Five years ago, a sleepy Somerset community awoke to find themselves in the midst of Ironman fever as Ironman 70.3 UK debuted at Wimbleball Lake in the heart of Exmoor National Park. Triathlon superstar and future Ironman world champion Chris McCormack won the first race and promptly labelled it the “toughest 70.3 in the World” and so far there are very few that would disagree with that assessment.
To put that claim into perspective, McCormack’s performance needs to be taken into consideration. Two weeks prior, at a 70.3 event he raced to a stunning victory in 3 hours and 50 minutes. At Wimbleball he won in 4 hours and 16 minutes. Two weeks later he recorded one of the fastest Ironman times in history, proving he was in good form.
Since that day, the race has offered bragging rights to a succession of UK athletes. Fraser Cartmell held the position for two years, beating Stephen Bayliss into second and in 2009 Phil Graves announced his presence on the Ironman stage by recording a maiden victory in the event and at the distance.
For the women, the cream of British triathlon talent has stood atop the podium, Bella Bayliss, Cat Morrison and Julie Dibens have shared the women’s title between them. Chrissie Wellington has also raced in what was her first pro race, but could only manage a top 10 finish in the women’s race. Two months later she started her incredible run of success that sees her still at the top of her game today.
Ironman 70.3 UK may be unique amongst big races nowadays. There is no mobile phone signal, no internet connectivity and accommodation comes in the form of small guest houses, self catering or camping. However this throw back to a triathlon age missed by many is growing stronger and stronger and in 2010 almost 1600 athletes will enter the crystal clear water of Wimbleball lake, most having camped within the confines of the race course.
It is the bike, however, that sets Wimbleball apart with a bike course that has reduced many an athlete to a walk. Almost 2,000 meters of climbing await the athletes with the rest of the course on rolling terrain. Whoever coined the phrase what goes up, must come down, never did this race!
On the run, one would expect a flat affair, but that is not the case as the natural terrain once more reminds the athletes of where they are. A stunning turnaround on Wimbleball Dam, however, provides a welcome amount of visual and mental, if not physical, respite.
Once more a stellar field of athletes emerges to test themselves against the course. 2007 Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack, 2005 World Champion Faris Al Sultan, 2007 and 2008 Ironman 70.3 UK Champion Fraser Cartmell, 2008 Ironman UK Champion Stephen Bayliss and 2009 Ironman 70.3 UK and Ironman UK Champion Phil Graves are all on the start line. Will a returning champion be crowned or will a new name sit atop the trophy?
For the women, Bella Bayliss returns to regain the crown she lost to Cat Morrison in 2009 as she continues her journey through the world of triathlon.
Behind them over 1,500 age groupers will test themselves against the course, some looking to improve, some looking for qualification to the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Clearwater, Florida, and some just looking to complete the journey.
There are races you want to do in the world of triathlon and there are races you must do – Wimbleball is in the latter category. Your triathlon career will not be complete without it.