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Dispatch: Challenge Roth–The Best Of Times

"Dispatch" columnist Holly Bennett writes about her experience racing at the 30th anniversary of Challenge Roth.

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“Dispatch” columnist Holly Bennett writes about her experience racing at the 30th anniversary of Challenge Roth.

At 1:00 a.m. after my race at Challenge Roth, wired to the gills on caffeine (26.2 miles of slugging cola will do that to you), I pounded out a rough draft race recap to share with a few friends that were eager to hear what happened to me. I knew that they knew my day didn’t go as I had hoped in terms of my performance, and I wanted to assure them that disappointment was nowhere to be found in my head and my heart, following a day of true endurance that, despite my worst of times on the finish clock, was truly the best of times.

I’ll spare you, dear readers, a lengthy reasoning of my shortcomings. Suffice to say I had struggled with some sort of food poisoning or intestinal flu two weeks out from race day. I felt “fine” heading into the race, but even with my best efforts to rest and refuel my depleted body, my regular appetite had not fully returned. I simply pushed aside any concern that the sickness might have a lingering affect–positive thinking is a powerful tool! But I knew from the moment I began upchucking bits of my morning oatmeal in the swim, followed by a battle of will against my belly to swallow even my very first gel, that I was not quite right.

The sum total of my caloric consumption (aside from electrolyte drink, which I was able to take in on the bike, and the aforementioned cola, which was my one salvation on the run) was four gels, half a banana and a ginger chew candy (packed to ward off any potential tummy upset) in a race that took me 14 hours to complete. Simply put, it was nowhere near enough energy for that sort of day. The total lack of spunk in my muscles (confirmed by a painfully slow bike split) told me I was already at a deficit, and my race day “diet” sure didn’t help. A lot of athletes struggled to take in nutrition on Sunday–Roth experienced record high heat and humidity that could be equated to Asian racing conditions. I normally thrive in that sort of environment, yet my stomach staged a small revolution each time I tried to sneak something in. Even the tiniest bites on the run (I tried to force down some banana and watermelon) led to almost immediate and lengthy port-a-loo pit stops, until I made my peace with cola as my single source of marathon fuel.

What I love best about endurance racing are the random thoughts that come to mind throughout the day and the images and experiences along the course that stick with you long after you cross the line. Here are several of the moments that made my difficult day one that I also adored:

I’m not a hugely patriotic person–I prefer to consider myself somewhat a citizen of the world–but I teared up when the national anthem was played prior to the swim start. Challenge Roth honors the athletes of every country participating thusly, and being part of an international event of such epic proportions certainly struck a chord.

The exit from T1 is nothing short of insane, with crowds packing the first stretch of the bike course. I was over the moon to make out my homestay dad, Willy, hopping up and down in the hordes of people and cheering me on like a madman.

I was a bit unnerved by the packs of age group men passing me on the first lap of the bike (the women all start in one of the first waves in Roth, thus the passing is inevitable), riding in a style somewhat different to what I’m used to. These guys ride the same way they drive on the autobahn–a little too fast and a little too close! I thought. But that’s European racing, and the onus was on me to adapt by sticking far to the right and keeping careful tabs on anyone close by to avoid an accident. Drafting was clearly a strategy among many of the age group men, so I was pleased to notice that a large number of them sported penalty slashes on their race bibs by the time they passed me on lap two. Officials were everywhere on course and the penalty boxes were busy places!

The strangest dichotomy was happening in my head. I felt absolutely awful–physically I really never got into a groove on the ride, nor did I ever feel I was “racing.” But I loved it nonetheless. Most of the bike course was a surprise to me (I did not pre-ride it, so I’d only seen a few hotspot sections during a media tour in years past), and its beauty is unbelievable, passing through thick forest and rolling farmland, twisting and turning through fairy-tale type villages and containing a few solid climbs and fun sweeping descents. I felt sucky yet stoked, which makes no sense–but then again, what does in an iron-distance?

