Ironman Frankfurt race report and my comedy of errors
Ironman #6 was a painful but ultimately rewarding experience for me. Before I begin with my self deprecating comedy of errors that almost turned this into my first DNF (Did Not Finish) I need to give a shout out to Ken Glah and Endurance Sports Travel (EST). He runs an incredible operation that will get you to and through many endurance events world wide. More on them at the end.
Putting on a full 140.6 mile Ironman for 3,000 competitors inside a big city is a tall order. Kudos to Ironman and the city of Frankfurt for pulling this off but it does not come without logistical challenges that you should be aware of. More details on that below as well.
My first mistake was under training for this race. I assumed that only 3,000 ft of elevation gain on the bike vs the 6,000 that I’m used to would make for a relatively easy bike split. What I didn’t realize is how intense the 5 climbs on each of the two loops would be. With the 2 mile long killer in a town called Bad Vilbel towards the end of each loop. Check out an aerial view of the bike course here: https://www.relive.cc/view/g12790549903
The climbs were complimented by awesome long and enjoyable downhills and the road surface was just perfect for most of the ride. Crowd support was the best I’ve ever experienced when crossing some of these towns. The one in Bad Vilbel was very Tour de France like. Hundred of people lined the streets and yelled encouragement at each rider. Similarly some of the other towns were celebrating the event at local bars and restaurants and were very supportive. Many residents were out with their garden hoses offering showers of reprieve from the scorching day.
Aid stations were plentiful but I was surprised that the liquids offered were not cold and some were poorly situated at the beginning of uphills.
Another unique aspect of the bike course was about a quarter mile stretch of bone rattling cobble stone streets through one of the towns. I felt like the bike would fall apart by the end of it. They had a mechanic station at the end of this town for anyone who experienced any issues. My bike survived but it was unnerving to go from this right into a 40 mph downhill feeling that something could be very loose.
This downhill is where I got lapped by the pros on my first loop. It was super cool to see Andi Boecherer who was in the lead followed by Sebastian Kienle who eventually won and others fly by with their BMW motorcycle film crew escorts.
The course was shortened from 112 to 110 miles due to road construction. That was fine by me because I was physically spent by the end of it and emotionally discouraged after spending 7:08 out there after completing a 6,000 ft elevation gain course in IMLP in 6:37 two years prior. Woulda coulda shoulda trained more in the months leading up to the race. My excuse is that the weather in NJ was really crappy most spring weekends and I hate long rides on the indoor trainer. I only managed one long 90 mile training ride. Simply not enough.
Oops, I forgot to start with the swim. It was a super early start to the day. Got picked up at 4:15 AM by Ken while watching Saturday party goers pour out of local bars. He took us to the host hotel where shuttle buses were going to take 3,000 participants to the swim start at a lake named Langener Walsee which is about 20 minutes away in Langen Germany. This is also where you need to check in your bike and bags on Saturday. It’s a shlep to get to and from. If you don’t take a provided shuttle bus you’ll park by the quarry which is a mile walk away. Other than that, check-in was uneventful. In Europe they take a picture of you with your bike and only the person in the pic can collect the bike from T2 after the race.
They did a great job with music and excitement at the start. A ton of energy to motivate everyone for the long day ahead. After the pro’s went off at 6:30 it was a rolling start for the rest. You lined up in corals based on your anticipated swim time. Reason being that if you’re swimming with folks at your pace there will be less traffic and less chance of the usual kicking and slapping in the water (unintentional but unavoidable). I lined up towards the back of the 1:10 to 1:20 group.
That proved to be wishful thinking. Had I actually been in the pool more than once to twice a week leading up to this and done actual drills vs just straight swimming for 1,000 to 2,000 yards I would have been fine. There were two sections to the swim which you’ll see in the pic below. Going out in the first section was ok and not too bumpy. Coming back was straight into the sun and made buoy sighting impossible. That combined with my goggles that would not stop fogging up made it really uncomfortable.
I finished that section with a 2:07 minute per 100 yard average and knew I could do better. I got into a really good rhythm on the 1st leg of the 2nd section and brought down my average to 2:04. Still short of the 1:56 I was hopeful of repeating. The return had the same challenges and overall resulted in a 1:32 swim. “What ever!” I thought, and wasn’t too discourage. There is any easy bike leg coming up. Yeah right.
I was disappointed that there were no wetsuits strippers and no one applying sunscreen. I don’t do this enough nor do I practice as recommended. It isn’t easy getting a super tight fitting wet suite off. One volunteer noticed me applying my own sunscreen spray and reminded me not to forget my neck. Danka shun. T1 time was laughable at over 10 minutes.
After the bike leg described above I was baked, exhausted and pretty dehydrated. I thought I drank a lot. At least 8 24 oz bottles of water, and water with carbo pro and electrolytes but I guess that wasn’t enough for a 90* humid day. A bad cramp that hit my left leg at miles 50,70 and 90 had me worried that it would be back on the run. It came close to striking again but fortunately didn’t for the rest of the day.
