By Michael Lovato
ISSUE #24, Fall 2004 – In 1984, a German triathlete named Detlef Kuehnel was so awe-inspired by his experience at the Hawaii Ironman; he set out to bring a triathlon of similar magnitude to the European continent. Twenty years later, and after two name changes, the former Ironman Europe has proven that the small village of Roth can and will provide the world’s triathlon community with an alternative to our sport’s fall classic.
For those who wish to experience a race that is larger (over two-thousand participants), more widely viewed (over 100,000 spectators), and faster (world record times abound!), than all other Ironman distance races worldwide, Roth is a must. For those who wish to see triathlon as a recognizable, well-appreciated sport, Roth is a must. For those who wish to race across beautiful countryside, over flawlessly smooth road surfaces, to the sounds of thousands of screaming fans, Roth is a must. For those who wish to experience ultra-distance racing, out from under the m-Dot umbrella, Roth is a must.
This year, I added my name to the list of people whose wish was just that: to experience triathlon German-style.
July 4th started out as most race days begin: breakfast with a bit of nerves; transition area with a couple exploding tires; my fiancé Amanda smearing Vaseline all over my neck and shoulders; and a final rundown of my race moves, prior to jumping in the water. Somewhere in there, however, the similarities seemed to diminish. I noticed a peculiar amount of Euro-Techno on the loudspeaker, mixed with a smattering of late-Eighties “wish-I-hadn’t-heard-that-song” songs (the type that annoyingly sticks in your head, in spite of your better efforts to dispatch it). Most of the dissimilarities were favorable; however, indeed they were quite nice: five or six hot air balloons hovered at the start; several thousand spectators lined all sides of the course; and there was even a blimp. For some reason a blimp really adds that extra sporting-event punch!
I found my position on the start line of my wave (all professionals, all women, and all firefighters), and readied myself for the gun. My pre-race strategy called for me to stick to the previous four years’ defending champion, Lothar Ledar, through legs 1 and 2 of the event. I assumed that if anyone knew how to race this course, it was he, and I would be right there to learn from him directly.
After what felt like an abnormally moderate paced swim, I exited the water right where I planned to be: mere steps ahead of Leder, and within two minutes of the lead pack. Entering the change tent with a speedy transition in mind, I was soon faced with a pair of hands assisting me in the removal of my wetsuit. Unfortunately for me, I found that the owner of those hands did not understand my pleas in English to help with my feet, not my hands. As we struggled to remove my right sleeve, my fellow competitors slipped through and on to the bike.
Shaking off the sloppy move from swim to bike, I focused on continuing along my strategic pace. Cruising through the initial downhill five kilometers of the ride, I searched ahead for my day’s rivals. Where were they and when would I catch them? Confidently I began to press the pace… or so I thought. For some reason, I was unable to find my rhythm; I was unable to get it going. I chalked it up to an iffy start, but I soon realized there was something wrong. My pace did not seem to correlate to my effort. In spite of my increasing pressure, I found myself losing ground. Within the first twenty kilometers, I discovered my issue: my stomach was bloated and it was beginning to cramp. Within a few more minutes, I began having trouble staying in the aerobars; I was suffering, and not in the good way. Had I swallowed too much water in the swim?
Trying not to let it bother me that I was riding twenty miles per hour-downhill with a tailwind!-I focused on bettering my situation. What was wrong; what was the cause? I could not come up with the answers, and I was running out of time. At one hour thirty eight minutes into the ride, I concluded that I needed to begin taking on some fuel. After all, I was still planning to run a marathon at the conclusion of this deteriorating bike.
Just before the famous Solarer Berg hill (a short, steep hill lined four- and five-deep with crazed, screaming fans only inches from the riders!), I stuffed a Power Bar in my mouth. Oddly, the least appealing thing to me (putting something in my distended belly) proved to be my salvation. Within moments I had relief! It was time for my ride to begin; it was time to go.
For the next three hours, I pushed as hard as I could push; I rode with abandon and hope. I had thoughts of making good on my plans to make the podium. How much time had I lost?
As soon as I left transition 2, I received my first time split: two and a half minutes out of eighth place. I put my head down and ran for it. Seeing the 5k splits whiz by, I was again encouraged as I charged onward: I felt great, and I had made my way into fifth place, but along the way I caught my first glimpse of my deficit to the leaders. It looked unlikely that I could catch them, but this was Ironman and anything could happen.
By the time I came to the final turnaround on the fast marathon course (much of the course follows a soft dirt path alongside the canal in which we had swum), I found myself overtaking my early marked man: Lothar Leder. I urged him to go with me; to see if we could push each other toward catching third place (Timo Bracht). He declined my offer, and I set off alone. Energized to have caught the local favorite, I pressed on.
As it turned out, my personal best marathon time was not enough to gain me a podium spot; however, it was enough to secure a fourth place finish. As I entered the final horseshoe-shaped loop of the finish stadium, I gladly accepted a large bouquet of flowers from one of the race organizers. Although we were all aware I was not the first across the line, the organizers and the fans of the Quelle Challenge Roth made me feel just as important (a welcome that was extended to each of the race’s proud finishers!). The day’s victor was Chris McCormack, and second went to Faris al Sultan, however, each and every one that crossed that finish line were made to feel like the winner, and made to feel welcomed back. As promised, the QCR proved to be a definite must-do race!