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Challenge vs. IRONMAN, Part III: IRONMAN Hamburg

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First ever IRONMAN Hamburg 2017

To have the most neutral perspective on both triathlon giants, Ironman and Challenge Family, you’ll probably have to do a full iron distance triathlon organized by both companies each, within a short timespan, of, lets say, five weeks.

What a Coincidence!

On July 9th, 2017, I participated and finished the world renowned Challenge Roth in southern Germany. It was glorious. They have set the bar very high, almost impossibly high. It was the single greatest triathlon experience I have ever had.

Can the first ever official Ironman race in my hometown of Hamburg, which I love, and which is known all over the world to be triathlon crazy, top this?

Let’s Find Out!

First off, I have to say that my initial intention wasn’t to compare both races. I signed up for Challenge Roth right after Jan Frodeno beat the world’s best long distance triathlon time in July 2016 in Roth, because I was inspired by it.

Ironman Hamburg wasn’t even a thing at the time. I did want my city to get an Ironman race for a long time. After my first long distance triathlon in Copenhagen, I said “never again”, but soon after made the exception: “never again, but if Hamburg ever gets an Ironman race, I’ll do that”. I tweeted Hamburg’s Secretary of Interior and Sports, Andy Grote, asking for it. I wrote e-mail to high ranking people at Ironman. Because why not. No satisfying answers though. Until some day in the fall, suddenly the race was announced.

Hamburg Gets an Ironman!

It really happened. I remember that day, it was great. It didn’t took me long to decide if I wanted to do two long distance races in the timespan of five weeks. It must be possible, I thought.

So I made use of my option to buy a ticket earlier because of my participation at the other short distance Hamburg Triathlons. 600 Euros later I had secured my entry as one of the earliest people at this race. Yeah!

This is the place where I had just signed up for the Ironman Hamburg 2017, because I got the invitation right then, up in the trees
This is the place where I had just signed up for the Ironman Hamburg 2017, because I got the invitation right then, up in the trees

I wonder what special service I’ll get for paying almost 200 Euros more than for Challenge Roth, though. Spoiler: not much, it’s more like a brand name fee that they include, to feed the Wanda Holdings Conglomerate, which bought the World Triathlon Corporation for 650 million dollars, which in turn owns the Ironman brand.

At first, not much about the event was clear, except for the date on August 13th. Slowly the race courses were released and it turned out they had just stolen the courses from other Hamburg events. Good idea though, because those courses are great.

The Race Course

There’s the swim in the Alster river, which they took from the shorter ITU Triathlons but extended it from 1.5 kilometers to match the 3.86 kilometers.

Great, because I always like to swim in there
Great, because I always like to swim in there

The bike course was announced to consists of two laps of 91 kilometers each, which is rather typical because it reduces the amount of management required to make it happen by 50 percent, obviously. The lap is roughly based on the southern lap of the Hamburg CyClassics bike race which I did last year. Going over the iconic Köhlbrand bridge and through the Harburg hills down to Buchholz and back. For a flat region, there is a surprising amount of climbing to do, with 600 meters of elevation per lap.

On one of the rare sunny days, the southern part of the bike course can look like this
On one of the rare sunny days, the southern part of the bike course can look like this

The run course was announced to be almost exactly the ITU Triathlon run course. Up along the western side of the Alster river for about five kilometers, and back again. For a total of four times to reach a full marathon.

Hamburg’s favorite place to run
Hamburg’s favorite place to run

So far, that’s quite good planning, in my opinion. The swim had an additional feat of the so called “Australian Exit”, a quirk which means that the swim course is divided into two by a short exit, a few steps of walking or running and a splashy re-entrance into the water. After 2.5 kilometers, that was supposed to happen on Jungfernstieg right next to the swim start, to then get on another 1.3 kilometer lap to the swim exit at Rathausmarkt.

What’s missing? The transition zone. They planned to have it right where the ITU transition usually is, at the 800 meter long Ballindamm street. This made it the world’s longest Ironman transition zone! It means you’re actually running an ultra-marathon and it would be noticeably tougher to achieve a personal best time. But otherwise the place is a good choice.

Where does it end? Does it end at all?
Where does it end? Does it end at all?

Leading Up To The Race

There was a promo event held at the Alster in April. Running with the current Ironman world champion Jan Frodeno. I was hoping that he and other big names would sign up for Ironman Hamburg, but most of them opted for other qualifying races which were not as close to the Hawaii world championships in October. These pros like to have a few months between two long distance triathlon races, understandably. There are exceptions to this, of course. To name one, look at incredible Daniela Ryf. Last year, she somewhat spontaneously signed up for Challenge Roth on July 17th, winning it in 8:22:04 hours, just to do Ironman Switzerland just seven days later on July 24th, winning that one in 8:46:46. This is as crazy as it is rare. Almost needless to say, she won the Hawaii championships that following October as well.

I enjoyed the Frodo Alster run and got to experience the speed of this guy in real life. After the first Alster lap with lots of fans like me at an easy 5:30 min/km pace, he said he would do another faster lap. “Starting at an easy 4:00 min/km and see where it goes!” – he added. So that’s easy to him. Okay.

Struggling at 4:00 min/km, I somehow managed to take this picture
Struggling at 4:00 min/km, I somehow managed to take this picture

Training

I did no special training for this Ironman Hamburg, because the weeks leading up to it were full with triathlon races I participated in. That was my training.

The weekend after Challenge Roth, I did two more triathlons. Saturday held the ITU Sprint Distance Triathlon, in which I swam, biked and ran alongside my dear Sophie, as she experienced her first ever triathlon! It’s been a great gift to me to be able to share this hobby of mine with her. I enjoyed it a lot, and she did as well, fortunately.

