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IRONMAN Pro Laura Siddall on Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon: “This is not what it said on the tin!”

British long course pro triathlete Laura Siddall recently took the top step at the 2023 edition of Patagonman Xtreme triathlon. We get the lowdown on what her preparation looked like and share her first-hand account of what it’s like to race an extreme Iron-distance triathlon.

Writer & Long Course Triathlete
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Patagonman is an extreme, Iron-distance triathlon in Patagonia, South America. Famous for it’s iconic race start, which sees triathletes jump off the back of a ferry into icy cold water, Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon tests competitors with unpredictable weather conditions, long ascents and tricky off-road sections.

Inspired by the iconic image of triathlon legend, Tim Don, running alongside the lake against a backdrop of bright blue skies and snow-capped mountains. Long distance professional triathlete Laura Siddall decided to add Patagonman to her race calendar as an adventure to round off her 2023 season.

A few weeks after the 2023 race, we caught up with her to find out what it was like to take on one of the hardest triathlons going.

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Why Patagonman?

Laura Siddall has had plenty of success out on the “regular” IRONMAN and long distance triathlon race circuit. As four-time IRONMAN champion, ETU Long Distance champion and a former top 10 Kona finisher, the first thing we wanted to know was – what drew her to a race like Patagonman in the first place?

“I think I was just looking for something different. I’ve always liked to do races in amazing locations, and I’d seen other people do Patagonman over the years. It just looked amazing. I’d flagged it at the start of this year as something that would be good to have in the diary for the end of the year. I wanted to have an adventure.

Getting hit by a car at IRONMAN Brazil in May changed the direction of my year a fair bit. But it was good after that happened, to have Patagonman as goal to look towards at the end of the year.”

Following in the footsteps of triathlon heroes Lucy Gossage, Ben Hoffman and Tim Don, Laura finished on the top step of the podium at Patagonman 2023.

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Training for an extreme triathlon versus a regular IRONMAN race

“After the accident at IRONMAN Brazil, my training had to change a bit anyway. I got a wildcard for Kona but even training for that, I did a lot more adventure riding and running up here in the mountains in Boulder. It wasn’t as structured as people would maybe expect building up to the IRONMAN World Championships. There were still some interval sessions on the bike. But a lot of the riding was about going and exploring – riding up Leadville and Vail in the mountains of Colorado.”

“My training continued on with more of the same after Kona. The changing weather meant the bike rides became a bit less explorative. But as the run at Patagonman is all on trails, a lot of my running was just long runs in the mountains. That was an amazing opportunity – heading out on all of those long 2-2.5 hour trail runs in Boulder.”

Laura Siddall swim training before Patagonman in a Deboer Norseman wetsuit
Cold water swimming in Boulder helped Laura to prepare for the water temperature at Patagonman

The water temperature at Patagonman is notoriously cold, so Laura’s preparation also involved some cold water swimming. “I found a lake here in Boulder that was pretty cold – certainly the coldest I’ve ever swum in. That gave me the chance to do a few swims with my thermal wetsuit and all my other gear on.”

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Race week nerves: ‘Is it a race, or is it an adventure?’

Those of us racing in the age-group field might often wonder if the professionals get nervous before a race. And Patagonman certainly throws up plenty of unknowns to be worried about, says Laura.

“We arrived in Patagonia a week before the race. I hadn’t really appreciated just how windy it would be. I rode the second part of the bike course and it was raining, snowy, freezing cold and the winds were so strong. There was this moment where I just thought to myself: “I can’t get through this, it’s going to take me forever.”

“I found myself wondering what an earth I’d signed myself up for. I’d seen that picture of Tim Don running by the lake with the blue skies and the snow-capped mountains and that had sold me on doing the race. So I arrived and I was like: ‘this is not what it said on the tin!’ But it was the ‘adventure’ I’d been after, that’s for sure.”

It was images of Tim Don racing Patagonman in 2019, just like this one, that inspired Laura Siddall to take on the xtreme tri.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed or anxious coming into a race as this. There were so many unknowns. I also struggled with that question of: ‘Is it a race, or is it an adventure?’ People still have expectations of you as a pro athlete. Even on the boat on race morning people were asking me which other pros were there and who I was racing.”

Keeping those pre-race nerves in check came down to a switch in mentality for Laura. “I had to remind myself that it’s not a normal race. It wasn’t about racing other pros as such. It was about racing the elements, the course… myself. Seeing what I could deal with. Beyond physical fitness, this race is about being able to be present enough to make decisions and to deal with the adversity you’ll face.”

Race morning: jumping into the unknown

It’s an iconic image, synonymous with Patagonman and other extreme triathlons such as the Norseman. Triathletes taking a leap of faith off the back of a ferry, plunging into icy cold water as the first trial to start a very tough day out on the race course. So what does it feel like to be on the boat, about to jump into all the unknowns of race day?

“On race morning you get on the boat. It’s pitch black, freezing cold and you have no idea what weather the day is going to throw at you. You’re on there for about an hour, and you have to stay out on the deck so you’re exposed to the elements. I got talking to a lady from the US, and she was just so excited about the race. Her energy made me appreciate just how cool what we were about to do was. That helped to settle my nerves a bit.”

