Challenge vs. IRONMAN, Part I: Training, Kraichgau, Elbschwimmstaffel
Part I: Preparing for my Second Long Distance Triathlon
Which is Legendary Challenge Roth in southern Germany.
Right after I finished my first long distance triathlon at IRONMAN Copenhagen in 2015, I said: NEVER AGAIN.
But sure enough, perspectives change over time. In hindsight it didn’t seem as strenuous as it was, and the sense of achievement in the end outdid the fear of the pain necessary to overcome in order to finish. At first, I thought: If my city of Hamburg ever gets a full IRONMAN race, I’ll do that! It was the single exception I was willing to make.
A long distance triathlon consists of the following challenges, all to be done in that order and right after one another:
- 3.86 kilometers of swimming
- 180 kilometers of biking
- 42.2 kilometers of running
Then, Challenge Roth Happened
This race is legendary. It was first held in the year of my birth, 1984. The founders finished one of the first IRONMAN Hawaii races and brought it over here.
After initial success and solid growth, the race was officially branded as “IRONMAN Europe” since 1988. It grew to be the biggest long distance triathlon race in the world. Yes, in the world! 3,400 solo starters, 1,950 relay racers, and a mind-blowing 260,000 spectators in rural northern Bavaria.
That’s defeating the annual World Championships in Hawaii even.
The whole area in Bavaria is triathlon crazy. It seems everyone living there loves it or at least respects it.
In 2001, there was a dispute between the international conglomerate that IRONMAN had become, and our German organizers of the Roth Triathlon, which led to CEO Herbert Walchshöfer quitting the relationship and rebranding the event as Challenge Roth, creating what is today IRONMAN’s only true international competitor. The “Challenge Family”, as the family-owned company is now officially called, is currently organizing over 40 international triathlon races.
Challenge Roth has been voted to be the best long distance triathlon race in the world in every year since 2011.
If you want to participate, it takes about 60 seconds until the slots are sold out after the registration has gone public. Only 60 percent of the tickets are given to Germans, therefore making it easier for foreign athletes to participate in the event. The welcoming concept is prevalent: 70 nations are present, the races briefings are held in German, English, French, and Spanish. I’ve never witnessed that before.
But how did it get so far that I decided I needed to be part of this race?
Last Year, ITU World Triathlon Hamburg
July 17th, 2016. I had just finished the Hamburg Olympic distance triathlon and took out my phone to see what Olympic gold medalist and IRONMAN Hawaii World Champion Jan Frodeno was about to do in Roth. Crazy and amazing as he is, he publicly stated that he would like to win Challenge Roth with a new world’s fastest long distance triathlon time. In 2011, fellow German Andreas Raelert won Roth in 7:41:33, which was the world’s fastest recorded time ever since that day. Frodeno, a very fast guy, was about to defeat it.
You might recognize Frodeno from iconic pictures which went around the world, like this one.
I watched some of the livestream while waiting for bike check-out to open up, and got to feel the adrenaline. And then, he really broke the record: 7:35:39, about 6 minutes faster than anyone ever before. Crushed it! It was a glorious moment seeing him crossing that finish line.
That’s When I Made the Decision
I need to do this race. The Monday after, the online registration started. You have about 70 seconds to sign up, right at 10 AM, or you would fail. I sat there on the computer, clicked reload reload reload – and managed to secure the spot! It’s settled. Challenge Roth on July 9th, 2017, will have me as a participant, and, hopefully, finisher!
Prelude I: Training
One of the challenges is, of course, to make enough time for just enough training. In April 2016 we welcomed a third daughter into the world, Emma, so the priorities shifted even more. This was the main reason why I didn’t think I could do another long distance triathlon. But, my 2016 experiment of going vegetarian increased my fitness by so much, that I could improve all of my former personal bests across different endurance races with even less effort.
That made me confident I could pull this off.
For my first IRONMAN distance triathlon I had to learn how to swim first. This time, I was ready from the beginning. So the task has gotten easier: I just needed to keep up the level of swimming somehow.
January, February, March, April, May: I was in the pool training exactly 5 times in total. That’s so few occasions, most other triathletes would call me crazy. In June, though, I tested myself by partaking in a 12 kilometer swimming race, which I completed in about 4 hours and 30 minutes of continuous freestyle swimming.
