Thursday, January 23, 2020

Challenge Roth – The spectator’s perspective

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So last week I headed to Germany for Challenge Roth; not as a participant but as support / spectator.   Having been to Ironman Western Australia in December 2010, it was interesting to see the differences between the two races, good and bad.

We were blessed with great weather for the most part; in fact if anything it was too hot for the athletes (but great for the spectators like me!).  Registering in Roth on the Friday, I was impressed with the size of the ‘expo’, much larger than the retail offering found at IMWA, and with most many manufacturers represented.  Less impressive were the prices; even allowing for the weakening pound it really seems things are much more expensive in Germany – I was looking out for some Saucony Fastwitch 5 racing shoes which I could get in the UK for around £75-80, but were priced at €120 in Germany.  Ouch!  As such, the expo was more window shopping than anything else!

The best deal was on the High5 stand, where buying a bottle for $3 entitled you to free refills of drink for the entire weekend – a bonus in the hot weather!

Saturday morning saw an opportunity to swim in the canal just outside Roth.  I didn’t have a wetsuit, but it seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so braved it in trunks and a rash vest.  The water temperature was fine (probably would have gotten cold over a full 3.8km though) and the water quality was good, even if visibility was poor.   In the end I swam about 2.5km in 40 minutes and it was really noticeable just how much faster wetsuits can make you, my rash shirt causing more drag than insulation!

Then it was time for bike check-in.  Nothing for me to do there except watch the pros rack up – so I saw James Cunnama and Rebecca Keat being interviewed for the triathlon media.  Chrissie’s bike was already racked-up and looking shiny.  I did notice one pro had left his chain almost at the bottom of the cassette and on the big ring at the front – either he had legs of steel or a nasty surprise coming out of T1!

And so to race day.  I think the alarm went off at 3.45am and we were out the door by about 4.15am.  We managed to park in a field close to the swim start and Sam went off to check bike, set up shoes etc.  Somehow her profile aero bottle had developed a leak, so this and the track pump were tossed over to me and I ran them back to the car before race start.

Into the wetsuit and she was ready to go for the 6.45am wave – all the women, making the largest single wave. I wished her good luck and then heading downstream a little to where the start point was located.  A few minutes later and the canon boomed, setting 300+ women off in a mass brawl.  I kept jogging ahead then looking back at the pack trying to pick her out but it was near impossible!  Pink hat, white goggles and a black suit were all I had to go on… not much!

Anyway, I ran with them down to the turn buoy and then legged it back to T1 in the hope of seeing some of the pros coming out of transition – and was rewarded with close-up views of Andreas Raelert, Stefan Kienle and of course, Chrissie Wellington!

Back to the swim exit and I saw Sam emerge and head into T1.  But then… and I’m still not sure how I managed this! I missed her coming out of transition onto the bike.  After about 10 minutes I figured I must have missed her so began a quick march down to the famous ‘Solarerberg’ (or Solar Hill/Mountain).  Mountain might be over-stating it somewhat, but it’s a decent climb and is the place where the crowds literally stand shoulder to shoulder with the athletes.   It was a very cool atmosphere, especially as the leading man, Andreas Raelert, came through preceded by three police motorbikes, sirens wailing!   He already had a considerable lead on the rest of the field.

A little later and Chrissie came through, with that amazing smile firmly fixed on her face.  I think she must use some special make-up to ensure it never slips! But she seemed to be loving it.   If Andreas had a significant lead of the rest of the men, it was nothing compared to Chrissie’s lead on her fellow female pros.

A little later and Sam came up the hill, also wearing a huge smile – as indeed did almost every competitor, each of whom was well-cheered by the crowds lining  the hill.  A quick run across the town and I got some more photos of Sam as she exited Hilpolstein. 

Back to the Solarerberg and I got to see the pros come round for their second laps and then again Sam, still looking happy.

Then it was time to head back to the car and find a spot on the run course – there’s no rest for the dedicated spectator at Roth!  After pretty much dumping the car in a ditch, I ran full pelt to the run course along the canal – worried I might have missed Sam since seeing her last in Hilpolstein.  I needn’t have worried! 

The run course was, like the ‘berg, well supported.  In fact, it was actually a little too crowded in places with spectators getting in the way of athletes, not to mention dog walkers and cyclists! After seeing Sam twice I decided it was time to head to the arena for the finish.   Unfortunately, I missed most of the pros crossing the line.

But then at 10:42 hours since setting off, down the chute she came.  A fantastic time for only her second Iron-distance triathlon.   I barged into the media section (naughty me!) to get a photo of her crossing the line and say well done before she set off down into the finisher’s tent.

About half an hour later I got a call from a German telephone number. Hmmm.  “Hello, is this Mr Fisher?  Your friend Sam is in the Red Cross tent, you might like to go see her”.  Err, great. 

So off I set to find the medical tent.  And as I turned around, who do I come face-to-face with. Miss Wellington! Beaming as ever, all I could manage to say was ‘well done today, Chrissie, fantastic result!’ (I didn’t yet know she’d actually set a new World Record!).  A pat on the shoulder and ‘oh, thanks so much!’ and my day was made (temporarily!).  We then set off in roughly the same direction and I overheard one of her entourage asking whether she was happy with her bike – quick to jump in, I said casually “If you don’t want it; I’ll take it!”.  A big smile and the parting words “it’s all about the engine!” Very, very wise words indeed (in truth, the last words I heard Chrissie say that day were “Steps!? Who put steps here?!?”).  I laughed…

After some heated exchanges with security staff, I did eventually get access to the medical tent and found Sam laid out on a bed with a drip in her arm.  Nothing mega serious, but she was kept in until two full bags had been fed into her.

And then it was off to collect the bike from T2 (away from the finish).  What a nightmare! The other 4,000 competitors obviously had the same idea and I think it took us about 90 minutes to get the bike etc.  Then off to… McDonalds!  I was pleased to see the restaurant was full almost exclusively with Roth athletes.  It’s not just Sam that craves junk food after a big race.

And that was that really.  A day in the life of a Roth spectator.  Nothing compared to an athlete’s view, but still an experience to remember.  Compared to IMWA it was a much friendlier place to watch the swim and cycle, although the IMWA run is more compact and therefore easier to see competitors several times per lap. 

As a footnote; two days later I encountered Chrissie (and boyfriend Tom Lowe) for the second time at the open air pool in Roth.  Tom was bloody fast in the water and Sam was very pleased to see that Chrissie seemed to also be walking stiffly! We couldn’t resist the opportunity to swim alongside Chrissie, but otherwise we – and pretty much everyone else – let the two of them go about their training uninterrupted.   They say you should never meet your heroes in case they disappoint.  Just being in Chrissie’s presence was a motivational experience.


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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs