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Brutal Events- Claire Smith

Planet X bikes and Claire Smith from Brutal Events have partnered together to help bring the suffering and elation of endurance event participation to a mass audience. We caught up with Claire after he Retul fit for her new PX bike.

How are you doing Claire, keeping busy? Actually yeah, I drove up from Bournemouth yesterday, to Birmingham for a meeting up there about an event I’m putting on and then I came over the moors to Sheffield late last night. I dropped my stuff off at the hotel then had to meet up with Dave, for a pint and a chat in his local.

Ah, at the Stag then? Did you try the beer? That Jaipur’s a good pint. "I don’t drink actually, but the bar food was good and Dave was full of questions and amazing stories."

How did you get into triathlon and running Brutal Events? It’s hardly one of those jobs on the list when you get your careers guidance at school. "I was quite late into it to be honest I started running seriously when I was about 20 and I got drawn into harder running challenges, from road to cross country to mountain events, longer runs, overnights the whole thing." 

"I heard about Ironman; I didn’t really know what it was, it wasn’t a brand like it is know. This is right back in the day. I just assumed it was some ultra distance race, I had no idea it was triathlon. I had already committed in my head to doing one, even though I couldn’t really swim, well not open water distances anyway. I was useless on a bike as well; it was all ahead of me!"

"My first real bike came to me from my ex-father in law; it was a steel racer, old school, brake cables coming out of everywhere and gear shifters on the downtube. I used that for a long time before I bought my first modern bike."

In 2005, I did my first event as a participant that was a half distance. I did Ironman Sherborne as my first full distance and then I did a double at Lichfield. I’ve done a few more since then and an ultra in Lanzarote as a solo event and I’m training currently for my ‘Deca’. I loved it so much that it just seemed natural to want to put on events that I would want to participate in.

What was the impetus for getting into competitive sport, what was the drive? "I’m not classically competitive, I’m not looking to beat other people, and I don’t want to ‘win’ in the classic sense. It’s not a race for me, it’s a challenge, and to complete it is the goal."

Of the events that you’ve taken part in which was the best, what made it good? "I think my first double ironman was the best, it was a huge undertaking, I’d trained hard for it and the sense of camaraderie with other participants was really high. I’m sure at the front of the men’s elite they were racing for places but further back there was a really good vibe to it, more like an excruciating fun run that was preceded by a monster swim and a day in the saddle."

"I came second in the women’s for that. It was surreal; the race director gave me a trophy and a cheque. I felt like a pro-athlete. I had been going for 32 hours continuously and I was pretty much out of it, just smiling and shaking hands."

That sounds like a good weekend. So is Brutal events a full-time job for you now?  "Yes, I started out as a graphic designer and worked in that for most of my adult life. After the Lichfield Double, I got to know the organisers a little and started helping out. I had an idea to host a double triathlon myself, but I didn't want it to be a standard event, in the pool, on the road, I wanted something that would stand it apart. I did the Snowdonia Mountain marathon and I was blown away by the scenery, I wanted to capture that feeling in my event. That was four years ago and it has been a rocky road to get from there to where we are now."

How many people do you get for an event? "170-250 people it depends on the event. Participation is going up with each event, so we're heading in the right direction."

What’s the typical entry fee? "That very much depends on the nature of the event, the location, the timescales involved, what prizes we give, the staffing and support levels. It’s difficult to nail down as it's different for each event and I'm always looking for better ways to run and staff events to help keep the costs down."

Dave the Planet X boss chips in from the sidelines.  "But if we came in as headline sponsor and gave you a chunk of change for an event, so we picked up some of the costs, you could do an entry for a lot less. That would be brilliant we’d love to democratize a triathlon event like that so anyone could enter."

Dave continues. "What’s the maximum number of people you’ve done, could we get 500 people in an event, would costs spiral out of control, or are there economies of scale that we could work on to help bring it to the masses? I’d love to do a huge event like that, that would be the dream. Imagine it a Brutal Events/Planet X triathlon with cheap entry- it’d be the Boris Bike of the triathlon world. We could put a package together, Brutal bike, clothing, training guidance throughout the season and then a massive triathlon at the end of the season. That’d be mega..."

Where do you host you events, how do you pick locations?  "Well, Brutal Triathlons are held in North Wales, I have a mountain marathon that is held in Brecon, that's an evening event. I do the lake swim which is in the same location as the triathlon; I do the PIG Ultra triathlon that is held in mid-Wales in Dolgellau. I do a great event called the Oner that I picked up from another event company, which happens over the Jurassic coast park. That is truly brutal, they were dropping the event because it was too hard and the entrant drop-out rate was so high. 50% of people drop out of that."

