About a year ago I saw that slots for Challenge Roth were going on sale in an hour or so and were expected to sell out within minutes. I’d not really got a huge desire to do an iron distance race as that distance seems totally mental to me. I’d had a tough time in May completing my first 70.3. Double that was incomprehensible. We had a two week old baby girl at the time and my head wasn’t in the game at all. Still, sometimes you just have to make a leap and leave it up to fate. If I get in, then I’ll give it a bash. 9am rolls round, I fill in a few boxes along with over 30,000 applicants for the 2000 or so general slots, and this appears in my inbox:
BOLLOCKS. I’d sort of secretly hoped it’d be a “Sorry, all sold out” notification (the slots all went within 70 seconds) but no. Oh well, a year of hard training it is then. Or at least, that’s what I told myself at the time. The reality was a lot more “busy parent of two small children”. I did Weymouth Half in September and a second crack at Mallorca 70.3 in May. The training was sort of enough to get by for both of those and Mallorca had got me in a bit of a state. It’d taken me 7:17, no real improvement on the year before and I’d need to double that distance in exactly 8 weeks. The evening after the Mallorca race I kept asking seasoned long course racers: “How? How the hell do you do double that?”. The panic had set in.
2.4 mile swim , 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run. Those distances sounds completely barking and impossible even having just done them!
So 8 weeks to go, 7 if you take off the holiday after the race (and jolly nice it was too). Make it 6 to allow for a bit of a taper and to fly out to Germany. So, 6 weeks to bump up from scraping a 70.3 to getting round 140.6. No problem you say, the cutoffs tend to be 17 hours. Easy. Except not for Roth, it’s 15 hours. PANIC. I’m going to smash these 6 weeks.
Obviously that never happened. I carried on with exactly what I was doing before. The intention was there, sure. Long rides, long runs, plenty of brick sessions etc etc, but with work, a now near one year old who does not sleep, a 3.5 year old who deserves my time and all that jazz it just never happened. Even with full support from Natalie I struggled to find / justify more time.
A quick look at trainingpeaks shows a slightly disasterous set of numbers for those 6 weeks:
11hrs (wtf, that sounds exhausting?)
So an average of 6.5ish hours a week. No more than I’d done for any of the 70.3s.
Long rides and runs were less plural and more singular. There was one 75k ride around Woburn with Amy and a cheeky early morning 25K run from home before the family woke. On the positive side a vast amount of those hours were high intensity 5-10K runs or hard turbo intervals. I’d broken my 5K, 10K and 21.1K PBs in the last few weeks and rides tended to come with a lot of gold/silver feedback from Strava.
Did I feel under prepared? Yes. Sick to my stomach scared and angry at myself. I’d emailed Challenge about deferral but it’s not an option. Even 2 weeks before the event I’d not booked flights or car as I wasn’t sure if I was ready. If it wasn’t Roth and everything that goes with it I’d have just ditched it in a heartbeat. The problem was.. it was. Reading race reports from others made it sound immense. Speaking to people who had raced it (hello Jan!) they talked about it with wide eyed excitement. Oh, ok, go on then, let’s book some flights and give this sucker a whirl, if you’re going to go on about it being “Once in a lifetime”.
(n.b. before smart arses start commenting, the bits about lack of training aren’t there to justify being slow, or any kind of perverse humble brag. I’m not proud of it at all, I don’t recommend it, but it was what it was. It was piss poor preparation I’m well aware)
Hot-diggity-damn it was hot in Germany. IM Frankfurt had been the previous weekend with a non wetsuit swim and temps nudging 40. Heading to the hotel from the Munich Airport it was 35 according to my rental Corsa (quite frankly, a dangerous liability on an unrestricted autobahn by the way). I don’t like heat and it doesn’t like me.
The next morning was registration and a wander round the expo. All other expos I’ve been to have been about 15 stalls and about 30 minutes worth. Not here. It was huge. Like, bigger than the 220 Triathlon show huge. Thousands of people from all four corners of the planet. Somewhat more global than the Pavilion at Weymouth I can assure you.
