Challenge Roth – The Perfect Race???
I was lucky enough to get a space at Challenge Roth, due to a number of athletes not taking their slot. This race was definitely a bucket list race for me, so I was over the moon to be accepted.
We decided we would drive over to Germany and make the journey into a road trip. Catrin planned and booked everything, from where we were going to stop and stay, Ferry crossing, hotel bookings, what we were going to eat and plenty more. I’d still be trying to get out of Swansea if she hadn’t been with me. We set off on our travels on Tuesday and stayed at a hotel in Maidstone overnight, to break up the journey. Catrin made sure that the hotel had a gym and pool so that I could get my training sessions completed. We drove the rest of the way to Dover the next morning and caught the Ferry over to Calais.
Once in Calais, we had about a 2 and a half-hour drive to Belgium, where our next stopover was. We stayed in a nice B&B, went out for some dinner and just relaxed for the rest of the night. The next morning, we had a 6-hour drive from Belgium to Nuremberg, where we would be staying for the race.
Driving in Germany is pretty surreal. The autobahn is crazy. We were driving at about 85-90mph and there were cars flying passed so fast, that our car was shaking from side to side. The cars must have been doing close to 200mph, it was insane. Anyway, we arrived in Nuremberg on Thursday afternoon, checked in to our hotel and unpacked our cases. Again the hotel had a gym and pool, so I could get some training done that day. I used the hotel gym bike to spin the legs over after a long trip. We got an early night on Thursday because we wanted to get up early the next day to go down to the swim start for a practice swim on the swim course. There was a set time from 6.30am-9am, where we could go in for a swim at the canal. Swimming in the Canal outside of these times would result in disqualification.
We both headed down to the Canal where there were loads of athletes already swimming. We walked over the bridge and down to the swim start. There had been a lot of talk in the lead up to the race, as to whether it would be a wetsuit swim or not. The water temperature on that day was 24.5 degrees. The legal limit is under 24.5 degrees for a wetsuit swim, so it was right on the border. It was funny because Challenge Roth tweeted a photo of a man pouring ice cubes into the canal to try and cool the temperature down. People were desperate for it to be a wetsuit swim. While Challenge Roth wasn’t going to make a decision until the morning of the race, I decided to swim in the canal with and without a wetsuit, to be prepared for both. Catrin and I got changed into our wetsuits and made our way into the water. The water was really warm but wasn’t very clear. We both decided to swim out 15 minutes on the course and turn around and swim back. Once we had done this, I quickly nipped out to change into my swim skin and back in to compare times. I was 3 seconds per 100m quicker with the wetsuit on and honestly did feel more comfortable in the wetsuit, so I too was hoping for a wetsuit swim.
A quick change into my bike kit and a 40-minute ride along part of the bike course to test the bike was in working order, then it was off back to the hotel to relax. I just want to say a big thank you to Lewis Bevan of EC Cycles for always ensuring my bike is in tiptop condition for all of my races. I can go into every race, having the confidence that he has tightened every nut, screw and bolt and that my bike is in the best possible condition ready to race.
Saturday morning and time for bike check-in. As we were staying in Nuremberg, we had about a 30-minute drive into Roth from where we were staying. We put my bike in the car and I remember Catrin saying, do you have to take your transition bags with you today? I said no I don’t think so, surely we can put them in tomorrow on race day. She said well put them in the car just in case. I didn’t put any of my run nutrition in the Run bag, because I thought surely we can have access to it on race morning. That turned out to be a big mistake.
We got down to the transition area and I racked my big with my helmet, then we drove into the town centre for some food, before race brief at 3 pm. While waiting for our food to arrive, Catrin said can you please check that you don’t have to put your run bag into transition today, because it’s playing on my mind!! I had a quick check online and sure enough, the run bag had to be checked in, in order for it to be driven to T2 ready for tomorrow. ‘Oh Shit’ It was 13.40 at this point and transition closed at 4 pm, but the race brief started at 3 pm. I thought there is no way we are getting back to Nuremberg, pick up my nutrition, then back to Roth to give my run bag in and make it to the race brief. The only thing we could do was get my run bag into transition without any nutrition and go over to the race brief. We did exactly that and we had to plan how I was going to have enough nutrition for the run. Once back at the hotel, we figured out that I would swim with 2 gels in my tri suit and take the on-course nutrition to top up. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
Race Day – Alarm set for 3 am. We woke up to the sound of rain. How could it possibly rain, it was 30 degrees the previous day. It was due to stop at 6 am, which would be fine, as I started at 6.45am. This wasn’t the case. We drove into Roth and I added my nutrition to my bike, pumped my tyres up and heard the news that it was to be a wetsuit swim for Age Groupers. It was around 5.45am and it was still raining, with a lot of black clouds overhead. Cat said to me ‘be careful on the bike, the roads will be wet and very slippery’ I kept that in mind and kept saying to myself not to take any risks. It was now 6.15am, so I gave Catrin a huge hug and kiss and she whispered in my ear, ‘Do it for me’ This stayed with me for the whole race. We were both a bit emotional, as I made my way over to the swim start. I started in the Sub 9 hour wave. This was an option when registering for the event. I watched the male pro’s go off, followed by the female pro’s 5 minutes later. We then had 15 minutes before our wave was due to start. We made our way into the water and I had a good warm-up before placing myself at the front of the pack, ready to start. I said on my social media before the race that this was the most well prepared I had ever been. No injuries, no illness and there certainly weren’t any excuses. This was my best chance of putting in a performance I knew I was capable of. Waiting for the gun to go off, I had a quick chat in my head with ‘Pops’ and I was ready to go.
