HUNDREDS of super-fit athletes made a big splash as the annual Bolton Ironman got under way in the water at Pennington Flash yesterday.

The triathlon, which returned for its ninth year, saw men and women competitors begin their gruelling test of endurance with a 2.4-mile swim at the country park in Leigh.

The elite athletes entered the water at 6am, with the amateurs soon joining them in the lake’s bracing waters.

But the early start and wet weather did not dampen the enthusiasm of their supporters.

Friends and families lined the eastern shore in impressive numbers to cheer the competitors on as their race got under way.

Athletes descended on the course from all corners of the county and beyond.

Once athletes had completed two laps of the Pennington Flash course they jumped on to bikes for the second part of the race, a 112-mile bike course taking in villages including Belmont, Adlington and Rivington.

By then the sun was beating down and there was an almost carnival atmosphere at Rivington Green.

Cheering crowds supported cyclists tackling the gruelling incline of Horrobin Lane while a steel band provided the soundtrack.

Once the bike ride was complete, competitors dismounted at the Macron Stadium before heading off on a marathon run to Bolton town centre.

Supporters were again out in force to encourage the athletes as they embarked on the 26.2-mile course.

After eight hours, 41 minutes and seven seconds of swimming, cycling and running, Cyril Viennot was in no rush to finish the 140.4-mile event.

The Frenchman was the first to complete the course, but lapping up his moment of glory he ran towards the end catching people’s hands before turning back to greet the cheering crowds once again.

He then strolled over the finishing line.

Viennot said: “You know when you win the time is not very important.”

There were 2,345 athletes taking part and almost half were competing for the first time.

The youngest participant was Bolton’s Jordan Stanworth, who celebrated his 18th birthday on race day, and the oldest was aged 70.

While 2014 winner Viennot was the first man to cross the line, favourite Lucy Gossage held on to the title she has won for the past three years as the first woman to finish the gruelling triathlon.

Viennot said: “I came here because I had a very bad race in Frankfurt last week. I trained so hard and thought I have to try here.

“I had to finish in the top four to have a very good chance to qualify for Hawaii.

“I thought ‘you never know, let’s try and we will see’, and I won.

“The toughest part of the course was the run because I did Frankfurt last week, so my legs were broken.

“The last 10k was horrible – it was very painful.

“I feel very happy. It is like a resurrection.

“When you win the race you always want to come back.”

Gossage crossed the line in nine hours, 39 minutes and 48 seconds.

She juggled her training for the Ironman UK women’s section with her work as a doctor.

She said: “I feel pretty smashed. I was glad to get to the finish line.

“It was a battle so it makes the win even sweeter.

“The crowds on the run are amazing, particularly running through town. It’s deafening.

“I think lots of people know me now so it feels like I get more cheers than anyone else. I really enjoy it.”

Gossage says it was her toughest Ironman yet.

“I have gone back to work this year, so it really was a very different year,” she said.

“It was definitely harder. In fact my bike broke on Thursday. I didn’t think I could race.

“I have a friend who spent nine hours getting a bike ready for me because I wouldn’t have been on the start line otherwise.

“At some stage I have to stop Ironman, but I don’t know when.

“It is hard to stop when you love something, so not just yet.”

Professional triathlete Will Clarke, from Loughborough, was the second Ironman to cross the line with a time of eight hours, 47 minutes and three seconds.

He said: “There wasn’t anything else I could have done to win, so I am really satisfied with second.

“It is really cool to do this in front of a home crowd, and the finishing line was one of the best experiences I have had.

“It was good out on the course but an amazing finish.”

Last year’s winner Kirill Kotsegarov finished third with a time of eight hours, 48 minutes and 16 minutes.

Cllr Cliff Morris, leader of Bolton Council, said: “Ironman UK is a brilliant event every year and yesterday was no exception.

“Even the weather held out and the sun shone on the inspirational competitors and the fantastic supporters who lined the route to cheer them on.

“It was a truly wonderful weekend with the largest Ironkids the day before, and the people of Bolton have shown how welcoming they are to others from around the world.

“They created a real party atmosphere.”