The pace was alright for my taste, so I say:
This is even more difficult, because it requires so much time. A proper biking session to prepare for the 180 km bike ride would last at least 4 hours to get to a decent 100 km and have some time left for changing clothes and having a shower. Theoretically, if I would try to do that in the mornings, I’d have to get up at 3 AM. In the evenings I would be coming home around 1 AM. Both is not an option for me. What to do now?
Due to very lucky circumstances, our office got a new co-worker, Karla, who is a semi-professional cyclist. Mainly fixed gear races where you have to be full of power for a shorter period of time. She took me with her to an open door day at the cycling stadium in Hamburg, which is a 250 meter oval course with a tent above it. She organized a bike for me, because those have to be special. And they have to be fixed gear as well, which means no brakes, no free-wheeling. You have to constantly pedal or you will fall. Especially on the high curves this requires some courage at first. But I managed and quickly learned about the advantages:
- You learn to use your core muscles and bodyweight instead of your hands to make turns, thus keeping a straight course
- You keep a steady power output because you can’t just sit there rolling, you always have to pedal
- You meet new interesting people!
We did a 30k first, which was fine, but the next time we did a 60k at 35.6 km/h on average! That’s more like it. Coming along here.
On April 1st, I did my first outside bike ride of the year. 30 km in the neighborhood. It went alright. Another 70k ride with Karla, and a couple more shorter rides in the evenings and that was it. In late June I got a little nervous and planned at least one 100k ride – on a day on which we would start a family weekend at my parent’s place near the Baltic sea. To get from Hamburg to the sea is roughly 100 kilometers, so my wife Sophie could take the kids in the car while I cycle. This is my only chance, I have to take it! Unfortunately it rained and was windy and cold that day. I did it anyways, and it really was a fight. Not much fun to be had. Still, I felt more prepared afterwards and I was glad I did it.
Biking: Not Really There Yet, But Feeling Optimistic
Running is great. I have been loving it for 7 or 8 years now and I am naturally quite in shape for running. This winter I did lots of longer runs, in March I successfully finished my first ultramarathon, in April I did a marathon, in May as well, along with many other half marathon races and longer training runs. I just really like it. So, in this area I see no problems.
How to prepare for the challenge which is consisting of all three sports in a row? I know: do exactly that, just on a shorter course! Which is why I signed up for IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau, a half distance triathlon on June 11th.
Those 3-5 hours per week I put into training for a full long distance triathlon race made me a bit nervous, I must admit.
Prelude II: IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau
As Challenge Roth has become a well-known classic within the world-wide triathlon scene, so has IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau. It’s a half distance, consisting of the traditional 1.9k swim, 90k bike ride, and 21.1k half marathon run (this equals 113 kilometers or 70.3 miles, hence the title). About 2,000 participants race here every year. Lots of international pros come every year to race here in south-western Germany.
The surroundings of the Kraichgau area are just beautiful. It’s called the “Land of a Thousand Hills”, which makes for fantastic views as well as exhausting bike passages.
We took the whole family and drove down to have a longer weekend in Heidelberg, a beautiful city about 30k away from the triathlon start, because good old friend Kahla lives there and was able to share her flat with the five of us. You might remember her from my Cologne12 swimming challenge last year, where she supported me during my first try at the 12k swim.
In the city of Bad Schönbrunn, which is hosting the event, Julie and I had a great Saturday while I got my bib number, checked in the bike amidst very unfriendly supervisors who made my little daughter cry, and then listened to the race briefing while Julie played Monument Valley 2 (great game).
In the evening we held a private pasta party at Kahla’s place, when my friend Rasmus called. He was also signed up for this Kraichgau race and just arrived in Bad Schönbrunn after a 7 hour drive from Hamburg only to find out he was half an hour too late to check his bike in! The IRONMAN people were strict again and didn’t let him in. Needless to say, he was sad and disappointed. In the end, they gave him a ticket for the 5150 race, which is an Olympic distance triathlon, held tomorrow afternoon. He took it. Poor guy, though.
This Saturday night, Sophie had to stay up late and prepare a presentation for Monday. At first she had considered to stay in Hamburg to do this, but after she was required to work in the oncology department of the hospital recently, she got into the mindset of “We’re all gonna die soon enough. Might as well experience everything we can while we’re here on earth.” – I second that very much.
