I have decided to tackle the job of sorting out Truth vs. Myth with regards to the Zofingen Duathlon. There is no claim of “fact” here, but there is a need for an American with experience to address all the claims around this race. This race and course are run by Powerman, a company that claims to be #1 in Duathlon. So, let’s get to sorting out fact from fiction!
Claim 1: Zofingen is the greatest duathlon in the world!
Truth. The Zofingen Duathlon is the greatest Duathlon on the planet, based on what I have experienced. Besides the length and famed level of difficulty, it also has about 3 decades of history associated with it, and it has both culture and class. The organizers have created a difficult course, but they have worked out any bugs associated with routing, timing, support and scheduling so as to make it the most enjoyable race I have ever attended. The community embraces you, and there are no other events or touristy type things competing for the attention of the community during Powerman season.
Sadly enough, it is disproportionally unattended by Americans, and it shouldn’t be so vacant of those wearing the red, white and blue.
Claim 2: The race is too long.
Myth. Considering the overwhelming size and growth of the Ironman movement, this is a false claim. The length of the two runs are shorter than the last run at an Ironman, and the bike leg of Zofingen is 20 miles shorter than a full Ironman. Considering how many hundreds of thousands of people do Ironman each year, Zofingen isn’t too long…at least not if you are an Ironman. The champions finish in 6.5 to 7 hours. Mortals finish in 8-10 hours. Ironman races require more time and cover greatest distances.
Claim 3: Zofingen is a long way to travel for a race, and I can attend races that are both closer and cheaper.
Truth. To “do” Zofingen, you have to fly to Switzerland then either take a train or rent a car to get to the little town near the German border. It is a full day of travel, both coming and going, and the costs within Switzerland are high. While in Switzerland, food and lodging are not cheap, and a thoughtful budget is required.
Claim 3: The race is so difficult that you have to walk some of the running course.
Truth. To put the scope of the hills into perspective, the world Champion female walked up some of the hills this year, as they were too difficult for the best in the world to run efficiently. It is a myth that the hills are impossible to run. Many people try to run all of them. Their choice, though, is inefficient…just look at the podium for proof. Success in Zofingen requires some humility and an agreement with yourself to respect the terrain and walk when you need to. If the World Champion has to walk, it is OK for you to do it!
Claim 4: The bike course is really hilly and it, too, requires humility to complete.
Truth. My preparation of a week in the Pyrenees helped my performance greatly, as I was able to feel comfortable and ready to run after the long bike. There are several long climbs on the course. Preparation for those requires more than long weekend rides and trainer time during the winter to be successful. I chose compact chain rings on my bike, and I am glad that I did, as they were required on two of the climbs. In retrospect, I wish I had kept my standard sized big chain ring, as I could have benefitted from it on the flats.
Claim 5: There is some unique pageantry associated with the race that isn’t seen at other World Championships.
Truth. Like most World Championship competitions, there is buildup to the race start. The organizers had official introductions of the elite athletes, pre-race meals for all athletes, race briefings and anxious athletes pacing the town, waiting for the “real” event to start. There were media days, interviews, photos, and stuff that makes a sports event into a money-maker. There was one, most unique aspect of the local culture: the locals respect the athletes who attempt to do the race. Local residents were quick to ask me if I was doing the Long Course, and when I answered their question with a “yes,” they shook my hand. One even gave me a big hug! They all know the suffering associated with the course and they also know the act of courage it takes to sign up and try to tackle the Goliath of duathlons. There are cheerleaders at the start and finish. Never seen that before at a duathlon. There are also permanent structures in a nearby park that commemorate the race, posting the winners of each year’s race on the metal sculpture.
Claim 6: The locals are universally glad to see us and support us.
Truth. Zofingen, Switzerland has been hosting this event for a quarter of a century, and the communities in and around Zofingen highlight this race as the cultural high point of the year. It doesn’t rotate from country to country, and town to town, based on a competitive bidding process. It is the Kona, Hawaii, of Duathlon.
The bike course traverses no less than 15 small Swiss towns, and residents of each town line the sides of the road, clapping and cheering as athletes climb up the hills. Each lap includes about 3000 feet of climbing, so there are lots of places and times for spectators to observe athletes moving slowly past them. It creates a Tour de France atmosphere for both rider and spectator. The Swiss clap and yell out “hopp, hopp, hopp, hopp, hopp” as you approach. Kids run next to you as you work up the final meters of the climbs and the names of local riders are written in chalk on the climbs, just like the Tour.
Claim 7: This course is the most challenging duathlon out there.
Truth, based on my short 3-year experience. The race organizers are proud of the hills that they “present as a challenge to the athletes.” The runs are flat less than half of the time, and the uphill and downhill sections do more to wear down and wear out our legs than an Ironman race of a longer distance. The bike course contains sustained climbs that do not exist in most places in the world. That translates into a lot of athletes doing climbs that they have not had an opportunity to practice before arriving. In American sports terms, it is like asking a kicker to attempt a 130-yard field goal, with only a regular football field to practice on.
Since the race runs in September each year, it takes place over daylight provided by a single day. Weather is unpredictable, and athletes have to make intuitive choices about what to wear throughout the day. For example, the temperatures in the valley on the bikes are warmer than the summits, and nearly every year, there is heavy rainfall on the top of the Bodenberg, the highest climb of the race. This year was no exception…on lap one, everyone got soaked. On laps 2 and 3, the roads were dry and everyone was flying.
Claim 8: This isn’t a race, it is a test of endurance.
Can’t answer that. The single greatest comment I heard about this race and this course before I arrived was that both the run and the bike courses are really difficult. The truth is that the course has greater elevation change than any other race, and few training environments offer the sorts of distances needed to prepare for Zofingen. Considering the near inevitability of walking parts of the course, many are quick to conclude that this is not a race. When reviewed as a summation of splits and times, there is great variance. I had hours when I cycled at nearly 30 mph for 10 miles; other instances, I barely made 8 mph. Same course, different sections. I think it is a race, but that is opinion.
Claim 9: This race is harder than an ironman.
Not applicable. Ironman starts with a long swim, a much flatter bike ride than Zofingen and a much flatter run. Comparing the two is like comparing Ben and Jerry’s in a pint container to soft serve at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Zofingen distances are shorter, but mile per mile, the run and bike courses are harder.
Claim 10: Qualifying for Zofingen is as difficult and as expensive as doing the race itself.
Myth, if you are trying to race ITU. For an American, qualification is about as easy as it gets for an ITU level event. Each year, USAT has a qualifying event. Finish in the top 18 in your age group, and you get a slot. However, since so many people are intimidated by this race, it always rolls down to the top 25. Even with a couple of drafting penalties in qualifying and a neuroma in my right foot that had me in a walking boot literally two weeks before the race, I qualified.
Powerman North American has a qualifying process that requires participation in a regional event, followed by competing in a Powerman National Championship in Florida to earn a slot. These awarded slots are not ITU level slots but are open, meaning they don’t start at the same time. If you select this route to qualify, then, claim 10 is true. I don’t suggest this route.
Final thoughts: For those of you who have done duathlons because you like them but have held off on doing Zofingen, let me give you a hypothetical conversation. Imagine someone saying the following:
“I love golf. I play it and watch it on TV. I work at a golf store. But, I don’t want anything to do with the Masters Golf Tournament.”
Do Zofingen. This is the heart of our sport. It is the highest level in our sport, and it has earned that right. Sure, it is hard, but it isn’t impossible. It is a great test of fitness, too.
Qualifying for next year’s event is in Texas this year, on the 2nd weekend of November.
Do it. I will be there.