There’s something about Challenge Roth. Mention the race to anyone in the know in triathlon, and you’ll hear one of two possible responses: “I want to do that race!” or “That’s my favorite race!” Athletes have either been to Roth and long to go back or can’t wait to get there. For the second year in a row I’ve been invited to the tiny town in Bavaria, Germany to get a taste of what distinguishes Europe’s most beloved iron-distance event (aside from the dense German bread and delectable pretzels, strong Bavarian beer and premium chocolate). Here’s a preview of what the week ahead holds for athletes en route to Challenge Roth.
The Challenge Experience
Challenge Roth, the crown jewel of the Challenge Family event series, has evolved significantly since its inception in 1988 (first known as Ironman Europe, the race was reborn as Challenge Roth in 2002). But what has not changed is the feeling of warmth nurtured by the race organizers. The Challenge Family–led by CEO Felix Walchshöfer, his sister Kathrin and their mother Alice–is indeed a family, and it’s with open arms that they welcome every athlete, volunteer, spectator, industry associate and media member as though they are kin. It’s partly this personal aspect that keeps triathlon aficionados flocking to Roth year after year. Take professionals Belinda and Justin Granger of Australia, who claim the race as an all-time favorite and whose homestay has become like a second family. 2013 will mark Belinda’s 10th anniversary racing Roth, with a special celebration in her honor planned for Wednesday evening. It’s also the uncommon touches–such as the muesli served in the morning transition area and the race week parties, including an Erdinger Alkoholfrei Bier bash (where VIP’s dress in traditional German dirndls and lederhosen) and an open air concert in the town’s center marktplatz resembling a mini-Oktoberfest–that make Challenge Roth a standout event on the long-course calendar.
If the herzlich willkommen (heartfelt welcome) is not enough to inspire your desire to visit this novel venue, consider the race course itself, one designed for personal best performances and professional world records and chock full of “hotspot” highlights. The 200,000 fans that will crowd the course on Sunday are onto something–the race is a spectacle of endurance sportsmanship as well as a party of epic proportions. Communities along the course compete in hosting the best hotspots, a sort of challenge within the Challenge for the volunteers. Starting with the swim in the Main Donau Kanal (an international shipping canal closed to maritime traffic for the occasion), spectators pack the banks the entire way, loudly broadcasting their energy and support to athletes in the water.
Next up is the bike course, and no hotspot in Roth is better known than Solarer Berg hill, where triathlon fans line the roadside 10 and 12 deep well before the first athlete is due to arrive, creating a human tunnel of cheer to carry cyclists up the climb. Stand at the start of Solarer Berg and you’ll have a prime vantage point as each competitor is overcome by emotion when approaching the legendary crowd. Then it’s off to the Biermile at Eckersmuhlen, a village lined with benches packed with spectators swilling local brew. On the second bike loop, it’s not uncommon to see a few cyclists stop and quench their thirst, literally soaking up the local experience.
The run course–comprised of 70 percent soft-surface trails alongside the Main Donau Kanal, a few loops through local villages and enough undulation to keep it interesting–is sure to top anyone’s list of favorites. Just before the finish, when most athletes begin to fade, a jaunt through Roth’s town center (again packed with people and beer-inspired pandemonium) provides runners with a final boost to reach the festive finish stadium in
Roth’s Triathlon Park. Professional athletes at Challenge Roth are hailed as heroes unlike at other events. Bouquets of flowers fill their arms as they enter the stadium for the finisher’s loop, and a crew of local children chase behind them, trailing big bunches of bright red balloons (in fact, Challenge CEO Walchshöfer served as a balloon boy from a very young age). And of course they are doused with giant urns of Erdinger Alkoholfrei Bier to cool them off after crossing the line. But it’s not just the pros that enjoy a one-of-a-kind finish experience. Age-groupers are enthusiastically joined by their family members and friends, sharing their last lap with those who have made their Challenge journey possible. Relay team athletes finish together, often accompanied by their entire support crew. Pro Justin Granger completed the 2012 race hand-in-hand with his homestay’s young son.
The 2012 Challenge Roth professional champions, James Cunnama of South Africa and Great Britain’s Rachel Joyce, voiced their appreciation for the race’s splendor following their decisive wins last year. “I will be back, no doubt about it,” said Cunnama. “Not only is it a dream to win here, this is something that’s going to be a fixture on my calendar the rest of my career. It is that amazing of a race.” Joyce agreed. “It’s addictive!” she exclaimed. “I’m going to have to come back. Solarer Berg alone is something that will stay in my memory forever.”
While “officially” Challenge Roth ends 16 hours after the first competitors plunge into the water, no one is denied the opportunity (with due respect to safety and reason) to experience the race finish and claim their accomplishment, along with a shiny finisher’s medal. “These athletes have devoted months and months to this one day,” says Victoria Murray-Orr, Challenge Family Marketing and Communications Director. “We want everyone to celebrate his or her accomplishment just the same, regardless the time on the clock.”
At the close of what can only be described as an epic night, amid champagne celebrations, Walchshöfer (who dons a stylishly cut suit and running shoes to honor athletes at the finish) takes center stage in the stadium, sharing an emotionally charged thank you speech. But that’s just the beginning of the night’s end–next is a video and a rousing rendition of the Challenge Family song (yes, there’s even a song), followed by sparklers shared amongst the entire stadium crowd to accompany an elaborate fireworks display. Finally, with every emotion exhausted and every possible tribute paid, Walchshöfer caps the evening with these five words: “Welcome to the Challenge Family!” There’s no doubt the message comes straight from his heart.
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