Challenge Roth, June 25th, 2023 (XL)
Race Reporter: Alain
I first heard that name when I started dipping my toe into the world of long distance triathlon. Some friends had done it and kept fond memories they would recall and tell me with details: Solarberg, the cheering crowd, the cute village, the wetsuit strippers… The race seemed to be legendary. However, strangely enough, it seemed at the same time rather unknown to most, including other triathletes. It kinda puzzled me: how could a race known to only a few be also that revered? So, after IM Vichy 2021 and IM Frankfurt 2022, as the opportunity showed up in the form of a triathlete friend also motivated to run it, I decided to put the race (and myself!) to the test, and registered to Challenge Roth 2023!
And the registration phase is already the beginning of the adventure: 2500 bibs for sale on a morning of July 2022, all gone in… THREE MINUTES. And those, on top of 1000 bibs sold only in the expo in Roth, the day after the 2022 race (people camp overnight only for that). Crazier than a rock festival.
Same goes with the accommodation: we made the mistake of waiting for a few weeks before looking for a hotel. Roth and the surrounding cities are small villages with little room for visitors: a lot of triathletes stay in local AirBnBs they book along with their bib or they have known for years. I ended up staying near Nuremberg, a roughly 30 minutes drive away from both Roth and the swim start, which is OK though not perfect.
After that first administration phase, a year of training passed. My plan did not change much compared to my preparation for IM Frankfurt 2022: lots of swimming with ExpaTriés, many hours on the home trainer and a pretty common mix of intervals and long distance runs. This year, I did not manage to book a week-long training camp with a coach, so I returned on my own in Ardèche, where I created my own DIY training plan, based on (cold!) open water swim, hilly cycling and running intervals.
But the main challenge during this year was: telling people I was preparing for an IronMan which does not have any mention of the word “IronMan” in any of its documentation/communication. “I am preparing for Challenge Roth. Yes, it’s like an Ironman, in Bavaria.” became the sentence I probably repeated the most in 2023 (well, technically, I understand Roth is in Franconia, not Bavaria, an important difference to the locals)
Finally, the race week-end came, at the end of June. We went to the expo on the Friday to retrieve my bib, and were very impressed by the size of it. Now I have the experience of a few major marathons and triathlons, I have to say this was the biggest expo I had ever seen, if not by its size, at least by the brands that were there. Canyon, Hoka or Garmin of course, but also more specialist brands like Surpas, SwissSide, CeramicSpeed, Maurten, which I had seen here and there, but never all gathered at the same place and time. Small contests, lotteries everywhere, multiple food trucks and wide beer gardens installed next to the huge finish stadium: it really felt like a festival, designed to entertain both the athletes and their families or friends! It was also impressive to see in the flesh pretty famous pro triathletes like Kienle, Ditlev or Haug, wandering around the expo, either signing stuff and promoting their sponsors or really just visiting. I think that accessibility and proximity to the elite is part of the event’s special atmosphere.
I also got to spend a few minutes and have lunch in the city of Roth itself. “Town” would probably be more appropriate, and it definitely looked the way I expected a Bavarian village to be: very clean, very peaceful. Triathlon is however everywhere, as Roth calls itself “Home of Triathlon”, with various signs and even sculptures spread around the city center, tracing back the history of the event.
I retrieved all the transition packages, chip and bib without any issue, and a rather surprising gift, instead of the traditional branded backpack: a toiletry travel bag! I am unsure what I will do with that, but cannot say it is not refreshing and different. It’s once back to my hotel, while assessing the bags’ content that I also started identifying another way this event differs from IronMan-labeled races. It’s a lot about small things made slightly better: a proper bike plate number instead of a sticker, transition bags in a solid fabric and not rather thin plastic, thick swim hats with start wave number and time printed on it. There was clearly an attention to details I had not seen often before. Quite a lot of goodies were offered too!
On Saturday afternoon, I drove to the swim start/T1 area to drop my bike and running bag, around 10 km South from Roth city center, by the Rhein-Donau canal. I usually prefer to have all start/T1/T2/Finish at the same spot, but it is not something a lot of races can afford, and the drive was pretty easy, with wide parking available. The area was still busy, and, as usual, bike parks in German triathlon events never disappoint: probably 70% of the field was composed of brand new TT bikes in top conditions, I felt a little out of place with my more classic bike and its clip-on bars! The view of the large camping area located next to the start was also impressive, as it seems many participants and their families chose that type of accommodation. One more difference with all the triathlons I had attended before: the bikes were not left hanging by their seatpost on metallic bars, but parked standing on nice wooden racks laid on the ground.
