"If you’re serious, you’ll work at managing your psychology such that you stay motivated to keep going, because if you run out of juice, you’re out of the game." Visakan Veerasamy
I headed over to Roth in Germany for the 2023 edition of the world famous Challenge Roth.
I completed the event in 11:20:33 split between a 1:21:00 swim, a 6:08:37 bike, and a 3:37:15 run. It was a massive personal best because it was my first (and likely last) triathlon.
Training and completing Roth was a life changing experience. It was the hardest thing that I have ever done. I was obsessed - I lived and breathed Roth for 10 weeks and it took me to my lowest lows and my highest highs. This is the story..
Bonus: On the Monday morning post race I opted to voice record my recollections in an exhausted state of delirium. I figured that it would be the rawest way of documenting the day. It turned into a 50 minute recording. Having listened back myself.. just wow. If you have even more time have a listen.
Over the past years I have been gradually pushing myself in the endurance events that I have undertaken. Back in 2019 I had completed a number of marathons and was looking for a new challenge. I decided upon an ultramarathon, googled 'best ultramarathon in the world' and stumbled upon Comrades. Cue running Comrades in 2019, missing my goal, and then coming back for vengeance (and my back to back medal) in 2022.
I have always had an iron distance triathlon on my bucket list and had considered doing one in 2023. I had previously Googled 'best full distance triathlon' and stumbled upon Challenge Roth. Back at the start of December the organisers released some last places for the event as part of their Christmas charity campaign (the normal entry release happens shortly after the previous edition - the 2024 edition sold out in 40 seconds). When life circumstances changed I impulsively figured 'why the fuck not' and attempted to get a place. I got one, and then kind of forgot about it for a while.
Coming into the new year I was running more for mental health purposes. It culminated in me impulsively choosing to run the Manchester Marathon in April. This was a detour from my plan which had been to train diligently in the disciplines that I had little experience in - cycling and swimming. Roth was absolutely my A-race.
The problem I had is that whilst I have years of running experience and feel that I know exactly how to train 'properly' I was fairly mentally exhausted (and if I am being completely honest, incredibly depressed) - I didn't have the capacity to sit down and work out how to train appropriately in a manner that I could actually execute. I have an attitude of 'if you are going to do something, do it properly' and it is very anti-tom-establishment to wing it. Sometimes it looks like I don't have a clue what I'm doing but nearly all of the time my training has been planned meticulously and with intention.
After Manchester I had 10 weeks and I had an honest self talk session where I said to myself "with the tools and time I have available to me, what is going to give me best bang for buck in terms of getting good at swimming and cycling". I concluded that cycling and swimming lots was the answer. Sometimes I think that human beings overcomplicate things. Keep it simple and all that. At the end of the day speed sessions, FTP sessions etc would clearly be useful and targeted but you've also got to be realistic. The thorn in most peoples foot (in my opinion) is that they are not realistic with their training approaches. I chose what many would describe as a bad approach, but it was realistic.
The sign photographed above was at the Roth registration tent. "For over a year you have prepared for this moment". This was one of many moments over the days preceding the event where the magnitude of the undertaking truly hit me. Iron distance triathlon is serious as hell. I think it's worth noting from the get go that if you take one on you should give it the respect it deserves. I got the result that I wanted but it was a fucking journey. It ripped me apart mentally and physically. Humbled me beyond belief, and took me to the edge. I can look back now and smile because I got the outcome I wanted but it could have very easily gone the other way. This race fundamentally changed me - I have no desire to search for that next big thing.. that next challenge. Over the years I searched for my limit and I found it.
Training for Roth was extremely intense. I didn't initially realise it but when I begun cycle/swim training post marathon I simply wasn't giving my body or mind enough time to rest. I should have chosen a single goal and focussed on that. Whilst Manchester was an incredibly race for me, it was a distraction.
Over the ten weeks that followed I pushed myself. There was many a double day, occasionally a triple, BRICK workouts etc etc. I was regularly getting up at 6am to go and swim and then fitting a run in in the evening. Given that I was also focussing on the endurance side of training my body was getting battered from every angle and 2 weeks pre-Roth the ugly sides of my training showed their face.
Obsession is a word that has negative connotations associated with it based on the idea of an excessive/unhealthy focus on one thing to the detriment of other areas of ones life. Of course filling all your free time with running/swimming/cycling means you simply don't have time to focus on anything else, but it also had clearly apparent effects on my mental health.
Past a point training is not about motivation but rather about discipline. You have to get up and do the workouts on the days you just don't feel like it. I have always been incredibly disciplined yet when I noticed my discipline falter I immediately took stock. I found myself at a point where I was completely exhausted from my training and I knew I wouldn't be able to complete my planned sessions. I push myself, but I'm not an idiot. On these occasions I took additional rest days.
Unfortunately (in my case) the symptom that was indicative of unhealthy obsession was the fact that after periods of 2/3 days of rest my mental health went to shit. Not in a "oh no I havn't done any exercise" kind of way but in a way whereby everything else was breaking down the doors of my head game, coming in all guns blazing and properly fucking me up. Thought processes followed this kind of format:
- "You know that thing that stressed you out 2 months ago..? Why don't you think about that !"
- "Have you ever considered ruminating on every decision you've ever made in your life?"
