When I arrived in Roth, five days before the race, I mostly felt scared about the race and stressed being alone, dealing with all the little decisions and issues that come up in those few prep days. That eased on the 2nd day, when I met up with friends Holly Bennett from Boulder and Aussie Stef Hanson.
A welcome party for Belinda Granger, to celebrate her 10th and final race there, set the tone for the days to come. This is a family run race that really cares about the entire experience of the athletes and the entire community around the event. I heard Felix, the race director, mention that he was sleeping in a caravan in his garden, having given up his own home to a pro athlete (read: low income) he’d met at another race, who “seemed a nice guy” and had nowhere to stay.
Being able to go for open water swim practice with Stef helped my pre-race nerves heaps. I laughed a LOT in the days leading up the race, it’s impossible not to in Stef’s company.
When you’re staring down the barrel of 140 miles of exercise, it’s hard not be nervous. By pre-race day, I’d let the big fears go, I felt rested and ready.
Women have their own wave start at Roth, 5 minutes after the pros and fastest age groupers. It’s a much better way to start, rather than the total carnage of all ages, shapes, speeds and sexes at most Ironman events. There was a little hustle and bustle in the first few hundred meters, then it quickly calmed enough that I wasn’t scared. I felt calm and like I could… swim!
My strategy for the swim was to not even think about the distance ahead, just completely focus on my movements. I said phrases that Eney uses in our swim lessons: some kept my movements strong, some, like “fiddle faddle”, I knew I wasn’t really doing, but the sound of the words was comforting. When my mind, and so effort, drifted, I imagined Eney shouting “Get ON it!”.
The canal swim is a straight forward single loop. With supporters on the canal path, and the bridges overhead, it’s the only race I’ve done where you can hear crowds cheering during the entire swim!
My bad shoulder got sore, as expected, after the half way turn. “Give it all you’ve got!” I told myself, “sure you won’t even need your arms the rest of the day”. And so began the lies I would tell myself to push through the day.
I would have been happy with a 2min improvement on my swim. My watch said 1:21, a personal best by 4mins. I was relieved and pleased. Then couldn’t help myself but think, “oh, under 1:20 would have sounded amazing”, but immediately knew that actually, I couldn’t have gone a minute faster. That felt great.
Leaving T1, and the first stretch of the bike course over the canal bridge, the crowds are solid on each side. It’s the perfect start, setting you off with a smile.
The support on the Roth bike course is legendary. The roads are closed, for a 2 loop 56mile route. In the U.S. or UK, many might begrudge their movements being limited for the day. In this region, people embrace the day as a celebration. If you can bang a drum, shake a rattle, rustle a pom pom, heck, drink a beer… this is also *your* time to shine. My favorite sights were the group of young men, stood on a 40 foot trailer, in the middle of a field, DJ-ing techno music as loud as the air would have them. I passed one driveway, where a young girl sat watching us cycle past, as mum rocked out on her daughter’s drum kit. I nearly shed a tear at the support on one hill, with the sheer joyful support that total strangers were offering.
And then there was the Solarberg hill, packed four people deep on each side, whooping, hollering and Mexican waving as you just squeezed through in single file.
The actual cycling was OK too. The only downside to being a bit faster this year was that I was in a denser crowd. I took the winding corners even more cautiously than normal, or than I wanted to, because I didn’t trust the hoards of middle aged men on tri bikes around me.
I loved going over the timing mats, knowing which ones I’d set a script to auto-tweet my splits. It was a lovely boost knowing that my friends, family and colleagues might be following my progress.
I wasn’t too concerned about my overall time, just that I’d have a good run, so I decided to take my time in T2. A volunteer helped me get my running shoes & socks on in no time. With not much to do myself, I just sat for a minute, gathering my head. The sight of naked old men eventually pushed me out of the change tent. I thought I’d get teased later for a pedestrian T2, maybe it was over 10mins? Turns out it was under 3. Oh well, have to start running sometime…
The run was my main focus in the build up to this race. Last year I did 4:25. I’ve been working hard on my running ever since, and I was aiming to run under 4:15.
