It took a while – recovery evidently lasted a fortnight – but eventually we caught up with the Mysterious Wave, one of the six valiant triathletes, who agreed to write a wrap of their Roth Challenge
Thursday 28th June – Outbound
At Heathrow, Jack bumped into his old school rugby teammate, a certain Mako Vunipola, who was with Owen Farrell and a group of Sarries mates on the way to Owen’s stag do in Croatia. Mako’s jaw hit the ground when he saw his old mate – “Where’s the rest of you, Jack?”. Poor bloke couldn’t understand why the 100kg+ flanker he used to know had turned into a puny 93kg endurance athlete.
We all landed safely at Munich airport between 4 and 4:30pm. The German sky was weeping uncontrollably, presumably as a result of its football team having been knocked out of the World Cup the previous day. The torrential rain caused pile-ups and traffic chaos on the motorways. Our transfer was delayed, and eventually we left the airport four hours after landing, arriving at the hotel just before 10 pm. Not a relaxing start to our build-up; and having to watch England vs Belgium on a small tablet screen on the coach didn’t help the nervous anxiety.
Friday 29th June – Reconnaissance and Registration
We were up early the next day and off to the race venue for a practice swim, followed by a guided tour of the bike course so we could get a feel for what lay before us. Ric, in his usual pre-race scrambled brain state tried to lose his race wet suit by leaving it on the coach not once, but twice. The rain had cleared, and the temperature was rising; close to 30 degrees C, with a cloudless sky and hardly a breath of wind. We were all thinking the same thoughts, but no-one really said anything.
The lads were in good spirits and there was plenty of banter and excitement. Bikes were unpacked and reassembled for a quick spin to loosen the legs and check that the bikes were all OK. Late afternoon it was off to the race village to register, collect numbers, timing chips and goody bags. An amazing buzz in the race village and expo.
It’s all getting very real now…
Conversation is dominated by race strategies, nutrition tactics, hydration plans and weather. Over a pizza and pasta dinner, talk turns to how we are going to get our pre-race caffeine fix at 04:30 on Sunday morning. Mark helpfully points out that one of the numerous, mostly useless, items in the race goody bag was a small plastic bottle containing a caffeine shot. Everyone was delighted by this discovery; the perfect solution. How thoughtful of the race organisers and sponsors. On returning to my room I examine the bottle; my very rusty O-level German told me that it contains some kind of hair product. Should I tell them?
Saturday 30th June – Run, Racking and Race Brief
An early run, just to loosen the legs, then there’s packing the transition bags before departing for the swim start/Transition 1 to rack our bikes in the correct race-number slot and drop off the run bag. This bag will be transported to T2 and will be waiting for us when get off our bikes in about 24 hours’ time. The packing of transition bags is a time-honoured ritual amongst triathletes. Getting the contents of either bag wrong can be a race-wrecking disaster. Nightmares have been had about opening the T1 bag to find running shoes where the bike shoes should be. Lists and bag contents are checked and re-checked at least 8 times.
Ric manages to leave his phone on the coach.
Back to the race village for the mandatory race briefing. The English briefing was scheduled for 3 pm, but has been put back to 4 so we hang around for an hour, trying to keep out of the sun and stay hydrated. The 4 pm briefing turns out to be in German. Brilliant. We don’t hang around.
Back to the hotel for some rest, more bag-checking (bike bag), early dinner and early bed.
Sunday 1st July – Swim, Bike, Run, Beer
03:45: the alarm. OMG, this is it. Breakfast; the atmosphere is quiet, tense and electric. On the coach at 4:30 and arrive at swim start around 5 am.
More checking of lists and bags, bottles and nutrition on bike, continuous grazing on high-carb snacks and sipping of electrolyte drinks.
My faffing is all done by 6 and we don’t start for over an hour, so I wander over to seek out the rest of the lads. Disaster has struck. Mark can’t find his bike. It’s not in his numbered slot where he racked it yesterday. I can see the panic in his face and suspect, understandably, that he is close to tears. If he can’t find it, his race is over before it has started - 8 months of hard training, dedication, discipline and abstinence down the pan.
I start searching with him along with several very helpful race marshals, but we realise it is pointless. There are some 4,000 bikes racked closely together – it will need a miracle. I suggest a plan B to Mark – get himself moved to the final swim wave – by this time, most of the bikes will have gone so his will be easier to find – not ideal but at least he has a chance.
I return to my race preparations feeling helpless and desperately sorry for poor Mark, but I can’t think of anything else I can do to help. Then the PA system announces “…competitor number 1587, we have found your bike…” There is a God and she is German. Mark sheepishly admits that he “may have” racked his bike in the wrong place the day before. Apparently, he has form.
The sun is up the music is rousing and the start of the pro race is announced by a cannon loud enough to make your chest vibrate. Which then happens every five minutes, as wave after wave of starters is released, along with the launch of another hot air balloon in front of the rising sun on the opposite bank of the canal. The goose pimples are like molehills and the level of excitement is off the scale. A last hug and some photos with the lads before they disappear off to join their start pen in the 7:15 wave, 20 minutes before mine.