After that, back to the hotel and out for an easy 30 minute run. Turns out the hotel I’d chosen in the middle of nowhere happened to be within some kind of weird German teaching hospital complex built in a nature reserve. It was a bit odd, but beautiful.
Natalie had managed to persuade our friend Sarah to donate her husband for sherpa duties for this trip and Rob arrived about 7ish, so time for a relaxed dinner, some drinks and get bitten to death by mosquitoes.
The next day was checking out the swim course (not swimming it), bike collection from Raceforce, racking, run bag drop off (you drop it at T1 and it vanishes to T2 in a truck) followed by briefing at the rather weird time of 6pm. The Spanish briefing was at midday when the Spanish are all asleep. Anyway, big news at the briefing, it was going to be a wetsuit swim after all. The previous days had seen water temps of up to 26degC, well over the limit of 23.9 but apparently it was now 23.89999. Hurrah!
Transition closes at 6:15 and I’d need about 30 mins in there. Parking is a good 20 minute walk away. They warn of big traffic on the morning as thousands of spectators come to the swim start. They recommend arriving “by 04:50 at ze very latest”. Hotel was 20 mins away. So a 4am alarm it was. I woke at 3:57 after a really deep sleep and felt pretty good. A bit of time in the nice hotel bathroom and then we were on our way to the start. As usual, my body does NOT want food when it’s still sleep time but I managed to force down a couple of brioche, a carton of choco-milk and some nuts. Traffic to the start was pretty heavy. It was also cold so I stole Robs jumper and made him shiver instead.
Dropped my bike transition bag down, pumped my tyres up, stuck nutrition on my bike, found the only non disgusting portaloo in Germany and then came back out to the side of the canal. Only an hour and a half to kill before my wave.
Right. Half a GetBuzzing bar and a gel, time to get wetsuit on. I’m in the 8:05 start and need to be in the water at 8:00. We’re about 100m from the swim entrance, only I find you can’t actually get through. A hasty goodbye to Rob and then a couple of minutes barefoot running around the whole of transition, I made it to the start pen just as the mighty cannon went off (it wasn’t a starter pistol.. it was a mahoosive cannon that you could feel before you heard it!). Only that’s not where the start line is, that was another 80m further up. Oh well, I wasn’t the only one, there were about 20 of us who were well behind the starting pack and had to swim extra timed distance. A bit of a balls up but it probably gave me something to focus on and stopped me being jittery.
The water was swimming pool warm, no shocks. It was very still although a bit murky. Rather pleasantly it just tasted of water when I accidentally got a face full.
There’s not a whole heap to write about the swim. I took it nice and steady, simply sighting off the side of the bank which was lined with people. At the turnaround point (it’s basically 1.9km down and 1.9km back) I saw someone waving at me. Rob had come down to the far end. I made a couple of jokes, he took a couple of pictures and I carried on swimming with him walking along the bank.
The only unpleasant parts of the swim were going under the bridges. Four passes underneath and it was a slightly eerie feeling. Instead of the water being bright but murky (you could see your hands) it suddenly went pitch black. Quite an odd claustrophobic sensation and you could feel the water being cooler. I didn’t panic as such, but I did wonder how many dead German mobsters are sleeping with the fishes at the bottom of this canal.
As far as pace is concerned I have *no* idea what happens when I put my wetsuit on, but in the pool I’m a faster than average swimmer. With the wetsuit on it seems like an awful lot of work and very ‘draggy’. Weird. Anyway, out of the water in 01:34:32. Not great and 4 minutes over what I’d put down as a ‘bad day’ estimate. Still, it’s something to work on.
Ever so continental. Many many naked people, with amazing volunteers getting you out of your wetsuit and getting you dressed, applying suncream etc. Normally the helpers in a change tent drive me nuts and mess up ‘my system’ but this time it was amazing. Everything ended up laid out on the table in a sensible order as I changed in to full bike gear.
