This too long for you and you will not read this. This is about the inaugural Blacklake Xtreme Triathlon in Montenegro. This is no review, this is not even an objective account of the course of the race. This might even spoil you some wonderful surprises of your race day. If you are afraid, this is not for you. Blacklake is not for you. This is my story, the subjective tale of my experience how I remember it clouded and delusional by fatigue and how I want to remember it. You are ready? Think again!
means “Thank you!”, and I have to start with it this time.
This would not have been possible without the selfless support of my Coach Vladimir Savic and my team around him, Vlada, Ivan Stevic and Zoran! My story would sound quite different without them.
Once upon a time, there was an artist mind in a plant-based athletes body looking for an adventure and he found in…
2019 the inaugural BlackLake Xtreme Triathlon in Montenegro!
and so it begins…
BlackLakeXtri – Race morning
1:50 a.m. – BeepBeep…BeepBeep…CLICK!
1:55 a.m. – BeepBeep… My nostril widens, a steady “shhh” sounds while my chest grows bigger…Beep…CLICK! My eyes open wide, a second deep breath through the mouth makes me taste the cold morning air charged with the flavour of the now long-cold fire that heated our mountain cabin located in Zabljak the night before.
I stretch once, my muscles are tensing up, it feels like I could break my own bones if I keep driving them more.
My naked feet touch the cold wooden floor.
1:59:59 a.m. – Simultaneously with the first “Beep” of my Coaches alarm I open the door to the kitchen and living room, where he was sleeping.
A routine of cooked oats, toast with peanut butter and raspberry marmalade, another one with chocolate cream, freshly brewed coffee, bathroom, ginger tea, toast again, electrolytes, mixing my race carbohydrate beverage, Maurten this time, bathroom again, packing the car and listening to my race playlist….
BlackLakeXtri – Zbljak to T1 at Blacklake
3:45 a.m. – We can see our breath in the car. It is heating up fast while we ride down empty roads lit by the yellowish light of the street-lamps. We meet only a few cars and some wild dogs on our way to the Blacklake parking lot.
The teams of supporters of the about 40 starting athletes are filling up the whole place. Team cars with huge yellow stickers with race numbers are pointed to turn the cars in race direction by the road marshals.
We are walking down the tarmac road through the black forest towards the mountain lake. It is cold, just about freezing temperature. I am not sure about my actual expression but on my inside is already smiling.
BlackLake Xtreme triathlon T1
A long queue of bike racks is waiting behind a small tent manned by a small group of surly tired but smiling volunteers. They must have got up at the same time as we did. They hand me a GPS tracker, a buoy and wish me all the best. We are free to choose our spot in T1 and there is plenty of space. Luxurious. We set up my “Bird” close to the lake as possible and put all the clothes into the box.
I somehow forget to check gears, fill the front tank or check anything. My mind has already left. I have given all responsibility for organisation and my safety to my team. I am not sure if they are aware but I fully trust every single one of them. My mind is already in the race.
Entering the BlackLake “Tavern”
I open the door to the restaurant at the lake, followed by my Coach Vladimir Savic, Ivan, Vlada and Zoran!
Confidence behind a big smile enters the room. The warmth of the fire in the oven welcomes us, wraps around us and invites us into this cosy place. There is tension in the air. Most eyes I meet are in deep focus, some seem to be puzzled by my overwhelming relaxed and celebrational mood.
Like a squad of fierce decorated warriors with weathered faces entering a local tavern, grinning madly in anticipation to step on a battlefield promising the ascent to Valhalla. I look deep into their eyes knowing my brothers are right behind me, having my back.
25 minutes to race start I begin slipping into my Roka Maverick wetsuit. I never put on this supertight neoprene suit that quick neither did I ever had so many hands helping with it. Hands of athletes which know exactly how, where and when they have to grab, pull and push.
After we left the “backstage room” we adjust the last parts of my costume before I am ready to step on the stage. In my mind… the second line has already assembled and started to play for us to elevate my mood even further.
Blacklake I am ready for you!
I walk down through a corridor of light and large banners gently moving in the wind. The local dogs are watching every step but our appearance seems to alienate them. The huge treants, about 3 men heigh, are pointing us towards the lake. A path lit by torches leads us down to the everything swallowing darkness of the Blacklake.
Some artificial lights on the shore reveal a glance of the icy deep ahead. Just a few meters until a dense heavy curtain of fog and the peaceful black of the night blocks our view.
They read out the manuscript in a language foreign to my ears as the beautiful landscape to my eyes. I perform a bumbling “Haka” in the dark, it does not fail, the hairs under my neoprene skin stand up.
I can hear, somehow distant, my team is sending me some last good wishes, my mind has already embarked on the journey ahead.
After a few steps into the cold water, my feet sink into the soft muddy ground halfway to my knees. We line up at hip-high water and wait. Only a few light beams cutting through our lines painting abstract patterns on the water in front of us. A seemingly small light source somewhere in the blackness ahead indicates the directions we have to go. The neoprene cap and swim cap make it hard to hear anything.
BlackLake Xtri – SWIM into the darkness
Nowhere is very close if it is dark enough. Nowhere lies right in front of us.
We wait for the signal. Then I can hear all the people behind us jelling, clapping and making a lot of noise. Is that the signal? I hesitate. The guys next to me jump forward. Then I leap forward too, imagining a humpback whale displacing the water when he lands after he launched out of the water.
The icy water bites my skin. I propel forward. A green blinking light left of me. The gloom of a fluorescent stick on my right.
My breathing is way too fast. My heart is racing. I can feel the blood pumping through my veins, every heartbeat. After a few minutes I am out of breath. My arms keep rotating. Pull! Push! Fly! I am gasping for air. “Calm boy. Calm down! Breath out. Rotate. Relax into the stroke. Breathe in. Three strokes and repeat! Breath in!” I am talking to my self. Calming me down. Forcing myself to establish my rhythm, while I keep propelling through the water.
I can not see anyone in front of me. I look around. Left? Nobody there. Right? Nothing. Oh no! What the… I stop, look back but I can not see anyone either.
Am I on course? Have I lost the course while calming myself? Where are all the others? Whatever! Keep going!
Swim, that is the only way to find out! and I swim following the vague bright spot somewhere in front of me, like a nuance of white paint on a black primed canvas.
How could I lose them? How fast are they?!… The bright spot in front of me grows bigger. The light starts modelling rough rocks on the soft fine mud below of me. Emerging out of the water I am blinded by the brightness as from a stadium floodlight and greeted by euphoric volunteers. I tumble out of the water on the red carpet on my way to the second lake. “Where are all the others?” I ask. “You are the first!” Did they say first? I run into the water. “I can not see anything, where is the buoy?!” “Go, just swim!” they say. I launch forward and swim.
A few minutes later I corner the first buoy. I am following the leader Kanu. They are flashing their bluish light from time to time to point me in the right direction. I am so grateful, to have them. They are the only sign that I am not completely lost and alone.
I swim with my head down. It is all black, perfect darkness. Rotating my head to breath, I can see a greyish tint of light penetrating the surface of the water. Right on top of the water, another grey line of dense fog before everything turns black again. Enveloped in perfect darkness, up and down is defined by the elements only.
One I breathe in, within the other I breathe out.
I corner the second buoy. A few moments later an arm appears out of the dark on my left. We are getting closer. We have the exact same stroke rate. For a brief moment, we look into each other face each time we take a breath. No word is spoken. No emotion is visible. Like two whales next to each other starring into the deep of their eyes. He disappears on my left. Little later I corner the third buoy of the second lake.
After some few hundred meters I leave the water right behind Petr Vabrousek. “Seb!!” Coach and Vlada are calling me. I can hardly see my team, blinded by the sudden light or hear because of the neoprene cap but my team must have run around the lake. Coach runs on my site. “Crack!” I can hear and feel a sudden pain shooting up from my big left toe. “Coach, did you hear this? That was my toe!” “Are you okay?” “Yeah…””Keep going!”
Back in the water, my toe hurts with every kick of my legs. At least my toe gets well cooled I think.
Some minutes later I can see the top of the treeline against the sky sprinkled with stars and a light at the shoreline.
One, no two! There are four!
Oh, which one should I follow? One is moving. It must be my team running back through the forest. But what the other three. One the finish line, one the buoy and one the leader Kanu. But which one is which?!
I stop in the middle of the lake and yell as loud as I can”Where do I need to go? Which light is the buoy?” I yell again. Then I hear something. I yell again. “You are right! Keep going straight!” At least this is what I think I heard from the shoreline far away or from the volunteers in the boat. I do not know. Then again I could hardly hear someone standing right next to me before…
I swim. Three stroke rhythm to make the distance, a few one strokes one-sided breathing for navigation. I eventually corner the buoy and start to accelerate. I have to cross the big lake on his longest diagonal. How many people overtook me when I was lost? Though I did not see anyone. But they must be here. Somewhere. I will pick you up on the bike! I will pick you up! and I swim. I corner the last buoy and push forward on to the last stretch.
A dark tentacle…
Left, right, left, right, left…A dark tentacle wraps around my left arm with force, stopping my movement immediately in the air. A big soft warm body with slippery skin presses from beneath against my chest. I can sense some tense muscles under the soft thick skin trying to give me some resistance. I push my self gently out of its grab and with one more powerful stroke I glide over the slippery freaking big fish.
Before I have even fully processed my last encounter I crash into a somewhat bigger fish. But this is one is polite and a “Sorry!” sounds out of the dark splash of water. Have I lost my route again? Maybe they have lost the course? The shore and swim exit come to my sight just when another one hits me…or I hit “it”, as I accelerated insight of my current goal, I swim straight over the obstacle.
Swallowed and spit out again!
The volunteers, supporters and my team are cheering loud when I am stepping out of the water with wobbly legs. I am stepping on another stone, tumble and fall. Get back up again but I am blinded by the light. After being devoured by the Blacklake and spewed out again everything feels very bright. Now out of the dark, I feel disoriented but Vlada sends me to our Coach. I am running up the rocky path in his Crocks with him on my right. I am so happy to not bump my toe against these rocks anymore.
I take off my goggles and pull down my neoprene balaclava. My Coach Vladimir Savic removes each glove with one determined pull. Seconds later I am fully naked next to my bike between my team, volunteers and media team. A dog is making up his own story, watching me getting dressed up again. I can not remember the last time I got dressed by someone else. I do not feel the cold. I am enthusiastic. Suddenly my prerace self-talk turned true. I am overwhelmed by emotions.
BlackLakeXtri – Bike through Durmitor Nationalpark
I am just about to put my helmet on when Petr passes me in T1 pushing his horse to the mounting line. “Well done!” he says, “Thank you! See you later!” I answer without having a clue to what calibre of athlete I am taunting here. My confidence reached the same level as my naivety.
I mount my bike at the last breath of the night in full armour, tri suit, legwarmers, arm warmers, long socks, isolating vest, race jacket, scarf, gloves and helmet.
Another applause and my team are cheering me on while I push down the pedals with strength. After a few lonely moments in the forest and on the sparely lit road of Zabljak under the watch of the local street dogs, the race marshalls are pointing me my way, passing by our house. After a few hundred meters I leave the highway just when the violet and virgin red dawn starts to paint the horizon-line of the Durmitor mountain peaks against the sky.
The road curves over softly rounded hills, gently covered by fog like a silk cover curved by female shapes of a sleeping woman. The valleys are filled with clouds of fog and some patches of dark forest trees are scattered over the plane. Despite a few small houses here and there with ascending pillars of smoke from the fires within the land seems mostly untouched.
I am closing in on a red bright spot. Petr’s backlight. I start following him and Goran with a fifty to hundred-meter distance. Petr is faster in the corners and also on the soft ascents. I need to push a bit harder than I should to stay in sight of him but every descend I have to break in order to not get too close. I want to stay way out of drafting range. He seems to be lighter than I am and from the way he rides, he must have way more experience in technical courses like this.
The road surface is not what I am used to but having some history of cycling in and around Belgrade it is no trouble for me. But I have never experienced such corners, and surely never tried to get through them on a 50+km/h speed. So far I never dared to try. I could try to overtake Petr, but I decide against it. I want to read his line and follow his movement. It works. I am improving curve by curve, corner by corner I learn how to take them better while riding them one by one, building my confidence as I go.
