A Competitor’s View.
By Jo Hill
Now, I would not call myself an elite athlete – in fact I’m far from it, but there is something about a challenge that I can’t resist, and the St Ives Biathlon draws me in every year. Biathlon means a run and a swim, with the run first, meaning that you swim right the way up to the finish line. And this is a very public finish line – right in front of the Sloop Inn in St Ives harbour.
This year it’s the 16th Biathlon, an event that is organised by St Ives Surf Life Saving Club to raise much needed funds for equipment and kit for its many members. For those of you not familiar with surf lifesaving, it’s the sport that keeps beach lifeguards fit and ready for action, with many of the club’s members going on to qualify as beach lifeguards when they are old enough. The club sessions also teach sea competence and safety awareness to local children alongside competing against other clubs in Cornwall, Devon and Wales.
The atmosphere of the Biathlon grips the whole town. Around 200 competitors take part each year, and the area in front of the Sloop on the harbour front starts to fill up with twitching, nervous athletes from early afternoon. These athletes study each other and the sea conditions, many already wearing the iconic Biathlon T-shirt given to all competitors. Some of the cooler ones wear a T-shirt from a previous year – a good way to psyche out the opposition! There is anticipation for the race itself, but even those not competing look forward to Biathlon night as a great celebration when St Ives is in party mode. There is a stage outside the Sloop with live music to coincide with the event, and as everyone who competes gets a free beer token, the night always goes with a swing.
There are three events – a junior race first for those aged between 12 and 16, with a shorter run to Porthminster Beach and a swim round some buoys a short distance off the shore and back to the finishing line in front of the Sloop. The novice race takes place next, with those older than 16 who may not have much experience of competition taking advantage of the shorter route. The main event was originally called the Sloop Slog, and having done it a few times, I can safely say that the name says it all.
The start line is just in front of the Sloop, and most competitors wear their wetsuits half on, with goggles and compulsory, brightly coloured swim hat in hand. The run route would be lovely if you were having a gentle stroll, but running through town, up the steep hill by the Porthminster Café and along the coastal path with bystanders cheering you on it turns into a real mission. Thankfully, its only 2km long, and the downhill part comes just as you think you can’t do much more, and leaves you looking a bit fresher as you reach the next wave of spectators at Carbis Bay Beach. The next challenge is to fling your trainers at one of the volunteer marshalls and find someone in the crowd to do up your wetsuit zip. This is a really tricky part, as those of you who have put a wetsuit on when you’re sweaty will know. In my first Biathlon, I had someone primed to help me get my arms in, but they were so efficient I ended up with my hat and goggles stuck down the front of my suit – I had tucked them there so I wouldn’t have to carry them on the run. Cue a bit of reorganisation before hitting the sea!
The swim out to the point from Carbis Bay Beach is the toughest part. Hitting the cold sea makes your lungs shrink so you can’t breathe, and you have to give yourself a major talking to just to keep going. The tide is against you, and you never seem to reach the headland. You can smell the diesel fumes from the water cover jet skis and the view underwater is of the odd jellyfish and the flailing legs of other swimmers. Once you are alongside Porthminster Beach you seem to fly, and the camera lights popping make you feel like a celebrity as you drag your jelly legs up the slipway to cross the finish line. Someone takes your timing tag off your leg because bending down and breathing at the same time is suddenly impossible, and the sense of triumph starts to kick in. You put your t-shirt on, swap your tokens for a pint and a pasty and then the fun begins! The whole town buzzes – most people seem to be wearing the same t-shirt and out to seriously enjoy themselves.
Even if you don’t fancy the 2km run and swim, the St Ives Biathlon is a great event with a fabulous atmosphere. Athletes come from miles away to take on the challenge, and locals come out in force to watch the swimmers powering through the water. The winner usually gets back in just over half an hour, an amazing feat. Grab a vantage point in one of the wharfside bars or restaurants and experience the Biathlon in comfort, or – do you dare take on the challenge yourself?
Thinking of coming down for the event? Browse all of our cottages in and around St Ives