“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 🙂
The Challenge Family is one that I had the pleasure of joining in December when I competed in the inaugral Challenge Bahrain race, a fantastic event and where I posted my best half-iron distance time to date. It was with real excitement that I signed up almost immediately upon return to Dubai to the event to be held in my home city and where I had my sights set on beating my PB to break the 5 hour barrier.
Training has been going well, with a podium finish at Wadi Bih and a strong top ten finish at the Tri Yas sprint event, another testing day that you can read about in an earlier report. With the Challenge Dubai site built and the excitement really starting to mount, everyone was set for a great day of triathlon, especially given that the strong winds and turbulent, dusty conditions of the previous weekend seemed to have abated just in time. We looked set for Dubai to serve up a picture-perfect setting for what was to be the first race of the Sheikh Nasser Triple Crown, an incredible competition for the pro field seeing whichever athlete who wins all three of the next Middle East Challenge races awarded with $1 million!
A Busy Build-up
I guess one of the advantages of traveling for a race is that it effectively forms part of a holiday, meaning that you have plenty of time for pre-race preparation and, very importantly, relaxation. Not so it seems when racing at home and life continues as normal. The build-up was further complicated for me by the fact that I also had an exam scheduled the very day before, one that did not go to plan, meaning that the final few hours before bike check and transition closed were frantic. Note to self: those small but important tasks for race day that you could have done the week before….. do them the week before! I was pleased though to make it out for a practice swim, choosing to go earlier than the official start of 8am on account of having the aforementioned exam to get to. The waters were calm with the main point for race day being that there was a relatively strong current running parallel to shore, which did promise a tougher long back leg to the planned swim course. Otherwise, if conditions remained as they were on Thursday morning it was set to be a stunning swim.
I could hear some rustling outside my window as my alarm sounded at just after 4am but thought little of it as I set about with the usual race-morning routine, including donning my race tattoos, an experience I am yet to get tired of. There is something about wearing proper race stickers on one’s skin that helps it all just feel a little bigger and more professional than it might otherwise. Silly I know but true nonetheless.
And then it became apparent. As soon as I stepped outside it was clear that Mother Nature was feeling frisky – excited it seemed for race day – and had whipped up a very strong onshore wind. The scene at transition was a similarly blustery one, with bikes wobbling on the racks and the occasional cloud of dust being whipped up and across the beach. This was going to be interesting.
The sea, which only the day before had been serene and in line with what we normally enjoy here in Dubai, was playing host to a legion of white horses, forcing the organisers to change the swim course from a single 1.9km loop to a 2-loop course that saw swimmers start on the beach, head out perpendicular to the shore, turn at one of the large Challenge buoys, swim parallel to the shore and against the current to the next large buoy, before turning back to the swim exit on shore, where we had a very short run onto the beach to a turnaround before launching back in to swim diagonally for the original buoy and a repeat of the same course. Rolling was how I would describe the entire experience and in spite of the testing swim conditions I actually rather enjoyed it, paradoxically finding a rhythm from the start, breathing to the right every five strokes on the way out before switching to the left for the remaining legs. Aside from needing to correct course when it was clear the current had pushed most of us off course, I found the swim ok and exited the water feeling pretty good even if my time wasn’t stellar.
Transition 1 was, as in Bahrain, a relatively quick one, with a good level of support from the volunteers, who even managed to get my race belt on for me – very impressed. Swim done, now time for the real test of the day!
The cycle course took us straight up towards Meydan, through Nad Al Sheba, which is a lovely area of the city, before looping us back onto the Al Ain Road towards the city, and then towards Academic City where the majority of the bike course was set. The problem with wind is that it is often a blessing and curse all rolled into one, unless it does the unfortunate thing of swinging around and changing direction at pivotal moments, in which case it can either make your ride or break it. Friday’s wind was, it seemed, relatively consistent in terms of direction, meaning that the initial outward stretch was a pleasure, with a strong tailwind powering us all along. I recall telling myself to make the most of such times, and to “bank the time”, knowing full well that we would be contending with the opposite before long. I didn’t have to wait long before we turned right and “BAM!” was hit by it. Cue the next however many kilometers of painful stretches of strong gusts and what felt like a virtual crawl, interspersed with sections of reprieve as we once again enjoyed a tailwind and could feel as though progress was once again being made.
