The slot is secured and the target set. So what now? What path will see me go from being a competent yet not outstanding runner to one who finishes a monumental endurance challenge like the Eiger 101 in a decent time?
The first important step, as was the case when preparing for my Ironman races, was to enlist the advice, guidance and self-pressure application that comes from having a professional coach on your side. I wasn’t certain if Trace, who expertly guided me to becoming an Ironman, would want to take on the tangenital task of training an ultra-runner, being a triathlon coach with a busy client-load and a packed race calendar, but was pleasantly surprised when she reacted really positively to the idea of taking on something new. It looks as though this experience will see both of us push our respective boundaries and learn something new.
Having an interim goal in the form of an earlier race is always a sound idea for any long-term training plan and so we looked at the upcoming races here in the Middle East and opted to focus immediate efforts on the Urban Ultra UTX-50, a mixed trail race on the 8th December that will see runners cover 50km of sand, trail and wadis, with some climbs thrown in for good measure. As a test of where my endurance running is and how my training is progressing this should be a telling event. The distance no longer scares me after doing the 72km Wadi Bih race earlier this year, although I feel as though I should be going into this race significantly fitter and better prepared than I was in February. As such, I am hoping to record a decent time and enjoy the day. The mainstay of my preparation has been to head out to Wadi Showka each Friday morning in order to hit the trails and steadily increase the mileage, with 28km being the furthest I have run this season, a significant way off the 101km of the Eiger but a decent start to my campaign.
With the temperatures finally dropping as we emphatically move from the oppressive heat and humidity of summer into winter (aka the ‘pleasant season’), there is less imperative to start runs at stupid o’clock as running in daylight no longer coincides with guaranteed heat exhaustion as it does in the summer months. There is, however, something incredibly exciting and satisfying about witnessing dawn whilst out on the trails, in addition to it actually being excellent training in head-torch use and running with just the light from several LEDs to illuminate the path. That was one of my most recent purchases: a new head-torch, as my previous one was quite frankly feckless, barely lighting the way ahead. My new lamp, in contrast, practically recreates daylight such are the number of lumens that it hurls out. Lovely!
Anyone who has ever put themselves through an endurance event, such as an Ironman race or a marathon, will recognise the description of the (often) many moments during the event when thoughts inevitably turn a little dark and take the form of “why, oh why, do I do this to myself?! What made me sign up for this hell?! That’s it! This is the last time…. never again!” Then, as one crosses the finish line, how those very thoughts pretty much instantly transform into ones of elated euphoria and a wry smile as you tell anyone who asks if you’ll do another, “well, never say never, eh,” meaning “yes, almost certainly yes.” It is the biological shot in the arm and natural high from endorphins and the incredible sense of achievement that follows completion of a really tough athletic challenge that sees us return to the endurance pantheon and continue to push ourselves on and on, higher and higher, harder and harder. Time and time again.
I’m no exception to this apparent rule and so it seemed almost inevitable that following the completion of two iron distance races, and two solid years of equally relentless training, my thoughts turned once again to event options. I had tried the whole ‘training just to keep fit for fitness sake’ thing and it really didn’t work – I NEED a specific goal and that invariably means an event to train for. One thing I realised from long course triathlon was that I was neither a natural nor an enthusiastic cyclist whereas the running I did enjoy – a fact that really saved both of my iron distance races given that the run came at the end. As such I decided that I wanted to focus more on running as I moved forward and in probably a very cliched way I looked to endurance options, namely ultra-marathons.
I first heard the term ‘ultra-marathon’ whilst at vet school as one of the farm residents, a great guy by the name of Ben, was known for running them. The prospect at that stage of running even a normal marathon seemed extreme and so I considered those who went well beyond that to be, well, a bit mental. Fast forward many years and having become well and truly initiated into the endurance sport world the idea of ‘going long’ was no longer an alien concept. In fact, it sort of felt like the natural progression.
Having made the decision to focus on running, and specifically trail, last season I got involved by joining Dubai’s Desert Trail Runners, headed up by running machine, Lee Harris, and closed out my first winter by taking on the famed Wadi Bih 72km race, which you can read more about here. As with most races, the lingering thought following completion of the event was “I wonder what I could have done were I to train harder?” It was this thought that drove me to look at race options and to find a really special event for which to train. The Eiger 101 was that race.
As soon as I found out about the Eiger I was smitten. For a start I love the mountains, a fact that was a major draw for me doing the Lake Tahoe Ironman in 2015, and the views that runners are blessed with during the Eiger 101 are legendary. Secondly, it is regarded as a tough race. A very tough race. Who wants easy, right? The difficulty factor applies not only to the actual course but also to actually getting a slot, with only 600 starts available for the 101km race, all of which sell out very quickly. I had tried to register last year in 2016, for the 2017 race, but was too late and so this year I was determined to do all I could to maximise my chances of a slot.
With the 31st October firmly penciled into my calendar and my credit card details at the ready, I was sat at my computer as the clock crept towards the 10am (Swiss time) mark. Tick. Tock. Open. Cue the kind of frantic clicking and typing that is normally reserved for efforts to secure Glastonbury tickets, coupled with the intense frustration that came with getting repeatedly booted out of the reservation page and/ or having the page fail as I was headed into the final payment screen. Twenty fruitless minutes later and I was no closer to being registered AND was now expected to actually start some work, having cheekily blocked out my first appointment of the day so as to be able to focus on the race booking. I was convinced that once again my efforts had been thwarted as I was presented with a screen that said something akin to “you’re in a digital queue,” before that became, “sorry but booking is now closed.” Grr! Twenty minutes of my life, nada to show for it and the prospect of the very race I had started training hard for having moved firmly out of reach. Needless to say I was peeved.
That was until an email pinged into my account that seemed to be telling me in no uncertain terms that I had, in fact, secured a place and I was duly invited to pay for it. So I did. How a day can about face and turn 180-degrees in a moment! So that was it….. I was in. I AM in. Awesome! But wait……that means I now have to run it. 101 kilometres. Up and down serious mountains. Holy s*$t! What have I let myself in for?!
The Eiger 101 – What Exactly Is It?
A run. A very, very long run. Up and down some of the most majestic mountains in the world. The first event was held in 2013 so it is still a relatively young race, with options for shorter distances on offer alongside the 101 km event. The route takes runners on a roughly – very roughly – circular route starting in the Swiss village of Grindelwald, high up in the Alps, returning after taking in the best of the surrounding mountains, meadows and forests.
From what I can glean from the various blogs (see below) I have scoured since securing my slot in 2018’s race, the fastest times for the full distance come in at about 12 hours, with the cutoff being 26 hours. It would seem from what I have read that a fit amateur could be very happy with a time of around 20 hours. That’s a long time out on your feet and up in the mountains – certainly a lot longer than anything I would expect to face in an Ironman race. As such, I look forward to a very different approach to training for this event – this will be as much a cerebral challenge as a physical one. Bring it on!
With the Skydive Dubai desert dropzone closed for the scorching summer months and being a relative fledgling in the sport with insufficient jumps to be a Palm-bird I had to consider dropzones further afield in order to obtain my freefall fix. Yes, skydiving, as anyone who does it for fun will confess, is an addiction. A powerful one at that. The lure of open skies and thousands of feet of void to flip, slide, track and fly through is a tough one to resist.
Cue the search for potential skydiving holiday destinations. A few web searches, blogs and a Facebook Messenger conversation later I had my selection: Skydive Balaton, just outside the lakeside town of Siofok in Hungary. The main draw of this dropzone, other than the fact that the pictures and videos I had seen were amazing, was the fact that they jump from helicopters. Not just any heli though. No. Decommissioned military Mi8 choppers! After confirming that the forecast for my intended week was good – Eastern Europe, it seemed, was enjoying a very well timed heatwave – tickets were booked to fly to Budapest, the night shift finished and my bags duly packed. Freefall here I come!
Budapest, which I chose to spend a few days exploring at the start of the trip, was stunning and despite having an unfortunate start to the week after my laptop was stolen I found the city to be charming, full of history and, much like Prague, where I had been fortunate enough to visit with my father a few weeks prior, had incredible views at each and every turn. With my tourist mental checklist satisfied and hire car secured, I left the urban confines of the city and struck out into Hungary’s countryside, driving the one and a half hours out to Lake Balaton and the skydive complex, nestled at the Southern end of the runway.
I was immediately impressed with the set up there. Manifest was well organised, with my first point of contact, Krsytina, running it like the tight ship this place clearly was, and a great system whereby newly registered skydivers were issued a personal card, with this being used to self-manifest electronically, scanning in and collecting a paper ticket from an automatic machine just prior to the jump itself. Seamless, easy and sophisticated. So far so impressed. The complex itself was superbly serviced, with a number of individual hangars that groups of jumpers could make use of to pack and hang out in, a fantastic cafe and outdoor seating with panoramic views over the landing area. Skydive Balaton also has a range of really great accommodation options, from small two bed cabins, to more extensive lodgings, and, of course, the option to camp, with clean, serviceable showers and other facilities. The on-site restaurant, Aviator, served amazingly delicious food and, of course, refreshing local beer! It was easy to see why the centre played host to a number of boogies during the summer, with one actually coming to an end as I arrived.
One of the beauties of the sport is that it is wonderfully social and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to a great group of guys and girls, making the hangar in which they’d spent the boogie week in my base for the few days I was there. Welcoming, generous and fun they made my time jumping there even more awesome than I knew it was going to be and although several of my jumps were solo affairs – great for quiet contemplation and time to enjoy the expansive views of the lake and beyond – I was also able to do several jumps with other people, which is always more fun! The options for fun that come from jumping out of the back of a helicopter are almost limitless. The choice of HOW to exit is just the start. Run out? Fall backwards? Hanging drop? If you can think of it then you can pretty much do it from a helicopter. One of the funniest exits I was able to do was to hang from the rope out the back by my feet before dropping towards the earth below head first. The group jumps were hilarious, from a nine-way ‘Hot Dog’ jump to celebrate Luke’s 200th jump, to the ‘Cat’ jump that I got to do with Chris and Kim, in which we linked end to end before tracking, Chris then dipping his head to the ground causing me to fly up and over, catapulting across the sky! Epic jumps every single one. Even the journey to altitude was magical and I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in some kind of epic action movie, sitting with my legs dangling from the rear of this master of the skies as we hurtled across the grass before climbing like a colossal metallic dragonfly and revealing the lake and surrounding country far below.
