Tag Archives: run

Dubai 30×30 Sheikh Zayed Road Run

“Say what now?! Dubai are planning to close down part of the main E11 highway, the Sheikh Zayed Road, and let people run along it. For free?! Sign me up!”

Like thousands and thousands of others the very notion of being able to experience what it would be like to run down the middle of a mega-highway completely devoid of traffic and to experience the view of Dubai that greets those hurtling along it’s main artery and that has been immortalised on screen countless times was too much to turn down. I’ve run my fair share of organised races and so am happy to fork out some cash for the chance to take my place on the starting line. It is rare, however, to get to take part in an event of the magnitude of the Dubai 30×30 Sheikh Zayed Road run and to be able to do so for gratis. The upside to the decision to levy no entry charge to runners was that people turned out in droves for the event, with every facet of the city’s population represented and not just those affluent enough to be able to throw down a couple of hundred dirhams to spend their morning off running. This was a master stroke as it gave the entire event a real sense of togetherness that made it all the more memorable.

It seems that thought had really gone into the logistics of the event as well, from having multiple pickup points for race numbers the day before to ample transport options, including opening up the metro super early to allow runners to avoid adding to traffic and to access to event from across the city. I took advantage of the fact that the Mall of the Emirates was opened up, allowing parking and metro access, which made the whole morning sooooooo much less stressful than it might otherwise have been.

Arriving at the Trade Centre by metro I will confess that I was initially a little anxious when I saw just how many people were present. However, with the crowds in jubilant mood and everyone being respectful of others the slow shuffle to leave the station just added to the sense of grand occasion that we were all part of. There was a real air of excitement, with the weather and conditions just perfect, and as I joined the swell of runners lining up for the 10km race – separate start and finish to the 5km, which was another smart decision – I was glad I brought out the 360-degree camera to record the event.

Whilst it was never going to be my fastest 10km run, on account of the sheer number of people out on the course and the desire to stop at a few points to record some memories, the final 5km that took us past the Dubai Mall and then towards the finish at the Trade Centre had enough gaps open that I was able to really find a fun rhythm and pace to feel as though I was getting a solid run in. In fact, it was really a lot of fun getting to weave in and out of people, imagining that I was driving my very own Lambourghini along the boulevard – simple things!

All told, this was a great event and I can definitely see it becoming an annual fixture on the Dubai calendar. Well done Dubai.

Whistler 50 2018 – Race Report

Mountains? Check. Epic views? Check and, once more, check. Unbelievably awesome race conditions? Absolutely check. On reflection the decision to throw caution to the wind and sign up for the Whistler 50 – the 50 in this case referring to the number of miles – was a very good one as in terms of manners by which to experience the alpine landmark that is Whistler, BC outside of the ski season this turned out to be one of the best. As a social experience it was also an exceptional weekend.

The fact that it has taken me so long to actually write and publish this report is on account of having learnt one very important lesson the hard way: the vital importance of adequate rest and recuperation following a big race, and the very real risks of succumbing to illness that accompany big race-day efforts. Needless to say I succumbed and part of my report will delve into the important lessons taken from what has been a very unpleasant several days.

Initial Apprehension

If truth be told I was apprehensive about this race in spite of the weeks of good, solid training that I was fortunate enough to be able to commit to, with more time at hand on account of being on a sabbatical and setting my own schedule, the plethora of amazing trails and run routes on offer around my apartment and Vancouver in general, and the availability of both gym facilities and a high spec athletics track a mere stone’s throw from my place. So as far as training went I was, on paper, set for a great race. However, concerns remained as in spite of feeling physically fit – in fact, as fit, I think, as I ever have, save perhaps for when I was at peak Ironman training – I was concerned that my mental game was going to let me down, especially coming off the back of not completing the Eiger 101 and the issues I had halfway through my last 50km race back in Dubai, when I hit a mental wall big time. Ultras are unlike any other endurance sport I have engaged in so far – they properly mess with your head in addition to the sheer physical demands that come with running such long distances. As much as I would love to claim to be the most mentally resilient athlete there is I know that I’m not and my tolerance for real discomfort is actually pretty low. So why did I choose this sport again?!

Whilst the distance was set to be longer than anything I’ve run to date – Wadi Bih was 72km – the profile, according to that published on the event website, was relatively tame in comparison to many alpine races. That doesn’t mean it was a walk in the park, especially with most of the climbing taking place in one relatively short but intense section of the second loop. The course itself comprised four repeated loops of 20km each, with those then split into two separate loops that started and ended back in the Olympic Plaza – yep, complete with giant Olympic rings – right in the centre of Whistler village. The first of the two was 13km and essentially traced a course around the perimeter of the golf course and was almost entirely on paved surface, whilst the second felt a little more ‘trail.’ That one was shorter, at 7km, and headed out from the village along the river as it tumbled and rolled over boulders and rocks on its long route from peak to sea, before climbing up to and past Lost Lake, providing absolutely breathtaking views and a picture of alpine serenity, before descending back down to the river and the village. The looping nature of the course meant that we were able to access both the main aid station and our drop bags multiple times, a blessing for the most part but, as the race wore on, the mileage ramped up and the fatigue really started to set in, a real temptation to take perhaps too long between loops and, with those mental niggles becoming louder shouts, an easy option to throw in the towel.
Two smaller loops made up each 20km loop
Nutrition has, in previous races, been an Achilles heel of mine and has almost certainly played a role in some of my tougher moments. Basically the issue is that I just don’t eat enough during the race and when I do start feeling hungry then unfortunately that is often the point at which it’s too late to really make a significant difference. As such, a priority for me in this race was to pay closer attention to eating and drinking enough to stay hydrated and adequately fueled. Whilst I do have Tailwind, the liquid nutrition that many in the ultra community appear to use, I am yet to get my head around, or even my stomach for that matter, the recommendation to consume the quantities they do. As such, I still very much make use of good old fashioned ‘solids,’ with my particular choice of fuel for this race coming in the form of various candy bars (Snickers & Mars to be specific), bananas, cereal bars and, at the halfway point, some mouthfuls of delicious beef jerky, which does absolute wonders for sating that inevitable salt craving that develops at some point and, well, just a nice break from all the sugary shit. In hindsight I probably should have eaten more still, as there were definitely some moments when I did actually feel hungry and I know that my fluid intake should definitely have been greater. I had been pretty good during the earlier stages of the race, remembering to sip regularly and feeling happy to have to visit the little runners room now and then, but as the day wore on and my mind became set firmly on the finish I confess to taking my eye off the ball and consuming less. The fact that I finished the race with some of my original 2 litres of fluid in my pack somewhat drove this fact home as I had fully expected to fill it at least once or twice during the day. Definitely something to ruminate on in preparation for future races.