And I was angry. Very angry, and very irritable. Then at times I just felt incredibly low. Discipline was out and existential "what's the point" was in.
On two occasions I planned long rides, went out to buy nutrition (biscuit bars), woke up the next day completely broken, cancelled the rides, then ate all the biscuit bars anyway. It gave me instant flashbacks to 2016 when I developed binge eating disorder whilst training for the Berlin Marathon (which reflecting on it was probably the last time I was truly obsessed with attaining a goal). Fortunately I clocked this immediately and was like "nah pal, we ain't having any of this shit again".
Two weeks out from race day (11th June) I ran leg 14 of the Welsh Castles relay for my running club, Chorlton Runners. My head was gone - I was unable to make simple decisions, I had a constant mind fog, and a persistent deep seated anxiety. Pre-existing obligations meant that I couldn't join the normal club transport and the idea of organising my own logistics was getting on top of me. I was plagued with indecisiveness and this was on top of the general feelings of fatigue/malaise. In the end I did manage to organise things, I did go, and I did complete my leg. I had wide-eyed ideas of swimming on the Saturday, driving down and doing my leg on the Sunday, and then following it up with a bike ride.
In the end I didn't swim because I felt shit, and the idea of cycling after my leg was laughable - I was struggling with the concept of continuing to breath, a run in which I had given it absolutely everything and come out (based on my own high expectations of myself) short. It was hella toxic. It was a turning point.
Drovers is one of the infamous mountain stages at the relay. I am no mountain runner. I don't regularly run up hills (apart from Comrades) and I don't particularly enjoy it (like everyone). But I also like a challenge, and given my level of indecisiveness I didn't have any proposals for better alternatives that I could propose to Justin who was organising the club. Justin had been incredibly accommodating to my micro-breakdown (thank you again) and I suspect knows me well enough such that when he told me "I chose you for Stage 14 because I know you can handle it !" it lit a fire. When I'm finding it hard to believe in myself the belief of others is like rocket fuel for my soul.
On the day it was really hot and I went out too quick. I spent 83% of the 72 minute run in the red zone, attained a new heart rate PB (210bpm), and had to walk for brief periods on some of the hills. But I kept on going, and I got it done. I knew it wasn't going to be the day that I wanted it to be, but I also knew that I wasn't going to stop and let the team down.
Afterwards whilst a little disappointed, it was what it was and I let it go. I very quickly asked Justin if I could come back in 2024 for a rerun. Then I thought about it. This was probably the most important part of my training - the realisation that I (like everyone) am oh so fallible. I hold myself to toxically high standards and I have fortunately generally done well in the athletic endeavours that I have pursued but had it not been today that it had gone wrong, it would have been another day. I don't need to come back to Drovers to get vengeance. I'd probably just fuck it up again 😁. You can't PB every day and even if you could.. if the training/journey isn't enjoyable is it even worth it? Reflecting I am glad that this happened because my mindset going into Roth was completely changed as a result.
When I signed up in December my attitude had been my classic 'go big or go home' - I was aiming for the holy grail of triathlon, the sub-10 iron distance. Yes, I am the worst. I've learned my lesson, don't worry. By the time Welsh Castles came around I had been thoroughly humbled. When the iron distance is put in front of you as a list of numbers it is somewhat tough to put them into context and actually comprehend them. I can confirm that the iron distance is absolutely disgustingly hard - I have the utmost respect for anyone who turns up on on an iron distance start line, let alone completes it. My targets had long ago been revised to 'just finish'.
So to summarise.. some bullshit here about how the real benefits of Roth were the lessons I learned during the process of training.
At the end of April I was 2:38 marathon fit. My running training was simply to keep the mileage up, maybe do the occasional fast run, and just generally maintain/not lose too much fitness.
In terms of swimming I did most of my training outdoors in open water with the team from OpenSwim at Sale Water Park. I did do a few sessions in swimming pools, and I had one 30 minute swim technique lesson with Bob (from OpenSwim) 3 weeks out from race day.
I had tried to get some technique lessons in the pool with various entities based in/around Manchester but the logistics of organising it went well beyond my mental capacity (see above).
For the cycling aspect of my training, whilst I had bought a turbo trainer at the start of the year, I used it.. twice. Expensive paperweight. The weather was too good, turbo trainers are too hot (and boring) and I just generally prefer cycling outside.
When I first started cycling at the start of the year, I was doing random gradually increasing long rides in between various trips around the world. I remember getting off the bike after one 70 ish mile ride cold, wet and tired and thinking "there is no way that I can do 42 miles more and then run a marathon". It turns out that I can.
I focussed on endurance (à la Pfitzinger mesocycle training), and got in a number of long rides:
- Tour de Manc - 30/04/23 - 200km (124 miles) with steep climbs around the boroughs of Manchester.
- Ride back to Manchester - 07/05/23 - a 90 mile solo ride where I realised I actually have potential as a cyclist. This was the first time I really thought 'shit, this is possible'.
- Ride London 2023 - 28/05/23 - 102 miles from London to Essex (and back).