Talking of generosity, I was extremely grateful to the guys, especially Aaron and Paul, who took the time to help refresh my memory of how to pack my own rig, a skill that I had long neglected in favour of simply paying for pack jobs in Dubai. There was a part of me that didn’t really feel like a complete skydiver not knowing how to pack myself and I ended the weekend confidently packing myself and living to tell the tale! In fact, I am pleased to report that my chute opened seamlessly on every pack that I did on my own, which is always reassuring! That’s another element of this sport I love: there are very few airs and graces, with most of the people you meet being down-to-earth (ironically) sorts with a sense of humour and a generous spirit. We all look out for one another and you’re guaranteed to have friends wherever you choose to go in the world. For that I am super grateful!
The weather gods were certainly smiling on us during our time there, as the day I left the winds picked up. As I drove away, back towards Budapest and my flight home, I had the satisfied grin and the aching muscles that signal a great few days of jumping, already plotting my return. If you’re looking for an amazing dropzone to visit then this is one for your list.
The Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.
I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however, that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Paperwork. Oh The Joy.
I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂 and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.
First Time – Clueless
Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.
As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.
The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.
One of the very best parts of living out here in Dubai is the opportunity to engage in a plethora of incredible sports, enabled in large part by the reliable weather – warm, sunny and generally perfect during the winter months; less so in the summer! The other main factor that drives the opportunities for adventurous leisure pursuits is the fact that Dubai invests and does so in a big way if it is something that they take a keen interest in. Skydive Dubai is one such example and the truth is that it has very much made a mark for itself as one of the premier skydiving destinations on the planet, a truth that was evident during the recent Winter Festival.
I love the fact that my days off get to start with questions of the nature,”what fun outdoor pursuit shall I engage in today?” Should I scuba dive? Climb? Trail run? Maybe kitesurf? Or what about skydiving? So many options and all within a sensible distance of the city itself. One of my key activities is skydiving. I have loved the sport ever since giving my mother grey hairs by signing up for a tandem when I was an 18 year old Gap Year student travelling in New Zealand. Fast forward 12 years and I had the pleasure of gaining my solo skydiving licence in the US, training at Skydive San Diego, and putting my new found skills to use at various drop zones in the state of California. It was, truth be told, the promise of skydiving at Skydive Dubai and jumping over the Palm that finally made my mind up as to whether to accept a position in the Middle East and to make the move to become an expat. I was seduced by the sky! I had experienced the sport in the UK and came to the conclusion pretty swiftly that I was very much a fair-weather skydiver – sunnier, hotter climes and bluer skies beckoned.
One of the highlights of the skydiving calendar here in Dubai is the annual Winter Festival, that generally runs from Boxing Day (26th December) through to New Year’s Day, with full on days of epic jumping with a plethora of visiting skydivers from all over the planet. I was able to jump for just two out of the seven days this year but really made the most out of that time, with back to back loads each day that saw me focus on formation belly jumps and the ultimate goal of nailing a two-point 8-way, one of the required skills for the USPA C-licence, and something that a number of my fellow sky-buddies had their sights set on too. One of the key advantages of attending the Winter Festival is that we get to jump repeatedly with coaches, something that would normally cost significantly more during normal weeks. This not only offers a really fun way to get to know the professional skydivers here and hang out with them as friends but also leads to some seriously accelerated improvement in our skills in the sky. Planning a jump, doing it, reviewing it with a coach who really knows their stuff and then going back out and doing it again and again leads to exponential improvements and was, I am sure, the prime driver of us collectively achieving our goal of securing 8-way success.
In addition to getting to do loads of really fun jumps with interesting, vibrant friends, both new and existing, there were plenty of other reasons to hang out at the drop zone during the festival. Each day ended with dinner, a great opportunity to review the day’s jumps and think ahead to the next, followed by the ‘video of the day’ screened around the desert campfire. I even had a win in one of the daily raffle draws, thrilled as I was to receive a voucher for five free jump tickets. The glider was a feature during the festival as well, going up again and again to give others the same incredible thrill of being ejected as I had experienced previously and one that everyone raved about.
One of the really incredible features of pursuing adrenaline sports as a pastime is that pretty much all domains become big playgrounds. From playing at being a fish and exploring the other-worldliness of being a scuba diver to the sheer thrill and exhilaration of freefall as a skydiver, I love the constant stream of ‘new’ that such endeavours present.
When I saw that there was an aerobatic glider parked on the runway at Skydive Dubai’s desert campus, and knowing that they were offering something special as advertised on social media, I was intrigued but otherwise didn’t think too much more about it. That was until we were all sat around chatting after a couple of early morning jumps and the topic of the ‘glider jumps’ came up. As fun as it sounded I still wasn’t especially sold on the idea, especially given that the one and only previous time I had been in a glider was a couple of year’s ago when I ended up feeling really quite queasy whilst crammed in next to my dad. The price also seemed a little steep, representing several standard jumps – ones that would get me closer to my current goal of 200 – and so I somewhat mentally parked the whole idea. That was until Shunka, one of the most experienced instructors at the dropzone described how even after 15,000 jumps under his belt, his glider experience was among his top three jumps of all time! SOLD! I trust what he says and if he was saying that it was an awesome experience then I had to see what the fuss was all about….
Cash handed over, I was summoned to manifest where I met Tony, our glider pilot, and was taken through the briefing of what to expect, what to do and all I could think was “wow!” The description of the anticipated experience was intense enough and that was whilst standing safely on terra firma! When it came to my turn I strapped in and just started grinning from the moment we started rolling. I was going to do this crazy thing and I didn’t even fully know what that thing was even going to be!
As we climbed, higher and higher, towed by the plane just up in front of us, I appreciated the intense sense of freedom and presence that being in an uncovered seat on a glider that is flying affords someone. The view out over the desert, the dropzone and the surrounding properties and landscape was crisp, detailed and in full technicolor. I was able to appreciate features of the area surrounding the desert campus that I just hadn’t really ever been able to closely notice in the main skydive plane. The ride up alone was worth taking up the challenge!
At 4,500 feet we detached from the plane and started truly gliding, swooping in and out of the isolated banks of cloud that were our companions and spotting the current load of skydivers as their canopies popped sequentially into view. We completed a few fairground-worthy manoeuvres, including a full inversion to leave me dangling in my strap, head pointed directly towards earth, and the ‘practice runs’ of the main move in which we dived steeply before banking sharply skyward, placing us on a fully vertical steep ascent. After the second of these trial runs I was given the nod to do several things in sequence: a) undo my seat-strap – something that emphasised the reality of what was about to go down and the fact that I was putting my full trust in Tony; b) bring legs forward, with knees clearing the console positioned directly in front; and c) place my hands on the side of the glider, both in anticipation of the main event and also to ensure that it went as smoothly as possible. Only one thing left to do and that was grin from ear to ear as we dived one last time before pulling up into our steep, vertical climb. When the glider shifted it was the strangest feeling, even though I was fully expecting it to happen: the glider and I simply parted ways!
“I felt myself continue to move up!”
Whilst climbing at 100mph, Tony simply moved the glider in a quick fluid motion away from my relative position, the effect being to essentially eject me from my seat and the aircraft entirely. As I did so I felt myself continue to move up! The completely wrong direction! All whilst still moving in synch with the glider itself. The effect was one of simulating complete and utter weightlessness – a very powerful and difficult to fully imagine sensation. As both myself and the glider reached the apex of the ascent, the rush of air quietened to complete silence as we both sort of hovered in place for a split second before starting the downward phase of the arc, driven of course by gravity. After all, what goes up generally must come down. As I started to fall back to earth I remembered the advice I was given not to rush deployment but to a) continue to enjoy this most bizarre of experiences and b) to wait until I had sufficient speed with which to establish normal stability for correct pilot chute deployment. So it was and as I felt the rush of terminal velocity return – by now a familiar feeling – I waved off, threw out the pilot and waited for my parachute to open before surveying my airspace for the glider as it started to swoop and circle me whilst I flew under canopy. Being buzzed by an aircraft, especially one that makes little to no sound other than a rapid swoosh as it soars past, was akin to sharing the sky with a giant bird and the next few minutes of flight were like something out of an extreme sports movie.
Every piece of GoPro footage I have seen to date from those who have completed the same experience ends the same way: landing followed by a holler of delight at how utterly awesome the jump was. I was no different! I touched down, was buzzed at practically touching distance by the glider one final time – a pass-by that I was not expecting – and proceeded to whoop and holler like a man possessed. The entire experience was electrifying and had it not been for needing to get back to Dubai I would have been very very tempted to sign straight back up for another go. Wow! Every skydiver has to try this out. It was nuts!
“Solar Hill is like a religious experience!” With claims like that how could any self-respecting triathlete not want to race Challenge Roth at least once?! I had long been aware of the legend of Roth, Germany, the home of Challenge and one of the longest running races on the calendar, for a number of years, being the stage for multiple incredible records in it’s history and considered by many to be their favorite race ever.
I had attempted to secure a coveted spot for 2015’s race but missed out by seconds – the slots sell out in moments so one has to be ready and waiting online as soon as the site goes live, much like trying to get tickets for a major rock festival! Having learned my lesson and hearing even more tales of how memorable the race was I was determined to have another go, fresh as I was off the back of my inaugural Ironman in Lake Tahoe and clearly having forgotten the punishing training regime and discomfort of the actual race, such is the nature of both time passed and memories of the endorphin high above and beyond the pain. I had, like many before me and I am sure many after me, claimed rather unconvincingly that “one would probably be enough” as far as iron distance races went. No-one believed me and, rather predictably, it wasn’t long before the lure of the long course whispered to me again, the focus being on getting, first, into Roth and then, second, fit for Roth.
