The race director is on the beach, pointing out to sea. “Swim out to the blue boat, turn right round it, back in towards the small white buoy, turn right again and swim along the coast to exit under the arch.” It sounds so simple. But seconds later an animated debate breaks out amongst the small, but enthusiastic, field of competitors over whether he meant the navy blue boat or the sky blue boat.
It’s an important distinction, as this quirky way of defining the course constitutes the only markers we’re getting – and the two boats are about 100m apart. I should be paying attention, but in honesty I’m only half-listening, as I’m staring out into the beautiful blue sea, feeling the early morning sun on my skin and marvelling at how I’m about to do a non-wetsuit race in the middle of November…
Such is life at the Nevis Triathlon, one of the smallest and most laid-back, yet stunningly beautiful, races 220 Triathlon have ever had the pleasure of attending. Only 40 competitors are on the start line this year and that encompasses all three events: the full Nevis 74 (1km swim/63km bike/10km run), the half-distance Nevis 37 and the entry-level Try a Tri.
Within that small field is a fantastic range of competitors though – from the youngest racer at 9 years old to the oldest at 85 – from locals doing their first tri to Kona age-group champ Jane Hansom. They’ve had some big names here in the past considering it’s such a tiny race too. This is where Ross Edgley (of great British Swim fame) competed his ‘tree-athlon’ and even Ironman pro Chris McCormack has taken on the course in previous years.
Kona age-group champ Jane Hansom (right) with the race’s oldest competitor, 85-year-old Dr Avery. Image: Ryan Delano
Monkey run club
I arrive on the Wednesday before the Saturday event. This is a last-minute end of year addition to a season blighted by injury (I’ve been the 2018 Queen of the DNS) and although my grumbling achilles means I’m there to complete not compete, I’m just happy to be on a start line.
What a place to compete in, too. Nevis is one of the smallest Caribbean islands and is a true paradise with lush rainforests covering a volcano in the middle, and sandy beaches around the coast. Towns are small and rural but the island is packed with friendly residents and rustic beach bars – put it this way, you’re never far from one of Nevis’s famous rum punches (or a new friend to drink it with) – and if, like me, you’re a fan of getting away from it all and out into nature, then you couldn’t ask for more.
I’m staying at the Hermitage Plantation Inn, a boutique hotel created from one of Nevis’s historical sugar plantations, nestled within the base of the rainforests and dating back to c1670. I’m shown to a magical gingerbread-style cottage, complete with four-poster bed, swimming pool just outside my front door and hammock in the back porch… Considering I’m used to staying in tents or dodgy B&Bs the night before most of my races, it’s fair to say this quite a dramatic upgrade!
Monkeys can be found all over the tiny island and will peek out at you while you’re racing! Image: Helen Webster
On my first morning I’m woken early by a group of the African Green Vervet monkeys that roam around the forests, so I lace up my trainers and head off into the forest roads for a morning run. I keep seeing the little black faces of curious monkeys popping out of the trees as I jog up the winding track past lush green vegetation and trees, while the hotel dog, Tuffy, has come along as my run buddy. It’s a fantastic way to start the day, before heading to breakfast for the Hermitage’s famous pumpkin pancakes and coffee with new local buddies Joel and Tim, who are a lot of fun and seem to have adopted me (you’re never lonely for long on Nevis!).
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Killer Bees & Hardtails
I’m mindful of saving some energy for the race though, so short jogs aside I leave the big-energy activities such as the Nevis Peak Hike until after the race and instead spend some time exploring the island. It’s hard not to get swept along in island life though and I try hard (and fail!) not to eat too much of the amazing island food, mainly accompanied by lethal rum punches. Word to the wise – if someone offers you something called a ‘Killer Bee’ during your pre-race taper, it’s best to say no…
The day before the race arrives and I head to Oualie Beach, on the north of the island. This is where the race will start the next day and I’m keen to recce the swim and collect my bike from the hire shop. Turns out there’s been a small error in communication somewhere along the way though and the hire shop is out of road bikes, meaning my only option is a Trek hardtail… Not being used to a mountain bike and aware it’s a really challenging bike route I’m a bit nervous about this!
