It’s hard to know where to begin. And it’s hard to believe that it was a whole year ago that I filled in my details on the Challenge Roth website and entered my first full distance event. But fuck me, it came around quick.
The weeks immediately running up to the race had been a bit disrupted by a busy spell at work, some illness in the house and some other life stuff such as going to see The Stone Roses in Manchester the weekend before (amazing!) that takes priority – usual rules for age groupers – so of course my mind going into the trip was filled with thoughts of the sessions I had missed rather then the hours I had done in that time.
This was always going to be an epic trip. Not only is Roth a legendary event, but the road trip itself with @JamieWardell and @TroyMaloy, driving all 800 odd KM’s to Nuremberg meant epicness guaranteed.
12 hours in the car passed with loads of great banter, top tunes and surprisingly quickly but don’t believe them when they say the Autobahns are the best roads in the world 🙁
Our first sight of the course came the next day, Friday, when we headed to the swim start. The swim takes place in a busy working canal which is closed to all traffic for practice and the event so there was a fairly small window to get in the water. Although the buoys were not yet laid out, we knew roughly where the turn around points were (or so we thought – more of that later) and let me tell you, when you can see km’s up a long straight canal, it looks a long way. The vibes were really great, and we hung out with fellow London based friends Paul D, Paul B, Laura, Matt (who saved a hunger meltdown by cracking out about 2 kilo’s of @FreespeedLondon raisins), Andrew, Ian and Ash.
From there we hit a local cafe for coffee and breakfast before driving a good section of the bike course. The perception is that it’s flat. It’s not, and it’s more than rolling. We had the bikes in the car so we stopped just before the steepest climb and rode an out and back section for about an hour. Being out an the bikes cranked the excitement up a notch and with some smooth German roads it was clear there would be some very fast sections. From there to registration and a stroll around the Expo where I managed to lose my beloved Oakley sunglasses. Most bleak.
Saturday was about a few last minute tweeks and gathering supplies before trying to rest up as much as possible, getting some carbs in and trying to keep a lid on excitement. I felt like I wanted to wrestle someone…
As always, the night before didn’t deliver the most amazing sleep ever, not least because of the 03:30 alarm call. With Jamie & Troy in a wave 45 minutes before mine, plus the usual fear of running out of time, we were happy to be up and heading to the swim start. What on paper seemed like a mission of parking, walking to the start, dropping off bags etc actually turned out to be no trouble. Challenge have got the admin down pat and this was the recurring theme throughout – they have a very different (I think better) feel about them to WTC which seems much more corporate and less personal.
A last check of the bikes, loading up nutrition and pumping up tyre’s and it was almost show time. The atmosphere was amazing – really buzzy and with great building tension in the air. With wetsuit pulled on, I made my way to the start and watched a couple of waves go off – the sound of the cannon at the start of each waive was thunderous and the perfect way to start this epic event.
THE SWIM: 1:05:14
As already mentioned, the swim is a long, straight drag in the canal, a turnaround, then past the start point under a bridge packed with spectators before turning again for home. As expected there was a lot of thrashing, but I had adopted a position at one side to I think escaped the worst. I felt pretty relaxed and was annoyed I hadn’t got closer to the front as I was definitely held up by the swimmers in front of me. Other than losing my cap after about 15 minutes, and a couple of kicks to the face it was pretty uneventful and I felt like I had a good relaxed rhythm and a solid catch. By now I was going past swimmers 3 waves on front of mine meaning there was some navigation to be done to side-step the bottlenecks. All was well until we approached the aforementioned bridge when I stepped it up a gear thinking we were almost home. But (and here is a lesson in proper prep), the final turnaround marker wasn’t where I thought it was going to be and we had probably about another 300m to go. So, I had to adjusted and didn’t let it freak me out but I was kicking myself for the amateur-hour error.
Usually stress free, I hit a problem here – someone had either moved or accidentally grabbed my bike bag. There was nothing other than a small towel and socks in it, but it meant I didn’t have a bag to put my wetsuit in. This really threw the volunteers, but one girl eventually took it from me and said she’s take care of it. I wasn’t sure what that meant but trusted in karma to return it to me somehow.
THE BIKE 05:29:56
The course here is 2 laps and that is how I broke it down in my mind. The advice form those vastly more experienced than me was unanimous: don’t get excited and take it easy on the bike. Although my use of a power meter was really about gathering data, my slightly unscientific plan was not to let power go over about 250w on the climbs. At the front of my mind all the time was the fact I had to run my first ever marathon when I got off after 180km. Looking back on the data, the ride is littered with spikes so a have some work to do on this!
There were a couple of notable features. The first was that it was very windy – apparently the windiest Roth on record. The second lap was worse, and the common view was that even for the best cyclists this might have meant 20 minutes. The second was the Solaraberg climb, the most legendary section where thousands of locals come to support the athletes and narrow the road to single file. It really took my breath away on the first lap and I felt like a TDF rider. The power definitely spiked then!
My nutrition plan was not very well defined. I had 7 gels on a squeezy bottle, several bars in my bento box and 2 drinks bottles – one with isotonic drink, the other with an electrolyte drink. I’d also taken one tablet to help with GI at the suggestion of Tam Lewis – this had worked really well for me in my last 70.3 and I’d avoided some of the GI issues encountered at previous races.