Guillaume’s support team is passing by me with their van. They take my time I have on their protégé exactly but they also encourage me, cheer and smile. I find comfort in seeing them again and again. I am not worried. I do not turn around. I have no time to. I am holding to my aero bars at 60 to 70 km/h while descending on Balkan roads. My triceps are hurting. After every corner, a new stunning view seems to wait. but also a new ascent and soon a technical focus requiring road surface on the descent.
The trees are painted in fancy colours. The fresh wide green is broken up by an array of yellows and reds like painted by one of the Peredwischniki. The ascents are getting longer and longer after each turn of the road. I am passing by unserviced old vehicles next to cows with huge horns which are walking along the road freely. I am already feeling my legs, coming up another climb and I find Petr taking a break at the shoulder of the road.
I sensed how much stronger he is. It feels outrageous to me to pass him at this moment. But I continue, fully confident that he will pick me up a few minutes along the way.
He does proof me right earlier than I hoped but because of an old Volvo car polluting the air with a visible cloud of particles with two even older pals sitting in it dragging a trailer overloaded with loose trash and firewood behind them and blocking my way while going half of our speed. I am not sure if they are seeing me. Each time I try to overtake them, they do another dodge sideways to the steep hillside. Suddenly Petr pulls by yelling at them and we get our moment to pass them while they seem puzzled by the view of us.
Petr passes and this is the end of my short-lasting lead on the bike course. We are back to our roles, but as much as I have no clew who I am trying to race here, Petr also seems either wondering who dares or just concerned if that young horse following him is still alive. I am not sure how to interpret his constant looking back, but maybe he also found comfort to not be all alone out here, waiting for me to catch up to have a chat.
The ascents are getting longer, the leaves of the trees painted in more varieties of autumn honey. There are no more houses. There is no traffic. I only see three cars from time to time, my team, Goran and Guillaume’s supporters. There is a rhythm to it already. The occasional descents are getting faster and I am drawn between excitement and the mind wracking required focus holding on to my aero bars, avoiding warps in the road, doing bunnyhops over potholes at 60 km/h and anticipating what might be waiting after the next corner. The neverending canyon is incredibly beautiful.
While the ascent getting longer the descents are getting more and rarer. I am surely climbing up something. But I am also seeing Petr less and less. Just when I have decided to calm things down as I can feel my legs not even halfway into the course my team pulls by around kilometre seventy yelling out of the window while overtaking me “Do your own race! He is a Pro!”. I have to fight myself to not speed up again by hearing these words.
I just keep riding for a while longer alone. I have left the canyon and for the first time, there is some traffic next to me. I had no issues with eating and drinking so far but now my stomach starts to turn on me. I keep riding, replacing my fluid carbohydrate intake with gels. The road follows a slight ongoing descent but I am steadily losing power. I am leaving the aero position every now and then to not squeeze my belly so much. But it does not help much. I keep going like this for another 30 km until I am willing to sacrifice some time to find relive. I feel embarrassed. Not because of having a break in front of my team but because it is my first time in a race I need a toilet break.
The growing watts on my Garmin prove my decision to be right and just in time as the course starting to ascent even more. While the elevation profile shows some more descents before the last big climb, I am not able to recall them now. Race marshalls are at every crossing where the course is not a hundred per cent clear and they are passing by on their motorbikes in regular intervals, they also always wave friendly and I do not feel checked but looked after by them.
I have a huge rocky wall on my left, while the course is slowly but surely winding its way up. Up somewhere. I am fighting. I am slow. I try to keep going steadily. The traffic is picking up. Again I am reminded of my time in Belgrade. Most drivers do not see me and are relatively close when overtaking me. But this also means they do not mind me being on the road and are not trying to get me off the road like I experienced it in Berlin daily. The galleries and tunnels have been relatively short so far, but now they are getting longer, some are bent. It is perfectly dark for some moments, only the beam of my light. I always hope to see my team at the end of it, waiting for me.
All my focus is on riding a straight line on the shoulder of the road. On my left is the traffic. On my right a beautiful view of the canyon and the mountains of Durmitor. But right next to my wheel, like 1 m away, there is this ridge of the hill and little vegetation to catch me after.
Suddenly I can see the infamous Tara bridge and a few minutes later I can hear spectators, volunteers and my team cheering for me as I turn on to the bridge. I have to avoid some tourist changing sides of the bridge in a carefree manner. But how can I blame them, the view is spectacular. I fly over the bridge in aero position, just to be slowed by another ascent. Guillaume Boisgontier appears suddenly on my left he greets me I think he says “Thank you for pulling me up.” and pulls away with smooth pedal strokes in an even rhythm. I feel hypnotized by his big calves and muscular legs for a moment, searching for some spare watts in myself, while he surely energized by the moment leaves no room for hope. One last time I see him as he turns back to the bridge “Bon Journé!” I think, hoping I might catch him on the descent but I never see him again.
I roll down to the bridge like a thunder, my wheels are roaring and I feel like a Chinese dragon floating down the hillside. I fly over the Tara bridge a second time. Not long after there is nothing mystical anymore. I am climbing again. While big trucks loaded with huge piles of wood chattering down the road. I climb sitting then standing and sitting again.
I am wondering how much the total ascent of the bike leg was. I am deep in denial. I am ready, ready to accept any lie, thinking it must be 2700m but maybe it was 2800? I am watching the numbers on my Garmin climb even slower than I feel possible. After every hundred meters covered I make a new estimate of what the total ascent must be. Yes somewhere in the back of my head I know better but I am exhausted I want to believe I am close to the top. My team is waiting for me. I feel sorry, they have to be really patient with me right now. They do not show any boredom with my progress but it must have been hilarious to watch me crawling up.
It feels like it an eternity. I have no doubt. No second-guessing. Only realizing slowly how long 3500 meters of ascent can feel like. I reach the flag, marking the end of the support stretch. I can see a few more support cars. Did they pickup? Maybe they are right behind. A soft descent and the road points to Zabljak. I find some of my power back and try to get up to a decent speed level. Didn’t coach say something of Zabljak is on the high ground? And with this thought, the last ascent towards Zabljak starts and my euphoria turns into disbelief.
The distance on my Garmin though tells me that I am not suffering under hallucinations, I am closing in on T2. I am going to run very soon. Only a marathon through the beautiful mountains, the picture is uplifting my spirits again, my anticipation is rising, my adrenaline too. I drive through the village, follow the marshall’s directions, pass by some kind of wild horses feeding along the road freely and then I reach T2 at the Ski Center of Savin Kuk.
T2 is perfectly empty, no bikes, but the volunteers and my team. While Coach catches my bike and runs with me into transition, I try to get my consciousness back into the real world. For a moment it feels kind of hard to see who is in front of me, to realize everyone. I was alone out there for quite some time, deeply involved in conversations with my self, my mind has travelled far and now it needs to come back right here.
The Blacklake Xtreme Triathlon Marathon – Durmitor – Bobotov Kuk – Savin Kuk
Both arms stretched wide open with a big smile on my face I am hugging the world, my team, the volunteers and this moment. I am ready to go.
Zoran is running with me. We start at an easy pace. My legs feel heavy, my lower back is somewhat stiff, my knees are in pain, my arms are exhausted and my latissimus dorsi is cramping.
The road curves over a few soft rounded hills and a light cold headwind blows into my smiling face.
I am chatting with Zoran, trying to keep his pace and my breath while explaining to him how I got to triathlon, about my short-lived attempt at the Transcontinental Race and about how my race plan this season was crafted to build up for this day.
I am euphoric. I am happy. I am in third place of a race succeeding all of my wildest expectations. I am running. Nothing will stop me now. Nothing. Nothing? Little did we know what was waiting still ahead of us.
My watch has a hickup. After some fiddling, I am giving in and decide I will be able to pace my self even without all the metrics. I will follow the flow. I will be alright. The tarmac road starts to bend around some corners and is now ascending towards the Durmitor. Everywhere I look I see huge rock giants sleeping under a thin cover of grass.
Zoran is clearly pushing the pace beyond what feels comfortable to me. It is a race, of course, it hurts! How it hurts! I tell Zoran “Please let us not aim for a faster pace than a 7 min/km!” And he answers “Yeah no problem, so far we are doing well. We have a 5:30 average!” and keeps running without a change in pace. Whaaat did I miss here? but I am too weak to argue with him.
It must be Coach. Coach must have told him what pace to run. Coach has a plan. So…trust Coach, keep pushing!…and with that, the topic was closed for me.
The wind turns up and brings snow flakes down from the greyish sky. I am freezing. Zoran is a bit ahead. I have to yell, so he can here me. He stops. I need to change clothing, adding some long-sleeved waterproof layer. I try to use the short break to recover a little.
Back on my feet, I try to look up as much as possible. Inhaling the view, a surreal landscape I have never seen before. I am thinking of epic fantasy worlds I have read about and watched in movies. I come to the conclusion that this landscape was probably drawn by J. G. Möbius. I am not aware that my appearance is actually fitting right in this theme as a character looking like Starwatcher.
My thoughts are drifting. I try to keep my nutrition on track. It is more being thirsty what makes me constantly get some energy into the system as all my flasks are charged with Maurten. My team drives by, checking on me, shortly before heading to the entry of the mountain.
A while after, we also arrive at the mountain entry checkpoint. Ivan and Vlada are cheering for me like I would be arriving at the finish line. I think they are worried. I am not looking great and feeling worse. I am shivering. I asked for oranges when they passed by.
Please give me the oranges.
Of course, they got oranges for me. They work like a charm, my second secret weapon right after my ginger Curcuma green tea to reset my taste buds. I think oranges taste best in cold snowy mountain conditions. I get off my waterproof clothes to get on another longsleeved warm layer just to get real cold first. The wind is blowing harshly, with some snowflakes in the air. I am in a deep hole, my body is suffering right now but somehow I feel happy, I regard myself very lucky to be right here and incredibly fortunate to be in time to now enter the mountain.
Until now I was afraid to miss the cutoff. Not having my watch running I have clearly lost my feeling for the time a while ago.
A few hundred meters we walk towards the high rough rocky mountains. I feel fortunate to be guarded by my brothers. We are armed to the teeth, all flasks filled, hydration system too and charged with carbohydrates, my vest is full of gels, another layer of clothing, first aid kit, head torches and whistles. Ready to request the mountains consent to less us pass.
Vladimir and Vlada continue with me. They know how I feel. They let me rest. They allow me to go slow. They ask me in what position I want to be, if they should go in front of me or behind me. They do not want to put me under pressure. But it is hard to think. It feels hard to make a decision and it does not matter, I am happy, they are with me that is what counts.
We follow a beaten track. Green fresh untouched grassland next to it, broken up by rough rocks of various sizes. I do not look up often. I am in thoughts, my thoughts are deep, deep in another realm.
The path comes to a sudden end. I am standing in front of a rocky wall. Left of me is a steep hillslope going down with loose ground for a couple hundred meters the rocky wall on my right close to vertical. I turn around and look back into my friend’s faces, with some uncertain tone in my voice I ask…
“Are we really supposed to climb up here?”
Maybe we lost the track, maybe… a dry “Looks like it!”
I am looking up to the mountain ahead, sizing it. Then I laugh out loud thinking This is madness! I grab the fixed rope, twist it around my arm and pull myself up. I try to find hold with my feet. The icy rain got the rocks wet. I slip. The firm grip of my arm safes me from falling. I keep climbing up first, then turn around to watch Coach and Vlada following me. What did I drag you into? Thank you for coming with me.
I turn around and then smile. All will be good. You are looking after me. I am surrendering all my worries and concerns to them, they do not know and I am not really conscious about it either. But somehow I know I am safe. You are with me.
Our path is cluttered with rocks. Each time I put my foot on a rock I check if it is stable or loose then how slippery it is. We move slowly over the challenging terrain, only broken up occasionally with some real climbing passages, then we get even slower. We talk less We all must focus. Coach “We are now one hour into the mountain!”, “How far did we get I ask as I am not recording, “One and a half kilometre. ” Silence.
We agree to go as fast we can and I will compensate by doing some faster pace as soon the ground is runnable. Once the course gets runnable. Once …
We find a small mountain pond. Despite the pain in my lower back and my crampy latissimus dorsi, I am in a good mood. We are joking. Though I do not feel like taking a dive here. Little snowflakes float in the wind. There is no noise, no sounds, no birds, only us and the wind whispering through the grass. The only signs of humanity are the marks for the course every now and then.
