I’ll be reporting all week on the professional athletes racing Challenge Roth, but I recently got wind of another VIP who will toe the start line. I caught up with Challenge Family CEO Felix Walchshöfer for details on the news, as well as to discuss the efforts in place to discourage drafting in Sunday’s event, the 30th anniversary of the iconic race.
Triathlete.com: Earlier today you announced a new name on the start list–your own! Why is it important to you to do the race this year, how has your preparation been and how on earth do you plan to swing it, given all that you normally do working non-stop during race week and on race day?
FW: It’s a huge year of celebration for us. It’s the 30-year anniversary, and for me personally it’s a special race because 10 years ago I took over from my father when he was ill. So I thought that for my 10th anniversary as the race director I should test it for myself. I have raced Challenge Wanaka twice [fulfilling his father’s wish that he complete a full distance triathlon], but never Roth; this has been missing from my list. When I was a kid I was a balloon boy running behind Jurgen Zack, Lothar Leder, Mark Allen and all the pros at the finish, and they always inspired me. The swim cap of Mark Allen was pinned to the door of my room until the plastic broke! I always dreamt about it, and if you grow up in Roth it’s a normal dream to dream. Last year I was speaking with Lothar Leder when he and I were standing alone at the finish line the night before the event just looking at the stadium and he said, “Everything is working so well, it’s a well-oiled machine–now do it yourself.” That was one of the trigger points, and I decided early this year it was time.
Preparations for running went well, let’s put it that way! I haven’t been too much to the pool, but swimming is the discipline that I’m the most comfortable with, so that should be fine. I’m terrified about the bike, because I’m away nearly every weekend with races happening and I don’t really have the time to put in long bike hours. So that’s the big worrying factor. But then I will rely on so many other things that definitely will bring me through.
The plan is that I will work completely normal as if I would not race until Saturday night, and then only for Sunday I will switch into race mode. So there actually won’t be any tapering because it will be full on. And then the plan is that after the finish I’ll go and have a shower and massage–hopefully I won’t need a drip, but we will see–and then I’ll be back on the finish line to welcome all the other athletes.
Triathlete.com: At Ironman Frankfurt recently there was a lot of controversy about drafting in the race, in particular with the female pros starting so close to the male age groupers and getting caught up in packs. I know the start is set up differently in Roth, although there’s still not a massive gap of separation. Has drafting been a similarly prevalent issue in Roth in the past and do you have any plans to address it differently this year?
FW: I think there are two big differences between us and Frankfurt or Klagenfurt, where it was even worse. First of all, the wave starts. Two years ago we worked together with the Statistical Institute of the University of Nuremburg and had a look at how the athletes come out of the water. They checked it by race transponders and did flow charts, so we know exactly what is the best thing to do. For example, it’s not the best thing to group the athletes into age group swim waves. If you do, for example, put the male 18-20 group at the beginning, there will be a lot of athletes that are way slower than the male 50-55 group. There will be a lot of congestion and a lot of overtaking during the event, which is a big problem. So that is why every athlete is grouped into a start group by their estimated finish time, and that works much better. Also we have small groups–only 230 persons per wave, so that everyone can start comfortably and it’s also better for swim safety. The only group that is bigger is the female wave, because we have way more female entries than ever before, so next year we will split the female group into two. The first wave consists of the top 50 pro men, the top 20 pro women, everyone 65 years and older, disabled athletes and the estimated sub-nine-hour athletes. Then we have a break [10 minutes], and then we continue with the estimated swim time waves.
Also important is that we’ve invested a ton of money into the triathlon federation and their referees. We only have referees that have special education that can also do ITU races and all the German Triathlon elite races. We have 65 motorcycles out on course. I think Frankfurt has a total of 14 referees in the race–I don’t know how many on the bike–and we have 65 on the bike alone, plus the ones we need for the swim, the penalty boxes, the transition zones, the run course and anti-doping at the finish. It’s a massive amount.
Our referees work in tandem–there are always two referees, sometimes even three, working together on the motorcycles. So what happens is this: if a referee sees a group he will go to the group and check if it’s legal. If they are drafting they will be penalized immediately. But if something looks suspicious or blurry, he will address the situation and warn everyone in the group. Meanwhile, the second or third referee is maybe 300-400 meters behind the first. When the first leaves, the next referee will observe the group and if they are drafting he will immediately penalize them. No one can fool us! They’ll never know how many people are coming from behind, and the fear of being penalized is very great. We did this last year and we had a very good and fair race and we are keeping this system again.
Plus, most of the female pro athletes will have a designated referee on their side. It’s like this: Caroline Steffen is a huge uber-biker. She’s fantastic. And she will of course try to get away. There are other women in the field who are maybe not as good bikers but are very good runners. So let’s say the tendency might be to draft a little bit to keep the gap smaller getting off the bike. This is definitely not going to happen because we are going to observe the women closely; we know it’s more difficult for them. And we will especially penalize the fast age group athletes that group around the women. A lot of men don’t like to be overtaken by women and so they will stick in that environment, and we do not want that.
Something new that we are also doing this year is that every pro man and every pro woman will get an additional chip that will track them in real time, so we’ll know exactly where they are. For example, if a pro is drafting another pro, we’ll be able to see that on the computer. It will be available in the media center so the media will be able to follow the pro race the entire day, and also because we want to be very open about any drafting. All of that data will be recorded. The other thing about this chip–and the most important reason to have it–is that it will have two emergency buttons. The first button is for the athlete to push if they have a mechanical problem, and we can immediately send help. The second button is for a serious medical issue, and we can send an ambulance immediately. It is a development project of German Telekom, a communication device with a SIM card that signals continuously. Also for race week Telekom has upgraded their network. Normally it is 100 percent and for race week it is 300 percent, and also for race personnel, media and VIPs there will be high-speed wireless throughout the entire festplatz.
Triathlete.com: Is there anything else we should know about before race week kicks off?
FW: Great news for any English speakers, this year we will feature an English language live TV channel during race day, moderated by Belinda Granger and another host. Go to the Challenge Roth website to tune in.
The first wave at Challenge Roth goes off at 6:30 a.m. local time on Sunday July 20 (9:30 p.m. PST Saturday July 19) and check back all week for more from Roth.