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.
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.
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.