the Triple Brutal Extreme Triathlon…

“…all that it takes… is all that you’ve got…”

It’s just a small line on the Brutalevents website, on some of the Brutal t-shirts and on the banners at the Brutal events, but I never really thought about it… This time it’s different… At the end of The Triple I knew it: “all that it took was all that I’d got… and then some more…”

Don’t expect this story to be about a fast race, or even about a race at all, The Triple was more an expedition than a race for me, it was slow, it was long, and although it was physically not as bad as I expected, mentally and emotionally I had to dig deeper than I could have ever imagined…

This is a long race-report… And I’m not going to apologise for it, or write a shorter version. It’s been an epic adventure, and it deserves the full story…

The Triple Brutal Extreme Triathlon
– 12km swim – 560km bike – 126km run –
(how hard can it be?)

After the Double-Brutal last year it somehow seemed like a good idea to go for the triple… So after a year of hard work it’s time to get back to Llanberis! This time there’s a huge Team joining me: my big brother Daan is racing the Half-Brutal, Nick is doing the Full-Brutal, Jacomina doing the Double-Brutal, and then there’s the support-crew, known as TeamNL: Annick, Inge, Linda, Maike, Ron, Stijn, Tamara, Tanja and Thijs, and Mark as the non-Dutch member of TeamNL (and later, unplanned, Jim on the lake-lap). So a nice holiday in Wales with a good group of people, sounds like fun!

a big part of #teamNL (without Inge, who wasn’t at the friday-racebriefing…)

Llyn Padarn, saturday september 16th 2017, 7.27AM

All the half and full-Brutal swimmers are waiting in the cold water of Llyn Padarn, but most of the double and triple athletes are still on the shore when the start signal sounds. No need to waste precious energy by being in the water any longer than necessary! I go in, and quickly find my rhythm. Slow and steady, and I get used to the temperature; it’s cold, but not too cold, and I feel pretty relaxed… The views from the lake are amazing; the sunrise over the mountains, the clouds above the lake, and, especially when the half-and full athletes are out of the water, the lonely swimmers and kayakers in the distance…

a nice and relaxed atmosphere before the start…


It’s a beautiful swim, and I’m enjoying every bit of it; from the pack of swimmers in the first laps to the loneliness of the final laps.
Every two laps there’s a brief exit over the timing-mat, and time for some food. Nutrition is always my nemesis, but this time it’s more important than ever. My amazing Team helped me by making a plan almost to the second for this race, and now it’s time to follow that. So; every exit a gel and some tea, and then back into the cold! At one of my exits I hear that Daan (doing the Half-Brutal) was first out of the water, which puts a huge smile on my face for the next lap! Big Brother is doing pretty all-right at his race!

enjoying the swim. photo: babs boardwell

When I’m in for the final two laps it’s time to count down; by now I know how many strokes there are between each buoy, and during the last part I’m relieved, but also sad that the swim is over… This was just a perfect morning in the water, and I really enjoyed every second of it…

Time for a slow transition; warm up a bit, get some proper food in (as per the nutrition schedule), and ready to go for a 560km ride I get to my bike…

Llanberis, saturday september 16th 2017, 12.48PM
(racetime: 5hours 21minutes)

I ride out of Llanberis, and try to find my pace. Before I know it I hit the left turn towards Waunfawr; a short but steep climb (which feels as if it’s a long and steep climb…), and once I’m over that one I notice that something is wrong… The weather is good (slightly cold, but dry, and not too much wind), my body feels good, I can actually eat and drink according to plan, but my mind… Well, my mind is just a bit ‘off’… Somehow I really, really don’t like riding here…

‘I feel like s**t…’

It’s weird; the course is beautiful, views are amazing, other cyclists on the course are friendly, but I just don’t get a feel for it. I know this can turn into a problem; I’ve anticipated mental battles during this event, but not on day one, when the body is still in good shape, and not on the bike, since I can’t remember the last time that I didn’t like cycling… Before I know it I get sucked into the ‘oh-shit-I-feel-like-crap-and-it’s-still-over-500km’ trap, and now I really need to find a way out of my own mind, try and forget about the distance ahead and just get in the moment, and only focus on this lap!
But I can’t control it, and when I reach Llanberis at the end of lap 1 all I can say to the Team is ‘I feel like s**t…’.

refuel: food, drinks and mental energy…

All there is to do is go into the next lap, but the mind is going further and further away from the place it should go, and somewhere during lap 2 (from 12, so this is only the first 90km…) I make a decision: ‘I’m not going to finish this race…’.

