In which Jon constructs a rather strained and tangential metaphor around the science fiction classic Dune, gets languages half-right, gets his kit off, fights off ill weather, ill legs and an ill stomach, and has a brilliant time. There are also some pretty pictures.
“God created Arrakis to test the faithful.” –Frank Herbert, Dune
In the week leading up to the Powerman Zofingen duathlon, I had been reading Frank Herbert’s classic novel about a people so adept at surviving the desert they reclaimed moisture from their own waste as they awaited the arrival of a prophet who would turn their wasteland planet Arrakis into a paradise. A half-hour into the race, the above quote began knocking around my brain: Not because of the climate, for there was a steady rain hissing through the evergreens above the small Swiss city. But it was clear I was being tested somehow. Just four miles into the race, I’d twice run straight up the same half-mile ramp to a plateau above Zofingen. A first-lap descent down to the town already had softened my legs up as much as any London-area cross-country meet might, and another 114 miles of cycling and running awaited me. While not soaking, the rain was annoying, and there was a promise of more to come. What was the world’s most feared duathlon testing? Fitness? Training? Preparedness? Determination? Sheer bloody-mindedness? Anybody who has completed an event like this—indeed, any sporting event that lasts all day—will tell you it takes all of the above, but at various times and in various degrees. But first, some running.
At the top of the ramp the course turns right onto the unpaved paths that are the signature of the Zofingen run—hardpacked dirt fire roads undulating through the evergreen forests. It climbed up gently for another half-mile before then starting the steep descent back into the town, where the organizers had set up a temporary stadium surrounding the transition area and the lanes through which runners pass several times as they complete the course. The run comes out of the woods onto a gentler downslope—we would be running back up and down this way later—with one quick slamming ramp down into the town, and then transition. Run one: 10 kilometers, 40:40.
Foul-weather transitions are always the hardest for the duathlete. You’ve been running, your body temperature’s already elevated, and yet you’re about to get on a bike and deal with windchill, in wet clothing that accentuates the windchill. Facing 150 kilometers on the bicycle, up and down multiple climbs in temperatures somewhere around the low 60s, I knew that this was a day for caution. Faffing around a bit to put on a waterproof gilet, knee warmers, and giving myself the tri-dork fashion coup de grace of the arm warmers with a sleeveless jersey, seemed like a reasonable act. Even throwing running shoes into a plastic bag made sense—I didn’t know how much longer the rain would last, and I didn’t want to come back to sodden shoes in six hours or so. The race was well up the road, and I was in this just to finish, so losing an extra minute or two to gain comfort was well worth it. T1: 4:23.
The bike course snakes through Zofingen and then the neighboring town of Britnau, in the valley for a few kilometers. It’s just enough time to swallow an energy gel, some liquid food and some water as you approach the first of the Zofingen bike course’s famed climbs, starting at about 8 kilometers. Now I’d read accounts of Zofingen’s climbs, especially the feared Bodenberg, coming after about 20 kilometers of cycling. But it wasn’t until the race briefing the day before I’d contemplated the scale of it: three climbs per lap, for three laps. That’s nine climbs–each of them probably qualifying as a categorized climb were a professional bike race to surmount them. I was going to do them all in a day, and then go run another 30 kilometers afterward. I began to have doubts about myself as I considered this in the briefing. Here on the road, however, I didn’t have any time for doubt. “Get on with it, already,” was the order of the day.
The rain had dried up and the skies were lightening by the time I turned onto the first climb. The few riders who had passed me in the initial kilometers were shrinking in the distance. There was no sense in chasing them. Just make it a steady pace up the first climb. I was more or less alone. Time to enjoy the peace of the Swiss countryside.
The top came about as quickly as I had anticipated—a few spectators at the top greeted me with claps, cowbells, and “Hop hop hop!” I made a hand gesture to ask if a downhill was in my immediate future, and it was confirmed. A slightly bendy technical bit came first, which I took gently as the roads were still wet. Then it was a more straight-on, grab-the-aerobars valley descent as the course threw us down a mountainside toward the bottom of the Bodenberg. When you’ve ridden bicycles enough, you can sense a climb coming: The turn off a main road onto a narrow lane; the creek flowing briskly toward you; the tunnel of forest and terrain ahead. It was time for the test of the day: The Bodenberg. It’s a climb in three parts: An initial milelong pitch up the side of a rise to the village of Ohmstal, where Swiss spectators greet you with more cowbells and “hop hop!” Then there’s a gentle right turn onto a flatter section where you can catch your breath for a minute, and then a second steeper pitch through some woods up to a plateau with farm fields, a short, shallow descent and then at last an uphill false flat to the top and the feed station. I bypassed all but the bananas, stuffing the half-banana into my mouth before the descent started.