Useful tip: I did not take advantage of it, but swim practice in the starting area is officially allowed and organized on Friday and Saturday morning. The water temperature is also monitored and properly communicated multiple times on the days before the race, which is also rather unusual and another nice attention.
Finally came Sunday morning, and the race itself! But first, as often, the infamous 3:30am alarm, in order to reach the starting area before 5:30am… Despite the traffic converging to that remote area, it went smoothly, as the local police and many volunteers were politely directing us towards the right parking spots. And as the sun rose, I started setting up my nutrition on the bike, and left the T1 bag in the dedicated area. Also to be noted, the elite bikes were located in an area close to the entrance of the transition area, meaning it was very easy to spot them and get very close to the pros during their final preparations.
Last minute scare: as I gave a final check on my bike, I noticed small bubbles slowly oozing from the spokes of my front wheel. I have tubeless tires, and it seems the morning re-inflating had revealed some micro-leaks in the wheel the sealant was trying to plug… It had happened to me before, without any consequences as the sealant normally easily works its magic on such micro-leaks, so I trusted my experience and my maintenance and left it like that, but I was still worried as I walked towards the swim start!
6:50am, Elite start. The deafening sound of a heavy cannon, hot air balloons taking off, fire engine trucks spraying jets of water and a crowd of thousands of spectators watching from the bridge that crosses the canal: it was the most spectacular start ceremony I had experienced until now! And the sequence repeated for each and every start wave, until it was finally my turn at 7:55am. Roth applies mass starts directly in the canal waters, but in groups of roughly 200 athletes, which is a manageable crowd, but gathered by estimated total race time, meaning the swimming level was more spread than in IM races. Otherwise, the swim is very straightforward: straight on for 1000m, U-turn at a buoy, straight for 2000m, U-turn again and last sprint to the finish! All of this in very calm and warm-ish waters (21°C), with the possibility to use the canal banks all along as a reference to navigate straight(-ish).
Exiting the water to T1, came my first surprise: after retrieving my bike bag, I ran to the changing tent, left my bag on a bench and started removing my wetsuit, when I noticed… A volunteer was helping by opening my bag for me and emptying its content! Similarly, he put back in my swimming gear while I was getting ready for cycling. I also saw the infamous wetsuit strippers, who were helping the struggling ones with removing their wetsuit!
Then, I got back to my bike that was waiting for me, and I started the 2x90km course across Franconia. As described earlier, I kept a worried eye and ear on my front wheel, looking for early signs of a flat tyre, but actually the sealant had done its job as planned, and I encountered no mechanical issue during my 6-hour ride. The overall route is rather flat, with a total of 1400m D+. And the tarmac is as smooth as it could be, being incredibly well maintained by the local administration, the best roads I have ever ridden!
As I started cycling almost 2 hours after the elite, those actually started catching me on their 2nd lap pretty quickly. And quick they were! While the organizers had not been insisting as much as IM referees on drafting or penalties, they highlighted multiple times in briefings that we had to stay to the right at all times. And I understand why, as I was passed by Laidlow, Ditlev, Norden, Ryf & Co, flying at 45kph. I even got told off by Denmark’s Baekkegaard because I deviated a bit too much as I was overtaking someone and he was coming behind!
The ride was taking us around the Bavarian countryside, alternating forests, fields and perfect movie set-like colorful villages. I was slightly disappointed by the lack of spectators on most of that route, the majority of the crowd being gathered around barbecues in the towns we would ride through. However, one could still see the triathlon is a major event in the region, each city setting up a mini-festival for us. The few (rather short) climbs were where most of the cheering supporters were gathered, with of course the main highlight of all, around km70 and km140: Solarerberg. This spot is definitely like in the Youtube videos. A loud and crazy crowd, massed on both sides of the road to the point only a narrow path allowing one, may two bikes side by side is left. Music, chants, noise over the 500m of the climb, making you totally forget about the pain and the few percents climb. I guess this is where the heart of Challenge Roth is, especially as long as the pros are on the cycling course.
The second lap was a more complicated affair, as the temperature slowly rose to 27-28°C. Not the oven we could have feared, but still decently hot. Roth is an absolute blast for powerful cyclists outputting 280W+ FTPs in aero position on top-notch TT bikes. The uphills are short, and the downhills are smooth and mostly not technical. It was like a real life home trainer: expect to pedal almost continuously for the whole ride! I am more of a climber, so it was definitely not my playground (like Frankfurt last year, I should definitely rethink my race agendas, haha). Also, as the elite were progressively transitioning to the marathon in Roth city center, so was the crowd. As a result, the second ride through Solarerberg was less spectacular, though still crowded. On that cheering side, I have to admit UK races seem more lively. But anyway, I was mostly focused on getting to the end of it, as I finally completed the 2nd lap and took the turn towards the final segment that led me to T2.
