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Challenge Roth - David Capeling (July 2014)

It is 7:49am on Sunday 20th July 2014 and I am floating in a Bavarian canal. This is the most relaxed and most cool that I have felt in the past 2 days. Those past days consisted primarily of travelling around with bags and bike box by plane, train and taxi in 30°C heat; we should have hired a car. Just getting all my kit and me to this point feels like a major achievement as we (all 3500 of us) embark on arguably the most sought after and famed triathlon in the world – this side of the Hawaiian world championships that is. The logistics of getting body, bike, wetsuit, run shoes, helmet, tri-suit, bike shoes, lube, goggles, glasses, energy bars, bottles, tools, energy gels, spares, sun block, socks, track pump… to a small town that is not even the place that the event is named after (Hilpoltstein) is mind boggling. Not because it is physically hard to get you and your stuff here but because everything you do is haunted by the fact that you know that everything has got to be there; that it has got to work; because if one piece of kit is forgotten or one allen bolt is left untightened then it could be game over before you start and that is just unthinkable.

So I am completely chilled out as I lay here face down blowing bubbles and acclimatising easily to the warm but murky canal water. I look up and Lucy is waving, camera in hand, she’s the reason I’m really here of course, not that she won a bet or coerced me to take part you understand, but without her the aforementioned logistics would have been severely compromised. My competitor’s brain would have fried under the multiple demands of gear setup and nutrition plus getting here; we should have hired a car.

So what am I getting into here then? Well in less than 60 seconds I start a 3.8k swim which will then be followed by a 180k bike and finally a 42.2k run. The cannon fires to mark the start and it makes me jump as I really am that relaxed. The first 10 minutes of the swim are typical jostling for position whilst the differing swim speeds of all the competitors even out. I settle into a comfortable stroke, I know it is going to be hot for the rest of the event so I need to conserve as much energy as possible right now. The swim goes well with only the one incident where a swimmer coming off course into the side of me gets accidentally elbowed in the forehead; I felt bad even though there was nothing I could have done as it was a hard impact and would have hurt a lot. The only other point of note in the swim was that I finally managed to master the art of peeing whilst swimming which is something that had eluded me up until this point... I was very pleased with myself.

Under the final bridge, around a buoy, back under the bridge and I am hitting the ramp to exit the swim into transition 1, my swim time was 1hr 25mins which was slower than in training but I'm happy with it and still feel fairly fresh as a result. I pick up my red bike bag and enter the T1 tent where an army of volunteers are peeling wetsuits from soggy bodies and placing the gear back into the bike bags for collection later. As I exit T1 I opt to head toward a lady wielding a big bottle of sun block who slathers my back and arms in the stuff and then I am away and running into the field that contains the thousands of bikes. My bike is out the back and a bit of a trek but I find it no problem and set about putting on shoes, helmet and race number belt. I grab the bike and start to run back through transition, it's at the exit point that I really start to understand how many supporters are here and how much noise they are capable of making. I cross the T1 exit line mount my bike and start to pedal to get some blood into those legs that if I am honest, due to my swimming style, tend to trail out the back like passengers whilst my arms do the work. I enter the bike course at probably the best time possible, the pros started their swim nearly 1½ hours before I did so that by the time I have dragged myself around the swim course they are starting the second lap of the bike. The very second I start the bike leg a flurry of motorbikes, a time car and super quick cyclists fly right past me to the roar of the crowd; the adrenaline hits and the temptation to go too quick right now is overwhelming but I am here for the long game. The first 10k is all about finding my rhythm, I take on fluid regularly and start to eat a small amount often rather than backlog my stomach with large amounts of bars and gels. It’s not long before the first aid station as they are every 17½ km (remember this is Germany ) but I take on nothing as I have plenty of everything right now. I take in the layout of the aid station though and plan my run for the next one.

It’s warm, very warm (around 28ºC) and I am conscious that I need to keep properly hydrated more than anything else; the training that this lad from the UK has done has by no means been done in this temperature and I am very wary of what will happen if I get this wrong. I push on, sip fluid regularly, monitor heart rate, keep everything smooth and efficient and above all don’t take anything for granted. The minute I think “I’m doing ok here, this is a breeze” is the same minute that this heat and this race will spit me out.

I come up towards the next aid station and I squirt the spare bottle into my Speedfil drinks system bolted to my bike frame; I dump the empty bottle and grab some ‘WASSER!!’ which I squirt all over my neck, back and chest; next up is ‘ISO!!’ (pronounced EEESO!!) and I stow this in the spare bottle rack behind me. I drink some of the left over water; dump this bottle, grab a banana and I am through the aid station. I didn’t stop, I didn’t miss anything vital and more to the point I didn’t hit anyone. Ok so the aid stations are super-efficient and I need to use this to keep this one man train going.

After the first 40km I am in a rhythm and I cannot but marvel at the smoothness of German roads. Whereas in the UK on a time trial bike in the aero position you are constantly looking for the next pothole that is going to ambush you here in Germany you can just relax and ride. Even in the few down hills I have to remind myself that I am in the aero position and sit up as it feels so natural to just lean in to the corners and let the bike do the work of converting energy from potential to kinetic.

I am around half way through the first lap of 90km and I get to the first significant uphill that comes out of a town called Greding. You can hear it before you see it, there is music and there are crowds lining the street and shouting for all they are worth. It is a steep pull for what feels like a few kilometres before I am able to get back into my rhythm again and then some steep s-bend descents break up the effort with some welcome corners to amuse me.

