Cunnama, Joyce Take Titles At Challenge Roth

While the world record times that Roth’s course is renowned for enabling failed to fall, the competitive field made for a thrilling day.

Photo: Alexander Hassenstein

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Race morning in Roth kicked off with an announcement of each nation represented among the athletes (62 nations in all) and several lines from the accompanying national anthem piped through the transition area. There was no better way to set the mood for an event that would bring together thousands of competitors and triathlon fans from around the world to this Bavarian region where all were made to feel like family. From the wee hours of the morning the crowds amassed at the swim start were incredible. People lined the banks of the Main Donau Kanal the entire length of the swim course, and parking lots were full to overflowing with fans that had arrived early to camp for the weekend’s festivities. In fact, the estimated number of spectators at this year’s event – over 200,000 – set a new Roth record. The professional men’s and women’s races, one of the main draws to Roth for triathlon fans, proved every bit worthy of the strong spectator showing. While the world record times that Roth’s course is renowned for enabling failed to fall, the highly competitive field made for a thrilling day. According to Challenge CEO Felix Walchshofer, “Last year we had world records, but it was boring,” he said, referring to the landslide 2011 victories by Chrissie Wellington and Andreas Raelert. “This year we had an exciting race!”

PHOTOS: 2012 Challenge Roth

The Men’s Race
Frenchman Benjamin Sanson led out of the water. The three men whose proximity would portend the end of the day podium – James Cunnama (RSA), Timo Bracht (GER) and Mike Aigroz (SUI) exited the water about 90 seconds later. However it was German uber-biker Konstantin Bachor who made his mark out of T1, laying down a 4:19:30 bike split. Most of the day’s bike times would not prove as fast, however, as despite otherwise excellent weather, unusually brutal winds battered competitors in what athletes would later describe as a headwind from both directions.

Early on in the run course, pre-race favorites Bracht and Cunnama paired up to race in near perfect unison for the first 18km, working together to close the gap to Bachor.

Aigroz followed a few minutes back, closely tailed by Germany’s Georg Potrebitsch. Potrebitsch would struggle near the 15km mark, however, allowing a hard-charging Cameron Brown (NZL) and Stephen Bayliss (GBR) to move into the top five once Bachor also faded.

Cunnama proved the day’s ultimate victor. Cunnama, who actually had to pull the plug during this race last year due to injury and who missed most of the 2011 season with injury and a knee surgery to address painful plica in his kneecap, felt considerable redemption on race day. His coach Brett Sutton texted him after his finish, saying, “You needed this last year.” Indeed, being on the sidelines served to toughen Cunnama’s resolve to win. “Business can be considered completed,” said the obviously pleased champion.

Describing his strategy at the post-race press conference, Cunnama said that he and Bracht agreed to work together to catch Bocher on the run. He also acknowledged, to the great amusement of the press, that the two even coordinated a bathroom break, admitting to one another their inability to go on the go. But all laughter aside, Cunnama lavished praise on his closest rival. “The sportsmanship award should go to Timo,” said Cunnama. “There were a lot of German fans out there and Timo got a lot of splits. He translated them all to me while we were running. I wouldn’t have known what my splits were because they were all in German.”

Cunnama was entirely unaware of how close he was to missing the elusive sub-eight hour mark when he blissfully entered the stadium in Roth for a final loop past cheering fans to the finish line. He didn’t wear a watch during the race, so when he did finally see the finish clock ticking past 7:59:55, he knew he needed to make one final push. He did so, and logged an official finish of 7:59:59, with just one second to spare in his sub-eight goal. “Yeah, I planned that all day!” quipped a clearly relieved Cunnama.

Bracht claimed the ETU European Long Course Championship title, but showed his disappointment at missing out on the win by taking a moment with his head in his hands once he crossed the line. Later, Bracht was in better spirits. “I’m feeling good now,” he said. “It was a tough race, especially I put a lot of pressure on myself. But the winner sits beside me – James had a great day and congratulations to him!” When asked about what went wrong with his pre-race tactic to keep a gap on the bike between himself and the other top runners, Bracht replied, “Ask my legs!”

Aigroz kept an impressive pace on the run to round out the men’s podium in third. Describing his first race experience here in Roth, Aigroz said, “Solar Berg was just – wow! But for me, the finish line was the best moment of the day. It was a good moment!”