A short night and a 6:30 AM alarm clock started the IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau day for us. Oatmeal and a smoothie first. Stuff and kids in the car, off to Hardtsee, the start of the race. The area is very crowded. Whenever the MC mentions Sebastian Kienle’s name, Julie listens up, because she remembers him from yesterday. He is very fit at the moment and might win this race today, as he already has several times before.
IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau: Swim
A loud cannonball sound sets off the race of the pros. Exciting! I make my way down to the start as well. The rolling start system, which is letting off three people at an interval of five seconds means that it takes 55 minutes for all 2,000 participants to enter the water. A long time. I recon I had to stand in line for about 30 minutes until I could enter the water. It’s a very hot day and the sweat is running down inside our neoprene wetsuits. Jumping into the clean and cold Hardtsee is like paradise. So refreshing!
I have a very proper swim and overtake lots of others. Right before the end I try the trick of hard leg pedaling to get the blood moving for the transition. It works okay, my circulation is keeping up. 35:06 minutes for the 1.9 kilometer swim – that’s not too bad for me.
Transition 1, HoneyPower Espresso. Changing a bunch of clothes and gear and hop on the bike. Lets see what this course has to offer!
IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau: Bike
Apparently it’s roughly 1,000 meters of elevation, which is a good amount on just 90 kilometers of biking. The first 10k is flat, though. Nice to get into the groove. The watch says 35-37 km/h which is great.
And then, the hills begin. Wow. Roughly every 10 kilometers, there is a really tough hill where I have to switch down to first gear and even leave the saddle and put in all of my weight to make it to the top. Huge effort, sweating, heavy breathing.
Good thing is, after every uphill section, there is bound to be a downhill section somewhere. And these are crazy here! 60-70 km/h, this is incredibly fun! The wheels of my new bike are stabilizing it on these fast stretches so I feel steady like I’m riding on train tracks. I have to smile sometimes, enjoying the rush very much.
And very often we get to experience these amazing views of the area. Vineyards, little towns with old timbered houses and friendly folk cheering, rolling hills, beautiful scenery!
I have another two HoneyPowers on the bike part, and switch between isotonic bottles and water bottles. Those are handed out regularly. It doesn’t seem to be as hot as it really is, because the course is leading through lots of woods and the airstream is cooling me down very well. But it’s 30 degrees out here.
I hoped for a 30 km/h average in the end, but missed it by 2 minutes and 6 seconds. I think that’s quite alright still, considering all the hills.
Volunteers take my bike, I change some clothes again and the run starts!
IRONMAN 70.3 Kraichgau: Run
The half marathon starts with a downhill section, cool! I will try to run at 5:00 minutes per kilometer for a 1:45 hour half marathon time. Let’s see if that works out.
The first thing I notice is that it got incredibly hot. Over 30 degrees, maybe around 35 even. Tough! No wind and very dry air makes it even harder. The course consists of three laps of about seven kilometers each and leads through the city center of Bad Schönbrunn and the surroundings. It’s a good mix of loud spectators and quiet woods.
Every two kilometers, there’s an aid station, and those are crucial. Every time I take a cup of water, then a cup of iso drink, and two wet sponges on the head. But just a few hundred meters later, my throat is dry again. This heat is intense!
The legs are getting heavier, the power leaves me. No surprise after all these hills on the bike. This run course has another 200 meters of elevation, which doesn’t make it easier.
Some local residents got out their garden hoses and offer to cool us down. I use every single opportunity and thank them all. Many other runners do so as well. It seems necessary to make it through.
A highlight is that I get to meet Sophie and the kids on every one of the three laps! It’s so great that Sophie is able to pull this off and get all those three kids together and meet me on the course. Julie tells me that she saw Sebastian Kienle again. The Hawaii Champion is definitely more comfortable in this heat than me, I suspect.
On the last lap, one of the spectating girls in the wood section sees my bib number containing my name and says to her friend: “Tim is sooo hot” – haha! I think she didn’t mean to say it out loud. She’s right though, but what choice did I have during 35 degrees? Yeah yeah, that’s a proper dad joke, alright. It’s nicer to hear than “Go faster, Tim!” all the time, to be honest.
I switch to coke and take some ice-cubes which they also offer. I put them into my triathlon suit. Now I’m not as hot anymore.
I get slower. 5:20 instead of 5:00 minutes now. Some guy is vomiting on the sidewalk.
