I remember when I did my first marathon. It was exactly on my birthday and was a great way to give myself an achievement that no one could take away. I had no doubts I wanted to finish it.
Challenge Roth was supposed to be the same thing. It would be my first foray into full distance triathlon racing, happening on my birth month, marking another milestone in my life.
But as I lay there belly up in the Main-Donau-Canal gasping for breath, barely 10 minutes into what would be almost 14 hours of racing, I was faced with the choice: do I continue, or do I quit?
I knew I wasn’t going to be particularly fast; I would be racing alongside Ani de Leon-Brown and Arland Macasieb, two giants of Philippine triathlon. But I also knew I had it in me to finish and to fly the Philippine flag proudly across the finish line.
I just didn’t know how much it would require of me.
If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. – Murphy’s Law
Sunday: Race Day
At Challenge Roth you don’t get body-marked at all, so I had plenty of space on my arms for temporary tattoos. I still had some “Racing for the Philippines” tattoos left over from the fundraising drive by Girls Run for Breakfast, and I was very much aware that the typhoon that had come through the country just as I’d flown out had wreaked some massive damage again. To have the opportunity to be at the world’s biggest long-distance triathlon representing my country — it definitely felt momentous.
I played a little bit of my Spotify playlist in the morning while getting ready.
#RoadtoRoth Spotify playlist (click to listen)
Even though I didn’t have a data connection, my Spotify Premium account thanks to Globe GoSURF allowed me to save the songs to my phone so I could play them even while offline. The one song I wanted to take with me was American Authors’ “Best Day of My Life”.
I had a dream so big and loud
I jumped so high I touched the clouds
I stretched my hands out to the sky
We danced with monsters through the night
I’m never gonna look back
Whoa, I’m never gonna give it up
No, please don’t wake me now
Ooh, ooh, this is gonna be the best day of my life, my life
If Chrissie Wellington had the words to Rudyard Kipling’s “If” written all over her bottles, I zoned in on two key phrases I knew I would need for the long day ahead.
In his book I’m Here to Win Macca wrote, “…no matter how much you love being a triathlete, at some point a race is going to really, really suck… We’re at our best when we’re overcoming and striving, and in triathlon one of the biggest challenges is overcoming that part of your mind that says, ‘Knock this shit off, it hurts, stop, quit running!'”
I had no idea how much suck I would need to embrace that day. But this phrase on my hand would remind me that it was something inevitable, to be accepted and then overcome.
I also held on to another word. ENDURE — my team that had encouraged me through this, my team that has always told me never to quit, my team built on the values of patience and persistence and enduring to the end.
And so I was ready. There was just a little bit more time before our all-women gunstart at 6:45am, so I was wandering about aimlessly until I saw my homestay host Mona, who was there as part of athlete services. She and her group would pop up all over the course the whole day until it was time to start welcoming the athletes at the finish line. It was so good to see her!
Coach Ani also found me at that point, so we stayed together as we made final preparations for our gunstart.
I slid into my wetsuit and stowed my clothes in my after-race bag, which I dropped off at the truck which would bring them to the finish line. (I had my Philippines jacket in there, a change of clothes, my phone and some money.)
Now all I had were my swim cap and goggles in my hands, and a prayer in my heart that I would finish this race I was about to start.
Lord, you got me this far. Despite all the roadblocks on the way, I’m here. Please see me safely through to the finish.
We waded into the water, chilly for this Filipina at 21 degrees Celsius. It was a floating start, so I positioned myself near the front and to the left. The countdown started, and then the buoy line holding us back was lifted out of the water. Suddenly we were off and I immediately regretted not having peed in the wetsuit. My body was cold, my face was cold, the air was cold in my throat. I did my best just going through the first few hundred meters drafting on feet. I didn’t even need to sight because the 600 women in our wave just took up the entire half of the canal and pulled me forward.
