Challenge Roth is one of the biggest triathlons in the world. It’s been running since 1984, taking place in the small town of Roth, near Nuremberg, in Germany. Ever since I started triathlon it had been on my bucket list of races to do, and when I got the chance to sign up shortly before racing in Kona last October, I immediately snapped up the place.
In general, I’m not a big fan of negativity. But for one reason or another, 2019 and I really haven’t been best friends. It’s been a funny old year, especially as triathlon goes. I got fairly sick just before the London Marathon, and despite having a decent run-out there, I just haven’t felt the same since.
I think running the marathon at such a hard effort with something lingering in the background really drove me into a hole, and I never quite crawled out of it. I diligently logged the training, making sure I was as prepared (as it’s possible to be) for an ironman triathlon, but I didn’t feel like my proper ‘fit’ self at any point.
In the process of being open and honest, I’ve also struggled quite badly with depression over the last few months, and this hit my motivation levels, and at point left me questioning sometimes why I’m even bothering with it in the first place. Not a great head space to be in when you’ve got to put your body through the wringer for an extended length of time.
However, as we got closer to the event, I realised it was actually going to be pretty awesome, and I had some great friends and family to lean on during the build up that made me realise how lucky I was to be able to do stuff like this. So that saw me Heathrow bound at 4:30am on Thursday morning with ironman debutant Adam Woolgar, who it’s fair to say, was slightly nervous.
After everything that could go wrong, did go wrong en route to the gate (bike bag too heavy, bags pulled up at security, gate 73 miles away from security, Pret running out of porridge), we eventually made it to our flight and then subsequently Germany, where are hire car was upgraded as the lady behind the desk was also racing Roth – result.
With Katie and Mrs Woolgar not flying out until the following morning, we had the rest of the day to ensure the bikes were rebuilt and running smoothly. Mine definitely wasn’t, as the electric gear shifting had decided to stop working. After a minor panic and some frantic googling, the problem was fixed, and I had use of all my gears again. Phew. It’s probably at this point I should’ve made sure my handlebars were secured nice and tight – but more on that to come.
Later that day the third member of our iron-trio Sam arrived (we did Ironman Wales together), along with his better half Helen, who’d done this race before so brought with her invaluable experience alongside great cooking skills – a killer combo. The 4 of us went for dinner in Nuremberg, where I can recommend a great place if you don’t mind waiting over an hour for a quick pizza.
Friday was the classic triathlon admin day. We went to the canal first thing to swim part of the swim course, where wearing a wetsuit made me wonder if this is what it must be like to be a boil in a bag chicken. The organisers still hadn’t confirmed whether the race would be a non-wetsuit swim, which was causing a few heightened nerves, especially amongst the first timers.
Registration was a quick process, where we were handed the now mandatory in triathlon free backpack as well as various other freebies and paraphernalia. I’d hate to think what would happen if you turned up at a race and they didn’t give you a backpack – I assume a full-scale riot would occur and everyone would refuse to race en masse. Pretty soon I’m going to have to dedicate a wardrobe at home purely to backpacks.
I bought some more things that I really don’t need, including a new rear bottle cage that goes behind my saddle, which provided Adam some top-quality entertainment on our little ride later in the day, as I faffed around with the bottle in my hand, trying to get it into the hole, and at no point succeeding. Story of my life.
The girls arrived in the afternoon and we went for an early dinner back in Nuremberg, with wine connoisseur Katie Lysons sending back wine by the bucketload if it wasn’t made from the finest grapes. Alcohol frei beer was consumed by the racers, with thoughts turning longingly towards that first proper post-race drink.
Regardless of where we are in the world, Saturday is parkrun day, and luckily, the Germans have just caught the bug. We headed to Wöhrder See parkrun, right in the centre of Nuremberg. The course was charming – a single loop around a picturesque lake, mostly flat, apart from a singular, pretty nasty hill right near the end.
Figuring it probably wouldn’t be the day for a hard effort, I watched Katie go hammering off with the lead pack (slightly ambitiously) as I settled into a more reasonable pace. Quite quickly Helen pulled up alongside me, and we ran the rest of the way together, as she clocked a great new PB of 21:26, despite being annoyed by me most of the way round.