Almost there! The PA is blasting Bruno Mars’ Locked Out Of Heaven, which I forgot is a great song and get a bit emotional. It’s so interesting how music is able to trigger emotions in us. I feel amazing and so alive, suddenly.
Three hair-bands around my wrist allow me to make a right turn now and enter the little stadium. A few more meters to go.
Hands in the Air: I DID IT!
A volunteer hands me a water bottle. I pour the whole thing on my head. That feels good. Another finisher tells me that he also vomited on the run course like the other guy I saw. He believed the problem to be the disgusting powergel he ate right before that. I hand him a HoneyPower I hadn’t needed. He won’t have problems anymore.
1:50 hours for the run, which is alright for me. 5:35 hours in total, no personal best, but considering the hills and heat I’m very happy with that time!
Now comes the best part. They call it “Athlete’s Garden”, and this one is great. They have ice-cold watermelons, bananas, coke, and a lot more. But those are the things I chose to have. Especially the cooled watermelon is perfect right now. Another great idea: they put up huge kiddie pools filled with cold water. I take off the shoes and socks and step in to cool down. Some guys even sit down, total immersion. Damn that’s nice.
It’s time for checkout, though. I get my bike and transition bags while I work on a sunburn that will cause me pain for the complete upcoming week and then meet Sophie and the kids after an hour of headless searching without my phone. Stupid me.
A seven hour drive home and we’re back at 10:30 PM. Enough time for a good night’s sleep! Great weekend. Kraichgau was a proper preparation for the real deal, Challenge Roth.
Prelude III: Elbschwimmstaffel
This Challenge Roth race weekend begins very early for me, because I somewhat spontaneously signed up for an event called Elbschwimmstaffel. Rasmus, the Kraichgau guy who arrived too late, told me about it. When I heard about it, I just had to sign up. It’s a relay swim along the German part of my favorite river, the Elbe.
It’s an important river to lots of Germans, but probably mostly to Hamburgers like me, because it’s not only beautiful but also the source of Hamburg’s historical and partly also its current wealth.
This event was organized by a government sponsored institution called “Das Wissenschaftsjahr” (= “The Year of Science”) in order to raise awareness for the improving water quality of the river and the reason for that improvement: Scientists. We need to stand behind our scientists and support them, now more than ever.
I was very late with my signup, but thankfully someone had dropped out on a perfect date: Thursday, 6th of July 2017, on route between Blumenthal and Tangermünde.
So, the Elbe river begins somewhere in the Czech Republic, then crosses into Germany and flows roughly 700 kilometers through Germany until it ends in the North Sea. The Elbschwimmstaffel idea is roughly this:
- The complete German part of the Elbe shall be swum by volunteer swimmers like me
When organizing something like this, you run into questions and problems almost immediately.
- How many swimmers do you need?
- How far and how fast do they have to go?
- What distance can you cover in a day?
- How many days will you need?
- How do you make sure the swimmers are safe?
- What’s the legal situation?
To which the answers were:
- About 260-270
- 2 kilometers each, within 30 minutes at most (4 km/h)
- Between 25 and 45 kilometers
- Have a DLRG boat (German Life Saving Association) accompany every second of the swim
- Lots and lots of permits to be acquired, helpful contacts to be made, suffering German bureaucracy at its finest (i.e. worst)
The last point was the reason that the whole 700 kilometers weren’t possible to do. The relay had to stop at Geesthacht, just about 30 kilometers short of Hamburg, or 110 kilometers short of the North Sea ending of our Elbe. It’s simply too dangerous with all the currents and sub-currents, and also the huge containerships and general business of the Hamburg port, 2th largest port in Europe.
But still, about 90 percent of the river can be swum rather easily. So the event was started. And I took part somewhere in the middle, in the vicinity of the city of Magdeburg.
On Wednesday, 5th of July I drove down alone after work, my van equipped with all the triathlon gear, food, and also a mattress in the back. I reached the village Blumenthal, start of tomorrows stage. The town was nearly empty, just about 10 houses.
Next morning, I got to explore the beautiful nearby town of Burg for a few hours.
At 10:30 AM, I and the other swimmers I had never before seen or heard anything about, met near the river. Seven swimmers in total, a good mix of very different people.
Two houseboats were rented to host all swimmers during the day. Both had two crew members on them, one to steer the ship, one to seamlessly organize the whole thing. All of them were very nice.