A major confidence boost as I managed to average 20mph over a 100 mile+ distance having spent the first 15 miles chatting. I learned on the fly how to draft which was incredibly fun (I love winging it in the field), to find out the disappointing news afterwards that in full distance triathlon drafting isn't allowed 🙁
- Random circular ride to Southport - 06/06/23 - 100 miles. Shortly after RideLondon whilst super fatigued from training. This one was hard but it was good endurance testing and made me feel good when I got it done whilst maintaining a consistent 18mph (without anyone to draft off).
About 10 days before the race I got knocked off my commuter bike when cycling into work. I knew that I was physically fine, and whilst flying through the air I was laughing at the irony of my situation. The woman who had hit me acknowledged that it was her fault and was incredibly shook by the situation. I instantly let it go - I simply didn't care. I'm alive, I'm not broken, you've apologised. Whatever. Reflecting on it.. again.. indicative of the mental state I had found myself in. On top of this I wasn't physically fine. My back.
On the Saturday a week before the event I had done a final iron distance swim to get me out the house without any additional impact on my legs. I had planned to do a final swim the following day but when I woke up on Sunday I felt like I'd been hit by a bus. I skipped the final swim and went straight into my Total Taper - one week where you literally do nothing. I did it for Manchester and it worked, so I figured I'd try it again. Spoiler alert: it works.
I had opted to drive to Germany over three days on the basis that flights were expensive, and transporting a bike added additional expense (alongside the horror stories of bikes being broken in transport). On top of that my ability to plan and to make decisions was not existent (see like.. this whole post) and the Roth logistics are particularly complex with there being two transition points - you would basically need to hire a car anyway to drop of your bike at T1, get to the practice swim, get back at the end etc etc.
I don't regret the decision in the sense that had I flown it would have still involved a lot of sitting, but driving 5+ hours a day destroyed my already fragile back. A back that I had apparently seriously hurt. I was in a lot of pain but had committed to my mode of transport and was already on my way. I felt obliged to continue on to Nuremberg but I was thinking to myself "can I actually start this..?".
Organising routes, accommodation, and general logistics when ones mind is in off mode is somewhat tough. It was all massively anxiety inducing, and incredibly stressful. I drove down to Dover, stayed at the Churchill guesthouse. The following day I crossed into France and traveled to near Dusseldorf. I poshed it up at the Althoff Grandhotel Schloss Bensberg. On the Thursday I continued onto Nuremberg where I stayed at Melter Hotel & Apartments for the race weekend.
On the way I went into survival mode.
- On the ferry I asked a staff member if they had a private area where I could do some yoga and stretches without scarring the other passengers.
- I went to the Dusseldorf countryside to use the spa and get a back massage - who doesn't love a good old fashioned German 'no textile zone'?
- Once I'd arrived in Roth I tried to keep moving to not stiffen up.
I went into my anxiety induced overthinky Google everything mode. I diagnosed myself with overtraining syndrome - it explained a lot. I then fell apart.
"The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts." Ursula K. LeGuin
Whilst I had slept well on the way there, on the Friday and Saturday nights pre-race I just couldn't sleep. It felt as though my nervous system was completely messed up and my body was constantly pumping out adrenaline. I could feel my heart beating incessantly and I had a weird hand tremor (I've had this before).
Regardless of the physical symptoms, my Garmin said that I was perfectly fine. this reassured me that I was in fact not dying.
- My average heart rate had stayed consistent.
- My O2 saturation was normal.
- Whilst my HRV (my go to training stat) had been consistently dropping into the bad zone it wasn't showing any worryingly dangerous values.
On the Friday I woke up bright and early and headed to Hilpoltstein (the swim start) for a practice swim. I wanted to discern how broken my body was as well as see if the water was in fact warm and clean. Spoiler alert: it was. I met some lovely British women who gave me some tips and hyped me up, as well as two English guys one of whom was telling me how he was hoping to be the first out of the water 😮
Having never done a Triathlon before the transition organisation was somewhat overwhelming. Each bag needed to be dropped off at a different place at a different time and obviously they needed specific, appropriate items in them. There was no 'recommended kit list' for each bag so my first approach was to overpack nutrition/clothing options and then choose what I wanted as appropriate at transition time. I quickly realised that post swim and certainly post ride I almost certainly would not be in a physical or mental state to.. make decisions (I mean I couldn't make decisions fully rested..). These decisions needed to be made now, and needed to be correct. Initially I forgot to pack my running shoes in the run bag. Out of curiosity I asked when handing it in how many people do that each year and the lady said "usually at least ten".
Nutrition wise I initially had High5 energy gels and energy bars for the ride, and High5 ISO gels for the run. I had planned to take High5 Carbohydrate drink on the ride but I accidentally left it in the UK. I ended up buying an overpriced variety bag of Maurten stuff and I used the Drink Mix 320 from that for the ride as well as putting a bottle in both bags to quickly down for post swim and post ride energy. As I had the Maurten bag I added the Solid and Solid C bars to my cycling nutrition for a bit of variety. Side point: I have finally concluded that Maurten is overpriced, well branded shit. Don't buy it.
Even the numbers, tattoos, helmet rules etc were complex. It was way too much for a non-planner like me. Included in the flat lay photo below is a picture of the competition rules - it was like 35 pages long.
In terms of carb loading I stuck with what I know for breakfasts - oats, and then I just went to different Italian restaurants each evening and had pasta/pizza/both. The transition logistics were complicated and there was lots of driving between Nuremberg, Roth, and Hilpoltstein. Lunches were just whatever I could get my hands on - pretzels mainly.