Pre-Race Prep

One of the advantages of being free to set my own agenda – primarily on account of the VR/AR “course” I came to Vancouver to partake it turning out to be a dud, thus forcing me to go completely independent – is that I was able to take the time and head up to Whistler in advance of the race, get settled and not have to rush come race day. The easiest option was to book a seat on one of the various buses that operate a shuttle service to and from the resort, with Epic Rides being the operator I ultimately chose, paying CA $35 for a ticket each way. The advantage of just getting to kick back on a bus was that a) I was able to actually enjoy the views en route rather than focus on not killing myself behind the wheel, and b) eliminated all the expense and hassle of dealing with a hire car. After all, I wasn’t planning on doing any driving once up in the mountains anyway so having a car parked all weekend would have been redundant.

Another advantage of the bus was that it was a nice way of meeting some new people, with one person being a fellow solo ultra runner, Ingrid, who originally hails from Brazil but is now based in Victoria, BC and was heading up to Whistler clearly looking to put in a good solid performance.

Once in Whistler I was struck not by the overwhelming beauty of the place, because, well, I knew it was going to be and had been able to admire the changing scenery en route, but rather by how happy I felt to be back up in the mountains. For a lad who grew up in flat, rural Norfolk I do have this affinity for peaks that means that I just feel happy in the mountains. It was the same in Tahoe, the same in Switzerland and now here in Canada – there is just something mesmerisingly majestic about being able to peer up and drink in the view of snow-capped mountains, knowing that they’ve been there way before us and will, almost certainly, be there long after we’ve all pushed ourselves out of existence. Its humbling. Levelling.
As far as views from a bus stop go, Whistler’s is pretty good. As is the pizza 🙂
The town of Whistler was much like the ski towns I have visited in other parts of the world, and as I strolled down through the village in search of my hotel the usual, familiar names were evident – Patagonia, North Face, Starbucks etc – albeit sitting alongside as many independents. It was clearly a popular town and was busy even in the absence of any skiable snowfall. My hotel, the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel, was located just a stone’s throw from Olympic Plaza and the main focus of activity on race day, and was extremely comfortable, even coming with a hot tub and pool, welcome amenities when it came to after the race.
Whistler is a breathtakingly beautiful town, surrounded by even more stunning scenery
It took a good amount of willpower not to give in to the temptation to wander off on a long hike such was the allure of the surrounding countryside and the fact that it was a stunning Autumn day, although I did do a decent explore of the town itself, stopping off for some exquisite pizza and sitting by the river to join the Thinking Man sculpture in some quiet contemplation – good spot for it! At 5pm we were able to call in and pick up our race packs, with the solo runners dealt with at a smaller table by the race organiser, Ron. Apparently there were about 44 runners registered in total for the race and so it was set to be a great day, especially with the forecast remaining as good as it had been all week – quite the contrast to the year before by all accounts. I was definitely going to need to remember to pack my camera for the race!
The Olympic Rings at Olympic Plaza: the start and finish of the ultra-marathon
With my race gear placed out, nutrition organised and bagged up and one, final high-carb meal safely put away I was tucked up in bed by 9pm, meaning that I actually, remarkably, got a full 7 hours of sleep in by the time the alarm pierced the ambience in the morning.

Race Day

I was eager to get going and see what the day had in store. I knew I’d prepared, I knew I was fit and I knew that I was feeling as good as I could expect to just a short time away from hearing the starter’s horn. As such it was just a matter of going through the usual race-prep motions: food in, anxiety out, get dressed, final bag checks and then head out the door. Given the forecast for very chilly temperatures to start I opted for multiple layers fully expecting that I had likely overdone it and would be removing at least one a short distance into the race. In the end, however, my choice of trail top, thermal layer, cycling thermal layer, gloves, snood and a beanie proved to be more than required and all remained in place for at least the first two laps of the course – it was freeeeezzzziiiinnnnggg!!!

Race

As 6am rolled around those of us mad enough to choose to run 80km collected at the start, having dropped off our aid station bags, and counted down until we were officially off! My tactic, as far as I had one, was to keep my pace really steady to start, aiming to run no harder than would have been comfortable to chat at and to focus on remembering the route as best I could. It was extremely dark for most of the first loop, with headlamps mandatory and actually very much needed. Whilst the views in the dark were lacking it did help to ensure that focus remained on running sensibly and on both eating and drinking regularly. To say that there wasn’t a part of me that was a little nervous/ excited at the very real prospect of some sort of wildlife to come leaping out of the dark depths would be a lie – after all, we were running in actual bear country!

By the time we were about 7km in I really started to find my pace and was feeling strong, with the going perfect, the air crisp and fresh and the only sounds to be heard the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze, the rhythmic pad of feet on the path and the sound of my thoughts. It is moments like those that we run for – being one of the only people for miles around to be up and out, enjoying nature and just drinking it all in! Blissful.