What the drop-out rate like for your events, does it go up as the brutality level of the event rises? "There's always a drop-out rate, none of these are easy events. First-timers tend to underestimate the severity of the events. Once you've done Ironman people are looking for another event, something more taxing, more challenging- that's where we come in."

What's your typical age cross section? "That's tough to answer. I think there's a bias towards an older age group, the harder events attract more established adventure sports athletes. There's a lot of gnarly old dudes who enter Brutal events, but there's really no target age group audience for me. 16-60 about covers it."

How do you do for gender split, do you go out of your way to attract more female competitors? "I do everything I can to attract as many women to the events as possible, but it's still mostly men who take part, and by quite a margin. There are nearly always women in every event that I run but the numbers vary with the duration, type and severity of the event. We had one woman complete the double, for the half and the full triathlon events then it's typically 10%. I'm disappointed that there's no women entered into the triple this year; maybe we might pick up a rash of late entries, which would be great. If you look at Ironman there's a lot of women take part in those, I guess location has a lot to do with it. Hawaii is always going to be a more female friendly destination that muddy Mid-Wales.

What's the average lifecycle of an event? It must take a while to go from concept to working with landowners to outline an event to promoting it and then running it? "To be honest I think it's a twelve month thing, especially with the big events. You could put a 10k on quicker than that, but the bigger events take longer, especially if you are breaking in a new location where the landowner hasn't opened their land up before in this way. With councils, they are more and more involved these days there are huge amounts of paperwork to do, regulatory hoops to jump through. I probably wouldn't choose to start this business now given how much the landscape has changed in the past few years. I blame the lawyers and ambulance chasers. Ten twenty years ago you could set up an event, with a picnic table a few flags and away you went, times have changed and not necessarily for the better.

Do you have any plans to take Brutal Events international? "I'd love to take Brutal Events abroad, Dave seems really keen to see that happen as well, to help Brutal Events become an international sporting events brand, I like that vision. I'd love to do it, I'm at the point now where I'll have to start taking some staff on to enable me to continue to grow the business. In truth that's probably not going to be this year but it's in my plan for next season. "

So you still do everything yourself, with friends and favours? "It's very much like that at the minute and having Planet X on board will help me develop the brand it will free up some time to deliver on my vision for where I want to take the brand. I don't see Brutal Events as a cash cow, it's a lifestyle business that puts on lifestyle events. It's all about participation for me and for the people who enter my events. Speaking to Dave last night he said that if he didn't own this bike company then he'd no doubt have a different one. It's in his blood, that's what he does. It's the same for me, I just can't shake the idea of taking part in and organising endurance sports events- it's in my blood."

How do you see Planet X and Brutal Events working together?  "There's a few thing on the table where there's a natural fit. Planet X know all about making bikes, clothing and accessories and Brutal Events know how to run an event and reach that target audience. So we can work together synergistically to bring Brutal Events to a much wider audience and also to offer our customers a unique package of benefits that can only come from having  a bike brand on board as a partner. I don't want to give the details away before it's all in place, but it should be a game changer in terms of how competitors enter events, how the events are funded and how people are equipped for the events. I'm really excited by the potential that exists in this partnership."

Why Planet X? "I've known the brand for a long time; you can't help but see the brand at triathlons and other endurance events. I wanted a UK brand to partner with, someone who was keen to help promote the type of ultra endurance events I organise, and of course there's the bikes- who wouldn't want to be on the Exocet when tackling an Ironman or Double. There's also the fact that Fran (Bungay, PX sponsored rider) is my coach and Hywel Davies won the very first double Ironman that I did. I remember that vividly, there was me on my father in law's clunker and He flew past, fully aero'd up and sponsored by Planet X. That image stuck with me, 'fast' looks like a Planet X bike!"

What's the biggest surprise been since you started running Brutal Events? "The best thing about the events for me is always the contact with the athletes, seeing them at events, catching up with them after the fact. I'm forever on Facebook, Twitter, anything where I reach out to the people who take part. Part of my plan for my Deca is to hook up with as many of the people who've taken part in a Brutal Event. I'll put it out there a month or so, ask people who can come along with me to ride a specific leg, see if I can get a road partner for parts of the run that would be brilliant."