The day right after that, I had a chance to use up all my remaining power at the ITU Olympic Distance Triathlon. I did, and reached another new personal best of 2 hours 29 minutes for the 1.5k swim, 40k bike, and 10k run. Quite proud to have beaten my best time here by another 9 minutes. So I filed that weekend under “success”.

Another week later I would do another olympic distance triathlon, this time in the nearby beach town of St. Peter-Ording. Swimming 1.5k in the North Sea just took me 18 minutes because of the currents. Biking was a bit tough because of harsh winds at the coast, and running was pure bliss in the sand and dunes and nearby forest of the town. 2:20 hours, another new personal best on the olympic distance. But the races are not really comparable because of the currents in the sea and all the other aspects of the weather.

Beautiful place to hang a bike – but a nuisance to get all the sand out later
Beautiful place to hang a bike – but a nuisance to get all the sand out later

Four Triathlons in Three Consecutive Weekends

It was a bit insane, I admit that. But I enjoyed the races a lot. My body did well, but almost right after the last one I caught a cold, which stretched out over almost a whole week. I guess the immune system was down from all the racing. It took longer to get rid of the cold as it usually does. Probably because I didn’t have any time to get enough sleep. Work is tough at the moment, and the three kids were rightfully grabbing the remaining attention.

Still, the immune system wins in the end and I’m hyped for Ironman Hamburg! The last week before that race I couldn’t use for Tapering (i.e. relaxing and decreasing the amount of training before a long race), but had to do some more training just to get from weak to strong again because of the cold. It worked out, I felt healthy and powerful in the days leading up to the main event.

Ironman Hamburg. Thankful.

It made me realize there’s a lot that can go wrong. So I’m deeply enjoying every second of every race I can do, especially these non-standard ones like the first Ironman ever in my hometown. I’m lucky enough to get to do these races. That’s something I’m very happy about.

Another perk of the race here in my city is the amount of participants I personally know. I counted eight friends who had signed up! Even better, every single one of those made it to the starting line. No sickness, no fear, all of them tough athletes.

Antje, Niels, Hendrik, Till, Christian M., Christian S., Angel, Sebastian. Very cool to share that day with them in some way.

Friday Before the Race

So, the race weekend finally begins! I bike over to Rathausmarkt in the city center to get accredited. It’s a small and secluded Ironman village they have built. That’s okay, all the necessary things are there. The volunteers are great. But the obligatory free branded backpack sucks big time, compared to Challenge Roth. Good thing I didn’t enter to get a new backpack.

Today it gets real. The logo is everywhere, half of the course is put up already, busy people are running around. This increases my happiness and makes me look forward to the race even more.

There’s my name on the list. No turning back!
There’s my name on the list. No turning back!
Rain outside, sun inside.
Rain outside, sun inside.

At 2:00 PM I half-listen to the mandatory race briefing. It’s always the same. Standing there in the rain, many hundreds of the 2,500 registered athletes have put up umbrellas over their heads. Funny picture! We’re all hoping for a change of weather for Sunday.

Now it’s back to the office to get some more work done in order to free my mind of all that so I can have a relaxed weekend.

Saturday Before the Race

This day is almost an Ironman race already. It starts with a supervised test swim in the Alster. A film crew of the NDR TV station wanted to shoot a short report about the event and had asked me to use me as an example. Sure thing, I said yes. So we met at that test swim and spent the day together. A reporter, a camera guy, and a sound lady followed me around. Quite a cool entourage!

Answering the question “Why would you choose to swim in here voluntarily?”
Answering the question “Why would you choose to swim in here voluntarily?”

At one point I met my friend Hendrik who also had a film crew following him, because he works at the NDR station and did a longer report on the race. That was fun, as we both had our TV team behind us.

I needed to get my bike and transition bags into the transition zone, and that’s it for the day. We had a bit of bad luck regarding the public transport that day, and the constant rain didn’t improve the mood, which made this a day of mixed feelings.

In the end, everything worked out, and our local TV station NDR ended up transmitting this little report about me on the day before the Ironman (turn on subtitles, if you need them):

As you might have noticed, the Ironman Germany CEO, Björn Steinmetz, is rather nervous about tomorrow! As often as he repeats how nothing can go wrong, he must be. Well, it’s the first Ironman ever in this city, sure there will be slight mistakes in the organization.

I almost wanted to pat him on the back and calm him down as I stood there beside the team during that interview
I almost wanted to pat him on the back and calm him down as I stood there beside the team during that interview

The last important thing to do today for me, is to eat. Lots of pasta, as I always prefer. Some eggplants, tomatoes, feta cheese, avocado as well. Mmmh, delicious. I think I’m well prepared.

Sophie takes care of the kids bedtime today so I can go to bed at 9:00 PM already. Sleep is the next important thing to get right before such a race.

After a good seven hours of solid sleep, the alarm clock goes off at 4:30 AM.

Time to Race

A huge one liter green smoothie and some oatmeal with our new HoneyPower honey. Delicious and full with power for today’s race.

These hours before the big starting signal are very special to me. They feel weird, being a mix of relaxation / Zen and nervous excitement. It’s difficult to explain, you’d have to experience it for yourself.

I take a car2go to the city center and am very relieved that it’s not raining like yesterday. Cloudy sky, no winds, rather cool temperature. It’s a beautiful atmosphere here at the junction of Jungfernstieg and Ballindamm. Nervous athletes standing around, making their last adjustments. Closing their eyes to concentrate on today’s task. Colorful and vibrant sports clothing in contrast with slow movement and little action. I feel I’ve come to the right place. This is like home.

