Monday, July 18, 2011

Challenge Roth

The famous Challenge Roth triathlon has been on our bucket list of races for some time. The small town of Roth near Nuremberg in Bavarian Germany has been hosting iron-distance races for over 20 years and the locals absolutely love the event and the sport. The mayor was quoted once saying “If you don’t like triathlons, you don’t like my town”. I already loved his town before I'd even been there.
Downtown Roth

The local community are so into the event that a large number of them provide home-stays for competitors and we were very fortunate to be hosted by Roland and Manuela Bohm and their step-son Martin. We were in a quaint village called Grafensteinberg about 30kms outside of Roth with lots of rolling green hills and cherry orchards -yum! Roland was really into his triathlons having done over 25 iron distance races, but had recently had some health set-backs and wasn't able to compete this year. He had done his home-town race ten times and did a good job of hiding his race-envy - they were so helpful to all our needs it was amazing. So many kind families to athletes in this area.

Our lovely home-stay house - we infected it with our array of kit!
Roland, Martin and Manuela - our home-stay hosts - great people.
The course in Roth is famous for being very fast and the Iron distance world record had been held there for ten years, by Belgian (ahem) Luc Van Lierde. One week before the race another Belgium (cough couGH) Marino Van Hoenecker  broke the record by 4 minutes in Ironman Austria. The locals in Roth wanted it back and 7 days later they got it with German golden boy Andreas Raelert doing an insane 7.41 (46/4.11/2.39).

Want to run a 2.44 marathon of the bike? It helps to look like this.
Chrissie Wellington broke her own female world record by a minute on the same day, coming 6th overall with the second fastest run split of the day (2.44) – 42 x sub 4min k’s off a  fast 3.8km swim and180km ride averaging close to 40kph! I did 10k's at that pace recently in an Olympic distance race (1.5/40/10) and needed a good dry reech and lie down afterwards and felt I'd reached a major life goal. Damn- that's the thing about sport just when you think you are doing OK you see how many levels there are above you! And unlike most examples of world record physical excellence that make you shake your head - Chrissie's is clean as a whistle - Miss CW is definitely not a drug cheat, you can bet your house on it.

Just checked the bikes in - this bridge is packed on race day!
 The race in Roth has the largest number of competitors and spectators of any iron-distance race in the world. There are 3,300 individual starters and another 1,500 relays and it was estimated that there were 150,000 spectating on the course throughout the day. Just an amazing event  – if you speak to people who have done Hawaii and Roth most will tell you Roth is a better event - there is little or no spectator support in Hawaii and then there is the heat.....

Pros lined up in Bavarian get up before the race. Chrisie W (with characteristic slightly too-big-to-believe smile) and Andreas Raelert both about to break world record far left of screen.

I felt like I was in the shape of my life coming into this race, I’d been swimming, biking and running faster than I ever had and was hoping to go about 9.10-9.15 and even sneaking under 9 if everything went perfectly and I could run a strong back end of the marathon. I was really determined to nail my run pacing so I could give myself every chance to. Ness was also going really well in training and coming off a great race in Cairns.
Swim (3.8kms) 53.48
Pretty civilised swim wave start - was cool watching the balloons take off while breathing.
I had been doing some great swim sessions in the Lake at Austria, lots of wetsuit swimming and one 4.5km session trying to draft super-speedy coach Woody blew my arms to smithereens but four days after that I felt like I could swim as hard and long as I liked and not get tired. The swim course in Roth is really easy to navigate, in a relatively narrow canal, a big long rectangle, and you're always close to the wall, so you didn’t have to worry too much about sighting and swimming off line. Looking at the course and the number of competitors I could see how the race organisers fought with the Ironman company in the US to make it a wave start. They did it well with the pros and fastest age groupers in the first wave, then a second wave of fast AGers ten minutes afterwards, then women, then various waves ranked on predicted swim time. I would have liked to be in the first wave; as my Tokyo based rival (and buddy) Eric was - I was wondering if there had been some photo-shopping of 9s to 8s on race certificates to get him in there....(just joking Eric!); but I was in the second wave so with the one loop course it meant I wouldn’t have to worry about swimming through swimmers on their first lap and only strong swimmers should be ahead. 