Having learned my lesson the year before I was ready and waiting, credit card details primed and finger on the mouse as the entries for Roth went live. As Sod’s Law would have it I actually secured two places this time around and had to forfeit one as that was all I needed. I was in. Cue the requisite training, working again with Trace Rogers and her new GroWings team, as we worked on building the fitness that I had honed over the previous two years. I will be the first to admit that my preparation for Roth was nowhere near as intense as for Tahoe, in part on account of work demands and schedules and also, quite honestly, because I felt significantly less pressure for this race. In my mind Roth was to be enjoyed above and beyond any other goal. It was also, logic dictated, meant to be a less physically demanding race compared to the high altitude course at Tahoe. Add to that the fact that I had established a pretty decent base level of endurance fitness, which all meant that I suffered less guilt if the odd session were missed or curtailed. That’s not to say I didn’t train: I certainly did. Hard and enthusiastically. Just not as hard as in previous years.
Fast forward several months and I was one of several Dubai-triathletes who jetted out, leaving behind the intense heat of summer for the kinder climes of Europe and specifically Bavaria. My parents were, once again, eager to join me in this iron adventure, being my staunch supporters in Tahoe and providing even more justification to tack on a decent holiday afterwards. Our first few days were spent in Nuremberg itself, starting our stay, quite by chance on account of some channel hopping in our apartment, by watching a BBC documentary “How To Become A German,” which was actually filmed in the city and provided some entertaining facts by which to start our experience. For example, we now had an official pork and beer consumption figure to aim for to truly feel German! Nuremberg was a beautiful city to explore, full of history, some of it dark but important to acknowledge, but more importantly now full of wonderful people, incredible culture, stunning architecture and food and drink options that satisfied our appetites very well. I even found the time to enjoy some of the city’s training infrastructure, joining an early morning swim session at one of the very modern, clean and popular indoor pools and running around the huge park close to our accommodation, which was part training run, part historical tour.
A couple of days before the actual race, we moved closer to Roth itself, although getting from the city to the race would not have been an issue or even taken very long, choosing to stay with a wonderful lady, Hanne, in her family’s fairytale cottage just outside the classically beautiful town of Schwabach. It was there that we had the good fortune to meet a Munich first-time iron triathlete, Dirk, and his family, all of whom reinforced the main memory of the trip, that being how incredibly friendly, fun, interesting and caring the Bavarian people are. Hanne and her husband, for example, made sure that all of us were fed the most exquisite meal of spaghetti bolognese the night before the race – our very own ‘pasta party’ – and were waiting by the door at midnight after the race, full breakdown of each of our races and a congratulatory beer in hand! As far as hosts went, they were truly champions of the art.
The first thing that becomes evident when entering the town of Roth, and Hipoltstein, where the swim takes place, is how into the event everyone truly is. Its as if the entire area comes out to welcome triathletes and their families, with signs everywhere and references to the race set against the backdrop of Disney-esque castles, postcard streets and rolling countryside that could have come straight out of the Hobbit.
The race village, expo and stadium, where the fireworks and finish were to be found, was a short walk from the centre of town and one was immediately reminded of the importance and pedigree of the race on the approach, with a series of displays showing details of past races, their winners and amazing photos. We arrived relatively early to register and even then the place was packed and buzzing with excited activity. Registration was straightforward and I left the marquee officially branded a ‘Participant’ and with a nice new backpack for my dad to accompany his Ironman Lake Tahoe one. The obligatory stop at the official Challenge store – surprisingly small it must be said, although this is based on a comparison to Ironman events, where it seems everything imaginable is available for purchase as a branded product – where a new set of caps were procured and some last minute shopping for essential items, including spare CO2 canisters, a race must.
I chose to join the Saturday morning practice swim such that I could check my bike in afterwards, and joined a crowd of similarly neoprene-clad “loons” (my mum’s observation) in testing out the fresh but thankfully not utterly freezing waters of the Main-Donau Canal, the famous stage for Challenge Roth’s swim, with it’s straightforward single loop, out and back course that promised a fast swim time and unprecedented levels of spectator support as onlookers cheered from the banks in clear view. The water itself, whilst refreshing, was certainly not clear and I was advised to do my best not to swallow any of it, especially given that several people suffered GI issues and one person I know had developed an ear infection following the swim last year. The fact that the weather in the week leading up to the race had actually been unseasonably cool lessened the risk in 2016 as I guess the bacteria levels in the canal were probably expected to be lower this year.
A few relaxed lengths and the obligatory spot of in-water photography later I was satisfied that the swim would not be too daunting an experience and so joined mum and dad for some “kaffee und kuchen” by the banks, watching others enjoy the water, before filling the time between the swim and check-in with sightseeing down the road, exploring the charming little town of Hipoltstein and scaling it’s castle for impressive views out over the surrounding area.
Bike check-in is always an exciting part of any race, especially the big, key events, as it is truly the moment at which it all gets real and the nervous trepidation starts to ramp up. What was hours before an empty green space with multiple pallets lined up in rows was rapidly transforming into a collective dream-park, each pristinely cleaned, tuned and individualised bike representing that person’s arrival on this very special stage. Bike racked and a couple of physical walk-throughs of my planned journey from the swim through transition and to my bike later I collected my parents, dropping off my run bag with the Challenge team and then navigated the crowds off the site and headed back to Roth in time for the race briefing.
The weather during our first week in Germany was, it would be accurate to say, changeable, lurching from cloudy and chilly to brilliant moments of bright sunshine and an equally impressive jump in the temperature. From initially worrying that race day might be “dull, cloudy and cold,” which would “suck” I soon started to change my tune, hoping that the day would, after all, remain somewhat cool given how fierce the sun seemed to be when it did make an appearance. That’s still the one element of everyone’s race that we can’t influence: the conditions. They simply are what they will be on the day and it is our job to suck it up and adapt/ cope as best we are able. One of the main bits of advice I took from the rather hot, stuffy and, frankly, protracted race briefing was to wear some arm warmers on the bike, as it was predicted to be pretty nippy the following morning. I am glad I took that advice and promptly added a pair to my kit collection as they did actually make a good deal of difference to my ultimate experience of the bike leg.
With the briefing complete and bike checked-in all that was left was to head on home, get some decent food on board, try and get some sleep – who actually ever sleeps properly the night before a big race?! – and remind myself that I was as prepared for the day as I could hope to be and that I should probably set two alarms, just in case.
One of the many differences between Ironman and Challenge, in my limited experience at least, is the fact that Challenge provide really professional race number tattoos for athletes whereas Ironman usually just involves getting your race number scrawled on in permanent marker. Getting to feel even moderately professional as an athlete is really fun and can help get you in the right head space pre-race, with even the application of the numbers providing a moment of quiet, concentrated reflection on what is to come. I like that. Alarms pre-empted, as much breakfast as my nervous stomach could manage – and what a spread! Hanne had once again surpassed herself – and mum and dad roused from their own beds – the price of being an iron athlete supporter and reliant on the same athlete to drive. Given that this was my first year racing, it was not simple for non-driving supporters to get back to Roth from Hipoltstein after the swim and I frankly didn’t fancy trekking back over there to collect the car after the race, we opted to park up in Roth, where mum and dad remained for the entire day and I availed myself of the athlete shuttle bus to get to the swim. Seeing the huge tailback on the approach to the swim start whilst the bus sailed past everyone I told myself that I had made the correct decision even though it did mean my parents missing out on one of the highlights of the Challenge Roth experience.
The atmosphere on site was electric and it was a pleasant, clear, slightly cool morning as I finalised my bike preparation, taping on my main drinks reservoir as I had seen others do – they clearly knew something I didn’t! Track pump borrowed, my tyres received their final check before I dropped my bike transition bag in place and paced the route from the swim exit, through the bag area, into the changing tent and out to my bike. Satisfied I knew the route well enough to ensure a smooth transition from the water, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Nervous Triathlete to make my donation, along with all of the other pilgrims, before finding a quiet-enough corner of the bike park in which to sit and wind down before I needed to properly wind up. I was joined at this point by fellow GroWings athlete, and first time iron-distance triathlete, Alex, who had chosen what was effectively his home race with which to pop his long-distance cherry. I offered a little, hopefully, helpful reassurance but knew from personal experience that at that stage the preparation was complete and the best thing to allow was quiet contemplation. The time was fast approaching and so the wetsuit was half-donned, shoes relinquished to the day bag, with this being dropped off with the Challenge team and representing the final ritual stage before the race itself. Now all that was left was to wait my turn and race my race.
I made my way towards the holding area for the swim and given that I was in one of the later waves to set off, found a spot from where I could view the swim start and watch the athletes before me. There I met fellow Dubai athletes Lynette, Vicky and (whilst technically now resident back in Germany, he is still considered a Tri-Dubai’er, especially as he was sporting the team colours) Florian, all of us quickly agreeing that our choice of ‘prime viewing’ location came with one drawback, that being the fact it was directly behind the portable loos! Sucking in lungfuls of other peoples’ anxiety was perhaps not the most advantageous – and certainly not fragrant – preparation one could make. Still, the view was good and the stinky wafts infrequent enough to see us remain and watch the pros, including the unstoppable Jan Frodeno, and Kenny head off, with all of us involuntarily jumping as the cannon went off. That was it; the race had officially kicked off and before long the age groupers were off and out, wave after wave kicking off to rapturous applause and the beautiful sight of hot air balloons rising from the misty of the fields on the opposite bank.
I had been expecting to spot my bosses during the week, both of them returning to Roth for what was their third (?) start, but had thus far alluded them. I did, however, spot Monique as she walked to the swim start, each giving the other a good luck hug and discovering that Malcolm was in one of the much later waves to go. My wave eventually came around but not before I had the chance to witness Frodeno sail past on his homeward leg, moving through the water like a graceful otter and minutes ahead of the rest of the field. With a start like that his chances of breaking the course record were on good footing. Go Jan!
