Here I was, after having sworn to never race a full distance again. But I still had a score to settle with long distance racing and knew that eventually I had to get that monkey off my back.
This would be the year and I was going into the race confident. During prep I swam more, and subsequently better, than ever. A tune-up half distance race in June yielded a best-ever bike performance and my long runs were also way above and beyond what I did in seasons gone past. Expectations were high and so was the potential for disappointment.
Race Venue and Check In
I drove up to Copenhagen on Friday of the race weekend. It was a rainy and uneventful ride until I came to cross the Great Belt bridge. As much as I remain unimpressed with Denmark as a whole, driving across the Belt exactly when the sun broke through the overcast gave me hope.
Two friends were in our Airbnb since Wednesday and had already checked out the area and raided local craft breweries. Our flat was located only a 10 min walk away from the race village and swim start, the greatest luxury one can wish for on a race weekend.
I walked over to pick up my bib at around noon and was greeted by an immense queue. So immense that I decided to go back home, buy some groceries and try later. Eventually the queue cleared and I picked up my bib, backpack and swim cap, self seeding at sign in for the 1hr-swim wave.
The location of the race village and swim start and T1 area was fantastic. It’s on the sea-side of the lagoon, with plenty of beaches and lawns to hang out. There were cycle paths on both sides of the lagoon, ideal for a shake-out run and an easy commute to and from the race venue. T1 was fairly compact and straight-forward, not much opportunity to mess up here. Volunteers were, as always, absolutely brilliant, helpful and cheerful.
As I mentioned before, the greatest luxury in the history of triathlon is a home base near the swim start. After traditional pizza and beer the night before I had a solid nights sleep and felt great when I got up. I took my ceremonial 4.30am shower and made sure my hair was flawless. We walked to T1 in our Birkenstocks, filled our bottles and clipped in shoes, then walked back for the inevitable morning dump, followed by the always undignified wetsuit wiggle. I was a bit late back at the start area, double checked bottlesand shoes and made sure the bike was in a suitable gear to start the ride with my ego intact. A friend greeted me at my bike, I first didn’t realize he waited there for me and was amazed by the the coincidence that among 2000 athletes he’d rack directly beside me. A few works of encouragement and then I was already off for a very brief warm-up-and-pee-swim.
My friend with whom I was staying seeded one start-group behind me and so we said our goodbyes and high-fived one last time before the finish area. I’ve signed in with the fastest group of <1:03 and on race morning I think I went with the second fastest coral of <1:01.
Do you know why experienced triathletes always tell you to swim more and, when you’ve done that, to swim a bit more? Because there is a world of difference between standing at the start anxious and nervous versus being ready and eager to get going. This season I’ve put in the work in the pool and lake and eventually I understood what those people are on about. I could not wait to get after it and was eager to get going. No last-minute doubts, no questioning myself what I’ve gotten myself into.
The course starts into a westerly direction and turns NNE after about 100-200m. No sun glare, shallow seawater, well protected, no chop. Perfect conditions. I went out at a medium intensity and focused on finding my rhythm. Soon I found a good group to hang on to. On the way out there was some jostling for position, but it was all civilized. Rhythm was found about the time we crossed under the first bridge and from there on it was straight forward cruising. Occasionally the pace felt a bit too easy and I was worried I might be losing time, but then again trying to jump from my group of maybe 10-12 swimmers into the open would have cost way too much energy.
The first turnaround is made up of two 90 degree left turns and here the water got very shallow. Touching the ground with your fingertips-shallow, not seeing shit behind other swimmers for all the sand being unsettled-shallow. And of course, seaweed everywhere. At here it paid off that I shouted the course the day before and memorized a few larger industrial buildings location relative to the course, otherwise navigating the chaos could have been tedious.
Once we turned onto the SSW straight back the water got a bit deeper and things became more agreeable again. About 3/4 into the swim I let my mind drift completely and at some point I wasn’t sure whether or not I had already gone under the final bridge. Cue a few minutes of intense uncertainty, being caught in limbo between going really well and almost finished and my swim going to shit and it is still much longer than my arms would like. Eventually it turns out I was going well and that I am better at swimming than at counting to 4.