I personally always find the bike the tougher of the disciplines as I just don’t seem to be that fast, regardless of the training I do. As such, it is always a tad discouraging to be the one who seems to get passed repeatedly by other athletes. Add to that the miserable conditions of a strong, gusty headwind and the accompanying sand and dust, and you get some measure of the low place I found myself during parts of the cycle course. I must say, as well, that I appreciate the difficulties of managing road closures in a city like Dubai and that the course selected was probably done so in large part based on what was likely to cause the least traffic upset, but inspiring it certainly was not. Academic City, or large parts of it anyway, really seems to lack any real beauty and did nothing to showcase the many landmarks that Dubai boasts. As for the decision to take part of the course past, or certainly within olfactory distance of, the sewage works and waste management facility, I ask one thing: really?! Many of those racing would have been out-of-town international guests keen to experience the wonderful sights of this, our futuristic city. Taking them out to a building site and past a waste-treatment plant hardly seemed to meet those desires. Still, I am sure there were good reasons and maybe it is just the bitter memory of the conditions that brings these thoughts to the fore.
As I mentioned earlier, the wind, although strong and gathering strength as the day bore on, was very consistent with it’s direction. Which was a shame. The reason being that it meant the final 30km were almost entirely directly into a Kansas-style headwind. I have never sworn so much at a meteriological phenomenon as I did during that final push, with much of the frustration coming from the dawning realisation that there was no way I was going to beat or even meet my Bahrain time, even though earlier in the ride it had looked possible. Mother Nature and my legs were at odds with one another and no matter the training done she was always going to prevail.
(ps: to those very few cyclists who I saw drafting – and I so wish I could recall your numbers so I could name and shame you – poor form! Stop doing triathlon and stick to bike road races. Drafting is cheating and it has no place in our sport, especially when we are all told time and time again that this is the case. Your time on the bike is based on a lie and the efforts of others.)
A Run of Three Parts
Anyone who does triathlon knows that their legs are going to feel like a combination of rock and jelly for the first couple of kilometers of the run and so it was as I exited transition and headed out onto the Dubai boardwalk. I normally look forward to the run, with the usual sequence of events being that I find my legs during the first 5km before gradually cranking it up to storm up through the field to regain places lost during the cycle. Not so today. The first 5km were respectable, even with a quick piss stop and some ambling through the aid station. The turnaround for the return was when I started to feel very lacklustre and if truth be told I felt a serious ebbing of my mojo and gave in to the grueling conditions far too easily. Knowing what my race time was and thus knowing that I was not going to match Bahrain, as mentioned earlier, did have a big impact and I almost wish that I had been in the dark of what my overall time was. I believe that part of me, on realising that this race was more about getting to the end than finishing with a time to be really proud of, gave in early and it shames me to admit that. A huge part of our sport is the mental toughness that it fosters and the true champions are those who are able to dig deep and scrape out that gritty push when the going really gets tough. I sadly feel that I dropped the ball in that respect on race day and suspect that the disappointment from the poor exam result the day before had simply compounded these feelings of disillusionment that came to a head on the run. I wasn’t, however, going to quit. No way. Whatever happened, the race would be finished! It is at this point that huge kudos has to go out to the many and varied members of the Dubai triathlon scene, both running themselves and supporting from the sidelines – their words of encouragement and genuine displays of concern at those times when I found myself walking were the difference. Anyone getting into triathlon should remember how vitally important the support of others is in this sport. Although it is ultimately a solo event, the team spirit that is fostered among other athletes and teams is so strong and carries us past the point where we might otherwise fold. I especially wish to shout out Jan who did all he could to spur me on during the penultimate 5km, and who is looking in awesome shape for his upcoming Ironman in Melbourne, and Mike, who not only selflessly supports others through his TRX sessions, but swooped in with a salt tablet when I hadn’t even realised I might need one. In spite of being a duffus and chewing the tablet (mistake as they taste really gross!) it seemed to sort me out and I found a reserve of something to enable me to pull it out of the bag and push on for a strong final 5km. A run of three parts indeed. So much so that I have never been so pleased to see a finish line in the distance as I was that afternoon. Challenge Dubai. Challenge indeed.