Massive T1 transition area

The atmosphere at the Swim start has to be experienced to understood. There is a bridge that we swim under and there must have been 3,000+ people standing on it as well as another 5,000+ lining the shore of the canal, combined with the dramatic film score music and time of day and it really took your breath away - something that was to be the story of my day unfortunately. I had been told by our lovely home stay hosts to stay wide near the edge as the water would be calmer there, and I like to line up on the right to keep and eye on others as I always breathe to the left. After missing the call up to start line in Ishigaki and it impacting my day considerably; I got into the water as soon as we were allowed and swam to the rope and bobbed up and down for the eight minutes remaining before our start.

I got a pretty good start and soon realized there was not really any other swimmers out wide keeping up with me and there were only 5 or 6 guys swimming the mid-low 50 minute pace I was hoping for and they were all lined up along the inside of the course. After a hundred metres or so I decided I wanted on the back of that group. I could have been like the lone horse down the outside of the Flemington 1,200m straight course race that sneaks up and wins it but I was getting all lonesome on the outside so I swam diagonally over to the feet of the group of 6. 

So far, so good.
These guys were good swimmers and still hammering away when I got to them and I was struggling to hang on and dropped back off the pack a bit. Thanks to the swim fitness I put in a few hard efforts and was able to get back on (I was thanking Woody big time in my head as in the past once dropped I was generally gonski). I was still swimming at a pretty hard rate to hang on and after about 3kms, I dropped off the back a bit and made a conscious decision to just save my energy a bit and swim moderate level to the exit. I got out feeling great in a PB time (except IMUK swim but that course was way short) and ran through transition at speed with a spring in my step.
Happy Chappy at this stage.

Bike - DNF after 90kms. 
I was pumped to smash a 4.40ish / 39+kph bike split and after doing half the distance on a much slower course in Cairns in 2.18 I thought it was realistic. Alas my day took a sharp turn for the worse soon after mounting the steed and I wouldn’t recover from it.
I got clicked in soon after the mount line without trouble and got up to cruising speed pretty quickly. Straight after exiting the swim entrance lane and onto the road, I got passed by a 195cm dude with hardly a cm of his body not covered in tattoos, wearing budgie-smugglers, chest-length beard, waist length hair and a bright yellow 62cm road bike with clip-on bars, spinning about 110rpm doing about 45kph with tattooed knees flailing in all directions. 'Now that’s something you don’t see every day' I thought. I think that moved me bit further to the right of my lane. I then had a look to see what my cadence was and noticed my bike computer was not reading it. I looked down to see if the sensor on the frame had moved – I’m not sure why I needed to look – of course it had moved, maybe I was trying to get more aero to keep up with the inked-up Jesus (it’s a little spoken secret of time trialling that due to improved aero-dynamics it’s faster when you are looking down). 

Want to ride 43kph average for 180k's solo and get off fresh enough to run a 2.39 marathon? You'll be needing an amazing aero tuck, bike, set-up.....oh and about 20 years of hard training.

By the time I looked up, the road had narrowed a bit and bent a little to the left and I rammed straight into the road divider in the centre of the road. These are plastic poles with big-ass concrete square blocks at the base that don’t budge, and especially not for lycra clad wussies even if they are doing close to 40kph.

