Does Challenge Roth Live Up to the Hype?

Is that even possible? And why does the legendary event remain so mysterious to Americans? We have answers.

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People stand in line overnight to race Challenge Roth because they’ve heard rumors of the epic-ness, because they’re hoping for one of the legendary blistering times, because it’s a bucket list event with crowds that scream like crazy as if every triathlete is a celebrity in the flesh. That’s why people go to Roth. But that’s not why we went. We went to answer for you, our fellow confused Americans: What’s the deal? And how do you pronounce “Roth” anyway?

Which is why when I was out there on the roads of Bavaria, struggling in the heat and wanting to drop out, I thought: No, I must get the full experience, in the name of journalism! I have to be able to report back to our readers on the real Roth! No one comes here to race their personal worst iron-distance time, but see, these are the things we do for you.

So let me put it this way: I had a terrible race at Roth, and I would still recommend you get yourself over to Germany. At least once. But, I must also warn you: As an American, be prepared to feel very very American, accept your confusion, lean into it, and just embrace the people cheering for you because you came “all the way” from the U.S.—even if you have no idea what they’re saying.

The Hype

Every single person I told I was going to race Roth said: It’s the best race ever. You’ll love it. It’s what you wish all triathlon races were like. It’s the only race they miss. There’s nothing else like it in the world.

With all of that, it’s possible expectations get set a little high.

The reality is you do Roth for three (totally worthwhile) reasons: Solar Hill, the stadium finish, and the fact that the community is really, really into triathlon. Honestly, everything else is still just (an extremely well-run and extremely competitive) iron-distance race—there’s no hiding that.

What I mean is this: If you think that somehow the crowds are going to carry you through 140.6 miles without it hurting, that you’re never going to be alone with your own long-course dark thoughts, that the magic will erase the part of all of this that’s always difficult, then you’ll be disappointed. That just isn’t going to happen. It will still be hard and tough and there will still be long periods where you’re simply out on empty country roads biking solo or running down a blazing hot path along a canal wishing you were anywhere else, because it’s still a long-course triathlon and there’s no amount of hype that can make that easier or different.

I feel like I need to put that caveat out there. Now, that being said.

Roth is really, really into triathlon. Imagine if a Kardashian showed up to an Ironman race in the U.S. and people swarmed her for selfies and autographs, and random spectators who don’t even really follow the Kardashians started telling you all the gossip they’ve heard about what she may or may not do, and hundreds of thousands of people drive in so they can catch a glimpse of Kim Kardashian doing whatever she does at a tri. This example got weird, but that’s what it’s like when Jan Frodeno or Patrick Lange walk around in Roth.

And of course they’re a big deal in Germany because they’re German superstars and triathlon’s a big deal in Germany, but it’s not just about Anne or Jan or Patrick. It’s about everything triathlon. I stood in the tent for the volunteer party post-race, full of thousands of locals, and it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in the triathlon world—and they screamed for every single pro; they wanted autographs from Fenella and Sid and Sam and Magnus; kids had t-shirts and body parts signed in marker. And here’s the thing I feel like I need to point out: That doesn’t just happen. That is the product of decades of history and choosing to invest in the pros and making them a big deal and building up the story around them and cultivating the community with local events throughout the year and kids’ runs and women’s runs and a concert in the town center and sending every single homestay family a goodie bag and the list goes on. It takes a long time to build a foundation that turns a town of 20,000 into the “home of triathlon,” but that’s one of the reasons you go to Roth.

RELATED: Photos from 20 Years of Challenge Roth

Anne Haug with her fans.

The Course

All that investment pays off, it keeps the community coming out. Because the second reason you go to Roth is for the crowds—and the only way to keep the crowds lining Solar Hill five deep on each side, covering the road with people to the point that you don’t even know how you’re going to bike through this mass of fans, is to convince them that this is a thing they don’t want to miss.

Not to be one of those people who tries to tell you a course is slow because they raced a slow time, but Roth isn’t actually flat and fast. Just a heads up.