We are leaving the small waterhole with its icy blue shades, turn around some rocks only to see the course markers pointing towards another steep hillslope covered with loose boulders and debris.
After winding our way up slowly we are closing in on the mountain ridge of Bobotov Kuk. The moment I glimpse over the ridge a strong wind with snowflakes hits my face bites my skin and takes my sight.
I lean against him and move slowly with sedate steps. I feel all the muscles in my body aching but his ice-cold grip will not make me stop. With the smile of an explorer suddenly recovering the promised lands and the confidence of a conquerer, nothing can stop me now.
We enjoy the view for a brief moment. It is vast. Epic. Looking down though we discover a lose the steep descent covered with loose rocks, nothing promising to be fast or gentle. With all my focus to not slip and roll down the slope, it does not take long until I do and fall on my back, once and again and again.
Maybe some mountain goat runner trained on such terrain would enjoy a reckless descent. The playground where I trained back in north Germany, is flat and the ground more like a soft, clean and even forest ground, a charm for the joints but hell not preparing for this battleground.
(The thin line in the middle is our trail out of the mountain.)
This is not what I asked for. No! It is exceeding all my wildest expectations in a positive way. A feeling of accomplishment and gratefulness is carrying me. I can hardly remember having so many first times in one day…ever.
Some of the crashes hurt and after a couple of them, they must have “destroyed” my GPS tracker. While I am looking forward to some more runnable course section, it actually gets somewhat easier after the descent but my legs are tired.
Our path is still technical but probably for some more experienced runner with fresher legs runnable, though not for me. Not right now. Still, I jog and run whenever I can, doing short dashes when possible. But I am also out of breath easily.
Not sure if it is thin air or maybe I am a bit exhausted? No! Must be thin air!
I think I am talking a lot but it is possible that my thoughts are very loud.
As the view widens again and reveals our trail bending around the hillside until the horizon, eventually leaving the mountain, we spot someone behind us. Closing in fast and just a few moments later Misha Boyko emerges on my right “Now you are fourth!” and leaps away. He dances like a mystic Shaolin from rock to rock. There seems to be little weight in his steps so easy does he moves over this trail. I do not feel mad being passed even being expelled by him from the podium. I am in awe by the view of his gently forward movement, and so he disappears hovering from rock to rock.
The vegetation picks up again. We follow through on the narrow rocky path to eventually leave the mountain and seemingly seamless transition to the most gnarly roots and loose rock clustered path I have ever encountered. This makes the Zugspitz Ultratrail look like a stadium track for runners.
Everything is wet. The chaotic mosaic of roots growing out of the ground as they had problems defining the up and down in the darkness as I had on my swim. The rocks between them leave barely room for the muddy forest ground.
…light switch wents off...
Entering the shadow of the first trees, Vlada asks if we should put on our head torches. We stop, everyone is rummaging around in his backpack and the moment we get up again, it is dark. Right before the sun started to hide behind the mountain peaks we have entered the forest. It feels like a light switch went off.
Coach said somewhere on the way that I will have to do an under 6 min pace as soon as we leave the mountains. Not sure how to fulfil this “order”, my mind made it sound like one, on this ground, but we take off trying to run, constantly bumping my painful toe against some rock or root and then we stop again to find the next waymarker. It is really hard to see anything in this dark forest. Why is my head torch so low? I turn it off and on and by fiddling around I realize, I forgot to take off my sunglasses when I put the torch on. We laugh and keep running.
Coach seems to have a problem with his torch and our little squad starts to stretch. As we planned for him to cut the course short at Blacklake towards the restaurant while I run the extra circle, I tell Vlada to check with him and pick me up again. We agreed earlier that I keep moving whatever happens, as they are much fresher and able to pick me up on the way.
Where is Vlada? – Where is Seb?
I keep running and the less I can see the ground the easier it is to ignore it and actually to run, fast. Short steps, high cadence, when I slip, impact or stumble with one foot the other one must already be ready to catch my weight! Move fast, move light, move effortless! and I do. As I start to get into my flow I wonder why Vlada is not coming back. Should I wait? No. Keep running, under 6 min/km! that is what Coach said! I put on my headphones, somehow assuming, that I will keep running alone for a while. But at least I am running now after all.
It feels like running a maze. I have no idea where I am or where I am on the course. No idea how much time has passed, no idea how much time I have left to reach the Cutoff for the last ascent. I am in nowhere, only following the track markers. Somehow I must have abandoned my fear of darkness. Now running as hard as I still can.
Suddenly out of nowhere a dog jumps out of the dark right onto my chest. Something brown-black, I think Transylvanian Hound barking at me. I yell at him under shock and he dugs his head down silently, moving left and right in front of me but not leaving me out of his sight. A bit surprised how this encounter developed I decide to keep moving again. I am even more surprised as the dog decides to run alongside me. Like they usually would do with their owner. At first, I am unsure about how I feel about it, but soon I decide that this dog is no threat and I welcome him as my companion.
I hit another gnarly root with my bad toe, unable to catch myself I fall flat face on to the ground. He waits for me to get back up again. Everything hurts anyway. Not my first fall, it will not be my last. At some point Vlada calls me on my mobile, to check where I am and if I am okay. “I am okay. I am not alone, a dog is running with me!”…
“A DOG is running with you?!? What dog….”
I think this information was not helping him to feel better about the current situation…
After a felt eternity I reach the restaurant. Coach and Zoran are waiting for me, as some of the volunteer women. I turn around. The dog is gone. He must have smelled the stray dogs who annexed the area around the restaurant as their territory. Two of them are huge, one white wolve and a bulky Rottweiler. I would not want to mess with them either.
I drink something and Coach tells me I am well in time. I could go easy, 7:30 min per km would be enough and lets me know that I am in the third position again. Zoran leads me to the forest, but as he has no torch on him. He leaves me disappearing in the darkness again, alone.
7:30 would be a relaxed pace. The height profile looked flat for this last stretch before the checkpoint for the cutoff. Flat is relative if you have Bobotov Kuk and Savin Kuk in the profile, flat can actually be quite hilly. Soon I am going up a hill again at 12:30 pace. Afraid to miss the cutoff I keep pushing as much I can. After running for a while on pleasant ground I am wondering where the race track marks are, but judging on the freshly destroyed fly agaric field, somebody must have run through here lately. Well as I learned later I detoured exactly where Petr detoured, luckily I realized it after running 5 minutes without markings, got back, found the track again and I also found my missed waypoint.
A cheering swarm of bright lights closes in on me. I am blinded my team and a group of volunteers are welcoming my arrival, all pointing their torches on me. Coach “Don’t look at him!” For a moment I wonder if I look really that gross, until I realize what he means.
8:20 p.m. … Ivan, Zoran, Vlada and Coach are taking me in their midst and we start the last ascent. We are walking and as I pushed for the last few hours hard I welcome the break. After a few minutes the slope picks up in grade and the comfortable ground turns into loose debris. It feels like the stones are rolling me back down a bit after each step. My team is chatting, but I have a hard time following the conversation. Again there is a strange distance to the outside world.
Then I turn around. There is a light. I can see a torch behind us. Misha must have made the cutoff after all. He will easily outrun me now. I have to go faster. I do not say anything. My team must know. But they probably do not want to panic me. I must look bad. They are afraid to push me over the edge. But I have to hurry. He is coming up. I try to keep my pace, I try to push myself. I can hear the sound of the ski lift.
I am feeling dizzy.
Everything hurts, my hands are swollen. I turn around, I can not see his torch anymore. Everything starts spinning around me. My vision blurs. “I need to stop for a second please, I am getting dizzy!”. “Sure, sit down, take it easy, we have time!”…are they lying to me? But maybe they are right, I am close to my edge… Everyone gets off his backpack and is trying to find a place to sit.”Sit down Seb!”… “No, I can stand.”
I breathe in and out deeply three times. “Okay, I am good, let us go!”. I can not allow losing more time! He must be right behind us. But he must be in pain too, maybe I have a chance. Maybe I will be third! “What, but…” Vlada asks as he did not even sit down properly. But I am already moving again.
“Sebastian! What took you so long!?!?” I hear Igor. Everyone is cheering. I am getting emotional. But then I turn around where is he? I try to run and stumble over some rocks. I see the light. There is the finish line. Do they play music? I have to run! I fall and get back up again. My heart is pumping like crazy. I run-up to the finish line. I grab the banner.
Where is my team? Right behind me. I wait, I wave them up. We hold the banner together. We have done it.
They put a heavy warm cover over me and pull me into the heated mountain cabin. Guillaume is still there. “Petr was eager to wait, but he was getting cold so they went just a short while ago,” Igor says. The torch behind us, it was Petr Vabrousek going down from the finish with the ski lift… Ivan reaches me his self brewed Rakija.
I am here, feeling nothing and an empty mind. No desire and no fear. I am. That is all…
My athletic journey
I am thinking about how to connect my athletic endeavours with a more direct purpose, supporting courses I believe are important for the well being of our planet and its inhabitants. I am looking for people with experience how to connect seemingly crazy ideas with a purpose to create a positive impact.
Do you want to invite me to your race? Do you want to give me a hand? Please get in touch with me!
Thank you Portrait of an Athlete for you pictures, as well as my Team for documenting my story!
The Morning before the Storm
3:45 a.m. a familiar ” beep ” wakes me up. Without hesitation, I get out of my bed. Shortly after water for a morning coffee starts boiling. My abstinence was not so consistent this time, but after one week with just only one cup of coffee, I am craving for this one mug.
With the anticipated effort in mind, my breakfast of one warm bowl of porridge and some peanut butter raspberry toast feels small. Knowing my sensible stomach, I do not dare to eat more.
Some stretching followed by black roll treatment, a shower, oil for the machine and I am ready to jump into my race gear.
I am mixing carbohydrate gels with coconut water for one and salt and minerals with coconut water for the other soft flask. I fill my back hydration pack with mineral water. Then I finish packing the rest of my gear, prepared the night before, my Black Diamond trekking poles on the back of my race Salomon race belt, my ultra running vest packed with leg warmers, arm warmers, hat, scarf, gloves, rain jacket, rain pants, headlamp, first aid kit, power bank, gels, power bars, map, phone, gimbal, GoPro, replacement batteries for the headlamp and GoPro, SDcard, whistle…
Damn it! This is a lot of stuff to carry, but there was no sherpa around at the check-in I could have asked to move my things to the summit.
My cap, sunglasses and a smile and I am ready to go!
Last meters to the starting line
5 a.m. a cab is waiting outside for me to get me from Garmisch-Patenkirchen to Grainau. I had planned to use public service, but since the race start was preponed from 10 to 8 a.m. because of the weather forecast and the shuttle bus therefore to 6 a.m., there was no public service available.
After a short chat, I arrive in Grainau and join the nervous athletes scatted all over the streets.
After a few minutes of waiting and fiddling around at my vest and gear, the first shuttle bus picks us up and 45 minutes later lets us deploys us in Leutsch, at the start for the Supertrail distance with 64 km and 3000 m of elevation of the Zugspitz Ultratrail.
I am on the very first bus, and there are many more to come. Everyone disembarks, and after a few moments of orientation, long lanes in front of the toilet houses are organized. Everyone wants to discharge unnecessary weight.
6:45 a.m. I am getting my equipment check. I am complete though I forgot to mark my power bars and gels with my starting number 2021. This shall help to identify athletes guilty of littering. No problem, there is even a pen in my vest… the moment I tell this the race staff, I am wondering about myself and what I have packed.
I am in the starting block, and it is one more hour left to the start. The 100 km and 80 km distance are cancelled for safety reasons of the athletes because of the severe weather forecast. Pouring rain and thunderstorm mixed with exhaustion, dehydration and not existing alpine experience of many athletes is a recipe for disaster and could be lethal. No easy decision for an event organizer but in this case right and responsible. Thank you.
Because of this decision 1700 carbohydrate and adrenaline loaded smiling athletes in colourful and functional futuristic appearing outfits are pouring into the start block.
Something cold and wet is running over my butt. My back hydration pack is dripping. Replugging the hose does not help, the connecting mechanism seems to leak. A deep breath… some anti-blister tape shall seal it.
Am I nervous? Hell yes, I am, but in the right way.
The mood in the starting block is mostly relaxed, and trail runners seem to be way more communicative than triathletes before a race.
3-2-1- PENG! GO!