Bike bag selfie
Bike bag selfie

As I wander through our 800 meter long transition zone to make my own final adjustments on the bike, I meet my friend Antje. For her, it’s the first ever full iron distance triathlon, and obviously she’s a bit nervous about that, especially since she’s been having trouble with her knee lately. We have a little chat and wish each other good luck today.

A few meters further, there’s Niels, one of the Maaßen brothers, who were with me at my first ever half distance triathlon in Almere-Amsterdam. I remember that after the three of us had finished that race I sad to them both: “How about a full distance now?” – but they were rather entertained by that suggestion. Not for them.

But When Ironman Hamburg Was Announced, That Opinion Changed

I’m glad I can share this day with them. It’s almost like a full circle experience, doing the same long distance together after having done the first half distance together.

Early morning Alster
Early morning Alster

The last half hour starts. I get into my wetsuit, pack my street clothes bag to check that in and walk over to the start. I hand the white bag to a friendly volunteer who puts it into a pile of white bags within a trailer, and five seconds later I look at the street shoes I’m still wearing.

Oh no. What a rookie’s mistake! As I turn around and approach the volunteer, he tells me without being asked, that there’s no chance I could get my hands at my white bag again. I figured.

So, hide the shoes somewhere? Ask the guys at the info counter? Hm. As I ponder the next action, I get hit in the shoulder by someone. Huh? It’s Till! Another friend who is racing today. He’s done two full distance triathlons as well before, but he was a lot faster than me. Well under 10 hours each. Now he’s had a few children, too, and stands there with some early-riser friends and talks. Perfect! They offer to take care of my shoes.

Problem Solved

It’s allowed to do a little test swim before the start. I never did that right before a race I think, but today I feel like it. The water is nice. Not too cold at 18.8 degrees centigrade, rather refreshing.

Meeting Friends

As I exit I see my new friend Christian, who owns a triathlon themed shop in my neighborhood, and who also managed to finish the Ironman Hawaii triathlon a few years ago! He’s the only one I know who managed to do that. I wanted to talk to him, but I got asked some questions by another nervous athlete who wasn’t familiar with the city and the course, so I helped out but missed Christian.

As I walk over to the start, another Christian taps me on the shoulder. This one I met via Strava, and he’s quite the guy as well. A few more years on his shoulder than me, but a lot faster. A lot better at training, too, and always smiling. He has packed some HoneyPower for the race, he tells me. Good man!

Another few meters later, not quite at the swim start yet, there’s Hendrik! Great to meet him. He seems to be in a conversation so I just give him a fist bump and wish him luck. Right then I realize that he’s being interviewed by a TV crew again. They’re doing a long report on his first Ironman project.

Focus

But now it’s time to keep to myself and think about the race. I like to have a few minutes on my own with no distractions before such a day of sports. As I merge into the 2,500 mostly green-capped athletes, I find what I’m looking for. A few minutes left.

The MC is getting more excited and louder by the minute, and then fires off the signal for the first start: all the professionals go off! The race has officially started, it’s 6:40 AM. Just 10 minutes later, us amateurs will commence the typical Ironman Rolling Start. As I optimistically went into the block of swimmers who were planning to swim the 3.86 kilometers in 1:05 to 1:15 hours, I am one of the first few hundred.

6:50 AM, my fellow athletes start running into the water. Yeah, it’s starting! The masses of people move quite quickly. Four more athletes are allowed into the water every 2.2 seconds. That’s difficult to time right. I guess the volunteers didn’t measure this accurately, because it happens very fast. 6:55, I’m in front of the line and walk into the water until I lose control on the wobbly floating platform and make a splash. Beautiful water. I’m where I need to be.

Ironman Hamburg Has Started!

This is one of the best moments. This liquid element surrounding me. Total immersion. First strokes. Feeling the temperature and movements. I accidentally taste some of it and I am pleasantly surprised.

In 2011, six years ago, I did my first ever triathlon. An Olympic distance race right at this spot in the Alster. And I remember the water – it didn’t taste great. Sour it was. And quite muddy. As I exited it, I remember lots of brownish stuff on my face. And after the race I had green algae on my chest underneath the suit. Probably those were all signs of bad water quality.

Some more years before that, I heard stories of friends who fell into the Alster during a boat tour, which triggered a Cyanobacteria allergy. Painful.

But today, the water is great. I remember the various triathlons and swims I did since 2011 in this river, and realize that it has continually improved in quality. Good work, Hamburg Wasser!

Hitting People

A few hundred meters into the swim, it becomes clear that this Rolling Start was probably not timed on point. It is too crowded in here. I receive lots of elbow hits against the head and accidentally hit a few others, too. Someone swims over me. Wow, that’s annoying. I swim over another one. There isn’t really anything you can do, there’s no space to go to. I receive a kick against my teeth. Ouch, that hurts. Feels like my lip is swollen right away.

This is my 20th triathlon ever, and I can’t remember the swim part being this violent ever before. So there’s potential for improvement in 2018 for Björn Steinmetz and his crew.

On the good side, the problem diminishes over time as everyone finds their rhythm and the field stretches out a little bit.

A View for the Gods

We swim underneath the Lombard’s bridge and Kennedy bridge into the Außenalster, the bigger Alster. Right then, about 700 meters into the swim, the clouds part and the sun shows up. Almost timid, she is just above the horizon this early morning, and her golden beams make the Alster sparkle. It’s truly an amazing sight. A scene which I would have loved to take a photo off to hang it poster sized in my living room.

As the 1980s glam metal band Poison stated, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, the strong sunlight makes it hard to see the buoys and other swimmers. Am I on track? Difficult to say.

