"Did not finish" is better than "Did not start"
Cologne226: Relaxed swimming, windy biking, painfull running
1.The Cologne 226:
The Cologne 226 is only one of the events that take place during the Cologne Triathlon Week-end. They offer a great variety of events, all from sprint (0.7-26-7) to Olympic, Middle and Full Distance and even an extreme version (Olympic Distance on Saturday + Full Distance on Sunday). There are as well special competitions for Fire Fighters and Journalists and short distances for Kids down to 8 years. And of course they have relays in most of the distances. In other words: Impossible not to find a distance that fits your level and ambitions.
I was registered for the Cologne 226, the Full Distance (3.8 – 180 – 42). The Swim takes place in the “Fuehlinger See” in the race arena for rowing boat races. There are no waves or current and the “coastline” is as straight as a ruler. Navigation can not be easier than that. The Bike course is a 3 ½ lap course, almost totally flat but susceptible to wind. The Run is a 3 lap course in the city center along the River “Rhine”. It is flat as well but you have to cross the Rhine twice per lap. At one of the bridges you have to climb a stairway.
I signed up in autumn 2014 when the after race blues kicked in following the Norseman. During spring 2015 I was not so happy with that decision any more, as motivation to train was quite low. But on the other hand it kept me going and during summer I got back all the good feelings anticipating the race. A new Personal Best in the Olympic Distance in August in Oslo boosted motivation further. Unlike to my earlier Ironman races (Challenge Roth and Norseman) I was quite relaxed the last weeks before the race. That was until I started packing the bike on Wednesday before the race. Then the nerves kicked inn as usual: so many things you can forget to pack, so many things that can go wrong, do not know the place, travelling alone, feeling sick, bad weather forecast, what if,....
My ambition for the race was to come below 1:15 on the Swim, 5:30 on the bike and 4:00 on the run. Together with a decent time in transition zone that would bring me to the finish line in less than 11:00 hours. Another ambition was to be as cool as possible on the swim leg. Starting slowly, not getting into the crowd and having focus on the technique during the entire distance.
On Sunday morning it was quite chilly in the air, around 10°C. I put my wetsuit on and went to the pre-race meeting. There we heard that they had to make some changes to bike course due to road construction work. That increased the distance of the bike leg to 186 km.
After the meeting I jumped into the water which was really warm, about 20°C – much more convenient than outside the water. I lined up at the starting line and discovered something really great: About 1.5 meters down in the water was a cord. The cord was used to fix the buoys separating the lanes for the boat races. Perfect, the cord would work in the same way as the black line on the ground of a swimming pool. No navigation needed at all – I could keep the head in the water during the entire first 1.900 m.
Swim start was super smooth, no fighting at all. All in all: Best conditions for a new PB on the swim leg. When exiting the water I could not true my eyes, when I realized that I had used almost 1:20 on the swim. I come out of the water on overall rank 140 of 220 starters. Perfect conditions and my slowest swim ever. Not a good start - despite I felt in a quite good shape and even managed to get a decent 5 hours sleep the night before race day.
The bike leg started with a really fast tail-wind driven ride to the city center of Cologne. From that point it´s 3 laps of 57 km each. The part back to the Fuehlinger See is somehow protected against the wind but you could already on that part get an idea of how hard it was blowing. The loop north of the Fuehlinger See is completely unprotected against the wind. It´s 100% flat farmland. Going north over we got a head wind from hell. Same conditions to everybody but on the head wind part I was loosing some positions. After the turn you get a nice tail wind and here I was gaining some positions. The roads were completely blocked for traffic, tarmac was in good conditions. Except some bridges the course is completely flat. Perfect for a PB on the bike split, if there wasn´t this nasty wind. I rounded 50 km after 90 minutes, 100 km after 3:02 and 180 km after 5:29 – exactly according to my target. But I was still 6 km away from T2 which I reached after 5:40. During the bike I gained 71 ranks and went into T2 on 69th place. So far: Bad swim Good bike.
