Cooking the books

I’m Australian, and I like to think I’m rather well-accustomed to hot conditions. Nope. When it hit 34° in the shade for the Munster Triathlon (that’s Munster, Lower Saxony), my initial thinking was I might be at an advantage. That the pale-skinned locals might crumble in the sun. Nope.

The race started at 3:15pm, in the heat of the day, with all of us running like mad from the beach into the water. Some guys were in wetsuits (really!) because the Flüggenhofsee, so I was told, had a cold-water spring. It’s also very deep, which made me wonder why they didn’t have a deep water start. That would have saved the absolute chaos of 200 or so people sprinting for the water all at once, and then launching into a variety of swim-styles, with no one able to swim straight.

For this swimmer, it was safety first. I swam way out on the left, doing my best to avoid the greasy limbs and torsos of navigationally-handicapped swimmers. Sure, I lose time doing this, as I always do, but I’d rather lose a minute than a tooth. However, looking at the lake, the organisers would be better served to make the competitors walk around to the other side and have them swim straight (as best they can), in one direction, from one side to the other. Add a deep water start and this would save a lot of the chaos and potential dangers.

Onto the bike, and it’s a nice 22km of quality roads. One hairpin turn and back again to Munster. Some guy tore off up the wrong street. I saw him riding back down and he was furious. What do you call it, ‘roid rage? Oh, sorry. Road rage.

At the end of the bike leg, I’d kind of had enough, because I’m a poor runner and it was just so bloody hot. Still, I was somehow in 7th place and I got my shoes on and started running. It was only 5km, and I could old-man-run-it if necessary. One guy in red was way out in front, and he didn’t look bothered at all by the heat. He did 59 minutes in the end, a good four minutes ahead of second. I struggled in the run (but thanks to the nice people for holding up hoses in their front yards to spray us!). I was inevitably overtaken by the grey brigade, the wonder athletes from age groups 40-44, 45-49 and 50-54; impervious to the heat, even in middle age. And strutting around the finishing area, barely breathing heavily, looking for all the money like they’re ready to do it again, while I am on all fours with my head under the tap, trying to cool down.

And there’s no point me wondering how these guys do it, or wondering if their times should be considered legitimate or not (hence the title “Cooking the books”). Better was that I got to the finish line and managed to hold on for 13th place (nearly ten minutes behind red dude), before more grey-beards caught up with me. Proud of that. Another lucky thirteen.

A fun race, but I’m not sure I’ll do it again. That swim is just too dangerous for me.


Lucky thirteen

For thirteen years running, I’ve done the Hamburg Triathlon. It was the Holsten City Man, then the Hamburg City Man, and now the Hamburg Triathlon. A huge event taking place in the centre of the city, the weekend includes professional sprint races and a frenetic professional team sprint. Not to mention the 10,000 plus amateurs who race in either the sprint on Saturday or the Olympic on Sunday. The race is a feat of organisation and the the city and race organisers shall be commended.

Thirteen straight years, doing the Olympic distance. During that time, I’ve seen the race (and the sport of triathlon) evolve from a gathering of committed weirdos to an all-encompassing sport for everyone. Now, the Hamburg Triathlon has competitors of all shapes and sizes.

Is this a good thing? In the case of a race as big as the Hamburg Triathlon (waves of 200 or so starters every ten minutes), you could argue that it makes the race rather dangerous. Namely, due to the inexperienced amateur athletes who haven’t quite mastered the finer points of triathlon (or even read the excellent and comprehensive athlete’s handbook prepared by the Hamburg Triathlon organisers). This includes sprinting the first 20m in the swim and then breast-stroking, riding all over the road or in the middle, not drafting, not looking over your shoulder when changing course, running in the middle, screaming at slower athletes to get out of the way, and taking up a lot of unnecessary space in the transition area.

These are much more observations than complaints, and I also observed that it’s not only inexperienced atheltes causing problems. In such a situation, safety becomes an issue. On the bike, I had a couple of near misses, and saw a couple too, because competitors were more concerned with their own race and positioning than with the safety of others. Sure, they want to do well and have a good race, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of endangering others, especially on such a crowded course. With so many athletes on the course, the organisers need to have more supervisors and referees on motorbikes keeping control (and perhaps forget the time penalties in preference of putting safety first!).

But these are problems that triathlon as a sport must deal with, and they’re not being caused just by athletes new to the sport. Experienced competitors are also at fault. (As an example: the incredible amount of drafting and hair-pin-corner-cutting-in I witnessed at last year’s world champs in London.) And this brings me to my other concern about the Hamburg Triathlon, and the sport in general. Athletes want to do well. Despite the rhetoric, it’s not just about finishing any more. People want to be faster than last year, they want to improve. They invest in better equipment, join clubs and train harder. And maybe, just maybe, this desire for improvement leads them to make a pact with the D devil.

2624 men finished the Olmypic distance course. The overall winner was in age group MSen1, which means he’s aged 40-44. In 8th place, was a man in MSen2, for ages 45-49. This is just extraordinary. Are they former pros? Such a result, at such an age, must put these two guys into the top 0.000001% of athletes in the world. I don’t know whether to bow in utter respect or to launch a protest. (Which is interesting in itself: is it possible to protest the result? Is it worth doing? Would it make any difference?)

After a great weekend of triathlon, I’m left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth (though that could be the water quality of the Alster). I don’t want to fear the worst. I’d like to be impressed with guys who have full time jobs and are middle-aged but somehow manage to be almost as fast of professional athletes. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t seem to add up.

Nevertheless, the Hamburg Triathlon is a wonderful event. And I’ll be back for it next year, to make it fourteen years straight.


Fishy story

The triathlon in Heiligenhafen is fast becoming my favourite race of the season. It’s called Fisherman, and it’s a sprint (750m/20km/5km) that takes place mostly in the centre of town. There are quite a few bemused onlookers watching the race, but they also clap and cheer.

The field is always strong, the pace frenetic, and the grimaces intense. I was all smiles as I finished 15th in 1:07 plus change. Sure, I was nearly eleven ten minutes behind the winner, and I was feeling rather young at the finish area, but so what? It’s such an enjoyable race, well-organised and well-located. Nothing could dampen my spirits.

Let’s start in the water: the swim takes place in the Heilgenhafen harbour. First glance at the water was not inviting, given all the jellyfish, but the emergency personal guaranteed these jellyfish were not dangerous (and it’s not easy to convince an Australian there is such a thing as harmless jellyfish). About 80 people started. I took it easy, swimming way out to the right to stay clear of elbows and feet. I probably lost some time doing this, but I’ve still got all my teeth and didn’t swallow any water (or a jellyfish). So, a good swim.

The bike was more challenging. A long hill to start, then some narrow lanes once we got out of the town. But 20km is pretty quickly over and I managed to be in 10th position after the bike. Quite amazing, and I was still grinning.

The run was great, because there were these people clapping and cheering as I went past. I’d say “flew past” but I’m not that fast. The other guys were flying. The winner ran the 5km in under 17 minutes. How do you do that? As much as I enjoyed the race, I did get to wondering, during the run, how these guys can run so fast. They don’t look to be that fit. The majority of them are over 40, with a couple of guys over 50. Maybe I should ask them for some training secrets. Could be that my running training (shoes on, run an hour at whatever pace I feel up to, stop) is not bringing any results.

Still, I got to the finish line and collapsed, smiling. Very happy with my result, and I’ll be back next year. Great race, great place.