And then it was my turn. The Challenge team did a sterling job right from the word go with rousing the crowd and getting the athletes primed, and we entered the water to the sounds of some epic rock anthem before swimming the short distance to the start rope. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually had some personal space in the water in spite of being in the second row from the front and as the gun finally sounded I was able to immediately stretch out and get some good strokes in. Whilst always aware of other athletes around me and only having to stop swimming at one point on account of an absence of spotting from one enthusiastic racer who cut across me, I really enjoyed the swim, finding the water refreshing rather than freezing and appreciating the distance markers on the bank. As I traversed the turnaround buoy I was pleasantly surprised at how civilised the swim was so far, quietly congratulating Challenge for opting for a wave start as opposed to mass. The waters got a little busier on the return leg, as sections of it did feel narrower and I found myself catching up with and passing earlier waves, always a bit of a confidence boost in any race. The crowds started to build once again as we neared the finish, although there was the slightly frustrating experience of having to swim straight past the exit and continue for what, it must be said, felt like a lot further than was expected, before making the final turn and powering on towards transition. Once again, the Challenge team were on hand to make life a little easier, as teams of volunteers were stood, waist deep in the water assisting athletes to their feet and sending them off up the ramp into transition. Stage one complete.
You know those memes that fly around Facebook where they have the four pictures and captions such as “What my friends think I do… What I think I do…” etc? Well in my mind whenever I exit the water in a triathlon I imagine myself to be this pumped, super focused all-star athlete powering up the runway before expertly grabbing my bag and seamlessly hitting transition, all in one superbly fluid motion of grace. What I actually become is the equivalent of Bambi having a hypoglycaemic episode, legs absolutely not listening to the instructions being sent to them and my efforts to stay on the correct channel to pick up my bag failing miserably. So, an unintended hop to the left, recovery, return to the correct channel, spot my bag, fumble for it and somehow pick it up before beginning the rapid scan of the transition tent for a space where I could make the shift from amphibious creature to terrestrial one. That is how I would describe my Challenge Roth T1 experience.
Once inside the changing tent, a huge open plan affair, it became apparent that it was true what people say about Germany, this race and nudity – it matters not. What would be utterly banned in Dubai simply isn’t an issue in Bavaria, as naked butts and full frontals, both male and female, flapped around merrily without a second thought to who was able to see. The volunteers must have literally seen it all that morning – I certainly did! Still, everyone had just one thing on their mind and that was to get out to their bikes as quickly as possible.
I am not famed for my rapid transitions – just ask my exasperated coach – and Roth was no exception. Whilst Frodeno made it out in seconds, I took about ten minutes ensuring I was as dry as possible, before changing into cycle – and, by default, run – gear, ensuring to grease up generously and slap on the sunscreen, as although the sun was yet to put in a meaningful appearance, my experience up to that point of it’s power during the trip was that it would come out with teeth. Arm warmers on – with some serious assistance from the nearest volunteer – and I was about ready to grab my bike and make like a real cyclist for what I hoped would be a maximum of about 5.5 hours….. How little I knew of what was in store at this stage!
I was feeling good from the outset, quickly accelerating off from the start and overtaking several other athletes before the first sharp left hand turn towards Roth and off out onto the cycle route. My bike had been serviced and cleaned (although I was not impressed that it had been packed away sopping wet! Cue rust…. not cool) prior to being packed up, and there had been no issues that I was aware of from a mechanical point of view. Anyway, I had spares and enough CO2 to keep me going in the worst case. It wasn’t long, unfortunately, before that case descended. And descend in spectacular style it did.
A flat less than 10km out?! Seriously?! The first I knew of it was that I felt that foreboding sense of acute deceleration and looked back to see the back tyre blown. A small expletive was uttered before I hopped off and quickly set to replacing it – after all, what else was there to do?! Of either of the tyres to get a flat in the rear is the worst as it is just a bit more of a pain in the arse to take the wheel off, disengage the gears and chain and generally get it all fixed up, but it had to be done. Anyway, cue looks of pity from fellow racers as they zoomed past and I put into practice that which I had not had to contend with in any previous race. Thank God for those YouTube viewings!
Before too long I had a new tube in place, after ensuring that there was nothing sharp or loose hiding in my tyre, and set to inflating it using one of the many CO2 canisters that I was carrying. Whilst the pressure wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked, I was back in charge of a functional bike and so back on the road and into the race. I knew there were bike stations at a few of the aid stations so was confident I could always just top up the air if necessary when I reached the next one. At least, I thought, I had gotten my one bit of bad luck out of the way.
Cue second bit of bad luck for the day, and the one that I honestly thought meant the end of my race and history repeating itself in so far as “year one = warm-up; year two = complete the race.” As we started the first of the real climbs of the day I shifted gears and suddenly heard my chain pop off. Looking down I saw that the chain had been dumped over the main ring, forcing me to stop for the second time in the race so far and less than twenty clicks out of transition! I replaced the chain but then noticed the bigger issue…… the rear derailleur was engaging the spokes of my back wheel meaning that it could not rotate properly! Shit! Not seeing any good reason for why this might be the case and recognising it for what it clearly was – a race-ending mechanical issue – I uttered my second expletive of the day, this more heartfelt than the first – and desperately wracked my brain for possible options. That’s when the first of the day’s superhero spectators came to the rescue. Seeing I was in strife, a guy came out of nowhere asking what the issue was. I explained in pigeon German to which he gestured for me to follow him a little further up the hill. There he and his friend diagnosed the issue – the derailleur was overextending on the highest gear, meaning that it dumped the chain and hit the rear wheel – and so the solution was to simply NOT move to my highest gear. This had never been an issue before and this was the second point at which I questioned the value of getting my bike serviced so close to an actual race – had the gears been adjusted thus leading to this issue? No time to really dwell on the question as I was back on and with a little push to get me started, accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of “Danke! Vielen Dank!!” from me, I was off again. Surely that had to be it for the day! Any more issues and I was surely going to be looking at a disappointing end.
As I exited the first aid section I spotted a spectator with a track pump and so stopped, asking to use it quickly to get my rear tyre up to a correct pressure. It was almost a laugh out loud moment then when I felt the by now familiar sensation of my rear tyre rapidly deflating a short distance from the station and at the bottom of a nice downhill section that set everyone up perfectly for a lovely flat straight. Cue third, louder expletive, this time uttered in German, and a fourth as I reached inside my bike pouch to find no spare tube! WTF?! I could have sworn I had at least two! I had to have another one!!! But I didn’t. I was without a spare but very much with a flat. Shit indeed. Hmm… wait for the bike tech, not knowing where it was, or start walking towards the next aid station, hoping to be met en route by the techs? No question really. And so walk is what I did. The only silver lining to this event was that it meant I was able to witness the full glory of Jan Frodeno sailing past like a rocket on the bike, an experience that whilst awe-inspiring did drive home just how far I still had to go myself, especially as it was Jan’s second loop and just the start of my first!
A couple of clicks down the road, and by now easily able to tell spectators in German that I had a flat, for the second time, and no spares – “Ich habe einen platten! Es ist das zweite und ich habe keine mehr Schläuche!” – the bike support quad roared up, enquired what the issue was and then disappointingly said they didn’t have the right wheel, before tearing off again. All I could do then was keep walking. The next team to catch me were the athlete minibuses. “Was I out?” was the question. “Not if I can help it,” was my quick answer. I must admit that I had to consider the option of throwing in the towel when they told me that it could be up to four hours before I either got to the bike station or was met by one of the teams(?!). Something told me that it was still worth continuing and so I simply quipped that it was a nice day for a walk and if anything a great way to see some of the countryside before continuing my stroll.
My faith was relatively quickly repaid as I entered yet another village and was greeted by a concerned spectator who told me he was a fellow triathlete and had a spare! Hooray! Feeling like Lewis Hamilton in the pits, him and his family set to getting my bike roadworthy again and I was, once again, back on the road! Legends, absolute legends! You tell me where else in the world and at what other race one would find that kind of spectator support, and in the arse end of nowhere to boot?! Acutely mindful of the time deficit I had suffered so far I felt compelled to put my head down and really put in some serious effort, overtaking a number of others in the process, which went some way to making me feel a little better about the trajectory on which my day seemed to have been placed. I realised that given the considerable delay my target goals for the race were going to have to shift and evolve. No longer was I a contender for a sub-11 hour finish and so having made peace with that fact I resolved to aim for a 12 hour finish, or thereabouts. The temptation to overpush it on the rest of the bike leg was one I had to actively suppress, especially given that my heart rate monitor had failed to work from the moment I switched it on and, not training or racing with a power meter, all I had left was to race paying attention to perceived effort.
Spotting a small bike station at the top of the next hill, I stopped to request a spare, paranoid as I was now that my rear tyre and I did not have the same level of commitment to this race and so wishing to hedge my bets by having a spare on me. Although, lets be honest: one flat is just unfortunate, two annoying and extremely unlikely. Three? Well, that would have surely been unheard of and a sign, if it had happened, that something was fundamentally wrong with my wheel?! So, I started back out feeling a little safer but still paranoid given what had gone down so far.
The bike leg of Challenge Roth sees athletes complete two loops, before a short final section takes them back into Roth and onto the run. The loop is, it would surely be agreed by all, breathtakingly beautiful as we got to cycle through some of the most classically attractive European countryside there is. Rolling green hills, fields of varying crops, dense deciduous forest, cute villages and towns with architecture and a sense of history of another era, all underpinned by some of the best, most smoothly and well-maintained roads I have ever cycled on. The support from locals, who were to be found at even the most out-of-the-way locations in addition to being out in force in the main villages and dedicated ‘hot spots’, was electric and it was impossible not to feel the surge in motivation, effort and energy that arrived with being met by the wall of loud, enthusiastic support that greeted us at regular intervals. One such example of the unique and enthusiastic support on this race was the old guy who was dressed in full clown outfit and who stood on the side of the road in a part of the course that was extremely rural. Not only did I see him on my first loop but he was still there on the second, continuing to wave and applaud as we all trundled by.