That decision doesn’t help, and I get sucked even deeper into unhappiness. After lap 2 Maike and Linda get me of the bike and take me inside the tent to get some food in, and although I don’t tell them that finishing is not an option, it’s pretty obvious that things have to change, and change fast… I’m not sure what they told me, but somehow I ride lap 3 while actually enjoying the ride, but after that it’s all going downhill again…
It never gets any better, and when the night falls it’s getting cold (well, it was cold during the day, but now it’s really cold…). With two or three cycling jackets on I’m still shivering on my bike, and I end lap 5 with a full down jacket on top of all those layers, still being colder than I’ve ever been…

out in the dark and cold night…

Stijn makes the smart decision to get me into a warm car and get a half hour of sleep (and some food, since during this event my crew never lets me not eat…) to see if it helps, but when I get out onto lap 6 I’m still freezing… I’m not sure if it’s really that cold, or if it’s the (almost 5 hour) coldwater swim that depleted my reserves, or if it’s the mental battle I’ve been fighting for the last 10 hours or so… Probably a combination of all three…

Although I decided during lap 2 that I wasn’t going to finish the race, I knew that stopping then was not an option; I would regret that forever, and I didn’t want to let the Team down by giving up. At least I had to give it a try! But now, by the end of lap 6, basically feeling miserable for 280km’s, I’m done… I’ve pushed through it as long as could, but it’s just too much, I can’t do it anymore… So when I get back to basecamp I prepare myself for a short, difficult talk to Stijn and Thijs…

Back home Stijn and me talked about a few worst-case scenarios; when would I leave the race? The physical part was simple; as long as there were no long-lasting injuries involved, and the Medics wouldn’t stop me, I would stay on the course. The mental part was less obvious; you know there might be a part when you want to give up, but what would you do then? We decided that there had to be a ‘mental-dropout protocol’ which is fairly simple; when I want to quit, there’s three stages to get trough first: eat, sleep for 30minutes, and do one more lap… The idea is that it’s a long race, so there’s plenty of time to mentally recover…

When I’m back in Llanberis I tell Stijn that I’m done, and, just as planned, he tells me: ‘okay, here’s some food, get some sleep, and ride one lap into the sunrise’. I try to convince him that the protocol isn’t needed; I’ve been struggling for hours and hours, and it’s really over… But all I hear again is: ‘food, sleep, another lap’. My final argument, that since I don’t have the energy to get through the laps in time, so I’m not going to make the cutoff anyway, gets the same response: ‘eat, sleep, another lap’. I’m clearly not going to win this discussion, so I eat, sleep, and get on my bike for another lap, meanwhile truly, truly hating my support-crew… (sorry guys! You’ve all done an amazing job getting me through this, not sure if I can EVER put into words how grateful I am, but during this night… well, let’s just try to forget about that…).

‘eat… sleep… and then one more lap…’

Now I’m in lap 7, and I know that after this one I can quit. Instead of trying to recover, all I’m doing is counting down; every pedal-stroke is one closer to the end, every time I ride a hard part of the course is the last time that I ever have to ride here…

sunrise… still cold and feeling like crap

By the time I reach the Penn-y-Pass the sun is up, but I don’t enjoy the views (which are truly beautiful, if you have time and energy to look at it…). The downhill is nice, but only because I know the suffering is finally over… The reason I started the whole Triple-journey was curiosity: where are my limits? Now I know the answer, and it’s okay…

When I get back at basecamp Maike and Linda took the next support-shift (it’s a long event, so the Team made a schedule). They know I’m in bad shape, but I don’t know if they realise how bad it is… They’re ready with food and drinks, and when I give them my helmet and want to say ‘I’m out…’ all I can do is cry… They take me into the tent, put me on a chair and all the emotions come out…

I’ve been racing for 22 hours, and during 17 of those hours I’ve been going through a mental fight that was harder than I ever could have imagined. It’s fine to quit here, but saying it out loud is really hard; this means the end of a dream, I know I’m never going to try this again, since I never want to suffer this bad again… My Team tries to say some words to help me, but I’m done… My hand goes towards the watch to press ‘stop’, but I can’t do it, it’s just too emotional… Then someone tells me not to worry about the watch; who cares whether I stop after 22’01 or 22’05? So we sit in the tent, I try to eat, I feel like crap, and we all know it’s over…

