A Duathlon for Runners?
If you are looking for a duathlon that has more running content than normal, the Ballbuster could be your thing.
Like triathlon, duathlons usually consist of 3 stages. They differ in their 1st stage, for triathlon it’s the swim, for duathlon it’s a run.
So a duathlon is run, bike run. Distances usually fall into standard categories: Sprint (5k, 20k, 2.5k), Standard (10k, 40k, 5k), Middle (10k, 60k, 10k), and Long (10k, 150k, 30k). The running stages in these categories account for roughly a quarter of the total distance.
The Ballbuster breaks with convention and loads the running stages to 40% total as follows: 8m (12.8k) run, 24m (38.4k), 8m.
This year, unfortunately for many, the bike wasn’t even needed at all.
What is the Ballbuster?
The Ballbuster is a duathlon comprising 5 laps of an 8-mile loop starting and ending on Box Hill in Surrey. The 1st and last laps are on foot, the middle 3 are cycled. Climbing Box Hill 5 times turns this unique duathlon into an iconic race. Staging the race in November adds the other complications of leaves on the road (often wet) and potentially cold temperature.
I’d entered the race last year and even bought a new (to me) bike for the purpose. But, after running a marathon a few weeks before with some hamstring niggles I ended up in a condition that meant I couldn’t participate. The Ballbuster subsequently became my focus for 2019.
In the past, I’ve been a fair-weather cyclist, running is my thing and has been since 1992. Over the years, I’ve usually cycled when the mercury hits 20 degrees or above. This year has been somewhat different with the Ballbuster on the horizon. I really needed to be prepared so that the cycling didn’t completely wipe me out for the final 8-mile run. There’s also the cut-off. Anyone not completing the 1st run and the 3-lap ride before 11am is forced to withdraw. Three hours to run 8 miles and cycle 24 shouldn’t be too hard, but there are complications, such as the weather, the hill, my age and my general lack of ability.
The event is in November so the weather can present real problems, especially so for the fair-weather cyclist. Then there’s the hill. Box Hill is an iconic climb, particularly since it was used in the road race in the London Olympics of 2012. It’s not particularly steep but this part-time cyclist was still expecting it to be a challenge to climb 3 times. Then there’s my age, 57. Most local running races are dominated by vets, but the Ballbuster sees decreasing participation in the older age groups, probably due to the strict cut-off. In recent years, not surprisingly, my running speed has naturally decreased.
So I really needed to get out on the wheels to train and find some hills. I also needed to get kitted out; the weather for the Ballbuster is very unpredictable and can have a huge effect on the experience. There’s not much I can do about the age.
The South Downs provided some useful hill training, and with some regular 20+ mile rides and a few over 50 I felt I was getting somewhere. The running was still quite slow, but I reckoned that with a solid effort I’d make the cut-off with a little time to spare. I’d just have to leave the final run to chance and battle round as best I could. I was probably training roughly 2-3 hours each of running and cycling per week.
I ride a Cinelli road bike, nothing fancy, an ally frame with mid-range campag groupset; it’s a few years old and adequate for my needs. But I needed to get some more stuff, specifically: cold-weather gear, lighting and new tyres and tubes for the day. I was considering changing the gearing after a training ride involving a couple of climbs up Firle Beacon on the South Downs in Sussex. My 50-34 chainset with a 12-25 cassette resulted in some slow grinding up the steeper sections, but I was assured by a friend that Box Hill was less of a challenge; longer but not as steep. In the end, after realising I’d need to change cassette, rear mech, and chain, I stuck with my existing setup and prepared to hope for the best.
The day dawned
I travelled up from Sussex with a friend, nice and early, we were there at 6.30 am just as it was getting light. The sky was slowly appearing clear and blue, but the weather forecast wasn’t great, with storm conditions predicted from the hours of 9 am till 1 pm. Registration was quick and easy and involved collecting the much sought-after Ballbuster hoodie. I always have a slight problem with collecting rewards before actually earning them.
The wind was beginning to whip up as we racked the bikes on the exposed field at the top of Box Hill and the sky didn’t look quite so friendly during the race briefing 10 minutes before the 8 o’clock start. Competitors are set off in groups of 5 with 10 seconds between each wave. today, it seemed to be more like 2 or 3 seconds. The faster competitors are called through first, although there are some obviously slower people (like me) who are anxious about the 11 am cutoff who want to get off promptly. It was also getting pretty chilly in the now very gusty wind, so I don’t think many were keen to hang around.