On the bike finish line, I was welcomed by a dozen volunteers, one of them waving at me so I stopped right in front of him, and he took my bike away, another little transition surprise. Even better, as I ran into the T2 area, I found out the volunteers had tracked my arrival and one of them was already waiting for me with my bag! And when I reached the changing tent, a scenario similar to T1 happened: a volunteer helped me open the bag and get changed! I think that volunteers’ engagement is definitely the big signature of Challenge Roth.
And so, after around 7h30 of racing, I was off to the marathon! And what a brutal one that was. Unlike IM, Challenge Roth’s run is not a 3 or 4-loop run. It’s a proper 42km, although with a lot of “out and back” segments. Close to 25 kms are run along the same canal we swam, on very straight and very flat ParkRun-style gravel paths. More comfortable than road tarmac, but also much dustier on dry days like this. Luckily, the trees on the canal banks offered plenty of shades, but still, some areas were in the open, and the sun there was harsh (my arms still remember it!). It was mentally challenging to stay motivated over those endless straights, and I was very relieved as I met a local friend of mine who was volunteering at one of the water stations. By the way, she had told me volunteering for Roth was very popular, and I could confirm that: 7000 volunteers, for 4000 triathletes!
The final nasty surprise from the Roth marathon? It’s only 120m D+, but those flat first 29 km along the canal meant… All the climbing was packed in the final 12 kilometers… Running up and down small hills across the forest, in areas where the public was also not as present as in other places made it feel worse than Bois de Boulogne during the Paris Marathon. My pace fell a lot during that last part, even though I managed to run all along, except at some water stations. Those were definitely the longest 10kms I ever ran, especially since I was unable to eat anymore, relying now only on some gels, isotonic drinks and a little watermelon. The water stations offered plenty of choices, including ice and buckets of water for cooling down, which was important.
Entering the massive finish stadium was a real relief and achievement, and also a great finishing touch from Challenge with more surprises. I was handed my finisher medal by a smiling lady… Who I found out later was Chrissie Wellington, 4xHawaii and 3xRoth winner, and race record woman (until this year’s Daniela Ryf incredible 8h08!). And standing next to her, also giving medals was Jan Frodeno himself! Unfortunately, I was definitely not in a state to really realize the uniqueness of that.
Official time: 11:55:49
Overall, my racing time was almost identical to Frankfurt 2022, both courses and conditions being pretty similar. I did gain a tiny bit of time during the transitions, and am happy with the result, though I think I definitely need to work on my pure bike power output, and find solutions to maintain a constant pace during the run.
The after-race recovery area is very similar to the Ironman buffets, maybe a little more local with alcohol-free beer and Abendbrot-style food (i.e: cheese and/or ham on toast). An impressive laser light and sound show was displayed in the stadium for the last finishers around 11pm, but I was much too knackered to attend it, and was already on my way home. The late evening bike retrieval and return to start/T1 was a bit of a hassle (a kilometer away from the finish) and the only negative point in the organization, as the shuttles taking us (and our bikes) back to our cars were very full, I had to find a complicated arrangement with my friend also racing and his family to manage the logistics. My main advice would be: on the morning of the race, park in Roth and use the pre-booked shuttle to get to the swim start. It removes a bit of sleep, but it is much more comfortable after the race!
My conclusion: Challenge Roth should definitely be on the bucket list of every long distance triathlete. So many superstars also compete despite the fact it is not part of the IM realm, and for good reasons. The quite fast swim, the extremely fast bike course and the also fast marathon are a quite unique combination (although Frankfurt is kinda similar). However, keep in mind fast does not mean easier, that’s probably a psychological mistake I made. The local crowd also meets the expectations, be it the supporters at Solarerberg, the spectators drinking beer and having bratwurst while watching us pass on the marathon, or the multiple sound systems blasting metal or typically German early 2000s high-beat electro. It got quieter as the day passed, but the vibe was there.
And at the top of all, huge kudos and thanks to the Franconian and Bavarian volunteers, who I think are the real treasure of this race. Numerous, loud, cheerful, encouraging, supportive and present at every second of the race. The girl at km70, dancing and jumping to her pop music, and still there with the same energy 3 hours later on my second lap. The guy on the cycling finish line, who caught my bike with a loud “Come to Papa!”. My friend and her Mum, both from the area, who were as excited to volunteer as I was for racing. They definitely make this event the incredible experience it is.
So, is Challenge Roth’s legend exaggerated? Yes, maybe a bit.
But is it worth queuing on the Sunday night after the race to register for the next one? I think I now understand why hundreds do so each year.
By the way, it’s already too late to register online for 2024: it was sold out in… 40 seconds.