A slip way that really honored its name welcomed us back on land, leading right into T1. I looked at my watch and was elated to see a 1:01:28 and then terribly dissapointed because I really wanted a sub 1hr swim. And judging by how fresh I felt I was sure it would have been possible.
As always, unremarkable. It was a really short run from the waters edge to the bike bags, so short I couldn’t even pull my wetsuit down. In the days leading up to the race I was debating without end whether or not to wear socks on the bike. I’ve never had any issues with blisters on the bike, but thought I might gain a minute or two with proper aero socks. In the end I decided it was not worth the time putting on socks and running through transition on socks and stuck with my sockless strategy. Found my bike, darted through transition and crossed the mount line after 00:04:12, total time 1:05:40
I was expecting big things from this ride. Over the past year I’ve improved my position all-round, I’ve never felt more comfortable in my position, could deliver power and recent races suggested aerodynamics wer great too. I pr’ed the bike leg of our local half-distance 6 weeks prior. Bestbikesplit promised a 4:40 split, which seems outrageous. History taught me to take BBS forecasts with a grain of salt, but still I fully expected a ride under 5 hours.
The ride out of T1 and though town was awesome. Friendly and engaged crowds and plenty Tour-de-France-themed street art, reminders of this years Grand Depart. Finally we broke free of the city and onto the coastal road up the Oresund. What a course. We were flying north, with the Baltic to our sparkling like a million crystals. Silky smooth asphalt, the sun shining down on us. Seagulls cruising along, staring at us weird freaks in lycra and with stupid helmets. Everything went to plan.
About halfway though the first lap the course turned inland, onto twisty rolling roads. Beautiful for a Sunday ride with your mates. God-awful if you’re a 67kg dude on a TT bike. The nagging rollers and short kickers robbed me of all momentum, poor surface and traffic made it hard to make up time on the short descents. I realized that – surprise – this 180k time trial would after all not be an easy stroll in the park towards a sub5 bike split. It would probably be a tedious drag to a barely-sub5-at-all-ride. In all my commiseration I almost did not notice when the course left the countryside and turned back south onto a proper road. The course was now my friends again, but everybody else wasn’t. I was annoyed, later furious with people either pushing past me on the rollers only to slow down immediately after the overtake and guys slotting into my draft gap. It got so bad that there might have been some shouting and exchange of hand-gestures might have been going on. Unspeakably annoyed by people and my inability to remain calm, also embarrassed by my taking this shit way too seriously, I made myself very small and rage-surged into the headwind.
I was flying. I was making up the time I lost in the woods. I dropped The Annoyers. I was sure that I’d pay for this idiocy very soon. But then again I felt great and it might just be my day and so I enjoyed the sunshine and sparkling Baltic and the seagulls and hammered north on lap 2. Reality imposed itself on me when we turned back into the hilly part of the course. Much to my disdain the group of Annoyers caught up with and then dropped me immediately. My pace and power dropped. A profound feeling of humility washed over me. Now, 140km into the bike ride I was finally in the full distance mindset. This is hard and I better worked for it.
The remainder of the bike was all about damage control. I tried to fill up on calories as much as I could and accepted my fate of a supra-5 bike split.
I reached T2 at exactly the right moment. Still holding my position well and pacing well, but feeling an immense relief that I could get off my bike and start running.
I reached T2 after 05:06:42, 06:12:21 total. I rode 194NP – 2.9W/kg – 0.7IF an consumed 90g of carbs per hour with 1,8l of water per hour. I pissed myself twice on the bike.
All hail the bike catchers. What a joy to just drop the beast and run into T2 without wrestling a machine that’s not designed to be pushed. I spent all my mental energy on not thinking about what lay ahead. It is incomprehensible anyway, the enormity of the task, the stupidity of attempting it.
Spray-on sunscreen, shades, hat, shoes, socks, watch. 00:03:33, 06:15:53 total
My run preparation was flawless. 3 weeks prior I made my final big run, 31km on a 2.5k loop in our park in 2:25. Never thought I could feel so comfortable at pace on long distances. I was still hitting near the same interval splits as I would on a half distance program. I had confidence in my nutrition plan.
