*** many thanks to Neil Hayward for this race report ***

Challenge Roth 2015 – The failure of common sense

My first marathon was in New York, 7 November 2004, Sam’s, my soon to be wife’s birthday.  It was awful, I hit the proverbial wall and staggered the last seven or eight miles, swearing I would never do one again.  When people mentioned an Ironman, my constant response was “Do a marathon after swimming and running, never! Once was bad enough”.  And I kept this promise until this year when I entered Challenge Roth.

I say entered, but that isn’t quite true.  I had spent a couple of years doing social sprint triathlons with TriFriDubai in the Arabian Ranches, gradually building up to the Dubai International Triathlon, which I survived rather than raced.  Three children and a busy job meant my training was sporadic, badly planned and normally lacking, hence the survived.  But I enjoyed DIT, signed up for Challenge Dubai, and had probably resigned myself to eventually doing an Ironman distance event at some stage in the next few years.  My brother had just completed Ironman Nice and signed himself up for Challenge Roth in 2015.  When one November day, he called me to say that some more places had been released for Challenge Roth, and he had got me one.

Common sense didn’t prevail and I said yes. 

Sam, sensibly reminded me about my first marathon.  Naively I used the words “it will be different this time”. Even though I had three children now, a wife and a busier job, I would train harder, better, smarter and with much more focus, and therefore it would all work out. 

And it did, mostly…….

12 July 2015 – 6am Swim start

Challenge Roth is one of the longest running, and certainly most famous of the European Iron distance events. The iron distance event started in 1990 and was part of the Ironman brand until the early 2000s when it went its own way.  It is based in the small town of Roth which is about 20 km from Nuremberg. 

The swim is a straight up and down on the Rhine Main Danube canal, starting around 10km outside of Roth. I always feel there is something quite majestic about the swim start of a triathlon. Hundreds if not thousands of competitors standing there with a common goal, to push their bodies and minds further or faster than before.  The sun rising in the background, shining its orange glow on the course and warming all involved.  Roth did this perfectly, a clear blue sky day, the sun rising just before the first wave went and the hubbub of nervous competitors and spectators providing the background chorus.

The swim is a wave start, with twenty or so waves off at five minute intervals. Ian, my brother, and the cause of this, started off at 7.25am with a target of around 10 and a half hours. I was in the 8.05am wave, the last one to go.  Whilst this meant a lot of waiting around, it also meant that I was able to soak in all the atmosphere of the morning.  The crowds filling up the bridge overlooking the start, the deep and loud sound of the race commentator continually filling the air, when it wasn’t filled with the “bang” of the starting cannon (honestly it sounded like a rocket going off each time) or some upbeat music to motivate the crowed and spectators. It also meant I was able to see the pro athletes start and finish the swim, and all before I had put on my wetsuit.

Training for this moment had started in earnest about six months before. I took Eirik Hooper’s advice and invested in “Be Iron Fit” by Don Fink.  This was a really useful introduction to what was needed, but with my promise to trainer better and smarter I needed more.  I had also signed up for the Alpe D’Huez long course triathlon three weeks later, which emphasized the importance of training right, but also recovering properly so that I could do both.

Which is where Neil Flanagan came in. I’d seen his name in Chops Potter’s report on Ironman Barcelona, and others in Dubai had recommended him.  Neil was brilliant, and I would recommend anyone who was training for any triathlon event to work with him.   His plan gave me the confidence I, and my family needed, to get us through the event.  I needed to know that I had done enough of the right training, at the right time and with the right recovery, without spending the time to do it myself. I also needed someone to report to, to remind me to do my sessions, to record them and to do them properly.  Neil did this brilliantly and we met every two weeks or so, with regular email contact to see how things were going and tailor the training as needed. 

