When it comes to Ironman races you need to be prepared - they sell out so quickly you often need to sign up almost a year in advance. This is what happened this time. In July 2009 a few days after finishing Ironman Switzerland I signed up to Challenge Roth in Germany. This isn’t an official Ironman race, but its one of the most iconic and famous iron-distance races in the world outside of Hawaii.
After running a steady 5 mile race for my running club on Tuesday evening we raced home, quick shower and some food and then jumped in the car for the drive to Dover. We caught a ferry to Calais shortly after midnight and the plan was for Sharon and I to just drive and drive, swapping over whenever the driver felt like a snooze! This continued on and on and after a couple of short breaks and plenty of driving we made it to our campsite in Roth. The weather was boiling with the temperature measurement on the car reading over 35 degrees centigrade. We were hoping it wouldn’t last until race day on Sunday. That night we had a huge thunderstorm which cleared the air a little - Thursday was much more pleasant.
Transition bags at registration
Thursday lunchtime we headed to the ‘race village’ and registered. I picked up my goodie bag, timing chip and transition bags. A stroll round the town centre and then back to the campsite. I then went out on the bike for just over an hour to get my bearings and test out a couple of the hills. The roads were silky smooth and it was lovely. Bring on race day!
At the canal for a test swim
Friday morning started with an early swim in the canal where the swim was taking place. This gave me a chance to get a feel for what it was like (visibility was very very poor, but the water was lovely and warm) and also to understand where everything was in transition. It was another very hot sunny day today so at lunchtime I went out for a three mile run to get a feel for how hot it could be. The short answer is… VERY! In the evening a large group of us headed into town to watch one of our younger fellow ‘pirates’ taking part in a smaller triathlon. It was great to support Jack in the race and he did really well.
Saturday was a day mostly of rest. I sorted out my bike and also my transition bags, as the run bag (containing shoes, socks, suncream, gels and a running visor) needed to be handed in today when I racked the bike in transition. At lunchtime we took the bike to the swim start/transition one to get everything racked.
Challenge Roth doesn’t have a mass swim start - we all go in waves. The pro’s start at 6am and then there’s regular groups setting off for a good couple of hours or so. My start was at 6:50am.
The alarm was set for 3am and soon afterwards I was enjoying a hot cup of coffee. Shortly before 4 I had a big bowl of porridge and then we set off to the start, following the advice to get there early. The weather was cloudy, hardly any wind. Result.
At the race site I made the final preparations to the bike - pumping up my tyres, attaching the saddle bag and ensuring I had plenty of energy gels attached to the bike. I had 10 gels attached to the bike and I planned to get a few more from the aid stations on the course.
At about 6:15am I got into my wetsuit and had the first of many energy gels. I gave Sharon a kiss (with a tear in my eye) and headed off for a final toilet stop. I then went over to the swim start area about 10 minutes before my ‘wave’ was to start. Its a really strange feeling waiting with hundreds of other people minutes before a very long day that we’ve all been training months for is about to start. A strange old feeling.
As soon as the previous wave began (five minutes before mine) about 250 of us headed into the water and had a couple of minutes or so to get accustomed to the canal and to get to the start. I deliberately chose to start about three people back from the front row as I didn’t want any (or much) kicking and punching early on in the swim. In the minute before the start most of the swimmers were saying good luck to one another and then there was a round of applause. At approximately 6:50am the gun went and that was it - we were off.
Competitors nearing the end of the 2.4 mile swim
The swim is a single lap 2.4 mile course, so no getting out of the water briefly at the half way point as in Ironman Switzerland last year. Because of the poor visibility I found it really hard to draft off of anyone and pretty much swam the entire swim on my own. I had no idea if I was swimming well - I just got on with it and kept reminding myself to concentrate on good technique.
Coming into the race I was expecting a slower swim than last year because I’d only been swimming once a week this year compared with at least twice a week last year. I’d also only swum over the 2.4 mile Ironman distance once this year, whereas in 2009 I’d done it eight times in training. Swimming in the canal was really cool as every time you breath you can see people cheering at the edge of the canal. Also, as you head nearer to the start/finish part of the swim course it gets really noisy from all the supporters - there were thousands of them out there.