Wrong Turn

The bliss, however, soon changed to concern as the two runners I had caught up to and I passed a sign that stated the village was 4.2km in the opposite direction to that in which we were running despite it being clear that we should have been no more than a kilometre from home, having already run about 12km of what was meant to be a 13km loop. When the scenery started to look very familiar we decided that we had, in fact, gone wrong and started running back the way we came. As we passed another runner he seemed confident that we hadn’t gone wrong and so, given that I had zero idea either way, I swung back round and joined him – after all, he seemed pretty sure. It was about 2km down the route, when it was absolutely crystal clear that we’d passed that section before, that it did dawn on us that we had gone wrong. How wrong was unclear but there had been a route error at some point. The trouble was that on that first loop we’d seen nobody official at all and so trying to work out what had happened and where the error may have occurred was a guessing game. Feeling pretty annoyed at ourselves, especially given how early it was in the race to be adding unnecessary extra miles, we made the decision to just start tracking back towards the village, as signposted by the roadside signs. It transpired that where we’d gone wrong, and where a lot of others had made the same error, was at the 10km aid station. I recall running towards it, seeing two other runners ahead, and seeing a portable toilet, table and white gazebo, but no-one manning it. We’d been advised to look out for orange cones marking the route and so seeing that said cones went to the right most of us naturally followed them in that direction. What we hadn’t realised at the time was that it was a tricky station that actually represented a bidirectional split – on the outward leg of the loop we ran to the aid station, passing it on our right, but on the return leg we were actually meant to hang a left at it, to pick up the trail specifically back into town! Some people who had raced the same route before had apparently remembered this and so avoided the error whilst those of us blindly following the cones were the ones to get drawn into the trap.

In the end Mike and I ended up returning to the start via part of the second loop route and added on nearly 5km to our total for the day, an annoying way to start but thankfully not ruinous, especially after checking that our failure to come over the requisite timing mat was not going to result in a disqualification. If that had been a risk then I’d have been more peeved but as it all looked to be ok I just chalked it up to one of those ultra experiences to learn from and focused on the rest of the day, and trying to make up some of the lost time whilst trying to avoid pushing too hard or fast too early and blowing the rest of the race.

Back in the Race

With some more fuel on board it was off and out onto the second, shorter loop. I confess that I did jack up the pace for the first 2km but was thankfully slowed to something more sensible by the arrival of the first climb of the loop. I learnt pretty early on in ultra running that there is very little advantage to be gained from trying to run up gradients over a certain steepness – it’s just inefficient! As such, I power-hiked up most of the climbs, taking the opportunity to catch my breath, take on food and water and just gather my thoughts. The climbing in this race all seemed to be focused in one relatively short section of the second loop and by the time we reached Lost Lake, whose appearance changed with each lap and as the day progressed, it was a long, steady downhill run back to the village and the start of grand-loop number two.

With the route now manned with supporters and volunteers it was much clearer where we were supposed to go. As such it was easier to just relax into the race and not have to worry about going wrong again. I found the second loop to be my best as I was well warmed up by then, feeling energetic and just enjoying the experience and the views of being out in Whistler, with no hint of muscle pain setting in – just that lovely sense of flow that comes from running well in breathtaking surroundings and with perfect conditions.

By the time I made it out onto lap three I was aware of the relay runners, primarily on account of the fact that they rather unsurprisingly passed us solo runners at a decent clip and devoid of any pack on their backs. They were running a very different race to us – more of a sprint in their case – and so remembering this helped to avoid feeling disillusioned when they did sail past looking strong. The support everyone got from one another, and from the plethora of volunteers along the route, was wonderful and made a huge difference to the overall experience of the race, especially during those final laps when the fatigue was starting to kick in and the desire to walk became ever stronger. Seeing an aid station coming up with supporters whooping and hollering at you to keep going and telling you how well you’re doing does wonders for lifting even the most weary of spirits and I’m sure all of us put in PBs over those specific, short sections alone. One stand out memory for me was jogging along at what felt like a very slow pace on my final long loop when a relay runner zipped past me shouting as she did, “you are awesome!” I confess that put a smile smack bang on my face and really helped drive the legs home.
The views on race day were some of the most spectacular of any race I have run
With just the final 7km to go I dropped off everything bar my camera at the aid station before striking out, feeling pumped that this was it: the final push. 7km? What was that? Nothing! I knew that I could tick that off even if my legs and feet were definitely aching by that point. It was the length of a short training run, that was all. With one final set of pics taken at the lake viewing point – the best light of the day was absolutely during the fourth lap – it was time to dig in for one, final push down the hill and home. It always amazes me that no matter how much you’ve put into a race and how tired one might be feeling, there is always a sprint in the legs for the final few hundred meters. And so it was, as I saw the village come into view I stepped on the gas, literally sprinting down the last section of road before crossing over into the plaza and then left towards the finish! I was so pumped at that moment and felt absolutely elated as I crossed the line in a total time of 8 hours 24 mins, and a total distance of just under 85km. Not bad for a day’s work 🙂
Reaching the finish line was a fantastic feeling! Bottom-Right: Mike, his wife Channon, and I with our medals.

Celebrate Good Times

Whilst I was feeling tired, very tired, and sore following an entire working-day of pretty much non-stop running I was also feeling elated. I’d put in a solid performance, dealt with an early setback in good humour and ultimately pushed on to have a great day. I was very pleased. Mike came through the finish a little after me and I made sure to hobble over to congratulate him – whilst we’d not necessarily run together together for most of the day, we were definitely close and I considered him my main ‘brother in arms’ for the day. Its an incredibly friendly sport and I am always amazed at the range of lovely people you end up meeting during ultras.

