Three, two, one, horn, stroke, cannonjesusjiminycricketswhatisthatjumpoutofmywetsuit, stroke, stroke and breath and sight, crikey that’s a lot of people, stroke, first kick to the face and grunt and stroke, stroke and try to breath but someone’s hand is in my mouth so just suck it up buttercup this is why you practise breathing to 12 strokes, stroke, str-second kick to the face oh please just piss off already, stroke and breath and sight, stroke, long and strong, long and strong, just be long and strong…
…and so it went on. A couple of FYI’s: Number 1; this is Challenge Roth, which I completed last week. Number 2; long and strong is one of my swimming mantras. It’s like, level 3 of panic. Level 2 is when I’m swimming long and strong, and am then focusing on dropping my hands and popping the elbow at the front of my stroke. This is when I’m swimming well. Level 1 is when I focus on engaging my batman shoulders (Coach Tim knows what I mean, probably no-one else does) and this is when I’m sprinting (or have lost all comprehension of pacing). Going backwards, level 4 of panic, where I’m no longer long and strong, is abouts what happened at Roth. Level 5 is drowning.
I’d placed myself very aggressively for my wave start – just off the front, just off the bank of the canal, where the competents had lined up. I’d done this with all of the right intentions, but realistically, I was a manatee in a sea of sharks. Angry snappy sharks that liked to kick you in the face as they went past because sharks are dicks like that (and can’t swim in straight lines). I was dropped off the back of my wave fairly quickly, but swimming through the women that had been dropped off the two all-female waves ahead of mine, plus the hyper aggressive men smashing past from the following waves, meaning that there was no respite from the maul. This was one of the dark, dramatically-scored bits of Planet Earth; the precursor to St. Attenborough chucking in a segment about brightly-feathered birds and their mating rituals to engender that sweet, sweet mood whiplash.
Hope is the worst. I think because I’d actually overtaken a few people, and because I’d downgraded my goal time on account of poor training before the swim, I’d maybe come out of the water with something I was happy with. This was/is not the case. Garmy the Second was taunting me with 1:20:something and I was dismayed (official time was 1:19:51 but still: dismay). Even though it was a PB for the distance, it was still a million miles, or 591 seconds, or 6,091,275.18mph if you want to do some awfully nonsensical extrapolation, away from what I wanted.
But hey ho, there’s a race to race, and many miles more of things going wrong yet. Once out of the water, it was into T1, where with the help of one of the volunteers yanking my wetsuit off me and practically hammering my helmet on to my head while I flopped about being impotently angry at the watch, I achieved a second PB for the day in T1. Not that I was timing it, of course. Interestingly, from looking a the results, my T1 was actually my best result of the day placement-wise (549th).
When I said last month that if I achieved a decent result at Roth it’d mainly be fueled by anger… well, that’s kind of how the bike started. I started the bike angry, and I started the bike hard – like, hard hard. Bearing in mind the intention was to post a bike split below 5:20:00, for the first 75k or so I was ahead of schedule, looking at somewhere in the region of a low number of minutes over 5 hours. Not that it was planned, I was just riding on feel (disguised by lots of adrenaline). The bike course was pretty good for my strengths – not so many flat bits, lots of rolling hills to spin up and power over the top of.
Oh, and the switchbacks! Among cycling types, triathletes have a reputation, rightly or wrongly (mostly rightly), for terrible bike handling skills. I’m usually fairly tepid going downhill on club rides in Kent or Surrey. Well. Give me a road that has no flippin’ potholes for one, and give it to me on race day, and it turns out I had a bit of a leg up on the opposition, which was a very pleasant surprise. There were a couple of people I’d been dueling with for 20 mins or so that I never saw after the switchbacks; not because they’d powered off into the sunset, but because it was only 10am in the morning and they bothered with things like ‘brakes’ and ‘staying on the right side of the road’ and ‘self-preservation’ while I played Tour de France on Agro. It’s a minor point in the context of Roth, as there’s only the one dramatic descent per lap, and I’m sure I’ll be put in my place as soon as I get back out on a club ride. But whatevs, I’ll come back to this later.
Ah, Solarerberg; probably the main selling point of Roth. Also known henceforth as the point things started to go really downhill (or PTSTGRD for short). I was still scything through the field at this point, around 70k in; bearing in mind this is all how things happened in my head and may not be what actually happened/physically possible. Unfortunately, the crush of spectators going up Solarerberg is so tight you can only go up single file. Being a light whippet type, I quickly covered the ground to the two more pedestrian paced ladies in front of me. Without a chance to overtake, I decided to just sit in, spin, take a breath, and enjoy the crackling atmosphere. I wonder if in retrospect I could find a way to better convey how freakin’ awesome this experience was, but I’m not sure I know the words, and it’s kind of dimmed by what happens immediately after.