As I came out of the swim I glanced at my watch - it said 1:04:09 - flippin’ ‘eck I thought - that was good. My swim last year was 1:08. I’ve no idea where that came from but I wasn’t complaining. I was expecting it to be more like 1:10-1:15. I ran up to the transition tent collecting my bag on the way.
I was 508th in the swim (out of 2,828 who completed the swim). The fastest swim time was 46:51 by Pete Jacobs of Australia.
The transition tent is a funny old place. I’ve never competed in a race with one before (normally my transition gear is all by my bike) but I really liked it. You run in, find somewhere to sit and get your wetsuit off and your bike shoes/socks on. I put my wetsuit into the bag and left it for the volunteers to look after it ‘til after the race.
Heading out of transition 1 to begin the 112 mile bike leg
I ran out to my bike, and knew exactly where it was amongst the hundreds of bikes in the transition area. One thing you really should do before the race is rehearse transition - tracing the steps from the tent to your bike - and noting anything that will help you find the bike quickly - like trees, waste bins, etc.
I got to the bike, put my helmet and sunglasses on and ran to the mount point. There was a big cheer of ‘Go Pirates’ from somewhere in the crowd which really cheered me up. I jumped on the bike and headed off for 112 miles miles of fun/torture (delete as applicable!)….
Transition 1 time was 3 minutes 10 seconds.
At the start of the bike its a relief to be doing something different for a change and after lying horizontally in the water for over an hour its good to be ‘upright’ again. My heart-rate was high at the start of the bike (averaged 162 for the first mile) but this was to be expected and I knew/hoped that I could bring it back down and under control soon after. After a few twists and turns on the course I settled into the ride ahead of me. About half an hour into the bike leg I overtook my first pirate - Lou. We gave each other a little encouragement and continued on our way. Because of the wave starts people are on the course at all different times and it’s really difficult to determine how you’re doing compared to other competitors.
I’d say that there are two main hills on the bike course, the first main one at Kalvarienberg, just outside of Greding at the southernmost tip of the course. This is about 22 miles in and has a short sharp climb early on and then just goes on and on. The race pack describes it as follows:
“At the southernmost point of the bike course this hill stretches the athletes to the limit. The ascent, which is about 1.5 km long and up to 10 % steep, must be passed twice. But don’t be afraid: The crowds of cheering spectators almost carry the athletes up the road. So even this steep hill feels as if it was flat.”
Once you get to the top of the hill, it seemed to keep on going. There was a bit of a headwind and the road just remained undulating upwards until the peak at about 27 miles. There then followed a fast little descent with a few hairpin turns as we headed towards Obermassing and then it was back to normal with some gentle undulations.
There were plenty of other cyclists nearby, and we were all doing a pretty good job to avoid drafting (which is not allowed - it’s meant to be an individual effort). On the first lap of the bike course I saw lots of motorcycles go by who were looking for and penalising offenders (they get shown a card and have to stop at a penalty station further up the course).
Although the bike course is fast, its certainly not flat. The roads are beautiful and smooth but its continually up/down/up/down throughout. I thought there were few long flat sections out there. Looking at the profile of the course and what my GPS measured, it said there was 1,504m of climbing on the overall route (both laps). Looking at my data for Ironman Switzerland it says 1,457m of climbing. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the comparison (last year it was recorded on a Garmin 305 and this year a 705) but I’d rate the courses as being very similar overall in terms of climbing.
Course Profiles - Challenge Roth (top), Ironman Switzerland (bottom)
The next big climb is the one that everyone who’s ever raced at Roth remembers - the Solarer Berg. This is shortly after 43 miles and is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. After a little incline a few hundred metres before you race down into Hilpolstein and take a right hand turn. This is where it begins. The climb is described in the race pack as follows:
“It’s Franconia’s most famous hill and also a synonym for the fascination of triathlon in Roth. Every athlete who has ever climbed that hill only once during the Challenge Roth, and has made his way through the crowds of enthusiastic spectators, is inadvertently infected with the triathlon virus! This is something you just have to experience!”
There are literally thousands of people here cheering and supporting. Before the climb begins proper there are barriers at the side of the road. They then suddenly disappear and the crowds are everywhere. You can’t see where you’re going for all the people - you can only see the wheels of the person in front of you. Without riding Le Tour de France this has to be the closest you’ll ever get to the kind of support these guys get on the mountains. It was amazing. As you get to the top there’s another aid station (they’re very frequent on the course) so you can refill drinks/gels etc.