My pole-nemisis' cousins were dotted around the course

I smashed into a poor photographer on the other side of the pole too; and hit the pavement bloody hard on my rebound. I got up pretty quickly with adrenaline pumping and checked the bike. The extenders on the aero bars had moved and my bottle holder had twisted around but otherwise it seemed ok. I tested the front wheel, but the brakes had moved and were rubbing on the rim pretty badly. I tried to move them several times but they were still rubbing. I’d just gotten new brake pads and the guys in the shop and given me about 1mm of clearance on either side. A very kind guy from the crowd stepped in to help; but we couldn’t stop the brakes rubbing. He called out for anyone that might have an allen key and after a couple of minutes somehow appeared with one (where else but Roth race day do you have a guy wandering around with an allen key in his pocket – lucky for me). He released the brake tension and I was off. I probably lost about 4-5 minutes there – all that swim training down the drain! Faaaark! 

No rubbing breaks here - or cables in the wind - one seriously wicked aero set-up

I got back to the task at hand, and was thinking that I should be all right, I felt that pumped-up sensation associated with gross physical contact, similar to a big tackle in a game of rugby except this time it was with the road and not a 110kg  YCAC ring-in Samoan running 20kph. 'Not that different to a tackle' I thought, I should be right. I was going through a checklist on my body, bone-bruising and slightly bleeding wrist and elbow – no problem there, pretty sore hip - I had hit my greater trochanter (the widest part of your pelvis dress-makers would mark as your hips). This was a bit concerning as Ness and I had recently been talking about an article on cyclists sustaining a fracture to the femur after falling hard on their side and it going undiagnosed until the lack of bloody supply causes necrosis (dying) to the head of the femur. I did take a fair bit of impact there, I was thinking, but I’m not a fragile cyclist who never does weight bearing exercise with  bone density like your grandmother, I thought, I’ve done weight bearing exercise my whole life, so I thought my femur would have been able to handle that whack. (A lesson there for you if you think dairy will help your bone density it's a crock - time on your feet is what's needed).  The glute muscles that attach to the area I whacked were more of a worry as they have a fair bit of work to do to get me and my Serena Williams ass to the finish line and they had been compromised somewhat.

Cranky Chappy

 I soon realised I was puffing and panting and had pretty bad pain in my ribs on my left side. I thought the difficulty breathing was due to the adrenaline and that I just need to calm the fark down, get rid of the adrenaline and the breathing would come under control. I dropped the chain twice in the first 20kms including one time when it got stuck in between the chain ring and the frame and I had to stop and rip it out. 'This is not my day - can we re-wind the clock 30 minutes' I was thinking as I wiped big gobs of grease from my hands onto my shin. A sweet girl named Steffi (who turned out to be a friend of Woody and Doro) lifted my spirits lots when she came past as I was ripping the chain out and asked “Are you OK?” in a sweet English/German accent.  It’s funny how a few words of tenderness can make such a big difference to your mood when you’re low. I have to remember that and pay it forward.

Tenth anniversary of Challenge Roth - the famous Solarerberg hill - how about that for fan support!

 I couldn’t cycle very hard at all and was getting passed by quite a few people and unable to hold onto to potentially handy pace-lines of strong riders. ‘I’ll ride hard when the breathing comes under control’ I thought and just took it easy. Unfortunately, as the ride went on my breathing was only getting worse. What I was experiencing was familiar to me as the exercise-induced asthma I’ve had on and off over the past few years. Recently it has only been coming on when running sub 3.45 min k’s. Asthma and particularly the type only brought on by intense exercise is pretty poorly understood, although many athletes struggle with it, forget asking a GP for advice on it and even respiratory specialists give it short shrift, as it goes as soon as you slow down.

The object of my desire - but would it have helped?
Many don’t understand that asthma is a symptom (invlontary contraction of the smooth muscles in the upper airways), not a condition that you're either 'an astmatic' or not and anyone can go into an asthma attack due to a wide range of stimuli. The only real treatment is a ventolin inhaler that relaxes the muscles that are contracting and blocking the airways. Fortunately WADA (world anti-doping agency) have realised that there is no performance enhancement to using ventolin if the smooth muscle are not contracting and taken it off the banned list. (Previously you needed a note from a doctor to use it). Judging by the number of triathletes and cyclist using puffers I think it is really common – or maybe they just falsely think it’s expand their lungs and give them better performance?
No rib or breathing issues for these guys at the swim start promoting Challenge Cairns