Then my chest started tightening up. I tried to calm myself down, blowing bubbles and exhaling completely under water. But this just made things worse, because every time I put my face into the water, my throat would seize up. Whenever I lifted my face to breathe, I could barely get a gasp in. I realized what was happening: an asthma attack caused by the cold, possibly made worse by anxiety. I flipped over onto my back to catch my breath and switched to backstroke. My breathing started to ease, and the sun had lifted high in the sky so it was warm on my face.
I tried to force myself to pee in an attempt to get warm in the water, but my parents had potty-trained me too well. I went back to swimming with the front crawl and inhaled a bucket of water. I coughed and spluttered it out. This happened several times, and the swim marshals kept asking me, “Alles gut? Alles gut?” I was nowhere near halfway through the swim.
I flashed back to my first open-water triathlon, during which I also had to use backstroke most of the way. It wasn’t as picture-perfect as completing the swim using the front crawl, but I had gotten through the swim and completed that race. So I floated and backstroked down the canal, periodically switching to front crawl when my legs started to tire from kicking. I knew this would make for a very slow time, but if I could just keep going, I could make it out of the water before the swim cut-off.
Three waves of male swimmers went past me throughout that long, long swim. I would enjoy the pull they gave me and even switched to front crawl for a bit to maximize the drafting effect they had. I was on my back though as I floated under the bridge that crossed over the canal, so I saw how many people were looking down at us swimming. I waved at a kid, who waved back.
Finally… finally I made it to the last turn buoy. It was at that point another group started coming past me. I sat between two swimmers and kept their pace up to the swim exit. Thanks for the tow, boys, I thought.
It had been a disastrous swim. I knew I would be behind, but not by this much. As I grabbed my transition bag and headed into the change tent, I just gave myself a mental reset. No use regretting the swim now. The bike ride is a fresh start, so let’s just get on it.
Even if it was a warm day by European standards, I knew myself enough; it was still too cold for this girl from the tropics especially after 90 minutes in the water! I already had some Zensah compression calf sleeves on under my wetsuit during the swim. I put on my Zensah arm sleeves and my bike jersey and immediately felt better.
Being on Mako my bike never felt so good, despite getting passed constantly by the men that had started after us. At least I had made it out of the water! I was still in the game!
I already had a plan of attack: I would take the first loop easier than the second, getting plenty of calories and electrolytes in. I would then start pushing harder on the second loop.
Everyone knows about Solar Hill, that iconic climb with 50,000 people surrounding you five deep from both sides. What nobody really tells you is that there’s another climb before that one, called the Kalvarienberg. It’s a longer and tougher climb, but as I spun up it I realized that training and racing on the Challenge Philippines course had toughened me up. This is peanuts! I thought. The Roth bike course is two loops and I definitely believed I could do those climbs one more time without killing my legs for the marathon.
After the Kalvarienberg, there’s nowhere to go but downhill, so I gleefully got into my big chain ring to take advantage of the descent. Then I realized, as the road swung through hairpin curves, that speeding up would be a bad idea. So I stopped pedaling and feathered my brakes, and my Ceepo Mamba handled perfectly and responsively.
I was almost done with the hairpins when suddenly I heard screaming from behind me and the sound of tires skidding. In a flash I realized no matter how safely I raced, some things were out of my control.
I had just passed the bend taking as wide a line as possible to give room for people to pass me on the inside line. Unfortunately he didn’t even make an effort to turn his front wheel to the left. Instead he took a direct line to the hedge on the side of the road. It’s funny how I kind of knew he was going to clip my front wheel even if he was coming from behind me.
We both went down, him harder than me because he was going much faster. I landed on my left knee (which had been angled outward because I was countersteering on the curve) and scraped a whole lot of skin off. My left shoulder also took a beating, and the road tore a hole through my left arm sleeve into my left elbow. I was screaming, but not from pain. I was angry that his stupid mistake was going to cost me my race.
I picked myself up off the road, grabbing my bottles which had flown out of their cages. I doused my knee with water to see how much damage had been caused; it oozed blood, although slowly. I could hear more skidding from above, so I grabbed my bike and pulled it onto the side of the road so I wouldn’t cause more accidents.