Bikes were racked early Saturday afternoon, in the baking hot sun. It was over 30 degrees, with everyone frantically hoping it would cool down for the following days race. I’d been allocated prime racking spot, right by the pro bikes, and I spent some time salivating over some of the machines on show. Whilst the girls went for a nice sunbathe and dip in the lake, the lads headed home to sit in a darkened room, eating, hydrating and watching the Tour De France on TV.
It’s hard to go to bed when it’s still 30 degrees outside and amazingly bright at 8:30pm, but we all gave it a good go. I woke up feeling like I’d had a decent sleep, only to find out that it had just gone midnight, and I still had over 3 hours until my alarm was going off. Balls. From that point, I didn’t really sleep, tossing and turning until it was time to get up at 3:30.
Porridge down the hatch, we were on the road at 4:30. Well, we would’ve been, but as a team, we managed to lose the car key somewhere between opening it from 3 feet away and getting in to drive off. Cue mass panic and stress (mainly from me) as the longest 7 minutes of my life passed as we frantically searched and wondered what to do next. Thankfully, it was eventually recovered, and we were on the way.
Nothing calming ever happens on race morning, and we drove towards the start in the middle of a torrential downpour, with thunder rumbling all around us. Classic, and settling nerves nicely for the day. Adam Woolgar rapidly transformed into a qualified weather expert, as he reassured us that the clouds were moving in a certain direction, and the storm we were in was very much localised. I didn’t question his qualifications, and just hoped he was right.
We arrived at the swim start, where the atmosphere was electric. The PA system was pumping out some killer tunes, with everyone drifting around, putting the final touches on bikes and kit, before settling down to wait for the start. Once I’d got the tyres pumped up and put my nutrition on the bike, I finally let myself relax a little and contemplate the day ahead.
I hung around with Ruth Purbrook, another friend from back home, who I’d been out in Kona with back in October. Back then, she’d caught me in the finishing chute and given me a cheeky slap on the bum. This time, I had an extra 5 minutes head start on her (20 mins total), but still didn’t fancy my chances of holding her off – the girl is an absolute machine. She was also celebrating her 30th birthday by racing that very day – what a legend.
The cannon abruptly fired to signal the start of the pro race, and we were standing right next to it, which nearly helped solved my problem of struggling to go to the toilet pre-race. Considering my previous issues with multiple toilet stops during ironman runs, this wasn’t the most reassuring situation. However, not much I could really do about it, so I suited up and headed into the water.
I waded in with fellow Chaser Ben Hall, who went on to clock a quite ridiculous 8:58, breaking that magical 9-hour barrier. I’d been placed in the ‘sub-9’ wave, and knowing I’d be one of the slower swimmers in the group, placed myself near the back to ensure I didn’t get absolutely battered when the gun went. Just before the off I spotted Adam and Sam on the banks of the canal and gave them a cheeky wave and grin – time to get going.
Just the 2.4 miles to swim then. I always forget it’s a bloody long way. The swim kind of gets swept under the carpet during an ironman, but you still actually have to do it and get out the other end in one piece. With the water temperature measured at 24.2 degrees, we squeaked inside the cut-off of being able to wear a wetsuit (24.5), but it was going to be a toasty affair.
Starting nearer the back, there was much less agro, and I got into a decent rhythm pretty quickly. The course in Roth is easy – straight up and down the canal. Minimal navigation required. The mindset for the day was just to stay in the individual moment I was in, instead of thinking 10 steps ahead and getting too carried away or losing focus.
Things quickly began to heat up inside my wetsuit, so I adopted for the ‘oh dear my swim cap has fallen off’ strategy, stuffing it down the front of my suit which immediately cooled my head down. I’m still yet to purchase a pair of goggles which don’t fog up within seconds, so despite swimming in a relatively straight line, I couldn’t otherwise see anything.
Just after halfway I had my standard ‘someone’s knocked my goggles off’ incident, which led me to stop and fix them back on properly, which always leads to immediately getting swam over as someone ploughs into the back of you. Apart from that, a fairly uneventful swim, and for the most part I ended up plodding along on my own, which was quite peaceful, if anything.
The crowds built back around the transition area, and I was actually surprised that the finish seemed to come relatively quickly, as the closing stages usually seem to drag. I was hauled out of the water by one of the many excellent volunteers and ran up the ramp onto dry land. I don’t wear a watch in the water, so I had absolutely no idea what time I’d swam and didn’t find out until halfway through the run.
