What counts in sports is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle. — Joe Paterno, Penn State football coach
I hobbled out of the stadium into the athletes’ tent to retrieve my after-race bag, and changed immediately into a dry Mizuno sports top, my Endure shirt, and Zensah compression tights. I had another pair of Wave Sayonara shoes to change into, but my feet were so waterlogged I needed to dry them out in flipflops. The pain I’d experienced throughout the race had been a dull one in the background, drowned out by the flow of adrenaline through my veins. But now I could feel every little bit of soreness not just from my gaping wounds, but also from my beaten-up muscles. I could barely lift my arms to slip into my top, and nearly fell over trying to get into the compression tights. I also knew I needed to eat something, but just a small bowl of the vegetable quinoa porridge they were serving and I was done.
After my wonderful welcome to the finish line and seeing familiar and friendly faces, the stark reality in the athletes’ tent was I was by myself, couldn’t find anyone I knew to sit and have a chat about the race with, and couldn’t move around to look for anyone. It was then I missed the close-knit Philippine triathlon community. I also didn’t have a data connection so I couldn’t get any word out about how I was, even though I knew my friends and family had been following the race over the live results site.
I hate to admit it but I felt alone and empty. Is this all there is? I wondered. Fourteen hours of pain for one magical moment at the finish line? It just didn’t seem worth it.
I found my host family, walked three blocks to Transition 2 to retrieve my bike and bags, and then walked four blocks to where our van was parked. Though I was walking like an old lady, I was still wired on caffeine and adrenaline, so when I got home I spent about two more hours past midnight reading through my messages and texts, and answering Viber calls. I could feel how proud everyone was of me, but I also knew I didn’t want to do another iron distance race for a long, long time.
Monday: The Day After
I hitched a ride down to Roth to observe the sale of 1,000 slots for the 2015 race. One of my MaccaX buddies Marek had turned up to the race this year undertrained due to job stress and had just done the swim and part of the bike, so he got into the queue. I really wanted to understand what it was that attracted participation in Challenge Roth.
One of the women in line said that she had been born and raised in Roth but on the occasion of her 50th birthday next year, she wanted to try racing there for the first time. Others had really good races this year and wanted to come back again for the same experience.
While Marek was still in line for his slot, the awards brunch began and here I saw how well-loved Team Challenge is. Felix got huge cheers not only from the employees and the volunteers, but also from the athletes who had turned up just to watch the presentation. The personal touch he, his sister Kathrin, and his mother Alice give at each edition of their race sets Challenge races, and Challenge Roth in particular, apart from other long-distance events. You really do feel part of the Family and that’s one reason people are drawn to this race again and again.
I thought back on the race. Yes, it was iconic because of the history of who has raced there and the world records that have been set, but on any other day of the year Solar Hill is just another road, the Canal is just another river you can’t even swim in, and Roth is just another small town in Europe.
What makes it different are the people who turn up to cheer and support participants who are perfect strangers to them and give them the best experience in the world. I’m not just talking about the volunteers who man the aid stations or athlete services, but even just the people from every town the course passes through who gave the extra effort to lift our spirits. My triathlon travel experience is limited, but Coach Ani said that she had never experienced anything quite like what Roth had shown her — and that was even before we’d begun our race!
Despite the difficult time I’d had the day before, I was happy I’d made Challenge Roth my first full-distance triathlon. If I only ever did one ironman, I could be proud that it was this one, on a special year racing with the best in the Philippines and the world.
After the awards brunch I bid farewell to Marek, Marz, and all my MaccaX buddies, who were headed back to their respective parts of the world. I didn’t feel like going to the volunteers’ party that night, even if Mona had gotten me an invite, but Macca said I should turn up.
As the day went by I continued to process what the race had meant to me and what lessons I could take from it. At the volunteers’ party I got to sit and chat a bit with Holly Bennett of Triathlete Magazine. She’s done many ironmans, but this was her first Challenge Roth.