On the Saturday morning I had to get to Roth at 10am for the English race briefing. With Roth being 30 minutes away from Nuremberg and me not needing any more stress in my life I made the rational decision to skip parkrun shock horror. The briefing was in the baking heat. Suboptimal. I had a chat with a fellow Brit who when he found out it was my first triathlon just gave me that look.
The bike drop off also took place on Saturday morning in Hilpoltstein. You had to drop off your bike along with your helmet. I invented a problem, namely the fact that my brakes weren't stopping the bike particularly quickly (I think my discs are glazed) but it was 30 degrees, I was super fatigued, and really couldn't be bothered to queue for the on-site mechanics. What would I have said when I got to the front of the queue? "I HAVE ANXIETY ! HELP ME !"? So I racked my bike and just accepted "it is what it is at this point" and resigned myself to the fact that if my bike did fall apart on race day.. well.. such is life.
In a similar vein I was very much aware that I had never had to change my tire on my new bike and likely would not be able to do it remotely quickly were I to get a flat tire. I had planned to practice in the hotel during the week, but everything had been too much and it never happened. I made the executive decision to accept that if I got a flat then that was a problem that I would deal with then and there. I went all in on hoping it didn't happen. Spoiler alert: it didn't.
Whilst there a race referee came by and was standing behind my bike. I asked him what was wrong. Fortunately he was looking at the bike next to mine but he did give me some tips. One of those tips was to deflate my tyres overnight, and re-inflate them in the morning to the lower limit of the recommended range. He said that every year tyres explode in transition in the heat. This was super solid advice. Spoiler alert: my tyres didn't explode and this may well have been why.
At 8pm on the Saturday pre-race I filled in my journal. I'd been on my feet rushing around all week and hadn't had the time to fill it in up until this point. I just wanted to go to bed but part of me knew that you can't retrospectively document how you feel before an event as it will always be biased by the outcome. I'm so glad that I did.
On race morning I got up at 3:45am and drove to Roth. I had booked a shuttle bus to the swim start at 5am but was aware that with 3,500 people descending on a small village (and surrounding area) the traffic was likely going to be bad. It was not. I arrived early and managed to get onto the 4:40 bus. I met Vasiley a Russian who gave me various tips. The one that stuck with me was nutrition based:
"Stay fuelled. This will fuck your body. You may be sick. Let it out, then eat more"
It seems to be a triathlon cliche but with hindsight it is true.. nutrition is the fourth discipline. It will make or break your race.
When I arrived I pumped up my tyres, put my bottle on my bike, checked my bags 400 times, eventually dropped off my bags, went to the toilet many many times (you can't shit in a wetsuit - not allowed), and then eventually stumbled to the swim queue at my designated time in a complete state of disarray. Most people were completely ready and raring to go as we walked towards the water. I was still putting my wetsuit on. I quickly gesticulated to a German man to have him do up my wetsuit (it's a pull down zip) and made some final adjustments as I made those final steps into the water.
A German women grabbed me by the shoulder and shouted some words at me. I was lost. Eventually she picked up some goggles and pointed at them. She thought I'd forgotten my goggles. I had not. Everyone seems to be amazed by this but I swim without goggles and I wear contacts too. I don't know how it works but they just stay in. Nothing new on race day.
Then shit got real..
My Strava caption for the swim summarises this succinctly:
"Should have practiced having people from 89 countries trying to drown me."
I have a thing with water. It stems from my kayaking days, but yeh.. I really hate water, especially open water. Thats why I find getting more comfortable swimming in open water over the years to be so fulfilling.
I was aware that in triathlon you swim with lots of other people. I've heard stories of people being grabbed, pushed down, zips being undone etc but I think you have to experience it to really get it. It was a baptism of fire.
The gun went off and cue being battered from all sides from foreign body parts. It was incredibly claustrophobic and alongside the race start adrenaline my body immediately shut down. I don't think I've ever had such an uncomfortable physical panic attack experience but I literally could not breath. My wetsuit suddenly felt incredibly tight and I immediately stopped to sight a kayak, or other support. Within 5 minutes of the race start I was on the precipes of giving up. Fortunately there were no kayaks nearby so I stopped, tried to get some air and attempted to continue. For a good 15 minutes I just didn't feel properly oxygenated, couldn't get my heart rate down and felt incredibly uncomfortable. I went into pep talk mode and opted to drop to the side and behind the rest of the wave. It would be slower but time didn't matter if it meant actually carrying on. Space was the remedy and over time I got into a rhythm. Eventually I was calm enough to focus on technique. I swam, and then I swam some more. It felt like a long long swim. Because it was.
At the turnaround points people basically just swam over each other attempting to take the tightest turn possible. At one point I got kicked in the nose. Woo. This was when I took El's advice and got into the mind zone of focussing on one discipline at a time. All I had to do was swim. Get to the end of the swim. Then think about the other stuff.