Volunteers grabbed the bike in T2 back in town by the river which is a different location from T1. My T2’s are usually pretty quick but not this time. I was spent. It took me over 6 minutes to take off my helmet, bike shoes and put on socks, sneakers and a running cap. Now I was finally off to the run. Crowd support starts the second you leave transition and continues for most of each 6.5 mile loop that we repeated 4 times. The course is totally flat except for two quick climbs for bridges. About 50% or more is shaded but there was little relief from the heat.
It is well documented that most people participating in triathlons or marathons can not even do basic math during and especially towards the end of an event. The brain is simply fried and is too busy keeping vital functions working. I did not heed this well known fact and tried anyway. 7 hours on the bike plus about 2 hours for the swim and transitions made 9. So far so good. The cut off is 15 hours which is two hours shorter than in most races due to a sound ordinance in the city. That leaves me with 6 hours to complete a marathon. Plenty of time I thought!!
I thought I would put in at least some effort to muster up an OK run split before giving in to a slow 6 hour jog. After a two mile attempt to maintain a 10 min/mile pace the legs simply fell off and my stomach wasn’t happy either. I decided that a PR was impossible at this point and I would just jog 12 minute miles and finish in good shape with plenty of time to spare and enjoy the final finishers party.
I turned my Garmin to the screen that only showed pace and decided to disregard distance and time. I had 6 hours! I told myself that I would do two loops and check up on elapsed time and time left to cutoff then. I thoroughly enjoyed the crowd support, great views and vibe of the race but kept feeling worse and worse as the miles ticked off.
Aid stations were every 2k and were well stocked with water, cola, ISO, ice, sponges, sprinklers and my favorite, Red Bull! The volunteers were incredible. They also had plenty of oranges, bananas, pretzels, gels, bars and salt. I walked each station and alternated water, ISO and Red Bull. With an occasional Powerbar and a lot of oranges.
I checked my watch at the end of the 2nd loop (half marathon) and I think it read just over 2 and half hours. At this point I completely forgot that I had 6 hours total and just multiplied the approximate half marathon elapsed time by two and came up with 5. I was running on fumes and didn’t think I could repeat another 13 miles at the same pace. As slow as it was. I said I would give it one more loop and check again. I’m already dreading the DNF possibility at this point.
Story gets worse as the miles go on. Embarrassing, but I can laugh back at it now. Towards the end of the 3rd loop I attempt math again and based on the calculations I came up with I had 8 miles to go and 1:20 to complete them before the cutoff. That meant I needed to run 10 minutes miles from here to the finish line. In reality I had less than 8 to go and I actually had over 2 hours to complete them. I could have walked and made it.
I felt totally defeated. No way can I run 10 minute miles in my current state for over an hour without seriously hurting myself and ending up in the emergency tent. The last thing I ever want to happen is for my wife to get an oversees call that I’m there. As tough as it was I decided that I was done for the day and started slowly walking back to the finish to hand in my chip. I would lick my wounds, learn from this experience and never show up unprepared again to an endurance event.
The next two minutes were probably the worse I’ve ever had since starting this hobby 8 years ago. A DNF?? Ouch!! I knew this would drive me crazy for a long time to come but I was totally spent, had nothing left in the tank and started to mentally prepare myself for it.
I walked up to a guy that looked like he was in the same condition as I was in (head down, shuffling his feet, looking defeated) and tried to make small talk for our walk of shame together. I asked him if he was done too. He didn’t speak really good English but understood my question. He gave me a weird look, pointed to his watch and said we have until 22:00 implying there was plenty of time on the clock.
22:00 is 10 PM but my math converted 22:00 to 9 PM. My next equation which miraculously was correct said that if I could muster up 11 minute miles I would make my new made up cutoff time. So off I went.
Just prior to this race my Uncle died. His name was Alex. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about him and my own father that died about two years ago who was also named Alex. These two were BFF’s and I think my cousins, sister and I learned how to live, love and laugh by growing up with these two. They were the epitome of two wild and crazy guys.
|My father Alex on the left, uncle Alex on the right
I like mentally dedicating a race to someone or something. It makes the event more meaningful and gives me someone or something personal to think about during a long arduous day. I thought that any pain I experience would pale in comparison to what they each went through in their final years. They were in my thoughts from the get go.
At many running and triathlon events family and supporters use chalk to write inspirational messages to their athletes on the roads. These are very common to see throughout the course. As soon I decided to get back into this thing I see “Alex” in big letters written repeatedly about 7 times. I’ve gotten more spiritual in my old age and I truly believe this was a sign from above.
The pic below is the closest thing I could find on Google. Replace Love with Alex and that is exactly what I saw. The fact that “Love” is the only chalk on the road pic I found is a message in and of itself.
I get to the fork of the finish and final loop with 6 miles and about 2:10 to cutoff but in my mind it’s 1:10. So I need to do 11 minute miles. I set my mind to 10:30 minute miles just to provide some cushion. 6 miles seamed like herculean task so I decide to only think about the next 3 and let autopilot take over for the last 5k.
