Thursday, October 12, 2017

CHALLENGE ROTH : an ironman-distance triathlon experienced from the outside

Spectacular! That’s the best adjective to describe Challenge Roth – spectacular in the sense of how awe-inspiring the event is in its organization and display of endurance athletics, and spectacular in the sense of being a true (and huge) show. Compared to most sporting events I’ve competed in, in terms of "visuals", Roth is like the original Star Trek series to Game of Thrones... (No offense to Star Trek fans – I love the series too, just like I love low-key races.)

So this was back in early July, and I was there to accompany my friend Anthony, who I can thank for introducing me to the world of triathlons by encouraging me to participate at Alpe d’Huez in 2013 and then Ironman Vichy in 2015. He had crewed for me at the Swiss Irontrail and at the GUCR, and I was really excited to share this new experience with him, help him out as best I could (a little less allowance for roadside assistance in triathlons than at the GUCR, but still), and witness a tough endurance event from the outside.

And tough it is. Having competed in Ironman-distance triathlon and now witnessed another, I am firmly convinced that it can qualify as the toughest single-day (i.e. 10-16 hours) endurance event out there, for two specific reasons: the training commitment required to toe the line with decent expectations, and the intensity of the effort engaged to complete it.

Elite ultra running coach Jason Koop says that to have a good chance of finishing a 100-mile (160km) footrace, you should train for at least 9 hours/week for 6 out of the last 9 weeks (so before a 3-week taper). And that works. But I’m quite sure that the average weekly training load for the average triathlete when they’re just starting out their plan, six months from an Ironman distance event, before reaching 14, 16 or more hours per.

That takes a lot of energy and dedication (and lack of sleep), so just getting to the starting line of an ironman is a feat of endurance in itself – especially when, like my friend Andrew, you started a new job in a high-powered environment four months before and would still like to be living with your wife and two young kids when the whole thing is over.

Then with regards to the effort exacted by competing in a long distance triathlon, though it is comparable time-wise to a 100k road race for example, I don’t think it’s comparable intensity-wise (again, for the average competitor). I doubt that I am the only to “slack off” in an ultra when the going gets a bit tough, gab with my wife or a friend on the phone, and rest up at a checkpoint stuffing myself with food, fixing my feet or getting a massage. Haven’t noticed much of that in an ironman. In fact, I think most participants are competing as if constantly up against a time barrier; it’s like keeping up marathon intensity but for a whole day. At least that was my experience at Vichy and it is what I found most mentally tough. I felt drained after that in ways I have rarely felt after an ultra.

So anyway, back to the start of Roth. Actually the race started about 20km out along the Main-Donau canal, just outside Hipolstein – and already at 6am (the first wave departed at 6.30am) crowds were lining the river banks along at least a kilometer stretch. And there was no real point in trying to find a spot near the swim launch pad, the crowd was five rows deep. Music was blaring – ok, eighties hard rock stadium favorites (Bon Jovi, Survivor, Queen), but as I’ve mentioned, that’s what it’s all about. And it does get your heart racing. I certainly was getting chills.

Anthony was admittedly a bit subdued as we parted ways and he headed for the transition area to check on his bike and put on his wetsuit (for a 7.25am). He told me later he was having a hard time getting his head in the race. I went up on the bridge to watch but even that was packed! So I headed back down along the bank – due to a curve in the river, I couldn’t actually see the departure, but like the others around me, I was just waiting for the first swimmers to make their way around the buoys towards us, before they turned back towards the swim finish – about 40mn after the first wave. A loud gun shot went off every ten minutes as each wave departed, with almost non-stop commentary from someone who must have a day-job as radio DJ.

Eventually I left to scope out the next sighting area, which was at 70km on the bike route, but due to the nature of the course it was actually only a 3km from the transition area at the (in)famous Solarer Berg.

No way was I going to see Anthony in that crowd so I headed about a kilometer up to where the food station was and decided that was where I would position myself (we’d also agreed on that in case I needed to give him some food he had left with me, or if he needed to unload some stuff). Recon done, I jogged back to the transition area (the two back-and-forths would give me a nice log for my own training!) to try and see if I could catch Anthony coming out of the water. It was 8.30am so I figured I had a bit of time.


He did come out in 1h25, but I didn’t see him! But by 9am, figuring that I had in fact missed him, or he had actually quit during the swim (which I considered highly unlikely, but apparently he did have a moment of doubt at one point), I jogged to Solarer Berg, then went up the hill for about 500 meters, away from the crowds that I think would rival even the most fanatic at the Tour de France…

…and stood at the roadside opposite the refreshment stand. It took about 45mn before he showed up, during which time I gained an even deeper appreciation for the volunteers and their thankless task. At least at an ultra marathon, they generally get to chat with all except the fastest (or surliest) competitors, but here everyone was cruising by on their bikes, hands outstretched to grab a bottle or gel on the fly.

A few stopped at the stands to change bottles or take a breather, which is what Anthony did so we could exchange a few words. He didn’t seem in the best of states, morale-wise, only slowly emerging from a dark spot that had lasted since the swim through about 50km of the bike ride. He mentioned some niggles and how he was finding this a real challenge, so I sort of ignored the faint undertones of negativity – it wouldn’t have done him much good anyway to focus on the bad stuff, since in any case he had to get on with things, and he was starting to do that – and just told him he was making good time (which he was), and was looking good (which he was), and told him I’d meet him at Greding just past the 120km.