Somewhere in the back of my mind I don’t want to stop like this; I’m glad that I’m done, but I can’t just leave with the memory of those 17 hours of suffering, so I ask if Daan is awake, because maybe he could ride with me for a bit… I’m not trying to get back into the race, but maybe if we ride together for 5 or 10km at least we could end with a positive feeling… Daan gets called, he is recovering from his half-Brutal yesterday, but in no-time he’s on his bike, ready to go. So we start lap 8 together…

riding with my big brother

It’s nice not to be in my own mind for a while; Daan tells me about his race, and about how the rest of TeamNL is doing (Nick finished a great full-Brutal, and Jacomina is still flying in the Double). Before we know it we’re back climbing the Penn-y-Pass, and I get the idea that maybe, just maybe, I can make it to the end of the bike-course. If I do one more lap on my own, then one with some support, then one alone… Who knows? I’m still not trying to get into the race, but just hoping to finish the bike, than at least I would have finished something…

When we get back I want to keep that energy, so a quick refill and back onto the road. The Team isn’t ready for me though; no-one expected me to go for another lap; we all were sure that the race was over… Within seconds the Team gets my food and I’m back on the road. Still struggling mentally, but now the goal is simple: just little over 180km to go…

only 180km to go

Lap 9 is hard, but I make it through, then lap 10 with Linda riding with me, and when I refuel between laps 10 and 11 there’s a bit of perfect timing; Jacomina is running towards the finish-line for her Double! So I get off the bike, get to the finish and see her cross the line with a big smile!

last time I climb the Penn-y-pass in daylight

Then back on the bike, Daan joins me for lap 11, and then also for lap 12, which is physically the hardest one yet, but my mind is enjoying this; a nice ride in the dark, with my big brother, knowing I gave it my best this weekend… Time to go home!

After 560km on the bike I get back to Llanberis, drop down on the bed in the transition-tent and try to sleep a bit, happy that it’s all over…

After half an hour of rest the Team wakes me and gets me ready to go up a mountain. It’s all fine by me; I’m not racing anymore, but climbing a mountain sounds like fun! So me and Ron, who will be joining me, walk out of the tent to go to the medic, to see if we’re allowed up (everyone who goes up Snowdon during The Brutal has to go and see the medic).

Llanberis, monday september 18th 2017, 00.04AM
climbing Snowdon
(racetime: 40hours 37minutes)

Medic Paul (a.k.a. ‘Pouch’) looks at me, and tells me that I’m too late… His plan is to get the medics that are on top of Snowdon back down at 1AM, so I won’t make it up in time. I really don’t care, for me everything we do now is a bonus; if I can get up the mountain it’s good, if not, than it’s also good… Pouch looks at me (later I heard that he was obviously talking to my Team a lot during the hours before, this man knows everything that’s going on at an event like this…) and asks me if I can get to the summit without taking a break halfway. I tell him that I feel good; I’m probably slow, and I can’t make any promises, but I think I can get there and back… He makes a judgement call (I think his words were: ‘you’ve done this s**t before, go…’), and Ron and me start to climb Snowdon… (Pouch: if you read this: thank you for letting me go after the official cut-off!).

the checkpoint before Snowdon

We hike up as fast as we can, which is not that fast; it’s dark, the wind is cold, and I’m tired… There’s also the little issue of my feet; I won’t bother anyone with the details, but a long event does bad things to ones feet… Ron guides me over the path, all I have to do is follow in his footsteps, so I never have to look too far ahead to find the best route. The climb is beautiful; after some rain the clouds disappear, and under a clear starry sky we reach the top. No time for a selfie, since the wind is cold, but there is some time to turn off our head torches and enjoy the darkness, and brightness of the stars… Whatever happens after this; my race is a success: I had a beautiful swim, fought a hard mental battle which I’ve won, and I’ve climbed a mountain by night…
Together with the medics we start our descent, since I’m the last one to go up the medics are finally done as well (it’s not just competing or supporting in these events that’s hard! The medics and marshals do deserve a lot of credits for working at these races!!). When we get down I’m smiling (maybe not on the outside…). I feel great, and I’m ready for my next adventure!

