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Recalled: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Challenge Roth

On July 3, Challenge Roth will celebrate 20 years—but it's actually been around in various forms for almost four decades. We take a look back at some things you might not know about the historic race.

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Germany’s Challenge Roth, which has been the site of several of the fastest iron-distance times in history, was canceled in 2020 and ran at half-capacity in 2021 (with the 6,000-seat finish stadium at the finish line nearly empty) due to COVID restrictions. But next week, on July 3, the race is set to return at full tilt, with its festival-like atmosphere and star-studded international field of professional triathletes, including 2016 champ Jan Frodeno (coming back from an extended injury layoff). As we get ready to watch all of the action go down in Roth, here are five things you may not know about this epic event’s history. 

#1: It’s been around since 1984

Originally known as the Franconian (or Franken) Triathlon, the event started as a hyper-local race in Roth on Sept. 22, 1984. The brainchild of Detlef Kühnel, one of the first Germans to compete at the Hawaii Ironman, the initial race included a 700m swim, 40K bike, and a 10K run. Eighty-two men and one woman (an American named Maureen Farley) toed the line in 1984. 

Locals hold up a sign reading “only the tough get into the garden,” a German saying. (Photo: Michael Kienzler/Bongarts/Getty Images)

#2: It put Germany on the map as a triathlon destination

By 1986, the race evolved to a 2K swim, an 80K bike, and a 25K run, and drew a bit more international attention. Bolstered by a battle between American star Scott Tinley and eventual winner German star Dirk “German Rambo” Aschmoneit, who together put more than ten minutes on the rest of the field, the sports world began to take note of the magic of Roth. “It was a race that the Germans truly embraced,” Aschmoneit recalled. “I learned that it doesn’t matter how many races you win. All that matters is that you win the one that gives you big media exposure. The race with Tinley did exactly that. It put Roth as a race on the planet and established me as one of the European challengers.”

#3: It was the home of Ironman Europe

After four years of success with the shorter race in Roth, Ironman came to town in 1988 and increased the distance—and the event’s cache. Some 587 finishers crossed the line of the inaugural Ironman Europe, the first iron-distance competition in Germany and just the fourth race at the time to offer slots to the Ironman World Championships. On the speedy course, Dutchman Axel Koenders won in a world record time of  8:13:11, sparking what would become a tradition of record-setting in Roth. Ironman Europe’s participation ultimately ballooned to thousands and attracted even more spectators. In 2001, Roth organizers severed ties with Ironman’s parent company, the World Triathlon Corporation, over organizational and financial disputes, and Ironman packed up and moved its European event to Frankfurt, about three hours away. 

The last year the race was the home of Ironman Europe in 2001. (Photo: Michael Kienzler/Bongarts/Getty Images)

#4: It came close to shutting down 

No longer backed by Ironman and facing mounting debt, Roth’s organizers scrambled to find new sponsors—and avoid shutting down the race for good. Enter Herbert Walchshöfer, who had recently launched the Challenge brand with his wife, Alice. He took over after Kühnel stepped down as director, attracted big sponsors (Quelle, a German department store, among them), and changed the scope of the race some, including allowing relays to attract more competitors—a novel concept in triathlon at the time—and enticing pros with appearance fees. A neck-and-neck battle between Lothar Leder and Chris McCormack in 2003 solidified the race as one to watch (and one to race). By 2010, Challenge Roth became the largest iron-distance race in the world, with 2,600 individuals and 628 teams competing. 

Jan Frodeno celebrates his world record. (Photo: DANIEL KARMANN/dpa)

#5: Registration sold out in under a minute

Just how popular is Challenge Roth? A spot in the perennially sold-out race is extremely hard to nab: When registration for the 2022 race opened last fall, 5,000 people grabbed every available spot within sixty seconds (slots were sold in the same record speed for the 2019 race as well). Race entry to Roth has been elusive for several years; even back in 2013, relay teams booked up in 50 seconds, and all individual slots filled within 3 minutes and 15 seconds. The elusiveness of entry only adds to Roth’s mystique, making it one of the most coveted endurance events on the planet.