The Ironman Germany bike course couldn’t be described as hilly but it definitely wasn’t flat. Of the four most notable hills, “The Hell” in the town of Maintal was much more difficult for it’s bone jarring cobblestones than for it’s grade or length. By the second lap of the race, this section would be 10-deep on both sides with cheering spectators.
Ironman Germany 2002 in Frankfurt – Ja, Ja, Ja (ya, ya, ya)Ever since the first Ironman Europe in Roth, Germany, I’d only seen pictures and heard stories about the frenzied crowds of spectators that lined the roads to cheer on competitors a la Tour de France. Imagine that. You could be 80-miles into an Ironman bike ride and have some crazed Euro yelling “hop, hop, hop!” in your ear while others rang cowbells and shook those annoying noisemakers. What? You mean you wouldn’t have to battle a desolate, howling, blow drier of a wind as you got to know the subtle differences in the white line below your tires all the while feeling sorrier and sorrier for yourself? You mean you could actually have the same company of cheering spectators – many of them in their underpants - at the 15-mile mark of the run that you typically only see in the last quarter mile? That race is for me!
Ironman Germany in Frankfurt had a lot of expectations to live up to. After all, this wasn’t the first Ironman event to be staged in Germany and in following the incredibly successful reputation of Ironman Europe in Roth (what had become arguably the biggest and most competitive event outside of Hawaii), the pressure was on the race organizers, the city of Frankfurt, and the World Triathlon Corporation itself.
How hard could it be to pull off yet another Ironman in yet another town for the WTC that has grown its series to 17-events all of which seem to sell out within days of opening for registration? Consider that while most of the other Ironman event locations are in towns of 100,000 or less, this event was being staged in the big city. Frankfurt has a living population of 500,000 and another 500,000 that commute from surrounding communities for work. The bike route alone crossed over 60,000 points (intersections and driveways) where a motor vehicle could enter the course. You can’t close that many roads without A LOT of support from city politicians who exert the necessary influence on the police and local communities. It just won’t happen. If, however, you are going to bid for the Olympic games in 2012 there’s no better way to show the IOC that you can shut down your town for a big event than hosting an Ironman event. There’s also no better guarantee for an Ironnman organizer that a given city will get behind you than to realize the weight that an Olympic bid carries. The city and event didn’t disappoint.
Aside from more drafting on the bike than you’ll get in a NASCAR race the event came off without a hitch. The organization did a beautiful job of getting everyone to the swim start, which was 8-miles out of town and 10-miles away from the bike to run transition without any major delay. The race started a 7:08am in Langener Waldsee and the throngs of spectators were treated to a beautiful swim course with a short 25-meter jog after the first loop. The volunteers at the swim to bike transition were fantastic in smoothly getting everyone out on the bike.
The bike ride started with a blazing flat first 15-miles which took the athletes back into town, by the finish line / bike to run transition and out on the first of two 51-mile loops. This is where all the fun began. The course itself was as perfect as an Ironman bike course could be. No motor vehicle traffic, aid stations with great volunteers, crowds of spectators who know how to cheer for cyclists and packs. Ok, not just packs but roving masses. Ok, not just roving masses but amoebic pelotons that gobbled up solo riders and grew in size so that by the middle of the second loop I was riding in a group that must have numbered 150 riders. There was Stefan, Norbert, Werner, Matteo, Uwe, Malte, Patrik, Rune, Jascha, Jochen, Arnd, Massimiliano, Christhard, Martin, Klemens, Tobias, Thorsten, Xabier, Florian and, of course, about a half-dozen named Jan. I thought I was riding in one of the spring classics. One of the cool things they do in these European Ironman races is, instead of putting your race number in big bold letters on your paper number, they put your NAME in big bold print. This is particularly nice when you get to the run and you’re mentally deficient enough at this point to think that everyone is cheering for you.
