A tragic story in five parts. In short: if entering Roth, it’s better to have the surname Allan, Bennett or Charles…
I wanted to wear the shirt of shame. Iain’s Norseman run top from last year, the run I didn’t manage to complete myself two year’s earlier. It would remind me to keep going. To complete this.
But first I needed to ask someone the time.
After a quick change in transition, as one volunteer takes your bike and racks it, another volunteer helps you find your bag and help you unpack your run kit and pack it again with your cycle kit.
As soon as I left transition I asked another competitor if they had the time. 1540, they said. Excellent, I thought, I had been aiming to start between 4 and 5pm so this was a bonus to be out so early.
I also felt good. Legs were fine and I didn’t have any of the feeling of trying to adjust from cycling fast to plodding along and wondering why I was no longer moving as fast as I’d been 10 minutes earlier.
My plan was to run to 10k, then walk a bit then run as much as I could until the half way point.
(Also my plan was to work out how many kilometres there were in a marathon as I’d been relying on my watch to tell me and I’d never checked the metric equivalent of 26 miles – for half the race I thought I was running 44 kilometres as I’d miscounted).
My plan didn’t last long though – it lasted until 2km when I saw Iain. He had a Twix. I almost gave in. I almost ate it but I thought – be good, keep going, you don’t need this!
Then 2 km down the road as we started to run down the canal I thought. “I want a Twix!!!!”
On the canal, you run south for around 4 kilometres, then north by around 10 kilometres then back south again by 6 kilometres. A long straight flat course along the banks of the canal and over white, light, dirt trails.
Every kilometre is signposted. Every two kilometres, if not sooner, has a feed station. At this point I switched to a run/walk strategy.
I played the Dariusz Dziekanowski* game. Along the bank are green and white poles and I would run between them and then walk for a minute then run to the next pole again.
(A Polish Celtic player. Geddit?)
I would also stop at every feedstop and have a bite of something and a cup of something. At first, just water, electrolyte drinks and a pretzel, then, as the feed stops got more elaborate, a choice of:
Cups of salt water
Slices of bread with liver pate!!!
This was less of food stop and more a Continental cafe.
To keep us going on the canal, there was a band playing rock covers. Stripped to the waist, the middle aged singer was belting out Highway To Hell…
Who said the Germans don’t like a laugh?!
As the canal section finished, and the second half of the race began, I knew that there was still one thing missing. Luckily, I saw Iain again and he had…
The second half of the course is hillier, I walked more, and you could see my time per kilometre drop by minutes from the start of the run. I didn’t mind. I’d never trained to run a marathon, I trained to run a half marathon and then take however long it might take to complete the rest.
The second half takes you back through Roth and along the main streets. Pubs blared music – more AC/DC – people cheered and the atmosphere is fantastic.
Until you get to 10 kilometres to go and you realise there’s a long, long hill to climb before you return to the finish line.
I didn’t run at all on the hill. Instead, I’d picked up my phone from Iain, along with the Twix, and listened to a Podcast interview with the comedian Lee Mack. Headphones are allowed on the run course at Roth so this was a welcome change after hours with no conversation.
At the end of the hill, there’s a great turning point around a pond, with flags and posters designed by school kids. One of the last posters was of the Scottish flag so I tapped it for good luck and began the final plod back to the finish. This time, going downhill. I could start running again, and I was able to keep a good pace back round to the finish where I met Iain. He said that he could run in with me, which was great, as I didn’t know you could be accompanied.
I now had a second wind (or fourteenth wind after hours of swimming, cycling and running) and was able to jog to the finish line.
The stadium was noisy, chaotic and, while I kept thinking I needed to make sure I had a decent finishing photo I also now had my time and saw that I could finish below 14 hours if I could finish within the next few minutes.
Across the line, a medal and then a quick trip to the finisher’s tent to get changed and back out to meet everyone else. On my way out I checked my final time and found out, without my watch, I’d got my times completely wrong, I hadn’t been running to finish within 14 hours, instead it was 12 hours 53 minutes.
I didn’t mind losing my watch for that! Well, almost!
Is Challenge Roth hilly?
According to Strava it has 1900 metres of climbing, which is not flat, but…
If you cycle in Scotland, and around Glasgow in particular, then 1900 metres is not particularly hilly over 112 miles. In fact, apart from the two named climbs, I struggled to think of anything else I would consider to be a hill. Some slopes, yes, but hills? Something requiring your lowest gears? No.
Instead, there a long stretch on perfect flat roads or gentle up or down gradients. Plenty of time to try and work out a good position on the tri-bars (something I maybe should have worked out beforehand…) and plenty of time to see the spectacular German…. tarmac. With so many kilometres in the tribars it was hard to look up and see anything but road.