I got around the swim in 1:21:00. This was my quickest iron distance swim ever (by more than ten minutes). In the grand scheme of things it is not a fast swim, but I am no swimmer and it is fast for me. Given that 3 weeks earlier the distance took me 1:43:00 this is the discipline that I am most proud of. Cutting 20%+ off my weakest discipline by working hard and being focused/disciplined. Hard work pays off, and it feels good 😀
This was my first transition ever. A few times I got out the water after training swims and tried to take off my wetsuit really quickly. I looked like an idiot, but it became fairly easy to get it off in 20 odd seconds. But under pressure, and fatigued.. would it be different? No, not really.
I grabbed my bag and ran into the changing tent. Suit off instantly. The problem is that taking of your wetsuit is like the most insignificant part of transition. I have no idea why people get so up tight about how quickly you can get a suit off because its the other stuff that takes the time. Feet dry, socks on, cycling shoes on, laces tied (and tucked), check contacts are still in (it's good to be able to see), nutrition in pockets, bib on, sun cream on, nail carbo drink, run out to bike, remember where the fuck your bike is, run to transition point, clip in, go. Fucking go !
A few thoughts. OK, these were not mine (thanks El, triathlon queen).
- I opted to wear the old school lace up cycling shoes. I wore them at Ride London and over 100 miles they did give me hot spots. But they also have super stiff soles, make me feel super connected to the bike, and well.. I did RideLondon fast. I opted to accept the pain and stick to the devil I knew - the shoes that I'd done 100 miles in before rather than trying something new on race day. This meant tying laces, and getting them tucked in. An extra step, but a few seconds are worth it for a better ride..
- Dry feet. I stole a towel from my hotel and went to town on drying my feet. Wet, mouldy feet suck ass. Again the time trade off for comfort seemed worth it.
- Rather than sticking stuff on the bike and trying to sort things whilst moving I opted to just get it done up front. It's nice to get moving quickly but I figured that I'd fuck it up and ride into a bush for what.. a couple seconds.
T1 took me 00:07:34. Not great, but whatevs.
The start of the ride was fine. The sun was out and the air was starting to heat up. Part of me was thinking "go as fast as you can so you can get as much of this done in as low a temperature as possible" but I was also cognisant of the fact that regardless of what I did I would be spending a lot of time in the baking heat and that this was an endurance event.
My lack of triathlon experience presented some interesting challenges on the ride. I had never for example taken nutrition whilst moving at speed. The water was provided in Powerbar bottles so it was simply a case of positioning, clasping, and hoping that the volunteers let go. I had no issues and it was fun learning on the job. At first I was just taking water, downing a bit, and discarding. I had my Maurten carbo drink on the bike and I was using the water to rehydrate. After a while (maybe 50k?) I'd drunk a lot of the Maurten and it was becoming more apparent to me that dehydration was the mega risk here. I swapped out the Maurten for a bottle of Powerbar ISO and then absolutely nailed the water at the aid stations. I was weirdly impressed by how quickly I could down 500ml of water, and astonished by how much my performance would suddenly improve. I iterated on the hydration and by the end of the ride it became a fairly methodical 'grab water, down it, grab ISO, drink some, place on bike, grab more water, down it, discard'. This strategy worked well.
Nutrition wise I was winging it but going for something close to 'eat something every 7/8 miles'. I started with a 'bar, bar, gel' pattern then it became a 'whatever comes out of my pocket' pattern. I fuelled all the way until the end of the ride, taking a last gel at 106 miles in preparation for the run.
I think my only nutritional mistake was that at one point towards the end I got confused by the bottles and grabbed some coke. I thought 'fuck it' because in ultra running you get to a point where it really doesn't matter what you're taking in. This irritated my stomach somewhat, and probably wasn't the correct decision (see below) but such is life.
In terms of the actual ride. On the first lap I felt strong. I was leading and overtaking on the hills but then being destroyed on the downhills. 99% of the field had TT bikes and they quite clearly made a difference in terms of aerodynamic descents.
Whilst piling up the hills (in as aerodynamic a position as I know how) I caught a glimpse of my calves. Your brain goes to interesting places when out on the road for 6 hours. I recall thinking back to my childhood when I used to be a small, podgy little kid. I used to hate wearing shorts in the summer because I had fat legs. I'm not sure if this was a child's self-induced self esteem issues or if it had been the words of others that made me feel that way, but that moment of the ride vividly sticks in my mind. Many (understandably) do full distance triathlon to be able to say "I am an ironman". I don't want to allow my identity to be defined by my athletic achievements. I do it for these moments - the moments that you realise that you are strong.
On the second lap it felt like I was constantly being overtaken. I was obviously more fatigued, it was much hotter (28 degrees celcius), and I was just enduring. That said, there was no element of hitting the wall or excessive lactic build up. It's just the case that 112 miles is a long way to ride.
Not only did it feel like I was constantly being overtaken, but it also seemed as though I was being overtaken by the same people over and over again. My cognitive ability had been non-existent in the lead up to the race. It was completely gone at this point - it was almost a state of delirium.
Whilst I had looked at the bike route briefly pre-race I hadn't done a deep dive or attempted to memorise it. It was two loops, it seemed fairly simple, and there were way to many other logistics to consider in advance of the race. At the start of second lap I was doubting that I was even going the right way. There was a sign that said 'laps 1 and 2 go left, lap 3 go right'. I was adamant that this was the first time I'd gone past this sign (100km in) but I had in fact gone past it at the start of the first lap (and simply not noticed). Theres no-one to ask and its difficult to chat whilst putting down power. I just had to hope I was doing things right, and fortunately I was.
