Claire Smith likes to test her limits. Her interest in pushing the boundaries of Iron distance triathlon started a decade ago and has led the Brutal Events founder to take on the kind of next-level challenge which finishes with a 262-mile run. Yep, last year Claire completed the ultimate endurance test: the swissultra Deca triathlon. That’s ten times the full ironman triathlon distance: swimming 24 miles, then cycling 1120 miles, and finally (how?) running 262 miles. Continuously.
The Deca triathlon is a sanity-questioning distance. So why did she do it? How did she do it? And why is she planning to be the first British woman to complete what she considers to be the toughest of the Deca challenges, the one-day Deca (more below), in November? I quiz the 43-year-old self-titled ‘back of the pack plodder’ to find out.
Tell me about your background – how did you get into endurance sport, and what events had you completed prior to your first Deca?
I started in ultra-triathlon in 2008 when I took part in the first UK double Ironman, where I finished as the second female. I then went on to complete a solo ultra challenge in Lanzarote, which involved a 45 mile run, 11 mile sea swim and 90 mile bike – it was training for my Arch to Arc that hasn’t happened… yet!
I’ve also completed Enduroman (double ironman distance) and a Continuous Quin (five times the ironman distance) in a gym for charity. Since the swissultra Deca last year, I have finished second in the 1-a-day Quin triathlon event in Switzerland which took place this year.
What led you to decide to train for the monstrous endurance feat that is the Deca triathlon?
I remember reading about the Deca triathlon when I had just started in triathlon and was training for the UK 70.3 (half ironman event). I couldn’t get my head around the distances and thought that I would never be able to take on such a huge challenge, let alone finish one! I guess the seed was planted then…
Can you explain the difference between a continuous and one-day Deca? And which do you prefer?
The continuous is where you complete the swim, bike and run in one go. So, the swim is 24 miles, the bike 1,120 miles and then you run 10 marathons back to back. The one-a-day Deca is where you complete one Iron distance triathlon every day for 10 days.
Personally, I like the continuous format best. I like being in control of when you take your breaks and also, you get a bit more time. The one-day Deca has a cut off (either 20 hours or 24, depending on the organiser’s preference) and that is a pressure I don’t enjoy, especially as I am a back-of-the-pack athlete.
What training did you do for the swissultra Continuous Deca? Was it all long training sessions?
I did complete some long, back-to-back days to try and experience the fatigue and sleep deprivation, and also to replicate what I’d be able to eat when I was feeling rough. I was also doing some HIIT training, as I believe this helped me to get stronger and remain relatively injury-free. This included some Les Mills classes with my daughter who’s 22, and some basic stuff at home; burpees, press-ups, squats, interval running… that sort of thing.
What kind of mileage were you covering in your swim, bike and run training in the run-up?
I didn’t really keep track of mileage that year, but I aimed for one long session and one speed session per discipline [each week]. And then a tempo or hill session if I could. I didn’t have a coach then.
Can you explain a bit about how your swim worked in the continuous Deca?
The swim took me 20 hours, 51 minutes and was pretty unpleasant. I ate and drank small amounts from the side of the pool, as and when. And I took ‘get out of the pool’ breaks about every 5 miles or so. I would have a hot shower, still in the wetsuit, and eat some rice pudding or similar and have a cup of tea. I lived for these breaks!
What were the biggest challenges of your continuous Deca swim?
Initially, I thought I was going to struggle with the cold, but I added an Orca Heatseeker vest and I was able to manage it after that. Otherwise, I felt pretty sick from the chlorine and just had to keep breaking the laps down, so I could deal with them in my head. All the athletes kept being ‘overly optimistic’ about how many laps were left and it would almost break you if/when you were told the reality!
Can you explain a bit about your cycle during the continuous deca and your recumbent bike?
I have always experienced bad back pain on the bike section of long distance triathlons. I now know this is because I have Hypolordosis, which is a severe curvature of the lower (lumbar) spine. It affects disks L4/L5 and causes nerve pain and numbness. No painkillers work and it’s fairly difficult to manage. On the one-a-day events, at least I have a break after each bike section, but on the continuous, I was concerned that it may actually stop me and cause long-term damage.
The recumbent – McBender, as I bought him from Scotland – definitely worked for the back pain, but was slow and very difficult to ride around tight corners; Deca courses are small laps with lots of turns, so I ended up getting off at each turn because of this.
I ate small amounts when I was on the road bike – I couldn’t on the recumbent, as I would fall off! And then I would stop for Nutella Pancakes and mashed potato and spaghetti hoops with cheese (not together!) a couple of times a day.
How were you feeling off the bike for your 262 mile run during the continuous Deca?
I was so happy to get off the bike! I had felt a little isolated on the bike section, as none of the other athletes could speak to me, because I was lower to the ground and a lot slower than them. Once off the bike, I felt like me again and was able to chat to people.
I had devised a run/walk plan and I would get up at 2am and have a shake and banana and complete a half-marathon whilst most people still slept. I would then have the second breakfast, pancakes I think normally. Then I would do the next 13 miles, have a shower, coffee and more food, then the afternoon/evening would be spent completing the next marathon.
Your continuous deca took 12 days. What was your sleep like – did you have any?
My sleep routine would be from 10pm – 2am. I slept in my van with my legs raised each night. I thought the sleep would be wonderful, but actually it was the opposite. I had hot and cold sweats, my legs/knees were incredibly painful and I constantly worried about over-sleeping.
What do you find works for you nutrition-wise during a Deca?
I have found that normal, everyday food is best, with a sports drink on top – I currently use Tailwind. A hot meal once a day is an absolute must. Also, bacon crisps. And cheese.
What are the biggest challenges of such a crazy endurance feat?
For me, it’s been my head. I’m a slow-ish athlete and I can start to stress over cut-offs and become negative and feel that I am rubbish etc. Also, I feel the cold and get hypothermia really easily. This can also lead to panic attacks, so at times I need to decide when cold is too cold or if I’m just making a fuss. A crew member who knows you well, is essential for this.
Mentally, how do you approach the enormity of a Deca event?
Break it down and plan for everything. But also know that something will happen out of your control at some point. It helped me to remember times that I’ve had to deal with a stressful situation – maybe during organising my events – and that I have the strength and skills to do this.
When it gets tough what keeps you from quitting?
Before each event I make a small list of certain people and situations that inspire and motivate me. The list probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I also really appreciate the support I get from Facebook. I love how I can be in a different country, but feel my family and friends close to me, pushing me on.
Also, before the continuous Deca, I had the distances tattooed on my arm. A little reckless perhaps, but I had a strong feeling that I was going to complete it this time and also I knew if I didn’t, I would just keep going every year until I had done it.
You must have been broken when you finished. How long did it take you to recover?
I felt tired but happy. My legs continued to be very painful at night for a week or so and I kept waking up and thinking I had to run laps… Otherwise, I felt good and ready to get back to things.
I use BetterYou Magnesium gel these days, which I genuinely feel makes a difference, and iron supplements as I’m prone to anaemia.
You’re heading to the US to attempt a one-day Deca in November. What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
Monday: Weights and swim intervals
Tuesday: Weights and bike intervals
Wednesday: 2-hour bike into 30-minute run
Thursday: Long swim and weights
Saturday: 5-hour bike / 45-minute run
Do you have any sponsors who support your incredible events?
Dryrobe, Planet X, BlueSeventy and Amphibia have supported me over the years.