And I was trying to look up because, without a watch, I was riding with no idea what time it was, how far I’d gone, or how fast (or slow) as I was going.
I had to cycle by feel. Never flat out, fast enough to keep moving, and with plenty to eat and drink to keep fuelled.
Luckily, the food stops are regular and often, with plenty to chose from – water, sports drink, gels, fruit, rice cakes and plenty of volunteers so if you missed one chance to take something you had another chance 10 meters up the road.
By this stage, the weather was perfect, warm-ish but with 100% cloud cover to keep the worst of the sun away. There was barely any wind, with it only picking up on the second loop.
With closed roads, people out in every town we passed through, and a strict policy of breaking up anyone drafting – I saw one Marshall shout at a pair of cyclists riding too close – it felt like a true race. You vs the course.
And to make it feel more like a race, there was the Solarberg.
First, you can hear cheering. Then music. Then the drumming of a thousand clapper balloons. Then folk gather at the side of the hill screaming at you to go higher, climb faster, keep going – and then you realise that this is just a slope before the solarberg. There are two climbs. One as you come into town. Then once you pass it, swing right and see the actual climb you can’t hear a thing because of the noice of five thousand Germans screaming just for you.
It felt emotional riding through it. This is what I’d been training for over the last ninth months. This moment. And I wanted to savour it. I rode slower. Sat up. High fived a spectator. And enjoyed it.
After that it was back to the start, another loop and still no idea what time it was or how fast I was going.
But, a thought had started to percolate, maybe losing the watch was a good thing. If I had the watch would I have been checking times and speed and distances and thinking about how far I had to go? Instead, riding on feel I was comfortable, I wasn’t counting down miles and, on the second lap I was able to pick spots from the first lap and count them off instead: a clown dancing in a lay-by; an Isreali flag flying beside a field; the Greding hill climb to signify the bottom of the course; the Solarberg again before the sign returning us to Roth and a last few miles of downhill before transition 2.
I rode into transition 2, happy, elated, and with no idea how long I would have to finish the run…
Solarberg: A Warning
If the Solarberg is Hogmany in a hill climb then the second time you go round it’s New Year’s Day. The party’s over. A few folk remain but most have moved to Roth to get ready for the finish.
For 140 years, treasure hunters scoured the coast of Georgia in the United States for the SS Republic, a paddlewheel steamship that sank in 1865 in a hurricane with a reported $400,000 in gold and silver coins on board. In 2003 the ship was located and more than 50,000 precious coins, worth an estimated $75 million was discovered.
While the Challenge Roth canal may not contain millions of pounds of lost confederate gold, if there are any treasure hunters looking for a fortune then they need look no further than 50 metres from the start line – as that’s where my £500 Garmin 945 now lies.
It was a stupid mistake. One I’d even predicted. I’d bought the Garmin a few weeks ago so that I could play music at the end of the run. I’d changed the wrist bands to quick release straps and, during a race simulation at a training swim, Iain had pulled the watch accidentally as he tried to swim in front of me and it had fallen off.
I’ll be clever I thought. I’ll put the wetsuit over it and that way it’ll be safe.
I was wrong.
Just after the start, just as everyone was jostling for position, someone accidentally caught my arm with their stroke and ran their hand along my arm catching the watch.
Which was more than I could do. As I felt it slip, tried to catch it, but only managed to grab hold of the straps. The watch was gone! And with it my only way to know the time, my speed and how far I’d gone as I was relying on the watch to last all day. I had no back up.
And now no choice. I had to complete Challenge Roth entirely on feel.
Saturday was nearly 30 degrees with clear blue skies but the weather forecast for the race was for the heatwave to end and for rain to clear the air. We woke at 430 a.m. with the intention of collecting another athlete (a former member of Glasgow Tri Club) at 5 a.m. That left 30 minutes to dress, eat something and try not to think about the fact it was actually 3:30 am in UK time.
The drive to the start involved a missed junction, which wasn’t a problem for me but for Iain it meant we’d have to take the next junction and a car park which would be shut until 11am while the bike course was closed.
Getting round was okay though. Iain dropped us off at transition and then went to park while we checked the bikes and dropped off the swim and race bags. The swim bags needed to be dropped off by 6:15 but other than that we were free to enter and leave transition, even after the race had started.
A cannon signals the start of each wave with the rain stopping just as the professionals started. There were thousands of people around the canal, more than I’d seen at any other race.
Every five minutes another wave would set off and another blast of the cannon would sound.
I was swimming at 8am, the second last wave, and it was easy to get lined up. Swimmers could wait near the start and when your wave was called you were directed into a pen as volunteers checked your swim cap to make sure the time printed on the side of it matched your start time.