At about 150k I was starting to get a sore back from being on the aero bars, but otherwise felt pretty decent physically and despite the wind, there were stretches where over 40kph that felt effortless. 2 Ibuprofen sorted the back but not the mind fuckery and I really wanted the bike to end quickly. That brief bleak moment passed after about 15 minutes and before I know it we were rolling into T2.
A great example of how Challenge look after the athletes: Volunteers see you coming in and clock your number, finding your bag and handing it right to you. Another volunteeer practically put my shoes on for me and handed me my fuel belt and visor while another put suncream on my neck and shoulders. Amazing.
THE RUN. 04:21:06
Oh my….the run! I know it would be all about the run which is definitely my weakest discipline. And I’ve never run a marathon before, so experience = ZILCH!
Things started really well, probably too well. My plan was to aim for a 3:45 marathon at a constant 5:20 pace. I felt surprisingly good going into the run. At my previous event in Mallorca i knew within a minute that the run was going to be a ‘mare so it was pleasing to feel so positive – so much so that I had to really slow myself down in the first meters. Before I knew it, I was closing in on 10km with the only memorable point hearing @TroyMaloy bellow “P-Doooogggg!” at me long before I saw him.
The course at Roth is flat, with much of it being long canal-side stretches. We’d been warned that this can be a bit of a head fuck because the scenery doesn’t change and at times you can see 5km’s ahead. In the end this wan’t too bad and it is punctuated by looping into small villages at the turnaround points at either end where, like on the bike course, the level of support from local people is pretty amazing.
The 15km point passed and so far so good. Then 20km…still not too bad, but somewhere around the 25km point things started to get a bit ugly. The legs were getting tired and the lack of strategy on the bike nutrition started to comeback to bite me as the feeling of having a brick sitting in my stomach grew. Up to this point I’d walked a couple of the aid stations and taken coke and water from the start but this, on top of the gels and bars from the bike all started getting a bit much. There was no danger of a Paula Radcliffe style crisis, but I was getting really uncomfortable and was now having to walk more frequently. The legs were really tight now, and the focus was all about getting from aid station to aid station. I really dont remember much about the run other than @JamieWardell shouting at me at one aid station (I think he knew I was struggling) and thinking “This is really going to get shitty” quite a lot. For one brief moment at around 30km a horrible thought entered my mind…”I’m not going to finish this”. Then I remembered all the amazing messages of support, good luck and positive vibes I’d received before the race from family, friends and even strangers and kicked that right into touch.
I couldn’t stomach any more coke or sports drink so decided late in the run to try the chicken soup. “Chicken soup? Whaaaa?” I can hear you say. But to be fair, it was magical – my stomach immediately felt a little better, enough that I could at least get a shuffle going and as well as alleviating the monotony of sweet drinks I also amused myself for a while by thinking of this.
By now I had about 10km to go and I knew I just had to grind it out. I kept moving, except for one moment when my brain just said “Sit down, IMMEDIATELY!” which I did without any say in the matter. Then I thought, “What the fuck are you doing” and managed to get myself up and going again.
A few more walking periods punctuated the by now well off the pace running but on the last turnoff the canal path and thought a section of forrest I was ticking off the km’s. With about 4km to go the route enters the town of Roth where the crowds start building up and I could hear the music from the finish line PA. The course loops into the town before heading for the finish and I have to say that the last 3 km felt like the longest of the day. But nothing lasts forever. Running under the big banner over the entrance to the expo and onto the red carpet was glorious, but even now a sharp cramp in my stomach made me stop for about 5 seconds.
The finish line at Roth is inside a purpose built arena in the town centre, and it’s a bit like finishing a race in a night club. Crowds, noise, music, colour, energy – really a memorable experience.
And so I crossed the line, had a medal put round my neck and proceeded to collapse on the grass and be hit by a wave of emotion. @TroyMaloy was waiting for me as close as he could get and I’ve never been so happy to see a friend. A few man tears and hugs later and I was ready to sit down and rest.
Final TIme: 11:03:00 Full split details HERE.
So, my first full distance race completed and with a few days to mull things over, here are some observations that I’ll be taking into my next one, and using in my training:
- The marathon can kick your arse.
- You can’t really know what to expect until you do one.
- A solid and tested nutrition strategy on the bike is critical to your run.
- I raced with power, but need to dial that in much more efficiently and use it more effectively. At least now I’ve started a data history.
- The marathon can kick your arse.
- No matter how good you feel, stick to the plan on the run.
- Friends are awesome.
- I keep saying it, and I’m not sponsored, but Xendurance works – I’m amazed at how not-shit I felt the days after the race.
- Much work needs to be done on my running.
- The marathon can kick your arse.
Despite my final time being about 30 minutes slower than I had secretly been hoping for, I feel pretty positive. I think if I were to (metaphorically) do this again tomorrow I could get close to that. Maybe that’s the post-race, pain-has-faded Paul talking……
As a final point, I have to mention some particularly amazing things about this event.
- Volunteers are amazing, brilliant and vital Remember to say thank you to as many of them as you can, wherever you race.
- The local people come out to support in their thousands – 200,000 apparently. That gives me goosebumps.
- And stick around for the final finisher and fireworks – it’s a massive party atmosphere and just felt right to be there