For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a free iron(distance) race. Yes, that’s right, I got a free entry into Challenge Roth. And when someone is offering an entry (free or not) into Challenge Roth, you just say yes and figure out the details later. For the 2016 edition, the July registration spots sold out in 18 seconds. Word is for 2017 they sold out in 5 seconds.
I had made it through almost to April sticking to my plan of no ironman in 2016 when a super fast Betty, Meredith, posted in our group that she had won a free Roth entry for her age group winning performance at Challenge Wanaka. The post was up for 24 hours with no takers. Even I initially said no because I did not want to do an ironman in 2016 and I had other plans for the summer like trail running and Vineman 70.3. But after 24 hours and the spot still available I started to reconsider. I had to figure out vacation time at work (I’d have to take my vacation before the race and return home to work immediately after) and basically convince myself that I could do an ironman on 8 weeks of training (more on that later). So as the story goes, in late March I accepted Meredith’s generous offer and started making plans to go to Germany in July! As a side note, I immediately knew this was meant to be because this all went down on a Wednesday in March, and that Saturday Meredith serendipitously arrived in Calgary, from Australia, to visit a friend so we were able to meet and share a run together. As soon as possible I booked a flight to Munich, reserved a rental car, and found accommodation as close to Roth as possible.
I had 12 weeks (minus 1 day) exactly from Boston to Roth. Subtract 2 weeks for the time I would be in Germany before the race and not training, then subtract another 2 weeks-ish to recover after Boston (it was never a complete recovery) and that left me with 8 weeks to get into Ironman shape. Sure, I had been running, but I hadn’t touched a pool since Mont Tremblant in August, and I had not been on my TT bike since that race, or any bike since cyclocross ended in October. This is not an excuse for how well (or poorly, depending on your opinion) I did, it’s just what happened. I wasn’t going to do an Ironman in 2016! Once I got started I really had no problems with the cycling, just not enough time to get as many long rides in, although it also meant I didn’t have enough time to actually start hating long rides like I normally do. I had big problems with swimming though, including my ongoing problem with the smell of chlorine and a new problem of motion sickness. The large majority of my swims were 1000m and ended in me puking on the edge of the pool into my pool toy bag. Definitely not ideal swim training! In hind sight, I think the compact 8 weeks of training really suited me because I just can’t tolerate long weeks upon weeks of training. 8 weeks is about the maximum I can concentrate for.
I’ve done lots of travelling by myself and I’m very comfortable with it, I even prefer travelling solo, and I’ve done lots of races on my own, but I’ve never done a race in Europe before and I’d never done an Ironman without support before. This was my first ironman without my mom! I was a little nervous about the solo situation but I knew I just had to get over to Germany, my instincts would kick in, and everything would be fine. And it was!
I will write more separately about my time in Germany before the race.
The logistics for Roth are somewhat complicated, because there are 2 transitions and even the finish line is about 1km away from T2. To make things more arduous it’s pretty tough to stay in Roth except with a homestay so pretty much everyone stays outside of Roth, even in Nuremberg, about 30 minutes away. I stayed in a little town called Wendelstein, about 20km from Roth. It was perfect and I would stay there again.
The athlete guide said there was parking at the swim start for 15,000 vehicles and I heard there could be long lines on the roads so it was best to get there early. I did not want to set my alarm for 3-anything, so it was set for 4:05.
I had everything laid out and ready to go so I was out the door in less that 15 minutes, and driving in the dark to the race start. I must have timed things perfect because there were no lines and I was directed right into a large field to park, no problem. I slept for 20min in the back of the car and wandered over to transition sometime after 5am.
I spent the morning with my Betty teammate Meredith, which was perfect. She is super calm and chill before races, and I don’t really get too crazy either so I think we made a pretty good duo. The big question was what to wear on the bike. The previous days had been definitely chilly – I had been riding in knee and arm warmers and vest. It felt warmer but as usual I really didn’t want to be cold on the bike. I ended up putting all that stuff in my T1 bag to make a decision out of the water.