Later that evening, a chat with a new friend Tim, who lives on the island, reassures me though. “The roads are pretty broken up in places and there are a few potholes,” he says, considering the course. “Plus it’s meant to rain, so there might be standing water in a few places.” Potholes and wet surfaces? My two least favourite things. I’m suddenly very happy to be on a MTB – and decide tomorrow’s going to be a lot of fun!
Race morning arrives and it’s a 5am start. The Hermitage have kindly made me some homemade carrot and walnut muffins for brekkie and I eat them while poking my nose out of the door and breathing a sigh of relief that the heavy rain forecast hasn’t materialised yet. When it rains here, it rains like it really means it!
Navigating the swim
So we’re back where we started this feature, at Oualie Beach at sunrise and that swim course. It’s now been confirmed that it’s the closer of the two blue boats we need to swim around and quickly afterwards, the klaxon goes and we’re running out into the water.
I’m doing the Nevis 37 which only has a 500m swim, so it barely feels like I’m getting into a rhythm before I’m already turning to head back to the beach. The water’s clear and blue and I’m wishing I’d been able to take on the longer distance and stay in it for longer! The triangular course is easy to follow out as I manage to get on the feet of some of the faster swimmers, then on the way back in I realise the buoy is the same one I’d been using to sight off earlier in the week during practise swims. It’s tiny, so I’m glad I already know that the yellow house behind it is the right place to aim for! Win!
Kona age-group champ Jane Hansom exits the water first. Image Ryan Delano
Transition is across the beach and it’s not my fastest, as I take a minute to chuck a bottle of water over my feet to wash the sand off. Not the pro approach I know, but the thought of racing in 30 degree heat with a load of sand chafing my feet makes the time lost seem worth it.
The Nevis bike course is really simple – it’s either one or two laps of the 32km main road around the island, depending which distance race you’re doing. Being such a small island the roads are pretty free of traffic too and what cars there are seem more curious about what we’re doing than keen to overtake and I have a few locals slowing down and driving alongside me for a chat. Despite my reservations, the neon green Trek is actually a lot of fun and I’m keeping up with a few other competitors and playing cat-and-mouse with an American girl on a racier-looking Specialized. There are a few potholes as predicted and as I speed past her on the bumpy straights while she slows down to dodge them, she laughs and shouts: “you chose the right bike for this course!”
The route takes us past the immaculate grounds of the Four Seasons hotel, then through Charlestown (the island’s centre), where I almost take a wrong turn thanks to a car parked on one of the orange direction arrows spray painted onto the road. Just at the last minute I spot it and haul off left across the junction – to the cheers of a few locals on their morning trip to the shops!
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Just keep spinning…
Soon after Charlestown though, the course comes back to bite me. I’d heard talk of ‘Anaconda Hill’ in the days before the race, but knowing I would be competing on a heavy, unfamiliar, bike I’d tried to ignore them. Well, it was now time to face my nemesis.
Anaconda Hill is on the East of the island and so named because it winds up and up (and up, phew!) until you reach the final sting in the tail – a short, sharp climb that takes you to Zetlands, close to where you start to hike up the main peak (infamously difficult and on my Nevis bucketlist for the days after the race). Today is all about triathlon, not hiking though and with the climb lasting about 2 miles I’m soon in my easiest gear and starting to struggle. My American pal on the Specialized catches me up and speeds past – we both laugh and it’s my turn to tell her she picked the right bike!