Sorry to make this sound this dramatic. I don’t think I’ve ever run in this condition in my life. Mile 21 was hard, 22 was harder and I could not wait for 23 to end. I did get a bit of auto pilot boost for the final stretch. This is where I start to notice runner after runner walking. Knowing how much time (I think) is left before the cutoff I start wondering why these people are throwing in the towel when they are within 5k of the finish.
They obviously knew they had an hour left but I thought it was just minutes. It’s also very common for runners to motivate walkers and have them start running again. This works and I’ve benefitted from it in many races. I start passing the walkers with “Come on, come on!! You can do this, let’s go!” it worked for some but not for most that I passed. I couldn’t believe that folks would give up so close to the finish. LOL.
It was coming down to the wire and as the fork to the loops path and the finishing chute appears 30 yards ahead of me my watch strikes 9:00 PM and I see the two official confer about something. One points to the left (loop route) and one points to the finishing chute. These guys are deciding my fate, I think to myself and get super nervous. Then the 1st one agrees with the 2nd. Now I’m thinking to myself “Wow, these guys are going to give a 60 second grace period and as long as it’s not 9:01 I will be allowed to finish!”.
There is always a huge celebration at the finish and the race director does a great job announcing the finisher and the crowd goes crazy for each. The energy, music and excitement during the last half hour leading up to the cutoff time is always pretty intense. I so didn’t want to be that guy, but as I’m completing the final 100 yards I can’t help but think that this is pretty tame for me the final finisher.
I cross the line, looking fine of course for the finishing photo, and nearly collapse. I was going to but that would probably result in being taken to the medical tent so I somehow kept myself vertical. A volunteer greats you, puts a finishing medal around your neck and confirms that you are OK. I convinced him that I was and did my best not to vomit on him. I was in bad shape. Then I see another person finish. Followed by another finisher 10 seconds later. So I ask the guy if the race is over? His response of “No we have about another hour left” was met with shock and utter bewilderment. I was totally dumb founded and immediately realized that the cutoff was 10 PM and that it was only 9:01 now. Run split ending up being 5:02 but at least it was a negative split lol.
I walked around in a complete daze for several minutes trying to analyze what had just happened and my time calc mistakes. There was a beer cart in the finishers village and this is probably the first time ever I turned one down. I could barely stand and was pretty dizzy and nauseous. There was a rest tent that had cots so I grabbed one and just laid down for a few minutes and drank a cola just to get some sugar and caffeine in me.
I started feeling better and went to collect my clothes and phone so I could text home. I attempted to eat some carbs but only managed a tiny bite of a bagel. It didn’t take too long to somewhat recover. By 11 PM I was out with the rest of the EST crew back at the hotel reliving this brutal day over beers and martinis. All of us moving very gingerly.
Well that about sums up my adventure at the 2017 Frankfurt Ironman European Championship. Official finishing time was 14:00:12. 4th place on my list of now 6 finishes. Just goes to prove the Ironman motto… Anything is Possible.
Thank you to my incredible virtual support crew! You guys rock! Onwards and upwards to us all.
Ken Glah was an Ironman Pro for many years and still competes yearly. He holds a record with 34 consecutive Kona finishes and over 80 IM’s total. His company provides hotel accommodations, airport transfers, bike maintenance and logistics support for many races world wide. Getting around some of the venues is pretty complex especially when you’re abroad. His packages also come with race registration to sold out events. Truly priceless. I’ve raced St Croix, and Klagenfurt Austria with him. I’ll be using him again for Ironman Arizona later this year.
More on event logistics
Ironman Frankfurt was a highly organized and well run event. Registration went super smoothly. Keep in mind that you don’t get special needs bag at registration. If you want to use these you have to bring their content to T1 on race day and request them there. Finisher’s medal is a large honking piece of hardware for your collection.
Getting to/from swim practice is a bit of a pain because it’s about 12k out of the city and there is traffic. Same goes for bike drop off on Saturday.
This was the first time I attended the Pasta Party. It was an easy 15 minute subway ride away. Plenty of pasta obviously and a good atmosphere in a huge tent. The race director had a live QA with some of the pros. And an executive from the primary sponsor gave a great speech. Just kidding, I have no idea what he said. It was all in German.
Finisher’s village is awesome with medical tent, rest tent, massage tent, morning clothes changing tent and even showers. Plenty of drink, food and even beer is served.
The only disappointment was collecting the bike and run/bike bags after the race. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the finish. Bikes are arranged by finishing time of day order. Is that something one remembers? I thought the numbers on the racks were race bib numbers. Wrong. After walking through 3,000 bikes I had to go back and find my bike finishing time of day and find the rack it’s on. Everyone was complaining but that was the worst of it which gets exaggerated because you’re exhausted and it’s dark, late and you’re the only one allowed to pick up your bike and bags.
Would I recommend this race? Without hesitation. Beautiful course and super friendly people. Most Germans speak fluent English. The weather isn’t usually this hot and this is a fast PR course evidenced by the sub 8 hour finishes for the top 5 pros.