So, Lars and I have been swallowed up by a pack of 50 that has now grown to 150 and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is really easy for an Ironman ride but where are the draft marshals?” At that moment, a motorcycle pulls along side the meandering blob we’re all riding in and the yellow shirt on the back of the moto moves up to the front third. The riders take no notice of this until the marshal yells to one of the throng and holds up the dreaded yellow card. Everyone snickers and wonders how this poor sucker was singled out of the group. A few of us allow 5 or 6 meters to open up between us in order to make it look like we’re trying to not draft but no sooner does the space between us grow when this gap is immediately filled by a fellow “team member” who is panic stricken that you’re getting dropped. I’d like to say that I was capable of riding a 4:55 bike split but with 100-miles of riding a week in training and the hills and light breeze of race day the reality is that I was in something like 5:30 shape. No matter. I had my pack and my first ITU Ironman Triathlon was underway. Not only was I going to ride 30 to 40-minutes faster than I was capable on my own but I’d likely have better legs for the run. Likely, that is, if I didn’t have to leave it in the big ring in order to stay with my group on the bigger climbs. This would prove the undoing of many a run split – including mine.
Don’t get me wrong here. I expected the drafting that I experienced in this race and, in fact, was looking forward to it. I didn’t have the miles in my legs necessary to comfortably tackle 112-miles without a considerable toll and the thought that I’d likely be able to get a little help was reassuring. The fact that it came to fruition in as big a way as it did blew my mind. Consider the following statistics:
- Of the top 130 finishers, there were a total of 19 athletes that rode OVER 5-hours. Four of these were slower than 5:05. That’s a pretty fast ride!
- The first rider to go slower than 5-hours was in 52nd place (5:05).
- Out of the first 130 finishers, there were 7-penalties handed out.
- Of the penalties handed out, no one seemed to get more than one penalty, which would have led to a disqualification.
It makes one wonder what will happen to those who qualified for Hawaii when they get out on that bike course in Kona. I can’t imagine the surprise of my peloton if Charlie Crawford and his crew had been present. “What do you mean I’m disqualified?” When I got off the bike and studied the list of race #’s that had been posted as having the 6-minute drafting penalty, I was shocked that mine wasn’t on the board. 6-minutes would have been a welcome price to pay for the 30-minutes I gained. I was only 25-minutes slower than men’s winner, Lothar Leder and 27-minutes slower than Jurgen Zack. Nice. I hope those stats hold up in Hawaii but I have a feeling they won’t.
There’s no question that I was treated to the most fun I’ve had on a bike in any of the more than 20-Ironman races I’ve done. I got exactly what I came for. European spectators, first class aid stations, and a safe, controlled bike course. While there were a few noticeably disgruntled athletes in my pack, the prevailing sentiment was best summed up when, shortly after being consumed by the pack, Lars looked over at me and said in his broken English, “Well, it’s same conditions for everyone.” Except for the first 7 to 10-men, I’d say that was an accurate statement.
The run course was fantastic. The crowds were loud and raucous the entire way and while it was a little crowded by the third lap, there was plenty of room to maneuver. Speaking of crowds, this was the first time I’d witnessed spectators in underpants (speedos) cheering for athletes in underpants. Classic. The aid station volunteers were as helpful as they get and dealt well with their first Ironman marathon in surprisingly hot conditions. Aside from one pedestrian bridge, the run was flat as a pancake and the attention to detail was evident in all of the carpeted sections over cobbles and train tracks. The final 4km out and back was a bit of torture as it went by the finish line for the 6th time before returning to actually finish but it was well worth all of the hard work and suffering. As you came back up Mainkai toward the right turn into Stadtplatz, the crowds were deafening. To enter this 1800-year old city center was spectacular on any day. On this day it gave you chills.
Dave Scott summed it up well at the awards ceremony when he told of his first finish in Hawaii back in 1980. “There were just over 100 of us entered in the race and I remember that when I crossed the finish line in Honolulu, there were about 20 or 30-people clapping. Most of the people in the park that day were a bit annoyed that we were there at all. I stood behind the finish line today and saw Lothar finish with all of those great German fans and was astounded. In the 20-plus years of Ironman races I’ve witnessed, this was the best finish line I can remember. It makes me wish I was 25 again so that I could feel it for myself.”