Yes, we go, we walk one next to the other. It takes a few moments until we have enough space to actually jog and eventually get into an effortless run pace. Imagine the stream of 1700 athletes pouring down the road along the mountainside.
Just after a few minutes, we hit the first ascent. The path, washed out by melting streams, is getting steeper and steeper with every step we do. Loose ground, rocks and tree roots cover the ground. One athlete after the other in two to three lanes, we are pulling us up with our trekking poles.
We leave the tree line behind, but the ascent continues. On a single trail up a beautiful green hillside covered with thousands of yellow buttercup dots. We are surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks, and the heat of the sun is seizing us. One athlete walks behind the next forming an unbroken chain over thousands of meters up the slope.
A few desperate to keep a kind of running form and pace, are trying to cut corners but cannot withstand the disgrace for long.
From single trail to off trail we go half walking and half crawling an even steeper hillside.
Up we must!
We reach the first summit. What a view! Big snowfields right in front of us. Right on the path, we should start to descent.
The eyes wide, the rational doubts about the safety of the passage in front superseded by the joy of my inner child yelling to surge! I go, I leap into the deep snow, my feet disappear, I tumble, I jump, I slip and balance again and again. This is madness!
A few moments later, I throw my legs up the air and land on my but. Down I go like on a sledge, just without a sledge, laughing and saving my ankles lots of stress. This forward movement becomes fast hard to control and therefore, to stop at the right moment to exit the snowfield at the intended position. But up I jump back on my feet and continue the run.
A landscape out of this world
The spectacle repeats but the risk of going down the hill too far is always looming over us. I manage and back on my feet I continue my descent on partly grass, and often slippery mud covered ground with big stone blocks shaping a curvy trail. The landscape reminds me of some fantasy epos, and there are some so well trained athlete dancing and floating with their magic feet with elvish elegance over the ground. I am in awe. My self perceived form of movement mirrors a shiftless heavy-handed beast rushing through the field like a brakeless train.
My mind has now left everything behind. There is nothing left troubling me. I am free.
This was the most beautiful passage of the race to me. Filled with power, full of anticipation, free of exhaustion moving through such an incredible out of this (my) world landscape.
I do not even feel disturbed by the pain in my knees, my painfully stretched hip flexors, my right shoulder complaining and feeling rigid, my thumb completely numb by hitting some stone or being hit by some pole, I cannot tell. My spirits are high.
Into the dark
We leave this magic ground by diving down into the dark. The forest embarks us with a completely different atmosphere, light, colours and soil. A winding down a gnarly trail covered with loose stones leads us deeper down.
Descending down, every step feels like a shock running from the bottom of my feet through my leg. I did never run down such ground or anything like that so far.
Having competed in the Challenge Heilbronn just 4 weeks prior to this, my specific preparation for my first Ultra trail run was kind of short. Back home if I ride two train stations, I can manage up to 300m of elevation in a one hour run. But the hills are not as steep, the ascent not as long and the ground not even close to being that challenging. This is all new havoc to my legs and feet.
My trail shoes give me enough grip to stay in control of my pace. They are thin and light, something I usually appreciate, but they offer little protection, and my feet are getting shredded.
First aid station – this is not a triathlon
We reach the first aid station after 15 km. I am confused. The food station is filled with people, standing, drinking and eating. Some are refilling their flasks, others are chatting. This is not what I am used too. This is the opposite of Patrick Lange moving through an aid station at the Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii. I have to adjust.
The next 10 km are on wide paths with little up and down. In a relaxed running pace, actual running, we fly by the beautiful scenery. We chat, and I get to know new people I will see again and again later in the race.
I am in a damn good mood. Usually, I am not the most accessible, but now I am joking with athletes, spectators and their kids. Cheering on this little boy doing his first walk. Who of you made his first steps with ultra runners passing by. He deserved to be cheered on by us!
Making other people smile, winning the sympathy for us runners from the passing by spectators or pulling athletes out of their deep dark caves, got a big part mentally and gave me a lot of drive.
Second aid station – “Venga! Venga!”
they cheer me on. I got a flashback to my first full Ironman in Barcelona last year. I give them what they are asking for, jumping, dancing and leaping forward over the trail and earn another applause just before the next aid station. My legs are in pain, but my heart fills with joy, and a huge smile covers my sweaty face.
26 km done, I enjoy cold tea, which is superb delicious after hours of drinking different kinds of sugar solution. I fill up my front flasks (not my back hydration pack) with water, diluting the rest of the tacky carbohydrate slag. Off I go into the forest on to a very light ascent on soft ground with a spacious path. It is like a recovery part in between, a welcome break of the so challenging grounds already covered.
Third aid station – an invitation
About 30 km into the race just before the third aid station lies a green turquoise jewel in front of us, framed by dark green pines and reflections dancing on his surface.
It took me three minutes of contemplating about race times, race integrity and such until I loosen the straps of my vest and in second everything is falling on the white pebble ground. A few steps into the mountain lake and I dive into the crystal clear and pleasingly cold water. My fellow athletes had mixed opinions written bluntly in their faces while running by. MY taunting could not change their minds. I well understand their determination, and so am I, determined to enjoy this day as much as possible. This would be the last mountain lake for me to swim in until, if all goes well, October when I touch the soil in Durmitor Montenegro.
So I took the chance, and my system appreciated the cooldown. After probably the fastest transition since I am measuring the time of it, I continue around the lake a few hundred meters until the food station.
My spirits are high, my body feels so good after the little swim I had. I am charged, and I am making my first mistake in this race. I grab a cup of water and leave the place without filling up my flask or back reservoir.
The next 14 km offer various terrain and often exposed to the burning down sun. The ground and grade are well runnable, but after 4 km, I am running out of water. I move on. Another 2 km covered and I am thirsty. My stomach is lightly upset. 8 more km until the next food station and no natural supply of water along the way.
Up and down, again and again, on forest paths and flower sparkled grassland and forest. I can not tell much about it. I need my full mental capacity to focus on the task at hand. Keep going!
Another long descent. I am a bit dizzy, my vision narrow. I am slowing down.
Fourth aid station – pure exhaustion
At the bottom, 2 km before the next aid station relieve waiting. A mountain lifeguard post offer water from an outside tab of an alpine hut with a restaurant.
“Sebastian! Are you okay?” he yells. What a good guy! If I were not wearing my mirrored glasses, he would have spotted me lying instantly.
“I am great! Just thirsty!” I reply, and he asks disbelievingly “Why?!” and he is right. The food stations were well placed, and it was my own fault, my ignorance that led to the situation. Ignoring his question, I fill my flasks and afraid to puke if I drink more, I only drink one cup of water.
Again I am underestimating the next 2 kilometres until the actual aid station. 2 km of distance with pretty steep 700 m elevation to cover. Maybe my second mistake. I climb up the washed out trail covered with gnarly roots. It felt forever, but I eventually arrived. Despite the apparent level of exhaustion, I refill all my flasks and reservoir, eat and drink and continue my ascent as fast as possible. Actually, it was not so, but I did my best to not unnecessary prolong my stay.
“Where is up?”
“Where is up?” is echoing in my head again and again. I follow a single trail washed deep into the ground with sharp blocks of rock at its bottom and green grass next to the height of the knees. Half a meter high steps make my legs ache. This 5km long and approximately 700 m in height passage took me about 50 min, I felt like puking of exhaustion at times paired with light dizzyness I probably did not recover ever fully again in the race from my hydration disaster.
“I keep going. I do not stop. Anything. Ever!”
Fifth aid station – I have lost my stomach but I am still smiling…
At km 53, I arrive at the fifth food station, and my stomach needs a break. After my digestion system is calmed, I try to revive myself with some hot salty soup paired with sweet energy drinks. Exposed on the mountainside, I am shivering. The wind blows cold, and the sun is covered in dark clouds looming over us. I dress up only to get off the extra layer min later when I start sweating again climbing up the “last” ascent. Snow, slippery rocks and some incredible views are my company, paired with the large cloud formation long overdue to break out with storm and thunder. I am lucky, even though I was praying for the rain at times.
Replacing my battery pack of my GoPro to capture the view, I meet some more athletes climbing up behind me. All of us exhausted but not shy to joke and fall into laughter.
After a few more snow and icy passages, I reach the highest point of the race catching up with the just met crowd of athletes and two mountain lifeguards. They are waiting for me, paying me back by cheering me on and making me run uphill with a huge smile once again.
I ask the mountain guard “Is this UP?” they laugh and give me the cheeky promise that there is no higher point to come. We shake hands, I thank them for freezing their butts off and looking after us and start my descent.
I run down along large rock walls, blocks and fields of ice enjoying an endless view, stunned by the beauty of the landscape even in the grey tinted monochrome palette. I am close to tears, grateful to be allowed to have this experience.
Last meters to the Finish Line
10 km to go, my watch explains to me its battery is dying, as my backlight was on all the time. I can not change anything about it, and it does not matter now. I am not dying, and I do need to be paced or measure any distance anymore.
The 1200 elevation loss long descent though had enough to offer to make me suffer once more, slip on muddy wood steps, catch some bruises, squeeze my feet and toes between rocks and make them cry, do havoc to my knees before leaving me to the last two flat kilometers running into Grainau, over the finish line of my first Ultra Trail run.
64 km (actually I think it was 4 more km for me, not sure where I picked them up) and 3000 meters of elevation ( first up and then down, the latter did hurt even more).
A few minutes, I am searching for familiar faces, wondering about the lack of warm food and the absence of vegan option before leaving with the next bus to Garmisch – Patenkirchen. Luckily as I meet this charismatic guy again, I already saw before the race but could not talk to as the bus was packed to its full capacity. I am instantly attracted by his aura of warm energy and the glow in his eyes. He is one of them, and I am grateful for receiving another unexpected gift. Hopefully, I will see you soon again.
After some warm food, unfortunately not the best choice, but the options have been limited and some ice cream I am walking back to the apartment. After a shower, I start cleaning the apartment and packing my bags.
Then I lay down and listen to all the beautiful, aching sensations in my body while I fall asleep.
“Save Keirin” – The Beginning?
I had no idea what I was getting into. A bunch of fixed gear cyclists met in front of the infamous Keirin Bike shop at Oberbaum Strasse in Berlin.
Beer and the smell of sweat, tobacco and other substances filled the air. People are joking, women laughing. Messengers, as well as recreational riders, are doing last fixes on their bikes. Everyone is checking their tire pressure. I could not hear the guy who announced the location where to pick up the Manifest.
The Manifests lists the locations to be visited at which a small quest is to be solved to prove your compliance. It is up to the participant to put them in the best order and to navigate between them.
Suddenly everyone jumps on the street. Cars are breaking and using their horns. Adrenaline. A hundred mad cyclists are jumping on their bikes and leaving the place in seconds, into three directions. The Race has begun. But where do I go? I picked one direction and followed the other riders lights. Taking over one by one without knowing the location to go to. I am only following the red backlights in the night.
My hands have been shivering from an overdose of adrenaline pumping through my veins. We meet again under the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. I am hardly able to hold the manifest. I did not know one of the locations or how to get there on time.
Google every spot and spent half an hour planning a route or follow someone else. It became obvious I was not alone in my panic. Packs were forming around seasoned messengers who know the city by heart. I mean like every road, every road signal, the timing of them…
He nodded when I asked him if I could follow his lead. An honour to fly with over 20 years of Berlin messenger experience. I well remember the ride, one hell of a ride. But I can not tell this story. Too many traffic laws were broken each minute in this night. It took me a while after the race to get down from the trip to realize how lucky I was to be still alive. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating at all.
Someone very dear to me, worrying about my safety every time I step out of the door for a ride, asked me later why I never got back to racing Alley Cats arguing that she never saw me beaming of joy so much. I am thinking… “because you, …I did not know what I am capable of doing and I am afraid of it.”
But this is not true. This is not the beginning.
It feels like being hit by a stump in the back. My latissimus dorsi contracts, squeezing all air out of my lungs. Not relaxing anymore it left me unable to keep an upright posture. I sunk to my knees as people do in movies dying after being hit. It took strong painkillers to endure up to 3 days with this back spasm, not able to stand upright, walk or follow any normal routine.
After 3 years of studying and 3 years of working in the Game Industry, I was 30 Kilo heavier than my “comfortable” weight. I had neglected any athletic activity in that time and my body was ready to argue with me. It always came unexpectedly. When it hit me holding my few months old baby girl on my arm in the bathroom at a baby swimming facility, I sunk to my knees, carefully holding her I knew I have to change. Now.