Now that the race is over and I am the proud owner of what has to be the heaviest finishers medal ever (I am sure that construction in Dubai must be on hold as it seems all of the city’s steel must have gone into our medals) it is fun to think back on the day and feel some degree of entitled smugness at having come through. Everyone who took part is a legend and it is a day that will surely be remembered for a long time to come, especially given that the very next day was an entirely different one – calm waters, a light breeze and sunshine. Are you kidding me?!
The awards dinner was a great time to recognise the amazing achievements of the day, with Dubai-based athletes making us all incredibly proud with some stellar results. Local champions, from Lynette Warne to Merle Talviste, Henry Clarke, Luke Matthews, Lucy Woolacott, and many more besides, made it clear just how strong triathlon is here in Dubai and to celebrate such success on such a big stage locally was wonderful. Other stand out moments included seeing Nick Watson and Rio once again complete the race together, and to see Sheikh Nasser himself supporting a worthy young man with a triathlon passion but the inability to compete on his own. Getting round such a tough course on such a day solo was a challenge enough but to do so with someone else in tow was monumental and an inspiration to us all.
The pros were, as ever, inspiring, with incredible race times in spite of the conditions. I continue to look on in awe at their superhuman efforts! The winners’ speeches were similarly inspiring, with a standout performance by the mens’ champion, Terenzo Bozzone, and I feel privileged to have had a chance to speak with a number of the winning pros after the event. Yet again, it is testament to the sport that such unobstructed access to our sporting heroes is possible.
So, what do I take away from Challenge Dubai? Well, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the actual race but I can certainly say that I am pleased I did it. The next test it seems is Challenge Oman, with the promise of a totally different race altogether, and then the big one in the form of my first Ironman. Watch this space…
Everything great starts with a vision. The key then is turning that initial vision into reality and matching the power of the imagined. So it was that Challenge Bahrain, the first big internationally ‘branded’ triathlon in the Middle East came to be. Inspired by the vision and desire of Crown Prince Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a gifted age-group triathlete himself, to bring a big triathlon to the shores of Bahrain, the promise of a world class event was realised as thousands arrived in the Kingdom to race, meet their heroes and celebrate a rip roaring success.
With a total prize purse of half a million US dollars, and each of the professional winners walking away with $100,000 as first prize, Challenge Bahrain was always going to attract the big names in our sport and the sight of such legends as Mirinda Carfrae standing on stage alongside the giants of triathlon during the race briefing offered a taste of what was to come.
I personally arrived in Bahrain on Thursday morning, meeting up with a friend who had flown over from freezing cold Britain in order to take part in only her second half distance race and the first overseas. With a warm welcome from the very start, confirming that which I had been told about the warm, friendly nature of the Bahraini people, the first task, after reassembling bikes in our upgraded suite at the Grand Mercure hotel, was to catch one of the many shuttle buses laid on throughout the weekend down to the Bahrain International Circuit, a hugely impressive Grand Priz stage, to register, collect our pre-race pack, soak up the atmosphere of the exhibition, partake in a little tri-related shopping, and enjoy the incredible reception and amazing fare on offer at what has to have been the best pasta party ever. As soon as we were handed our race bags it was clear that no expense had been spared in staging this race, with everyone receiving proper transition bags, complete with goodies. In fact, the bags alone made flying to Bahrain worth it!
A friend had, with a wry smile, informed me that I had been placed in the first age-group wave to start on race day, those athletes expected to finish in under 4 hours 40 minutes. A joke I had initially thought until I opened the race programme to see that I had indeed been placed in the ‘speedy’ cohort. Quite how that had happened remains a mystery because even with pre-registration there is no way I would have been so cocky as to predict a time for myself of that level – I hadn’t even raced a half iron distance event before at the time of signing up. Still, the chance to start the swim with the likes of the Crown Prince himself meant that I was in no rush to correct the organisers and so it remained that I found myself lining up on race morning with the true speedsters of the sport, contemplating a few what-ifs as I vowed to go significantly faster than my Dubai race the month before.