During the race briefing, Laura and the other Patagonman competitors had been warned not to hesitate when it was time to jump off the boat. “Once you’re on the boat, the only way back to dry land is by swimming. You’ve got no option but to get on with it. We were told beforehand that once it’s time for you to get into the water ‘if you don’t jump, we’re going to push you.’ The swim had been shortened because the water was even colder than usual. I jumped straight in, and the water was cold – but not as bad as I’d built it up to be in my head!”

As she was one of the first into the water, Laura had a moment to soak up her surroundings. And it was a moment well worth taking. “I turned 360 degrees to look back at the boat. I was presented with this iconic image of the opening of the boat, and the athletes jumping into the water. The sky had cleared, and the sun had just started to rise. I could see the stars, and the mountains behind the boat. The first light of the sun was just starting to hit the whites of the snow caps, giving them this pinkish glow.”

“That was all I needed to see. It was such a magical image, that will be in my head forever. After that I kind of felt like it didn’t matter what happened from then on.”

The importance of planning ahead

Unlike your typical Iron-distance event with an abundance of aid stations, Patagonman is a race where you’ve got to be very self-sufficient. Planning for the various scenarios the day might throw at you, and coordinating with your support crew is key.

“One of the main things with this race is being able to stay warm enough. The weather can be really unpredictable. We were lucky in the end that we had blue skies, but it was still very cold. I made a plan to have a full change of kit in transition after the swim so that I was starting the bike as dry and as warm as possible. That made a big difference.”

“The first 150km or so of the bike is net uphill, and it’s quite slow going with the gravel sections. Because the weather was fairly nice, other people were stripping off all their layers on the climb. But I kept everything on. Once you get to the top of the climb, you have this fast 20km descent with gusting winds. I was cold, even with my layers. But those who’d stripped down to just short sleeves or gilets were absolutely frozen when they arrived into T2.”

That planning ahead goes for the support crew, as well as the athlete, says Laura. “I had Sonia Bracegirdle on my support crew, and together we made a plan for how she’d support me out on the course. On the bike, I made sure the crew were always going to be behind me whenever I was going over a gravel section or through one of the really windy sections. That meant I had the confidence-boost of knowing that if I ran into any issues they’d be coming past not too long afterwards.”

Patagonman is a surreal day of racing like no other

After that crash at IRONMAN Brazil early in the season, Laura’s year of training and racing had to look a little different to the norm. So how did it feel to cross the finish line at Patagonman, her last race of the year?

“Finishing the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, I had a real sense of turning a corner after my accident earlier in the year. There was a lot of unknown going into that race. Getting on the start line – and then crossing the finish line in some ways felt a bit like closing a chapter. But taking the win at Patagonman… it’s hard to describe it, but it was just a very different feeling than I’ve had from other races.”

“The whole day is just this surreal event. The field gets spread out pretty quickly. A lot of the time, you’re just on your own, surrounded by stunning scenery. But you’re still conscious that you’re in a race. Unlike in a regular IRONMAN race – I had no idea how far ahead I was. I found myself wondering if the people behind were running faster than me, or if they were having to walk the super steep inclines too. I almost had a feeling of finish line elation prematurely at the 30km mark because that was when Sonia joined me and I got to see another person! It wasn’t until 5km from the finish, looking back up a sweeping descent with a stunning waterfall, that I finally saw two fellow competitors on the trail behind me.”

Finish line drama

In any other race, the winning athletes would be making their way across the finish line pretty quickly. But in the true spirit of adventure that a race like Patagonman embodies, there was to be one final – and unexpected – hiccup between Laura and the finish line.

“When the first male and female get to the finish line at Patagonman, there’s this gate that they open for you to run through. After the first male had finished, they’d tied it shut with some rope due to high winds. But the winds had blown the gate back and forth, which forced the rope really tight. I was running down towards the finish and I could see them struggling with the gate – there was all this mad panic as they tried, and failed, to untie the rope and get it open!”

Laura Siddall Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon 2023
[Photo Credit – Wagner Araujo]

“It was actually quite funny because I got there and they were all still crowded around the gate trying to get it open. The famous bell that you get to ring when you finish was located on ‘my side’ of the gate. So I was just standing there laughing not sure if I should just go ahead and ring it or not. In the end, I rang the bell. And then a few minutes later they managed to get the gate open so I did the finish line bell ringing all over again. It was pretty funny, and it just added to the surrealism of it all. The finish line drama didn’t ruin the day at all though!”

“Usually finishing a race I get filled with emotion, but this was just so different. Maybe it was because I was so anxious going into the race, or maybe it’s the year I’d had. But the overwhelming feeling initially was relief. That’s not to say I wasn’t completely stoked to take the win and very grateful for the experience!”

This is raw swim, bike run. ‘It’s not an IRONMAN… make it an adventure.’

“For anyone thinking about doing Patagonman, I’d say do it! Just be prepared for a long day, and don’t think of it as being about ticking off another Iron-distance. It’s not an IRONMAN, it’s not about getting through a 3.8km swim, 180km bike and a marathon. There’s so much more to these kind of races than just ticking off a distance.

“It’s about where you are, the stunning location and all of the other challenges beyond the distance that go into getting through the race. Make it into an adventure. It’s not necessarily about getting a time. It almost goes back to raw swim, bike and run.”

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Written by
Jenny Lucas-Hill
Jenny Lucas-Hill is a writer, content creator and communications professional. A long-distance triathlon enthusiast, she has three full Iron-distance finishes to date & also loves watching the sport.

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