After 1.2 kilometers the first turning point is reached. Well into the Außenalster, the water quality is probably best right here. I feel like I could drink this and be safe and healthy. Tastes just like out of the tap, or out of an expensive and ecologically harmful plastic bottle.

Swimming straight into the sun for maybe 50 meters until we are allowed to turn right a second time and make our way back to Jungfernstieg, where we started.

There, right next to the swim start, is the so-called Australian Exit, a triathlon quirk I always wanted to try. It’s a swim exit before the real swim exit. Here, after roughly 2.5 kilometers, we need to get out of the water, run through two huge gates, and get back into the water to swim the remaining 1.3 kilometers.

This is lots of fun, I think. It gives you a chance to take a look at the massive crowds here, get the circulation going, and it just makes the otherwise rather boring swim a bit more varied. I’m in favor of it!

A volunteer helps me stand up on the floating ramp as I tightly grab his arm, and he tells his buddy: “Finally someone who has some grip!” A few steps on solid ground, 180 degree turn, and down some steps until I stumble over my run-down right big toe and fall into the water again.

Splash

That was elegant. Ouch, the toe. Somehow I feel beaten up already, this early into the race. A quick turn on the back to look at the toe: no blood, I’m good. That poor toe, though. It’s always this one that gets stepped on by the kids, or battered during a long run.

1.3 kilometers to go. This time we stay inside the smaller Binnenalster. Up to the northern end and back south again. I feel good. During the last 100 meters I violently use my legs to warm them up and get the blood circulation going, which helps me avoid collapsing after exiting the water.

Another red-carpeted ramp climb and the first discipline is done! The watch reveals 1:14 hours, perfect. Almost exactly as long as five weeks ago in Roth.

Reason to be smiling, swimming is done
Reason to be smiling, swimming is done

The Second (Or Fourth?) Discipline: Transitioning

200 meters of running to the changing bags. The atmosphere is great, lots of people have come to cheer for their friends and family members who race today. You can’t help but smile experiencing this. Well done, Hamburg!

I grab the correct bag and head into the changing tents, where I sit down to get rid of the wetsuit, dry myself off, apply some vaseline, put the bib number around my waist, get into the socks, put the helmet on top, and pack the transition bag with all left-overs. That felt quick, but the length of the transition zone will take its toll. There’s no way around running on my socks for about 600 meters to my bike. The laid-out carpets are soaking wet, which makes my socks soaking wet. Every step holds a nice squishy sound.

Finally I reach the bike and have to push it for 100 more meters until the bike course starts and the mounting line suggests we are allowed to hop on.

Biking For 182 Kilometers

This area around the bike start is crowded. People are screaming the names of the athletes they’re supporting, waving banners, clapping, it’s crazy! For this time of day, just a few minutes after 8 AM on a Sunday, that’s a good effort.

But now, the course leads into a tunnel. Quiet.

Time to get into the bike-mounted shoes and relax. The transition is always so hectic and nerve-wrecking. It’s good to have some time to reflect and chill out right here.

The course leads down south. It’s 13 degrees cold, clouded, and windy again. Hamburg’s summer. I can only hope it will improve a bit, but given that it’s still early in the day, it probably will, at least to some extent. On the positive side, the wind dries the wet triathlon suit very quickly.

After 10 kilometers of warming up, the first attraction shows up: Köhlbrand bridge. Hamburg’s iconic blue 1970s bridge. I once was allowed to cross it on a bike, last year during the CyClassics bike race. I think it’s great they are always trying to make the bridge part of these races. It’s an amazing view of the city after a climb from zero to 53 meters of elevation.

First, you have to use your legs to get up
First, you have to use your legs to get up

Downhill is always better. It’s known territory for me, as I’ve biked here before a few times. Altenwerder, Moorburg, until we get into my in-law’s turf: Harburg and Eißendorf. Right there, the street is used for both directions of the loop course, which means we could meet some of the incredibly fast pros making their way back towards the city center of the first loop.

About 28 kilometers in, the course is right next to my in-law’s home in Eißendorf. From far away I can see them standing there, their cellphones ready, swinging an English flag as my father-in-law is representing his home country. It’s great to have their support here, although they were not saying a word, just making sure to take good pictures with their smartphones.

Very happy about that meeting.

A few minutes later, the pros actually are coming towards us! Their speed is crazy. They are about 35 kilometers in front of me. Looking so cool in their perfect aero positions on these incredibly expensive bikes, almost completely quietly swishing by. An amazing sight, every time.

It’s Getting Tough

Now, the hills start. What hills? Yes, Hamburg’s vicinity has some hills. Vahrendorf, Rosengarten are up to 130 meter above zero. These are no short and harsh hills as in Roth, but rather long demotivating stretches with no end in sight. Not easy!

To make things harder, the wind is waking up and shaking me a bit. It’s still clouded, by the way. Not the best for morale.

Head down and power through
Head down and power through

Drafting?

Ironman also usually enforces the 12 meter anti-drafting rule. It means that you are required to keep 12 meters of space between your front wheel to the next guy’s front wheel. When overtaking someone, you have 25 seconds to do that, and as soon as you’re in front of the next guy, that one is responsible for making sure the 12 meters are kept free. It’s a rule to make racing fair, although there are debates as to whether 12 meters is actually enough.

Today though, almost everyone breaks this rule. Has to. It’s crowded, probably due to the rushed Rolling Start during the swim. The course is full with people, there’s no way to always keep 12 meters between the front and back.

I always bike very carefully, because I would really like to avoid the five minute penalty if getting caught. This is a challenge for the race marshals, about 50 of which are patrolling the course to enforce the rules. Show everyone the dreaded yellow card? Let it all slide?

