My name is Daniel Ward, I’m a 31 year-old amateur triathlete and some of you may know me as “Triathlon Dan” on YouTube. On my channel, I document my triathlon training and racing, alongside general life which mainly just shows how I couldn’t do any of this without the support of my partner, Liz. I don’t win any trophies but I absolutely LOVE the sport of Triathlon and especially Cycling. I now focus on balancing life, training, work and social media with a particular focus on bike racing and middle-distance triathlon, but above all having FUN and being grateful for being able to take part in this fabulous sport. Triathlon saved me from obesity having reduced my bodyweight from 127kg to 85-90 and has completely changed my life for the better, but maybe that’s a story for another day.
I have spent 10 years progressing through the various distances within the sport, recently having completed Ironman Wales for the 2nd time. Obviously, I mention this at every opportunity, but it is often met with a couple of responses. Firstly, “I know Daniel, you’ve already told me” and secondly, “cool, but Challenge Roth….” and so the seed of Roth has been planted in my mind for some time. Like many people, I’ve watched the live stream, followed the social media posts and missed the online registration that sells out in seconds.
In late May of this year, the kind folks at ZONE3 offered me the opportunity of taking part in Challenge Roth. I hadn’t planned to do any “full distance” triathlons this year and the event was 4 weeks away. Logic would say that this should have been a polite no, but my desire to do the event was at an all-time high. I had a short period of imposter-syndrome-like self-doubt as to whether I deserved the opportunity and worrying, but after giving myself a good shake, I bit their hand off. The “Road to Roth” was ON.
In terms of ability, I am by no means elite, but I also wouldn’t class myself as unfit. The weekend prior I had just completed the Outlaw Half Nottingham Triathlon, finishing 45th overall in 4hrs 28 mins and so I felt that with a few weeks of preparation, I’d hope to do myself and ZONE3 justice at the “biggest” triathlon in the world.
Before I could plan the training, I had to plan life. Negotiations involved arranging annual leave for myself, “once in a lifetime special leave” approved for Liz, animal care secured thanks to family, and travel and accommodation plans secured with my friend Matt, it was now time to think about the training!
Because of the timing, I had already planned to take part in a handful of bike races. With entry fees already committed and bike racing being a keen interest of mine, I decided to continue with these plans and work my triathlon training around them. I finished two road races and won a circuit race, it was a good block of bike intensity and more than anything some good morale in the bank for what was to come. Alongside this I added in a couple of long steady runs, made my swims a little longer, but other than that my training remained mostly the same. It’s just swim, bike, run, right?
ZONE3 hooked me up with the Vanquish-X Wetsuit and Aeroforce-X II Trisuit, so I had no excuses in terms of equipment and made efforts to fit in swimming in open water and do a brick session on a hot day in full race kit with my friend Matt, who was also competing in Roth. I knew that these 4 weeks didn’t need to be anything other than consistent, the main risks to me were getting injured or ill.
It felt like I’d blinked and race week rolled around. We travelled out on the Thursday before the race, we drove from the UK in my friend Matt’s Tesla so with a few food, toilet and charging stops, we arrived in Roth on Friday lunchtime, ready to begin the weekend of madness.
Registration and the event Expo is like nothing else I have experienced. There are SO many people in the area, but the process all flowed well and within minutes we had numbers and a stack of freebies in our hands. The nerves at this point were through the roof, it was all beginning to feel more real and I’m generally very nervous at an event expo when Liz has access to debit cards.
On the Saturday morning we attended the ZONE3 practice swim, this helped get our bearings for transition logistics as well as familiarising ourselves with the swim course. It was only a quick dip, but the buzz in the area was excellent. I caught up with Pro Triathlete Will Cowen, who was making his long distance pro debut, so that made me feel less concerned about the day I had ahead of me.
We opted to drive to the car park near the finish and get a shuttle bus to the swim start, not backing ourselves to be able to travel back to the start to collect the car after the race. Surprisingly, the British competitor numbers aren’t massive in Roth and so whilst language barriers are common, the “nod” and nervous smile is pretty universal between athletes and that was common on the journey to the start.
My bike was racked. Transition bags deposited. Portaloo’s visited. I was ready. Liz had media credentials and so was able to capture the build up in transition, during which I received a call from the ZONE3 team – do I have a spare pair of goggles to give to an athlete? It just so happened that I did, so with our location shared I waited with bated breath to meet this person who’s day I was hopefully going to save. A handful of minutes before the Pro start, none other than previously mentioned Pro Will Cowen emerges from the crowd in a full run stride, grabs my goggles and quickly departs back to the swim start.
Each wave start is signalled by a cannon firing which sends shivers down your spine and before long it was my turn. The swim was largely uneventful, but completely surreal. The group spread out quite early on so the stress was low, but each time I breathed to the side that the bank was, it was a wave of noise and seeing crowds several people deep was a feeling I will never forget. I paced it well, pulled my wetsuit front down to get cooler water in during shaded sections and exited the water in 1hour 13minutes.
Transition is like no other in Roth, the army of volunteers do everything for you. I ran in, was given my bag, wetsuit unzipped, got on my bike and went!