Objectively, it is a fast course, many many world records have been set there. But I’ve now come to the conclusion that the records set have more to do with record bonuses built into the athlete contracts, small things taken care of for the pros to ensure fast performances, and the level of competition and support that elevates the effort. If 10% of Ironman is 100% mental, then money motivates the mind—and people screaming as if you’re a goddamn Kardashian definitely helps.

To get down to specifics:

The swim is in a shipping canal lined with people on the banks and bridges. I’ve heard some athletes say it’s kind of gross water, but they’ve clearly never raced in a major American city, because it seemed perfectly clean to me. You go down, you come back, and if you’re in one of the waves after the first two then you get caught in a washing machine halfway through full of 4,000 people swimming.

The bike is where the disconnect between expectations and reality happens. It’s not as flat as you think it is. It’s actually quite rolling and hilly, and if you want to ride a fast time then you probably have to keep really pushing the long false downhills (and the not false downhills that are fairly intense descents). At least I assume that is what it would take. You also probably need to pre-ride the course, at least if you’re not familiar with European riding—because there are a lot of those kinds of very European abrupt corners and turns on narrow streets through small towns that can take Americans by surprise.

But really the entire bike course—hell, the entire race—is about Solar Hill (Solarer Berg in German). This is the one thing that truly completely lives up to all the hype and more. You round a corner near the end of the first lap and suddenly you see banners and barricades lining the road at the bottom and then you look up and it’s just a sea of people past the barricades all the way up the climb. And they scream for you, in your face clapping and yelling before they step out of the way, as if you’re winning the whole thing. I don’t think I’m the only one who got choked up and I’m definitely not the only one who kept going purely so I could get to Solar Hill again on the second lap. It is, probably, the only chance you’ll ever have to feel like you’re the best athlete in the world and this entire town, this entire region, came out just to tell you you’re awesome.

(Photo: Courtesy of my homestay)

I’ve done a lot of the big spectator popular races in the U.S.—Wildflower, IM Wisconsin, Lake Placid, Coeur d’Alene, Mont-Tremblant—and there are plenty of parts of the Roth course where I thought, “This isn’t that different.” Solar Hill isn’t one of those parts. In many ways, the run is, though. You leave town, out the canal and back down the canal, through town, down to another little beer garden, and back. There are lots of people in parts (especially for a one-lap course), you high-five kids in parts, and you’re all by yourself in parts.

But all throughout, while I slogged my way to the finish, I kept telling my new BFF run buddy who I met around 17K (shoutout to Ned!) that I just wanted my stadium finish. That’s the whole point, the third reason you do Roth. They’ve built a makeshift stadium in the middle of a park, with grandstands, and a laser show and, I dunno, cheerleaders and a giant balloon gorilla for some reason. And if you’re going to finish, let me recommend that you finish after 10pm—because for the last hour it’s the most intense final finisher party I’ve ever seen, and that includes Kona.

The American Conundrum

So if it’s all that amazing, why don’t more Americans do it? It’s a simple direct flight from most major U.S. cities to Munich. Yet, out of 3,000 starters (and another 553 relay teams), I counted just 62 American finishers. For all we’ve heard rumor of the magic on the other side of the ocean, Roth is simply not a thing most Americans make it to—and it’s hard to explain to the Germans why exactly it’s such a black box coming from the U.S. So let me give an example.

After the opening ceremonies, when I was wandering around the food truck picnic area trying to figure out how to upgrade my non-alcoholic beer to one with alcohol, I met an American guy who had first tried to register for this race in 2017. He got up at 1 a.m. ET for when registration opened, but the first year he messed up the European style for dates—they do it day/month, instead of month/day—and by the time he fixed it on the form, the race was full. The next year, he missed the fact that they use commas where we use decimals in numbers and vice versa—and, again, by the time he fixed it on his registration form, the race was full. Finally, the third year, he was like, “screw it, I don’t care if the dog wakes up, if I have to turn on all the lights in the middle of the night, I’m getting in.” Finally, he got registered in 2019 for the 2020 event. And then you know what happened next…

The point is it’s not big things. It’s little things. But it’s little things that are very distinctly designed for German athletes at a German race, not for Americans.

