From the way everyone talks about it, I had Roth in my mind as the Glastonbury of triathlon. And that’s pretty much what it feels like: 6000 athletes, over 7000 volunteers and a crowd reputedly 250,000 strong. On the Saturday, the expo feels like a festival: lots of dodgy outfits, people selling and consuming exotic potions and powders, and plenty of beer. Although there is a bit more lycra in the outfits and a bit less alcohol in much of the beer than at Glastonbury. The stars are also more inclined to mingle – Frodo, Daniela Ryf and Joe Skipper are all happily wandering around with everyone else.
On race day I manage to stay fairly calm, despite an unavoidable 2½ hour wait between arriving and starting, the huge crowds on the bridge over the canal and the inevitable ‘inspiring’ music. I try to shut out most of what is going on and stay inside myself, thinking about my stroke and visualising enjoying the swim (I am not at home in the water). Although the starting gun, which goes off with every 5-minute wave, is a cannon and it scares the bejesus out of me every time. I’m in the same wave as Paul McNally so we’re racked just feet apart. We’ve a quick chance to swap best wishes with Paul Martin and Leanne O’Leary and then we’re heading into the water. I am usually quite a panicky swimmer but follow the advice to focus on breathing out and counting out the strokes to keep a steady pace. My plan is to draft as much as possible – something I’ve never really mastered – by sticking close to the canal bank where most of the pack goes. This also reduces the need to sight as it’s a straightforward rectangular course. I try to stay relaxed and let the swim feel easy, staying on whichever feet I can find, saving energy for the rest of the race. I am hoping for 1:20 and get out of the water with 1:21 on the watch – spot on considering I had to wait my turn to be pulled out. Pro tip: if you like swimming with goggles, don’t try to draft someone who is breast-stroking.
The helpers in transition are great. I’m on the bike in about 5 minutes, cheered on by Dani and Helen as I head out on the course. My plan is pretty much the same as usual: ride by heart rate, stay close to the zone 2/3 borderline, nutrition every 20 minutes (rice cake, flapjack, banana), but this time with a bottle of water and a salt tablet every hour – it is forecast to be super-hot. Like everyone says, the roads are super-smooth yet although this is the world-record course it is by no means easy. The Bavarian countryside is lovely and picturesque but there is about 1600m of climbing and today there’s a strong wind. The bit everyone talks about is Solarer Berg, or Solar Hill, which is about four-fifths of the way around the loop, which you do twice. As I turn the corner and begin the approach, the crowd behind the railings is three or four deep and on the climb proper it is indeed like the Tour de France, with people inches from me, cheering, shouting “HUP HUP”, clapping, rattling rattles, high-fiving and waving flags or whatever else is to hand. I’m smiling, soaking it up and my heart rate has gone through the roof when I realise near the top that everyone is looking over my shoulder – Timo Bracht, a German and one of the favourites, also in his swansong race, is right behind me (on his second lap of course) and most of the cheering is for him! I try to move over and let him pass but it’s difficult with the crowd, I wobble and we almost touch wheels but thankfully don’t and I can calm down again and try and let my heart rate come back down.
Apart from getting away with a warning rather than a penalty after undertaking someone who was going very slowly around an s-bend in the middle of the road, the second lap goes smoothly (they are strict about not crossing the centre line and in the moment I thought undertaking was the safer option). I am aiming for around 5½ hours for the bike and my split is 5:27. So far so good. In the final few kilometres I start thinking about the run. It’s a new course this year. Everyone reckons it will be harder because it’s hillier. By now it’s the middle of the afternoon, the sun is out and it’s pushing 30°, perhaps hotter on the exposed parts of the course, and muggy with it. I’ve done two iron-distance races before and had bad stomach cramps on the run both times, which have really slowed me down. With this in mind, and the heat and humidity, I come up with a plan. I like my plans simple, and this is it: there are aid stations about every mile, so walk every one, right from the start, whether I feel like it or not. But only take water or nutrition on board (mainly jelly babies, a couple of gels and again salt once an hour) at every other one to avoid bloating and sloshing. So it’s basically a variation on the 9-1 strategy which I hope will keep the stress on my gut down and ultimately keep me running for longer, which should result in a quicker marathon overall.
Into T2, I hand my bike over to a volunteer and more first-class help means I am out on the run pretty quickly. In addition to the run-walk tactic I take advantage of every sponge, ice-pack, hosepipe and shower I see to help stay cool. There’s an ominous heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I start but I stick to my plan and after halfway I start to relax a bit when I sense it is going to work. The new run course still goes out a short way along the canal but there are a couple of long, sapping gradual climbs, a bit like you get at IMUK, leading into and out of the turnaround at Büchenbach, plus a few other little ups and downs. The trade-off is a reasonable amount of shade, more spectators on the course, meaning the support is again fantastic, and those frequent aid stations (it being Germany, there is beer at the stations, even if it is alcoholfrei). Dani and Helen are doing a brilliant job cheering on, popping up all over the place shouting, high-fiving and taking pictures. I see Paul Martin heading towards his incredible 10:09, later Leanne and Paul McNally, who are like all of us are finding the conditions tough, as well as Chrissie Wellington a couple times who is apparently doing it just for fun.
With the last serious uphill out of the way and 6k to go I reckon the plan has worked well enough to risk running to the end all-out to try and get under 11 hours. Battery life means I’ve had to switch Garmins for the run so I can only guess my time. I give it my best shot for a strong finish, counting down the final kilometres. I tend to think in terms of laps of Sefton Park as I get to the end of a difficult run and that helps me convince myself I can do it. I’m feeling pretty good as I turn right off the route to head towards the stadium. As I approach the park, 11-year old Johannes from my host homestay family (thanks Werner and Martina!) nips under the barrier tape and leads me in. Inside the stadium it’s bonkers. The crowd is huge, all cheering and clapping, we have to dodge around a few people staggering in, and a couple of Brazilian athletes with huge flags obscuring the finish line. The run around the stadium feels shorter than I expected and I’m over and done almost before I know it. Result – 3:53 for the run (1:56+1:57) giving me 10:53:36 overall. Woohoo! A 16-minute pb and a near perfect race. Afterward Paul Martin meets me in the finisher’s area and walks me around to the medical tent where I need a little lie-down and a quick go on the drip (just dehydration despite all the water and other precautions) and then it’s time for a beer and the famous Roth fireworks and finish party.
Challenge Roth certainly lives up to the hype – it is a great race and I’d have been one of those people queuing up on Monday for a 2018 place if I hadn’t promised myself and, more importantly, my family a year off long distance. If you get the chance, do it.
Things I learnt:
- Take the advice to draft in the swim. It might feel too easy and that you’re going too slowly but there’s no point wasting energy trying to push past somebody if you swim at a similar speed. If you find yourself swimming alongside someone for a few minutes, drop behind them and let them do the work.
- As well as nerves I am prone to cramping in the swim. I sipped plenty of High-5 in the days before the race, and took salt tablets the night before and on the morning of the race. I did not get any cramp the entire race. The water was warm, I was well rested and I had calf guards under my wetsuit so I don’t know how much the salt contributed but it’s worth experimenting with.
- I have greatly reduced the amount of gels I take because there is research evidence that says they contribute to stomach cramps. But I also think the run-walk strategy paid off. So be patient rather than macho on the run – work smarter, not harder.
Photo credits: Dani Trinca and Werner Wild.