Practice Dip & Racking
Friday started early, with a short shuttle bus trip over to Bahrain Bay, with the impressive Four Seasons hotel and Bahrain Trade Centre framing either side of T1 and the venue for Saturday’s swim. The course couldn’t have been simpler, taking swimmers out in a straight line to one of the bridges spanning the bay, before a right hand turn to return to the swim ramp and on into T1 and the bikes. The practice swim offered us all the chance to get our bearings in the cool, refreshing waters, even swimming over to the Four Seasons pontoon for a spot of coffee and dates, an inspired addition and one of many examples of the fine attention to detail that had been applied to this event. They had even put on a decent spot of breakfast for athletes in the morning, something that they would have been advised to publicise a little more before the practice swim. Still, another classy little touch.
Bike racking took place back at the bay and so following a leisurely bite to eat in our new favourite eatery, Loomi, we hopped on another shuttle bus, this time with bikes in tow, for the short journey back to the bay and one of the most professional transitions that I have had the pleasure to see. It even made IM Lake Tahoe’s seem a tad grubby. It was encouraging to see just how seriously the officials took features of the event like pre-rack bike checking, with even the pros not immune to the bark of “helmet on!”
With the bike and helmet in place and our run bags, which were due to be taken over to T2 at the Grand Prix circuit, handed in – it always feels wrong handing over important race kit in a bag to a stranger, even though you know it will be seen again – we hopped back on the bus, returned to the hotel and started getting psyched for the big day itself, including the ritual of applying race number tattoos. Based on previous experience of tattoos on leg hair, I opted this time to commit to the cause by creating a couple of ‘runways’ on my legs and arms down which my tats could run unimpeded. A good move even if it does now mean I have rectangular ‘bald patches’ which to a non-triathlete might look a little odd. I personally headed back out again in the evening, taxiing it over to the Sheraton where Nick Potter had organised a Tri Dubai get together for dinner. It was a great way to simultaneously get pumped for the race whilst also distracting from the same with some fun conversation with both familiar and new faces. Everyone had their own race in mind and it is always really exciting hearing how different people found themselves getting into triathlon in the first place, let alone getting into the longer distance races. Some good food – avoiding the temptation to get creative or spicy the night before the race – and it was time yet again to roll on back to the Mercure, turn in for the night, safe in the knowledge that I would probably sleep a fraction of what I wanted to but would still be up and raring to go come the small hours.
And so it was! Up before the alarm, kit donned and a decent pre-race breakfast, courtesy of the kind kitchen team at our hotel who set up before 5am for us. I love the buzz before a race and the excitement was palpable as we reached transition, finalised our bike set-up, including making new friends of the closest person with a track pump. I followed the lead of the athlete racked next to me by moving my bike to the very end of our rack as there was a decent 3 metre section that was unoccupied and thus unhindered in terms of easy view after the swim. We did check with the officials that such a move was ok and in the end it was a smart one, as my bike was one of the easiest to find in transition.
The final hour before the race start involved checking in with fellow Dubai-based athletes and supporters, topping up the 5am nutrition, braving the loos – it doesn’t seem to matter how ‘no expenses spared’ an event is; the loos are always gross – and then watching the pros kick off their races, complete with helicopters hovering overhead and the boom of the start cannon echoing out over Bahrain Bay. This was definitely going to be a big day!
There is a certain art to timing the final donning of a wetsuit and unfortunately I was a little premature with mine, as was everyone else. In spite of an initially cool morning, ten minutes of waiting in the pre-start pen fully neoprened-up was enough to invoke a decent sweat and so when the go-ahead was given to jump in the bay for our short warm-up and eventual start I suspect there was a collective sigh of relief. Seeing the pros exit the swim was the final treat before our start, as I ambled down the ramp penguin style with the rest of my sub-4:40 cohort 🙂 The benefit of the race having a relatively small total field (1000 triathletes) was that each wave was actually quite small, meaning plenty of space at the swim start and less of the ‘washing machine’ that is typical of many big races with mass starts.
The canon seemed to go off almost with no warning and before we knew it legs were kicking and arms cycling as our race began. My initial plan to get on the feet of the main pack and stick with them quickly gave way to ‘swim my own swim’, ensuring I did sight regularly in spite of the course being pretty straight. I was generally happy with the entire swim, veering off course slightly down the return leg, but exited up the ramp feeling as though I had done myself justice, in spite of swallowing a decent volume of the bay halfway through the swim, which simply made me look forward to getting a drink on the bike! Post-race showers and a run up the red carpet were more of the fine touches that made this race great, and after picking up my bike bag it was straight into the changing tent where helpers assisted with the removal of wetsuits and donning of shoes. As ever, my T1 could have been quicker but I did find myself feeling a little dizzy in T1, so took a few more moments to complete the change. Still, once the shoes were on I made the short run to my bike, clipped on the helmet and ran down the bike funnel feeling limber and eager to get peddling. Hearing shouts of support from Taka and Jo at the mount line gave me a good boost as I clipped in and rolled away to start the cycle leg.
