Put simply, Challenge Roth is a triathlon experience like no other. It starts on the Thursday with the pro athletes dressing in traditional German garb and ends on the Monday night with a giant party for all 6,000 volunteers. In between, some 250,000 spectators and 5,350 athletes converge on the shores and roads of northern Bavaria, and a thousand local homes open their doors – and fridges – to long-distance athletes.
The ‘Glastonbury of triathlon’ as someone stated to 220 in Roth, only with multisport replacing mud and carbon bikes in the place of Coldplay. And like that Somerset shindig, Roth is awash with community spirit with 25% of the town’s population volunteering at the race.
“It’s been said a lot,” says Germany’s reigning Ironman and 70.3 world champ Jan Frodeno in Roth, “but the atmosphere here is so unique and the way Roth lives and breathes triathlon is why this race is the favourite of both age-groupers and the top professional athletes. You can’t buy tradition like this.”
Triathlon’s long history in Roth began as the standard-distance Franconian Triathlon in 1984 with 83 athletes, before swift growth saw it host the Bavarian Championships within a year and become part of the expanding Ironman portfolio by 1988. Paula Newby-Fraser and Luc Van Lierde were two racing greats attracted to Roth during the ’90s, before the relationship went sour with Ironman in 2010 and the contract was torn up.
The race was taken over by the local Walchshöfer family but the future looked uncertain for the race, especially after a ‘difficult’ 2002 edition. Yet a Lothar Leder/Chris McCormack classic in 2003, which went down to the finishing straight, helped establish the race in the eyes of the watching multisport world.
World and European Iron greats Yvonne van Vlerken, Chrissie Wellington, Mirinda Carfrae, Andreas Raelert and Sebastian Kienle have joined the annual cast of 6,000 age-groupers in the intervening years, with the Solarer Berg climb, ‘bier mile’ and the finish line amphitheatre all entering triathlon folklore. What’s also inescapable throughout the storied history of Roth is pure long-distance speed..
Eleven of the world’s 20 best long-distance (3.8km swim/180km bike/42.2km run) times have been set on the roads of Roth. Belgian Luc Van Lierde ran a 2:36hr marathon here in 1997; Chrissie Wellington’s two fastest women’s long-distance times in history (8:19:13 and 8:18:13) were recorded in Roth; and Germany’s Andreas Raelert posted the fastest-ever men’s time (7:41:33) in history here in 2011 alongside Wellington.
So what makes it so fast? The swim in the Donau Canal is calm and free from waves; the gently rolling bike course (1,388m of elevation gain) has plenty of long descents and takes place on roads smoother than a George Clooney coffee commercial – “I was upset that I actually touched my brakes once,” laughed Frodeno of the bike route; while the run is mostly flat and is about 70% on light trails that are forgiving on the legs. And all backed by boisterous crowds who holler from 6:30am until the final competitor comes home at 10:30pm to a giant firework display.
Wellington and Raelert’s course records had remained intact since that famous day at the start of the decade, but in February Frodeno boldly proclaimed that he would attempt to break Raelert’s record come July. The German 2008 Olympic champ had clocked a 7:49:48 split at Ironman Frankfurt in 2015, but could he better his compatriot’s 46:18 swim, 4:11:43 bike and 2:40:51 run times in Roth?
Elsewhere, Frodeno’s fellow Ironman and 70.3 world champ Daniela Ryf of Switzerland was a late addition on the start line after DNF’ing at Ironman Frankfurt a fortnight before, while Britain’s Joe Skipper was also intent on breaking Paul Amey’s British Iron record of 8:01:29 and also become the first British Iron athlete to go sub-8hrs. So would history be made in Bavaria? Here we capture the highlights of one of the greatest days in iron-distance racing history.
The 15th edition of Challenge Roth dawns on Sunday 17 July 2016 with calm, dry and overcast conditions gracing the Bavarian skies.
“People here have been talking about the race throughout the year and whether there’ll be a new world record,” says local Josef Taubeneder, our new surrogate German father. And Frodeno would provide a charismatic focus from the off, with television crews flanking the leggy German’s every move in transition.
If Frodeno, who started his sporting career as a competitive swimmer in South Africa during his teens, is suffering from nerves he’s failing to show it. “To break a world record you need to race big or go home,” says the German and, with tethered hot-air balloons and 50,000 spectators on the banks of the Europakanal, the ear-splitting gun sounds and the 34-year-old instantly stamps his authority on the race, opening up a 30m lead by the midway stage.
Frodeno’s gold swim cap is over a minute ahead of defending champ Nils Frommhold by T1, where he boards his Canyon Speedmax after a 45:22min swim split, nearly a minute faster than Raelert’s 2011 effort. The lead chasing pack – including Bermuda’s Tyler Butterfield – is 5mins down on Frodeno (and three on Frommhold) by the time of the Solarer Berg.