I was already training with Dubai Master’s Swimming Club at Kings School in Umm Suqeim. If you haven’t been you should try it.  Seth and the team run tough but fun swim sessions, and I quickly saw improvement, gradually moving up the lanes.  As importantly, a fun and interesting bunch of people train there. They kept me motivated and wanting to do better. So thank you in particular to Seth and those at the 7.30am and 5.45am sessions.  I also took some one on one lessons from Neil Hamp to improve my technique as well as fitness, and again I would thoroughly recommend Neil if you are looking to move up a gear with your swimming.

About five minutes before our wave start time, we were ushered into the water.  The swim at Roth is in a huge canal, you swim about 1.8km up the canal, turn just after a bridge, come back down and past the start, by 100m or so and then turn back to the finish, which is just before the start line.  There are two main benefits of the Roth swim, firstly the waves of 200-250 people mean that you can quickly find your own space, if like me you still aren’t hugely confident on the mass start.  Secondly, crowds are able to walk along the banks, giving you a sense of support throughout the swim.  And it is a beautiful swim.

The starting gun went off, and off we went, paddling furiously towards the top end of the course.  For the first 300m or so everyone fought for position, but soon enough I was able to find a pair of feet to follow and could enjoy the journey.  And I did enjoy it.  The sun was still coming up, I could see, and partly hear the support of the crowd and it felt as though the previous six months of training had come together.

Soon enough I was at the final turn, and after overcoming a bit of cramp, that seemed to be set off by changing direction on the turn, I was being pulled out of the water by one of the many volunteers that manned the course.  Total swim time, one hour 14 minutes, which I was really happy with.

One of the characteristics of Challenge events, and Roth in particular, is the family nature of them. And Roth really shows this, over 8,000 volunteers and apparently up to 260,000 supporters around the course, it really feels as though the local area takes this event to their hearts.

A quick kiss from Sam, who had managed to find a viewing point at the swim exit, and I was off to bike transition.  A smooth process, helped by the volunteers and I was away.  The bike course is two laps and finishes just outside the town of Roth.

I loved the first lap of the bike. The rolling hills, green German forest and countryside, and most of all, the vociferous support from the spectators. Each village had set up tables along the route through the village, where they sat, drank beer and ate sausage, banging the tables in support as we cycled through.  The support on the hills was incredible. Picture the mountains on the Tour de France and the spectators parting just as you are about to hit them, well that is the bike on the main hills in Challenge Roth.  Spectators chanting “allez allez”, banging drums, blowing horns, all the way from bottom to top.  So I got excited, stood up on my pedals and put in that extra effort, to say thank you.  Even more so when I saw Sam and my sister in law cheering from the sidelines.

And then I realized.  I had done everything I hadn’t meant to do. I had read all the previous race reports, most of which contain some element of “I went out too fast, got excited, didn’t eat enough etc etc”. Despite telling myself not to do it, to show some common sense, I was doing the same thing. 

Lap 2 was a chance to recover, I had learned my lesson and was hoping that it wasn’t too late.  The crowds were still there, but I took things a little easier, I eased up on my power output, made sure I was eating properly and tried to save enough for the run.

After six hours 34 minutes I was into transition 2, on the outskirts of Roth. I was just in time to witness Fireman Rob, a US fireman, who was aiming to run the marathon leg in his full firefighter’s kit.  Bear in mind that the weather was exactly what someone who trained in Dubai had wished for. Sunny, temperature in the high 20s early 30s.  Not the temperature for someone wearing the full fireman uniform and oxygen tank. I wished him well and started to run.

The Roth run course is initially flat, then uphill for a kilometer or two, before reaching the canal again. You then run along the canal for 7km, turn at a local village, come back past where you joined the canal for another 8km, another turn in another village, back to where you initially joined the canal, and then back into town.