As I pass the first penalty box I see a poor rider standing there and rampantly arguing with the volunteers about why he had to take the penalty as opposed to everyone else. I can understand his point although I haven’t seen how hard he drafted. Even as we passed by that box, there were many athletes right behind me, drafting. The volunteers clearly had nothing to do with this but need to listen to caught athletes complaining all day. I guess acceptance would be the way to go here if you find yourself in the situation. Who cares about the five minutes, unless of course, you’re trying to win one of the 40 qualifying slots for the Hawaii World Championships. In which case you definitely should be extra careful.

46 kilometers done. Downhill into Buchholz. That little town marks the southern most tip of the loop. The people of Buchholz have put up a little hotspot with cheerleaders dancing and an MC speaking. Some residents have also made their way to the course. It’s nice to see some people, as the previous 20 kilometers were rather empty.

Forest

Klecker forest , that is. This is tough. Trees and hills. A particularly crazy downhill stretch leads into the village of Helmstorf. 60 kilometers per hour, then a wet part of the road followed by a very sharp left turn. I later heard there were lots of crashes here. I must say, the streets seem to have not been cleaned. I saw a lot of people repairing their bikes and lying on the street after a crash. No bigger injuries, though. I think this is another small thing that could be improved next year, just let a cleaning van drive down the lap. They seemed to have done that in Roth, as I saw exactly zero athletes repairing flat tires.

This Is No Easy Course

Through Hittfeld and back towards Vahrendorf and Eißendorf, where the course shares the street again. This time, I get to see the triathletes who are 35 kilometers behind me. There are more than I would have thought! Although I don’t envy them but feel compassion for them instead, it’s hard to ignore a guilty pleasure type of feeling to know there are people so far behind me.

And there are the in-laws again! They timed it perfectly, which means they are probably looking at the Ironman website to see where I’m at. Another boost for my motivation, much needed on this tough course today. 70 kilometers down, 110 left. That realization is putting me back into my place.

Quitting

This is probably the closest I ever got to quitting a race. The legs are burning like hell, the winds make it very hard to use my energy in a measured way, and the cold doesn’t help either. The fact that this course is 91 kilometers twice, means that we’re right at the starting point after half of it. That’s the best possible circumstances of quitting the race after one lap. Man, I feel like I can’t do this today.

Is an Ironman a Race for Quitters?

No, it’s not. You only quit if there’s just no way you can do it. And there rarely is. “If I collapse, please press PAUSE on my GPS watch!”

I remember all these videos I’ve seen of people finishing the Ironman after 17 hours in Hawaii, tears of joy in their eyes, one of the greatest accomplishments of their lives. Pure bliss. Finishing an Ironman is such a huge thing, it never gets old.

“I Get to Do an Ironman Today”

Not everyone has the chance to do this in their lifetime. And I am already at my third long distance triathlon. This is quite the privilege. Just quitting because my legs are tired would be disrespectful, in my opinion. Never mind the 600 bucks wasted.

So, there’s no question. Keep going, see how it goes. Slow down, if I must. Fight. The last 20 kilometers of the lap are flat and lead through Wilhelmsburg, a quiet neighborhood. Not much wind, either. The course and I become friends again.

Neuhöfer Damm, a street connected with the beginning of the Köhlbrand bridge, is center to an open-air techno party today. Well, yesterday, I guess. But those techno folks are known to show quite some endurance. Disregard the potential substance abuse and you might have competition to us Ironmen and women today! We can hear the pounding music and see the party people dance. Fun!

The street is a two-way street here again. I didn’t realize that the first time because no one was already at 85 kilometers, but now I see there are many athletes who are already on their second lap, roughly 10 kilometers in front of me.

Crossing the northern Elbe river arm at Freihafenbrücke, a bit through the Hafencity neighborhoods, and we’re back where we started.

Coming out of that tunnel, I am greeted by a wall of sound and screams
Coming out of that tunnel, I am greeted by a wall of sound and screams

The crowds are doing really well and instantaneously make me forget about the pain and problems. Smiles everywhere. Contagious!

Okay, There’s No Way I’m Quitting

This is my hometown, this is the first ever Ironman here, I won’t quit this today. As the turning point appears, I stand firm and make the important decision: left or right.

Left. Onto another 91 kilometers of biking!
Left. Onto another 91 kilometers of biking!

Half-way done, the watch reveals a great split of 2:54 hours, which would lead to my goal of biking in less than six hours! How did that happen? Am I stronger than I think? Or have I stupidly just used up all my energy? Probably a mix of both. We’re about to find out.

Some more HoneyPower. And a second Top Secret HoneyPower Bar (not yet ‘tm’). Food is important today.

So, familiar territory from here. The Köhlbrand bridge crossing is especially tough now, I am slower than last time. Sure enough. Down in Eißendorf, my in-laws meet me for a third time, so cool! That motivational boost makes the upcoming hills easier. I say to myself to take it as easy as possible. Save energy, shift a gear down. No chance to keep my good pace from the first lap, but that’s not important to me anymore.

The pain intensifies. The neck is another part of the body that starts complaining now. Of course, the aero position isn’t comfortable for six hours. I need to sit upright from time to time.

Hungry, I eat my last Top Secret HoneyPower Bar and then another generic inferior one at the aid stations. I need more food than I thought, this is new. Good they are supplying everything here. Isotonic drink, water. Just the HoneyPower gels I have to bring myself. For now.

Back up north again, maybe 150 kilometers in, it starts raining. You might think that this would kill my spirits, but I have made my peace with this race when I chose to not quit at the start of the second loop. Nothing can stop me today, I decided. Nothing can break my spirit, I will see this through. And if I’m crawling at the end, so be it.