It doesn’t feel long after this at around the 70km that I finally encounter Solar Berg. By ‘encounter’ I mean feel, I mean hear, I mean anticipate… I mean fear. This hill is the stuff of triathlon legend and it’s not so much the steepness or the length of the hill that scares me as the legacy. This is a big deal and it means so much to be this close I don’t want to miss a thing. As I hit the bottom of the hill I see Lucy and our new friend Glauci waving and somehow making themselves heard to me over the thousands of other bellowing, screaming supporters. I am all about the smile as I start my climb; Glauci shouts ‘wave your hands to the crowd!’ I raise my hands in the air, the crowd go mad, and I realise that it probably wasn’t the greatest decision I had made so far today as everyone both supporter and cyclist is so so close in on you. A misjudgement here and it could hurt a lot in one of those horrible slow-motion ways where everyone just keeps piling on over you until the music stops. Luckily I get stuck behind someone who is blowing hard and standing up out the saddle so I just grab a low gear, sit down behind him and pedal it out to the top. I can’t pass him anyway as it is too tight so I just sit up and soak the atmosphere all in. As the hill starts to lessen the crowd thins slightly and I get a chance to pass the guy I was following. This is much to the amusement of the crowd and increased volume of ‘Hop hop hop hop’ which from the start to the finish of the race just reminded me of watching Ski Sunday when I was a kid.

After Solar Berg it is not long until I am back around and looking for the start of the second lap, it is here where I make an almost terminal mistake. So I am looking for the part of the course where left is second lap and right will take me to the start of the run. I am so concerned that I am going to miss the turning that I actually miss the turning. But it’s ok because I am able to notice it at the last second, hit the brakes hard, swerve and then get very nearly hit from behind by an extremely fast German triathlete with some very choice words for me. The crowd’s face said it all… that was probably quite close!

The second bike lap goes well although the temperature has climbed and the cooling water sprayed over my back at the aid stations seems to have less and less effect. I feel ok though and just keep the rhythm going whilst concentrating on efficient choices of gear and cycling position. When over midway through the second lap with about 50k of the bike left two things become apparent. The first is that there are quite a few people laid out by the side of the road and the frequency of ambulance sirens seems to be increasing. Did I mention it’s quite warm? The second is that I seem to be either overtaking or being overtaken by a competitor called Axel which has triggered the ear worm of ‘The Heat is On’ from the movie Beverley Hills Cop and it’s driving me mad. Did I mention it’s quite warm?

I finally hit the right turn for T2 correctly and it is not long before one of the fantastic volunteers has grabbed my bike and I am getting my bike gloves, helmet and shoes off ready for the run. I went around the bike in 6hrs 53mins which was an overall bike PB even including the swim. The volunteers in T2 are a helpful but concerned bunch and are constantly asking you whether you are alright whilst looking deep into your eyes - in much the same way that a parent does to a 15 year old who they suspect of having been on the cider. They are looking to see if there is any sign that you are going to pass out on them and around us is the reason why; there are at least 10 people in T2 having a bit of a lie down on various tables and stretchers contemplating their next 42.2km.

So it’s running shoes on, cap on, go for a quick pee (the first since the swim) and I am out on the run and it’s still really warm even for 4:30pm or whatever the time is right now. I will use the word run loosely here as although I thought I was doing ok for the first 10k I had a German ‘supporter’ shout to me at one point; “this is supposed to be a run… THAT is a jog… now RUN!!” I think he meant it in the nicest possible way. What happened in the run still baffles me to a certain extent in that I now know it was the hardest marathon that I had ever ‘run’ even though it was predominantly flat and the only thing I can attribute this to is the temperature. Where I found the first half of the marathon hard, in the second half the wheels came off completely even though it was cooling down. I couldn’t really eat and attempts at drinking ‘EEESO’ made my stomach churn to the point where I resorted to chicken soup which was stone cold towards the end. It very much became a case of ‘find a way’ to get to the finish.

Twelve and a half hours since the start and my watch ran out of charge with about 12km to go. Psychologically this was tough and I continually check its blank face as a matter of habit for at least an hour afterwards. I know that if I keep my average speed to around 7-8 km/h then I will finish before the 15 hour cut off. The last 10km became a battle of wills with me forcing my body to walk 100 paces and then run 100 paces, it’s getting dark there are fewer and fewer supporters and competitors around, morale is at rock bottom.

As I enter the town of Roth I can hear the noise of the crowd in the distance and I know that I am nearly there. The streets are virtually empty because I know that everyone is in and around the finishers stadium that is built specifically for the event. As I run the town clock starts to chime and I realise that this is my first time check for a few hours. I have around 2km to go and in this age of connected multi-platform technologies I am resorted to counting the chimes of a town clock to find out how I am doing. It’s ten o’clock and I know I will definitely make the cut off. A lady standing at the 1km mark congratulates me and instructs me to enjoy the last kilometre… you just watch me. As I approach the stadium the crowd are going mad and cheering me on, I am smiling from ear to ear despite my body being a complete wreck. The noise outside the stadium could not prepare my for the atmosphere within it. The noise, the light and the colour just overwhelms you and at this stage of the race with fewer and fewer people coming through to the finish I have the whole stadium to myself; all of these people are cheering for me! I high five the crowd as I circle the lap and make the fatal error of high fiving my wife Lucy who will later berate me… apparently everyone else was kissing their partners! The run was ground out in 5hrs 57min giving me a total time of 14hrs 29mins. An amazing day, an amazing event and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone.

An hour and a half later and we are waiting for the midnight train at the station at Roth. After walking for 45 minutes to collect my bike and kit and then go to the station I am bonking seriously and flat out on the platform whilst Lucy feeds me peanuts one by one. We should have hired a car.


David Capeling.

Race Reports 2014