"I also really like the fact that certain people who have struggled to get across the finish line stay in touch. When you're running an event you see competitors across the course of the day or days of the event. You can share in their pain and elation, and there's nothing like putting a medal around their neck when they finally come over the line."

What's the lowest point of the journey been? "There have been some really tough times over the years, events falling through, struggling with local councils. There's been some really tough times, especially when you're as emotionally invested in the business as I am. I've toughened up a lot over the years, so its water off a ducks back now. I really used to take it personally when I came up against an intransigent council member who was going to object to an event on any grounds no matter what you did just because they didn't want to see people running up some trail that ran past their land. Nowadays I've resistant to it. You just work around these things and move on. I had a council want to cancel an event a while back after I'd already had it signed off and entries were pouring in, the event was in six weeks time. I just bit my lip, I didn't overreact, I let it play out and everything fell into place. I guess all the year's experience of doing this has given perspective that I didn't use to have."

You already mentioned that you're doing a Deca this year if we can jump back to that for a minute. It's a huge undertaking, most people can't even consider doing a triathlon, but you're going to do ten of them. What on earth possesses someone to even contemplate that? "Doing a Deca is a big undertaking, I get that. Physically and mentally it's a huge commitment. It's just something I feel that I have to do."

How are you approaching it? "Like any other event I take part in. I have a training plan; I'm working towards my distance goals. I have an outline date pencilled in for when I can fit it into my schedule. How it pans out will very much depend on my frame of mind closer to the time. Sometimes I find myself thinking that it could take me a leisurely three weeks other times I think I might blast it off in sixteen days. Honestly, I don't know. I feel positive about it and that's all that matters. As long as I'm healthy I'll see it through to the end."

"Once I come out of the swim I'll have a much better idea. That could take me between 16-20 odd hours. My swimming isn't that bad, to be honest. I've been working hard with Fran on my swim and we've just recently done a full underwater swim analysis which really helped. I swim with Fran once a week and she keeps pushing me to push harder.  The bike leg is basically a John o Groats to Land's End, but there's a leg from Loch Lomond to John o Groats first to make the full Deca distance. I have my route outlined for that, but I need to reccy the majority of the route in detail still. I was originally thinking about camping out on the ride but honestly I think I'll do the nights in hotels. I was thinking that I'd do an Ironman bike distance per day and then camp but now I'm leaning towards more miles on the bike each day and stay in a hotel. "

"I'm doing a Quin in May, that's an external event that I'm not organising. Someone mentioned that as being my 'warm up'. That's a full on event, with cut-off times and everything, not like my Deca where everything will be at my pace. It is exactly half the distance though so it should set a good marker point for me."

What support do you have for the Deca, is there a team wagon and some medical support? "To be honest there's not a great deal. Financially I can't really afford 24/7 support for the whole event. I have someone for the swim, my pilot owns a B&B up there and she's swam Loch Lomond and the Channel so she knows open water swimming. I try not to think about it too much as a whole; I break it down into bite sized pieces in my head. I have her booked in for July 13th so we're go from there."

What water temperatures are you expecting for that time of year, will you be wearing a full suit? "Sixteen to eighteen degrees is typical so I'll be wearing a full suit for sure, frankly if I could wear two wetsuits I would."

What bike would you ride for these? "For the Quin I could possibly make use of a TT bike, it's possible for that distance. For the Deca, it's going to have to be a very comfortable road bike. I like the look of the RT-58, shorter top tube, a little more upright. If it lives up to its tagline of 'the comfortable mile eater' it should be perfect. But for most of my riding the Exocet2 is going to be the perfect bike; that's the one I've been measured up for.

What will the greatest challenge be during the Deca? "For multi-day events I usually struggle most with eating. It's a tough task putting away enough calories during each day to fuel you for the following day. After a few hours of activity I lose my hunger and I really struggle to eat any solids during the bike and run so it's a liquid lunch for me each day and not the fun kind you find in the pub."

 What's the big picture plan, where do you see Brutal Events being in 3 years time? Will you be working internationally, taking Ironman on at their own game? What does the future hold for you? "Honestly I don't have that long-term plan yet. I'm too involved in the micro detail on a daily basis to focus on the wider picture. Dave asked me the same question in the pub; he obviously has a vision of where Planet X and Brutal Events can go and what we can achieve together. His enthusiasm for that is infectious, it sounds so tangible. I'm sure we'll do big things together, I'm excited about what the future holds for us and I'm excited about what type of events we can roll out and how we can make them unique for our competitors.  Watch this space!



31 March 2015

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