Brown, thrilled to return to Roth following a 10-year absence, raced to fourthoverall on the heels of his 40th birthday. While he had hoped to post a faster finish and join the sub-eight hour club, Brown’s body still felt some fatigue after finishing second at Ironman Cairns in June. The humble pro from New Zealand had enough energy to join other top pros at the late night finish line celebration of the day’s events, however, highlighted by Challenge Roth’s brilliant fireworks display.

The Women’s Race
Lucie Zelenkova-Reed (CZE) was predictably first out of the swim, with Great Britain’s Rachel Joyce hot on her heels. It didn’t take Joyce long to claim the lead out of T1, a position she proudly held throughout the remainder of the day. Joyce obviously enjoyed her maiden voyage through the streets and pathways of Roth and the surrounding region, as a smile was firmly fixed on her face for the entirety of the 140.6-mile journey.

At the 10km mark of the run, Joyce maintained more than an eight-minute lead on the next woman, Mirjam Weerd of the Netherlands. Germany’s Sonja Tajsich worked hard to move through the field, catching Weerd and moving into second by 15km into the marathon. While Tajsich also cut a few minutes into the leader’s gap, she failed to match Joyce’s domination in all three disciplines and could not catch the Brit who was clearly determined to claim both the Roth and the ETU European Long Course Championship titles. Pre-race favorite and last year’s Roth runner-up Julia Gajer clawed her way through the field following a deficit on the bike until she, too, was in contention for a podium place, ultimately finishing third.

In addition to securing the top titles of the day, Joyce bettered her previous personal best sub-nine hour accomplishment from the 2011 Ironman Melbourne by 1:05, winning Challenge Roth in a time of 8:45:04. The win did not come without its difficult moments, however, despite Joyce’s ear-to-ear race day grin. “I think at times the smile might have been confused with a grimace, because I was feeling pretty sore the last 10k of that run. I was digging pretty deep,” she said. “Coming into this I’ve had a recurring back problem. So although the spectators were amazing, as soon as you begin to have a bit of a dip the negative voices start coming in. But by paying more attention to the supporters I could kind of battle it.”

Joyce raved about her first experience in Roth. “You go to the pasta party with 2,000 people and you’re already getting goose bumps two days before the race. The whole way on the swim it was like being in a swimming gala, because you could see and hear people cheering all along. And on the bike you have these hot spots where you really thrive on the energy you get from the crowd. The whole race was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Solar Berg was really something else!” she exclaimed.

Tajsich also posted a personal best time and was thrilled with her effort. “I thought maybe if Rachel didn’t have a good day – or if she had a puncture – I could win,” said the German, a heavy fan favorite in her native country. “But I was happy for her. I was happy for me. I was happy – completely happy!”

Gajer expressed excitement about her own race, despite missing the win she hoped for following her 2011 second place finish. “I’m absolutely happy. The conditions were so hard. My swim was perfect, but then the bike part – I’m not used to the wind!” she said. Describing the benefit of struggling through her second ever full-distance triathlon, Gajer continued, “If I had a perfect day like last year, then that doesn’t bring me forward. So I’m very happy.”

The adopted darling of Roth, Australian Belinda Granger, suffered through an unusually upset stomach the entirety of the bike course. Granger felt so ill that she considered pulling out of the race at T2 and various occasions throughout the first half of the marathon. Yet each time that she reached a spot where she knew she could exit the course, she heard the adoring fans who encouraged her and who inspired her to carry on. Despite her protesting tummy, Granger gained a second wind from the crowd support and for the first time in her Ironman career of 45 races, managed to negative split the run. “I finished the race off the only way I know how – with everything I had on the day,” said Granger. The run was enough to move Granger to 10th place, and she finished to the roar of the crowds in the Roth stadium.

Challenge Roth
Roth, Germany – July 8, 2012
2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run

1. James Cunnama (RSA) 7:59:59
2. Timo Bracht (GER) 8:03:28
3. Mike Aigroz (SUI) 8:08:01
4. Cameron Brown (NZL) 8:10:05
5. Stephen Bayliss (GBR) 8:13:01

1. Rachel Joyce (GBR) 8:45:04
2. Sonja Tajsich (GER) 8:49:47
3. Julia Gajer (GER) 8:57:02
4. Gina Crawford (NZL) 8:59:35
5. Britta Martin (GER) 9:01:10

Complete results.

Look back on the week leading up to the race.

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