Take me to the river

The last race of the season was definitely the hottest. A muggy 32°, a big crowd, a warm river. Yeah, swimming in a brown, oily river is not the best, but as it was only 500m, it was bearable. And for such a fine race, the water can be tolerated.

The Elbe Triathlon has grown considerably in the last few years. Apparently, there is even some drug testing for the elite Hamburg athletes, though I haven’t found any information about the results.

Triathlon is very popular in Hamburg, and the Elbe Triathlon, held at the rowing centre 15km from downtown, had close to 1,000 participants. I had fun. The swim was chaotic, the bike good, the run hard. No matter how much work I put into my running, I just can’t match it with these guys. I was 26th overall, from about 400 who did the sprint distance, but I was 110th in the run.

This has been the story for much of the season. Swim well, bike well, run poorly. And it means I get passed a lot on the run, which never feels so great, especially when those passing me are older, heavier and (seemingly) cruising.

No matter. I’ve got 9 months to improve my running. But I give my cycling a thumbs up.

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The donkey and the carrot

This report for two races on successive Sundays was always going to have me cast as the donkey. But, after I received my first ever time penalty in well over a hundred triathlons, the donkey is the referee who had the temerity to show me a card.

Truth be told, I very nearly pushed him off the motorbike.

I got the card, on the bike leg at the Qtri in Bornhöved, on August 21. This is a very nice race in a very nice small town about an hour north of Hamburg. Getting the card hasn’t changed my opinion: I still like the race and will do it again. But the referee is a donkey.

The 20 km ride was in pouring rain on very wet streets. A rider passed me, couldn’t keep the pace, was all over the road, and I got a card for being within ten metres of him. I was shocked they even gave out cards at this level of racing (it was a “Volkstriathlon” after all, with the super-fast sprinters already having raced earlier in the day, though that didn’t stop this “People’s triathlon” from being fast). Of course, that’s a whole other rant: because the usual middle-aged supermen, who push 50 (or are older), can somehow post extraordinary times.

(Shrug)

I still enjoyed the race, despite the rain, despite the time penalty, and despite the grumpy old supermen.

A week earlier, at the low-key, and enjoyable, Bardowick Triathlon, near Lüneburg, I had the fascinating experience of receiving a bag of carrots when I crossed the finish line. After all the finisher shirts and medals, I thought this was a creative touch. Though I don’t think they’ll be renaming it “Carrot-tri” for next year’s race.

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Running for carrots – a great idea!

 

 

The take-a-break race

The Grabow Triathlon was a much-needed experience, one which reminded me of why I participate in triathlons, and that racing can still be rewarding and fun. Because you have to love a race that allows you to take a break after the swim!

That’s what happened. The swim leg was organised in such a way as to allow for a staggered start for the bike leg. After the swim, and after a half-hour break, the participants were placed in order, based on their swim times, and set off on the bike at different intervals.

This was a really interesting way to organise a triathlon. And it was a feat of organisation, as almost all the participants knew what was going on. I was a little flummoxed, and had to be stopped by an organiser when I went sprinting from the pool to the transition area.

But once I got the drift, I liked the staggered start. There was also something egalitarian and communal about taking a break after the swim. People chatted. The participants relaxed. There was laughter, something I haven’t heard at a triathlon in a long time.

Sure, there were some fast athletes, and some who took it seriously, but any race where the winner goes back onto the course to clap and cheer for those still running gets my vote. Thanks for the clapping, Robert Prahl.

As the only Aussie among the athletes, I got a mention in the organisers interview: “…das Teilnehmerfeld ist auch hochkarätig und international besetzt”, ergänzt Torsten Westphal. “So konnten wir einen Teilnehmer aus Australien begrüßen…”

It was a very enjoyable race and the organisers should be commended for putting the fun back into triathlon.

Silver lining

A very interesting article in the New York Times about some of the athletes who missed out on gold (and other) medals because of drug cheats.

I especially like the quote from swimmer Allison Wagner: “I always felt confident in my assessment of people I was racing against,” Wagner said, “and the people suspected of cheating, they looked different when they moved their muscles, their joints, their bodies.”

This can be applied to the amateur triathlons I race. When I look at the participants, I’ve got a pretty good idea of who is on the special sauce, because they really do look different and move differently. And then there are the times and performances that just do not match the age of the participant.

Then again, if the Olympics can’t get clean, how can sports at all other levels hope to get clean?

 

Same time next year

Triathlon has changed a lot in the last 15 years. I use that number because leading up to the 2016 edition of the Hamburg City Man, there was a special reception held for the 57 people who have done the race every year since it started in 2002. I’m one of them. The reception, with special guest Daniel Unger, was a rather sedate affair, held in a corner of a hotel lobby bar and sparsely attended.

Back in 2002, when the race debuted, no one in Hamburg really knew what was going on. The race took over the downtown area, with Saturday-shopping locals rubber-necking as the athletes rode or ran past. Then, triathlon was an obscure sport that a few weirdos took part in on weekends, with races happening at lakes or beaches far from the city. But here was a race starting and finishing at the city hall of a busy European metropolis.

I remember the swim being awful. The water was disgusting and freezing. The best I could do to stave off the cold was to wear the kind of wetsuit normal people went surfing or diving in.

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I recall managing to swim the 1500m in under 30 minutes, and being very happy about it. I also recall that my feet and hands were frozen. As can be seen in the picture, the spectators seem more bewildered than engaged.

On the bike, I wore a white singlet and speedos (an outfit which left little to the imagination), and a cheap helmet that was a couple of sizes too small. My ride was an old steel-frame Italian racing bike, bought for €300, which I loved, and which was stolen in 2006. Even now, ten years later, when I see a red and white racing bike, I look twice to see if it might be mine.

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And the run I can’t remember at all. That was how out of it I was; somehow getting one leg in front of the other and reaching the finish line. But I do remember feeling very happy and proud when I got there.

Fast-forward to 2016, and things are considerably different. The Hamburg City Man now bills itself as the world’s biggest triathlon. It costs nearly €100 to enter, with entrants receiving a starter kit with not much more than a water bottle inside (how I miss the starter kits of the early years, which were like Christmas stockings, stuffed with goodies). The race is more organised, more serious and more competitive, and it’s attended by many more people. The water is much cleaner. The participants are fitter and have better gear, and no doubt there are some getting a fair bit of pharmacological help.

Even with the evolution, I still love this race. And I’ll be back next year.

 

Relaxed by the pool

I’m really starting to like these pool races. I did another on the weekend, which started at the Waldbad Salzhausen and ended in Garstedt. Well organised, good atmosphere, and not too serious. Very nice surrounds as well, near the Lüneburger Heide.

While on the 20 km bike leg, I got to thinking about why the pool races are enjoyable, and I concluded that all the participants are more relaxed becuase there isn’t the trepidation involved with swimming in open water. The pool is safe, structured and known. Follow the lane rope and the black line on the bottom: this is something people here can do. Get out in the open water, swim in a straight line and navigate from point to point: this is something people here can’t do.

Which is why there is a lot less nervousness at the start of a pool race. Also, people know how far they can swim in a pool. In an open water race, you stand at the lake’s edge and look at the buoys, and the distance seems much further. You also wonder how clean the water is, and what might happen to your insides if you swallow a mouthful.

It was my first time doing the Auetal Triathlon. I really enjoyed the race, and managed to finish fourth.

And I like a race that has a dedicated start time for participants who do the run leg using Nordic Walking sticks.