On reflection, this race isn’t a race, it’s 100% survival. From the start you have to be thinking about staying COOL and staying FUELLED. I made these my primary objectives, taking on bottles early on the bike purely to pour onto me, forcing as many gels and fuel down me as I could to stay on top of the plan. This gradually became more difficult throughout the ride, but investing the energy in force-feeding and force-cooling when I didn’t feel I needed it would pay dividends later in the day.
The bike course is made up of buttery smooth tarmac, undulating quiet lanes and of course thousands of spectators. I eased into the ride, keeping an eye on power but more than anything making sure that I was feeling well within myself. Halfway around the first lap I found myself riding with (at a legal drafting distance) Mitchell from Australia and Nathan from Ireland, doing what we could to help each other but as is often the case in age-group triathlon, we were far from a well drilled paceline. Everyone talks about Solarer Berg hill, but it isn’t by any means the biggest climb on the course. The biggest climb is near Gredding and is around 15-17 minutes for me of climbing. I pressed on fairly hard to stay with my two newfound buddies, but amongst the melee and the descent which followed, we were separated.
Solarer Berg swiftly follows and in honesty, it doesn’t even feel like a triathlon anymore, it feels like I’m Tom Pidcock winning a stage of Le Tour De France on Alp D’huez. It feels like you are riding through a crowd of people, parting the wave at the last possible minute. Liz was at the top of this climb in the athlete self-feed zone, I picked up a bottle from her and was on my way for the second lap.
I felt good, rode my own pace and made good progress over the course, coming off the bike in 4hours 46minutes. For the number nerds, I had a normalized power of 245watts, averaged 23.5mph, and am 90 kilos.
I got off the bike feeling good, or as good as you can be after a swim and ride, but then the enormity of the challenge ahead started to sink in. Liz had planned to be in T2, but she wasn’t there. I was worried, but there wasn’t a great deal I could do, perhaps she was busy interviewing Daniela Ryf or Magnus Ditlev. I ran out of T2 with my ICARUS club mate Javier, but a quick fist-bump and he was on his way to a sub-9 finish on long distance debut, a journey I wouldn’t be able to join him on!
I broke the run down in my head, I only had the current mile lap split on my watch and just focused on what I could control. Am I cool enough? Am I controlled enough? Am I high-fiving enough people? The miles ticked by, but the toughest section on the canal was yet to come. Miles 10-18 are almost exclusively fully exposed to the sun, according to my Garmin it was 30 degrees and there wasn’t much of a breeze. I was the wettest man in Roth after every aid station and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. 8-minute miles turned into 8:30-45’s, but that was ok. I saw Liz at mile 10 which was a welcome relief, she cited some logistical challenges which were saved by none other than Will Cowen’s Mum and Dad (we’ll call it quits on the goggles, Will) and that she would see me at the 18-mile point of the run.
I began to allow myself to think about the overall finish time. I hadn’t come into this race with a target, other than to try my heart out, but once I was on the run it was easier to calculate and give myself something to aim for. At the half marathon point, I had a little over 2 hours to get to the finish to be “sub-10 hours” and so that became my target.
I saw Liz at the 18-mile point, I collected a bottle from her which I immediately threw away on account of it being the same temperature as the sun. I said something to her along the lines of “I just need to hold it together and I’ll be sub-10” but holding it together was just so damn hard. I could feel the shakiness in my voice and I hoped she hadn’t picked up on that, it was getting so very difficult and I was genuinely concerned about the next 8 miles I still had to run.
I hadn’t been able to take on any fuel after the 18-mile point and didn’t feel like I’d be able to any time soon, I knew this wasn’t sensible, but is running a marathon sensible?! At mile 22 there is a hill, a pretty decent hill at that, this really bit. I got up it ok, but on the way back down I had a real wobble. I first walked outside of an aid station, feeling goose-pimply and generally dizzy and ill. Is this it?! Do I get to 23 miles and that’s the title of the video?! Not on my watch. A couple of chaps ran past me and gave what motivational words they could, one referred to me by name, this was the kick I needed to pull myself together. I squeezed a quarter of a gel into my mouth, pushed it around my mouth, swallowed the tiniest bit and forced myself into a jog once more.
The next 3 miles were some of the hardest I’ve ever done, but nothing was stopping me from crossing that finish line, running into that stadium with time to spare so that I could walk the finish chute in 9hours 52 minutes and soak it up was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Liz cried, I cried, people all around me having completed their own journey of self-achievement was overwhelming.
My friend Matt finished in 10 hours 34 minutes, and we both agreed on the spot to once again retire from full distance triathlon, whether that will be the case or not is still up for discussion.
Reflecting on the event now a couple of weeks have passed, I still don’t think it’s soaking in. This event is so good for the triathlon community, and I can only hope that me documenting this in video and written form motivates others to embark on their own journey. It might not be Roth, it might not be a triathlon at all, but being active is a key part of my life and I hope it will be yours too.
Thank you to ZONE3 for the support and to everyone involved in this journey through engaging with my content or me in person. There are so many people behind the scenes who enable one person to take part in these events and it really is impossible without them. My partner, Liz, used “once in a lifetime” leave from work to come and support me at this event, dealt with immense pressure from me in the lead-up and during the event to not only support me but to also document the whole race in video form and I cannot thank her enough.