The first of the really meaty climbs was also such a spot and the fact that so many people were on hand to cheer us all up the gradient made it so much easier to bear. Talking of climbs, the legendary Solar Hill was everything that I had heard it was: spine tingling and I was simply unable to suppress the childish grin that spread automatically across my face as I powered my bike up the steep climb, with hoardes of supporters screaming support, waving flags and rattling clangers all the way to the top. Incredible! Once up Solar Hill you know that you’re close to the end of the loop, and so I knew that I was a little under 50% of the way through the bike leg. So far so good as far as inflated tyres as well! Although this was not for long as I got to, no word of a lie, virtually the SAME point that I happened to puncture the second time. I’m pretty certain I both laughed, cried a little and definitely painted the air blue at what was now officially my third flat of the day. The novelty and “fun” factor of having a flatty during a race had most certainly worn off by this stage and all I could think was “No! I have come too damned far to quit now! I WILL finish this race!” But, I thought, it is ok because I had the presence of mind to pick up a spare tube on the first loop. How clever I am! So, tube was removed and, thankfully, I first checked that the new CO2 canisters that I had previously purchased actually fitted my adaptor – why oh why I had not thought to do the same back when I purchased them at the Expo and before I had started the race is beyond me but hey ho – and would you believe it, they did NOT fit! Aaaaaarrrrgghhh!!!! So back to walking it was, this time nearly as far as the little station where I had picked up the spare in the first place, with the last few metres assisted by some filler foam that one of the guys from the station had cycled down the road to meet me with. Convinced, and super paranoid, by now that there was clearly an issue with my back wheel I felt little confidence as I headed back out on the road and simply spent the next 75km praying to the bike Gods to be kind to me. All I now wanted was to get to the run because as long as I had at least 4-4.5 hours (the extra was mentally allowed on account of the fact that I was expecting to be broken by the time I reached it) then I could still make the 15 hour cut off and beat this thing! I did still find some pleasure in the stunning scenery, exhilarating downhills and the, by now lessened but no less heartening, support on the course. What gave me real pleasure, however, was finally seeing the turn off towards Roth at which point I did punch the air, and then the piece de resistance: T2!
The sight of the banners stretched across the road and that signaled the entrance to transition and the end of my seven and a half hours out on the bike course came like a beautiful vision and I actually found myself thanking the universe as I rounded the corner, un-clipped my pedals and shakily dismounted. I had made it! Handing my bike off to the volunteer I vaguely recall telling them, in all seriousness, that they could keep it as I tottered round to the changing tent now acutely aware of some serious chafing and the good sense in putting spare 3B cream into my transition bag – seriously, that stuff is a lifesaver! Again, the volunteers were so incredible and before I knew what was happening I had been generously covered in sunscreen and was off out onto the run course, with the sun now very much in attendance.
I’d love to say that I enjoyed the entire run but that would be a massive lie as the first 10km at the least were pretty wretched, and Monique will testify to how much that showed on my face when we passed each other at the 4km marker – my 4km I hasten to add; she was significantly further along by that stage. The run was a fairly simple course, heading out of Roth and out onto the path running alongside the Main-Donau Canal, the same one we had swum in further upstream, with the vast majority of the running literally being a straight line up and down said path. I was grateful for the presence of aid stations about every 3km and soon settled into my plan of ‘run 3km at 10km pace followed by a 1.5min walk through the station.’ It is safe to say that my pace between the stations early on was certainly not my usual 10km pace and the walks may have been a little longer than 90 seconds, but the cold water sponges, water and coke were all absolutely welcome, with the sponges especially helpful as I refreshed them at pretty much every station due to it actually being really quite a hot day by then. I did, however, soon remember the hidden dangers of over hydrating and thinking that I could cool myself by drinking, when in actual fact this was only going to hinder my run. I was glad that I had the presence of mind to do so as my tactics changed and I started to find my legs. Hitting the 11km mark in the first hour made me realise that I could aim for a four hour marathon and salvage something good from the race. This represented a turning point for me.
Without a working HRM I just had to trust in my pacing and rate of perceived effort to guide my running. This worked pretty well and my second 11km felt significantly smoother, so much so that I even felt able to share a little joke with one beer drinking spectator that a beer right at that moment would have been awesome! So there they were: my running legs! They were back with me and with them a new sense of confidence. As I passed the 26km mark, heading down the second leg of the canal, I actually felt amazing and quickened the pace a little, enjoying the thrill of sailing past runner after runner, only stopping very briefly at every other aid station and primarily doing so to simply swap out the cold water sponges that had fast become essential to my comfort. The final section through the woods and looping back over the canal before switching back on ourselves was tough, with a long, steady uphill to contend with and tired legs whispering to walk “just a little.” Seeing other runners getting a massage at the 30km mark only made this whispering louder and so it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and pounding on, all the while thinking of the end game and that line.
As I hit the 32km mark I made a decision that I was absolutely going to run in under 4 hours and so planned to quicken the pace over the penultimate 5km, increasing it to shy of a sprint for the final 5km. Amazingly I did just that, although must confess that I came so incredibly close to a walk at the 38km mark that it was almost a different story. Stubbornness, however, won out and as I re-entered the town, running down into the historic centre and the scenes that I recognised from the previous year’s You Tube footage I knew that I had barely 2km to go. “Head down, eyes straight, keep a good form and breathe.” I was going to do it if I kept up this pace. Run, run, run. The park was close. Run, run, run. And then the carpet appeared and the track narrowed, spectators lining the edges. Thankfully I had some time in the bank as I was unable to pass a few runners who had slowed to greet family members, although thankfully they did eventually step aside and I was able to crank up the pace into the main stadium but only after passing my father who, as with my Ironman in Tahoe, I barely recognised in my race-weary state as he shouted out and I caught a fleeting glimpse over my shoulder. Now was not the time to stop!
The stadium was an experience and a half and in hindsight I wish I had given my parents my 360-degree camera to hand to me before I entered it as recording those final few steps in full immersive glory would have been amazing. As I turned the final corner I heard the announcer mention my name and the welcome into the Challenge Family before there it was: the finish line! I had never been so happy to see a finish line than at that very moment and I hope the pictures do that sense justice. I felt I had beaten the odds and clawed back the race for myself when it looked as though it was doomed to be a disappointment. Why do we do this to ourselves? What is it that compels us to put ourselves through this kind of arduous trial in the name of leisure? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that on the day, when its all on the line, we are capable of digging into parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realise were there and are able to scoop up just that little bit more grit, determination, will to make it to the end and with our heads held high. That was what Challenge Roth was for me. It was supposed to be a bit more of a leisurely race after the challenges of racing in Lake Tahoe, and I was fully expecting to come in with a significantly faster time as befitted the terrain and course. What I got instead was what was printed on the race number: a challenge, and I feel, weirdly, that I am now the better for it.
One thing that my Lake Tahoe experience and Roth had in common was the fact that I felt utterly unable to eat much at all after the race, forcing down a couple of yogurts and a welcome glass of Erdinger alcohol-free Weissbier, which tasted like liquid heaven! The post-race amenities, services and food were pretty impressive and I just wish that I felt more able to take advantage of them. There were multiple massage tables, showers for athletes and a very eclectic and generous spread of food on offer for hungry athletes to tuck into, with everything from pasta to baguettes and beyond. I did not linger too long in this area however as my parents were outside waiting for me. Having zero real idea of where geographically the run-in actually was and not wishing to get lost in the crowds looking for them I headed to our previously agreed meeting spot at the entrance to the site. As the light started to fade it soon dawned on me that perhaps mum and dad had not recalled the plan and so I set out to search for them, thankfully bumping straight into mum and avoiding a frustrating search of the entire site. As such, the delay and the failing light did mean that post-race photos were not going to work and so we headed off to collect my bike before trekking through a long, very very dark and winding road that snaked through woods to find our car, seeing the final fireworks light up the sky as we reached it. A fitting end to a very very long day, both for me and my folks, who had been in Roth itself since 4am and can now confirm that nothing really starts happening in the town until about lunchtime.
Our hosts confirmed their utter awesomeness by being on hand to greet both me, my family, and the other family, who we met up with again in Munich the following week. Enjoying a well earned beer and recounting the events of the day with friends and family was the perfect way to round out an amazing Challenge Roth experience, and it was so heartening to know that everyone in this part of the world truly does get behind and excited about the triathlon, with our hosts even producing a detailed printout of both Dirk’s and my race statistics! Dirk was racing his first ever triathlon and had a great day, suggesting that he might well be back again in the near future. Once is truly never enough when it comes to long distance racing!
There are so many reasons why Challenge Roth is consistently voted as the best triathlon by athletes and to list them all would be an entire article in itself. For me the main attractions and experiences were:
The enthusiasm of athletes who have raced it before – I am yet to meet a single triathlete who has raced Roth and not loved it. No other triathlon really sees people get that effusive as with Roth, with most recounting the genuine goosebumps that result during the ascent of Solar Hill. The description of this part of the bike course as being akin to a “religious experience” was what spurred me into action in applying for the race and I can confirm that it is every bit as magical as reported. No other race, as far as I am aware, has such a fervour of enthusiasm and support as Challenge Roth and this alone makes it a must-do event for anyone intending to race at iron distance.
The stadium finish – no finish line that I have ever crossed has yet matched the overwhelming feeling of scale and celebration that Challenge Roth engenders. To experience tiers of wild cheering and enthusiastic applause from all sides in the final meters of a race is a feeling that is almost indescribable. As mentioned before I absolutely wish I had been able to record the experience in 360-degrees so that I could go some way to sharing it with others – it made the thirteen hours of grueling activity all worthwhile.
Roth and the surrounding area – in fact the entirety of Bavaria makes entering Challenge Roth a must-do as it is stunningly beautiful. Historical, charming, picture postcard, timeless, cultured, rolling – some of the words to describe this unique part of the world. We were fortunate enough to stay on in Bavaria for a further week of rest and recuperation after the race and loved every second of it. In fact, I would gladly move over to Munich in a heartbeat if given the chance such was the charm of the city!
The people – I was blown away by how genuinely hospitable, friendly, helpful and enthusiastic everyone we met in Bavaria was. If it were not for the genuine warmth, concern and enthusiasm of public supporters on the bike course my race would have ended painfully early on – I would argue that there is not a single other race in the world where you will experience that level of crowd support over every stage. It completely reaffirms your faith in humanity and helped spur me on to do what might have previously seemed unthinkable. We made genuine friends for life in the process and I feel a special sense of affection now for Germany and in particular Bavaria.
Special thanks to everyone who supported me pre, during and post race, especially my coach, Trace Rogers, my parents/ chief cheerleaders, and the entire Dubai and wider triathlon community, of which I am proud to be a part of.