At this point, little spits of rain were falling once again, enough to re-wet the roads, just in time for the most technical bit of riding for the whole day. The initial Bodenberg descent serpentines down a steep valley, with lots of braking necessary, more so in the rain. Even with the superior cornering of a Softride, I took this one gently—a misjudged turn here would lead to an unexpected trip down the mountainside. The technical section is short enough, though. A right turn onto a more traveled highway put us onto a straighter valley descent, where a rider could stomp down at 20-25 miles per hour. The wet roads made me a little cautious on this lap, and with the rain came gusty breezes that played some havoc with my deep-section carbon rims. All good things come to an end, however, as the valley flattened out and I came to the third climb. It was a bit shorter and a bit shallower than the Bodenberg, and seemed to be over almost as soon as it started, with some spectators to ring and “hop hop” me to the top. Bad things had come to an end, too: The rain had stopped, this time for good. The last 15 kilometers was in large part a descent into Zofingen, with a bump here and there. At last, the city appeared. I picked out the banhof at a distance, and was concerned the bike route went through the narrow cobblestoned paths of the old city. But no worries, they routed us around the old city and onto the road bordering the stadium, where lots of spectator noise and another feed station greeted me.
I don’t speak German, but when in an event like this you learn how to communicate your basic needs. Passing through the feed station, I called for “wasser,” which was understood, and then for “banane,” which was understood even though I know that’s French. Then it was back out onto the roads for a second lap.
Since landmarks were now familiar to me, time seemed to pass more quickly. I just needed to keep swallowing a gel every 10 kilometers and taking as many little sips of liquid food as possible, along with my water. I took the time to slap hands with kids, smile at the spectators with their “hop hop hops” and cowbells, and joke with the marshals—“is the Bodenberg still here?” The only thing marking the second lap was on the Bodenberg, when I was lapped by the first woman—she had a 53 minute head start—and calling out “allons-y!” to her before I realized it was the Hungarian Ericka Csomor. Encouraging a Hungarian in French–d’oh! With more confidence on the uphills and the downhills both, I could press for time a little bit more, but I knew a lot remained before me. People who had gone out too hard started coming back to me, and I moved up just a little in the rankings. I found myself descending with less fear and pushing myself faster down the long fast section after the Bodenberg. Toward the end of the second lap, both my left knee and my stomach were speaking to me—I blame the bananas for the stomach—so I swallowed some sodium naproxen and immodium. Then the third lap came. A veteran had warned me that the race doesn’t start until the third time up the Bodenberg. And yes, I made it up and back down. And then, back to transition for some more faffing about. Bike: 150 kilometers 5:29:02.
All along, I’d planned on changing socks and shorts after the bike, just to reduce the risk of blisters on the feet and chafing on body parts I won’t discuss. But when your feet have been in damp shoes and socks for the better part of six hours, the tactile joy of putting on dry socks cannot be described. As for the shorts—well, they don’t provide a changing tent at Zofingen the way they do at Ironman races, and I’d been told that the Swiss weren’t as uptight about such matters as nudity in transition as they are in the UK and US. So, when in Rome … old damp shorts off, new dry shorts on, but quickly now, because I’m modest! Then out onto the roads. T2 4:00.
I walked through the feed station outside the stadium, drinking water and Pepsi, before setting off at a brisk pace. But then, the hills. Five and a half hours spent in large part in an aerodynamic tuck had taken its toll on my lower back, and it started screaming on the first paved ramps out of Zofingen. I suffered through it for a bit, but I found there was no amount of shortening my stride that relieved the pain as long as I was heading uphill—and I knew from the first run that I was going to be heading uphill for awhile. Coming down the hill were dozens of runners, finishing their first or second laps. But I was reduced to walking as we hit the fire roads. I didn’t want it to happen, but it did. I just needed to walk for a bit to reduce the pain. I remembered from a previous run/walk at ultradistance that the trick is to pick a spot where you’ll start to run again. That seemed to work to keep the pain in my back down, but it still steadily rose as I ran uphill. I had to walk again. And again. After a while, I worked out that short strides combined with thrusting my hips forward seemed to be the trick for relieving the pain in my back. Not orthodox running technique, either on flat terrain or on hills, but it kept me moving forward faster than a walk.