There are about 20 waves total, including relays, and only 2 women’s waves (girls! get your butt to this race!) so something like 4500 men and 500 women I think, and the women start right after the pros. Each wave is started by a canon blast and it scared the crap out of me every time!
The Swim: Canal and crowds
I was really calm, but also excited to get started. The edges of the canal and the bridge were absolutely packed with people. Our wave was called into the water. It’s a deep water start, the canon blasts, the rope lifts up, and we’re on the way.
I was wearing my friend Mel’s sleeveless Roka wetsuit. I was worried about being too hot in a full sleeve and I just haven’t been happy with my Huub. This was only my third swim in the suit but in the 2 days prior the suit felt good so I just went with it.
This is the coolest swim I’ve ever done. The canal is not very wide, less than 100m, and almost the whole course is lined with spectators. In what other race do you get cheering on the swim?! It was so cool to take a breath and hear clapping and cheering.
I lined up in the middle of the canal, along the buoy line. The start was rough, they always seem to be for me, maybe that’s because I don’t mind getting in peoples’ way. I was able to settle into a good rhythm and really enjoy the swim. I just remember thinking I love swimming, I love fresh water, and I felt strong. It’s been a long time with little to no swimming for me, but in fresh water I remember why I love it so much.
At the turn around I stayed close to shore for the swim back. There are theories of a whirlpool effect in the canal so if you stay close to the shore where it’s shallower you may get a push from a current. Not sure if that’s true but I felt like I wasn’t even trying. At half way I checked my watch which said 35 minutes. Something must be wrong, I thought, followed quickly by surely I’ll slow down so don’t even think about 1:10. I continued to enjoy the cheers, made the last turn, and I was actually sad to be done with the swim. I could have stayed swimming all day. When I got out of the water my watch said 1:09. WHAT?! 1 minute off my swim PR when I was swimming 3x/week for a year. Now I swam 1:09 with 22 swims in a year and it felt easy? Imagine if I had actually trained for this!
I decided to wear my vest for the ride. I probably could have done without it in hindsight, but I was never too hot so it worked out. I had a great spot for my bike right outside of the tent so I had a quick transition and I was on my way.
The Bike: Solar Hill
Roth’s big claim to fame (among many) is Solar Hill. Since it is a 2 loop course you get to go up the hill twice, but it’s the first time that is most special. Solar Hill is located just outside the town of Hilpoltstein and comes at km 71.5 and 156.5. It attracts up to 25,000 spectators just on the hill itself and the scream and bang noise makers and literally push us athletes up the hill, just like in the Tour de France. As I made the right hand turn and came face to face with Solar Hill, my mouth gaped wide open and I was speechless. You can read all the race reports and see all the photos you like but nothing will prepare you for that sight. You can’t even see the road because it’s just covered with people, and if there’s no one in front of you, you can’t even see how to get up the hill! Luckily for me I just stuck on the guys’ wheel in front of me, I didn’t want to let him get too far ahead because people just step back on the road in front of you to get a better view down! The whole time up the hill (a minute or two) I was saying “oh my god, oh my god!” and pretty much crying. It was without a doubt a top experience of my life, right alongside making the left onto Boylston in Boston. Every triathlete MUST have this experience! Those few moments riding up Solar Hill made everything about coming to Roth completely worthwhile.
Other than Solar Hill (which is not a big climb) there was only one other “big” climb on the loop. It is located just outside of Greding. I rode it a couple days before the race because it looked big on the course profile and I wanted to see what it was like before race day. It is quite steep but pretty short, I think it took me no more than 8 minutes to get up the main part of the climb. This is much different than most other Ironmans like done, like Penticton and Tahoe where we climbed legitimate passes so it really set my mind at ease. There is a little bit of a tricky descent shortly after with a couple hairpin corners and hay bales lining the corners like in the TdF!