Llanberis, monday september 18th 2017, 04.33AM
the easy laps around the lake
(racetime: 45hours 06minutes)

When we were preparing for the Triple we made the plan to try and have a support-runner with me during most parts of the run; if there were not enough people to run with me, at least during the parts in the dark there would be someone joining me. So, back from the mountain, filled with energy from that adventure, Linda is standing ready to go for a run. I’m confused for a moment, but then I realise that there’s still some kilometres to go! We start our Lake-lap, and I’m still not ‘in the race’: since going out on the bike after ‘quitting’ I never thought about finishing this event (to get a feel for how long this race is; the moment that I nearly pressed ’stop’ on my watch is now 23hours ago…). But racing or not, finishing or not, a nice run around the lake sounds like a good idea!

view from the lake-lap: sunrise over Llyn Padarn, after 47hours of racing

I know this lap by heart, having done it so often now, but I’ve never been here at night. It’s a beautiful run, and I’m really enjoying the first lap, even when Linda is forcing me to eat every 15minutes. By now I can’t stand the taste of my energy bars, but I just do as I’m told, because I know that my Team knows best when it comes to nutrition (or, by now, when it comes to anything…). The lap is over before I know it, and Linda joins me for another lap. The sun is coming up, so the technical part of the course gets easier, but by now my sleep deprivation starts to kick in. I’m going from left to right over the road, and I know this isn’t good… So after the lap I get a half an hour break, when I wake up Tanja is ready to run a lap…

only 13 ‘easy laps’: how hard can it be…

I get up, and we run two laps, then Maike joins me for one, then Nick, who finished the Full on Saturday, is with me… With six laps done there’s a moment where I think ‘I might actually make it to the finish…’, but a moment later I feel the panic kick in: ‘it’s still 60km… That’s insane…’. I push the thought away, and focus on just one lap at a time…

the Team is always ready at the end of a lap

Thijs joins me for a lap, and then Stijn. By now the body is still feeling good, although ‘good’ is a relative term; I’m running slow, my feet and knees hurt, but still have my energy! At the long tarmac-climb we’re joined by Jacomina, who, after her double, still has the power to join me for that climb!

support from Double-Brutal Jacomina

Now it’s time for Maike on her second lap, then Tamara, and now the countdown starts…

refueling between the laps
at the highest point of the lake-lap
keep on eating and drinking… I don’t want to, but the Team makes me…

Daan joins me for lap 11; after doing the half, then riding with me for 3 laps, and now going for a lake lap with me he has almost done a full-Brutal by now… We get through the dark lap, and now I know I’m going to finish…

On lap 12 I get support from Jim, he’s been supporting Adam for his triple, but after his finish Jim still has some energy left to help me out… Now my mind is gone; it’s hard to focus, and the shadows play tricks on me; there’s actually rocks that are moving on the course, and I need all the energy I have to focus and try to make them stop moving… When we finish the lap there’s only one more to go, but I feel the lack of sleep is now becoming a real problem. Although there’s only 8km to go, it feels like an unreachable goal… Some caffeine-gels help, and with Linda I start the final lap…

Llanberis, tuesday september 19th 2017, 02.00aM
(racetime: 66hours 33minutes 16seconds)

When we end that lap I run towards the finish-line; I hear the entire Team shouting, but it’s dark, and I don’t see anything anymore… After crossing the timing-mat I get the medal, someone hands me a bottle of champagne, and we get into the tent to celebrate…

more nutrition… even after the finishline

Looking back

This was without a doubt the hardest fight I have ever fought, and I have absolutely no intention of doing this again… Was it worth it: absolutely. Would I recommend this to anyone: absolutely not… Or maybe I would…

Extreme racing is a team-sport; and even after writing this story, I still don’t feel like I’ve done justice to the Team: there’s countless people who’ve helped me in preparation, and then there’s TeamNL that was out in Wales: Nick and Jacomina who raced the Full and Double, Annick, Inge, Tamara, Tanja, Ron and Mark and Jim (not Dutch, but still members of the Team!). But especially the ‘Team Koen’ part of TeamNL: Maike, Linda, Daan, Thijs and Stijn… Without all of you none of this would have ever happened… You guys are awesome…

(and of course a big shout-out to Claire and the entire Brutal-crew! As always; you’ve made us feel at home, and even with all the pain your events cause, I’m still proud to be a member of the Brutal-family… See you at The Oner in April!)

post-Brutal tiredness with #teamNL

3 thoughts on “the Triple Brutal Extreme Triathlon…”

  1. Wow. Truly inspirational. I did the half and couldn’t even imagine the double or triple. Never say never. Thanks for sharing

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