The 90km bike route initially took us north-west, towards the airport and over the first of two big bridges to be traversed that day. Being out on the roads as a motorist that morning would not have been fun as long queues of traffic contrasted sharply with our wide, open and clear lanes as we enjoyed the long, smooth track that stretched out in front. My plan for the race was to keep my heart rate about about 165 bpm, although in reality it tended to sit a little higher at 170. This did mean that I wasn’t the fastest on the bike route and as usual, I was overtaken marginally more than I overtook, including seeing Merle Talviste rocket past on the climb up the second big bridge taking us back towards Manama. I knew by the way she was cycling that she mean’t business and was out to win her age group, a feat she duly achieved, confirming her status as an incredibly talented, dedicated and determined triathlete. The much anticipated tail winds that there had been much talk of never really materialised on the day, with a mixture of head and tailwinds being more prevalent. I wouldn’t have described the middle 50km as being a particularly inspiring cycle ride, with the majority of it basically being on the main King Faisal highway, but what it lacked in pure aesthetic enjoyment it made up for simply with the fact that we had an entire major highway closed off for our race, something that rarely happens and which allowed for a fast race. The final part of the cycling took us past some of the oil fields, the university and past the F1 track and Al Areen wildlife park, before doubling back and returning to enter the Grand Prix circuit for our single loop of the racetrack. Everyone commented that although the experience was incredible – after all, how often do you really get to cycle on a world class F1 circuit?! – there were steeper sections to the track than had been imagined. I think we all admitted to positioning ourselves to the right of the track as we approached the start line, imagining ourselves in pole position on our very own mean machines. With one final set of sweeping turns, T2 loomed into view and our bikes were swiftly taken from us as we ran into transition, our bags handed to us (another very slick touch), thus allowing for a rapid T2 and the start of the run.
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I love the run. Maybe not the immediate start, as with any triathlete, but by the time we hit kilometre five I normally find my second wind and really start to feel good. The aid stations were plentiful and spaced roughly every two kilometres meaning that there was a ready and steady supply of coke, water (which I tended to pour over myself more than drink, as aware as I was of not overhydrating or having a belly full of fluid sloshing around) and iced sponges, which I made a staple part of my run arsenal, sticking one under each shoulder strap thus cooling the blood heading up and down my neck and maintaining my heart rate at a steady 170bpm. This approach allowed me to pick up the pace steadily during the early stages, continuing the acceleration as we entered the wildlife park and allowing me to start doing some serial overtaking, which always helps boost confidence and energy levels even in the final stages of the race. The highlight of the run through the park for me was seeing an ostrich charging around, including across the running track in very close proximity to athletes, something that simply would never be allowed by the Health & Safety brigade back in the UK. I was genuinely expecting at least one runner to be taken out by Mr Ostrich and as much as I found it both intriguing and entertaining in equal measure, I was also sure to keep a cautious eye out for where exactly our feathered rampager might be, as keen as I was to avoid being the athlete to make the headlines for the wrong reason.
Avian dangers aside, the run was great and as I exited the wildlife park, feeling well into my stride by that point, the thoughts of the finish line started forming in my mind and the pace began to pick up as the home stretch beckoned. Compared to Dubai a month before, I found the run relatively cool, although I know that my friend from the UK, Claire, will probably kick me for saying so, given that she found the temperature stifling. Digging in for the last couple of kilometres is a bittersweet experience I find: your mind is almost already over the finish line and so it is key to keep it engaged in the present. The race is not finished yet and so it is imperative to keep pushing and to not relax too prematurely. That’s why I think the starting and finishing kilometres are the hardest. The middle is actually relatively straightforward: you know that you’ve got a lot of work still to do so you just put your head down and get on with it. The start involves a lot of readjusting to being in an upright position, and the discomfort that goes with getting into a good pace off the bike, whilst the end is, well, so close to the actual end!