Eating was nearly impossible. I wonder if GU could make a gel that truly tastes like nothing? I can’t even stomach the Just Plain today. Or maybe they could make a pill of dehydrated gel? I really need something that tastes like nothing, feels like nothing, is nothing–but fuels me. Kind of like that Seinfeld episode about a TV show about nothing…

I was struggling but I knew the legendary Solar Hill would provide an inspirational lift, but just prior to Solar there’s another short climb that was almost equally packed with people. I was a bit out of sorts as I approached, so I was caught by surprise when, smack in the middle of the pack of spectators, I saw Willy to my right and Verena (my homestay mom) to my left. As I climbed they ran alongside me, slapping my bum to boost me up the hill in true bike racing style. I welled up with tears under my Rudy Project shades; because in all my years in the sport, despite being so supportive from afar, no one on my actual family has ever seen me race. It meant the world to me–and was a perfect precursor to the emotions soon to hit on Solar Hill.

Nothing in the world can prepare you–or even aptly describe–riding up Solar Hill. I’d been in the thick of the crowd when I covered the race in the past, and even as a spectator it was an emotionally charged experience. But cycling through the mass of 50,000 people, the deafening roar of their cheers, applause and noisemakers causing my tears to flow and my smile to spread so wide it hurt, was beyond compare. Every ride I’ve ever done, every mile I’ve ever spent on a bike, was worth it for that single moment, I thought, as the thunder of the crowd faded behind me.

I waged an hour-long debate with myself in the final lap of the bike. Should I DNF? Am I endangering my health if I continue? I’m obviously not OK. The chances I’ll be able to eat anything are slim to none. What’s the smart thing to do? Anywhere but here, I know I should stop. But not here! Not in Roth! How can I bear to miss the finish? But can I make it through a marathon without eating? I’ll just try–better to pass out somewhere along the course than to never know if it was possible. There are plenty of ambulances out there–I’ll be in good hands if something goes horribly wrong. Or should I stop? What’s the right choice? I have to decide before I reach T2–if I’m not one hundred percent determined by then, I’ll never start the run. I can’t bear to quit–not here in Roth, where I’m so lucky to be racing. And what will I write about if I DNF? But is it even possible for me to run? I know–I’ll take a nap first. I’ll find a spot in the change tent and just lie down…

At the dismount line, someone was speaking to me in what seemed like English. Through my fog I finally recognized Muddy Waters (legendary coach and a longtime friend of mine), though I couldn’t respond clearly and he quickly realized I was in a bad way. I stumbled through to my race bag and the change tent with only one mission–to find a spot to rest. And there it was–a clearing on the bench onto which I collapsed. Moments later I looked up to see the face of an angel–a German volunteer hovering over me, using cool sponges to bathe my face, neck and arms. Sponge bath. Nurse. Nap. Snapshots of what was happening formed in my head as I lay there for maybe 10 minutes, alternately closing my eyes and opening them to see all sorts of bustle and body parts around me in the co-ed change tent. Huh, I guess a lot of guys change their shorts mid-race?

I spent an equally long time in the port-a-loo, ultimately clocking a 19:24 T2 and downing a large cup of cola before finally mustering the motivation to start the marathon. Running is my favorite discipline, so I’m always happy when I get onto my own two feet, plus my muscles were hardly fatigued from my cruisey ride, and with the start of the Roth run a slight downhill, I actually found some running wings–buoyed by cola and mental delirium. OMG! The one-kilometer sign! I made it one kilometer! I might actually do this!

“Who won?” I gasped to a guy riding alongside the runners. He knew the top three women (Rinny, Rachel and Caroline) and I felt lifted by the success of my friends; I was equally boosted when he told me that local favorite Timo Bracht had scored his first Roth victory, knowing that the whole community would be elated with his win. I felt like a champion myself when I saw the three-kilometer mark, having missed number two while getting the pro race report. No way! Three? Three! Only 39 to go!