I had a six minute run, two minute walk strategy for the marathon, which started well. I walked the first uphill, started to run when I hit the canal, said hi to Sam again, and kept going. But the six minute, 2 minute soon turned into 3minute 1 minute, and then 1 minute 3 minute and worse as I felt the effect of the day.  Walking soon became the constant as I struggled to run, and tried to offset the initial symptoms of GI issues.  I wasn’t the only one, not that this helped. On the plus side, aid stations every 2km were well stocked with fluids, food and friendly helpers. And toilets. 

The downside of walking, is that it gives you plenty of time to think. And it is fair to say that my words post New York came back to haunt me for most of it.  Although I was mostly walking, I was in the fortunate position of knowing I would still finish within the 15 hour time limit.  The out and back format, passing people going the opposite way, meant that as I came back, with less than 10km from the finish, I was passing people going in the opposite direction, walking, who had a very small chance of making it.  Yet they continued. The lure of finishing, or not giving up, was greater than the concern of not getting the finishers medal, they could still say they did it.

With about four km to go, I met my brother. He had finished in 10 hours or so and rather than enjoy the moment, had come back to see how I was getting on.  I am not sure I would have done the same.  We walked jogged two km until the course takes you on a loop through the old part of Roth. He left to meet me at the end.  And after 5 hours and 50 minutes of running and 13 hours 32 minutes in total, I was into the stadium for a slow loop, cheered by a lot of people, and finally over the line to receive my finishers medal and t shirt. 

After a quick cup of soup, a pint of Erdinger Alkholfrei beer (delicious by the way, they should bring to Dubai) and a quick catch up with Taka, I went out to meet Sam, Ian and his wife.

That evening I swore I would never do another Ironman distance event. Who in their right mind would do a marathon, let alone at the end of a swim and bike? But common sense doesn’t seem to be prevailing.  A few days later and suddenly the marathon didn’t seem so bad. A few more days later and I was even thinking that it would be a shame to have my last marathon being mainly a walk, and therefore would it be so bad if I did another? 

Thank you

Firstly a huge thank you to my wife Sam and my children who put up with six months or more of my early starts, naïve optimism, weekends planned around training, more trips to the Mercure at Jebel Hafeet than anyone should  have to bear, and occasionally my grumpiness and tiredness. Without their full support and encouragement I couldn’t have done it.  I promise I will not think of doing another one for a long while.

Secondly to DubaiTriFri, the preeminent, social, occasional, and best designed kit triathlon club in Arabian Ranches. These guys (Eirik, Hilts, Grundy, Paddy, Wayne, Rockey, Nick Boyd, Dougy, Graeme and Richard Clarke, Ian, Jeremy, Barton, Paddy Smith and the founder, Mr Colgan) were brilliant, accompanying me on my late night summer training rides, doling out extra shots of Scottish fine drink the night before big training sessions (Dougy) and generally keeping me sane.

Thirdly to my coaches, Neil Flanagan, Neil Hamp, Seth and everyone at Dubai Masters Swim Club.

Some points about the event

Challenge Roth is a point to point event, and this makes it difficult for supporters. Sam and Louise managed to get round to a number of locations by foot to see us, but it wasn’t easy, and involved a lot of walking and asking people for directions.  The information provided by Challenge Roth was mainly geared at those with bikes or cars.  So if you can, get your supporters a car or a bike for the best and easiest viewing opportunities.

The event is really well organized, from pack pick up, to sign posts, to food, drink and the finishing tent, it was all organized superbly well and has a real family feel about it.

Most of the run is next to the canal which is a gravel track and is very different to the nice flat surfaces you find in Dubai. I also found I got big blisters and bruises on my feet from small pebbles getting in my shoes and not being used to that kind of surface. Something to watch out for.

Finally, to anyone thinking of doing Challenge Roth in the future, do it. It is a wonderful event, brilliantly organized, supported and participated in the right way.

Swim 1hr 14min 12 seconds

Transition 1

Bike 6 hours 34 minutes 55 seconds

Transition 2

Run 5 hours 50 minutes 43 seconds

Total 13 hours 52 minutes 32 seconds