Swim time – 1:05:02 (531/3498)
I grabbed my bag, noting that most of the others in my section had long gone, the only benefit being that the changing tent wasn’t utter chaos. I lay on the floor and let a couple of women undress me (don’t tell Katie), before grabbing my bike shoes and legging it over to my bike.
I’m still not doing a flying mount (rookie), so I ran to the mount line and asked someone to hold my bike for a sec, as I shoved on my shoes and hopped on, hoping that I might have remembered to pack a pair of bike legs.
Transition 1 – 2:22 (158/3498)
The opening stages of the bike are usually a complete blur, trying to get my heart rate down after the rush that is transition, take some fluid on board and settle in for the long haul. There were a couple of tight turns to negotiate before getting out onto the open road. For some reason, my nose had decided to turn into an absolute river of snot (sorry, not sorry), so I had to spend some time ejecting where possible.
After deciding that I probably wasn’t in optimal shape fitness-wise, I’d gone down the marginal gains route, scrabbling around sending messages to friends in a desperate attempt to save watts. Triathlon Ross (or Kona Ross, as he now goes by) had lent me his calf guards, Paul ‘Deenzy’ had very kindly loaned me a lovely Zipp disc wheel, and Katie had helped me shave my legs in the shower the previous evening.
I’d decided to make a concerted effort to stay as tucked and aero as possible, and actually found myself moving faster than most on the flats and downs, which was a welcome change. I’m always loving the opening section of the bike, with a big grin on my face, making stupid faces at spectators. I usually also make some crap joke to another rider such as ‘Fancy a marathon later?’, or on this occasion, shout to a volunteer at an aid station asking if they’ve got any frankfurters instead of water, which seemed to get a laugh or two.
As it happened, they definitely did – every aid station I passed had a full-blown BBQ on the go, and the beers were flowing from early on. It smelled amazing and the temptation to ditch the bike and join in was strong, but I figured I should at least do a bit of cycling and running first. They weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves – every village we passed through had long beer tables laid out on either side of the road with the locals getting thoroughly stuck in. The support out on the course was awesome.
Despite Roth being known as a fast course, it’s most definitely not flat, with nearly 5,000ft of climbing over the two laps. Immediately after Greding, there’s a long old slog of a climb with a fast technical decent coming down the other side, with some sharp switchbacks – well worth checking out before the day itself. Grandad Woolgar and I had checked them out in the car on Friday, so I knew what to expect, and flew down clocking over 45mph.
Next up was the infamous ‘Solar Hill’, something I’d been looking forward to ever since I signed up. It’s not a big climb at all, but there were literally thousands of people spilled across the road, 3 or 4 deep and allowing the smallest of gaps for you to climb through up to the top. I was grinning from ear to ear, trying not to get too carried away and keeping an even tempo.
Despite enjoying myself immensely, I was feeling pretty crappy from early on during the bike leg, which wasn’t a great sign. The fatigue was hitting much earlier than normal, and a little after a third in I was already starting to long for the end of the ride. Passing the end of the first lap was a nice mental boost, which signalled nearly but not quite half-way.
It wouldn’t be a Joe Spraggins ironman bike leg without some sort of mechanical issue. This time, it was completely self-inflicted. When rebuilding my bike, muggins here hadn’t tightened the handlebars to the frame properly, and after hitting a big bump in the road, I looked down to see my aero-bars pointing at 45 degrees down to the floor. Oh dear.
After grabbing the bull-horns, panicking and repeatedly calling myself a ‘f**king t**t’, I jumped into crisis management and worked on a solution. Einstein here realised that if I leant back and pulled upwards with all my strength, the bars gradually made there way back to horizontal. Absolutely no promises that they’d stay there for more than 2 minutes, but I’d have to take my chances.
2nd lap – always less fun because you’ve already done it once, and it seems to take double the amount of time. I’d got the added distraction of the relay riders joining the course on their first lap, which to be honest, was bloody annoying. Especially when they smashed past you thinking they were Chris Froome, and then just sat a meter in front, which meant I had to keep pulling back out of the draft zone.
There was one particular female hacking me off, as she proceeded to suck the wheel of the guy in front of her, nearly touching his bottom with her head. After a while, I pulled alongside, offering a few choice words, which she didn’t like, but I think the message got through.
I was fighting my own internal demons by this point, with my back absolutely killing me. Spending a prolonged time in a super-aero position was something I should’ve done more of in the build-up, and I kept having to sit up and stretch my back, costing me precious seconds each time. Couple this with fighting into a stiff headwind, and I was being reminded of why iron-distance triathlons are so hard.