Some wrong and misleading diagnostics later, like do more sport which made the spasm occur less often but when much worse, I found a sport orthopaedic doctor in Berlin who finally understood the problem. My body was out of balance, a strong primary musculature without the smaller muscles able to balance its strength.
Core, stability, core, body weight, yoga, pilates,… – call it what you want
Lots of core, balance and stability training gave me control of the situation. Only to learn how fast I can forget the pain. As soon things got better I got lazy. Again and again, I neglected my routine and it did not take long until I had to pay for it. As one doctor put it who was not entirely wrong “I raised this body to perform, now I will have to perform the rest of my life or suffer.” I needed to find a way to keep myself entertained while taking care of my body. I bought a bike…
No new shiny bike. An old Giant steel road bike. Beside the actual frame, I have replaced each part of it at least once by now. It was and is a loyal companion, though it is looking forward to retirement. Unfortunately, Keirin Berlin closed. When the time is right I will visit Suicycle in Hamburg, but for now, we still ride together.
If you fancy me telling you my story instead of reading it yourself …
40 Years ago, I was not even born when a group of athletes from 3 different disciplines argued about the greatness of each ones effort in their respective sport. In difficulty to compare they created a race combining the “Waikiki Roughwater Swim” with a 3,8 km ocean swim, the “Around-Oahu Bike Race” with a 180,2 km bike ride and the “Honolulu-Marathon” with 42.195 km to run, launching one of the most grueling endurance challenges for years to come… the “Ironman!”
The calm sea at evening before the …
4 a.m. “Beeb-Beeb…Beeb-Beeb…” my eyelids feel glued together. My hand unconsciously grabs the round edged phone, my finger slides over the cold smooth surface, finding the snooze button. Silence.
…until a growling Thunder! moves over my head. My heart rate jumps, my eyes open and a deep breath fills my lungs with air. I slowly exhale while I sit up on the edge of my bed.
My daughter sleeps, I give her a kiss on her forehead and put the cover over her shoulders before I leave for the kitchen. While the water is boiling and the eggs make their dancing sound on the bottom of the pot, the bitter nutty smell of fresh coffee fills the air. After abstinence for about one week I close the eyes to enjoy the aroma. Standing in front of the window with a the coffee in one hand and some Catalonian sweet from the tiny local bakery in the other, I watch the sea light up under the giant clouds, when their lightning is bursting down.
I put the small ear pods into my ears and turn up the volume of my raceday playlist. A shiver runs down my spine and my hairs stand up with every thunder growling over the sea and every lightning lights up the smile on my face too. This will be my stage today.
A sweet candy like smell fills the air while the carbohydrate gel slowly flows into the bottle. Following my nutrition plan on an excel sheet as colourful as a production plan I prepare my hydration and nutrition, carbohydrates, sodium, caffeine and water for the race, calculated on my swetrate sodium loss and carbohydrate needs. Remembering my strategy, to rehydrate every 20 minutes and load carbs in the same interval but with a 10 minute offset.
The body hair makes a distinct sound under the sharp blade cutting it before it falls down on to the hand painted tiles of the floor silently. Like in the old days. I am thinking of greek and roman athletes, pictures of Jean-Léon Gérôme. The vibrating sound of the old electronic shaver is not half that romantic and safes me from dreaming away. The cold water of the shower is the first reminder of what lies a ahead of me.
The cold mist in my face helps me to wake up while I am running along the coast to warm up. Warming up in the cold, dressed with a suit weighting just a few gram. The wild waves are crushing against the rocks. Their power is humbling. I am thinking of how I was coming out of the water tumbling, hardly able to stand on my two feet after just 20 minutes of easy swimming. I can already taste the salt in my mouth. This will be my first proper open water swim in the sea.
I rush to grab my bag after the run as my cab is already waiting next to the house. Jumping in to the car, my mind races, trying to visualize all the things I should have packed and mentally checking them off the list. I sit in the back on polished leather seats, breathing deeply, inhaling the typical car smell. We do not talk and even the noise of the radio does not really reach me. Just a few moments later I am looking on streams of athletes with white bags, walking through the streets of Calella. Their faces explain how a focused mind looks like. I am excited. I have to pull my self together to not dance through the streets to the music in my ears. Some of them seem to be puzzled when they see me smiling all over my face.
“…two thousand athletes right after me.”
I enter the transition area to load my bike with my nutrition and hydration. Installing the Garmin at my cockpit, checking my brakes, gears, tire pressure, seatpost and handlebar screws. It is all set, ready to launch. I got way to much time at my hand. I am walking around marveling all the haywire. Just before the sky opens again, I enter the transition tent and around two thousand athletes right after me.
I start to squeeze myself into my wetsuit. Admittedly the procedure taking easily up to ten minutes until I feel comfortable with my underwater superhero costume, is not the most elegant. The show helped an athlete next to me over his uptightness. I smiled back at him. He showed us first timers, as he called “us” how fast he gets into his loose-fitting suit within a blink of an eye. I admit that was fast! I promised him at least an equal level of entertainment when I will try get out of my second skin after the swim, if he manages to keep up with me. Laughter, I have successfully loosened up the mood for the others around us. I did not saw him again.
Like black pillars athletes stand at the beach next to the sea, preparing, fitting their goggles and seizing the the course with their eyes. The feet dig deep with every step. The wet cold grainy sand sticks to the skin. The waves are still building high walls with white crowns. We walk, run and jump into the salty cold water. Some athletes are carried back to the beach by the sheer momentum of the waves. I dive into the water, accelerate and try to find some rhythm. Warming up, I flood my wetsuit. I am not sure how to swim in these waves and how to navigate but I am feeling good.
Epic drum music plays as thousands of athletes line up at the beach. Drones are watching. The commentators voice is trying to find the athletes ears. The anticipation is at it’s peak. Excitement, doubt, nervousness and focus is written in the athletes face around me. I am smiling.
I tried to move forward in a crowd of black pinguins. Some are trying to get their goggles right, others swing their arms or do some last squats, most are intensely focussed, some joking, others nervous and some are celebrating their level of adrenalin and anticipation. Suddenly I am standing right in front of the arch.
off we go, six Athletes at a time. The waves seem to push me back, slowing me down and not allowing me to move forward. Straight against the tide. After a few moments I get the rhythm, fast strokes at the building up wave and a bit more gliding down into the valleys. It still seems slow. Where am I? How far is the next buoy? I look out of the water and see… nothing, just a hill of water in front of me. After the first buoy I got a good feeling when I am at the peak of a wave to look out. But I do not need to as I just picked up pace and start to follow the bubbles. I am not rushing past other swimmers but I take over continuously. A pleasant feeling of butterflies running my stomach and a super salty taste in my mouth I fly through the water with a smile.
I did not see the ground, I could not see to far ahead, there were no plants, algae or anything, I only passed one jelly fish and quite some weird looking fish with mostly black, sometimes gold, yellow, orange and red neoprene skins.
Beside some elbows, a guy hitting me and a couple of times that the waves seemingly stacked swimmers on top of each other, the swim went by uneventful. Still I came out of the water after that 3800m swim with a smile, thinking that this was the most enjoyable and interesting swim I had so far.
I think I catched a tail. Will not be the last time in that race.
The first few steps I was tumbling, I think after 3 steps I felt my legs would just give up under my weight. A guy catches my arm firmly and balanced me. Thank you. After running up the beach, I catched a bottle of water, flushed my mouth and spilled the rest over my face.
I got out of this skin way better than expected. I wipe my face dry, slip into my socks and shoes and put the helmet on. Most of the field seems to be still in the water as the bike park is still packed. A new high of anticipation builds up as I run out of transition and mount my bike.
The first few kilometers are technical and aerobars are forbidden as we move out of the old city of Calella. The roads are packed with people cheering the athletes. It starts with a light ascent. My heart rate is way over what I should be doing but I attribute it to my swim and keep pushing. Contrary to the weather forecast, predicting rain all day long the sun is out.
We climb up to Sant Pol de Mar, where I have been staying during these days and start pushing the speed down along the coast. Palm trees on one side, the beach and the endless sea on the other. I never got into the rain, but there must have been some certainly as the the roads are often wet and sometimes huge puddles along the way. There are quite some roundabouts in the course and the tarmac turned out to be quite slippery when wet, to the mishap of some, even pro riders.
I draw in my pace zones and keep pushing forward. I take over one by one or pack by pack. They ride in questionable distance to each other (minimum distance to avoid drafting is 12 m) and I really want to avoid any penalty because of drafting. I push my pedals hard again and again to get by these packs. Just to be the train for them, until I have recovered to be able to kick it again and leave them in the dust. It might not have been the most effecient strategy but satisfying my racer heart.
Since Barcelona Ironman has changed the course it now offers some elevation at middle of the first loop. Back home I have no climbs to train but dutch mountains. Somehow this might be quite effective as I tend to keep my speed up way better then most of the riders and still have enough in my legs to kick up the speed at the tip of it, before recovering on the way down.
Shortly after the descent my legs have recovered and I dial in to my rhythm. My left shoulder starts to complain about a piercing pain. I am not sure where it comes from but it hurts. To relax the muscle I put my left arm on my back while remaining in my aeroposition riding only leaning on my right arm and pedal on. I keep the speed up, stabilize with a more focused core. The spectators are clearly wondering, a small boy pointing at me while obviously asking his mother about my doing, if this is an attempt to be even more aerodynamic? After about three to five minutes I am able to get back into a normal aero position. Repeating this procedure every 30 minutes I am able to cope with the stress in my shoulder muscle.
I might have been a bit over my zones, my coach defined for me but I felt good so far. I am alone again, as most of the time on the way back of the first loop. Suddenly a pack swamps me from the back. One by one they overtake me, sitting back in right in front of me and slowing me down. About 20 riders and I have no choice to than let them do their thing and wait until they are done. I am upset. As soon I have no rider behind me anymore I fall back to get the 12 m distance and accelerate full power taking over the whole pack at once.
all of them. Right behind me they stick. I calm down and then try to get away. They take full advantage and keep sticking to me. Suddenly a fresh rider, not of this pack I am dragging with me takes over, sits back in in front of me, slows down. Before I realize what is happening, a motorcycle comes by from the side. They have been right behind that rider. The referee shows me a blue card. I am speechless. That is what I get for putting in that extra effort all the time to avoid drafting. I did not even tried make use of the legal advantage of staying in 12 meter distance to the rider in front. But how should this referee know? >386< I still remember the referees number.
A 5 minute penalty I will have to dismount at the next penalty tent. Worse I have been judged of unfair behaviour. What do I do with this? I am furious. 5 min! Me drafting?! I hit the pedals, speed up about 50 km/h. The pack I was fighting with did take over as the referee punished me. Now they are in front and the referee busy with everyone of them. But blocking my way. I yell as loud as I can at the referee as they block my way to overtake the pack. He draws aside. I rush forward. My legs are hammering down the pedals. 5 min! I have to go 5 min faster until the penalty tent to make it even, right?
Climbing up to Sant Pol, there is an aidstation right on top of the peak. My family waiting and my kids waving. I did not expect them, as we agreed it would be too busy and too stressful for them to be there just to see me for a few seconds. But my daughters persisted. I had tears in my eyes and nearly cried of happiness. My throat felt corded up.
Penalty tent was chaotic. 5 minutes I keep watching people I overtook before. A few minutes later I start again. Still furious. I will get every single one of you!
And I did. I was not aware of how much energy I am wasting and on the last 20 km I paid for a some missed long endurance sessions in training, because of sickness, family matters or work commitment. I did not expect it, but after 180 km I was kind of looking forward to get off the bike and run.
My third Triathlon race and I still do not jump on the bike but put on my shoes in transition. It does not look pretty, running to or off the bike but it looks by far worse falling off or over the bike when trying the “fyling mount”. Believe me I have seen it.
Though it is a bad excuse. I should practice it more. Actually I can do it, but I am just not confident enough to do it in the race. If you do not know what I am talking about,here is a GCN video explaining the “Fyling Mount”.
I run off the bike with cleats under my shoes. My first strides are a bit rocky but no cramps this time. 180 km bike leg done under 5 hours and my legs feel good, I am rushing into transition with smile on my face.
I slip into my beloved ON Cloudflow running shoes, pull up the elastic laces, take off the helmet and carefully place it into its protective bag. I put on my race number, 1262, cap, take a sip of my water bottle, one flask of carbohydrate gel into each hand and off I run.