The social element of my experience continued as I made my way back over to the hotel – I knew it was a blessing to have booked one so close by – and ultimately into the blissfully soothing warm waters of the hot tub. There is nothing like lowering run-weary legs down into bubbling warm water! Lovely! It wasn’t long before others joined, with the first people climbing in being three guys who had run as part of a relay team from Vancouver. In short course the rest of their team, who were all staying at the hotel as well, joined, making for a cosily packed hot tub. I learned that they were part of a relay team put together from their run group, the Oak Street Runners, which I realised was fairly close to where I was based at UBC. They’d had a cracking day, coming in 17th overall, and no wonders with several very fast runners among their team, in addition to doing the race in fancy dress, which always scores awesome points in my book! They were even nice enough to invite me to join them for some drinks at the local bar that evening, something I eagerly took them up on given that a good beer and conversation is the best way to mark the completion of a successfully run race in my humble opinion.

Fast forward an hour or so, during which time I tried to catch a few much needed Z’s, and I sauntered across the road to the bar to meet everyone. To say they were a welcoming and riotously fun group to hang out with would be an understatement and those couple of initial drinks progressed to joining them for tapas (and more drinks) at an awesome local restaurant, before we hit the clubs and the night went from there. Short version of the story = very little sleep, a very fatigued Sunday but a perfect way to round out what had consistently proven itself to be an epic weekend. I would like to say a huge thank you to them all for making me a welcome part of their team that weekend – thanks to Yun, Dom, Mary, Davide, Dave, Marko, Carola and Joanna 🙂
Couldn’t have asked for a more awesome group of fantastic people to celebrate with

The Price of No Rest

 
What surprised me following the weekend was just how surprisingly good I felt. My legs barely ached and I felt energetic, so much so that I quickly jumped into the mission I had set myself, which had been to learn how to do a hockey stop on the ice. With no running to officially do, although I did join Jo for a cheeky 10km on the Monday evening, I saw no problem in directing my energies elsewhere. Unbeknownst to me, however, was that in spite of feeling good I really should have forced myself to properly take it easy. According to some studies runners recovering from an ultra marathon can be at greater risk of developing, for example, upper respiratory infections. In hindsight, going out the night of the race and “having it large” probably wasn’t the smartest move either, as the liver is already pretty stressed from the race without having several drinks thrown in for good measure. Still, I didn’t really know or give much thought to any of this at the time and as far as I was concerned I felt great. Until that it is, I didn’t.

Almost a week to the day, during a trip over to Toronto to see some family, I started to feel feverish, then developed an acutely painful throat that ultimately saw me call in to a doctor. The initial diagnosis was Strep throat and I was issued with antibiotics and told to carry on taking Tylenol. Cue one of the most miserable weeks of my life so far, including a flight back to Vancouver during which I repeatedly felt like chucking up, and no let up in what felt like my head being in a slowly tightening vice, my teeth and jaw in a similarly badly fitted brace and throat feeling as though an army of spike-wearing devils were doing a constant jig on my tonsils. That an ongoing fever that all served to make me feel bloody wretched. The diagnosis after a second trip to see a doctor was actually severe pharyngitis, most likely viral and as a result of my immune system being in a weakened state following the exertions of the race the week before. Even as I write this I am still recovering and think I now have had some glimpse into what it might feel like to be 110! If my experience this past week had anything to do with failing to look after myself properly following running an ultra-marathon then I vow in future to be far, far better to myself. Health is one of those incredibly precious attributes we have and only truly appreciate when it is not present – if taking a few more days off, as in really off – and relaxing properly following a race can help avoid feeling as shitty as I have then sign me up! One thing I do know now is that I am absolutely not Superman! 🙂

Eiger 101 Post 9 – Escape to Georgia

With a week off work, training to do and a strong desire to escape the relentless heat and humidity of the Middle East, especially with Ramadan taking place, I looked to potential destinations for a short trip away, with running being my key focus. The initial thought was to head back to Chamonix for some alpine running; a kind of appeasement to the heavy-duty hill-training gods that I have, to date, not been especially devout to. However, the combination of pricey flights, an abysmal weather forecast for the valley the week I intended to visit and a slew of trails that appeared, according to a couple of websites, to still be closed, I opted against it in favour of a destination markedly closer: Georgia.
Georgia, and it’s capital Tblisi, is a country that seems to be attracting a lot of interest, especially from tourists based here in the Gulf. For good reason too. I know scores of people who have visited and returned with nothing but glowing praise for the country, which at just three hours flight from Dubai with the local low-cost carrier feels like a no-brainer, especially given the promise of sensible temperatures whilst the Middle East bakes. Compared to Europe the cost of accommodation was also incredibly attractive and I was able to rent an entire two bedroom apartment in the picturesque and historic old town area of Tblisi for less than it would have cost me for a studio in Chamonix. Coupled with there being no need for a visa my mind was made: Tblisi, here I come!