A few miles later you go past the bike start area and begin your second lap. Looking at my first lap I measured it at slightly over 52 miles, an average HR of 18, a max HR of 170 and an average speed of 20.3 MPH. Cadence was 96 RPM. I’d planned to keep keep my heart rate around about 140 BPM and it was all going to plan. I also wanted to ensure I kept my cadence comfortably over 90 RPM (don’t worry, I have a cadence sensor to do the counting!).
Shortly into the second lap as I went through Eckersmuhlen and the “Beer Mile” was in full swing. This is an area in the centre of the village where local bars put tables right up beside the road and there are a few hundred people sat there drinking, eating and shouting support right beside the road. It’s really uplifting and you can’t help but smile.
During the second lap I saw a few more ‘pirates’ on the course. I cycled past Grant, who was sat at the side of the road with a mechanical failure that unfortunately messed up his entire race and then shortly after the hill at Greding I saw John (who was on his first lap of the bike having started in a much later swim wave). This was his first (and planned last) Ironman event and the thing that amazed me was that he’d never ridden further than about 60 miles in one go before! I’m not sure I’m a fan of his preparation but he was getting on with it. He’d recently suffered a puncture and had to walk up the hill to the mechanical aid station for assistance, but he was back on the bike and working hard.
One of the highlights of the bike course had to be a sight that made me chuckle. A man by the side of the road, in full view of everyone, squatting (to have a, er, number two), with his cycle shorts round his ankles and his long pointy ‘aero’ cycle helmet on. What a sight!
I could see my heart rate dropping a bit during the second lap so I really had to work hard to get it back up to where I wanted it to be, which in turn kept my speed up where I wanted it to be. Towards the end of the second lap I crept past Emma who said I was the first pirate she’d seen all day. This wave start business is really strange. Lap wise, I kept my average HR at 138 (max was 153) and my average speed for the lap was 20 MPH.
After heading through Eckersmuhlen for a third time I turned off to do the final few miles to the bike finish and transition two. There was a group of pirate supporters here who gave me a great big cheer.
The rest of the bike was uneventful as I cruised along to transition. As I got to transition I unfastened the velcro and took my feet out of my shoes, and then as I came to a stop I handed my bike to one of the volunteer helpers and then ran (in some sort of zig-zag i-have-not-walked-for-5-and-a-half-hours type running motion) to the transition tent where I was handed my run bag.
Total bike time was 5 hours 25 minutes and 50 seconds with an average speed of 20.2 MPH for the 109.8 miles that my GPS measured. Heart rate was 138 average and 170 max with an average cadence of 95.
I was 909th overall on the bike. This is OK, but I think I should be quicker. I don’t have fancy race wheels or a time trial bike, and I know my riding position could be improved but I can’t complain at cycling over 20 miles per hour non stop for nearly five and a half hours straight!
Nutrition wise I drunk energy drink probably 90% of the time (water the other 10%) and had about 14 or 15 gels (last year I had 7 gels but a few more flapjacks/powerbars). Half a banana was had at one of the early feed stations and I ate a very small piece of flapjack that I’d put on the bike (I threw the rest away). Although I didn’t feel hungry I was ensuring that I had a gel every 20-25 minutes whether I wanted one or not. It is these kind of nutritional plans that help to ensure you don’t have a bad run later in the day. Things you do/eat at 9am make a difference to how you run 7 hours or more later. I also had three or four electrolyte capsules.
Before I talk about the run I will say that I cycled the bike leg with a power meter. I’ve only recently bought it and do not yet have it set up to alert me to zones etc. I had it on the bike today just to record data. I turned off all power related screens on my bike computer so I couldn’t get confused or try and ride to power - I just wanted to record the data for later analysis. When I eventually get around to doing it I’ll post some more information about how I rode the Roth course from a power perspective and whether I paced myself well or not. Stay tuned….
Transition two consisted of changing socks to a nice clean pair and also putting on my running shoes (I’m using Asics 2150’s at present). I grabbed my running GPS, visor and a bag of ‘goodies’ to sort through during the first few minutes of the run rather than when in transition (my transition time from bike to run was 2 minutes 50 seconds). The bag consisted of the following:
- four caffeinated energy gels. All the gels prior to this were ‘normal’ ones. I had these four with me to give myself an energy ‘boost.’