It was the bike I was most nervous about even though it’s probably my (relatively!) strongest of the three. The swim, although I knew was going to be hard would only be about an hour and a half. The ‘run’ I knew I could shuffle through. The bike however, I had no idea how I’d fare for that kind of distance. My longest ride to this point was just shy of 100km so I had no real reference points. The plan was to ride it slow and steady. Better to be 10-15mins slower than to explode on the bike? Suck it and see I guess?
The Roth bike course is 2 x 85km loops with a final 10km spur to T2. The loop starts off with a set of quite quick downhill bends. Nice opportunity to get some food and drink in. Most people (including me before this) think of Roth as flat and fast, hence it being the fastest iron distance course for many years. The reality is the bike course is very undulating with actually little in the way of flat or indeed straight. The reason it’s quick is mostly for pro’s only: The uphills are sharp and short and the descents are long and fast, but you really have to be willing to hammer the downhills at big big speed to make up the average. It flatters the higher power riders. My Garmin reckons 1550m of elevation over 180km. OK, it’s no Wales, but it’s far from flat.
Up to the 30km was just a case of taking it easier than I wanted to, keeping an eye on power output and trying not to get carried away. There were some of the very fast guys passing me on their second lap, most of the pro’s had lapped me before I got out of the swim. What was mild entertainment was the relay teams. They all started 55 mins after me but the uber-swimmers had exited the water when I did (45 min swimmers) and handed over to their uber-bikers. These guys and and girls were thundering past at a ludicrous pace and properly *racing* each other. Very amusing but best to stay well clear and plod on.
The number of people supporting on the course was amazing. Even in small villages they’d effectively created a street party for the day. People had brought tables/chairs/sofas etc outside so they could cheer on us lunatics for the day. There were also about 20 official ‘hotpoints’ in towns with DJs, beer tents etc.
After an hour I’d started to get really, really annoyed with the clicking of my slightly misaligned gears. Due to a very long boring story it’d been necessary to re-cable the gears on my bike before the event. I’d tested them the day of racking and they were silky smooth but I guess the cable expanded ever so slightly being sat in the sun and it was all slightly out. I pulled over and hopped off the bike, bent down to twiddle the rear adjuster and OH MY GOD CRAMP OUCH DAMN THAT HURTS. Took about 2 minutes by the side of the road to get my left leg to listen to my brain so I could get back on the bike. Meanwhile, cyclists passing were wondering why this idiot was stood under a tree doing a one-legged rain dance.
At 35km you hit the first major climb at Greding. It was probably only 6-7% average but on the few steeper bits I was very grateful for my 32 tooth rear cog to avoid expending too much effort. There were probably a good few thousand people lining the first part of the climb. Much encouragement. Rob had somehow managed to get down there and was standing on the climb. We managed to exchange a few words, and he passed on a message from my kids. After the climb at Greding there’s a very fast downhill section but it’s punctuated with some tight hairpins. In contrast to Mallorca though, the edges are lined with haybale stacks, there are warning signs and on the sharp one there was a policeman waving a little red flag. Handy.
Aid stations at Roth are plentiful and well organised. On average they’re about every 17km and normally sensibly placed at the top of hills. The week before the race I’d bought a new bit of kit (yeah, I know!): An Xlab Torpedo bottle system. On the day it was absolutely brilliant. There was enough time at the aid stations to grab a water, empty it in to the Torpedo via the refill hole and toss the bottle. At some of the aid stations the volunteers were handing out bottles with no lid which made refilling even quicker. The ability to regularly sip on fluid rather than faff with bottles was a godsend.
At 72km you get to the defining part of Challenge Roth: Solarer Berg. You can hear it before you see it. The pictures in the media pack show it like this:
It’s described by many pro’s as “The greatest moment in Triathlon”, “The TdF is just Solarer Berg for cyclists” etc. Crowds 10 deep, music, dancing, drums, people doing arches with their arms blah blah blah. Yeah, whatever…..