Usually when I start the run, I actually feel relatively good and have to keep a lid on my pace in case I use up too much energy, too soon. This time, it felt like a painful, sluggish, struggle from the first km. I told myself, that it was just different, maybe it would be more like my swimming where I gradually get better as I warm up. “Relax. Settle. Let’s not worry until 5km.”
By 10k, I was still just hanging on to the target pace. Over the next 10, a few times I felt like I was actually starting to run well, but the watch told a sorry pace tale. I tried to think of a song to sing to myself, but drew completely blank. I do love that mental space you go to in the ironman run. It had been a year since I’d done a full distance race, and I had been concerned whether or not I’d still be able to maintain that focus, to shut everything else out, to stay present and positive, to push myself through, one kilometer at a time.
It’s amazing how many times you can say “I feel good”, over 42km, and not mean it, once. A few times I got pangs of new, weird pains… a shooting pain in my mid torso which I wondered if it was just a back muscle or the location of a vital organ… “that’s interesting”, I acknowledged to the pain, “but… I, I feel good“.
By the half way point, I was on half the target time, which I knew meant I wouldn’t make the target time. I thought about my friends Cat and Rachel seeing my splits, knowing how obsessed I’d been about this run, and that they’d know I wouldn’t make it now either. I was disappointed, but I still had 21km to run: “I feel good”.
Strangely enough, the muscular pains didn’t bother me much… I had mentally prepared myself to deal with them. I hadn’t prepared to just not be able to get out of 2nd gear. Now, I figured this was just the way it was going to be, on this day. The new target was just to do my best, keep to the same rules, just… slower.
Of course, it got worse from the 25km mark and the gradual inclines started to break me into off-schedule walks. In training, under the guidance of marathon runner Benita Willis, I have done several long runs where I had to push harder towards the end, which turned out to be a very helpful deposit in my memory bank. I could see the time slipping to the point that I’d be even slower than last year. I really didn’t want that, so for the last 5k, I did muster up some extra effort, partly with help from the crowds back in the town. My fastest km split was at 40k.
I finished in 4:24:56, just 32 seconds faster than last year. Four seconds later, and it would have sounded like exactly the same time.
The night after the race, I was wincing in pain from the raw skin, mostly from during the run, like where gel packets had ripped the skin on my back, through my wet vest pockets. I remember feeling even the neoprene timing chip band, cutting the skin all around my ankle during the run… and yet, it didn’t occur to me to just stop and move it. I’m glad I didn’t; it would have taken more than four seconds.
Walking into the huge finisher’s area, I was completely disorientated and dizzy. I knew it wasn’t anything bad, just that I needed to sit down and eat, but I was too weak to actually go do that. I told a medical volunteer that I was totally fine, just needed to lie down for a bit. I was a little embarrassed, but grateful, to be given an IV drip.
To get rid of the shivers, and the smell, I hobbled to find the shower area side of the finisher tent. That was easy to find… with the dense sprawl of a hundred naked men. The woman in front of me asked me to mind her spot, while she fetched her “things”. She returned to her spot in line, still with no towel, but with a pint of beer. I do love European races.
I eventually found Stef, and we had a laugh comparing our tales of woe. Warmed and fed, I was allowed to join Stef in the VIP part of the finish area… feet away from watching the last finishers cross the line, to rapturous applause.
I feel completely satisfied knowing I left it all out there on the course. I couldn’t have swam, biked or run better, on the day. That has to be OK. I did also get personal best times overall, in each discipline and even in T2
I was disappointed with my run, it wasn’t the best reflection of my training. But after a few days reflection, I’m proud of being able to stay positive and get the best out of the suboptimal circumstances.
I was gutted in March, when I had to withdraw from Ironman Los Cabos at the last minute, through illness. It was hugely satisfying to now finish the only other full distance triathlon I had lined up, and to know that I still love this distance. It’s a beast, a fascinating and satisfying beast.