As before in earlier posts I shan’t turn this into a lengthy travel-log, as to be quite frank there are scores of those online already, some significantly better than others. My focus for the week was really the running and it wasn’t clear until I actually arrived whether or not Tblisi was going to be an especially ‘run-friendly’ place. Of course I did some sight-seeing and the classic tourist things, such as join one of the ‘free’ walking tours – social pressure dictates that you tip the guide at the end, with the owner of the company retaining a healthy percentage of said tip, hence the inverted commas on the word free; a smart business strategy in my opinion – and indulged in the wonderful local cuisine and drink, specifically the wine, which Georgia is renowned for.
Another of the classically touristy activities I partook in was to get a sulphur bath and massage. Tblisi is famed for it’s natural sulphur springs and the supposedly healing qualities of the waters. Whilst I am glad I ticked that box I can’t say I especially enjoyed the experience. For starters it was relatively pricey, especially as the advice was to pay for a private room. This turned out to simply be two adjoined rooms, the first containing a couple of chairs, a table and not much else, with the second being the actual bath room, with a deep tub of hot, sulphurous water, a shower that provided more of the same water, and a marble slab upon which my massage and scrub was administered. There certainly was no focus on fine detail and grubby would be the word that I would use to describe the setting. True the spa I attended – one of the very central and more prominent establishments – did provide exactly what they advertised: sulphur water, but beyond that there was no attempt to refine the experience. I left after an hour feeling thirsty and aware of the vaguely eggy aura I had about me – remember, the shower in the room ran with sulphur water – and can’t say felt particularly rejuvenated. Still, it had to be done I guess, and the hot water was nice after the long run earlier that day.

So, back to the running. What of it? Well, road running was a challenge as a) the city is actually very compact, with very little in the way of reliable sidewalk availability. The longest stretch of continuous running I was able to do ended up being along the river as the sidewalk there did extend for about 8km before meeting a dead-end forcing me to about turn and head back to the city. The downside, however, was that it ran alongside a major road, with air pollution sadly being a constant feature. I’m not entirely certain how much health benefits there were to running that particular section as I was very aware of the fumes from the myriad engines as I ran. A real shame. One of the best areas, it transpired, to get some fresh air and some good, varied running in was the Botanical Gardens, tucked in the valley behind the castle and Mother of Georgia statue. Opening at 9am and costing just 2 Georgian Lari to enter, the gardens is more of an expansive national park, with a range of lovely trails, paved roads and a stunning central waterfall, framed by a picturesque bridge and a world away, it felt, from the hustle and bustle of the main city, whilst being mere minutes from the same.
An oasis in the city: the Tblisi Botanical Gardens
I can imagine that the rest of Georgia, with it’s expansive countryside and the mountains of the Kazbegi region, would be very good running territory and whilst I did not manage to venture out of Tblisi on this trip I would very much like to return to the country and do so. As a short break destination, Tblisi was wonderful, although as a running destination less so.

Eiger 101 Post 8 – Portugal Sun & Run

I have said in previous posts how much I love the fact that running is something that one can do anywhere; all you need, essentially, are a good pair of shoes, a sense of adventure and curiosity and away you go. Exploring a new city or area under your own steam on foot is often one of the best ways to truly get a sense for a place. That and the fact that most runners get up and pound the pavement or trails before the majority of the world has risen tends to mean that a completely different, more honest side of life is see in whatever locale one might find themselves.

LISBON

Picture postcard views everywhere in Lisbon
Lisbon was the destination for a long overdue boys weekend with a few old friends from university and balancing the demands of training with ensuring that I was able to join in the fun of a weekend away was not really as tricky as I perhaps imagined it might. The days of crazy nights out on the town are, truth be told, behind us and the latest we all stayed out was, to be honest, about 1am and that was due to us sitting in a restaurant enjoying good food, wine and conversation as opposed to painting the town red in a club. As such getting up and out early in the morning for some training runs was not as tough as I thought it might have been.

We arrived in Lisbon in the dark and so did not really get a true sense of the beauty of the city on the drive to our AirBNB in the Chiado neighbourhood. Our apartment, situated on the top floor of a classic Portuguese building down a narrow street close to the Convento do Carmo, was one of the best AirBNB experiences I have had to date, with our host showing us into a stunning abode that made a hotel suite look a little shabbily appointed, before giving an incredibly detailed overview of the city and drawing our attention to the welcome gifts of a classic Portuguese pastel de nata each and a bottle of port, which we promptly polished off following an incredible introduction to the cuisine of the city at an old monastery turned beer hall and restaurant, Cervejaria Trinidade, just around the corner. If the quality of the steaks and beer that we enjoyed on that first evening were any guide then it was set to be a well-fuelled weekend of training indeed!
Whilst my three friends slept in I did what any self-respecting trail runner does when in the presence of non-runners and crept around the house like a ninja, trying my best not to wake anyone up before turning towards the waterfront and spending the next 20km enjoying the freedom of stretching my legs as I headed off towards the Atlantic, passing under the Ponte de 25 Abril, the Golden Gate Bridge clone that spans the River Tagus, before turning around at the Torre de Belem to return home. Portugal enjoys almost year-round sunshine and that first morning was no exception, with azure blue skies, a light breeze and an unobstructed view of the city to keep me pushing on. The run along the waterfront took me past several marinas, museums and galleries, and with the water literally next to me the air was as fresh as it could possibly be, a rare treat after the increasingly stifling humidity of Dubai.

With the biggest run of the weekend complete I scaled the rather lengthy climb back to our apartment to find my friends all up and enjoying coffee. Perfect timing so that after a quick shower it was immediately into tourist mode and the vitally important task of the breakfast search, such are the difficult choices one has to make when on vacation.
The famous Tram 28 in Lisbon

Enjoying well earned pastéis de nata & ginjinja in Lisbon
Lisbon is a stunning city and to be honest it would be easy to spend the next twenty paragraphs waxing lyrical about what we saw, did, ate and experienced, but I shall resist the temptation. The highlights, however, included a fascinating tuk-tuk tour of the city that took in all of the key areas and sights, an option we jumped on following an aborted attempt to see the city via the famous tram 28. The food was exquisite, although there were two consecutive evenings that provided very different experiences of Lisbon seafood, the first involving cuttlefish. Suffice to say we finished strong, enjoying one of the finest meals I have had the pleasure of enjoying in a long time on our final evening in the city.
Incredible seafood was just one feature of Lisbon & Portugal