I managed to drop one of the gels but got the other three stuffed up my shorts (which is a great storage place!). I put some suncream on my shoulders and arms as the sun was really starting to come through and also put a little vaseline on to stop my top from rubbing.
My plan for the run was to aim for a 3:45 marathon. This would be running 8:30 miling pace. I’d also keep an eye on my heart rate as well and make adjustments as necessary.
I seem to have a habit of flying during the early part of the run and although I tried to ease back I went through the first (slightly uphill) mile in 7:46 (heart rate 145). I needed to ease off some more and eventually I did with the following miles being 8:06, 8:13, 8:26, 8:24. I wanted to keep my heart rate around 145 and I was running very comfortably at this point.
The run consists of mostly running along the ‘towpath’ of the canal along with some tarmac roads/paths and a little grass/mud by a forest. It’s a single lap run mostly as an ‘out and back’ so you can see other runners coming the other way almost all of the time.
About 3 miles in it felt like my sock was folded or something in my right foot. It didn’t feel right and I knew at some point I’d need to get my shoe off to sort it out. Every bench I ran past had people sat on it and I eventually found somewhere reasonable to sort myself out at about 10km (6.2 miles). I took my shoe off and noticed that my sock was fine - it was probably just a blister on its way! I can deal with that.
At this point you head off of the canal path and through the village of Schwand. Running through the town (about 1:15pm) there were people everywhere supporting, eating, drinking and enjoying the carnival atmosphere. The smell of BBQ food at one point was really quite strong (and tempting!).
At 9.4 miles it was back onto the canal path for just over six long miles. It seemed never ending. The weather was really getting quite hot and the aid stations every two kilometers were the main thing that kept me going. Knowing that I could get some sports drink, an energy gel and some water soaked sponges to cool myself down with was a great way to break the run into smaller segments.
At 15.7 miles you head off the canal, through a small forest area and onto a road that climbed slightly uphill to get you up and onto a bridge that goes over the canal. Once you get to the turnaround just after 17.5 miles I knew that I was on my way back. At this point my average pace so far (after about 2 hours 25 running) was 8:21 minute miling with an average heart rate of 146. Everything was on track. Heading back to the canal path I stopped briefly for a very quick wee. This, the turnaround point and when I had to take my shoe off were the only times that I stopped/walked during the run.
Once I got back onto the towpath I started doing a few maths in my head. I knew that I was on time for a sub 10 hour 30 Ironman and if I could increase my pace I could maybe just get very close to 10 hours 15. This would be unbelievable if I could but I had to give it a go. In an Ironman distance event some say the race doesn’t start until 20 miles into the run, and at this point I started to race proper.
At Ironman Switzerland last year although I was knackered after crossing the finish line I knew there was more in me. This time I wanted to make sure that I used every bit of energy in me to get to the line and anything less meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’d trained through the winter and spring for this event, spent a lot of money on entry/travel/nutrition etc. and wanted to ensure that by the time I finished I’d given it everything I could.
Less than a mile to the finish and pushing as hard as I could
So, shortly after 20 miles or so I started to pick it up. My heart rate moved up to 150, then 152, 153, 156, 157….
Throughout the run I worked on a nutrition strategy similar to the bike - gels every 20-25 minutes and I also took a caffeinated gel on the hour, each hour. They tasted disgusting (just as bad as they did last year) but I know they do me good, so I just had to HTFU (harden the f**k up) and deal with it!
At about 22 miles you leave the canal path for the last time and head back towards Roth. At this point I was giving it everything I could. There was every possibility that I’d blow up from the effort involved and end up finishing in similar style to the famous Ironman Hawaii finish by Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham in 1997. There was only one way to find out…
As I headed into the town centre I was overtaking quite a few people, my pace during the last few miles had gone from 8:20 miling to 7:35!!! I was running as fast as I could and giving it everything I had. It wasn’t pretty but I didn’t care - I just wanted to get to the finish as quickly as I could.
Through the town centre there’s a few cobbled streets to run on which I barely noticed. There was a couple of sharp turns in the town square and there were people everywhere supporting. The atmosphere (from what I could gather from outside of my own ‘hurt zone’) was electric.