There’s nothing for it but to keep spinning my legs and look forward to the inevitable descent on the other side! Luckily it’s still early and the sky is overcast, so at least I’m not baking. Turn after turn I continue up until suddenly I round a bend to find a short, steep section in front of me – surely the final section? Nope. This is the famous false finish of Anaconda Hill and there’s still more to do. Coming to the next crest it’s finally confirmed that it’s over though (hurray!) as someone has sprayed ‘You did it!’ on the road alongside a smiley face, which makes me laugh as I start to speed down the other side.
Helen gets to grips with mountain-biking, Nevis-style! Image: Lizzy Dening
The second half of the bike course is way easier with long, sweeping descents taking me back around to the north of the island. Any kind of PB is way off the table now, so I just enjoy the experience – the greenery whizzes past and I get panoramic views out to sea, while in the towns, I spot wooden houses painted in green, pink, white or yellow. In one there’s a party atmosphere, with people running out to meet me in the road and shouting ‘welcome to Zion’ as I pass through and trying to stop me to give me segments of oranges. Some friends I’ve made on the trip come out in a car to cheer me on too (hugs to Lizzy, Ross and Julie!) too – I’m having a blast now and all too soon I spot the final hill on the course, a short but steep incline up and over and back down to Oualie Beach and the right turn back into transition.
I leave my bike and start the short 5km run course, which takes me back the way I’ve come (over the small nasty hill again!), to the island’s tiny airport and back. I’ll be honest, after 90 minutes of riding an unfamiliar bike over steep hills my legs are pretty tired and with the sun starting to beat down the run conditions are tough – so I’m almost glad my physio insisted I adopt a run/walk strategy to save my dodgy achilles. Hot runs have never been one of my strengths – I’m definitely an ‘out at 5am and head for a forest’ kinda girl in the summer.
Despite my slow bike leg there are quite a few people on the run course and with the sun radiating the full force of its 30 degree heat onto us the remaining athletes are visibly wilting. Given I’m doing 3 minute intervals at race pace and 2 minute walk breaks I’m expecting to be slow anyway, but actually this strategy seems to be quite a good one in the heat and I overtake a couple of people. At the turnaround point the women manning the aid station spray a bottle of water over me (I must look hot!) and I’m into the last couple of kilometres back to Oualie Beach.
Sandy finish line
Turning back towards the beach I’m directed sharp right around transition as the race finish is along the stretch of sand that makes up one of the prettiest beaches on the island. Pretty it might be, but the sand is the soft kind that gives way as soon as you step on it, making it hard to run on with a dodgy ankle!
My friend Jane runs part of the beach with me though in celebration (she finished ages before me to win the race outright, all that Kona training served her well!) and with everyone on the beach cheering, I’m soon across the finish line to be handed a whopping gold finisher medal (if you’re into your bling, this is the race for you!). Then just in time, I head to join everyone in the bar as those predicted thunderstorms hit and the rain starts hammering down.
Male and female winner of the Nevis 37, plus winner of the Nevis 75 2018. Image: Ryan Delano
All in, Nevis was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I’d thoroughly recommend it to any triathletes looking to combine a fun but challenging race with an amazing holiday and for 2019, a duathlon is being added to the race options as well. That’s a whole year away though, which seems too long as Nevis has utterly stolen my heart – so I’m already plotting how to come back in March for the Nevis to St Kitts Cross-Channel Swim…
Helen flew to St Kitts from London Gatwick with British Airways and then got a water taxi to the island of Nevis. She stayed at the Hermitage Plantation Inn. For more information on the Nevis Triathlon and activities on the island and to sign up for next year, visit the website here.
Other recommended island activities are: 4X4 island tour with Funky Monkey, visit to Nevisian historical Village, Nevis Peak Hike with Sunrise Tours ane visit to the island botanical gardens. Foodie highlights were breakfast at the Hermitage Plantation Inn (Helen ate far too many pumpkin pancakes on her trip) as well as pig roast night and wood-fired pizza night; dinner at the Golden Rock Hotel and Bananas Bistro and (if you dare) the world-famous Killer Bee cocktails at Sunshine’s.
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