I tried to let my mind wander from the pain by making friends with an Aussie chap, Kyle. I spotted him quite clearly having a wee on the bike, with liquid streaming down his legs and not a drink bottle in sight. I called him out on it and we both had a laugh – a nice light-hearted moment amid a large period of suffering.
Second time up Solar Hill was a lot more congested with us now catching riders still on their first lap, and I nearly ground to a halt with no way through. I should add at this point, my handlebars kept slipping down if I hit a larger jolt in the road, each time getting slightly looser, with me constantly worried that next time they were just going to fall off completely.
Until the final 2 miles, I had absolutely no idea how fast I’d been riding, or what kind of split I was going to lay down. I flipped the screen to overall time and saw that I was probably just going to squeak under 5 hours, which all things considered, wasn’t a bad result. I slipped my feet out of my shoes, hopped off at the line, and a volunteer whisked my bike away leaving me a free run into transition
Bike time – 4:58:06 (224/3498)
212 AP, 226 NP, HR – 137bpm
It’s definitely not the highest power I’ve held on an ironman bike leg, but probably a fair reflection of where I’m at right now. It won’t help that I’m a few kilos heavier, with my self-discipline with regards to nutrition taking a bit of a nose dive in recent weeks (AKA, I love pizza, beer and cookies). Something to work on moving forward for sure.
Roth know how to organise an event, and without even having to think my transition bag was thrust into my hand and I had yet another lovely lady to help me get dressed. I’m never one for messing around in transition, and as per usual had my little see-through plastic bag with my watch, sunglasses, gels etc. to sort out on the move as I went.
As usual, I was pretty buzzed to be on the run, and my legs weren’t rebelling too much.
Transition 2 – 1:41 (137/3498)
The first kilometre or so had a lovely downhill towards the canal, and I set off running way below 3-hour marathon pace. Not going to happen Spraggins. I calmed things down and told myself I was in my happy place – on two feet.
I saw the girls really early on which was a massive boost, with them jumping up and down, screaming their heads off. The plan had been, to play each of the ‘ladz’ a motivational song, and I got ‘The Greatest Showman’. Spot on, except for the fact for the speakers broke so I got a shouted version of the lyrics instead.
Shortly afterwards, running through a rather glamourous industrial estate, Rich Melik popped up on the side of the road, asking me how I was feeling. The answer I gave, which was true at that point in time, was pretty bloody awesome. Running felt easy, ironman triathlons are easy, I’m basically Mo Farah. I’ll just breeze this marathon and have my feet up with a beer in no time. It’s safe to say, I’ve not learnt anything from prior experiences.
I hit the canal, which I’d spend the good part of 20km on. In my head, I was breaking up the run into chunks. First goal – get to 10km. I was passing people regularly but feeling like I was running well within myself. We turned at the bottom of the canal, and I realised why things had felt easy – massive tailwind.
We now had a long slog ahead of us into the wind. After reaching 10km, I was now thinking of 5km sections, which suddenly seemed so much further than it had done about 10 minutes ago. I got my first glance of Ruth coming the other way down the canal. Despite me having a 20-minute head start, she was hunting me down and I was sure it’d only be a matter of time before the catch, as she looked like she was loving life.
I reached the far end of the canal after what seemed like an absolute eternity, turning at the same time as a boat full of holidaymakers sipping beers and lounging in the sun passed by – get me on that boat. I saw Ruth again, closer this time, still looking like she was out for a summer stroll. I told her I’d see her soon.
I’d quickly gone from 5km chunks to 1km chunks, with the decision already made in my head that I was walking once I got to 25km. I went through the half-way point in 1:36, but the lights were dimming, and morale was low. I just didn’t have the drive or desire to put myself into the dark places that these races can take you. I was telling myself I wasn’t in decent shape anyway, just nurse yourself to the finish and get that beer in your hand.
True to my word, at 25.01km I started walking. It felt so great, but really naughty at the same time. I ran the maths in my head. How long is it going to take me to walk the rest of the way? 4 hours. Bloody hell that’s a long time. I started jogging again – knowing Katie and the gang weren’t far away now.
Sure enough, I spotted them just around the corner. I started walking again, letting Katie know that I was probably going to walk the rest of the way, and asked if she fancied coming along for a stroll.