Located in Hilpoltstein town, the Solarer Berg is up there with Ali’i Drive at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii as one of the greatest spectacles in all of triathlon. The five-deep crowds numbering over 50,000 produce a cacophony of rattles, horns, cowbells and chanting (Seven Nation Army mostly) to create a Tour de France-style atmosphere, and the triathletes duly oblige.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it, and it’s hard not to overpace actually on Solarer Berg,” said Frodeno post-race after surging up the hill in front of the raucous crowd. “I’m glad my ears are still intact.” Frodono is followed by Frommhold and Butterfield before Skipper – clearly loving the experience and grinning his way up the hill – hammers past in a helmet so bright you can see it from space.
Matching Frodeno’s dominance in the men’s race is Ryf’s performance in the women’s, exiting the swim in 49:10mins with the men’s lead pack and putting clear daylight between herself and the women’s chasers by 70km and the Solarer Berg on her Felt. If Ryf, unlike Frodono and Skipper, has downplayed any record attempt on Wellington’s 2011 Roth time (49:49 swim, 4:40:39 bike, 2:44:35 run), the spectating hordes are now thinking otherwise.
Cut to 120km on the bike and Frodeno has over a seven-minute lead over the chasers, which extends to 12:30mins by the time of T2 when the German rocks up with a 4:08:07 bike course record, smashing American Andrew Starykowicz’s 2015 record by over a minute (and 3mins faster than Raelert’s 2011 time). Next up is the Iron record, but with the temperatures rising in Roth and plenty of solitary stretches on the canal-side run, the German won’t have it easy.
After a “tough swim where it felt like someone was trying to drown me,” Skipper is now back on course for his British record-breaking attempt, exiting T2 in sixth after storming back into contention on the bike with a 4:21:12 split aboard his Boardman. That position becomes fourth by 12km on the run as Skipper moves past Butterfield and Cyril Viennott.
All eyes both locally and internationally are now on Frodeno, with a 2:45hr (or faster) run the target. “I played with my limits a few times on the marathon, and I had a few darker moments but I kept my poker face on,” says Frodeno on his run split, which culminates with a 2:39:18 marathon as he enters the finishing stadium to an ecstatic ovation.
Awaiting Frodeno at the line is Felix Walchshöfer, the race organiser whose family have been involved in the race from the get-go in 1984. And Frodeno’s overall time? 7:35:39, a resounding six minutes faster than Raelert’s previous long-distance record. Displaying all-round strength, the boy from Cologne has produced the fastest swim and bike splits of the day, with his average bike speed of 43.5km/h faster than his 40.6km/h average from Beijing’s 40km Olympic course in 2008. Having been an Ironman for just three years, on the evidence of today Frodeno is already the complete Iron athlete.
And what of the future? Unless Frodeno returns to Roth or signs up for that other fast favourite of Ironman Austria, it’s hard to see his Roth time being beaten (although Javier Gomez might have something to say about it), with the weather, the partisan atmosphere and an athlete at the peak of his powers conspiring in a perfect storm.
Also at the finish line is Frodeno’s wife, his fellow 2008 Olympic champ Emma Snowsill, with whom he had a baby boy in February 2016. “They’re quite the team,” says Simon Whitfield, the man Frodeno pipped to 2008 Olympic gold in Beijing, on the partnership.
“You can’t underestimate the change in him after meeting Emma,” adds the 2000 Olympic champ. “I’d say in Beijing he trained and executed a great race, and then once he met Emma, they combined their incredible intelligence and we see the fruit of that now. I spent time training with him and his execution is just remarkable. It was inspiring but demoralising at the same time. As long as he loves it and his body loves it, he’s going to lay down an incredible legacy.”
While Frodeno is embracing Snowsill at the finish line, 20mins later another roar of appreciation reverberates around the Roth arena. It’s expected to be Frommhold, who’d held onto second for 225km of the race, but Skipper has surged past the German with just a kilometre to go to produce the greatest result in British men’s long-course history.
The 28-year-old, more famous for his biking brilliance after producing the second-fastest bike split in Ironman history at Texas in 2015, has unleashed a 2:38:52 marathon (yes, 2:38:52 after 180km of biking) to take the fastest run of the day away from Frodeno. In the process, the Norwich-based athlete has broken the British Iron record and becomes the first British Ironman in history to go under 8hrs with a 7:56:23 time. And all in front of his watching families (both British and local homestay).
“I didn’t think I’d run that quick,” says Skipper at the finish. “I realised I might make the podium until someone told me Nils was just ahead. I thought Nils would tag onto me and it’d come down to a sprint finish so I just went for it.” And of the British record? “That was my goal to come here and do that. And to get on the podium with the field we had here is a dream, so I’m over the moon.”
Skipper’s Training Peaks data after the race makes for impressive reading, with a 308 watts average and a 50.1/49.9% left/right pedal efficiency for the duration of the 180km bike. That and a 41km/h average speed. Yet if the kinetic times suggest a smooth day for Frodeno and Skipper, not everything went to plan.
Frodeno had a small crash and landed on his top-tube (“I’ll never be able to have a second child!” he laughs post-race), while, more seriously, he came within inches of serious damage after a car reversed out onto the closed-road circuit (Frodeno showing a few digits to the driver was replayed on local television that night). Skipper, meanwhile (and much to his dad’s amusement) headed into the woods early on the run for a toilet stop, ripping his skintight Endura tri-suit in the process.