The first run lap
So off we went, for a quite uneventful 8-mile run. Down in the valley, the wind was much less severe, but there was quite a lot of tree debris on the road. Then, at about 6 miles, just before the climb, the rain started. Gently to begin with, but almost horizontal due to the wind. Five minutes later it was decidedly unpleasant.
My run time was looking better than I’d hoped for and as I neared the end of the first lap, I was feeling ok and looking forward to a sit down on the bike. I felt reasonably confident at this stage that I’d make the cut-off, so my attention focussed on getting the bike around safely and wondering how I would manage that final 8-mile run. Upon reaching the exposed transition area at the top of the hill the weather took a turn for the worse. It was very wet and the wind was gusting at alarming strength. However, if I could stay upright on the bike, I was still more than hopeful I’d make the cut-off.
It was, therefore, more than a little disappointing to hear the marshal at the turn-in to transition, those words ‘just one lap on the bike, only one lap today’. My heart sank more than a little, but not to worry, it was the same for everyone and probably wise too. One hundred metres later another marshal elaborated, ‘one lap on the bike — and no final run’. Oh dear.
What? All that prep, all that excitement, nervousness.
My primary focus was to complete the event, but what came before that was making the 3-hour cut-off. Now, that goal was gone. Nevertheless, I was keen to get out on the bike, even for one lap.
Transition was clumsy, slow and wet. I struggled for ages trying to get wet gloves on to wet hands. Eventually, I was away, pushing the bike across what had become a very muddy and wet field to the road and beyond to a pointless ride. The marshals were saying that we didn’t need to do it if we didn’t want to, but I was keen to finally discover the joys of riding up Box Hill even in these conditions. I watched as the competitors ahead of me jumped on their bikes and departed on their ride; something to aim at, something to provide a bit of purpose to what was left of the race. I just got my leg over, so to speak, when the marshal waved his arms in front of me. ‘Race cancelled, the referee has just called off the event’. Nobody was getting on their bike from this point.
So, there we are, the 2019 Ballbuster was, for most, an event just for runners.
Was it the right decision?
It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in hindsight, of course it was. I heard remarks of a tree coming down on the course. At the very least, there was plenty more debris on the road, twigs, leaves and branches; there was a very high likelihood of riders coming unstuck. It was the first time in the event’s 30-year history that it had been called off.
My Ballbuster attempt will have to be put-off until 2020.
The dangers of cycling and the need for insurance
I’ve been running since 1992, and cycling (on and off) nearly as long. I’ve dabbled in triathlon, competing in a handful of races over the years. Luckily, I’ve managed to stay upright most of the time, with only a couple of highly embarrassing clipless-pedal incidents causing me to hit the ground.
This event has made me more aware of the need for cycling insurance. I think most cyclists think about insurance with regards to their kit and the financial loss from damage or theft. But, of course, cycling is potentially very dangerous. In bad weather conditions, I think most cyclists would choose not to ride. But competitions are different. Had that marshal not stopped me, I’d certainly have carried on, and I know my focus would have been on cycling as fast as I could. I’d not be oblivious to the risk, but my view of it would have been diminished. However, diminished responsibility is no help to anyone lying by the side of the road with a broken bike and/or body.
It’s not just the weather. Most of the people I know who have cycled regularly for some years have had brushes with cars or trucks. And, it’s not just other road users. In the UK we are blessed with some atrociously maintained roads, and again I know people who have suffered horrific injuries from hitting potholes.
My lovely wife, Bev, was knocked off her bike a couple of years ago, resulting in a broken wrist. She is far from reckless; accidents do happen.
Who would I recommend? Based on user reviews, insurance cover and general customer satisfaction Pedalsure seem like a good place to start. My quote from Pedalsure covers loss and damage to bike and personal accessories, personal accident, liability, death, legal expenses, physio, etc. And also includes competition use. At £8.44 per month, it seems pretty good value. There are of course other providers, but my recent experience with a large household insurer is that big names and high prices don’t necessarily guarantee good service in the event of a claim.
I’d be interested in a some more recommendations (in the comments below) for cycling insurance; costs, cover provided and customer service especially with regards to claims.