The mentioned DLRG boat with three experienced life guards on it was ready, as well as the main attraction: the science boat, Elbegrund with a bunch of scientists on it. They were about to collect lots of data and nerd it out today.
This stage was supposed to be 25 kilometers in total, divided into two chunks of 15 and 10. Lunch in between. Us seven swimmers were supposed to do the 15 before lunch and that’s it. I hoped it would be a longer swim, but I’ll take it.
We’ve had a very nice time on the boat, everyone got a vegetarian lunch box (“because most athletes seem to be vegetarian” – as one of the organizers, Johanna, told me), a shirt, some mints, a bag, and a swimming cap. For paying exactly 0 Euros. Thanks, Merkel!
But the priceless thing which we each got was the two kilometers of swimming in the Elbe, accompanied by all of the crew. That was a great thing. Interestingly, the flow speed of the river was at a fast 3 km/h, to which my swimming speed added maybe 3.5 km/h, which made me swim faster than ever before. Cool!
The sad thing was that after just 18 minutes, my part was already over. We used the rest of the trip to talk and hang out in the sun on the boat. A very good use of time, if you ask me.
After all seven of us were done, we reached Bittkau, another tiny village. A different group of six swimmers would now take over and do the “afternoon shift”.
A shuttle bus drove us all back to the start of today’s stage. And that concluded the event for me.
Into the bus, on the Autobahn A9, four hours down to Roth. A few minutes before the exit to Roth, there’s one of those brown signs which usually notify about historical places or important landmarks of interest, and this one says:
Yeah! I’m where I need to be. As I enter the small city of Roth, I’m greeted by several banners saying “Welcome Triathletes” – that’s so cool!
I was really looking forward to experiencing the triathlon craziness of the people around this Challenge Roth event, but this surprised me. It seems most of the small stores in the city also had their windows decorated with triathlon stuff, and many had received a part of the red finish-line carpet to put in front of their entrances.
As it’s evening right now, I park on a nice spot in the beautiful old town, eat some canned food, throw myself on the mattress in the back of the car and have a good night’s sleep.
On Friday, I meet with two old friends, Joachim and Christoph. The brothers were also signed up for the Challenge Roth, but we decided to skip our planned bike tour today because of some early rain and instead explored the Expo area and get accredited for the race.
Lots of interesting things to see there.
He was doing lots of interviews, but also promoting his own side project Espresso booth. Good stuff. A family business in the making, it seems.
Terror Back in Hamburg
At noon, Twitter makes me fear for the safety of my kids suddenly. The G20 summit is held in Hamburg this weekend, with controversial politicians attending it, including Putin, Erdogan, and Trump. Many people dislike that and decided to protest it. Some of them very violently, unfortunately. Windows were smashed, cars were burning just a few hundred meters away from our house.
Sophie was already on the train down to Roth along with our smallest, Emma, but the older two girls were supposed to be picked up from Kindergarten by my great in-laws, who usually had to use those burning roads to get there. Fortunately, in the end it all worked out very well. Riots were nearly over by the time, and my kids and in-laws arrived safe and healthy at their place, far away from the riots.
I did sweat for a few hours, though.
In the late afternoon I picked up Sophie and Emma from the train station and we moved into our flat for the weekend. Finally a shower again! Still had the Elbe water on my skin. Not too bad, though, as science confirmed.
Great to not be alone anymore, also. I prefer the company of Sophie.
Today I did 15,000 steps according to my phone. So much for Tapering!
But there’s one more day between me and the Challenge Roth. Saturday, the 8th. We used it for a test swim in the Main-Donau-Kanal where the 3.86 kilometer swim part of the triathlon was planned to take place.
Also, I had to eat a lot today. Pasta, as I always prefer on the days before a longer race. Bike check-in is also on the list, right after the final few adjustments on the bike. I had to carefully pack my transition bags as well, and mentally prepare for the huge event tomorrow. Another long distance triathlon – I need to get into the right mindset. I imagine myself crossing the finish line, remembering all the things I’ve learned the first time I did it, thinking through all the steps, especially during the two transitions. All to fight the nervousness. But I’m rather calm, I’d say. Surely it’s going to be insane tomorrow, but fortunately I know a little bit about what I got myself into. I just have to hope to have a good day tomorrow.
At the end of the day, my phone again clocked 15,000 steps. How? I wanted to relax! Well, nothing to be done now. Hope for a good night’s sleep.