The bike course winds it’s way around the German countryside, through fields from little town to little town, and each town has it’s own beer garden set up with lots of cheers! It’s so cool! I felt like I was cycling really easy. I really tried not to push hard, especially the first lap. I loved the scenery, I loved the cheers, I loved riding through the towns. The thing I did not love was that I had to pee sooooooo bad. I have never had that feeling so bad before in ironman!! And of course, Roth (or Europe?) doesn’t have porta potties on the bike course at aid stations! omg! I spent a hell of a long time trying to get myself to pee on the bike. The first time I got close was just after the Greding climb but I had to concentrate on not crashing around the hairpins so I lost my concentration to pee! Thankfully shortly after that I succeeded for the first time ever being able to pee on the bike. And then I continued to pee throughout the ride! I never once saw a porta potty.
I didn’t notice too much drafting, it seemed to me that everyone around me was staying legal, and there were a TON of course marshals. Also, I was expecting a lot more “male bravado” from the guys when I passed them, because in Canada, guys can’t stand when a girl passes them and we end up in an annoying game of leap frog. But my experience was completely difference in Roth. There was none of that, and just lots of comments, some in languages I couldn’t understand, about how cool my kit was and they liked the colours, and Go Canada!
At the end of the first lap, the first time I looked at my watch on the bike, it said 3:00. I thought that was interesting but figured there was no way I could get close to 6 hours on the bike, because I never have been close and I would surely slow down. The second loop was quieter at Greding and quieter at Solar, but still more spectators than most other Ironmans I’ve done! With 30km to go my watch said 5:05 (!!) so I thought if I could ride 30km/hr until T2, I could get a bike PR! This is not a recommended tactic for ironman distance but I decided what the hell, and did my best time trial impersonation for 30km. I was passing (mostly) guys like nobody’s business! Really not a good idea but it was fun. I was really struggling the last few km into a headwind into T2 and ended up with a big bike PR of 6:01. Pretty cool for me!
T2: Euro style
I’ve always done a full change in T2, either because I was forced to (cold in Tahoe), or for comfort. I can’t/don’t want to ride 180km in tri shorts so I wear my cycling shorts under my wetsuit and change into tri shorts for the run. As I rolled into T2 the realization hit me that there was only 1 tent! Men and women together! So Euro!! So I just said, to hell with it, it’s nothing nobody has seen before, and most likely, no one is actually looking at me, and whipped my cycling shorts down and wiggled into my tri shorts. No problem!
I didn’t have any goals for this race except to run under 5 hours. This would be my 6th time trying to do that and the closest I’ve got is 5:04 last year in Mont Tremblant. This situation is well documented in this blog and I really, really, really needed to relinquish my stranglehold on the title of worlds’ worst Ironman runner.
I hit the run too fast for the first 2km. Oh well. It was exciting and downhill! Daniela Ryf ran past in the other direction on her way to the win so I gave her a cheer and she gave me a weird look.
I didn’t pay attention to the run course map before the race because it looked very confusing and indeed it was. There was a large part of running on packed gravel which was nice on the legs, a long stretch along the canal, and honestly, the rest was a blur. It seemed like a lot of out and backs and little loops and at 30km I really freaked out because as I made (yet another) turn onto the path along the canal, I was certain I had already been there before and that I had missed a directional sign. I was dying a slow death by this point and the thought of missing a turn and having to go back was too much to bear. I frantically asked a guy running near me what his garmin said. “Are you at 30km on your garmin?!” “No english…” So I’m pointing to my garmin saying 30? 30? 30!! And finally he gets it and confirms 30km, and shortly after the marker for 31km appeared. Disaster averted!
I think there were porta potties on the run but I didn’t take too much notice because after all the peeing on the bike, for some reason I didn’t need to pee on the run! I ran really well (for me) for the first 21km. I came through half way around 2:10-2:15 which was exactly where I wanted to be. I wasn’t watching overall time or run time, only average pace. For a km or two I had a guy running *right* on my heels. It was so annoying. There was plenty of room to pass and yet he continued to stick on my left shoulder and annoy me with his breathing and footsteps. That was a faster segment for me because I was trying to get rid of him!