Can a person run a marathon on cola alone? Who was that athlete that just called me by name? Were they really giving out beer at that aid station? Can you get any benefits from chewing a banana and spitting it out without swallowing? Wait, I know that little girl! I saw the daughter of a neighboring homestay athlete, volunteering at an aid station on the other side of the out and back course. I couldn’t remember her name or make any noise come out of my mouth, but I ran up to her waving and smiling like a maniac and grabbing the sponges she offered. WHAM! An athlete running the other direction slammed into my skull, stunning me and causing me to stumble for a few moments. I felt horribly about it–it was completely my fault for interfering with the flow of traffic, and I’m sure he was equally hard hit and shocked.

I got through that marathon with cup after cup of cola–caffeine and sugar pit stops perfectly spaced between every two-kilometer stint of running–and soaking up all the energy and love I felt from the spectators and volunteers. That’s the thing about races that take longer than you might like; they allow you more time to enjoy everything and everyone out on the course, which feels pretty awesome, no matter the personal agony you’re suffering. In one of the villages the run course passes through, two very young girls were out with watering cans, pouring water on any athlete that needed cooling. I wasn’t overly hot at that point but I stopped for them simply because I wanted to show my appreciation for their cute concern.

I was also motivated onward by my dear friend Felix Walchshöfer (Challenge Family CEO), racing for the first time in Roth in what was a deeply personal accomplishment for him, a tribute to his father’s legacy and his family’s ongoing passion for producing the iconic event. We crossed paths three times during the marathon, and each time Felix spurred me on. “I’m going really slow, catch up to me Holly! Come on Holly, catch up! COME ON!” Although I knew the gap might be too much to close, the idea of sharing a portion of the run with my friend on such a vital day in his life kicked me into a higher gear; by the finish the distance between us was down from 15 to two kilometers.

With 10K to go, I looked at my watch: 12:55. OK. If I can stay focused, if I can stay out of the port-a-loo, if I can stop only for cola–and if I don’t pass out–I can surely finish under 14 hours. That’s my new goal! With five kilometers to go, my watch read 13:28. You’ve got this. Just keep moving.

The final kilometers of the Roth run, once you make the turn off the canal path and head back toward town, you’re pretty much on autopilot. The people lining the streets are so motivating (and so drunk), there’s really no way you can falter now–their enthusiasm holds you up. And the finish stadium–well, it’s what I imagine the Olympics or the Super Bowl must feel like, but with every athlete cheered on like a gold medalist.

I bounded around the stadium, so proud to have reached that point after a dubious day where I really didn’t know whether I’d make it. I crossed the line in 13:58 and fell directly into the arms of Kathrin Walchshöfer (Felix’s wonderful sister), and managed to eek out that I needed medical attention. She tried to take me there immediately, but I detoured to where Felix was being interviewed in order to give him a quick congratulatory hug. Pete Jacobs popped out of the crowd and draped a medal around my neck, then I was handed off to Victoria Murray-Orr, another dear friend from Challenge Family, who was entertained by my incoherent babbling as she delivered me into the capable hands of the medical crew.

One of the first things people ask after a race is, “What’s next for you?” I got that question a lot the next day–even on race night, in fact. I’m pretty sure the incredulous look on my face said what I couldn’t yet articulate: Too soon! Too soon! In the immediate term, I plan to get my belly-health properly checked, catch up with friends and exercise purely for unstructured fun and fitness. I’m sure it won’t be too long before I’m looking toward another start line, but whatever I do between now and next July, it will be something shorter. I’ll wait until Challenge Roth 2015 to tackle another full-distance triathlon–in part because I’m ready for a break, but more so, because I know that whatever happens out there next year, no matter how fast or slow I traverse the 226-kilometer course, it’s bound to once again be the best of times. And I can hardly wait.

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