IT WAS SPINE TINGLING.
Genuinely it’s a moment (well.. about 3 minutes) that’ll stay with me forever. Nobody rushed up it, it was a case of take it easy and soak it all in.
At the top I grabbed another water and tried to get back to business. An easy rolling 12km and you come back to the start point. Turn right for T2, left for the second loop. By this stage, plenty of people passing me were early wave starts on their second lap so were off to T2. (or confusingly, in German, WZ2).
The second loop was undoubtedly tougher than the first, the wind had really started to pick up and the temperature was now 32deg according to my Garmin. There were far fewer people on the course (both athletes and spectators who had gone to Roth to watch the pro’s start the run). I kept my head down and concentrated on hitting my first ever Metric Century. Mostly to see what the Garmin did… 99.9km, 100km. Ah, rather undramatically it just drops the decimal place.
Just after that personal milestone I stopped to transfer some nutrition from the bottle on the back to the bento up front. The peanut butter sarnies that worked fine in testing in the UK weren’t so great over here. The heat had turned them into something with the texture of a bathroom loofah. Sort of weetabix like and not nice to eat. I’d managed 2 but the third one was ditched. Put another sachet of SiS Energy Drink into the Torpedo bottle and stuck half an Oatmeal and Rasin Clif bar in my gob to eat while riding.
The quality of riding from other people was rapidly going downhill at this point and it became really hard to maintain the 10m anti drafting zone as other riders were quite randomly starting to coast. For about 10 minutes I upped my pace and overtook probably about 20 other riders to get some clear space. One rider from Mexico then came tanking back past only to then slow down a minute later. Couple more stupid games of this and then fortunately he stopped at the next aid station.
Speaking of aid stations again, the on course nutrition was supplied by a South African company called 32Gi. Impossible to get in the UK so I’d bought a few at the expo. Not unpleasant and basically just flavoured rice syrup so nothing horrid. The packaging was peculiar though. They’re credit card sized with a hard side and a soft side. You hold them in one hand and snap them back on themselves, then suck the gel out the middle. Looked totally ridiculous but actually very easy to do one handed on the bike with no mess at all.
Greding the second time was tough, but I looked forward to the descent afterwards. The next flat farmland section was the low point of the day. Huge headwinds and an upsetting 34degC reading on my Garmin made progress slow. Even on the flats I could see my average speed dropping yet I was pushing target power. Oh well, it was the same for everyone. I was still feeling good aside from a sore neck. Legs still had energy, heart rate was still nice and low. It was quite a nice feeling actually, it was very much an “I can finish this” feeling. If I had to do another whole loop I’d probably have cried but I knew the last 50k or so wouldn’t be an issue.
Solarer Berg the second time was far less busy but the hardcore (probably still about 10,000 people) were still there and the DJ was still pumping his tunes. The top of the climb coincided with my first Imperial Century, so that was nice. Also passed a woman on a hand cycle which made me feel like an idiot for being a bit grumpy, and a woman riding along with a huge pair of fairy wings strapped to her. Not hugely aerodynamic and she was struggling (not sure she finished).
Turn right at the junction towards WZ2 and it was all mostly downhill for the next 10k. Aim the bike at a volunteer, stop, hop off and hand the bike over, no need to rack it yourself. Chuckle worthy (for me, not him) sight: there was a chap who had stopped on his bike, unclipped and stood up but his legs had cramped. The volunteers were trying to lift him over the saddle to get him off the bike.
Bike section had taken a whopping 6h55m. Again, a touch over my target but respectable.
Again, very continental, very naked and very efficient. The volunteers laid everything out for me in a sensible fashion, helped me unbuckle my bike shoes, did the sunscreen etc. Less stressful than most transitions despite me accidentally grabbing back 3410 not 3401 which wasted a minute or so while I looked at the somewhat unfamiliar run kit.