What a difference a year can make. Following the last minute disappointment of the start-line cancellation of our race due to smoke there was some sense of trepidation going into this year’s return trip to Tahoe. Would we face the same issues? Possibly, considering the fact that wildfires at this time of year are not uncommon in Northern California and there was one blaze in particular that was burning very close to the area and did end up pushing smoke in for a day or two.
Thankfully, however, fate settled in our favour and we were served up perfect conditions for what transpired to be an almost perfect race.
Film & Taper
The two weeks I spent in Tahoe leading up to the race itself came about as a result of the realisation that had last year gone ahead there existed a very real chance that I would not have finished, or performed anywhere close to my true potential on account of not being properly acclimatised to the 6,000 feet of altitude that Lake Tahoe sits at. In spite of spending time prior to travel completing altitude-room sessions, in hindsight I know that these made little to no difference to my acclimatisation. Ultimately, the only way to guarantee proper adjustment and adaptation to altitude is to spend time actually at altitude. I realised that if I really wanted to go into the race at my best then I needed altitude to not be a significant factor, meaning that I needed to get to Tahoe a good period of time before the race.
The time not only allowed me to adjust biologically, something which I believe made much of the ultimate difference on the day, but also afforded me the opportunity to indulge in some filming with a couple of very talented film-makers in Tahoe City, Conor & Danny Toumarkine of Shreddy Times, with the result being four days of awesome fun, getting to hang out in parts of Tahoe that I would never have thought to visit, and producing a video that is about as professional and slick as anyone could wish for. The final cut of ‘What We Strive For’ is epic (all down to the talents of the boys) and got such an incredible response from friends, family and the wider triathlon community that it was a massive confidence boost for the race and an epic memory of the entire Ironman training experience. Ironman themselves even loved it, with them requesting to play it at the opening ceremony – a real honour and, I was told, a great motivation for other athletes leading into the race.
Spending a good period of time on location at the race site is advantageous for many reasons, one of them being that you can actually go out and swim/ bike/ run the course, or part of it at any rate. I was very glad to be able to do just that as it enabled me to adjust to and prepare for the specific conditions of each stage of the race. For example, my initial ascent up the beast of a climb that was Brockway made it starkly clear that changing my gearing on my bike before race day would be very helpful and that the climb really was to be respected! Simply knowing that I had tackled it once, even if not particularly impressively, made a huge psychological difference as the race loomed. Like most challenges in life, things usually end up being way bigger and way scarier in our minds than they ultimately prove to be in reality and getting a dose of realism in advance helps to dispel, or at least guide, the doubt-devils that would otherwise have a rave in your brain.
In addition to being able to spend more time pre-race in Tahoe, and the fact that we looked set for a smoke-free race-day, the other significant difference over last year was the presence of my parents, who had flown all the way from the UK to support me and then enjoy a post-race road-trip, a holiday that we were all very much looking forward to. If the race had gone ahead in 2014 then I would have crossed the finish line (possibly) with no familiar faces to share the experience with. In principle this would not have been an issue but in practice and now given the benefit of experience I can say with all honesty and sincerity that having friends and/ or family there to cheer you on and share directly in the rollercoaster of emotions that inevitably accompany an Ironman race, and especially the ‘first’, makes all the difference! In addition to the emotional support there is also the simple fact of the matter that having people on hand to do the little things like carry some kit and drive the car home at the end of the day is really, super helpful!
Transition & Pre-Race Preparation
Tahoe was a split-transition race, with the swim to bike transition (T1) down by the lake and, this year at least, moved indoors in terms of changing areas for athletes. Our bags were all lined up along the beach, with a short run from the water up the beach and into the changing area being slightly different to what was due to happen last year. The main issue with keeping our bags outside overnight was the very real risk posed to our kit, specifically our nutrition, from bears, of which Lake Tahoe is home to many. As it turned out we did get a visit from a friendly, inquisitive and perpetually hungry Black Bear the night before actual race day and a few people did unfortunately find their food stores had been gobbled down. We all had rather comical visions of a bear racing round the woods all jacked up on a combination of gels and caffeine!
Bike to run (T2) took place at Squaw Valley resort, further up the valley and out of site of the lake, with the run then taking us back out towards Tahoe City and the lake, before returning to Squaw Valley and the finish. Having had a dry (or smoky to be exact) run last year I knew what I would actually need for the race and quickly realised how over-kitted I was before, which I daresay just goes with the territory when you’re a complete newbie. One constant, however, was the need to keep warm in the morning, as the initial couple of hours on the bike were expected to be pretty chilly. A great tip that I received last year was to crack a couple of hand-warmers before the swim and keep them inside my bike shoes and other kit in order to warm them up prior to donning them. Simple but effective, especially as cold feet on the bike immediately after a cold swim does not for happy feet make. A head-torch in the run gear bag was another great little tip – obvious when you think about it but it is usually the most obvious things that do not occur until you actually need them – as there was always a good chance that I would find myself running in the dark if something, anything, went awry during the race. Stumbling around in the dark at that stage in the proceedings would not be a great addition to the woes of an already tough day. As it turned out I didn’t need it but that’s the way of the world and the nature of Sod’s Law.
With everything set up at each transition and the rest of my ‘on the morning’ kit laid out at home, there was nothing left to do but kick back, relax with a healthy dose of Netflix and enjoy a lovely pre-race dinner with the folks. No smoke in sight, a perfect forecast for the next morning and the knowledge that I was as fit and ready as I was ever going to be meant that I headed to bed feeling excited but still able to get some quality Z’s….
Race Day Itself
It was still an insanely early start and chilly to boot. One idea I had this year was to take along a bottle of warm water in order to get some fluid into the wetsuit prior to entering the swim, my logic being that if I could ensure an already warmed layer prior to the shock of entering the frigid lake then it would just make the whole swim start a little more enjoyable. It actually did work out quite well although the water was always going to be a bit of a shock to the system, and if there was any semblance of early-morning mental foggy or grogginess then a millisecond after hitting the lake everything was blasted clear and the day was brought into sharp focus.
As we were due to finish at Squaw Valley, Ironman ran buses for everyone down to the lake, which did call for an insanely early start. In spite of the obvious challenges associated with such an early start – summer sessions of cycling at Al Qudra and trips to Jebel Jais certainly proved good training for this – it always makes sense to arrive nice and early at the race, with plenty of time to beat the queues for body-marking and last minute adjustments and additions to the bike and transition bag. The other significant advantage to arriving super early is the fact that the queue for the loos is shorter, with what seemed like the entire population of Reno waiting in line by the time we got close to the race start. One particularly comical moment in the transition area came when mum sat down, very shortly being advised by one of the other male athletes that there would be “naked men” before too long, at which point mum scarpered and the guy casually followed up with “I don’t mind; I just thought she might!”
Given the fact that I wanted to be completely dry for the bike leg in light of the fact that I knew it was going to be a cold start to the day, I opted to swim in just a pair of swimmers and my wetsuit, which made for a pretty swift preparation. I had also invested in an addition to my swim gear with a Roka neoprene cap, albeit without the chin strap. I had tested it in a lake swim a couple of days before and did find that the extra insulation was very welcome, although the water wasn’t anywhere near as tepid as previous reports would have had us believe. There was even one guy who was planning to swim without a wetsuit altogether, a move that I personally thought was a little extreme. 0615 came and it was time to get in the water for the warm-up, a great chance to actually get eyes on the swim course, which this year was two laps in a clockwise direction, remaining in the water for the entire time. The warm up was brief and it was clear that it was actually more comfortable in the water than it was out, with the sand firm and cold under our feet. Still, an obligatory rendition of the star-spangled banner later and we finally heard the sound that eluded us last year: the start horn! We were off and I couldn’t help but pass through the arch and into the water with a grin from ear to ear! Assuming we didn’t have any disasters I was set to finish the day as an Ironman at last!
Swim – Near Perfect
I self-seeded myself at about 1hr 15mins for the swim and so there was a little bit of a delay before I crossed through the start arch and began to wade into the lake, before plunging in and immediately starting to find a good rhythm. The water was perfect, the visibility perfect, the swim perfect. I can honestly say that it was the best race swim I have had out of all of my events, with a really nice steady effort being sustained, my line and sighting accurate and straight, and the couple of one-on-one encounters I had with other swimmers seeing me emerge with the upper hand and without getting out of breath. My confidence with open water swimming in large groups has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years, and contrary to the idea of the Ironman swim being a terrifying ordeal, fighting flailing arms and legs and trying to avoid getting pummelled in the process, I found the Tahoe swim to be almost relaxing! Apart from the tranquility of swimming in a crystal clear lake, where visibility extended to nearly 100 feet, meaning that what looked like small pebbles on the floor were more likely gigantic boulders but just at great depth, and with the sun gloriously illuminating the mountains in view, the other significant advantage of swimming in Lake Tahoe was the fact that the water is so clean that swallowing some of it was of no concern. In fact, it was great knowing that should I get a little thirsty during the swim leg, all I needed to do was take a mouthful of water mid-swim. Not something I would do on any other race!
With such a good swim I emerged from the water in a fantastic time of 1 hour 6 mins – even better than I had projected – and did myself proud by running up the transition slope, grabbing my bag and running in to transition feeling strong and knowing that I had just completed stage 1 of my Ironman.
T1 & Onto the Climbs
I knew that transition was going to take longer than I would have perhaps liked but I was adamant that I wanted to be comfortable on the bike, given how long I was due to spend in the saddle, and that any trace of dampness or sand would simply come back to wreak havoc later in the day. Remaining warm was also a priority and so I took longer to ensure that I dried and dressed properly, including applying sun screen, which was vital considering how clear the day was looking to be. Bike gear on and it was out to start the biggest part of the day and the leg that was clearly going to make or break my race, especially with all the climbing. I was nervous but also knew that I had prepared adequately, was fit enough and just needed to stick to my plan.