Like many of us, she’d had a hard time that day with nutrition, but scraped together a finish. Pete Jacobs’s wife Jaimie had also made her iron distance debut at this race and had her share of problems: her bike wouldn’t shift into the big chain ring, and someone had even collided into her during the marathon. As I sat there and listened to these stories, it started to make sense to me. There is a sense of satisfaction in finishing, but especially in finishing despite the challenges that would seek to break your spirit.
(I should mention here that if you can get invited to the volunteers’ party, you should definitely go as it shows you the fun-loving side of Team Challenge. And the afterparty? Let’s just say it’s for good reason that we were sworn not to post any photos on Facebook. :D)
Tuesday: Goodbye, Roth
I was due to fly out of Nuremberg that afternoon. Before I started packing up my things, I remembered not seeing a Philippine flag displayed at the expo or the stadium. I still had the flag I ran with, and as I looked at it I decided I would leave a parting gift for Team Challenge from the pioneering Filipinos. I knew we wouldn’t be the last ones to take part in the world’s best triathlon.
I also had a little time left to scrape together some Filipino flavor for our hosts. What’s more Filipino than adobo? Good thing it’s one of the few dishes I can cook from scratch without a recipe book. 😛
I flew home wearing the Challenge hoodie I bought, and of course Zensah compression tights. Had it only been a week since I flew out from Manila? It felt like I’d been gone such a long time, and yet there had not been enough time to experience everything. I hadn’t swum in Roth’s famous metal-bottom pool, or eaten at Macca’s favorite ice cream shop, or experienced the wonderful street party that the town puts on the same night as the pasta party. And yet next year would be too soon to revisit the pain an ironman brings, unless I race for a cause bigger than myself.
Eighteen hours later, I finally landed in Manila and was waiting for my bags at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. I got to chatting with this old Filipino lady who had emigrated to the UK as a nurse. She was moaning and groaning about the bad state the Philippines was in, and how she just wasn’t used to all the inconveniences she would face in her short visit here. I had told her I’d been in Germany for a short trip, but lived full-time in the Philippines.
Then my bike bag came up the conveyor belt.
“Ah! You’re from the Philippine team?” she asked, a hint of national pride lighting up her eyes at last.
“Not exactly, but I did represent the country in the world’s biggest triathlon,” I replied. She was so pleased and proud of me, she even took a photo of the bike bag as it made its way down the carousel.
“Did you win a place?”
“No, but I finished.”
You don’t play triathlon. You play soccer; it’s fun. You play baseball. Triathlon is work that can leave you crumpled in a heap, puking on the roadside. It’s the physical brutality of climbing Mount Everest without the great view from the top of the world. What kind of person keeps coming back for more of that? — Chris McCormack
It’s only now that I’m home and I’ve finally written about my Roth experience that I understand exactly what I accomplished. There is a saying: “Triathlon doesn’t build character; it reveals it.” Although Macca says in his book that you can’t swim 3.8 kilometers, ride 180 kilometers, and run a marathon and not come out a better person, I think you see a person’s character in their split-second decisions and responses to situations. Those things you can’t train for.
I now look at my race, and myself, with new eyes. I know my normal response when someone hurts me is to give him a tongue-lashing and a piece of my mind. But when that guy crashed into me on the downhill, my first instinct was to tend to my wounds, then to wave down a medic for both of us. (I only got angry and upset after I left the scene, when my rational mind took over and started telling me my race was over because of what happened.)
I also know now how important it was that I gave myself second, and third, and more chances to redeem myself during the race. After a bad swim, I was willing to let it go and not beat myself up about it. After the bike accident, I toughed out the rest of the bike hoping my legs would come good on the run. And when my spirits were flagging, I still kept going knowing that at some point things would turn around. I’m a planner and somewhat of a perfectionist, so when something didn’t go to plan in the past I would beat myself up about it. But staying hopeful and not dwelling on past mistakes got me over the finish line.
And whether you’re talking about triathlon or about life, to finish is to win.
Thanks to: Challenge Philippines, Team Endure, Mizuno, Century Tuna, Ceepo, Spyder, Salice, yurbuds, Zensah, OtterBox, TriBros Bike Boxes, Lightwater, Team MaccaX, Globe Telecom, and the Merz family.