According my super high tech £10 Casio watch that I wear throughout (and as a backup to Edge 500 on bike and 910XT on run), I’d got out of T2 with 8:50 elapsed time leaving me 6:10 to do the marathon. So long as nothing went completely and utterly pear shaped this was in the bag. I’d heard many horror stories about Iron distance racing such as “The halfway point of the day is halfway through the run” and obviously there’s many anecdotes about people pushing too hard and ‘exploding’ (sometimes literally out of either end) on the run. Had I drunk enough? Had I eaten enough? What about salts?
Well.. whatever. I saw Rob again at the exit of T2, we had a little chat while I devoured some watermelon from the aid station. He showed me a video that my kids had sent me which perked me up a bit mentally.
I felt good on the first few km of the run, although I took the first two aid stations very slowly to get some fluid down me. The first 4km out of Roth to the canal was quite nice with plenty of support. I could see the faster runners coming back in on their final few km towards the finish. Some of them looked like (fast moving) zombies.
Just before the canal was a slightly peculiar section through an industrial estate. You ran through the car park of one company, ”Speck Pumpen Systemtechnik” who had massive branded tables out and presumably, their staff all sat around drinking beer and cheering people on. Weird.
Once at the canal the surface was quite hard to run on imho. It’s dusty compacted hardcore rather than small gravel. It’s possibly easier on the legs than tarmac but I kept having issues with stones getting in my shoes and occasionally a sharp stone would batter my heel through my shoe. Oh well, only 30km or so of this left!
The first 10k I felt good, but I was incredibly conscious of not pushing too hard. I had no idea if I had the endurance to run it properly so I was doing an easy run/walk. I was running at about 5:45-6:00/km and then walking at 8:30/km. Doing this was giving me km splits between about 6:45 and 7:15/km on average and felt very comfortable. I tried a slow jog behind someone but it actually hurt more than running at my usual pace and felt more tiring. Better to walk/run and the proof in the pudding was overtaking them.
Near the turnaround point you run over the canal on of the locks. This isn’t your English countryside lock with a cider serving pub next to it. Nope. Giant German shipping canal lock. It was *huge* and frankly a bit foreboding with enormous amounts of water thundering out the bottom.
At the 17km mark I started to get hungry and each aid station was a bit of a buffet. I power walked the next few km to let the food settle, so a couple of 8-9min/km which still seemed to be faster than some people who were ‘running’. After that, I popped my headphones on and busted out my playlist. I’d been saving that for about this point on the run. Roth is peculiar in allowing headphones on the run course so I wanted to make the most of it. The previous night in bed I’d put together a playlist with everything from the defacto “Eminem – Til I Collapse” through some classic rock (Aerosmith / ACDC) through some “reach for the lasers!” EDM, leading nicely in to some 80s hip hop, a bit of a Fleetwood Mac chillout session, the German version of 99 Luftballons and finally reaching the pinnacle with Taylor Swift (don’t judge me). Zoning out a bit and listening to the music helped pick up my pace a bit and I was back to 6:30-7:00/km’s. Slow, but sustainable.
At almost exactly the 21.1km mark you begin another out and back section. Rob was waiting here for me, we had another bit of a chat and a discussion about how much time I had left before the 15 hours were up. It probably happens to everyone but after a while I lose the ability to do simple maths. I couldn’t work out how long I had left, and if my current pace was going to cut it or not. After a minute of Rob very calmly explaining 6yr old level maths I was sure I had enough time regardless of pace and off I went for the next 14km loop. Some more monotonous canal path and then the course turns off, goes up through a forest and into another town. At the end of the town at 28km was a pretty steep hill and the ‘penalty loop’. I saw one poor sod running back from his extra 1km. That’ll teach him not to draft.