One of the final sections of the run took us down an underpass at the F1 circuit, with the downhill being fine. The uphill, on the other hand….OUCH! Who thought it was kind to make us run up that gradient in the dying stretches of the race?! Lol! At least it was short. So, small but testing climb later and we came out onto the home stretch, or the start of the longest finishing chute ever. The carpet started just alongside the bike transition and I know I wasn’t the only one to get sucked into thinking that it was shorter than it was. Pace quickened for the finish, heart rate racing up, cheers from the assembled crowds. But wait…. where was the actual finish line? It seemed to me as though the initial carpeted chute ran on for a long way and by the time I came to the loop around, taking me on to the final final finish chute, with the line itself in view, I was a little concerned I’d overcooked it. Still, there is always a little extra to be dragged up from the depths for the finish and with the end now finally in sight I lapped up the experience, even ensuring a little cheeky pose for Taka and his camera as I ran past. A slowing before the line, arms up and it was done! Challenge Bahrain – or my one at least – was done. But the process of being impressed wasn’t.
The finish was suitably theatrical, with all the ceremony that you’d expect from a really big race, and as for the medal: it was HUGE! If the past two races are anything to go by, with the rate at which the medal sizes are going, the next race medal will be the size of a hubcap! Let’s just say the Challenge Bahrain medal was going to potentially put my hold luggage oversize and was definitely not going to be allowed on as hand luggage, given the intricate, angled lines of the design. An awesome puffer jacket, followed by some good sustenance and a few super-fan snaps with the pros, saw my race topped off in excellent fashion.
Claire came in a little later and after collecting up our bikes and sundries, joined the rest of the athletes in catching our buses back to a well earned shower and short rest, with a return to the Grand Prix circuit a little later on for the prize giving, dinner and the piece de la resistance of the weekend: a breathtaking firework display and live music from none other than Dire Straits!
The Dubai contingent did an epic job, claiming a healthy number of the age-group prizes, and it was fantastic to see so many friends in Bahrain both competing and supporting. The triathlon scene here in the Middle East just seems to be going from strength to strength and with dedicated patronage from supporters such as the Crown Prince and with big names such as Challenge on board, exciting is the word. The announcement of a Triple Crown event, with Challenge Bahrain, Dubai AND Oman making up a trio of top races for the region, with a top prize for the pros of $1,000,000, just confirmed that the Middle East is serious about being a top venue for top races. I feel very fortunate to be living, training and racing here at such a time and look forward to seeing the sport go from strength to strength, like so much over here.
So….. next on the Challenge calendar: Challenge Dubai. Let’s see if I can shave off that pesky minute and get under the 5 hour mark!
Wow! What an incredible weekend I just had. A veritable feast of triathlon that was so jam packed that if I were to actually eat it then it would set my training back by at least a year!
The Abu Dhabi International Triathlon has been my main A-race of the season this year, in preparation for the biggie that is my first ever Ironman race in California this September. The decision to enter this race had been made last year after hearing such wonderful things about the event, with the decision made to sign up for the short (most misleading race description ever, incidentally) race being made on account of the fact that I am a) not mental (no offence to those super athletes who did sign up for the long) and b) the long would have been a significant step up in distance from what I have raced to date, a challenge that I very much doubted I would be ready for by the time of the event.
As part of my preparations for the Ironman I have enlisted the help of a coach (Trace Rogers of SuperTri) and have been getting stuck in since the beginning of the year. As such I approached race weekend feeling confident, strong and excited at what lay ahead. In fact I can honestly say that I did not feel any nerves in the lead up to the race, which is quite unusual as I normally would. I guess that is the benefit of focused training and meticulous preparation, including getting all my gear organised in good time and a full pre-race service on my bike.
On the advice of friends who had done Abu Dhabi in previous years I booked a hotel close to the start months in advance and took time off work such that I was able to head down on Thursday, register before the rush on Friday, attend the elite athletes signing session, and then kick back and relax after the race, affording me the chance to join friends at Yas Waterworld the day after.
The weather in the lead up to race day was anything but optimal and concerns about high winds and possibly the threat of rain were certainly felt right up until race morning when it seemed as though prayers had been heard and heeded, with clear, still skies, and an almost millpond-like sea for the swim. In other words: perfect!