A bit of rain hasn’t killed anyone before. Unless it’s because someone slipped and fell horribly on the resulting wet streets. I’m glad no one got seriously injured today.

160 kilometers – an insane sounding number, still – there are my in-laws. For the fourth time. Loyal and supportive people. I’m lucky to have them. Coincidentally, the sun is suddenly peeking out.

Watching me going uphill during those rare sunny moments of the bike part
Watching me going uphill during those rare sunny moments of the bike part

The techno party is also still going, another three hours later. Those people must have legs of steel!

Somewhere in Harburg I finally meet someone I know on the course. It’s Antje! She passes me by with a friendly greeting. She started a few minutes later than me and probably swam a bit slower, too. But as I am a comparatively weak cyclist, it’s no surprise to me that she gets to me here. “Go go go!” I scream as she makes her way towards the front.

See You During the Marathon, Antje!

Now, the legs are really done with biking. I stay on top of the bike by thinking of the marathon in anticipation. Finally the sport I enjoy most of the three is coming up. Just a few more kilometers on this uncomfortable thing!

Seeing the people coming towards me who are just at 100 kilometers here while I’m almost done makes me feel bad for them.

Crossing the Elbe for a last time today
Crossing the Elbe for a last time today

Hafencity, Wallringtunnel. Feet out of the shoes and on top of them. Come on, almost done. Out of the tunnel, and the crowds don’t disappoint! What an atmosphere.

Hamburg, This Is Roth Worthy!

Off of the bike, finally. Ah, that’s better! An upright body position and straight neck. Feet on the ground where they are supposed to be.

Six hours and 10 minutes, that’s acceptable considering the circumstances. Not a great bike split, to be sure, but I’m happy with it. 182 kilometers is two more than usual, and even three more than in Roth. Also, according to my GPS tracking, there was about as much elevation than in Roth, as well! A measured 1.440 meters of elevation compared to 1.550 in Roth. Officially that’s 1.000 in Hamburg and 1.200 in Roth. Whom to believe. Anyways, I can be very happy with this result so far.

Transition

Now it’s convenient to have my bike rack mount just 100 meters away from the dismount line. I can get rid of the vehicle early in the zone and run down the 500 meters to the transition bags, obstacle free. Many others have to push their bikes for most of the way.

The legs feel strange, but that’s over after a few hundred meters. A precise grab and I’ve got my red running gear bag. Sitting down in the changing tent feels good.

I take a second to reflect.
I just biked for 182 kilometers.
It’s done.
Relieved.

As I take off my socks I prepare for an unwelcome sight of my feet due to the wet and cold weather. They were numb for a good portion of the course. But I’m glad to see they’ve not turned blue. The running will melt these icy extremities soon. I’ve got my new Swedish Gococo compressions socks with me today, because I enjoyed them during the Roth marathon. Scientifically, there’s no studies at all which support compression socks are better for you, or worse for that matter, but they just feel better. The legs don’t seem that swollen, that’s all. So, why not wear those. Couldn’t hurt – except if you’re very particular about your own visual appearance.

Shoes, headband, sunglasses, vaseline, some HoneyPowers into the back pockets and one more HoneyPower into the mouth. That’s better.

Out of the tent, a nice volunteer takes my bag. Another 50 meters and the marathon finally begins. The feet feel great in my shoes now. Running just is the best.

On My Turf

This is my favorite part! And right there at the start, I finally get to see my family. All the girls are standing there, hoping for many kisses which they shall receive.

Happy about the familiar faces
Happy about the familiar faces

“This is quite exhausting!”, I tell them with a smile. That sentence being the understatement of the year for me, probably.

They laugh. No kidding! If they only knew...

The Plan

My plan is to finally crack the four hour barrier on the marathon of a long distance triathlon. In Copenhagen and Roth I came close with 4:06 and 4:05, respectively. When I do just a marathon, it’s no problem for me to finish in less than four hours by now. In April I did my fastest ever marathon here in Hamburg at 3:26 hours. So I must have a good chance, I thought. Five weeks ago, in Roth, I thought so as well. But 180 kilometers of biking before it gave me a reality check. Will it happen this time? I’m going for it, starting the run with an optimistic and necessary pace of 5:30 to 5:40 minutes per kilometers – 5:41 min/km would be mathematically required for a 4:00 hour finish. We’ll see how it goes.

Course Recap

The course is exactly the same as the 10k run of the Olympic distance ITU triathlon in July every year. That’s a crossing of the two Alsters on Lombard’s bridge, then about four kilometers north next to the bigger Außenalter and back again, as well as around the smaller Binnenalster towards Rathausmarkt. The small difference being, instead of one lap, we have to do this four times.

The Crowds

Another difference is the crowds. While the ITU triathlon run is stretched over most of the day and every athlete is running for just about an hour, the amount of spectators is also stretched out thin over a long time. There aren’t many on the run course, usually. I expected that, and thus I was surprised quite a bit when the course was basically full with people! At every possible place along the route, there were screaming happy people.

Our Hamburg running and triathlon clubs TIDE Runners, Run Fleet, Triathlon-Affen, and Triabolos were making lots of noise and had set up little cheering stations with DJs and dancers, throwing confetti on the course. Great!

The Others

The big advantage of this seemingly repetitive course layout is the fact that you get to see lots of other athletes. I found this particularly exciting, because I knew so many people who took part in the race. I was constantly looking for them. And after just about two kilometers I already saw one: Till! He is probably on his third lap, I guessed. He looks as if he could need some cheering though, so I screamed at him. I always do.

“Go go go!”