Back again up the canal and I was feeling great. Tired, but great. Oddly, my legs were feeling really strong but I was nervous of going too fast as there was still 10km left to go and again I’d heard so many horror stories about “hitting the wall” / “crawling the last few miles” etc etc. It suddenly dawned on me that this was by far the furthest I’d ever ‘run’ and guess what? The human body doesn’t liquify at a certain distance. Who knew?
At 35km I saw Rob’s silhouette looming in the twilight so I ran (apparently at 5:00/km..wtf?) over to him, making the person who’d just passed me curse in German. I swapped my sunglasses out for regular glasses so I could actually see and had a mouthful of KP Nuts that were in my rucksack from the flight over. Rob then told me he’d had to give my bottle of Coke and my Bounty to A Guy Called Gerald (maybe Graham). Poor Gerald/Graham had been looking very very shaky. Another point to note if you do Roth: *THERE’S NO SPECIAL NEEDS BAG*. On both the bike and the run you have to have a supporter have your special needs stuff within a certain distance of the aid stations.
The next few KM’s we jogged together. Technically you’re not allowed a pacer and I was slightly nervous about getting DQ’d but by this point it’d all turned a bit lawless. There were people on bikes riding with runners, entire families jogging with Dad etc. It’d also gone quite dark and it was useful to have a second set of eyes.
3km before the finish, Rob turned off towards the stadium and I began the last few km around Roth town itself. It was actually pretty dark in places and on cobbled streets. If you’re a slower finisher like myself you could do worse than to have a supporter hand you a small head torch. I met Geert from Belgium who was moving at a decent pace so we chatted for a bit. It was actually the first time I’d really spoken to someone other than quick chats with Rob and it was nice to have some company for a bit. He’d done Roth before in a much quicker time but today he’d struggled with the heat and the head wind. There were a lot of people still out cheering and it was nice to take it easy and soak up the atmosphere for a bit. Plenty of people who’d already finished were out on the streets yelling encouragement.
Before I knew it, Geert said “So this is it, you go ahead, enjoy it” and pointed to a big red arch. The final 200m. I’d done it. It was quite hard not to be emotional as I jogged down the funnel lined with people either side high fiving them. As the funnel turned the corner the noise began to grow and grow and suddenly I was in the stadium (it’s not a sports venue, it’s erected every year for this). People everywhere, bright lights, music.
It was hard not to feel like a superstar regardless of performance with that many people there. To paraphrase Vinnie Jones, “It was emotional”. I’d done it, I’d bloody done it. I’d somehow managed to string together an iron distance race with no real dramas, almost everything went to plan and I’d loved almost every single second of it.
Over the line I went in 14:10:52. Marathon done in 5:20, probably about what I was hoping for but it was a lot less painful that I was anticipating. One of the pro’s (no idea who) shook my hand and strung the medal around my neck. Geert and I had a high five, I found Rob for a well needed cuddle and then went off to get my finishers shirt, big glass of alkoholfrei and a welcome salami roll.
Once I’d found Rob again it was time for more food and to phone my super proud wife. That phone call and the utterly wonderful Twitter comments I’d had from people who were tracking me didn’t help my somewhat emotional state. You lot rock. Thank you so much.
It was an odd feeling having done it. It’s a super long day obviously but it goes in a flash. One minute you’re pulling your wetsuit on, the next minute you’re crossing that finish line.
Looking back, I wish I’d faffed around a little less and pushed a little harder as there was certainly a 13:59:59 up for grabs but that’s just vanity really. A finish is a finish!
If you’re still there after 5000 words, to summarise then: This is a bucket list race. The course isn’t hard but it’s not easy either. If it wasn’t for the 250,000 spectators it’d probably be quite unremarkable. But they’re there and it is something else. The tagline for this year was “RACE THE LEGEND” and they couldn’t be more right.
As always, huge thanks to my family for being so supportive. Massively grateful to Rob for taking the time to come out to Germany with me and to Sarah for his release. Also, the support from everyone on Twitter and my swim club has been amazing. So much advice, encouragement and when needed a huge kick up the backside (yeah, you!)
On to the next one!