THE ALGARVE

Following the end of our Lisbon stay, the boys all headed back to the UK whilst I, having traveled a lot further to be in the country, had extended my stay and so picked up a hire car at the airport before striking out south to the Algarve. As such, the second half of my holiday in Portugal was a slightly different experience of the country, exchanging international city for picture postcard beaches, towering cliffs and seaside fishing towns.
Stunning clifftop running in Lagos & the Algarve
My base for the next few days was Lagos, about as far away from it’s Nigerian namesake as one can imagine, with my hotel being nothing more than a short stroll from several Instagram-worthy beaches, tucked into pretty little coves accessed by snaking staircases that wound down the vertigo-inducing cliffs that frame this part of the coast. The wealth of running options was extensive and my training sessions saw me criss-cross the narrow streets of the town itself, take in the fishing harbour and wide promenade that continued up the hill following the old city wall, whilst also getting some great training in by running the entire length of the expansive sandy beach that links Lagos and neighbouring Alvor. Nothing beats the sound of a gently lapping ocean against the soft repetitive rhythm of feet on firm-enough-to-run sand, with a refreshing breeze and the sight of families enjoying the amazing scenery and fun of the beach. It is moments like the ones I enjoyed running in the Algarve that make running such a pleasure.
Stunning coastal town of Lagos, Portugal
A truly Mediterranean vibe in Lagos
From the steady endurance effort of long, flat beaches to the more cardio-intense demands of the undulating cliffs that I also ran along, this part of Portugal really did feel like a trail runners’ dream-come-true. I had initially planned to get up really early one morning, still in the dark, in order to get my long run done and dusted before breakfast, but was very glad I chose to wait until daylight once I saw a) how incredibly steep and high the cliffs were, and b) just how perilously close to them it is possible to actually run. Combined with some strong gusts of wind it would not be too much of a stretch to imagine how easy it would have been to do an accidental lemming impression! Besides, the views were infinitely more impressive in the daylight. Talking of views, one of my primary reasons for choosing to head to the Algarve, in addition to the promise of some great running, was to do a few jumps at Skydive Algarve. Whilst I only did two jumps in total they were certainly worth my time as nothing was going to be able to top the view of the entire area that comes from being at 13,000 feet, especially when free falling between and through clouds in the process. Stunning. Just stunning.

Once again, I feel truly blessed to be able to don my running shoes, grab my passport and enjoy exploring another new place from the perspective of a trail runner. Looking forward to the next.

72km of Extreme – Salomon Wadi Bih 2017

The Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.

Comfortable ‘Camping’

I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however,  that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Lulu hypermarket, Dibba
Great place to stock up on supplies before the crossing at Dibba. Great schwarmas for one thing!

Paperwork. Oh The Joy.

Wadi Bih pass collection
The first part of the Wadi Bih challenge. My advice is arrive early.

I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂  and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.

First Time – Clueless

Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.

Fit Enough?

As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
Wadi Bih race
A rough overview of the route of the 72km Wadi Bih race – out & back.

At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.

Wadi Bih 2017 turnaround
The sweetest sight (after the finish) of the day: the 36km turnaround.

Breathtakingly Beautiful

The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Wadi Bih 2017
72km of running and my first ultra-marathon done.

Climate Chaos

Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
Golden Tulip, Dibba
Saturday was in stark contrast to the day before! Calm skies & sunshine after the howling winds & freezing rain of Friday.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.
For more information on the Wadi Bih race, head to the website here.

German Odyssey – Challenge Roth

“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.

First Impressions

Challenge Roth_WelcomeThe 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.
Expo entrance_Roth 2016The 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.
Challenge Shop 2016
Challenge Roth 2016_Expo
Challenge Roth 2016 Expo Site
Swim practice_Roth 2016
The Tri-Dubai ‘Loons’

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.

Swim exit_Challenge Roth
Swim exit at Challenge Roth 2016

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.

Swim exit_close up_Challenge Roth 2016
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.
Transition 1_Challenge Roth 2016
Transition starts to fill with bikes

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.

RACE DAY

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.

Swim

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.

T1

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!

Bike

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.
Challenge Roth_cycling 2016
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!
Cycling_Challenge Roth_support
Incredible crowd support at all stages is what makes Challenge Roth so unique & memorable.

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.

Run

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.
Run_Challenge Roth 2016Without 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.
Challenge Roth_run finish is close
The end is sooooo close!

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!

Roth 2016_Run finish
I thought I was smiling but after 13 hours seem more to be grimacing. A finish is, however, a finish & the BEST feeling!

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.

Finisher medal_Challenge Roth 2016
BOOM!
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!

Final Thoughts

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.
Challenge HQ_Roth
The home of Challenge is literally Roth
RACE DETAILS:
TOTAL TIME = 12’55”51
SWIM = 1’11”39
T1 = 9”00
BIKE = 7’41”28
T2 = 3”57
RUN = 3’48”40

Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015 – Mission Accomplished

Ironman Lake TahoeWhat 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

Top of Brockway_TahoeThe 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.

Shreddy Times_Conor Toumarkine

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

Transition_Swim to Bike_Lake Tahoe IronmanTahoe 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!

Squaw ValleyBike 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

Swim Exit_Lake TahoeI 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.

Bike Climb up BrockwayOne 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.

Ironman Lake Tahoe_RunThe 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?!

Ironman Lake Tahoe finishThe Afterglow

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!

Ironman Lake Tahoe results

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!

IM Lake Tahoe discontinuedContrary 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!

Final Thoughts

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.

Don't Make an Ironman The First TriathlonWe 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 Location That Truly Inspires YouPick 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!

Get CoachedYou 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.

Embrace Early Mornings & Late NightsWith 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.

RestYou 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!

Get a Proper Bike FittingYou 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.

Talk to OthersEspecially 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.