Vanessa’s dad David and wife Jan (GP and Nurse) kindly got new ventolin inhalers for me on our recent trip to Aus and I use it in short races when I know I’m going to run hard, but did not bring it to Roth as I normally don’t suffer from it in Ironman distance. A few years back, I had it really badly in the swim leg of a triathlon in Hokkaido and finishing that lousy 1,500m swim was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do physically. I remember thinking that just drowning seemed like a better option than swimming the 300m back to shore when I couldn’t breathe. At that time I had it quite often but it seemed to fix itself somewhat over the past few years.
Ness in the tuck

As I was weighing up what to do on when the breathing wasn’t calming down all kinds of things were running through my head. I was going back to the little poor decisions I’d made that led me to be in this little mess. I remembered removing the cadence sensor to get more aero in Cairns when I went without any data and also just tightening the zip ties that hold it by hand when I should have sourced a pair of pliers to get them one or two notches tighter. Not to mention not loosening the brakes when I noticed how close they were on my practice ride. It’s funny how those little decisions on how much effort to put into a certain tasks that we’re all faced with every can end up costing you big time when you take the lazy way out because you couldn’t be bothered to do it properly and walk back into the room next door. Or maybe it was God showing me that He WAS more useful than a fruit and veg market and here’s the big ass concrete block in your face to prove it, homo. Or maybe it was his big, tattooed, speedo-wearing son Jesus mark II, showing me that if his dad could knock-up his mum from heaven then he could certainly f!%# me from there too.

Death before non-aeroness....or death due to Aeroness - look out for the truuuuuuc...........

 I was thinking about my ventolin sitting in the bag back at the hotel in Austria; all lonely and unwanted and wishing it was in my back pocket. I was thinking about my blue run bag sitting untouched in T2 while all the others around it disappeared and imagining how it would look in a Moving Presentations time-lapse video with my lame-ass bag still sitting there at the end ruining the shot.

I was thinking about my mp3 player in my run bag (FYI Sansa Clip - THE best running mp3) with the headphones coiled around it just so, loaded with my specially selected mix of everything from Adele, Gaga, Black Eyed Peas to the Angels, Midnight Oil and AC/DC and how this was the first mp3-legal race I'd done and how Doc Neeson and those rolling back-beats were going to drag me to a 3.20-25 marathon. I was thinking about what a disaster to DNF in this big race and my friends tracking me online wondering what the hell had happened. I was thinking about how the European cyclists nod to each other with an upwards flick of the head instead of the Japanese way of a downward nod and whether that reflected their greater arrogance of the Euros and the Japanese humility or not?

Did someone call for a doctor?
I was thinking about how I would be regarded as a major bad-ass if I finished the whole race with broken ribs and asthma. I was wondering about how important this race is to me and what would I do if this were Hawaii or a Hawaii qualifier. I was thinking about our recent conversation with Woody and Ness when I said I was due for a fall on the bike as since taking up the sport I'd cycled tens of thousands of kms without coming off - and how Woody had told me not to say that - too late! I was thinking about how we had the two long races the wrong way around as you normally want to do the most important one first and whether slogging to the finish line would make me slower in Regensburg or if it would be good training, bloody China! I also thought about Eric and how if I DNF’d it was kind of robbing him the chance to beat me past the line – or maybe I was drawn to pulling out to not give him the satisfaction of a real victory. Damn I was driving myself crazy!

I got to taste the Solarerberg once - expression is somewhere between a smile and a grimace.

 I was able to push a big gear (not the 11 – I lost my chain at the front every time I used that gear at the back) but if I kept my heart rate/respiratory rate low I could still go OK on the flats as my legs were fine. As soon as I hit a hill the breathlessness would get worse. Roth is a very quick bike course, even quicker than pancake flat courses, but that’s because of the many small hills and longer downhills on the other side, so I was just surviving the hills with everyone flying by and using my heavier weight and super-aero positioning and set up to coast down the hills on the other side and maintain a good speed.