Once everyone was in the pen, the previous wave would start and you were allowed to enter the canal and line up.
I stayed near the centre, as it was quieter, and hung back so as not to be swum over by the faster swimmers. I thought I had it sussed. I would avoid a melee and be able to find my own pace. But we all know how well that went…
The race started. There was the usual flurry of legs and limbs but no fighting for position, just the accidental crossing over of a few hundred swimmers in a few short metres.
And the less said about the next five minutes the better…
The water was warm. Almost 25 degrees, and just shy of banning wetsuits all together, but it was calm and swimming was as easy as swimming in a swimming pool.
Sighting was easy too. There was very little need to look forward as you could always judge if you were swimming in a straight line by looking at the side of the canal. Provided you could see the bank, the people and the trees, you always knew if you were getting closer or further away.
Because of that, I swam most of the way in the centre of the canal. The side is reportedly easier but it was quieter in the centre and it gave me free reign to carry on at my own pace and just count out the strokes. 1. 2. 3. 4. Breathe. 1. 2. 3. 4. Breathe.
You swim around 1500 metres to the next bridge, then around 1700 back to the bridge overlooking the start before swimming under it and doing a u-turn back to transition.
I felt strong throughout, and the fact you’re always swimming to something – bridge, then bridge, then under bridge, meant the swim was broken up and didn’t feel like one long slog.
There are also metre signs on the bank but I didn’t look out for them. I prefer not to know how far I’ve swum when swimming. And, thanks to my accident at the start, I would also find out what it was like to cycle and run without knowing how far I’ve gone either. Damn!
This was the bit I was looking forward too. I’d read that the volunteers in transition will help you get out of your wetsuit – something I always struggle with as I can never get the wetsuit off my legs. Prisoners in shackles have more chance of getting free than I do with rubber wrapped around my ankles.
And it was true. As soon as you grab your bag from the ground as you go into the tent – each bag is laid out in numerical order – a volunteer starts to help you strip, empties your bag and hands you everything you need.
Except a watch.
Sadly, they didn’t have a spare Garmin.
I changed into full cycle gear and eight minutes later (a new record for me) l was on my bike and away.
There is a misconception that you can drive as fast as you like on a German Autobahn. You can’t. I found this out during a previous German trip when a policeman handed me a speeding ticket after I’d raced along a road from Cologne to Stuttgart. I had wondered why I was the only car, on this section, driving fast!
My driving has improved since then. During this trip, after I’d completed a left turn, a man wound down his car window to shout “Schweinhund” at me. He also waved his fist. I’m sure that must be German for “Nice manouver. Well done you.”
A car is essential for Roth as the nearest affordable accommodation to town was 40K away in Nuremberg. I’d visited the city before in 2006 during the World Cup. I had a three game ticket to follow the USA and one of the games was held in the city: USA versus Ghana. I can’t remember anything about the place but I hoped a visit back might remind me. It didn’t! I still don’t remember anything about it. The beer must have been good there…
- Get a good navigator. I had three people in the car who each had a shot at navigating. They gave me the wrong directions to the hotel, They gave me the wrong directions to transition, they gave me the wrong directions to the swim start, they even gave me the wrong directions to Roth. As Roth is the one place everyone else was going to too, just follow the other cars, not your passengers!
- On race day work out where to park in Roth as it is very difficult to drive from the swim start to Roth due to road closures. We got lucky finding a space but it took us two hours to do what should have been a twenty minute trip.
- Go to Solar hill. It’s only a 25 minute walk from the swim start. The atmosphere is amazing. And once your athlete has climbed the hill on lap one, you can head to Roth for the run.
- Get petrol before race day! We nearly ran out whilst driving around. There were lots of petrol stations but not many open on a Sunday. Thankfully we got one but make sure you have a full tank in advance.
- It’s a long day. I was up at 0415 and didn’t get back to bed until 0030. There’s lots of standing around and walking. I managed nearly 15 miles of walking in the day.
- Cross the finish line with your athlete. Challenge allow non-athletes into the finisher chute. Take the opportunity to take in the acclaim of the crowd without actually having to do the race! Like John Terry at the 2012 Champions league final when he appeared on the pitch in full strip despite not having played the match.
- The internet reception for mobiles doesn’t work very well on the course or in Roth. Too many phones in one place made it very difficult to get a connection. Make sure you print out maps in advance.
- Bring Euros. There was lots of opportunity to buy food and drink on the course but finding a cash machine or an ATM was next to impossible.
- The tracker is good for working out what time your athlete should be in places. Use that to plan when to spot them but see point 7. Don’t rely on it always being available.