The course initially took us out along the west shore of the lake, to the first aid station at Carnelian Bay before hitting the first big(ish) climb of the course at Dollar Point, and through Tahoe City, where we hit the main highway – closed for the race – that took us towards Squaw Valley. This initial section had me wondering whether the layer I had donned in transition was excessive and I was concerned that I was going to overheat. I was, however, glad to have the extra layer on as soon as we entered the valley leading to Squaw where, in the shade, the early morning temperature was significantly lower. The only chance we had to dispense with extra clothing and get said items back again was at the Squaw Valley aid station meaning that I either had to ditch the thermal layer early on, during my first loop, or keep hold of it until I returned on loop two but with the risk that I would be baking by then owing to the fact that it would have been later in the day and I’d have already climbed Brockway by that stage. As such, I opted to ditch early and so had to man up to the cold for the rest of the Squaw Valley section to Truckee, where we were once again bathed in sunlight and the temperature rose.
One of the changes to this year’s bike course was the removal of the out and back at Northstar Ski Resort and the addition of a section that took us along the Truckee Heritage track, a beautiful park that hugs the Truckee River, eventually emerging on the outskirts of town and the start of the climb up to the Brockway summit. The view out towards the start of the climb up to Northstar as you pass the Truckee Airport is an impressive, expansive one and was very different last year, being shrouded in thick smoke. What a difference a year makes! As the climb started it occurred to me that the numerous sessions on Jebel Jais had been worth it, with the initial section of the climb relatively easy going and I found myself passing a number of people, although a few more were powering past me. Many of these, I would come to realise, were in fact doing the 70.3 and so only had to make this climb once, hence why they were clearly feeling confident enough to charge up what ultimately proved to be a meaty climb indeed. The support from the assembled crowds was very welcome at this stage in the bike, with shouts of encouragement, my favourite of the day being “this is what determination feels like and sexy looks like”, helping to drive us on up the relentless incline. I punched the air and beamed as we finally hit the top, allowing my legs and lungs to enjoy the well-earned respite as we descended the long way back down to Kings Beach, where we would begin our second loop. Although loads of athletes absolutely hooned it down from Brockway, I chose to be much more cautious, having experienced the true terror of the ‘wobbles’ whilst cycling down the very same stretch earlier in the week when we filmed some of the first scenes for the video. Having sped down the slope in aero-position and at 70kmph for the first video run, my second saw me get a real bad case of the front wheel wobble that I really had to fight hard to control, and that worryingly repeated itself on the subsequent runs. It was at that stage that I decided I would sooner sacrifice some bike speed and give up some time over running the risk of leaving some of myself on the tarmac and a trip to a US hospital, or worse. I imagine that the increased stability of a road bike would have helped and given the amount of climbing that the Tahoe course entailed I would consider using one if I ever did the same course again.
With one loop down and another to go it felt good to know that I was almost halfway through the bike and closer to the finish line and the culmination of two year’s effort. One of the main challenges of racing at altitude is the fact that one dehydrates more rapidly than at sea level and keeping on top of fluid intake is, and was, important. I know that I didn’t drink quite as much as perhaps I should have done and did on a couple of occasions feel the dull thud of an impending headache. I did, however, manage to drink enough consistently to prevent real dehydration from causing any issues and coupled with a good level of salt intake I avoided cramping as well, something I was pretty anxious about having experienced awful cramps during my initial training ride in Tahoe and my first ascent of Brockway. I knew that my fluid intake wasn’t too far off as I did still find myself needing to hop off the bike midway through for a piss – no letting it go on the bike for me, a mental hurdle over which I have not yet been able to leap.
By the time I reached the Heritage Trail for the second and final time my legs were defintely feeling the miles and I took the chance to stretch a little during a water refill prior to the short but steep climb up to the trail start. The second climb up over Brockway was noticeably less populated and it was clear that those still on the course were feeling it as much as I was, some even more so as a few had clearly been beaten by the gradient, opting to push their bikes the rest of the way to the top. One thing I was determined not to do was stop whilst ascending, as getting started again would have been really tough both physically and mentally, and so I just made full use of the bike’s gearing, thankful that I had opted to change my cassette following that initial training ride, and pushed on to the top knowing full well that I would not have to climb it a third time.
The final section of the bike saw us follow the same course as far as Squaw Valley, where we hooked a left and followed the road into Squaw itself. After making use of my bike aid bag at the penultimate aid station, including reapplying sunscreen and guzzling down some beef jerky for a pre-run protein hit, I drove on for the last few miles to Squaw and the end of the bike section. The final couple of miles through the Squaw Valley were strange in as much as the road looked to be banking downhill and yet the effort required was clearly indicative of a slight uphill. It was frustrating to feel that progress was slower than expected, especially considering that I was so close to the finish. In spite of this I reached the dismount line, seeing my dad waving in the process, and shakily hopped off the bike, handing it off to a volunteer before grabbing my run bag and tottering over to the changing tent for T2.
Run to the Finish!
Again, my transition was longer than I perhaps would have liked but before too long I had the trusty Zoots on, had donned the Skydive Dubai cap and was off to see how the day was going to end. As I exited T2 and turned towards the village and the first of the turnarounds, it wasn’t quite clear on what my tactic for the run was going to be. I soon discovered that I could comfortably maintain a steady pace and effort at about 160bpm and so decided to stick to this as my heart rate for the marathon, obviously with a view to change the plan if I felt it needed adjustment later in the run.
The course was mildly undulating, ensuring that a close eye be kept on my heart rate as it quickly started to climb on the uphill sections. I was amazed at just how comfortable I felt straight into the run, and derived immense satisfaction from overtaking people from the outset, even drawing positive comments from people on certain sections of the course, such as the curving uphill out of the Squaw Valley Resort, which apparently very few people had actually been able to run up. There were other nice moments throughout the run, including the cute little high five I received from a young supporter and the impressed cries of “wow! No-one has run up here!” as I scaled one of the steeper sections of the course. Hearing fellow athletes saying “good job” as I passed them spurred me on even more to keep my run technique good and my pace steady, although I allowed things to heat up a little over the final six to eight kilometres, with my heart rate rising to an average of 164bpm, and eventually hitting 170 right at the end. The final turnaround, which was mere metres from the finish was an emotional one as I knew that I was only about 10km from the end of my first ever Ironman, a race that had so far gone so much better than I could even have anticipated.
One target for the day had been to finish in daylight, so that I could fully appreciate the view of the peaks as I reached the finish line, and as it dawned on me that this would indeed be the case I realised that I was going to be close to running a sub 4-hour marathon, something I thought I was capable of but had not necessarily expected to pull off. As I reached the final aid station I politely declined the offers of drinks as I gestured to the fact that I was heading to the finish and sprinted out with words of encouragement ringing in my ears. I was so close! It always amazes me that no matter how hard you have raced, or how long you have been going, there always seems to be something left in the tank for that final sprint along the finish and so it was in Tahoe. I ran with such intensity and focus up through the village that I barely had time to take things in, such was my burning desire to reach that line. And then I reached the turnaround, spun to the right and entered the finishing chute, with the finish line there in front of me, the music pumping and the words from the race announcer, Dave, reaching my ears. “You are an Ironman!” I instinctively slowed for the final meter, determined to soak up the experience of crossing the line and just smiled like a Cheshire Cat. What a feeling! To have put so much in for so long and to have finally realised my goal, one that had seemed so huge and almost insurmountable two years before was just indescribable. I had done it. I was finally an Ironman and the medal that was now being placed over my head was – unlike the one I collected the year before – physical confirmation of the fact that whatever happened from now on I could at least say with certainty that I was indeed an Ironman. You simply have to experience it for yourself to truly understand what that feels like and I can see how and why people get addicted. In fact, on the question of whether or not I will do another iron-distance race, well, never say never, right?!
I was shepherded over to a seat by the icing station, space blanket draped over my shoulders, and after realising that I didn’t actually need to have my legs tended to went off to find my parents, both of whom were waiting for me by the entrance to the finish pen. Hugging them both was the real clincher for me and to be able to share this moment with them was magical. Mum had brought along the Tri Dubai banner and so we got a finish photo with it before heading out to find the nicest pint of beer that I had enjoyed for a very long time! It’s amazing how the taste of something can be significantly enhanced by the state of mind and experience associated with the time of it’s consumption, and suffice to say that moments rarely got better than that!
After filling my folks in on some of the highs and lows of the race, and still pinching myself at the fact I had completed the toughest course in North America in under 12 hours AND run a marathon in less than four hours, we wandered off in search of food, convinced as I was that I was famished. The weird thing was that as soon as my food arrived and I took a couple of mouthfuls it dawned on me that I wasn’t actually feeling hungry at all and barely made a dent in my meal. I didn’t initially understand what was going on. Hadn’t I just been active for the past twelve hours? Surely I should be falling upon the food in front of me like a wolf on prey?! Then I thought about it and realised that given I had spent the best part of a full day fueling myself on little more than the odd cereal bar and gel, my stomach had actually contracted down and was not in the mood to suddenly accommodate a normal meal. Apparently I was not alone in experiencing this phenomenon, with the waitress advising me that lots of athletes had also requested “take out boxes” in which to take their meals home. One of the many lessons I learned on the day: paradoxically don’t expect to be able to eat much after the race!
Contrary to some of the stories I had heard, and footage I had seen, there was no crippling cramps or collapsing over the line, which did make me wonder, “Hmm… did I actually race hard enough? Could I have gone faster?!” That, it seems, is the eternal curse of the sport and one of the main reasons we keep coming back for more: the relentless drive for self-improvement. Any notion or fleeting thought, however, of a return to Tahoe to try and improve on my time was subsequently taken out of my hands after the organisation decided not to return next year. Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015 was officially the last one. Only the second, mind, but also now the last. As disappointing as this is at first glance, especially given how stunningly beautiful the area is, the decision does make sense. The fact is that Lake Tahoe is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, an area already notoriously dry and in the midst of a multi-year drought. The risk of fires, especially at the time of year that the race is staged, is just too high to be able to feel confident that a repeat of 2014’s crushing cancellation would not be repeated, and coupled with the unpredictability of the weather, which saw a last minute freeze in 2013 and widespread sunburn this year, just makes trying to organise and attract entries, including pros, to the race very difficult. And so there you have it: even if I had wanted to try my luck again in Tahoe, it wouldn’t be an option. I am so thankful to the stars that this year’s race went ahead, even though there were a few days when it looked as though the same smoky fate as last year was threatening the event, and to know that I have been lucky enough to be one of the 5000 or fewer athletes to actually race there is very gratifying.