Along the promenade at the beach towards the event area and later finish line, the sides are packed with spectators. Friends, wifes, husbands and kids cheering on the athletes.
My pace is to high. I am struggling to slow myself down. I am feeling good and adrenaline is pumping through my venes. My feet move fast, too fast but I am not alone, that makes it even worse.
About thirty minutes later the field stretches and the pace is dropped for good. We run along Calella beach. The sun is out and there is little to no wind. Two more turns and we change from tarmac to sand, leaving the city behind. Railway tracks and the sea on one side and a few farmhouses in the middle of squarish farms with beautiful stone gates on the other. Not sure what they are growing here, it looks right out of some druglord movie and the smell at one of these farms plays right into the theme. My thoughts are drifting. Later I will refer to this place without shadow as the “desert”.
Some Athletes are taking a leak behind bushes, standing in lanes in front of dixi toilet, or puking next to the track, some are walking or having a chat with each other. I am trying to calculate in my head at what pace I have to continue to make it to the finish line in under 10 hours. The thoughts get interrupted by a voice asking “Finish or try to finish under 10 hours and maybe…?” Start slow, keep an easy pace until the half marathon is done and then start to push. I started a bit late with the easy pace but it felt good.
Contrary to the bike my right shoulder was burning in pain. Obviously by riding in aero position only on my right arm I must have put a lot of stress on the other shoulder. I know this “Pain Ping-Pong” well enough from my knees. The 150 gram gel flask in each hand, which I am lifting at a cadence of around 90, 45 times per arm in a minute does not make it better. One of them is just about empty and I get rid of it, only keeping the other in the left hand. Maybe I should have put them both in the back pocket of my suit in the first place.
I pass the half marathon mark and it is time to accelerate, at least according to plan. I will push the pace right after the next turn. After about 7 hours of drinking 30-40 ml of carbohydrate gel every 20 min my stomach is giving up on me. I feel like I have to puke just by thinking to take another nip from my gel flask. Ditching my gel for now and start eating fresh oranges on the aid stations I am trying to cope with my upset stomach. I am not feeling great. I do not speed up and my mind just tells me “Keep going!”, “You like that!”, while I am struggling to keep the pace up. “Keep pushing!” I start counting my strides. Every time I pass by a music spot my pace goes up, I know there is still plenty in there.
I am smiling. I saw my two daughters three more times at the track. My smile could not hide my struggle though. I was looking little like running, my movement was heavy and slow. Still while my mind was contemplating with my upset stomach the rest was programmed to execute and would not give in under any circumstance. “Just continue!”
“Into the desert and back again. One more time!”
One more lap. Into the desert and back again! One more time! Having my kids in my arm when I return, that thought makes me homesick, as so often in long training hours. It is the most beautiful thing I can imagine. Tears wet my eyes. This thought carries me, Noa and Yva, they are carrying me through my last lap.
I run around the last turn. “Lets get out of here!” Smiling again, still with wet eyes, I pick up the pace again, at least it feels like it, as I have stopped checking my watch for my pace. I enter the promenade and the final some hundreds meter I pass by some guys in my mind already celebrating.
Close to tears I run down the finish line. “You are an Ironman!”…
Shortly after the arch, my body relaxes, the core and tension collapses, I can stand but I do not mind the supporting hand guiding me towards the exit. It is a well timed procedure, catch the athlete, keep him on his legs, put a medal around his neck and push the athlete into the exit channel, where a questionable snapshot is taken before one is allowed to enter the athlete after race area/ tent, right along the Finisher T-Shirt stand to the medal engraving stand.
He asks “M?” “Can I have two S if possible, for my daughters please?!” Without any arguing needed he prompted me with two S and an M for myself. You can not imagine the relieve. After picking up my engraved medal. I find my way towards the buffet, warm toast with melted cheese, something I would usually never eat but now I love it. Followed by some Catalonian sweets from the bakery, melon, orange, pineapple, nuts, coffee, oh my gauge, I am so hungry. Beer! “Boah!”I nearly puked by nipping at it.
It started to rain right after I finished. Ten hours and seven minutes, I just missed the sub10h mark. Whatever, I think I did still okay. Athletes keep coming in, shivering not able to hold a cup, crying like children, some are sitting over their tea and cookies chatting as they have not done anything else that day. A big lane in front of the showers stops my considerations. I pick up my white after race bag, pull out a fresh shirt and slip it over my racesuit. Walking through the massage recovery tent with about 40 tables setups, all occupied by athletes under warming goldfoil covers, I remember my massage after my last race in Kraichgau. It would be absolutely worth the wait. But I walk right through the tent, dismissing the chance of magic hands tenderly loosening my tense muscles.
I only want to go home, embrace myself in the arms of my kids.
An Ironman race might seem like a daunting challenge, but the race is the reward for me as an athlete. The Journey is the challenge.
…the race is the reward, the journey is the challenge…
Whatever I have achieved in my life so far, I only did with the direct or indirect help and selfless support of others, my friends and my family.
I want to say Thank you! to my Coach Vladimir Savic! You are the Best!
I want to say Thank you! to my family and especially to my wife and my two daughters Noa and Yva.
Thank you to all my friends out there, close and far! I love you!
I am very lucky to have every single one of you!
Triathlon. About a year ago I set out to fulfill one more of my childhood dreams. I think to remember watching some live coverage on a 13″ small TV screen when I was a kid. The Middle Distance now was my second step towards this goal.
The Ironman 70.3, also called half Ironman, is about 1900 m Swim, followed by 90 km bike ride and completed after another 21,1 km run.
I did the Olympic Distance Triathlon last year, as a preparation, to get to know the whole procedure before attempting the middle distance Triathlon. This can not be much different, just a bit longer, can it? One day before the event I got up at 4 a.m. to catch my train. When I arrived at about 12:30 p.m. in Bad Schönborn I soon realized that this is quite a bit different.
Ironman waypoints at every corner leading my way through the small lovely city of Bad Schönborn towards the event area. The sun shines hot and no activity is needed to bath in sweat. About 4000 Athletes, 2400 Agegroupers for the Ironman 70.3 with friends and family fill up the area, just giving a taste of what is to come.
An hour of race briefing, is followed by a couple of lanes to wait in for hours to register my self and receive my transition bags and race numbers.
“1204” is the number I receive. But the journey started 10 month ago.
Training for A Middle Distance Triathlon
I believe with all my heart that anyone can do whatever (s)he wants just on his(her) own without supervision successfully only limited by his(her) power of will. But guidance might shortcut your way, save you form injuries and make the whole experience more enjoyable.
My professional Triathlon Coach Vladimir Savic gives me consistency, plans my session efficiently and deliberately builds up my swim, bike and run abilities. He gets the most out of my time and potential without compromising my health. With his availability he gives me security and with his knowledge he makes me fast as possible on my way to reach my goals. Do not get me wrong, he makes me suffer as I never would be able to do myself. I trust him with my health and consider him a friend.
The 3 weeks training before my first Olympic Triathlon in Bremen last year, have been just a warm up. I love to tell I was a semi professional swimmer in my youth. But this is much exaggerated, as I stopped when I was about 11 years old. I was mostly doing breaststroke only back then. 11 month ago getting back into swimming I was out of breath after a few lanes in freestyle. I had to relearn freestyle and I still have a lot of technique training and drill sessions ahead. My bike was okay but so far I was given the impression that I am not made to be a runner.
My Training volume raised to an effective 8 to 12 hours a weeks, with a maximum of 16 hours in race preparation.
While the training time remained consistent. my swim distance got longer. My usual swim workout raised to about 3000+m. I always loved water more than I fear it. Now I also love doing freestyle. I get into flow, my breathing relaxed and natural, as I would not even move the head sideways to breathe air. The surface tension and resistance of the water on the skin of my hands feels like pushing away a very soft pillow. I watch the light sparkle in the air bubbles rushing from my finger tips towards me. It is like dream you do not want to wake up from.
I started to swim butterfly, another goal from my childhood just along the way. I remember the sessions when I first flied like yesterday. The moment when I broke the surface and everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The head followed by chest and arms break out of the water. The whole body is tense while my arms open wide like wings over the the calm surface of the water in front of me. Just a few drops of water flying ahead, leaving raindrop like rings on the surface. It felt like an eternity but it was a short moment to fill my lungs and pierce back into the water. Just to fulfill another wave like motion before breaking out again.
I was eleven years old when I quit my swim training. Somewhere in Berlin in a big indoor pool with broken windows in the roof and a very yellowish light, I was swimming breaststroke on a 25 m lane. My friend Robert (Schwarz?) was on the lane next to me. Both of us have been selected from the team for individual training. At the end of the lane was my trainer yelling the time of my split, pointing out exactly how much my lane neighbour was faster and the other way around.
Out of the water the cold grip of winter air blowing through the broken windows makes me shiver. I walk over broken floor tiles to the shower. We do not look at each other anymore. Not in the shower, not the locker room and never again. I felt like crying when I left the pool, maybe I did.
I am riding my bike at any season, weather or daytime. But with the raised training volume I started to stick to the plan. Most of the last cycle my swim and run abilities have been in focus and the overall training volume of my bike much reduced.
As efficient indoor training might be and since Lionel Sanders even fashionable, it was a relieve to get out again and I enjoyed my sessions a lot. Though something had changed. I remember killing hours on my bike in the Berlin Grunewald or around Belgrade in the very early morning without ever getting bored. Suddenly I feel a need for speed, or at least intensity. Most challenging sessions now are not when I have to leave my comfort zone, to make use of every fiber of muscle in my leg, overcome the pain to reach the right heart rate zone for this days training purpose. I am challenged by “LSD” sessions. Long slow distance, building base endurance. There are so many things on my mind I want and got to do, that being out there alone, just listening to my inner dialogue feels cruel at times. I think these have been the only sessions I cut short sometimes and not because of exhaustion.
My run workouts are mostly about an hour and every month I seem to cover some more distance in that time. No other discipline showed such obvious progress. One of my best moments was when I realized that my feet have changed back from flat and over pronouncing to a neutral healthy shape again and my dynamic X-leg is straight as it can be when my feet hit the ground. I assume it happened in the last 3 years by walking in barefoot shoes and a healthy approach to raising my training volume slowly and a lot of core strengthening. I am not sure what it was exactly, I am not a doctor but the moment I got my first pair of neutral shoes, ON Cloudflow in my case, I made a big leap forward. My whole technique seems to have change, I got less to no problems and I swear I got at least some 10 seconds faster in average on 1 km. Maybe it is psychosomatic, ON has quite some good marketing, but so be it. I love to fly ON clouds.
…and no they are not paying me…
There was way more on my mind and schedule while training for an Ironman but training. There is core training to stay away from injuries and imbalance. Body composition or just proper daily nutrition was one of the hardest parts for me, especially because I love to cook and bake and chocolate. Then there is technique knowledge, mental training, equipment and general coordination and organization.
But before I get lost lets talk about “Raceday”!
Raceday – My first Ironman 70.3
It is a beautiful sunny morning. Bright saturated green covers the hills along the roads towards Ubstadt-Weiher. I am sitting in the car of my friend, starring out of the window. While I tried to visualize what lies ahead of me, I did not realize that I will hammer down the very same road a few hours later.
I drop my white after race bag on a loading rack of a truck. The event area is packed. I enter the transition area to load my bike with gels, hydration and my Garmin device. Hundreds of bikes around me, and as many athletes. Everyone was laughing and joking around the day before. The mood has changed. There is tension and anxiety written in the faces of the athletes. Their expression serious and their eyes look mean while they focus on their minds.
I check the place of my blue transition bag before I leave to get to the beautiful turquoise Hardtsee. I am nervous. There elbows and shoulders, everyone seems to be somewhere else. But some are carrying a smile. I try to get in my wetsuit, it feels much more difficult then ever before. Somehow I lost quite some time walking around this mesmerizing atmosphere. Suddenly I have to hurry up as they start counting down the time for the warm up. I manage to jump into the water and do just a few strokes, before I have to leave it again to enter the rolling swim start area.
There are lanes according to your own time estimate for your swim, somewhere behind a wall of hundreds of athletes in black neoprene suits. We are lucky just one hour later it would have been to warm and the wetsuits forbidden. But there is no way I get further to the front. Man and women standing shoulder to shoulder and chest to back.
