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As triathletes and triathlon fans in Germany gear up for Sunday’s Challenge Roth, the team behind the race is hard at work with final preparations for the weekend of activities kicking off on Thursday. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the race under its current identity, Challenge Roth (for many years the race lived under the Ironman brand umbrella), and the excitement for what’s in store is palpable, with both the men’s and women’s reigning world champions here to contest the win and take a crack at setting new world records at the long course distance. We caught up with Felix Walchshöfer who, along with sister Kathrin and their mother Alice, runs the show in Roth to get a glimpse behind the scenes and hear what’s in store for this year’s race.
Triathlete.com: First let’s talk about the breaking news that Daniela Ryf has added her name to the start list. Are you prepared for a potential double world record with both Daniela and Jan Frodeno racing? And has that happened on the same race day here ever before?
FW: It would be a 15 years birthday present! It has actually happened, when we celebrated our 10th birthday, with Andreas Raelert and Chrissie Wellington both setting world records on that very same day. I would be satisfied with one world record [laughing]. Just kidding. For me, it’s simply great that we have both world champions here. That’s absolutely amazing for us. And then what happens on the day happens on the day. If we get a world record we’ll be very thrilled, but it’s just amazing that they will both participate and hopefully we will have a fast and thrilling race.
Triathlete.com: It seems that every year you have more efforts in place to discourage drafting. Last year you instituted the “Penalty K” where athletes receiving drafting penalties on the bike were required to run an extra kilometer in the marathon. How effective was that and will the same rule apply this year?
FW: We had 82 drafting penalties last year, so 82 athletes had to go in the penalty boxes and then run the extra K. But the interesting thing is, the year before we had 178 penalties. It was cut by more than half. We will have this rule again this year, and the Penalty K is earlier in the run course, just after the 1K mark. We changed the location because if athletes do not go on their own into the Penalty K, we have to disqualify them. With the new location we will get the results way quicker, because the referees can inform the head referee much quicker, and then we can close the results quicker. Also people will have a better idea of what’s really happening on the run, so that someone in front of them will not then end up running an extra K later on in the race.
Triathlete.com: What about the issue of mechanical doping—do you have efforts in place to discourage this?
FW: Hopefully mechanical doping is not an issue, but we do have quite a lot in place to prevent this from happening. Similar to our anti-doping program—we have the biggest amount of anti-doping tests worldwide of any long distance race—we want to do exactly the same for e-doping. During bike check-in every bike will be checked first by sight, and then we have 30 marshals with mechanics who, after transition is closed, will go through every single bike and check them properly. Then we have two infrared cameras on motorcycles and also permanent ones on hills and other places on the bike course (I don’t want to tell the locations). The marshals will check the bike frames with these cameras to look for batteries in the bikes. We did several tests of this in the past weeks, and they were visible brilliantly. So we’ll check during the actual race, and then, when athletes deliver their bikes back to the volunteers in T2, the volunteers have to check in the bikes via a referee who will scan the whole bike once again. Every single bike will be scanned. We don’t want cheaters. We want to show that cheaters shouldn’t mess with us.
Triathlete.com: In the past year you’ve gone through a big change in terms of stepping back from Challenge Family globally to focus fully on Challenge Roth as its own separate entity and to focus your time here at home. What has that been like and what has that allowed you to do?
FW: It’s a bit of getting my own life back, actually. I loved the last 10 years and I wouldn’t want to miss a single second of what I experienced. It allowed me to test myself, to add more skills and knowledge. And I made so many friends worldwide, it’s amazing. It’s absolutely stunning. So I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a second of that time. But the down part of it always was, for example, my best friend got married when we had the inaugural race in Australia, so I missed the marriage. I was seldom here for birthdays, for weddings and for a lot of those things. You can do it for 10 years, and I’m so happy that I did, but it was tiring. Normally on Thursday or Friday I flew somewhere, worked on the weekend, did the awards on Monday, flew home and arrived shortly before midnight in Munich, worked Tuesday and Wednesday in the office and Thursday was off again. I didn’t have any weekends and after 10 years I was ready to make a change.
I loved it, but it’s so good to have a bit of private life back here at home, and it’s also really good for the race. With Kathrin, Mom and me all working for Challenge Family globally, we had to outsource a lot of things here in Roth. It worked, but we’re very happy that we put everything in house again. Like the merchandisers that you just saw me setting up [prior to our conversation, Walchshöfer was busy setting up the merchandise boutique in the expo]—all the little details we get to be a part of. It’s cool. I absolutely love it. It was the right decision. Zibi [Szlufcik, CEO of the global Challenge Family race series] comes by every second or third week for a full day. He updates us on what’s happening, he asks our advice and we discuss things very openly. Our family will always stay a member of the Challenge Family. We’re proud to be a member of the Challenge Family. But it’s good for us to concentrate on one thing now and not juggle so much.
Despite Challenge Roth returning to its roots, in a sense, it remains the world’s largest long distance triathlon and has a major multi-cultural focus, with more than 5,000 athletes from 72 countries participating. The number of athletes from the U.S. has grown significantly (152 will start on Sunday, a 60% increase over 2015), as the U.S. is now the third most represented country on the start line, behind only Germany and the U.K. Also of interest is the fact that among the nearly 6,000 volunteers that will help make Challenge Roth possible are 60 refugees from Syria and the Ukraine. These men and women, as of yet unable to officially work in Germany, asked to volunteer at the race in order to make productive use of their time. They were warmly welcomed by the Challenge Roth crew.