I then saw another km marker in the distance. From my watch I was expecting it to be the 40km marker but I was hoping to see 41km. Thankfully it did! A couple of turns later (and a grunt at the pirate support from one of the town centre cafes) and I was at the triathlon park and the finish area. The blue carpet was ahead of me and I was going to smash 10 hours 15 out of the ball-park. As I ran down the ‘chute’ I caught a glimpse of Sharon screaming and cheering, I believe I high-fived her and just carried on. It was the first time I’d seen her all day since about 6:15am this morning. I wasn’t planning on any showboating or anything - I just wanted to get the best time that I could.
Straight after the finish, and smiling again!
As I crossed the finish line I raised my arms in joy. My official time was 10 hours 10 minutes and 58 seconds. I was ecstatic. I was given my finishers medal, then as I walked away someone else came to me and asked if I was OK. I replied that I was ‘fine, thank you for asking’ and continued on (some people collapse at this point!). I had my photo taken by one of the official photographers and was then given an alcohol free beer. It was bliss!
My marathon time was 3 hours 35 dead. This was 11 minutes faster than at Switzerland. Awesome. This is only just over 15 minutes slower than my standalone marathon time (London 2009) which I think I need to address!
Run wise I was 354th fastest out of just under 2,700 finishers. The quickest run was 2:39:43 by overall race winner Rasmus Henning of Denmark (who finished overall in 7:52:36).
Looking at the results I was 436th overall (out of just under 2,700 finishers, and over 2,830 who finished the swim but not the bike/run). I was 413th male and 110th in my age category (male 35-39). In Switzerland last year I was 572nd out of 1979, so much much better this time.
With beer in hand I found my way back to Sharon and the pirate supporters for a big hug. I was in shock at how good my time was (so was Sharon) and was just grinning away. She’d been getting official SMS text updates all day long and then other text messages and twitter/facebook messages were coming in on my mobile from friends back home watching online.
A while later I headed back to the ‘athletes village’ area, had some food (not much though, as I find it hard to eat straight after a big session) and then went off in search of a shower.
I got to the shower area, stripped off (there was nudity everywhere to be seen in this area - and to be honest I couldn’t care less) and got in a queue. The heat from the steam in the shower area didn’t help and I started to feel really faint. After a couple of minutes or so I gave up, stumbled away and just lay on the grass for about 10 minutes. I eventually got some composure, made it back to the showers and when one became available I had the quickest ever rinse/wash that I think I’ve ever had. I just had to get clean before I would pass out. I made it out of the showers just in time and sat back on the grass and dried under the early evening sunshine. After getting changed I stocked up on food/drink/beer and headed back to the supporting area.
From here until the very end (about 11pm) I watched, cheered, screamed, shouted, took lots of photos and generally had an absolute blast. The finish line party at an Ironman event is something special and you have to be there to experience it. Watching people come in to finish with either smiles on their faces or signs of pain is unforgettable.
As darkness fell and the official timing and end of the race neared race winners Rasmus Henning, Chrissie Wellington and the other top end professional athletes were by the finish handing out medals. A huge (and I mean huge) firework display took place and as the last finishers came through the athletes made a human ‘arch’ at the finish line.
I found myself conveniently right in the middle of the area about 10 feet from the finish line (having a camera with a big lens makes you look rather professional so security seem to turn a blind eye to you) and got a few great photos of the finish area.
After 11pm we all slowly drifted away from the finish area. Sharon and I headed to the car and headed back to transition 2 to find my bike and my swim/bike bags with all my gear in. We then drove back to the camp site, had a drink and retired for the night.
Roth is an amazing race and one that I’d love to do again one day. If you’re a supporter you’d do well to get yourself a bike and move around to support that way as going by car is really tough because of the road closures that are in place.
So, what next…. the trouble with most of these Ironman distance races is that you have to enter them a year in advance and I’m not sure I want to commit to one next summer. What I’m currently thinking is concentrating on getting a better standalone marathon time under my belt and also getting some good cycle training in next year. If I don’t do something like the Outlaw Iron distance race in the UK in August 2011 then my next big race will be in 2012, and it could be any of them…possibly even Challenge Wanaka in New Zealand.