One of the exciting features of the Abu Dhabi Triathlon is the fact that it attracts a field of high profile elite athletes, with the beauty of triathlon being that we get to race alongside, meet, greet and enjoy the event with our sporting heroes. As a Brit the chance to even see, let alone meet, the Olympic Gold medalist, Alistair Brownlee, and his brother, Bronze medalist, Jonny, was incredible. Surreal but awesome nonetheless. But it was even better than that! There were legends of our sport at every turn and by the end of the weekend it felt like a completely normal thing to just, you know, hang out with people like Jodie Swallow, James Cunnama, and other tri big-wigs. One of the first things I did upon arriving at registration was purchase two official race shirts: one to wear and one to ask pros to sign; quite a cool keepsake from the event. One of the pleasures of conversing with the elite athletes is that you quickly realise that they too have to deal with many of the same challenges and set-backs that us age-groupers do, a realisation that can only ever help to allay any last minute nerves that might be hanging around. The buzz associated from their presence at the event also just added a real sense of electricity to the entire weekend and heightened the excitement felt by all.
Things got even more surreal when, on Sunday, some friends and I found ourselves at Yas Waterworld literally racing our heroes down many of the park’s slides! I even had a comical moment when on the lazy river, I swam to join some fiends, went to jump into an unattended ring only to see that there was someone submerged inside it. “Oops! There’s a small child in this one,” was my call to friends, before up popped said ‘child’ only for it to transpire that it was in fact Alistair Brownlee himself. Oops indeed!
With bikes racked the day before and kit all safely stowed away in the official transition bags and placed in the changing tent, there was little left to do on race morning other than get some breakfast on board, apply the race number tattoos and start to get in the right frame of mind for a race. Being away from home and without the usual amenities of such, breakfast ended up being the best source of oats I could find – oat bars (the peanut ones, as I would normally have peanut butter on toast), a banana, orange juice and coffee. Having only ever raced at events where numbers are written on in pen, the ritual of applying official tattoos was actually quite a fun one and I certainly stepped away from the hotel, tri suit donned, feeling like a professional.
The atmosphere at the race village and start area was buzzing and by the time I had donned my wetsuit, sauntered down to the beach for a short swim warm up, watching both the elite long and short course athletes set off from the perfect vantage point in the water, the adrenaline was pumping and I was raring to go. To the start line I went and lined up in excited anticipation with the throng of fellow athletes in my wave, waiting for the signal to be given….
Listening to the expert advice of Crissy Harris I duly positioned myself to the far right of the swim start, owing to the fact that it afforded the closest straight-line sighting to the first buoy and got myself to the front of the pack, something that I would have been way too nervous to have done a year ago. Such has been the benefits of training with Hasan and Lynette during their Ibn Battuta pool sessions, the Tri Dubai sea swims, and the swim sessions run by my coach, Trace, that I feel so much more confident in the water and am now able to complete the entire Olympic distance swim without stopping to swim breaststroke or catch my breath. When the start signal was given I ran in to the water and sprinted as I had practiced, attempting to put some clear water around me. Granted this didn’t quite work and I found myself within the typical washing machine of a triathlon swim, but rather than get all freaked out by the melee around me I just stuck to my line, got my head down and swam. When push came to shove I felt confident in my own ability to stick to my line when I had to defend it, out sprint a fellow racer if necessary, and make the buoy turns confidently and smoothly. As such, I exited the water in a time of 25:56, a significant improvement to similar sea swims in previous races.
The provision of a water trough to run through was, in my opinion, inspired as the worst thing about trying to transition from a sea swim is usually getting rid of all the wet sand on your feet – there is nothing worse on a long cycle, and before a run, than sand rubbing your toes to oblivion! Although a little wobbly, T1 was a relatively swift affair and with helmet and sunglasses donned it was off out to the bike and the main challenge of the day.
As I had only recently invested in a proper set of cycling shoes, complete with non-recessed cleats, I was somewhat apprehensive about my first real attempt at mounting my bike with the shoes already attached. No flying mounts though! Starting the cycle in a pile on the floor would not have been a good look. The mount was actually quite easy, especially if the shoes are opened really wide meaning you can slip straight into them and once the velcro straps had been swiftly tightened it was straight into the 100km of long road ahead of us. The temptation to sprint off was strong, given that up to this point it had felt like any other Olympic distance race, but I knew that with a significant increase in distance to my usual races, pacing was going to be important. The few ‘hills,’ in the form of bridges were, as I had been informed, longer and steeper than initially expected, especially the very first bridge that goes over the port on the exit from Abu Dhabi. That is one big bridge!