When I crossed the timing mat though things looked bleak. I had prepared for this mentally. I pictured this moment when things would get tough a thousand times during training. I imagined a heroic version of myself that tells himself to carry on, wills his body on to a glorious finish, because in the end it is all in your head anyway. In my imagination the hero had paced himself well and managed to let his RPE drift up until it became hard to keep running at pace. Many afternoons at the office I dozed off, thinking that when the moment comes, at kilometer 30 or 34 or maybe 29 of the marathon, then I’d find out what I’m made of. I’d shower the world in my glory and shake it with awesomeness.
In reality the part where things get hard happened immediately after I left transition. And it threw me off my game completely. No careful managing my RPE. No pacing to keep it quick but sustainable. No telling myself „what looks easy is easy“. No high-fiving kids trackside. Instead, bargaining with yourself whether or not you should walk, quickly devolving into a careful evaluation of my excuses to start walking right away. Hoping for a call of nature to sit for a few precious seconds. Adjusting targets by the minute. Can I sneak inside my AG top ten? Get as close to 09.30 as possible! Sub 10 would be great! Maybe beating our club record at 10:08 is possible? Fuck me, at least run under 4 hours! Carry on, don’t jump into the canal.
The initial plan was to pace around 5 min/km and a 3:20 – 3:30 overall. I practiced my nutrition strategy well in training and thought I could maintain about 60-80 g/hr on the run. But neither my pacing nor my nutrition plan was executable. Instead I pushed myself to keep running, and managed a slow but steady shuffle between 5:15 and 5:30 min/km and surprisingly held on for two of four laps. Looking back now, I cannot reconstruct what was happening. I remember the fear and intimidation I felt leaving T2 and the ruching shame when I realized that all my plans were going down the drain. I remember vividly how halfway into lap 3 I finally caved and took a longer poop break. I remember the walk of shame along that super-crowded harbour area. And walking even the slightest incline. But I have no clue what happened in the two hours between these moments. No clue. Maybe it is my subconscious protecting me from reliving the awfulness.
Anyway, all my targets were out the window. Catching my buddy 30 minutes up the road was out of the question. The walking breaks helped get some more calories into my bloodstream and with the finish in sight the final lap somehow became bearable again. I still walked the inclines, but found my composure again on the flats and downhills. Compared to all the suffering around me I was positively relaxed swift on my feet. I was also relieved that this was my last lap, because aid stations were running out of cups and I could only imagine the carnage behind me.
Finally, after going left at the LAP-FINISH-fork four times, I turned right into the chute. Crossed the finish line and felt … nothing. A light sense of disappointment, immense relief that it was over.
03:38:09, 10:14:02 total.
We hung out for a few minutes and grabbed something to eat and then quickly picked up our bikes and bags and rode back to our place. That evening we had a few beers and went out for burgers, followed by a night of cold sweat and shivers.
The next morning greeted us with sunshine and an empty beach. All the hustle was gone, no more people. Workers in day-go vests were removing all traces from the race village, erasing all reminders of a course. The silence and peace was almost spooky.
I went out for a walk in search of acceptable coffee and something to eat. Found a small bakery that offered both. Loaded with a chicken-something-fajita-sandwich, a big bucket of black coffee and a divine cinnamon roll I crossed the street and sat on a bench by the beach. The sun glare reflecting on the calm water surface, where I swim 4 km 24 hours ago with 2000 other morons.
Was it worth it? I don’t know. I’ve got that full distance monkey off my back and have no inclination to ever do it again. Maybe that was worth, removing that nagging voice from my subconscious. I am also content with my result. I was significantly slower than anything I would habe imagined. But there is no denying that I had a perfect race. Conditions were perfect. Nothing went wrong. All my gear was dialed in, my nutrition and pacing strategy were on point. Preparation went smooth, with no injury and no significant interruptions of my training. I have nothing and no-one to blame for my underperformance. And hence, it is no underperformance, but over-expectation. In all honesty, I could not have gone any faster and can not expect to improve unless I cut back on family time and commitment to my professional career. Neither won’t happen.
And so I drove south to the ferry back to Germany. Having accomplished nothing in terms of athletic achievement, nothing brag-worthy. But something much more valuable. I’ve made peace with full distance racing. I don’t care about it anymore. Apart from this post I have no urge to tell anyone about it. I won’t mention it on the internet. When people ask me about my race I tell them „It was nice“.