‘What are you talking about you fool. You had a great swim and bike. It’s going so well. Just get going again.’ It was a relentless barrage of enthusiasm. Christ – I’m going to have to run again aren’t I? Reluctantly, I set off, to cheers from the girls, feeling rather sheepish and slightly pathetic after my little sulk.
From here, it was the classic war of attrition that ironman brings. How long can you run for without walking; that was the game. My target was from aid station to aid station – they were only about a mile apart each time. Another out and back, and another Ruth sighting. I was trying to work out how she hadn’t caught me, and this time rather rudely told her to ‘get a move on’, as I wanted someone to try (but most probably fail) to cling on to. Not literally obviously. But maybe.
Coming back into the town of Roth signalled 30km done, and the atmosphere here lifted my spirits. Most people were either drunk or well on the way, there was loads of noise and music, and I figured I might just get to the finish. But 12km still seemed an awfully long way away.
I knew the sting in the tail was coming, as we’d head primarily uphill from here to Buchenbach, before turning around and retracing our steps to the finish. Every small incline felt like Everest with each kilometre marker impossibly far away from the last. Finally, I reached the charming village, running a lap of the lake there, which was packed with spectators, all going crazy – just awesome.
Something in my head switched, and I just decided I just wanted to be done now, and for the suffering to end. So, I started running a little faster, admittedly strongly aided by the downhill – but I was passing people which helped boost spirits just a little each time.
I ran the entire way back down into town, passing back through the spectator lined streets with a grin on my face now. I spotted the girls for the last time – they’d now positioned themselves outside a rather lively bar, where chatting up the owner has successfully scored them free shots of ouzo. Result.
One final small loop, before approaching the part I’d been looking forward to all day, finishing in the famous Challenge Roth stadium. It was as awesome as people say it is – the noise was incredible and the atmosphere electric. I messed around on the circuit towards the finish line, letting the realisation sink in that I’d finished another one of these stupid races.
Run – 3:21:29 (179/3498)
Overall time – 9:28:28 (159/3498)
It’s not the greatest ironman run I’ve had but considering the amount of walking in the 2nd half of the marathon, I can’t be too unhappy. I just wasn’t prepared to suffer as much as I had done in prior events. When I signed up, I had big dreams of going under 9 hours, but for one reason or another, I never really got close.
It’s still an iron-distance PB, and I gained huge motivation of multiple sighting of the guys 20-30 minutes up the road. I don’t see why, with a bit of hard graft, I can’t be up there with them. That’s the aim, and I’ll do what I can to get there.
I waited for a couple of minutes as I knew Ruth was on her way in and I watched on as they played Happy Birthday on the speakers for her lap of the stadium – another lovely touch from the Challenge team. We had a brief finish line debrief, both in agreement that that was bloody hard work. She clocked an incredible 9:12 – first non-professional (although she beat a lot of the pro’s as well…).
I was a bit of a wreck in the finishers area. I had my head in my hands on the table for a good 45 minutes or so, sipping water and feeling like I was going to throw up at any moment. I met a lovely Russian chap who made sure I was OK, and I caught up with family briefly on the phone.
Eventually, I dragged myself to the bar where the girls were downing shots of ouzo like they were going out of fashion. I had a hug with Sam, who unfortunately pulled out at the end of the bike leg, the illness he’d had coming into the race catching up with him. Gutted for him, but I’m sure he’ll bounce back in no time.
I then got to see Adam Woolgar sail by, looking like he’d just stepped out for a brisk run around the block. Incredible performance to go under 11 hours in his first ironman, and it was inspiring to follow his training and be part of the journey.
We proceeded to get rather drunk as the evening went on, supporting the later finishers and just generally having a great time. The final hour of the race is a fun time to be in the stadium, so we headed there, watched the last finishers come in and watched the fireworks that signal the close of the race. Absolutely exhausted, we piled into a taxi home.
Roth is a fantastic race, and one that everyone that loves triathlon has to do at least once. The organisation is excellent, the locals so welcoming and the atmosphere is incredible. I wouldn’t need to be asked twice to go back and do it again – it has all the ingredients of what makes this sport such a great one.
Time for a bit of downtime for me. I’ve driven myself into a bit of a hole over the past 12 months, and even though I felt like in the month before Roth I was slowly crawling out of it, a physical and mental refresh is needed. With that in mind, I definitely won’t be doing a half-ironman in 2 weeks’ time…