Race day starts too early: 3:15am. I’m awake before my alarm, I’ve barely slept, checking the clock every 20 minutes to see if it’s time to get up – normal pre-race practice. A muted breakfast follows, each of us in our own world, forcing down food we have little desire to eat. Then out on the road, driving in the dark, barely missing a deer, until, at first light, we arrive at Transition. With ninety minutes to go my bike is ready, all I can do is wait. Relaxed, I calmly chat with friends; you would hardly know there is a race to follow.
Ninety minutes later I’m floating in the water, drifting to the back convinced I am one of the slowest there. My plan calls for a Lanzarote-style relaxed swim, minimal hassle – I don’t want to be caught up front. Dead on 6:30 the cannon fires, we’re off. In clear water I settle into my stroke, enjoying the draft of the groups in front, until slowly the bunches split and I find myself alone except for one swimmer irritatingly tapping my feet. I weave, trying to throw them off, I don’t mind the drafting, it’s the repetitive slapping of my toes that bothers me. The extra metres work and for the return leg I am alone.
This is when boredom strikes. I plod along. Rhythmical and relaxed. Knowing the handful of hours I’ve spent in the pool limit the pace I can sustain; it’s a fine balance between conserving energy and going too slow. I am struck by how long the swim is, how much further? Ahead I see the bunches I’ve missed gradually pulling away. I continue to plod. Until, eventually, the second turn buoy appears, further than I thought, there’s more to go. But I have company, one swimmer zigzagging across my path for the final straight. He shares my black cap, I’m not the worst swimmer in my wave.
A dash through T1 – wetsuit off, empty bag, fill pockets. Then out onto the bike course. The sub-9 rack is distinctly empty, my bike stands there alone. I grab it, hop on at the mount line and head out onto the course. The time trial bike twitches underneath me, feeling unnatural, unfamiliar after the comfort of a road bike in the Pyrenees.
It’s been three years since I last raced here, but the roads are familiar. Smooth surfaces, easy corners, everything set for speed. Then as the course opens I am confronted by a strong headwind. I glance at my Garmin – this is not going to be easy. My legs feel tense, perhaps the training camp is still in them, or should I have ridden more – at all – this week? I give what I can, not feeling the weakness of Lanzarote, but also not quite there. People pass me. Lots of people pass me. I want to stop.
And so it proceeds. For the next three hours I am passed. I want to stop.
Onto the second lap, resisting the temptation to roll back to transition and hand in my chip. I’m slowing, heart rate dropping, motivation dropping, freewheeling increasing. I’ve been struggling to eat, but now I feel hungry and the chocolate Powerbar that earlier made me feel nauseous becomes a treat. Slowly things turn round. The headwind no longer bothers me, my legs perk up – fatigue numbs the pain – and I start to push. Heart rate and speed climb and I am no longer being overtaken. I am overtaking. I don’t want to stop.
That final 50km ends all too soon. I’ve worked hard, but not enough to redeem a 5:22 bike split. I rush through T2 determined not to add a second 12 minute transition to my race CV. I know the run is going to be hard, knees and hip flexors have already had enough, but something new has joined them – my right foot is tense, tightened up, movement restricted. I’ve felt it a few times when walking, but this is stronger. I tell myself it will loosen off and instead focus on slowing down to a sustainable pace.
Roughly five minute kilometres is the goal, with walk breaks for each aid station. It seems to work, but I quickly realise aid stations are too frequent and my determination to take on coke has left fluid sloshing in the bottom of my stomach. I skip a couple, running, not walking. Until halfway I feel fine, I can control the pain and I am on schedule, but I know the tough part is to come.
Sure enough, the desire to stop grows, but I am determined to only walk aid stations. If I crack I fear I will not start again. The second turn point is a hill and exposed to the sun, in my condition, at this point in the race, it feels brutal. The downhill is worse, my quads join my hip flexors in protest. Pure determination stops me walking. I ignore the pain. I just need to get back to the canal and then the finish. I want to stop.
Three kilometres to go. I can see the turn off to the finish, but I have more to do. Finally I crack. I walk a short, steep rise, but force myself to run on the flat. Onwards into downtown Roth, a cruel way to end a race – tired, hungry athletes funnelled through spectators with food and drink in hand. I want to walk, but if I do I’ll be shouted at in German. I am counting down metres now, this has to end.
Of course, it does. I am shattered. There is no pick up for the final kilometre, there is nothing, only the desire to stop. I cross the finish line. I beat 10:30, but the pain was too much. At least now I can stop.