07:35: Bang! The last time I hear the cannon is for my own start wave. Whilst these phased starts are generally much less of a bun fight than the traditional mass start, it’s still every man for himself, fighting for space and air. I’ve never actually been in a washing machine, but this is what I imagine it would be like. There’s plenty of contact and I take a couple of glancing blows to the head; one hits my goggles which fortunately stay in place and don’t leak. I probably give as good as I get, and eventually, after 10 or 15 minutes the bubbling turmoil of thrashing arms and legs spaces out a bit into slightly more organised chaos. I am hyperventilating with a combination of effort and adrenaline, but I’ve been here before so, once I find some clear water, I spend five minutes at a slightly easier pace, getting my breathing under control and some rhythm to my swim stroke.
08:54: I look at my watch as I exit the water – a full 9 minutes more than my target time. How did that happen? I get on the bike and start pushing hard to make up the lost time…. But then some sanity prevails and I give myself a stern talking to: “Calm down, stick to the plan, don’t burn yourself out; eat, drink, pedal, repeat. Watch the heart rate and power output”.
The level of support on the two key bike climbs is incredible. I climb the famous Solar hill with a grin from ear to ear, feeling like a Tour de France pro as a sea of people parts in front of me. Towards the end of the Bike I pass Simon, who gives me a shout. First contact, some 7 hours into the race. Hopefully there will be more familiar faces on the run.
14:55: I exit T2 and am out onto the run course. A strong bike leg has more than cancelled out the time lost on the swim. A quick calculation tells me that if I hit my planned run time I will be well inside my overall target of 11 hours 30.
I don’t see George at all until the finish. Simon and I pass each other a few times going in opposite directions on the out and back course until he finally overtakes me, as I knew he would, after about 20km. I introduce myself to Simon’s fan club early on. I haven’t met any of them before, but the Union Flag with “GO GATELEY” painted across it gives them away. I wave and shout “Hi, I’m Wave. Simon’s about 10 minutes behind.” The cheers that I get from these total strangers is a huge boost and they give me a real shot of adrenaline on the two or three occasions that I pass them.
I pass Ric heading in the opposite direction, I calculate about 6km ahead of me. I’m running in a daze by now, but I hear him shout and recognise the familiar look that he always has in the latter stages of a race; the only way to describe it is that of a rabid dog. It’s a saliva thing.
After about 25km I feel the need for a number two. Oh no! I’m still on for my sub-4 hour run target, but only just. Can’t really afford to stop. I resolve to ignore it and hope… The feeling subsides, and I think I’ll be OK, but 5km later it returns and this time there’s no escaping it, so I dive into a portaloo. Wrestling with a skin tight, soaking wet, Lycra one-piece is an activity that is both time and energy-consuming. I eventually sit and… go, back out onto the course, trying to wrestle the bloody Lycra back on as I run. I can’t believe I’ve just wasted 2 or 3 minutes for nothing more than a massive fart. Still, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. My run time was 4:02.
Into the last out and back leg and I see Jack, then Mark, then Simon heading for home, which gives me a real lift. With maybe 12km left, I start to feel confident that I’m going to beat my 11:30 target and whilst it’s hard, and hot, and everything hurts, I start to think about the finish, and smile.
18:57: Just brilliant to enter the finish stadium. First, I see Ric and Kay, then Mandy and Amy, then, waiting at the end, is the rest of the team and big hugs all round. What a day, and what an amazing group of people!
George’s time was phenomenal, and Jack wasn’t too far behind him. Simon put in spectacular Swim and Run times, though more work’s needed on the bike. Or maybe just concentrate on swim-run races? He would definitely be a regular visitor to the podium. Mark may have thought he had nailed his nutrition strategy but clearly didn’t have buy-in from his large intestine. A few less portaloo visits on the run would surely have saved him many minutes.
The support from friends and family was fantastic and it was great to have a few beers with them all afterwards. I have no idea how we all managed to stay up drinking until 2am after all the effort, but the euphoria, sense of achievement and team bond seemed to obliterate any feelings of tiredness. As I switched the light out at 3:30am I realised I had been awake for 24 hours and was still not tired.
Monday 2nd July – home
A few more beers the next day at the airport - slightly naughty but well-deserved - felt great, and a fitting end to our Roth journey. I’ve been through quite a few of these gigs with my good mate Ric, but it was such a pleasure to share this one with Jack and George, who I have known pretty much since they were born, and new friends Mark and Simon.
People keep asking me will I do another one…
Ric has had to admit that this is the official changing of the guard, with both sons finishing before him and George beating his time in all three disciplines. That said, the old warhorse was at a bit of a disadvantage, and not only because of his Achilles injury. Exiting the Swim with cramp, his Bike leg was a problem: he came off his bike early on and ended up with a bent pedal and a fractured wrist!
Fortunately I was not in close proximity the next day when I messaged him to say he missed first place in his age category by only 94 seconds.