Shortly after that I see Hendrik, who might be on the end of his first lap while I’m at the beginning, guessing from what I know about his speed. He has a white face and is probably well out of his comfort zone.

Next to the Cliff restaurant, there’s the first volunteer I know: Rasmus. He is almost done with his shift protecting the pedestrians from the athletes, so he runs with me for a few hundred meters while asking about the race so far. Very nice to have someone to talk to for a longer time than just five seconds!

Rasmus selfie
Rasmus selfie

“Teesche!”

After I reach the turning point and come back south, I hear a few people screaming “TEESCHE!” – which means they know me! Most of the people scream my first name, Tim, because it’s printed on my bib number. While that’s nice, it’s cooler to know there’s someone who knows me and recognizes me, although I rarely realize who it was that screamed my nickname. It happened many times and warmed my heart every time.

Next to the Cliff I meet Rasmus again as he runs along with me. 7.5 kilometers done! I start drinking Coke and Red Bull now. And have some HoneyPower Espresso, because I start feeling tired.

Sophie!

Down underneath the Kennedy and Lombards’ bridge, out of the little tunnel, there’s an amazing view of the Binnenalster.

Getting closer to the finish, one step at a time
Getting closer to the finish, one step at a time

The sun is full out, temperatures are perfect around 20 degrees now, there’s very little wind, happy people everywhere. What a day for an Ironman! The dark times during the biking are forgotten.

There’s Sophie again. Perfect. The kids are playing and Sophie took some time for a little chat. Great to see her.

On Jungfernstieg, I receive a lap hair-tie for my arm, to remember how many laps I’ve done. They have four different colors given out at four stations next to each other. It’s like a Level-Up at every lap. Gamification!

That’s the first lap. Easy, so far. Just three laps left. It doesn’t stop that I unexpectedly meet people I know. Domes, Alino, Bone, all just show up out of thin air and scream my name. So cool!

Timmy!

One guy calls me “Timmy”, a nickname I’ve not heard since I was a child, I think. I didn’t recognize the guy at first, but then realize it must have been a friend of my father’s. We’re next to my father’s rowing club, where both of them met many decades ago, so it makes sense. My father later confirmed, it was his buddy Timo. Now you know one of my earliest nicknames.

A bunch of times I’ve also just been called “HONEYPOWER!!!” – which is cool, especially since I didn’t know the people personally and didn’t wear any HoneyPower branded gear today. So I guess I have made a little break-through.

In Conclusion: Atmosphere was Amazing, I Felt Lots of Love

What about the legs? Not much! They were still working, I kept the pace, no trouble. I like running.

Now I pass by my friend Niels, who is one lap behind me and struggling. We have a chat and I try to motivate him. He walks for a bit but starts running again soon. It’s not an easy race.

After the second lap is almost done, I meet Sophie and the kids again. Kisses for everyone. Another lap hair-tie shortly afterwards on Jungfernstieg, and the fork in the road on Rathausmarkt: deciding if we’re done or need another lap. An athlete in front of me signals he’s done, but in the last possible second he makes a sharp left turn towards another lap. He was kidding! The volunteers laugh. I like it when people still have humor in such a demanding situation. Well done to that guy!

So, that’s the half marathon already. The watch says 1:55 hours! Well on course for a sub four hour finish. But a marathon is more than just two half marathons, especially at the end of an Ironman. It’s very possible I need to slow down later.

Water with Salt

The aid stations now offer water with salt. That’s new. Sure, we need water and salt, but usually we get that from the isotonic drinks. I try some and it doesn’t taste great. But it’s probably a good idea to have some more salt now, especially for the inexperienced ones of us. I opt for some more wet sponges on the head to cool down, because it’s really getting warm now. Who would have thought it would turn out to be such a great day, weather-wise. Only snow and hail was missing and we would’ve had everything.

HoneyPower, Coke, isotonic drink, sometimes Red Bull. Some water. That’s what I need.

After this third lap is almost done I pass by someone I know, for the second time: it’s Antje! She got me at the end of the bike, but now I’m in front again. I try to motivate her a bit, because I know it can be tough to get passed by this far down the marathon.

An old lady at an aid station talks to me: “Hey, you’ve been here before!” – yes, that’s true. It’s bound to happen to almost everyone participating today!

Another time to meet the kids, but this is the last time. Three laps or 31.5 kilometers are done, so we talk about where to meet after the finish. It’s all logistics at some point! Their support means a lot to me, it’ll definitely carry me through the last lap.

During the fourth lap I see my friend Angel, which means he didn’t reach his goal of 10 hours and 10 minutes – maybe next time!

Personal Bodyguard

As I look forward to the last lap, I am suddenly surprised by my friend Maddin, on a bike. He’s just come back from a short vacation and wanted to see how I was doing. Then he decided to just accompany me for the rest of the race! Eight kilometers on a bike for him at a rather slow pace for an experienced cyclist like him. Very nice of him. We talk and joke around, it’s very cool having him here. He does a livestream on the internet of me and posts some pictures and videos to a few friends.

I meet two more volunteers whom I know, Andy and Felix. They signed up at the last minute because more support was needed. Nice of them and a good chance to give out two more high-fives.

Happy and inexplicably motivated I come towards picture-taking Andy
Happy and inexplicably motivated I come towards picture-taking Andy

At that last aid station, the old lady talks me up again: “You again! Now it must be your last lap, right? Well done!” – how nice of her.

Jungfernstieg, last hair-tie. The guys who give out the last lap hair-ties are very happy for everyone who gets one at their station. That’s a good spot to volunteer, you only get to see proud and happy athletes.