Two marshals on motorcycles came down the hill, and I tried to flag them down. Finally, a medic came down to us. He did a quick triage, noting that the guy who had hit me seemed to have broken his collarbone. So he radioed for an ambulance. Then I asked him to bandage me up. He asked me, “Are you done?”
I looked at the guy who had crashed into me. He had broken something, maybe his arm or his collarbone. But I only had flesh wounds (thanks Mama for always making me take Calciumade for strong bones). And I hadn’t even gotten to Solar Hill yet! I shook my head and said I would continue.
Then another guy came down the corner and crashed three feet away from me. I have to say I’ve never heard “scheisse!” so much, and it was in stereo, too. All I could think was, “WTF?” as I rode away.
I had only just passed the 40-kilometer mark. 140 kilometers more to go?! I had a dull pain in my knee, and it started doubts in my head whether or not I could even do a marathon in my state. At first I was angry. Then I felt sorry for myself, so I started to cry. As in, I was sobbing audibly and uncontrollably over the next 10 kilometers.
It was going to be a long day, so I let it all out and I felt much better afterwards. I counted my blessings: those two guys, their race had ended, but I was still in it. Of course, never to win it, but I was still in one piece. Thank you, Lord. I composed myself, shut off the waterworks, and continued.
I asked myself, Are you a quitter? And my answer to that was No!
Finally, Solar Hill.
It is everything they tell you it will be. The noise is unbelievable and from the base of the hill I could see the crowd all the way up, just a sea of people and no road. I wondered if there was anywhere for my bike to pass through, and then magically there it was in front of me as the people parted to let us pass.
The second round felt much faster than the first, although by then those of us still on the course had to deal with a headwind, and I was just a shade more cautious on the downhill curve where I’d had an accident. In the last 20 kilometers, I felt sick from eating so many energy bars. I knew my stomach had started shutting down, so I went to cola and water.
Finally I was on my way to T2. My knee didn’t feel too bad, just restricted in its range of motion due to the bandages. I had already gotten that far with a bad swim and a bad bike; I told myself I may as well finish the marathon so my efforts would not go to waste!
Are you a quitter? No!
Macca’s words from his book came to me then: Your body is not that smart. Everyone tells you that in ironman, it’s ultimately not about your body’s physical capacity. It’s what goes on in the mind that makes the difference. So I gave myself another reset on the run. Hey, it’s just another marathon, I told myself. You’ve done that twice before, right? And you’re a much better runner now. Notice how fresh your legs feel. Maybe crashing was a good thing because it made you more conservative on the bike. And so on…
In my run bag, I had my trusty Mizuno Wave Sayonara shoes, my favorite Otterbox visor, two gels, and a very special bundle — the Philippine flag. I put it in the back pocket of my tri top; I would be running with it the whole marathon.
I kept a steady pace just over six minutes per kilometer through the first 21K. I walked the aid stations as a concession to my body, but always ran between them. I saw Marz who was two hours into his leg of the MaccaX relay, other members of Team MaccaX, even Coach Ani and Arland — they were all ahead of me. But it was wonderful to see them especially since I’d had doubts about starting the run leg at all.
Coach Ani had told me as she ran past, “Watch your nutrition!” So I dutifully took a High-5 fructose gel, which had served me fine in my past races. But no, my stomach would have none of it! Two portalet stops later, I felt I was pooping razor shards. Fine, no more gels! I went to more cola and water, but I wasn’t sure if that would be enough to sustain my effort.
And then, it started to rain.
Around me I heard sighs of relief from my fellow competitors, who were overheating in this German summer. Unfortunately, I had been quite comfortable in those “warm” temperatures and so when it started to rain, it chilled me to the bone and dampened my spirits.
Lord, I know you’ve been taking care of me this whole day. But really, rain now? This sucks! What else can go wrong?
That was also around the same time the run course took me on a long out-and-back stretch along the canal. Ahead of me the road looked endless, and then I realized that I would have to run back all this way too. Dejected and losing all hope, I started to walk. I could feel the flag in its pocket. Was I even going to be able to run with it across the finish line?