Swim – “BANG” We were off. I started at a hard pace for the first 200 metres and quickly realised I was on my own. I remember thinking surely someone is going to come with me, but no, I was going to be swimming this solo. I kept the pace high and soon reached the turnaround point to make my way back down the canal. I caught a pack of around 4-5 female Pro’s, went past them and then saw a couple of Male Pro’s together. I knew I was swimming quite fast to catch the Male Pro’s who started 20 minutes before me. The current was pushing me towards the bank of the canal and I had to stop a couple of times to push myself off the bank, back towards the middle of the canal. 2 more buoys to turn and into the finishing shoot for the swim exit. As I swam into the shoot, I was grabbed by 3 volunteers and dragged up the ramp. I could hear the announcer saying “leading grouper, from The United Kingdom, Nathan Ford” This gave me a huge lift as I grabbed my bike bag and headed into the change tent. A quick transition out of my wetsuit and onto my bike and I was away. Swim time – 48.48 and T1 – 2 minutes flat. This gave me the second-fastest swim of the day behind Male Pro Jesper Svensson.
Bike – Once out on the road, I could see how wet the road surfaces were and I had to take my visor off my helmet because it was steaming up too much. I got into the TT position as I headed over the bridge and could see Cat waving a bright yellow towel. I blew her a kiss and settled into my rhythm. I kept thinking to myself that there will be a sea of athletes coming past me any minute, but only 3 or 4 went past during the first 8k or so. I was straight onto my nutrition and before I knew it I had drunk 2 bottles within the first 60 minutes. It wasn’t a hot day, around 20-22 degrees and it was still raining. A few more athletes passed me, but I stuck to my plan and didn’t get caught up in trying to go with them.
I always had Solar Hill in the back of my mind and I couldn’t wait to experience it. The Germans love triathlon and as the race was televised in Germany, 8% of the German population were tuned in to watch. Added to this was 260,000 spectators out on course. It was Epic. I was approaching Solar hill and I could see in the distance a sea of people bashing those inflatable sticks together. As I got closer, the noise increased. It was so loud. Challenge Roth is famous for Solar Hill and this was something else. The first section of the hill had barriers either side of the course, then the spectators all close in, so the athletes are in a single file with thousands of people inches from their bikes. It is like the Tour De France when the riders climb the iconic ‘Dutch Corner’ on Alpe D’uez. I was out of my saddle with a huge smile on my face, taking in the atmosphere. I had a quick glance down at my Garmin, to see 653 watts. Oh shit, calm down Nath for God Sake. The crowds had me a little too excited, to say the least. Before the race, I was thinking about what would Solar Hill be like in comparison to Heart Break Hill in Tenby. It doesn’t compare. Solar hill is something I will always remember. Words can’t fully describe the feeling of being that close to so many people shouting and cheering for you. At the top of the hill was the first time I saw Catrin and she could see I had a big smile on my face. She shouted over and asked if I was ok. I was on top of the world.
The first lap of the 2 lap bike course and my average speed was 23.3mph, with a NP of 249 watts. Slower and Lower than where I wanted to be, but I was feeling good and ready to attack the next lap of the course. I knew it would get a lot more congested on the second loops I had to concentrate a lot more on the trickier sections of road. The roads were still very wet and on my second lap, I could see 4 or 5 marshals telling riders to slow down approaching a corner on a descent. I did exactly that and could see 3 ambulance and 2 police cars at the bottom. As I got closer I could see 2 bikes on the floor and 1 athlete in a neck brace. It didn’t look good. This reminded me to take it easy on the descents.
My nutrition was going exactly to plan and my average speed was creeping up nicely. Second time up Solar Hill and it was just as good as the first. As I was coming up to the 180km finish of the bike leg, I was mentally preparing myself for the marathon. I saw Catrin again on the approach to T2, where she was shouting words of encouragement. I was slightly disappointed with my bike split of 4.44.19 I had set a target before the race of 4.39, so only 5 minutes slower than that wasn’t the end of the world. Upon entering transition, I passed my bike to a volunteer and ran down the ramp into the change tent. Off with my bike helmet and on with my running trainers, visor and sunglasses, I was out of the transition tent in 1 minute 30 seconds.