- When you get home. Your athlete will try to claim a lift back to their house because “their legs are tired!” Tell them to GTF and drive you instead! You deserve it!
Roth, like cloth. Or Roth, like both. I’m still not 100% sure how to pronounce it. Instead, when asked where I was going in Germany, I’d say Nuremburg, because that’s the nearest city, only 35 minutes away. Which was okay until we picked up our hire car and found out that in German it should be Nurnberg.
Getting round ain’t easy when you don’t know how to pronounce where you’re going!
Luckily we had a flight to Munich and a hire car with Satnav, a feature that every car rental agency trys to sell you as an upgrade only for you to find it is already part of the car. Does anyone pay for it? If so, I’m going to open a care hire agency which will upgrade your car to include four wheels and brakes too…
We had an SUV but, given this is Germany, and Munich is one of it’s financial centres, the alternative was a Porsche. There was about 50 in marked bays throughout the pick up centre. But, sadly, no room in the back for a bike box so we got an Opel, which is German for a Vauxhall. I thought the 4k swim, 112 mile cycle and 26 mile run of Challenge Roth would be the hardest part of the trip, it turned out it was harder to not only find where we were going but also asking how we were going to get there.
The drive to Nurnberg nee Nuremburg was just under two hours. We stayed in Furth, an older area with a hotel next to the motorway. From there we could get to and from Roth easily.
Next door to the hotel was an Italian restaurant, Vapiano, which provided dinner on Friday and Saturday night. Unlike most restaurants it didn’t have any waiting staff. Instead you would queue on one side of the restaurant to order with the chef who would then cook your meal in front of you so you could take it back to your table, which means that my abiding memory of it wasn’t the food – which was decent – or the atmosphere – which was good as we had tables outside – but the queueing and queuing and queuing some more while those in front of us picked up their freshly cooked pasta.
It must be popular though: on the Saturday night there was a bride queuing in full bright white bridal dress and train. Though in full white, I hope she avoided anything which splattered.
On Saturday, registration is open in Roth until 1pm. Beforehand you can have a practice swim in the canal for 90 minutes first thing in the morning. You can’t swim at other times as you are warned anyone caught swimming will be banned from taking part. I’m not sure how they would know if you were taking part but, as the 90 minutes came to an end, the number of police boats, coast guards (canal guards?) and other boats patrolling the canal to make sure everyone had left the water made me think you wouldn’t be able to sneak in for a swim without a visit to the local German police station.
At this point, it was still uncertain whether wetsuits would be banned for the swim. We decided to swim without them so as to find out what it would be like. We were the only one’s though, everyone else had their suit on. That seemed strange. If you know wetsuits could be banned, why wouldn’t you practice without them so you’d know what to expect on Sunday morning? It would be worse to practice with them and then turn up and find out you can’t use it.
Registration itself is straightforward, once you figure out where to go. The expo is large, with lots of booths, tents, a Challenge Roth shop, beer gardens, food trucks, and no mention at all on the map of where to go to register. In fact, this was a common problem we had – we couldn’t figure out any of the maps. Perhaps it was named something else in German.
Once we found it – one of the biggest tents, naturally – it took seconds to register. And, even better, the organisers had confirmed that we could swim in wetsuits the next day. The water temperature was 0.2 degrees below the cut off point when wetsuits would be banned.
You have until 4pm to rack your bike back at the canal for transition one. You also drop off your transition two bag here for running and the organisers will sort it out for you.
The transition is easy to find, back at the canal where we’d swum earlier and where gunboats now patrolled the waters to stop any rogue athletes having a cheeky dip, and there was 1’000s of car parking spaces.
You need to have not only your bike, helmets, all stickers and your transition 2 bag to get in but also your transponder. Not sure why.
Your transition 1 bag can be brought in the morning along with your after race bag.
The night before
After that, it was back to Roth. Time to rest, and queue, and then queue some more at Vapiano, before back to the hotel room to prepare the after race bag and double check I had everything to swim and in the bike back. Which I thought I did until I woke up at 2am and thought “Do I have my goggles?”
Which I didn’t – whoops!
Six days before Norseman 2016 I did something stupid: I picked up my bike bag while taking it down from the attic – and pulled a muscle in my back.
Five days before Noresman I was prodded by a physio and told “this will hurt, but in four days, everything will be okay.”
For the next four days my back hurt every time I twisted or turned. And then, on the fifth day, everything was fine. But I have to admit, it was a worry and didn’t help my nerves in the run up to the race.
This year, yesterday, I was careful. I took no chances. I asked my wife to get my bike bag from the attic…
Well, at least the first transition will be a PB as I won’t need to change out of my wetsuit after the swim…