A shiver runs down my spine as the sudden stunning sound of the canon explosion announces the start. My hair would stand up if it would not be shaved off or pressed down by the super skin tight neoprene suit. Every five seconds four athletes at a time enter the water. There are at least around 500 people in front of me. But we can watch the pro field thundering through the Hardtsee.
My lungs contracted, exhaling all air, leaving me unable to breath in again. I remember this early morning in the already hot Serbian sun in Belgrade. I got a panic attack in training in 1,5 m deep water when the white pebble ground was broken up by dark algae spots in the clear water of Sava Lake for no comprehensible reason. It must be some kind of deep water phobia.
I step into starting position. A race coordinator places his hand gently in front of my chest. His hand goes down and he gives the way free. My feet drill deep into the dry sand of the beach. It is happening now. Every fiber of muscle tenses and the whole body seems to explode. I rush into the lake and fling my self into the dark turquois water. With one wave like motion I accelerate right under the surface before my arm break out again.
For some reason there is no sign of anxiety left. My arms propel my body forward in an even rhythm. There is no doubt of direction. My breathing aligned with my stroke. I am in flow. Just seconds in the water, I overtake the other three who entered the water with me. And another one, and another one and it did not stop. I started to smile and a deep feeling of happiness and joy gave me butterflies. Remembering my bike ride in Bremen, I would have never expected a swim to be like that. I could hardly see the buoys to figure out the direction I had to swim, but I could follow the feet and air bubbles of the others. It was exhausting to swim around all these people, some where even trying to grab my legs. But overtaking one by one gave me a lot of drive to push on.
Suddenly I see the ground, the swim is over. After roughly 2000 m and 31:04 minutes I am running out of the water. I never felt that heavy in a brick training, but I also never felt so happy about my swim.
With a slightly drunk feeling and unable to open my Roka wetsuit. I make my way back to transition on wobbly legs. I think I hardly used them at all in the swim but my legs are just before cramping and I have difficulties getting out of the suit. A few moments later I grab my bike and run to the mounting line.
I feel the beat of my heart, full of anticipation. My foot presses down the pedal. This is my discipline. One deep breath fills up my lungs. The land of the thousand hills is ahead of me. Will I handle the climbs I never practiced for in the north of Germany? It is pretty hot. I rehydrate by emptying my front tank through a straw in aero position right away. I check my heartbeat. 172. I have 4 heart rate zones defined by my coach to pace me well in the 90 km bike ride, to still have enough in my legs for the half marathon ahead. 4 Zones with a maximum heart rate of 165 for short steep climbs. Attributing my high heart rate to my swim effort, I disregard the numbers for the moment.
Two minutes in to the ride I hit 44 km/h and my heart starts to calm down. I am overtaking the first few riders. Slowly, one by one but in a steady rhythm. I consider to slow down. “Should versus could” echos in my head. But I feel good. I press on.
Not even 10 km in the ride an athlete rages at the side of the road. He is about to explode, hurling his disk wheel with a loosened tire. I feel sorry. May that never be my destiny. The field is still quite dense. The judges following us on motorcycles. I am trying hard to stay out of the 12 m wind shadow boxes of the other rides. More then once I accelerate to take over a whole group just to get them out of my way.
There it is. Some 30 minutes into the ride we hit the first accent first gradually then we approach the first proper ramp. I go down in my gears keeping my cadence up and press on. Overtaking one by one on the climb. Maybe I am pushing to hard, will I miss that power later on to keep going? I keep going up the hill, happiness all over my face like someone has given me an unexpected gift. I reach the top, push my gears up and hit my pedal with full power to accelerate again.
Seconds later I hit 67 km/h, I am still comparably heavy with my racing weight of 84 kilo. I keep overtaking people. There are a few like “Tommy”, I do not remember his racing number, a really tall super skinny guy looking like a Cheetah in his aero position, who keep coming back for a while but most of them I never see again.
I had a heart rate baseline defined for the flat. In Kraichgau there is no flat. Either you climb or go down like rocket. I eat gels and rehydrate on a predetermined pattern like a clockwork. I empty my last bottle just before the aid station, throw it right in to the bin to pick up some water on the fly as planned. The new bottle finds the cage behind my back and I get out of my saddle to accelerate up a steep ramp in a little town, overtaking another 2 competitors. Going down fast into a curve, I hit some bump in the road which slingshots the just picked up bottle out of the cage. Shock! After a glimpse back, I breath out in a relief, as no other rider is in danger to crash due to my bottle and see a volunteer already on his way to pick it up. Nobody can hear the “Thank you!” going over my lips. I push on and check my front tank and race bottle in the triangle of my bike for any remaining hydration. I am out of water.
After some more climbs and descents I am alone. The first time in the race I can not see the next rider to take over ahead of me. I am rushing down a hill but closing in to the next ascent vanishing in the forest in front of me I spare my legs. Still thirsty. Suddenly, like a rolling thunder, his helmet flashed bright up in the sun when he flew down out of the forest like a hawk. Ducked deep into his aero position, Jan Frodeno already on his way back, passes by with a roaring sound. I think I stopped pedaling for a moment in awe. A few moments and another climb later I descent with over 70 km/h wondering about the top speed of Jan. Hell he was damn fast.
At the aid station, I pick up some water. Hardly enough and in the next climb my legs start to cramp. Did I lit to many matches? I concentrate on my breathing, my gears low and my cadence steady. I try to go out of my saddle, no way, my legs force me to sit down right away. A pack of riders overtakes me. I saw these guys checking in yesterday. They did sound Swedish or Norwegian to me. In their twenties I assumed, really good looking like fashion models with the best bikes and gear available. My legs hurt. Every stroke hurts. I am not feeling good but I keep going. Another rider with a broken bike at the side of the road cheering his struggling comrades. I reach the top. No rest but time to chase them down.
Before the last big climb I got them all packed in again. Looking down on my Garmin I feel deeply sad. Disappointed. Nearly 1000 m of elevation and over 80 km distance on my display. That’s it? In regret I realize that I am just about to finish the bike leg but there is a half marathon waiting.
After 2:36:17, 90 km and 1000 m of elevation I click out of my shoes and run barefoot towards the volunteers to leave them with my Canyon Aeroad and head into transition.
I am changing my gear in a relaxed manner. The guy next to me pulls out a flask of his transition bag before he runs off. I am jealous. Hopefully there is some aid station right after the tent. Some volunteer kids are handing out wet sponges but no water here.
I swallow another gel. I am thirsty but my legs are good. It is hot. Six minutes in the run my lace opens. I stop, nearly laughing out loud while I close them again. This never happened before with these shoes in training, not in the last 300 km of running. Amused I pick up my pace again.
The aid stations are packed with volunteer kids. I take my time to thank them. They are standing in the heat all day long cheering and helping the athletes. I hope they do shifts. I take a shower, then two cups of water and 2 sponges soaked in cold water at every aid station, once a banana, once a gel, once an isotonic drink to spill it out right away as it tasted disgusting. My shoes were filling up with water from the showers so I started to avoid them.
My legs hurt, my feet hurt, my knees, my hip everything seems to be busy inventing symptoms to make me stop. I keep running, constantly overtaking other runners. Constantly being overtaking by others. The field is really mixed up with paces as we are going 3 rounds between Bad Mingolsheim and Bad Langenbrücken. I think to keep my pace steady, but the analytics later reveal that the curve of my run looks more like a roller coaster due to the hills in the run. But my effort was.
1 hour and 41 minutes after one last effort to psuh my pace towards the finish line I run down the carpet and finish my half marathon. A few seconds later, not even out of breath someone puts the medal around my neck.
4 hours 57 minutes 54 seconds placing 60th in my age group.
I cross the finish line, happy.
! Small addition, I found a nic recap video by “Sportspinner” on Youtube. It focuses mainly on the pro field but gives a great impression of the mood. Thank you @Sportspinner.
What is next?
I have learned a lot in the race. One of my biggest mistakes was my salt management probably. The guys at Pushing Limits just made a good podcast about it.
I would like to look into a swet test and to try Precision hydration. When I run, I keep visualizing Patrick Lange in Kona in 2017, so I will work on my technique and maybe check in for some Seminar with “Running wolf”. I am dreaming of switching some of my equipment going more aero with a Oakley Aro 7, some Hadron deep wheel LRS by Swissside, the Myth suit by Ryzon and some TX322 kicks from Lake. But I would need to find some sponsors to make this happen.
For now I keep pushing while I have to give some love and time back to my family and kids who are enduring my dreams. Without them I would not be possible.
My next Race will be the full Ironman in Barcelona in 17 weeks at the 7th of October just before my 33 birthday.
Comment of my daughter after race…
“I would like see Papa to be the first at the finish line, I want him to win a race!”.
It is time for me to say…
Since the “CX 402 Wide” cycling shoes just propelled me through my first Triathlon and have granted me a year on the road without anymore pain in feet, knees and hips, I want to share my experience with all fellow cyclists.
There are many causes to knee, hip and lower back pain. The not right fitting pair of cycling shoes might be one of them. I find it hard to believe that so many top brands care so little about producing healthy and comfortable cycling shoes.
I have started out with click-in shoes, with the “Giro Empire”.
With no doubt it is a good looking cycling shoe. They felt a bit too tight to me, but I was told they fit just fine and I will get used to it. I got numb toes in autumn. Probably it was too cold for my feet. I cycled the whole winter with thick overshoes and numb toes. In summer I thought my feet expanded because of the warmth, when I had numb toes.
“Never get used to pain!”
In endurance sport there is some pain involved, when we redefine our capabilities. But when we just get on the bike and ride, there should not be any pain anywhere. Get the right fit, get proper kicks and work your core!
Knee, hip and lower back pain followed. Unbearable. Since I was training for the Transcontinental Race IV in 2016, I had to find a solution. Instead of sitting in the saddle, I started to spent a huge amount of time with doctors. Searching for the cause of pain.
I have got a sport physio specialist “orthophysio” in Berlin analyze my muscles strength, balance and posture. They educated me in core muscle training.
An I received my first pair of
LAKE Cycling Shoes by Christian Van Asten and other brands
Before I learned about Lake Cycling Shoes, I tried different kicks from the major brands.
I squeezed my feet in to the S-Works 6 in a Specialized store in Berlin. They told me it would be just the right size for me, even though the shoe felt really uncomfortable before even getting on the bike. They have been slightly upset, as I did not want to buy their top pair of shoes.
I have tried Trek’s Bontrager XXX,
and the Bont Vapor S
in several sizes at home. All models have been uncomfortable enough that I could not imagine my feet would feel any better when I actually use these shoes on the bike.
There might be beautiful narrow shaped Italian feet fitting into those kicks or some feet less demanding, but mine are certainly not.
I was nervous when I unpacked my last hope of cycling shoes. My heart rate went up when I put my new pair of Lake Cycling shoes in to the oven. Yes into the oven. You bake them to achieve a unmatched perfect custom fit. Even I like cooking and baking a lot, I have never been so adrenaline pumped when watching something in the oven.
I repeated the process a few times. I warmed up the shoes, put the insole in followed by my feet and massaged the carbon layers on to the shape of your feet.
When I slip into them they make a sound of a hollow piece of wood. They are stiff and while I fitted them on my feet the first time, I could hardly imagine that a cycling shoe making such sound and with such stiffness could be comfortable. As soon I had them on, I forgot that I am actually wearing some cycling shoes. Not even my barefoot shoes match this feeling. They fit so well, I do not even need to close the Boa’s to ride.
Does they make you cycling faster?
I have no numbers to tell you how much faster I got by them, but I know how much longer I can ride because of them. No more numbness, no more pain, no more limited by my cycling shoes. More training, more joy, I am definitely faster now.
I have now cycled with the “CX402 wide” about one year and 10.000 km on tarmac in Germany, Belgium, France and Serbia. The cycling shoes are super durable, they still look like new. I love these shoes!
You might argue about the pricing of the shoes, but then again it is hard to put a price tag on health and considering the value of lifetime not sitting at the doctor, I will not.
The “CX402” are well ventilated and they do not claim to be waterproof. I had tried many overshoes in the winter before, but there was no pair keeping my feet dry and warm when riding over long periods of rain.
After enjoying the “CX 402” so much I invested in the Lake CX 145. An wise investment, and cheaper compared to the number of overshoes I have ripped or which just did not perform accordingly. I did ride the whole Winter in them in every kind of weather, in snowstorm at minus 20° C and pouring down rain.