I eventually came up to Woody halfway up the biggest hill on the course (Greding) and I stopped to get his input on what I should do. I’d lost that much time what was one more stop going to hurt?  It was a bit tough on him trying to take in what had happened and help me make a decision all at once. I could only just get my words out in short bursts and was pretty distressed. I mostly felt bad for him as he’d put so much effort into us nailing this race. Ness and I had spoken about wanting to do really well for him as I’m now coaching other athletes myself, I know how much you want your athletes to crush their races. Not to mention we’d pretty much shown up on his doorstep in Austria and taken over his life for the past three weeks and he’d been nothing but truck-loads of help. I knew I had Regensburg four weeks ahead which was a more important race – results wise with a Kona slot on the line.

Next time I'll be looking as stoked as BG.

 He could see I was having this asthma issue that he was aware I have had and told me try and get an ventolin inhaler form the med support when I see it. Great advice on the spot as always. I made up my mind that if the inhaler didn’t work I was going to pull out. Your heart rate and respiratory rate is normally much higher on the run than the bike; so I thought there’s no way I can run a marathon breathing like this. 

Ness "The Machine" taking it all in on the Solarerberg. Our mate Richard Waddington got ruled out of the race through injury so he sent his doppelganger in yellow to keep an eye on his nemesis Ness.
 After 80k’s, I eventually saw the ambulance and did a U turn to go back to them, more riders flying by and time lost…..after trying to communicate with them for a minute they realised I was after ventolin and looked around for a minute or two and told me they didn’t have any. ‘WTF ?’, I thought ‘Surely every ambulance would stock that?’ but that was it - my mind was made up I was pulling out. After probably 40+ triathlons, my first ever DNF; what a major bummer. I had been a bit proud of my record of never having pulled out of a race but by the same token I had never really rated these American style stickers and slogans such as ‘Never, never, never, give up’ and ‘Death before DNF’ T- shirts. I know from some bad business and mountaineering ventures, that sometimes giving up is absolutely the best decision to make. I don't meant that you should can it every time things don't  go perfect but sometimes the scales will tip to the other side.

Unless it rooly, rooly hurts, like a lot.
 I thought about just walking the marathon to get it done but at the end of the day my goals going into a triathlon are to race it, not just finish it. I couldn’t see myself as the guy stumbling into town just before the cut off with a pro having already showered, slept and come back to put the medal over your neck. No problem with those guys it’s awesome for them to finish especially if they are elderly, it’s just that I was too proud to see myself in that role, at least for another 30 or so years anyway.

First into the post race massage/chill-out area. Eerily quiet before the influx of carcasses.

So I rolled back into T2 after one lap, racked the bike, had a shower and went out to watch the rest of the race with Woody and crew. I decided not to let Ness see me so she wouldn't worry about what had happened. She ended up having a solid, but not great day. She has bounced back really quickly from the race though and should have a good race in Regensburg, but qualifying there will be very tough as there are some sub 10hr girls on the start  list - and there are not many sub 10 AG females in the world.
Ness looking good on the run.
Also thanks to everyone who has sent messages since the race. I've been improving every day. My ribs are still sore when lying etc and you can hear them creak and groan with every heart beat when I'm leaning on my left side in bed - (yuck!) but I have been able to swim, bike and run and I've been doing a fair bit of those things to get ready for the next race on Aug 7.

Andreas Raelert - post WR....amazing performance from a seemingly very nice guy. Look forward to seeing how he does in Hawaii this year.


  1. Hi, I`m Steffi! The German girl with the sweet German/English accent!Awesome blog/coverage!!! Good luck for your next race! best regards steffi

  2. Hey Steffi, thanks very much! I hope we can catch up with you together with Doro and Woody one day. Congratulations on your great result!