I had two big problems on the run: 1) I needed pineapple juice, STAT, and 2) I needed ice. Europeans don’t do ice. In restaurants there’s no ice in the drinks. The drinks from coolers are only sort of cool. And that trend continues into triathlon, apparently. I have pretty much no tolerance for heat, so even though it wasn’t as hot as it’s been in years past, it was still plenty hot and I was literally melting. I couldn’t get myself cool because there was no ice and the water was pretty warm. I became a crazy lady at the aid stations for sponges because for the most part, that water was cold. I would grab as many sponges at a time as I could – 10 or 20 of them, and squeeze the water out all over me, repeat 2 or 3 times, make lots of noise about how awesome the cold water was, dunk my head and shoulders in the bucket (the Germans were horrified!), and then get on my way until I could do the same thing in 2km. It was a serious situation. And then I needed pineapple juice. I’m not sure where that came from but I had an insatiable desire for pineapple juice. In the absence of that, I made my own lemonade at the aid stations. I have never seen this before but the aid stations had watermelons with salt (I don’t like watermelon so I didn’t indulge) and lemons! Even though it was warm water lemonade, it still helped with my pineapple juice debacle for a bit.
And only in Germany, there was beer at the aid stations! Erdinger Alkohol Frei beer! That was wonderful. I alternated one aid station beer, one aid station coke. I didn’t worry that I haven’t tried beer in training 🙂 More ironmans need to provide beer at aid stations!
I slowed considerably in the second half of the marathon which I something I really want to improve. I was only watching overall pace and it kept creeping closer and closer to the pace for a 5 hour marathon. I was trying to do math to figure out how many seconds I could lose and still be under 5 hours (the sponging and head dunking at every aid station ate up a lot of time!). I was really struggling. I had sworn off all future Ironmans and endurance events and a nice lady at the last aid station walked a few feet with me and told me I had to keep going and that I would be so happy when I got to the finish. Through the cobbles of Roth I distinctly remember the church bells ringing. I should have clued in that that meant the top of an hour but it didn’t and all I thought was they sounded nice. I didn’t even think to look at my watch.
Around a couple more bends and suddenly I was running “fast” and I was in the finish stadium. Roth has the best finish line I’ve seen. They build a stadium and fill it with screaming fans and we get to run a lap around before hitting the finish line. It was exhilarating.
As usual I needed to lay down after the finish. Although I was eventually asked to move to the athletes’ area I did get a nice break for a few minutes. This was the first time I looked at my watch. 12:04?? I was sure my Garmin was wrong. It must have stopped somewhere. There’s no way I did that. I was expecting 12:45. I was/am completely pleased with myself with this result. Could I have found 4 minutes somewhere? Yeah, probably, because 11:xx would have been cool but for now, this is just awesome. And thankfully, I have FINALLY run under 5 hours (4:43!) in an Ironman marathon, and there’s more to go from here!!
Post Race: Showers and fireworks
In Roth, there are enough massage volunteers for every athlete to get a massage. It was amazing. There must have been 100 tables set up! In Ironman there’s like 6. My stomach wasn’t working well enough yet for food but I did get to enjoy 6 or 7 cups of tropical fruit juice, which was cold, and helped me forget about the pineapple juice.
Roth also has showers available for post race, I think mostly because they want everyone to stay around for the last finisher and the fireworks. The showers are single stalls but the shower area is co-ed, of course, it’s Europe, so that was a bit shocking! I didn’t feel like standing in line with a bunch of naked guys so I tried to change as discreetly as possible in a corner and I found a great spot in the stands to spend the next few hours.
The finish line was a huge party. The couple sitting beside me were from a town about 30 minutes away, they didn’t know anyone running, but they just came to Roth for the day to cheer on the athletes and attend the finish line party because they said it’s the best party of the year! (Hard to believe with Munich and Oktoberfest being only a couple of hours away, but whatever!)
Roth is the best race, tied with Boston, that I’ve ever done. Everyone needs to put this on their list. It will be hard to do another Ironman after this because nothing will compare! Now I’ve successfully ruined marathons and Ironman in the same year!