Each time I went past a mechanic station I was reminded of the fact that if I had a mechanical anywhere but next to a mechanic I was fucked. I had zoned in on the job at hand and the mechanics were actually a disservice because they reminded me that I was one puncture away from a shit day. Fortunately my bike held up just fine.
In the race briefing we had been told about the rules. It was insane how seriously they took them. There was no drafting - you had to be 12m behind the nearest rider (front wheel to front wheel) and if you were overtaking you had 25 seconds to get back into a legal position. I was curious how they would police this, but they had a number of referees on bikes proactively enforcing it and they had a complex card system and penalty box system to boot.
The course was pretty great. A nice undulating ride through some impressive German countryside. This particular photo was taken at the top of a steep descent. They had amusingly positioned a photographer in front of a series of bright orange mats which padded a crash barrier designed to stop cars driving off a cliff. It was an interesting choice as both times I descended it was impossible to not be distracted by the photographers presence. I had to decide if it was more important to get a good photo or not cycle off a cliff 😆
The hills were incredibly well supported and Solar Hill was a fairly impressive spectacle. When I climbed Solar Hill the first time everyone was moving up incredibly slowly. I thought this was to embrace the spectacle (which seemed strange in a road race) but what was in fact happening is there was a competitor riding up with one leg. It was an astonishing sight. Whilst incredibly impressive it was pretty suboptimal because it is insanely tough to keep moving on a steep incline whilst clipped in. It was also a race at the end of the day so I did in the end manage to squeeze past. This did also pose the question (that I still don't have an answer to) as to what happens when the pros are coming around for their second lap and there are non professional athletes blocking the way?
On my second lap Solar hill was weirdly disappointing. A significant proportion of the crowds had gone home. It's obviously a long day for both the athletes and the spectators and it was baking hot so I'll let them off.
At this point as an athlete taking part this was the time when you were checking your mental game and beginning to get yourself psyched up for what was to come. In the same way that people describe the marathon as 'a 10k race following a 20 mile warm up' it felt like the true test of endurance was only just starting.
At one point towards the end I was looking down checking my gearing. I somehow went off the road onto a little gravelly pavement alongside. I couldn't get back onto the road because I feared that I'd fall turning into the little raised bump of the roads concrete. Another older rider came up alongside and there was some psychic eye based communication in play. He knew the problem and the feeling. You get into a physical zone whereby you are repeating a fairly consistent movement for hours on end. You pump out power and your brain shuts down. All blood and energy is going to your legs. I'm bad at decision making at the best of times but it was in this moment that I realised what I was giving in attempting this - everything.
Handing off the bike to volunteers was nice (the volunteers at Roth are insane - there is a waitlist to volunteer 😮), but at this point I was sufficiently fucked that I couldn't comprehend where I needed to go. I asked a volunteer but the problem is that totally lucid volunteers don't implicitly understand how completely borked triathletes want to be communicated with. He wasn't answering my questions and was instead telling me that I needed to switch my bib to the front for the run. I knew this.. I had planned this meticulously - I had another race belt in my bag with my running nutrition already attached. I didn't need to turn it around, I needed to replace it. Eventually I found my bag and where to go..
Shoes off, socks off, running socks on, running shoes on, all other nutrition in tri suit, sun cream on, ask volunteer to rub deep heat into my lower back (thank you kind German lady), tell volunteer that no I am not ready for her to take my bag, neck carbo drink, stuff things into bag, hand it off. Fucking go !
T2 took me 00:06:09.
Out the tent sponges to the face, and random pieces of watermelon. I chose not to use the toilets as I didn't need to and I figured that if I needed the toilet the on course toilets would be less busy (wrong).
Off the bike I had been feeling good, and starting the run I was like "holy fuck, I've got this". I'd always joked when talking about Roth pre event that never have I finished a long bike ride and thought "I'm well up for a marathon". Today I was up for it. If you've followed previous race reports it tends to be the case then when I say "I've got this", I actually have. Sadly this didn't turn out to be the case in Roth.
In the first couple of miles I was overtaking everyone. I was running to heart rate. I learned from my Welsh Castles experience and realised that this was going to be a slog. I couldn't just hold on. I had to manage it, and I opted to manage it by running to heart rate regardless of pace. I didn't look at my pace at any point during the run. In fact, I didn't look at my watch at any point during the race full stop.
I have always found during running races that if you run up a hill (for example) then the flat or downhill that follows feels significantly easier. The start of the marathon felt like this kind of situation. Because the prior seven and a half hours had been super tough, the run (which is.. in principle.. my strength) felt easy (all things considering).. at first.
In the first 5k I ran past a guy who was recording on a GoPro (why?!). He saw me running strong and commented. I told him "I'm a runner" and then rejected his attempts to begin questioning me.
Ahh: A pal messaged me and told me that I was famous. It turns out that this was James from Global Triathlon Network (GTN). I now feel a little bad for being somewhat rude - my bad. Apologies. Yes.. I'm not sure how I missed the GTN shirt - I was absolutely fucked.
As I settled in my mind flipped back to nutrition and the words of Vitaly earlier that day. I took a gel at some point (maybe around 7k?) and this is where things went a little bit wrong..