The key with the cycle for me was to take it easy on the hydration, avoiding the temptation to drain my two bottles too quickly and drink too much water. Fueling was also a key focus and my decision to take three gels, two of which I ended up using, plus a few dates to munch on, seemed to work well. As for the fluids, I was pretty good at not over drinking and used much of the water handed out at aid stations to pour over my head, neck and, well, all over really in order to keep as cool as possible.
The Yas Grand Prix circuit section was a rare treat and in spite of needing to have eyes in the back of your head and a much greater level of responsiveness to other athletes around, the ride around the circuit was brilliant – certainly one of the highlights of doing this particular race. Once the second lap had been completed, the excitement mounted again as the homeward leg of the ride began and the thoughts of the finish line started to realistically dance in my mind. Seeing the long course athletes making the turn back towards Yas, and knowing how my legs were feeling at that point, really made me feel thankful that I had chosen to sign up to the short. Having said that, I was also reminded of the fact that I will be cycling a similar distance in September, with a marathon to run afterwards, and that I have the Dubai summer during which to prepare. Fun.
The final stretch to transition along the corniche had to have been the longest bit of road I have ever been on – it just went on forever!!! Still, the bike was long but a fun challenge and no one can claim that they’re not warmed up for the run by the time they arrive back at transition!
T2 & Run
The run along to T2 is actually quite good as it is long enough that by the time the changing tent is reached, the legs already feel as though they’re ready for the run. The run was, for me, the toughest part of the day, which was a little disheartening given as it is normally my thing and the part of the race when I usually find myself passing many of those people who had previously whizzed past me on the bike. The main factor, and one which I understand was shared by most others, was simply the heat. It was so hot by the time of the run that keeping cool was the main challenge. The aid stations were perfectly spaced, with the cold water sponges quickly becoming my new favourite thing in the entire world.
One other, less welcome, new experience was cramping on the run. I was a short distance from the first turn to head up towards the Marina Mall when I felt the ominous twinge before the full blown pain of a leg cramp. A bit of grimaced stretching and the acceptance of the fact that I had indeed just had to stop on the run, which was a blow to my pride if anything, and it was back on my way, albeit at a significantly reduced pace. Another first was the ingestion of flat cola on the run, something I had never previously used, but which I must report was very gratefully received. The challenge was to avoid the temptation to consume too much and thus disadvantage myself further on the run by having a belly full of fluid sloshing around. I had been aiming for a 40 minute 10km pace but ended up significantly reducing my pace to finish in a little over 51 minutes, albeit with the final third being run at a much faster pace which actually saw me overtake a decent number of people and cross the line at a decent run rather belying the way I actually felt by that stage.
A great race! Tough, especially the run, which is just so hard to keep cool on. In terms of race preparation I feel that enough was done, my nutrition was adequate and in spite of a run which I know was well below what I am ultimately capable of, the final time of 4 hours 37 mins is a respectable one. I guess I shall just have to return next year and beat it! I am already mentally purchasing my first TT bike! One thing that the race did drive home with no apologies was just how tough a challenge the Ironman in September is going to be. Although the heat will not be a factor – in fact, keeping warm is likely to be more of an issue – the distances certainly have my respect much more now than they did before, and I know there is a lot of work still to do to get me to the start line in fighting fit form, let alone cross that finish.
As a triathlon indulgence, the weekend was literally the best. The combination of feeling like a holiday by actually staying down in Abu Dhabi, combined with the presence of pros, the heroes and legends of our sport, all of whom were just so incredibly approachable and, dare I say it, normal was fantastic. I never imagined that I would be able to say to someone that I got to race down a waterslide with Olympic medalists as though they were my mates from home. Try getting to do that with a premiership footballer! I challenge anyone, seasoned triathlete or newbie beginner, not to leave Abu Dhabi feeling energised and full of renewed enthusiasm for the sport. It’s ultimately a bit mental what we do – like most things to be honest – but as a lifestyle, a social scene and a way to challenge and develop oneself, it is hard to beat. Triathlon rules!