That’s it, I’m done, I’m not going to make the cut-off. I always knew I’d be the last Filipino, but maybe I won’t even finish. This has been hurting too much for too long a period of time. It’s been a horrible day from start to finish. Who the hell in the world is crazy enough to put themselves through this?
I was in a very dark place for some time. But I never stopped moving forward, however slowly. It somehow never occurred to my mind or my body just to stop. This was very important, because as I continued to take in cola and the odd salty cracker, I started to get my legs back under me. Was I about to find my second (or was it my third or fourth) wind?
Lord just please send me some help. Please, I can’t take being cold anymore.
And then, the aid stations started serving hot soup. It could have been made of bouillon cubes for all I cared, but it was warm and comforted my belly and made me feel better. When I looked at the kilometer markers passing, I realized I was already 30 kilometers in. Only 12 kilometers to go! How often have you run 12K? That’s only just a little more than an hour of running left! Are you a quitter? NO!
I realized that those around me were also going through the same cycle of tiredness and rejuvenation I was. The human body is not that smart. It wants to be comfortable and it just doesn’t know how much it’s got left to give. You’ve got to grit your teeth and make it go how you want it to go! I started running again, and as I passed another aid station I heard some of the women cheering, “Do you want it? Then you got it! But you’ve got to work for it!”
This was it. I had to be relentless and never stop until I got to that finish line, no matter what. The mix of cola, water, and soup also started to kick in, and I felt a new strength surging in me. Lord, you really love me, I thought. You didn’t bring me all this way to let me not finish. And you did not make me a quitter. I’m going to make you and everyone proud by finishing strong!
I remembered the flag in my back pocket. I wasn’t just doing this for myself.
I kept going, through the aid stations and past the kilometer markers. My pace increased to where it had been at the beginning of the marathon. And finally, I was on my way back into Roth town, on my way toward the finish line.
At two kilometers to the finish line, the crowd along the road was cheering loudly. I saw mugs of beer held aloft, so I stopped in front of one fellow, motioned for his mug, and drank. A cheer went up from the crowd, and I cracked a big smile and ran again.
I saw Felix on his last few hundred meters and waved and cheered. I knew how significant this race was for him — his race number was his father’s birthday, and he was doing the race in tribute to him — so to see him almost at the end of his journey, I was just so happy for him.
And then it was my turn to cross the finish line. With 300 meters to go, I took the flag out of my pocket, unfolded it and drew it across my shoulders. One of the onlookers shouted, “Hey, Wonder Woman!”
As I hit the carpet that signaled the entry into the finisher stadium, I held the flag aloft and felt it unfurl above and behind me. I saw Jurgen and Uschi, who had been patiently waiting to see me finish, and they cheered as I ran into the stadium.
Those last few meters, I don’t remember the details all that much. I know the stadium was full of people and the guy in front of me had been joined by his teammates to run across the finish line. I just remember feeling so light, relieved that it was about to end, yet also somehow wanting a bit more ground to keep running with the flag.
I walked across the finish line into the arms of a kind-looking lady. I expected to be ushered quickly out of the way of other finishers coming in, but no. She gave me a hug, whispered into my ear, “You did it,” and asked me if I was OK. Then I saw Mona there, and she draped a finisher medal over my neck. (She’d actually made it her mission to be the one to put the medal on me.)
I kept walking, not wanting my legs to turn to lead. Pete Jacobs was there handing medals out, and he said to me, “Sawadee ka!” mistakenly thinking I was Thai. I said to him, still with the Philippine flag around my shoulders, “No, I’m from the Philippines!” He smiled, patted my shoulder, and said well done.
With 20% of starters ultimately not finishing (a 1 in 5 dropout rate), this was one of the toughest days in Challenge Roth history. But Ani had crossed the finish line, making history as the first Filipino to do so. Arland had overcome GI distress and needing an IV in transition 2 to finish. And Challenge Roth had thrown everything it had at me: a cold swim, a disastrous bike, a demoralizing run. But there I was standing at the finish line. We’re Filipinos. We don’t quit.
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.
When 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
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.