A Healthy Cycling shoe
I might have failed at the Transcontinental Race IV, but I did not fail the health of my feet. With the CX 402 w and CX 145 w cycling shoes I found my perfect fit. I will never cycle with another shoe brand and the next shoe I will buy will be the “TX 312 Wide” for Triathlon.
If you want to say Thank you to your feet, gift them a pair of Lake cycling shoes.
Triathlon. A “first time” again. Again I am starting to fulfill one of my childhood dreams. These are the first steps on a path ahead.
It was to experience the procedure of a Triathlon event, to be part of the triathlon community, to know what I am getting into before laying out a road map to achieve a goal I set myself as a child. Olympic distance was my choice to compete in for now. This means to perform a 1500m swim, followed by a 40km bike ride and finished after a 10 km run.
It was to have fun and enjoy a race, hopefully finish it and to grow just a little bit. I was hardly thinking about what time I would finish. Surly I did the math based on my numbers from my training. But I disregarded these thoughts as pure nonsense, as the sum of the single efforts can not reflect the much more demanding challenge performing a swim, a bike ride and a run after each other.
My first Triathlon-Olympic Distance
The sky was covered in clouds. There was little to no wind to hope to clean up the sky. When I entered the Transition Area to setup my spot, 832 my number, it started to rain. Nervous and excited I arrived, a little piece of paper on a metal bar, 832, to hook my bike on. It rains a lot in northern Germany, but for some reasons I got lucky since I moved here and never got surprised by bad weather in my bike training. Commute yes, wet to the bones but not in training. Today at my first Triathlon event water runs down my face before the swim and it is cold.
I step away from the crowd who is busy preparing for a fast transition, putting anti chafing cream to all thinkable spots or already squeezing into their wetsuits. I am not even trying to hide how I check their transition zone setups. Until I realize that I am running out of time to get dressed up too. I jump into my wetsuit, it is a 5 to 10 min long jump, far from elegant and make my last preparations.
We walk down to the harbor. We joke about the weather, I check the course around the buoys and jump into the water. It is freezing cold, despite the wetsuit. I flood the wetsuit and it gets worse. The water is greenish dark, I can hardly see a meter ahead. Did I mention I get panic in deep dark water?
The commentator keeps bubbling his nonsense, nobody listens. Until he says that we would have to do 3 times the course, he corrects himself a little later that we have to do it “only” two times. Suddenly he counts down and a moment later the water explodes. 200 arms hit the surface at once. Noise and no time to think about darkness anymore if I do not want to drown under the bodies of athletes rushing through the water.
The field stretches after a little while and as long we are not swimming around the corner at the buoy everyone has enough space and swimmers are no more stacked above each other. All in all it was pretty respectful behavior but it does not make it easier to find and keep your rhythm. Nor did the cold, the dark grey sky or the rain helped me with the orientation.
A hundred meter before getting out of the water my hamstrings cramp. I swim on my back to take a deep breath, turn around again and let my arms do the work alone.
After roughly 1700 m swim (instead of 1500) I take a few minutes to let the DLRG Life Guard stretch my leg. I get up and run with some pain to my bike, with a smile. I am happy.
After I have left my spot in the transition zone well organized and clean, I mount my bike. Five minutes into the ride I find my legs. Now! It is race time! No that was not the plan. No, no racing! ….but. Hitting the pedals, a even whirring sound appears as I accelerate. I start to take over other riders. I am close to a 40 km/h average, controlled, taking my time to slow down for tracks and corners, the road surface is still wet. Four times the same track, at least it is not boringly straight and the rain did stop. There only a few people around the track, but it feels good to see them watching the race. Beside two beasts of riders who passed by, I am the one who is taking over and it feels good. I could have continued that for quite a while.
I switched my shoes, even got socks on now and get on the track. 10 km ahead my vastus medialis on both legs feels like iron balls. It really hurts. I had eaten well on the bike and now put in Mg for the second time. Running a low pace and breathing deep and calmly. Smiling.
Another athlete passes by cheering me on “You are doing it, come on, GO! GO! GO!”. After 2 km in the run it is getting better. As long I am not trying to run too fast I can actually enjoy the scene. There is no more race. It is just me, I am running with. I am grateful for the people cheering me on and for every smile I earn.
Result – offical ranking
2:33:32 – 54th overall and 12th in my age group not that it does matter.
I cross the finish line, happy.
– stays in Belgrade
- run for too long
- start with to much speed
- run with to big steps
- missing arm movement
- no body tension
- compensating with the foot movement
A Giant Achilles
I am dedicating my first blog post to cycling in and around Belgrade. Around half a year ago I was given the opportunity to work for a company called “Nordeus“, with its headquarters located in Belgrade. Every week I have been onsite for three days. My way to work is now about about 1200 km, unfortunately not by bike.
“Road Bike Belgrade”
…was the first thing I looked up. Google results ranged from “…is not recommended…” and “In addition to reckless drivers, cyclists need to be aware of stray dogs…”, “…much of Belgrade isn’t cycling friendly…” to “we can’t say that Belgrade is very suitable for cyclists”.
You may reckon that my observations are made from a different viewpoint. Above quoted statements might be true to the casual 5 km home to work city bike commuter.
Roads and the Tarmac
You get an idea of how the cities infrastructure is maintained from the first glance at the overall appearance of the architecture and condition of most vehicles e.g. cars. That does it not make Belgrade more suitable for road bikes. Though big parts of Belgrade, especially “New Belgrade” are relicts of 1950 socialist Yugoslavia and not much cared of since their construction, this does not make this city less adorable. The Consistency of the Architecture has its own charm and there are beautiful corners and small road breaking it up again. The “Belgrade Hills” make the cities landscape a great view, I enjoyed especially when lit up at night.
Admittedly there seems to be a tendency for leaving potholes as is. They can be easily half a meter deep and can come in any size. All punctures I got in and around of Belgrade have been caused by tough bumps squeezing my tires between road and rim.
Actually it has been three punctures in now 7 month. This is far less flats from bumps in Belgrade, then from cuts from broken glass of yesterday’s mindless drunk party folks in Berlin.
Guard your ride
The thread of punctures could be avoided by using tubeless tires. I can only recommend Schwalbe Pro One TL. I am riding these with my Berlin Rig now, and so far I did not have one flat! They are not only pretty flat proof, they also supposed to have a very low friction resistance and absorb a lot of vibration. For sure I can say that my 28″tires are super comfortable.
You may ask, what help will they be when the pothole is 30 cm deep or when you get surprised by a “laying down police man” when you are descending with 50+ km/h. I am sure they would soften the impact after jumping over them.
What is about the rims? Preferably you have hand build ones, I am sure my DTSwiss would handle this stress well. With my Giant factory rims, I went to my trusted Bike mechanic and had them tightened up. At Sportofis, recommended by a Belgradian friend of the Road, Marco did a very solid job for me. I had no problems since then.
Cobblestones can be hardly judged in a negative way, don’t they remind us of the Legends racing Paris-Roubaix. Uphill they are great preparation for sprinting up to the the “Muur-Kapelmuur” in Geerardsbergen. I have not found anything challenging as these yet here in Belgrade…though close.
If the roads are to challenging your bike handling is to weak.
Bikeshops in Belgrade
Are all over the place in Belgrade, but most of them focus on city biker and tourists. If you need someone to handle your road horse, pay Marco at near Sava lake at “Sportofis” a visit. A nice guy doing great work for much less as I am used to pay in Berlin for an average job. I heard there are a lot of good mechanics all over Belgrade, but I stick to the one I know.
They are all correct with saying that the general level of awareness towards cycling on the road is pretty low.
I am not sure if there is a law in Serbia as in Germany, that there has to be a minimum of 1.5 meters safety distance to the cyclist when taking over.
Most driver will not leave such safety distance. This can be stressful when experiencing a pothole clustered road, especially uphill as its hard to jump over them when crawling up your 10%+ grade.
Take the middle of the lane, most car drivers will avoid to overtake you on the road shoulder right of you. Now you have at least the space right of you to avoid potholes.
I have rarely seen someone taking some extra distance, bus and truck drivers still doing the best job here, but I do not feel less safe on the road in Serbia then in Germany. In and around of Berlin I rarely have an 80 km ride without at least one encounter where someone is trying to demonstrate his believe “for whom the road is build for”, by taking over with a very low distance. A hand width to the handlebar, should make sure the cyclist understands what he is in for. Even worse behaviour is shown by “meatballs yelling out of their tin bins”.
I have not experienced anything like this in Serbia so far. “Thank you!” for being tolerant and accepting to share the Road with all people.
Grab some fresh air in Belgrade by bike
If you are into Endurance Cycling, chances are you have read to some of the stories of the Transcontinental Race riders or the other big events and already know about these dog encounters with cyclists.
In and around of Belgrade I did not have one 75+ km ride with not at least one encounter up to six.
There are stray dogs everywhere, and there are a lot of dogs put in front of houses and private construction sides.
Beware!, no, actually you will soon realize, that at least in and around Belgrade these dogs live along with the people walking around peacefully.
But Cyclists, that is a different topic for them. They are starring at me while I approach, contemplating in their mind if you are worth to interact with. They may let you pass, they might come to completely different conclusion the very next day. There are some who will always hunt you, they suddenly come out of nowhere and are fully engaged.
A friend of mine told me, the rotating pedal stroke drives them crazy, so I should just stop pedaling. So far I am not following his advice, and feel fortunate that all serious chasers been too short legged to outrun me.
My own encounters with Belgrade Dogs
There have been many but a few I will remember…
On the top of Avala, has been a pack of fours dogs most of the time I have been up there, and they ignored me peacefully at first. On day they suddenly came up to me, circling me, jumping up and down, while I kept balancing my bike on the spot until I found spot I dared to breakthrough. It was one of the most chilling moments I had with these guys, but I only felt their warm breath.
Another time I have been heading back through Karaburma, it was early morning and rush hour. Luckily. Its hard to believe if you have not seen it yourself, but sometimes stray dogs attack passing by cars, jumping against it and trying to bite in it. This looks mental considering that they bounce off harsh, hardly avoid the following traffic and jump back up against the next vehicle.
Karaburma main road has 2 lanes in both direction with a green line in the middle of them. There has been 6 dogs at the right side and another pack of 4 at the middle. Attacking cars from both sides, but when they saw me, it gave them an adrenaline rush. As it did me. I slowed down for a moment. When 2 cars with similar speed passed by, I rush forward in the middle of both lanes and right between them to pass the dogs. They tried hard to get to me, but turned around after aggressive horn usage of the car drivers. One of this moments I only wanted to go back home fast as possible. And one of these rarer moments I was very happy to share the road with cars.
Evil dogs. I might be particular attractive to them, because they have not been my favorite animals even before cycling. But after cycling here for now 7 month, I fear them less and I think they are less dangerous then car drivers with a tendency for doing “self justice”.
Bulevar JNA Dog
My latest memorable moment I was getting back up the Bulevar JNA. I did put my music back on after leaving Avala and now crawling up the hill on a beautiful morning. Some yelping sound, a tone not fitting the jazz I was listening so often already, reached me through my headphones from the back of my bike. I first ignored, but after it did no disappear, I turned around. A young half-breed whelp was trying to stick to my bike at 12 kmh and to catch my attention…heartbreaking. Short before Rakovica Selo I hope he found a new home there…and did not end up as so many road kills I have seen. Still feeling guilty.
Where to ride your road bike in Belgrade?
I must advise you to ask Belgradian friends of the road, as I only have spent very limited time exploring. Ask them, they will point you where to go as they did with me.
Most of my rides I have done before work between 4 and 9 am.
If you go for a ride that early you can ease in around Sava Lake. It is a bit too small for anything serious. One spin is not even 10 km and gets mental after a few rounds.
My two favorite routes in Belgrade are…
The “Chinese Road” around Belgrade
…which is obviously not called the “Chines Road”.
For time efficient km in the flat with around 55 km and close to no dog encounters, I recommend the “Chinese Road” around Belgrade. The “Pupin Bridge” crossing the Danube followed by the Most Mihajla Pupina was mainly financed by China.
If you feel to add some elevation to your training schedule. Find the way to Avala from New Belgrade, around 85km and 1000m in Elevation for me. You have good chances for the whole package of “Road Bike Belgrade”.
Thank you for hosting my rides and being mostly kind to me.