A last turn to the right on Neuer Wall, a last turn to the left towards Rathausmarkt, surprised by the kids again, and now it’s my turn to go straight towards the finish line! The crowds and the MC are great here, it’s loud and festive as well as energy-filled.

The MC gives me a high-five, I raise the hands up in the air, the endorphins hit and there it is.

The final moments
The final moments
Making the crowds a bit noisier
Making the crowds a bit noisier

FINISHED!

Ironman Hamburg, 2017!
Ironman Hamburg, 2017!

An elderly gentleman decorates me with a medal and speaks some heart-felt congratulations. He’s probably done this before himself and knows what it’s like. You can tell. Just seconds later, I have not yet digested this finish, a young polite volunteer girl talks to me: “Would you like me to show you the way to the Athlete’s Garden?” – Sure, why not! She says I was smiling so nicely she wanted to accompany me.

As we move down the gated way towards that garden, I can’t help but smile, it’s such a great feeling having completed an Ironman race. Maddin suddenly appears on the other side of the gate, congratulating me. The girl is talking English, because she’s from Poland, and it’s nice speaking with her on the few hundred meters. My cycling friend Tobi also appears unexpectedly at the gate, very happy for me and reaching out for a high-five.

As we reach the gated Athlete’s Garden, I say goodbye to the Polish girl so she can pick up another smiling triathlete. I enter and immediately run into my friend Angel, wearing one of these aluminium foil warming blankets. Despite the foil, he looks fine. We have a huge hug and I brag about the volunteer girl who accompanied me. He says, he’s had two girls accompany him... one of them is still standing next to him and looking at him in awe as we talk. That guy is irresistible! It must be his Venezualan origin, I need to tell myself.

After a bit of chatting about the race, I head for some alone time. Celebrating the victory with myself, have a few moments to reflect on the day. I need that. Some ice-cold melon, an alcohol-free beer, salty crackers. Another volunteer girl hands me a sandwich.

I realize I’m incredibly thankful that I get to do this. Two complete iron distance triathlons within five weeks. It’s quite something, and I’m happy my body lets me do this.

Goals Reached

What about that marathon time? It’s been 3:55:10 officially in the end – goal reached! But I didn’t make the sub six on the bike part. That’s alright though, it’s been a tough course.

All in all, I am very happy about my 11:36:45 finish. Compared to 11:35:53 in Roth, just one minute more on a course that had a bike course that was roughly three kilometers longer, and the world’s longest transition zone, it kind of feels like a new personal best.

This Athlete’s Garden is alright. The melon tastes amazing. I decide to have some more, then get my free finisher’s shirt and my own streetwear bag back. Minus the shoes. There are massages too, but they have a long queue in front of them, as well as a sign saying you’d have to shower first. Understandable, but clearly not as good as the service at Challenge Roth. For me it means no massage today.

On my way back down Mönkebergstraße towards the finishing area, I meet Adrian and he congratulates me and hopes we can meet later. Tobi is there again to give me a proper hug and have a little chat. So nice of them all!

Back at Rathausmarkt, I finally meet Sophie and the girls, who are all up to mischief, as always. But they’re also very happy to see me again, as am I. Emma is wildly crawling around on the floor, instructed by Julie. Vera is running into my arms. Our former au-pair Egor is there, too. As I look at my smartphone for the first time today, I see dozens of notifications across all the different channels. It’s been a storm of exposure for me that ate half the battery although I just touched the phone for a few minutes early in the morning.

As it’s quite late in the day and the kids need to go to bed, Sophie takes a bus with them all right to our home, as I go get my bike back out of the transition zone and pedal home. What a day.

A <em>Rathaus</em> selfie
A Rathaus selfie
A beautiful evening to enjoy this victorious day
A beautiful evening to enjoy this victorious day

I’m happy to say that every single one of my friends who started today’s race also managed to finish it. Till did another sub 10 finish, Niels became 6th of his age group M18-24, and Antje was faster than me in the end at 11:33:49 – although I finished first, it took her less time, because she started later during the Rolling Start. Hendrik, Christian M., Angel, and Sebastian all did a great sub 11 races, while Christian S. got closer to his 20th ever finished long distance. I’m very happy for them all.

Conclusion

So, which race won, Challenge Roth or Ironman Hamburg?

As great as this day has been, I must give the crown to Challenge Roth. It’s definitely my recommendation if you’re looking to do a long distance triathlon, especially if it’s your first ever. In almost every aspect, Challenge Roth won, most of all in the volunteering department.

Hamburg did very well, too, as this was the first time. But you can see the differences between a race organized by a huge profit-oriented multi-national corporation run by a Chinese holding company, and a family run business on the other side, where the CEO did the race himself a few years ago to check out the experience to even further improve it for the participants. Challenge Family is just about making it a great experience, Ironman is more about making money.

What’s Next?

Now, a few weeks after the races, I have already done a couple more running races in the area and am back on top of my fitness. First, it felt a bit like I was done with sports, though. Doing two long distance triathlons in five weeks came close to being too much for me. But I enjoy the format very much and I am sure this wasn’t my last long triathlon. At the moment, I’m eying the renowned and very popular OstseeMan race for 2018, as it’s another staple in Germany, one of the must-do races. We’ll see where it all goes, but for 2017 I’m definitely looking forward to the upcoming foot races, including two marathons in Zagreb and Bucharest in October, and two SwimRuns which I’m keen to try this fall as well!

Thanks for reading and until next time!

Medal and number
Medal and number
‹ Previously: Challenge vs. IRONMAN, Part II: Challenge Roth
Challenge vs. IRONMAN, Part II: Challenge Roth
Next: The Swimrun: A New Experience ›
The Swimrun: A New Experience