So.. I wasn't really surprised here and even looking back there is nothing I would have done differently leading up to this point. On the bike you need to be fuelled and quick and easy carbs are the way to do it. Liquid intake and adapting to the heat were a necessity. The way I fuelled on the bike was as close to perfect as it gets in my opinion. Unfortunately.. human biology.. what goes in must come out.
As an experienced runner I have had a number of dodgy stomach experiences. You learn from experience, and what I learned is that there are certain feelings where you absolutely need to stop or your gonna have an accident. When I first took a gel I felt unease in my stomach but also a stitch like pain in my lower right chest which I have had before whilst running. I continued on until the first loopback and at about 11k in I made the executive decision that a toilet stop was a necessity. Unfortunately the one (in my opinion) poor part of the Roth organisation was the lack of portaloos on the run. There were one or two at each aid station for 4000+ runners. They were almost always in use and no-one wants to spend minutes queuing mid race. When I passed a portaloo with perfect timing of someone coming out I took the opportunity but annoyingly it was mistimed and a pointless stop. I continued on until the second loopback and was struggling from fatigue and managing my various discomforts/pains. It hit me that this was going to be a slog and the knowledge that Roth's marathon route is hilly at the backend didn't make me feel any better. At this point it hit me that a second toilet stop was going to have to happen and when the few portaloos I passed were all in use.. yeh, I'll let you fill in the blanks. It involved a forest and a buff. It was probably my best decision of the day.
I continued on but the damage was done, I was under-fuelled and overheating. I tried eating a Maurten bar but they quite clearly have never actually done any exercise because eating a Maurten bar is.. impossible. They are stodgy and sticky and about as inappropriate a fuelling product as I could possibly imagine. After choking on a bite I threw it away. I'd rather be under-fuelled than attempt to consume your product whilst running Maurten - can you get a more scathing review 😆.
The other top tier decision of the day was getting wet. At first I was concerned that if I got wet pouring water over my head or running under the occasional shower then I might risk chafage. Given that you go straight from the swim to the bike and I hadn't had any chafage issues I probably should have taken any/all opportunities to keep cool on the run from the get go. When I did decide to it turned out to be a fantastic decision. It's obvious looking back but GCSE level science says that if you're overheating your body dedicates resources to trying to cool you down - sweating etc. By helping your body by drenching yourself in water then your body can focus its resources on powering your muscles. From this point onwards I was chucking water over myself at every aid station and taking advantage of any/all showers etc on the route. I wish I'd done so from the get go. At the end of the day an iron distance triathlon is made up of about 50 or so important decision, 95% of which you need to get right to optimise your performance.
Over the course of the remainder of the run I did eat some more gels and there were no more toilet incidents. My heart rate stayed at 150 or below, but I just wasn't getting any power output - I was exhausted (no clue why). I walked bits of a few of the hills and kept on trudging along. Then.. cramp.
I have never had cramp whilst running before. I guess this is indicative of what the iron distance does to a body. Just after half way I had noticed some twingy cramp in my left quad. I kept track of it. Towards 30k it was getting more apparent, and then it suddenly spasmed. It was very much a "if this doesn't stop, I'm done" kind of pain. If you've ever had serious cramp you'll know the feeling - a debilitating shocking pain. It bought me to a standstill and I tried to shake it off. I got moving again quickly and went into emergency scientist mode. I was a man on a mission to find salt because salt fixes cramp.. right..? Knowing that I hadn't seen any specific salt products at aid stations I opted to target getting more ISO drink because that had electrolytes in and electrolytes are salts I think. I mean.. I finished.. so I guess this worked? At one point I also grabbed a random piece of orange which unknowingly was covered in salt. Win (although actually I started feeling worse immediately after).
From 35k I got a second wind. I don't know if this was from a gel I'd had or from taking on salts or what but I felt OK again. I was rejecting opportunities to walk on hills. I started to flag again coming up to 40k and decided I'd have one more psychological gel at 40k to get me across the finish. Sadly I had ran out.
I contemplated walking a little more so I could run to and through the finish but my Comrades spirit came into play and I just kept on going. The crowds, and knowing that you were nearly home kept me moving. Pain is temporary, pride is forever (and all that jazz). I kept pushing on into the stadium and crossed the line.
I completed the run in 03:37:15 for a total time of 11:20:33.
I learned a lot when I trained for (and ran) the Manchester Marathon. I learned even more from Roth.
I've always prided myself on having a mind and psyche that is absolutely on point for endurance. It bemused me over the course of 2023 to realise that in many other areas of my life my mental game is absolutely not on point. I battened down the hatches and distracted myself by challenging myself at a level that I have not previously attempted. A level that was too much. I was humbled. I should not have entered Roth, but good lord am I glad that I did.
It was much more fulfilling for me to achieve success in areas where I had little experience (namely the swim and the cycle). Even then, I recall one morning (bright and early) standing next to Bob from OpenSwim whilst watching the most incredible sunrise. He turned and said "this is the most incredible morning I've seen here. If I was swimming I would just get in and float". It hit me. That is exactly what I wanted to do yet my expectations of myself were that I would get in and swim 4224 yards as quickly as possible. Sometimes in life you have to make sacrifices but getting to Roth felt like too many.