Have Fun & Enjoy YourselfRemember 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 🙂

Challenge. In Every Sense of the Word

Challenge Dubai finish
The ultimate target on race day

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
Challenge Dubai pre-race swim
Early morning pre-race swim before Challenge Dubai

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.

Windy Start
Race morning: windyI 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!
Relentless
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.
Challenge Dubai medalsNow 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?!
Monique and Chris_finishers Challenge DubaiThe 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.
Challenge Dubai 2015 winners
Pro winners. Men: Terenzo Bozzone (1st); Tim Reed (2nd); Michael Raelert (3rd). Women: Daniela Ryf (1st); Heather Wurtele (2nd); Helle Frederikson (3rd).

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.

Male pro winners, Challenge Dubai
In the presence of greatness! Post awards pic with Terenzo Bozzone (1st) & Tim Reed (2nd). Legends!

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…

FINAL RACE RESULTS
M30-34
Overall place = 241/637 (top 40%)
Gender place = 206/523 (top 40%)
Category Place = 28/84 (top 33%)
Swim = 00:39:22
(T1 = 00:03:10)
Bike = 03:01:56
(T2 = 00:02:32)
Run = 01:50:12
TOTAL = 05:37:12

Wadi Bih – Run with a View

The Wadi Bih race is officially the longest running expat sporting event held in the UAE, started as it was in 1992, and sees runners take on the trails through Wadi Bih, nestled in the top right corner of the peninsula and requiring a crossover into Oman.
I had heard much of the beauty of the views afforded competitors during this race and in spite of also hearing tales of caution relating to extremely lengthy waits at the border crossing, I felt compelled to get involved myself this year. This was the first year that the event was to be staged over two days, with the addition of a few new races, including the solo 50 and 30 kilometre events. Given that the team 72 kilometre relay – the main event of the weekend – was due to be held on Saturday, I was not in a position to put a team together or join another, although finding a last minute fill-in spot would not have been difficult, and so signed up for the solo 30 race. Why did I not go longer? I have the big race of the current season coming up at the end of February – Challenge Dubai – and so as much as I wanted to take part this weekend I certainly didn’t wish to sacrifice good quality training over the next crucial few weeks on account of having broken myself at the longer distances. Plus, to be honest, I have never run further than 36km and am not very experienced at trail running. As such, I know that although I’m sure I could have completed the longer races it would not have been the experience that I would have liked. Ultimately sport has to be fun – after all, I am not a professional and do this for leisure not a living. The price paid for signing on to the shorter distance was that I did not get to fully experience and appreciate the epic views that I know longer competitors did. Oh well…. theres always next year or a separate trip altogether.
tent, Wadi Bih, Oman
Perfect abode for the weekend

With a tent kindly loaned to me by friend and colleague Adri and her husband Emile, and a relatively lightly (by my usual ‘hopeless packer’ standards) packed car, I made the most of having Thursday off and set off for the east coast early, determined to miss the queues at the border. A pleasant journey via Masafi – one of my favourite drives so far in the UAE – with a quick stop off at Lulu for some last minute food items and a spur of the moment camp chair purchase (I soon discovered at the beach that I had in fact purchased a child-size chair!) I pressed on to collect my border papers, only spotting the direction sign by fluke and at the very last minute, before waiting no more than ten minutes whilst my papers were verified and the car searched for alcohol – none was found incidentally.

The Golden Tulip hotel, nestled at the northern end of the large Dibba bay, was our base for the weekend and I set about swiftly commandeering a prime pitch for my little tent and even smaller chair, sheltered by the beach wall, looking back at the hotel and race finish chute, and situated picturesquely beneath a classic palm tree, making the whole scene look like one straight out of Robinson Crusoe. The first significant difference between beach camping and traditional UK camping that I had formerly experienced as a Boy Scout was the fact that pegs are pretty much useless in sand! A solution, thankfully, was on hand as I spotted several large rocks close to my pitch and with the two larger ones placed inside the tent itself at opposite ends, and then the guy ropes secured with the help of two more sizeable slabs, my tent was up and the scene set.
Saloman, Wadi Bih, race finish
Finish line of Wadi Bih race

The evening before my race was a fairly relaxed affair, as it should have been, and after a brief exploration of the hotel – it didn’t take long on account of actually being pretty small – I made friends with a group of team 50 relay runners from Doha, Qatar (the ‘Not so dashing expats’) and joined them for a couple of beers. One of them, it was soon pointed out, bore an uncannily striking resemblance to a certain President of Russia, which provided some mirth. Fellow Dubai athlete, Chops Potter, and friend Marcus Smith, who is currently preparing for the epic Marathon des Sables in April, arrived later in the evening and I joined them at their camp for a quiet nightcap before everyone retired for an early start in the morning. The solo 72’ers were all due to set off at the early hour of 0430 and I did poke my head out of the tent to see them off before catching another hour of much needed sleep. My race wasn’t due to start until 0900, although I would have much preferred to start earlier in order to miss the real heat of the day. Still, at least I wasn’t having to run 72km!

