find and headed off apologetically to the finish to face the music.

Yes people were justifiably angry, and in the end we had to award the prizes based on the first two disciplines only. It turned out the local gamekeeper had organised a duck shoot over the weekend and didn’t want people around, regardless of the fact the route was all on public rights of way. A few beers and a hot meal later, calm returned and people made encouraging noises about a testing route and that we should do it again next year.

And so began our little race, which we have managed to hold in some form or other every year since.

We learnt a lot from the first year’s event, and I have certainly never entertained the thought of trying to compete ever again, it just isn’t possible! There are always little things to sort out, the odd sign stolen or moved, technical problems with bikes, injuries etc. We have got a lot more efficient at putting out the course markers and learnt the areas where they are most likely to be vandalised, but at the end of the day, it just isn’t possible to keep an eye on 35miles of route all the time, though we do check it on the morning of each race.

We must have been doing something right, as for a good many years we had full fields of 64 and we managed never to turn anyone away who wanted to enter - we always squeezed them in somehow. But by the early 90’s numbers were dropping, I think everyone who wanted to do the event had done it and more and easier events were emerging all the time, so we thought it would be fun to try a half ironman. So, in 1994, we did just that. We resisted the temptation to just do two loops, and put out a totally new course, but I think our reputation put people off and we only got twenty entrants, which resulted in a bit of a loss that year. So it was back to the usual format from then on, with numbers averaging about fifty a year, which is about what we needed to break even.

We even managed to hold the event in the Foot and Mouth year by altering the route to stay entirely on tarmac, but we did so in discussion with the local authorities and did deploy dips at appropriate points, and got a good crowd as there were few events around at the time.

We have had the odd disagreement with the BTA over the years. Fees were always a bone of contention. With a maximum of sixty four competitors, fees were representing a much bigger proportion of our budget than bigger races. Then safety precautions with ambulance cover put an even bigger strain on our finances, which was particularly galling as a GP with our own minor casualty unit 2 minutes away.

We did have one tragic event a few years ago when one of our regular and much loved competitors, Mike Lawson, collapsed during the swim and died despite the efforts of colleagues and myself, plus the well trained pool staff. We now have a rather fine wooden trophy for the first over sixty named after Mike, who was a forester in his working life, and he remains the only over 70yr old to complete the course, so there is a challenge for you oldies.

We did have one tragic event a few years ago when one of our regular and much loved competitors, Mike Lawson, collapsed during the swim and died despite the efforts of colleagues and myself, plus the well trained pool staff. We now have a rather fine wooden trophy for the first over sixty named after Mike, who was a forester in his working life, and he remains the only over 70yr old to complete the course, so there is a challenge for you oldies.

And so the years rolled by, triathlon became more professionalised and ever more expensive, with us trying to stay true to what I see as the roots. By that I mean affordable and fun. Personally I don’t enjoy cycling up and down a dual carriageway or running laps round a field or lake. A triathlon to my mind should be a challenge, an adventure going somewhere different, and feeling you have achieved something at the end of it. I just don’t get that from most triathlons these days.

During the winter of 2007, the roof blew off our leisure centre in a storm and landed on the swimming pool, scattering the old asbestos roofing tiles into the water. We were initially assured it would be sorted in a few weeks, so we went ahead with preparations for race No 24, but time dragged on and the cost estimates soared. Our 70yr old pool, it seemed, couldn’t just be cleaned. It needed new filters and pumps etc, so we had to opt for a duathlon in 2007. We only got a small field which was disappointing, but as always we carried on.

So here we are today, both our pool and leisure centre lie as a pile of rubble - so much for the government's commitment to healthy living. Here we are in one of Europe’s most deprived areas, with some of the highest levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc, and no leisure facilities. It makes you want to cry. I am about to retire, and most of my stalwart marshals from over the years are, like me, suffering from the affects of age and a lifetime of sport with our arthritic and / or replacement joints.

I had promised myself to get to 25 years of the event, and I plan to do just that, so I have booked Pontypool leisure centre for this year's race which, being just off the traditional cycle route, means we can still use that, but it means a totally new run route which I assure you is just as hilly!

The reality is, I no longer have the contacts to provide the number of marshals required these days to carry on beyond this year, when I know the stalwarts will turn up one last time on their Zimmers to help out. I have asked the local sports development departments if they could take it over but all decline. Similarly the local triathlon clubs are it seems fully committed to their own events and can’t take on anything else.

So there you have it, the short tale of what I believe to be the triathlon event that has been running continuously for the longest in Britain and looks like it has come to the end of the road. Probably won’t be missed by the mainstream but I like to think we represented the true adventure spirit of Triathlon which at least some of the old timers will remember fondly.

Gareth Buffett

Footnote

But the story continues. With Gareth's help and guidance, race number 26 proceeded in association with Newport and East Wales Triathlon club (N.E.W.T.), again based at Pontypool.

After race number 30, it once again looked like the end of the road for the event, as N.E.W.T. decided to withdraw their support. However, with Gareth refusing to let this iconic event die without a fight, support was drummed up from a new triathlon club based at Abergavenny. Y-Fenni Tri has agreed to adopt the race and to take it into its next chapter. We look forward to seeing this event continue to evolve.

In the age of ever higher race entry fees, it is our mission to provide a race that continues to live up to Gareth's original intentions. A hard race, that provides all entrants with a challenge, which when they complete, gives an immense feeling of achievement. All this at a very reasonable cost, and with the social side of competing not forgotten, with all entrants being invited to the post race buffet. We aim to keep costs down for you, so don't expect all bells and whistles - just a good tough event.

The organising team