After Welsh Castles I realised that running racing had lost its luster for me. I had ripped apart my personal best in the marathon earlier in the year and now felt I had a standard to live up to. There is a certain draw to things that have given you so much - you often see professional athletes retire and then come back. Yet you often see professional athletes never reach the same lofty heights as that race that defines them - they don't quit whilst they are ahead. Obviously.. who cares. If you still love it, keep going.. all power to you. Unfortunately however I don't.
I can't hack racing - I can't handle the pressure. I am laser focussed on goals and I hold myself to unreasonable standards. I can see clearly now a number of occasions in my past when my laser focus on the race at hand has been toxic and damaging to my health (both mental and physical) as well as my relationships. I lived by a number of double standards where I would chastise and judge others for things that I do myself. At Roth I invented a back injury and psyched myself out to the point that it seriously effected my nervous system. I was regularly bought to tears by the prospect that I could plausibly not finish a race yet on the flip side was of the view that Roth would have to non metaphorically kill me before I quit. After the darkness I travelled through training it hit me when walking into the Main-Donau-Canal that that level of commitment to a cause/goal wasn't respectable or admirable, it was ridiculous.
I have a number of races booked into my calendar. New York, Tokyo, and Two Oceans. Roth gave me the smash in the face I needed to realise that I don't need to PB or put in any kind of performance. I need to enjoy what I do, and respect my mental health.
Part of the problem with Roth was that given the nature of the training not many people are particularly up for regular 100 mile rides or getting up at 6am to swim 2+ miles. That said, some people did. It was appreciated.
The messages of support before, and the messages of congratulations afterwards. They mean a lot, and make a huge difference.
Big love to the people that redirected my race head when it was drifting off course.
Matt, I appreciate the support and good vibes . You asked for the video to be in the blog post, so here it is:
El, the Triathlon tips were unfathomably helpful, and putting across failure in a way that made it seem acceptable (which obviously it is) was super appreciated. ❤️
"I do think you've gone so far now, just turn up and go with it until it doesn't feel right anymore"
Tom, always prepared to chat. Always supportive, and always doing much more impressive things than me. 💕
Ursula, and the team at OpenSwim. Telling me I was improving. When you're working hard but are not sure if you are moving forward. Your pulling me aside and telling me I was good reinvigorated me when it was getting tough. 💛
Mario. Mario from SRS gave me a massage that as far as I am concerned saved my race. I semi regularly see some awesome physios but Mario was a level above. It was a combination of American style sign a disclaimer body realignment and incredibly knowledgable targeted deep tissue massage. He noticed exactly what was wrong immediately, described it and fixed it in about 20 minutes. For free. I left that table in incredible pain.. the good type.. and was of the view that if my body could appropriately repair in the 48 hours I had pre-race then I might actually be OK. So much love for this man. 🧡
On the Monday I woke up ridiculously early (given that I'd gone to bed at 3am). I was obviously fatigued and my quads were sore but I had no issues with walking or stairs. I ended up exploring Nuremberg and eating Spaghetti ice cream and pork shoulder (in that order).
I then headed to Sersheim near Stuttgart to catch up with Lluvia and her family. One top tip for travelling is to have incredible friends appropriately placed in countries around the world 😜. Great times were had all round, and it was super good to just chill and decompress. I won't elaborate further, this post is already too long.
I rarely so drastically reverse my opinion on a subject matter but here we go. Ironman tattoos.
I have always been of the view that Ironman tattoos on the back of the calf are.. ridiculous. I have gone as far as in jest stating that I wouldn't be friends with anyone who had an Ironman tattoo.
Whilst I think visually they are not particularly cool tattoos (why not get a variation or a unique tattoo to memorialise your achievement?) I now have the opposite stance.
It took doing a full distance triathlon for me to truly appreciate the undertaking. When it is viewed conceptually it sounds impressive and hard. The reality is that it is much much harder a proposition than it seems on paper. I've run numerous marathons/ultramarathons, and full distance triathlon makes those events seem laughably easy.
I will likely get a tattoo to memorialise Roth. To memorialise the part of my body/soul that I left on the course. I can absolutely understand why any finisher of one of these events would want to permanently memorialise it.
Now when I see one of these tattoos I will be able to offer the appropriate level of respect. These tattoos indicate someone who has endured. I have a lot of time for it.
I'm incredibly proud of the person that I have become for having signed up for Roth. I remember crossing the finish line at Comrades 2022 and whilst I was ecstatic (behind the fatigue) there was a part of my ego driven soul that thought "this was an inevitability". I was so laser focused on the goal and would have kept coming back until I achieved it. Training for Roth forced me to drop the ego driven facade - it crumbled into nothingness. There were times when I was on one knee and didn't think I would (or could) get back up. More tears were shed in these ten weeks than at any other time in my life, and watching these videos continues to (without fail) unlock the flood gates.
For the majority of my adult life I've been somewhat emotionally vapid - unable to express who I am, how I feel, and why I feel the way that I do. In writing about the Manchester Marathon I asked myself the question "Why do I run?". Over the years running has forced me to confront myself. It wasn't necessarily the reason that I started to run but a fortunate side effect. Roth changed my world, and in a similar way to when I ran the Boston Marathon I am not sure if I will ever be able to go back - it was too special. When people ask "what was Roth like?" I want to be able to look back and remember this.