The following days in Tahoe were great, with my legs certainly feeling as though they’d worked but never feeling destroyed. In fact, the Tuesday after race day I was out on the lake with mum and dad wake-boarding and wake-surfing!
A multitude of questions form in the mind as soon as you come down from the immediate high of crossing the finish line in your very first Ironman, as well as a host of different emotions. The immediate ones are naturally immense satisfaction and pride at having successfully realised a long-held dream and goal, and of seeing months, weeks, days, hours of relentless training finally bear fruit. Relief is another one, as you can finally relax and put to bed all those fears over how the race could unravel at any moment. With Tahoe, the biggest fear was of another cancellation, especially as I knew it would be highly unlikely that the race would be restaged and whether I would even be able to, or even want to, commit to a third year of training, especially through the summer in Dubai, which I swear was way more humid second time round! So there was relief that the race actually started.
Anything can happen before race day, especially when you’re travelling, from adjustments to different water and available nutrition, to injuries and the bigger issue of the elements and weather. Ultimately, all you can do is prepare as best you can, look after yourself, mentally prepare yourself for changes on the day and then just go with whatever happens come race day. Then there is just the relief of ticking off each stage, even down to individual sub-stages, throughout the day, knowing that with each minor victory you are that one step closer to the finish and the incredible glow that comes with being crowned an Ironman for the first time.
Will I do another? I had imagined prior to the race starting that this was likely going to be my first and only Ironman, especially given how all-consuming training is and has been, and the fact I have other interests outside of triathlon (cue some shocked gasps from the triathlon community!) that I now want to spend a bit more time on, such as skydiving. Training for such a big race, however, becomes much more than just working athletically towards one, single day. It requires such dedication to improvement in all aspects of one’s life, from ensuring a healthy diet, moderation when it comes to such things as alcohol, and the need to develop efficiency with time, meaning that training for an Ironman just results in betterment across the board. There is also the matter of addiction. I have never felt fitter and stronger than when I was at the peak of my training, and that feeling becomes hugely addictive. Settling back to anything less than that whole body feeling of being at my prime may be difficult to deal with mentally. Then there is the community. Triathletes, and indeed everyone connected through sport, are part of a big supportive, encouraging community; a tribe if you will. It’s hard to step back from that and if you don’t take a little bit of a step-back then it means you are still as engaged as before, which surely means that you continue to be as inspired and challenged by those around you to push higher, further, faster than before. Which is when races get entered! So, I guess what I am saying is that it almost feels like somewhat of an inevitability that I shall do another long-distance race in the future, and certainly intend to continue triathlon. Never say never indeed!
Top Tips for First-Time Ironman Athletes:
These are a few of the gems of information and advice that I have gleaned over the past two years training and preparing for my own race and that I figure might be of use to anyone considering taking the plunge into iron-distance triathlon.
We all know the stories of people who had never done triathlon before, dived straight into a full Ironman and came out the other end. Bravo to them but I reckon the sane person’s path is ideally via some shorter distance races, at the very least an Olympic distance event, so that you can at least be sure you even enjoy stringing the three activities together. If you don’t enjoy the experience over 2.5 hours then I doubt you’ll be loving it 12 hours into a race.
Pick a race or location that truly inspires you – you’re going to be dedicating a lot of time, sweat and mental energy preparing adequately for your first iron-distance race so make the subject of your toil one that will truly keep you focused, motivated and inspired to push hard and reach the finish. I chose Lake Tahoe first and foremost on account of hearing so many amazing accounts of the natural beauty of the area, way before I knew anything about the race. In fact, if I had read up on the race and seen how tough the course was before signing up I am not sure I’d have even hit the ‘pay’ button!
You might be able to do a decent job of motivating yourself and cobbling together a semi-decent training programme to get round an Olympic or maybe even half-iron race but to really get the most out of your first Ironman, and to establish good habits and training targets from the start, look into coaching, whether it be in person or remote. Having someone you know is skilled and experienced at guiding athletes through the trials and tribulations of training for Ironman in your corner makes a huge difference. I personally knew that having a coach to answer to would really make that fine line difference between going through the motions and really pushing myself when it was called for. I also found myself part of a wider team as a result, which provided additional motivation and camaraderie during the training process.
With the volume of training that is called for to prepare well for an Ironman, get used to early starts and, depending on your own schedule, some late finishes. Much of my training took place throughout the Dubai summer months, meaning much of my outdoor training took place in the very hours of the morning, before the real heat kicked in and forced me indoors.
You will get tired and you will need to have rest days. It is, after all, during such times of rest that the body truly remodels and grows stronger, fitter, more adapted to the task being asked of it. You do not have to be actively training all of the time. In fact, that is one of the key benefits of having a great coach: they will actually tell you when to rest and take it easy. Sorted!
You are going to spend an insane amount of time in the saddle so ensuring that you have the perfect bike fit will not only ensure that you get the most out of your trusty steed but will also significantly reduce the risk of injury. If you plan to invest in a new bike, especially of the TT variety, then its a good idea to get a fitting with an experienced bike fitter first as they will then be able to advise you on the best bike, including make, for your individual fit.
Especially those who have already done an Ironman and maybe even your chosen race. They will have a wealth of experience and top tips to impart. It is often the little tidbits of wisdom that come with going through a race yourself that can really help newbies come race day. Race reports are a great place to start and there is no substitute for just speaking with an athlete directly. Most will jump at the chance to relive their Ironman moments and will be happy to pass on their knowledge.
Remember that this is NOT your job. You are doing this because you WANT to and ENJOY the sport. Of course some of the training will get hard, unpleasant even, and you may have moments when you seriously question what on earth it is that you’ve let yourself in for but ultimately you should do this because you find it fun and enjoy the challenge. I am a great believer in the idea that those things in life that are truly worth striving for are rarely easy. Embrace and enjoy the journey – in many ways its ultimately the best part of the whole crazy endeavour! As for the actual race, just soak up the experience, all of it and keep smiling 🙂
Ironman is the ultimate challenge in triathlon. The pinnacle of the sport, requiring athletes to swim 3.8km (2.4miles), cycle 180km (112miles) & run a full marathon (42km / 26.6miles) one after another, often taking longer than 12 hours to complete. Lake Tahoe is considered one of the toughest but most beautiful courses in the world, with cold yet crystal clear water, majestic climbs & thrilling descents on the bike, and a run route along the Truckee river and Squaw Valley, the epitomes of natural splendor.
What We Strive For addresses the very real fears that all first-time Ironman athletes face: am I ready for this? Is it too much? Will I be strong enough, fit enough, mentally tough enough? This will be Chris’ first iron-distance race and has been two year’s in the making, following the disappointment of 2014’s cancellation due to forest fires & smoke. Shot on location with Conor Toumarkine & Danny Toumarkine of Shreddy Times in Lake Tahoe, join Chris as he completes training and faces the huge challenge of Ironman Lake Tahoe, chasing that feeling that makes it all worthwhile.
Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR & VR) both lend themselves to some very exciting applications in sports, especially those where data inputs in real time can be vital. Skydiving – one of my passions in life – is one such sport and here I shall explore where AR & VR might add to our enjoyment and progress in the sport.
In the interests of clarity, I shall just define what is meant by Augmented and Virtual Reality, terms that are becoming ever more part of normal lexicon and technologies that are set to redefine how we experience the world:
Augmented Reality: superimposition of digital data over the real world, thus adding a layer of additional information or detail over that which is seen in reality.
Virtual Reality: immersion in a fully digital world, such that users experience a computer-generated world as if it were real. Using VR goggles to allow users to see the simulated world, plus or minus other inputs, such as headphones or haptic devices to simulate touch, the principle of VR is to leave the real world rather than simply augment it.
Skydiving – there are so many data inputs that are vital to a safe skydiving experience, with the most important ones and where AR offers options to add to the experience being:
ALTITUDE – the most important bit of information for any skydiver. We currently rely on a combination of wrist-worn altimeters and audible altimeters. Personally, I am more of a visual person so having my altitude displayed in front of me in an AR fashion, with pre-set altitude alerts popping up where I simply can’t ignore them would be great.
OTHER SKYDIVERS – one of the biggest dangers, other than running out of sky, in skydiving comes from others sharing the same airspace, especially when inexperienced jumpers are involved. Mid-air collisions can be catastrophic, especially if they occur at low altitude. Knowing exactly where other skydivers are, especially if they are within a certain proximity to you, is very important. We cannot be expected to have full 360 degree awareness at all times – we literally do not have eyes in the back of our heads – and so an alert system that automatically identifies other jumpers in the skies would be a great use of AR.
JUMP RUN & WIND INFO – this would be of obvious use in training new skydivers in the basics of jump runs, winds aloft and the effect on their jump of winds, including adjusting landing patterns in response to changing wind characteristics. Experienced skydivers would benefit from such a system at new and unfamiliar dropzones or to revise core skills and competencies, perhaps after a period of absence from the sport.
TRAINING/ COACHING – AR (and VR, especially for modelling of emergency situations) lends itself perfectly to the training of new skydivers and for coaching experienced jumpers in a range of disciplines. At present, new skydivers receive theory and ground schooling prior to their jumps, freefalling with a coach but then ultimately responsible for their own canopy piloting. Students who do need some assistance currently have to rely on audio instruction from a coach on the ground, who can only assess what he or she can see. What if the student could have the ideal flight path including important prompts for how best to prepare for their landing projected in from of them via AR? Important learning objectives would, I propose, be much faster to achieve and good practices established rapidly. The system could be taken a step further by enabling the ground-based coach to see exactly what the student is seeing via in-built cameras in the AR headset, thus significantly improving the accuracy and value of instructions to the student. Coaching uses could include real-time prompts on perfect body position for certain disciplines, such as tracking, and projected flight paths, to aid in flight accuracy. For example, following an AR line indicating a straight-line course in tracking would enable a skydiver to work on fine-tuning small body position perfections thus significantly enhancing progression in the sport.