Here is a short list of questions I could NOT find answers to, even after reading the athlete booklet, going to the race briefing, clicking around the website, looking at the maps, and scanning the emails they sent: Do we need to drop off our run bag along with our bike the day before? If so, at T1 or at T2? Is there special needs? Wait, do I have to wear my race number on the bike? Shit, I put mine in my run bag, which is now checked in. Hold on, I needed to sign up for a shuttle? Where do I sign up for a shuttle? Can you just give me an address?

This was my eighth iron-distance race, probably my 100-ish triathlon, and maybe my 10th or 11th international event, and when I opened the registration packet, I could not figure out what to do with the numbers. Usually, there are labels or instructions—bike number, helmet number, put this one here, that one there. This time there was only an illustration of where to wear your timing chip in the event you were running, biking, or roller-blading. I got most of it straight, but was left holding three small stickers. One must be for the helmet, maybe one’s for the bike stem, and I guess the third is a spare? (Hint: I guessed wrong.)

In their defense, it turns out all this information was available on the Challenge Roth website under Menu > Important Downloads > “Preliminary Competition Regulations for the participation at the DATEV Challenge Roth powered by hep on July 3rd 2022 as a supplement to the Race Briefing.”

In my defense, how the hell was I supposed to know that.

Maybe I’m just being too American. Maybe, as was suggested to me by a friend, we just need our hands held more, we expect if something’s important you will hit me over the head and tell me what it is. Or maybe it’s simply that triathlon rules and standards are, by definition, somewhat arbitrary and the arbitrary way one place does something isn’t necessarily the same as how it’s done somewhere else and that’s not always as obvious as you later think it is once you know the rules and standards.

Which is why I’m here for you, my fellow Americans, to tell you how to demystify this German mystery and get your Solar Hill moment of glory. Welcome home triathletes.

Tips for Americans Who Want to Race Roth

  • While online registration opens up a year in advance (July 11 this year for the 2023 race), it can sell out in less than one minute. Many international athletes instead find it worth it to purchase a Roth tri tour entry—which then includes your registration, hotel, transportation around the race, and answers to all your questions. It tends to be expensive (~$3,000), but with just one hotel in the small town, it may be your best choice. And isn’t peace of mind priceless, anyway.
  • Most major U.S. cities have direct flights to Munich, about 90 minutes south of Roth. You can then take the train from Munich, but just rent a car. Trust me.
  • Read all the documents on the website. The Germans expect you to.
  • With so much of the local community involved in the race for so many years, they know more than you’ll ever know. Ask the Challenge staff your questions and make friends.
  • It’s worth it to go to at least some of the extra events.
  • It’s also worth it to bring at least one friend or family member with you. More than most triathlon trips, this is one you want to do with someone—both for logistical reasons (you can have a supporter feed you at the end of aid stations, for example) and for emotional reasons (you’re allowed to run into the stadium and through the finish line with friends, family members, kids, whoever you want, for instance).
  • Soak it up—this is the most Kona-like race I’ve ever done outside of Kona, both in size, fanfare, and in competition—but accept that you will not understand everything.
  • Yes, everyone’s English is very very good, you will be completely fine. It will be different, but that’s OK.
  • Here are the answers to the questions I didn’t know:
    • Yes, you need to drop off your T2 bags with your bike. Take it all to T1 and drop it off with the volunteers.
    • The volunteers will, seriously, take care of everything for you.
    • No, there is no special needs.
    • Yes, you need to wear your race number on the bike. (It’s a European thing.)
    • Yes, you need to have the seat post plastic number off the back of your seat post and the other three stickers are for your helmet. Yes, they want you to have three stickers on your helmet.
    • On race day, you can either be dropped off at the start or drive yourself and take a shuttle back to your car later or take a shuttle bus to the start from the school next to the expo in Roth. You have to ask at the registration tent for a shuttle time and put your name on the list.
    • The finish line and stadium is a permanent destination on Google maps. This is handy. Ask someone there to drop a pin for you to the swim start.
    • “Wasser” (pronounced vass-ah) means water. It’s the only German word I learned walking through aid stations.
    • Roth is pronounced Rote but they’ve stopped trying to convince Americans of this. Everyone will understand if you say Roth.