Run – the first part of the run was downhill, for around 2km and I felt really good. I was trying to work out in my head what run split I would need for a sub-9-hour finish. I needed a 3.23 marathon to just scrape under the 9-hour mark. This was quite worrying, as my target before the race was 3.22. I knew I had to be sensible on the run if I was to achieve this target. My Garmin beeped for the first mile, 6.50, oh god, you need to slow down a bit Nath, that’s sub 3 hour pace. I purposely slowed down for the second mile, but when my Garmin beeped again it showed 6.50. Exactly the same pace. Mile 3, 4 and 5 were all around the 6.50 mark, but I felt as if I was out for an easy jog. I thought that my watch was playing up and it wasn’t picking up the GPS properly, so I just said to myself, stay in this rhythm, you are running easy and feeling good, so see how long you can go for.
The run leg has 3 out and back sections, along the canal on a gravel surface. There were plenty of feed stations on the course and a decent amount of support. As I was running towards the first dead turn, I could see Andreas Dreitz running back towards me. This obviously gave me a bit of motivation, he was followed by Cameron Wurf and Svensson. These 3 would be the final podium, with Dreitz in first, Svensson in second and Wurf in Third.
I kept a close eye on my watch to track the pace I was running and made sure I was taking on my nutrition as I had planned. I really wanted to see Catrin and I kept looking out for her, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. 13 miles in and my average pace was around 6.58 minutes per mile. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I was still feeling extremely fresh and felt I could keep this up. Only about 3 people had passed me by this point, which was quite surprising. I kept in my rhythm and kept an eye on the clock to see how much time I had left to get under that 9-hour barrier. Approaching the 18-mile mark and I could finally see Catrin in the distance. She shouted over to see if I was ok and if I needed anything. I said I was fine and felt good. By this point, I had around 8 miles to go and I needed to hold a pace of 9.30 minute per mile. The first thing that came into my head was, ‘oh come on Ford, you can do that, even Catrin can run that’ Sorry Cat. This was the first point during the race where I believed I could go under 9 hours and I was shouting at myself in my head, ‘it’s on, it’s fucking on’
The last out and back section of the run is really tough. It goes along a cobbled section of road and there is a lot of downhill, which means uphill on the return. My feet were starting to hurt on the cobbles and at mile 24 is where it really got painful. There was no way I was stopping for a break or walking any section at this point, so I dug deep and got myself back up that hill towards the stadium. I could see the stadium in the distance and I could hear the roar from the crowd inside. The music was blasting and I thought this would give me an extra boost, but I was really struggling and my legs were starting to give up. My pace had slowed for the last mile, which was my slowest mile of the whole race. (7.32 min mile) but I didn’t care. I entered the stadium and soaked in the atmosphere. 3rd place woman had finished just in front of me and the bike that was cycling with her cut across the carpet right in my path. I didn’t really fancy a Shane Williams sidestep, so I almost stopped until she passed, then carried on to the finish. The finish was a bit of a blur and as I crossed the line I fell to my knees. I was in a heap on the floor until 2 volunteers came over to help me up. I don’t remember the announcer calling my name and I didn’t have a clue what my overall time was. Once I was in the finishing tent, I checked my watch to see that I had finished in a huge marathon P.B of 3.06.36 and overall time of 8.43.12.
My previous marathon times have been 3.35, 3.36. 3.38 and 3.36, so to knock off half an hour is so surprising. I have worked so hard to improve my run, as that was the discipline that had been letting me down in races. I can now say I have a decent run and I can take away so much confidence from this performance. A 36 minute PB over the Iron Distance race, which the majority of the time came off the run. I am still in a bit of shock that I was able to go 8.43 and if someone said to me at the start of the race that I will do that, I would honestly have put my house on it that I wouldn’t. I finished 3rd in my Age Category, the fastest Age group swim overall and the fastest British age group athlete to finish. I am not the most confident of people when it comes to racing and I always doubt myself and say to myself, there is no way I can do this or that, but this performance has given me the self-belief I have been looking for. My aim in triathlon is to be the best I can possibly be and to hopefully motivate and inspire other athletes to achieve their dreams. This is something that I try to pass onto the athletes that I coach. If I can achieve this, then I am happy.
I would like to thank a few people who have supported me through my triathlon journey so far. Gary and Ian from Cosgrove and Brown, who have supported me financially over the past 12 months. I am so grateful for their support and sponsorship. Precision Hydration for supplying me with the best electrolyte supplements on the market and Zone3 for their support through Kona and the 2019 season. Obviously a special mention to Catrin for everything she does for me. I know we all say it, but I would literally be running around in circles if it wasn’t for her.
It is important to set yourself goals and targets and I have already got my next target in mind. Any guesses?