While leaving T2 I calculated that 3:50 on the marathon would bring me to the finish line within the targeted 11 hour. I really thought that would be easy to reach and started on a pace of 5:00 minutes per km what I considered as a controlled speed, keeping the hard rate between 145 and 150. After lap 1 I had gained 13 more places and had advanced to 56th place overall. That turned out to be the highest rank during the race. The air was going out the balloon around km 18 and I had to walk for the first time. The remaining 25 km were extremely painful, my legs were stiff and hurting. I had never experienced that before. In my previous long distance races I got exhausted as well but at least it did not hurt that much. I managed to run the main part of the remaining distance but had to walk several times. Marathon split was 4:07 – and total was 11:17. I finished on 59th place overall and 7th in my age group (out of 44). Below expectations on swim and run but very satisfied with the bike leg. I was somehow happy that I would not have made it in 11:00 even if the bike leg would have been 180 and not 186 km. I was 17 minutes behind ambition and lost 11 minutes on the extra 6 km.
3.Cologne 226 – DO or DO NOT?
If you are looking for a Personal Best, the Cologne 226 is the place to be.
Due to the cord in the water, swimming conditions are comparable to swimming in the pool. The number of participant is low, so there is no crowd at start. As it is a small lake there are no waves or current. Water temperature will barely climb above 23.9 °C in September so you can be almost 100% sure to be allowed to swim in the wetsuit. I can´t imagine any place to offer better conditions for a fast swim.
The bike leg is completely flat with clear and broad roads and good tarmac. There are some tiny turns but that´s almost a relief as you get the opportunity to leave the aero position for some seconds. On the downside is the high risk for wind. If you are lucky, you participate on a day without wind – than it will be perfect conditions for a PB on the bike leg as well. Another thing I liked on the bike leg are the race marshals that were very present during the entire race and following up strictly on the drafting rules.
The run is fair and flat and quite entertaining as it leads you through the city center.
The organization team is more home-made than on the Ironman branded events. That gives it a cosy note as the guys in the orga-team are really enthusiastic in their approach. Especially the winner ceremony on Monday was a really nice event. It took place in the Maritim Hotel in a conference room with everybody sitting on round tables and breakfast and coffee served. Everything before, during and after the race was well organized and went smooth. Nutrition during the race was very good and the volunteers did a really great job.
However if you are looking for a long distance race, were you can enjoy cycling through beautiful landscape, you should definitely not go to Cologne. The course is fast but extremely boring. On the negative side is as well that there are almost no spectators at all, even though parts of the bike leg and the entire run leg is taking place in the center of a big city. In Roth or Frankfurt you get the impression that every man and woman in entire region has found their way to the race in order to support you the best they can. In Cologne, clapping, shouting and pushing you is more or less limited to the volunteers at the nutrition points (except at the finish line were some 100 spectators did a great job)
4.Cologne 226: Tips & Tricks
When travelling by airplane and landing at Dusseldorf Airport, take the train to get to Cologne. That´s faster than a taxi and only 1/15 the price. To stay at the official Race Hotel Maritim can be recommended. It´s quite near to T2 and Finish line.
Go by bike to the Fuehlinger See when checking in the bike on Saturday. It´s a 15 km ride and quite easy to find if you follow the “Neusser Strasse” / “Neusser Landstrasse” out of the city. It lead you directly to the Fuehlinger See. You can get easy back to the city with bus / metro. Take the shuttle-bus Sunday morning – that works smooth. Make sure you know exactly where it leaves – that was quite unclear for both me and 20 others and could easily cause some extra stress in the morning before the start. I wrote it a couple of times already but once again: make sure you swim above the cord – it can´t be easier than that. If the weather is nice stay in the “Athletes Garden” and enjoy the atmosphere - they serve beer for free!
One more tip out of a lesson learned in Cologne: I used my light weight running shoes (Asics DS Trainer) for the first time in a marathon. Normally I am using the Asics Nimbus for the marathon. In Cologne my legs were hurting as never before and I have an idea that this at least partly was caused by wrong shoes. I learned that running shoes with some more suspension than the DS Trainer is a better deal for my legs on 42 km tarmac.