Dubai, triathletes, Wadi Bih
Fellow Dubai triathletes, Taka and Tyrone, and I at the start of the 30km race

Even more members of the Dubai scene arrived, with Doris taking part in the 50km solo and Taka and Tyrone joining me on the 30km race. When they both suggested that I should be aiming for a podium place I dismissed their vociferations as fanciful niceties, especially given that I am not a seasoned trail runner and was sure that the field for our race was playing host to many very fast runners. With that in mind, and a plan to just enjoy myself, I set off finding myself leading the charge and quickly remembering to focus on keeping my heart rate at a sensible and sustainable level, especially with the fact that it was to be a long race. Within about 2km the eventual race winner, Doha-based athlete Stephen Gurr, passed and was soon very much in the distance, with a couple of other runners catching me and so it was that we stayed together for about the first 5km. The funny thing about races is that regardless of what your intentions or objectives for the event, a race is still a race and we are all naturally competitive people. As such, it wasn’t long before you could feel the pace quickening and the temptation to match the renewed speed, knowing full well that to do so may well result in problems later down the line. I therefore made a decision to stick to my plan, keeping my heart rate below 180bpm and essentially allowing the two guys with me to charge ahead. My thoughts were that they were either significantly fitter than me, in which case bravo and good race, or they were making a strategic error and I would be passing them later in the race. It seems I chose wisely as it wasn’t long before I duly passed both runners. Who’d have thunk it – plans do usually work!

There were a few hilly sections on the 30km race, which did really test the lungs, legs and technique. I personally find it much easier to go up hills by pretending that I am holding poles and using my arms in such a fashion as if I am using said fictional poles. The turnaround at 15km coincided with the second aid station and following a swift downing of some electrolytes and a dousing with cold water, I set off towards the hotel and finish, in hot pursuit of the two runners between me and a second place slot. As seems to be the story of my racing career to date, the turn towards home saw me suddenly tap into an additional energy reserve and I felt great as I locked onto my targets, quickly closing the gap and moving into third. The runner now in second had put a reasonable distance between us and the next 3km saw that gap gradually close as I quickened my pace and he slowed his. Eventually I caught him and found myself in the position of having to defend my hard fought second position – my first podium slot – which is basically where the race really started for me.
Not wishing to upset the rhythm that I had established, I chose not to look behind me until the last large hill, when I found a need to walk briefly, expecting my closest rival to pass me. He didn’t and so I glanced back to see that I had actually put a decent gap between us. That gave me the encouragement to dig in, push up the hill and focus on keeping my lead for the closing kilometres of the race, knowing full well that a race is not won until the line is crossed. This is where mental reserves were called on as by this stage the temperature had peaked and I was feeling the heat. I don’t believe I broke any records over those final kilometres, slow as they were, although the pace acutely increased as I turned onto the main road near the hotel, and the 2km left mark, to glance back and see the runner who would eventually take third rapidly catching me up. “Nooooo!” was all I could think. “I have NOT battled this far to let it slip now!” As such, I dug in and was determined to push it as hard as I could right until the end. The first problem I hit upon was the fact that the signposting back to the race start was awful, or rather non-existent, which was an issue given that I could not for the life of me recall which side-street we had emerged from. A pitiful look back to Mr Third Place with a shrugged question of “Which way?” was met, very sportingly I might add, with instructions to keep going and then directions on where to actually turn. If he was set on taking second over me at any cost then he could have stitched me right up and sent me the wrong way easily. But he didn’t. Cos he is a sportsman, and I genuinely applaud and respect him for that fact. So, the final straight entered, the hotel in sight, tantalisingly close yet still far enough to hurt. I was absolutely convinced that it would be in these final hundreds of metres that I would be passed and so I gritted my teeth and just locked on to the finish. Still in second as I reached the sand. Still in second at the start of the finish chute. “Yes!” Second place as I crossed the line and brought this race to a close. I’d done it! I had secured my first UAE podium. It felt great. Well, it actually felt like my legs were about to seize up but the feeling of achievement was wonderful.
View from tent, Wadi Bih
View of finish line at Wadi Bih race from my siesta point

Heeding the advice of coach, Trace, I duly hopped – or rather collapsed into – the cool waters of the hotel pool, determined to loosen the legs up, before donning the trusty compression tights and gobbling down some protein and cool drinks. The short siesta I took in my tent – complete with prime views out of the open door to the finish – was serene, and as I dozed I allowed my thoughts to wander back over the race. I’d intended to listen to music, even wearing my ear buds the whole way round. However, as it turned out I actually ran without any music, and so was able to really listen to my body, and focus on my race strategy, which I suspect helped a great deal.

new shoes, race prize, Wadi BihMy initial plan has been to pack up and head back to Dubai after the race. However, given the fact that a) I knew the traffic was going to be hellish on a Friday afternoon, and b) it was a great chance to kick back with some friends and enjoy the post-race hospitality, I opted to hang around for the rest of the day, joining in with a few well-deserved beers and making a decent dent in the race buffet on offer. After a demonstration of several Omani songs and dances from a local group we got on to the presentation and I soon found myself shaking hands with the local dignitaries and race organiser, John Young, before accepting my prize for second: a new pair of Saloman running shoes, which were exactly in my size as well. A great result from a really great day’s event. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun trail running race and I would definitely like to return to take part in the full distance, albeit as part of a relay, perhaps even taking up the option of doing it in fancy dress!
FINAL RACE TIME = 2 hrs 33 mins

Rise to the Challenge – Challenge Bahrain 2014

Rise to the Challenge

Claire & Chris in BahrainEverything 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.

Registration at Challenge Bahrain
Registration at Challenge Bahrain

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!

Registering at Challenge BahrainA 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

Practice swim in Bahrain Bay
Practice swim in Bahrain Bay

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.

T1 at Challenge Bahrain
T1 at Challenge Bahrain

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!”

T1 at Challenge BahrainWith 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.

Race Day!

Early morning Bahrain BayAnd 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.

Challenge Bahrain finishThe 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 finishing Challenge BahrainClaire 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!

Merle and Chris at Challenge BahrainThe 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!

FINAL RACE RESULTS:
Swim 1.9km = 0:32’12
T1 = 0:03’58
Cycle 90km = 2:48’01
T2 = 0:02’21
Run 21.1km = 1:34’28

TOTAL TIME = 5:01’00
(174th out of 804 finishers
144th out of 622 men
24th out of 106 M30-34)