I jogged back to the car through the crowds, and while the top bikers were already cruising past the start line for their 2nd loop, the last competitors were heading out from the swim onto the bike course. There were still hundreds of people milling around, and it must of felt good for those in the back to have that kind of support.

I hopped in Anthony’s car and drove for about 20mn to Greding (I always find it fascinating to realize, cruising on the German Autobahn at 130kph, that the competitors will have to cover this distance and much more by bike). It’s at Greding when I took stock of how tough this course was, since the food point was situated at the top of steep hill, and while it’s not the distance of the Alpe d’Huez climb, a half-dozen of those on the course (which means a full dozen total for two loops) can really kill your legs…

As a spectator, however, the view point was bliss. A few food stands and – oh rapture, oh joy! – non-alcoholic Weissbier from the brand sponsoring the event. I was in heaven…

Anthony came powering up the hill about 20mn later, and considering the incline I was able to jog beside him for half a minute or so. He looked a bit drained but otherwise good, happy I think to be on the backend of the bike course. He commented on the toughness of the course, and I used that to point out how well he was doing – not far off his Vichy time, on a tougher course and with similar heat. Yep, it was hot out, over 30°C, and humid.

I left Anthony to refill on isotonic drink, while I went back for another Weissbier…


Getting to Roth for the run course was the main difficulty of the day. Or more precisely, finding a parking space. Access to the small town was cordoned off completely within 300 meters, since the run course looped back and forth through the town. I kept being diverted by “detour” signs, unable to find a parking spot, till I just maneuvered around a road block and into a supermarket parking lot.

Once I found the run course, I couldn’t understand which way it went, since people were running in both directions, and where I should go. I chose a direction but soon found myself heading towards a wooded area, which meant I was probably heading away from Roth. I wanted to position myself at around the 10km mark, and could find that on the race course map – but I didn’t know where I was on the map.

Finally I found someone who was able to point me in the right direction, and it meant weaving my way to other side of the small town of Roth. The atmosphere was amazing – the main drag was cordoned off for the runner, and the sidewalks were packed with people milling around, while restaurants all hand tables and benches out, with sausage and pretzel stands, and everyone having a great time cheering the runners on. Loudspeakers had been set up along the course and the music was ubiquitous.

When I realized that I was on the opposite side of town to the finish, I went back to get the car, loop all the way around Roth, before finding a spot in a garage lot about half-mile from the finish. I grabbed my backpack, jogged to the 10k mark, and found myself there just in time – and almost perfect assessment of Anthony’s pace (around 10.5km/h) as he appeared 5-10mn later (yeh to me!). He seemed in a better place, sweating like crazy in the heat, and I jogged next to him for a few yards while he handed over a fistful of food he wasn’t going to eat and asked me for some gels he had left with (btw, I have to say that Anthony has an incredible tolerance for gels, scoffing 1 every 20mn for the full duration of his Vichy Ironman, which means 33 gels!)

I had been texting with his wife who was back in Zurich, and Anthony kids had been asking for pictures, but so far I had been unable to provide one. So I found a spot in the middle of town that doubled as the 20k/32k spot, and read a book until about 10mn before I figured Anthony would come through – and managed to snap a picture when I saw him arrive.

He was smiling but mumbled something about sore legs which I promptly ignored, gave him some rather bland words of encouragement (are there any other kind? – I know any encouragement is great when receiving it, but when giving it no words seem right, a bit like when you give your “condolences” – maybe because even if the runner is looking bad, you can’t tell them they look like shit, at the very least you tell them to “get over it” – anyway…).

I then eschewed a pretzel for an ice cream and settle for another hour’s wait before he passed through at 32km… This was actually the only real downtime I would have the entire day – and that’s because I was on a course that loops four times through a town! I knew crew members are a dedicated bunch, but now I really appreciated how busy it can be just trying to get from one spot to another. But it certainly wasn’t boring. And though it did rekindle a faint desire to do another triathlon, I was certainly happy to be the outsider that day!

Before Anthony came through at 32km – once again at a rock-solid consistent pace which made my own estimations so much easier – triathlon legend Chrissie Wellington came sweeping through. She was doing it as a relay, competing only in the running section. She had a huge smile on her face and just kept waving to people. That joy and humble pleasure that she exuded at just being there in the middle of the pack was really inspiring. A real shame, however, that she couldn’t have been a bit slower, or Anthony a tad faster, because he came past barely a few minutes after so I didn’t get a picture of them together!

After that I checked out the finish area – another massive show of merchandise stands and, of course, the stadium arrival – before returning to the 40km mark. When Anthony came past he didn’t even notice me until I was tapping on his shoulder – definite end-of-race fatigue! He was suffering quite a bit at this point, but perked up a bit when I told him the finish was real close now and he was making great time, only within 20mn of his Vichy time. He’d been running for a while with another guy and that had been helping him push through the suffering (which also might explain why he lost somewhat track of time and distance).

Then it was down a road into the finish area to wait a few minutes in the stand for unparalleled stadium finish that I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to experience at least once in their life.

Good going Anthony! Swim time 1h25, bike time 6h08 (steep hills!) and run time 3h55, for a finish time with transitions of 11h37mn – bloody brilliant!

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