Sailors compete in Challenge Bahrain

A group of British and US sailors deployed to Bahrain have taken on the challenge of a lifetime, braving the heat of the Middle East to race over 70 miles against around 1000 athletes from 50 countries, including some of the world’s best known professional triathletes.

The inaugural ‘Challenge Bahrain Triathlon’, which took place on 6 December, was the first event of its kind to be held on the island.  

A group of 22 Royal Navy and US Navy sailors from Royal Navy’s minehunters based in Bahrain and the US-led mine countermeasures Task Force 52 took on the challenge of the 70.3 mile long race.

Split into the three traditional triathlon disciplines, the race began with a 1.9km open water swim, followed by a flat and fast 56 mile road cycle route which finished in the Bahrain International Circuit.  

The final leg was a 13.1 mile (half marathon) run, which took the athletes through the island's wildlife park before returning to an exciting final lap of the motor racing circuit and over the finish line.

The UK and US sailors are used to working together on the same team, but the race provided a chance for some friendly banter.  The athletes competed as 7 relay teams (3 athletes undertaking a swim, bike or run leg, competing for the best overall team time), but two Royal Navy sailors, including the team leader Captain Dave Bence, undertook the full race distance as individuals.  

Royal Navy minehunters HM Ships Shoreham, Chiddingfold and Atherstone were represented, as well as the US/UK Task Force 52.  Some very respectable individual and relay times were posted, with plenty of sore arms, legs and feet to prove that a great deal of effort was put in by all participants.

The event was a truly memorable experience for all those who participated, not least because the sailors were able to host 5 elite athletes on board HMS Shoreham before the race.  Tim Don, a 3-time UK Olympian, achieved a 4th place finish in the pro men’s category during this inaugural Challenge Bahrain.  

He was joined by Rebecca and Laurel Wassner (USA), who combine their desire to win championships with a commitment to raise awareness for the fight against cancer.  Laurel is the first cancer survivor turned professional triathlete.  Meredith Kessler (USA) is a 5-time Ironman champion, with over 50 Ironman distance finishes.

In a twist of serendipity, elite athlete Timothy O'Donnel (USA) and old friend Lieutenant Commander Clint Cornell US Navy reunited onboard HMS Shoreham.  A graduate of the US Naval College in Annapolis, Timothy left the US military in 2012 to focus entirely on Triathlon.  

He has had an extremely successful career so far, and is holder of the American record time for the Ironman distance Triathlon.  Clint and Timothy’s sporting paths crossed as early as high school swimming competitions, and continued whilst they undertook basic military training, this time swimming for the same team.

Lieutenant Commander Simon Kelly Royal Navy, HMS Shoreham’s Commanding Officer, gave the elite athletes a tour of the Ship, and explained the important role which the UK and US mine countermeasures forces fulfil in the Gulf.  

Lieutenant Commander Kelly, a keen swimmer and triathlete, completed the swim leg for one of HMS Shoreham’s two relay teams, posting the fastest swim time of all the naval athletes.

Although life on board a small minehunter in a busy operational environment is not an ideal training environment for such an arduous event, Leading Diver Scott Dooley, one of the cyclists from HMS Shoreham, managed to bring his own bike from the UK to participate in the race and cycled whenever possible when the ship was alongside.  

Lieutenant Pete Thompson, HMS Shoreham’s Operations Officer, completed the run leg, his first time taking part in any type of triathlon event.  As a keen runner, Lieutenant Thompson used any available time alongside to run ever increasing distances in order to prepare himself.

The event, which received worldwide coverage, was a great success.  It enabled the UK and US naval personnel to raise awareness and money to support Help for Heroes and the US-equivalent, the Wounded Warrior programme.  

The sailors’ eye-catching uniforms, which incorporated the national flags of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Bahrain ensured that no other athletes or passers-by missed the teams before, during or after the race, especially as the runners sprinted to the finish line.