The uphill was long: 2.5 kilometers before we reached a flattish section. We hit a feed station, where I drank down another water and Pepsi. There was a short descent, and then back uphill again for a few hundred meters before descending down to a plateau. Ahead the course turned back and forth on itself in an effort to get the full 7.5 kilometers for an out-bound leg on the two lap final run. At the top was a feed station and an announcer to complement the one in the stadium. It was here that I learned the Swiss-German pronunciation of my name: “Yon-a-tahn.” On the flatter bits of the course now, I could increase the tempo and take back some of the places I lost on the walk. I came to the turnaround and headed back. Along the edge of the plateau I could hear the announcer in the stadium below and the announcer at the top in stereo. Below, people were finishing, but I still had to plug along. Through a feed station for some more water and Pepsi, and then plunge down the hill. Here is where I’m strong: quick tempo, light on the feet, just allowing gravity to do the work for me while others punish their quadriceps by running too slowly downhill.
Into the stadium for the first turnaround, slapping hands with the kids leaning out from the bleachers, collecting the pink band to let the marshals know I had one loop to go, and then back out onto the roads after a quick Pepsi and water. Then a combination of things started to trouble me. An old foe, nausea, began to afflict me—too much Pepsi. Then the power just left my legs as I hit the fire roads once again. No choice: I had to walk again and lose some places. It was looking like a real struggle to the end. I kept telling myself that it was just two kilometers until the hard work was over, and then the rest would be clear sailing. After that, just a few kilometers of flats and downhills. The race was as much as over if I just slogged through this bad patch and got onto some more favorable terrain. Up the steepest part, shuffle-running when I could, walking when I couldn’t, until the roads flattened out. I could hear the roar of some aircraft overhead—it turned out to be the Swiss version of the Blue Angels honoring the winners of Zofingen—but in the forest it was still a case of putting one foot in front of the other. Then I was up on the plateau and looping around the top. Every little slight incline, however, reduced me to a walk and places I again was losing back places I’d gained. The nausea was growing—I vowed to stop drinking the Pepsi, an hour too late. I reached the turnaround and the Swiss-German butchery of my name. Now it was a matter of running when I felt good and walking when I couldn’t. I was passing on feed stations altogether. My stomach didn’t need anything else in it. Onto the fire roads now. The stadium was close. I hit a little downhill and started to pick up the pace and then … dry heave. The legs started feeling fresher all of a sudden, and I reached the 2.5 kilometer mark feeling ready to run. Down the hill, passing the same people I was trading places with up on the plateau, slamming onto the paved bits now and the stadium got ever closer. Then, I came through the gate and into the lanes, slapping hands with the kids and then through the finish chute—and as I always do when finishing a race like this, I felt tears of joy in the final seconds before crossing the finish line. It’s just too hard not to feel joyful after having done it. The marshals put the finishers medal over my head, and I shook hands with the race director before going to find Kristen. It was over. Second run: 30 kilometers 2:35:53. Final time: 8:54:01.
Post-race: The only thing equivalent to this I’ve ever done was an ironman-distance triathlon in 2002. After that race, I had a whopping case of nausea—so much so that upon getting back to the hotel room I did nothing but lie down on the bed and fall asleep. I didn’t even feel good enough to shower. This time I felt fine—good enough to shower, have some rösti and beer in the hotel restaurant, and even take my bike apart for the trip home.
What would I do differently for my next go at Zofingen? I will do more hill running. In fact, some fell running in England might be the ticket for me to help me through that second run. I will probably spend more time working on my core strength and upper body strength to help the parts of me that felt a little uncomfortable toward the end of the bike. Otherwise, I’d like to be fitter so that I can do this race faster—although I’m not sure faster comes easily at this age.
But what did Zofingen test in me? I think in the end it tested will. The training was there, the fitness was there, the determination was there, but it took will for me to get through the final hour—with nothing left in the tank, feeling ill and having to run up and down a long hill one more time.