Coming over the crest of the hill, the crowds began to thin and the pathway widened, so I took the opportunity to put the hammer down – deep breath, leap out of the saddle, weight driving down through right leg first. That’s when I felt the ping. I think it also made that noise. Ping ping motherfucker; I have come to ruin your day, and destroy all that you love. Oh. Fuck.
I think it was my biceps femoris? I don’t know for sure, I’ve literally just looked up a diagram of the hamstring via Google, I’m not a physio (God help you all should I ever try and play physio). Whatever it was, something went funny in my right hamstring, and over the course of another 100k on the bike I’d progressively lose the ability to put any power through it. Usually swift uphill, I might as well have been going backwards spinning up the slightest inclines in my granny gear, while the people I’d gapped on the switchbacks caught up and went past one by one, followed by everyone else in the vicinity.
There were some truly dark moments towards the end of that second bike lap. No least of which came at around 160k: truly flagging at this point, and being passed quite regularly, I’d eased up pedalling and started dropping back as a lady racer tucked in ahead of me. The next thing I saw/heard was the splatter of liquid on my visor, and the next thing I felt was warm piss soaking into the front of my tri suit. Following that, the next thing I thought was what the fucking fuck am I doing with my life? I have paid hundreds of pounds to slowly murder my body over a series of hours while an angry German Anja urinates all over me and my skin-tight get up. There are dodgy alleyway clubs where I could have engaged in this for a far cheaper rate without leaving London.
Eventually, I managed to limp off the bike, hashing the dismount with one shoe still on my foot, fleeing through transition at an even-more-pronounced limp and covered in someone else’s pee. 5:35:30 came across much like my swim time: technically a PB for the distance, but still nothing like what I felt I could have been capable of, on another day, in another year. I’d lost a good 10-15 mins on the second lap of the bike course in total. At least I got someone to rub suncream on my shaven head. That felt kinda nice (and smelt nicer than the pee).
Hobbling out onto the run course, I had some serious reservations about whether or not it was worth my time to finish the race. When I say hobbling, it wasn’t awful at first – I was very lopsided getting up to speed, but once I could just turn my legs over things were holding together okay. Problem is, I knew a marathon was a long way. A marathon after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike is even further. A marathon after a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and only 1 ½ legs seemed at the time like the furthest. I hadn’t been eating properly on the bike post-injury as I got mardy and kept missing my timer. The temperature at this point was somewhere upwards of 30 Celsius. And above all this, Wales was looming on the horizon, another chance to do this horrible thing to myself all over again, but maybe with a shot at fitness this time. Maybe discretion would have been the better part of valour.
But who the hell needs discretion when you can still hobble a mile in under 7 minutes and am wearing a skin-tight race suit covered in flowers? Not me. Because if I’m going to be serious about trying to qualify for Kona, then I’m not going to be able to come back to Roth anytime soon, and I wanted that damn medal. Besides, I was still capable of a decent time; maybe even just dipping under my time from Sweden, if I managed it well. It’s not like I had a broken leg or was down a lung, after all.
Striking a bargain with myself, I decided that I’d run between each water station, and then walk each water station – not just long enough to take on fluid, like I did in Sweden and was the plan for this year, but the whole station from end to end. This worked, more or less, for the first lap; when running, I was running pretty well.
Each little hill got a little bit harder though, each time I had to get up to speed was more painful, and the heat kept cranking up. I’m pretty sure there was a point at which I had so many wet sponges stuffed under my suit I probably looked like the Michelin Man. At some point I crossed paths with Chrissie Wellington on the run – I tried to shout at her (I’m not sure what), but discovered that my face wasn’t really working at this point and I think it just came out as animal distress noises.
By the time I’d finished one lap, I’d had enough and just gone into disaster prevention. There was a lot more walking involved at this point, and when I was running it was more of a slightly sideways crab-jog. I’d realised at this point that I could probably have walked the rest of the day and still finished before the cutoff (because even half-injured I’m still pretty swift, first world problems and all that), but sod that noise. I am a proud man and I was gonna run through that stadium and pull my ‘oh-thank-christ-it’s-over’ face that I’ve not had to pull out since Deva last year.
So yeah, that’s how it went down. Somewhat abrupt and disjointed, I know. I was also going to include my own inner thoughts and analysis of what I did right and wrong here throughout the blow-by-blow, but it ended up being far too many thousands of words for one post; I’ll edit that, tidy it a bit, and post that next week sometime. I think. By current form, now that I’ve said next week, expect it sometime in August.