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‘There’s No Place I’d Rather Be’

Three-time Challenge Roth winner reflects on her standout moments.

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Throughout her storied career, retired pro triathlete Yvonne Van Vlerken of the Netherlands—aka the “Flying Dutchwoman”—competed in Challenge Roth eight times. She won there twice, setting the world record in the iron-distance in 8:45:48 (a mark that stood for a year). In anticipation of the 2022 installment of Challenge Roth this weekend, we had Van Vlerken reflect on her favorite moments of the epic event. 

I could hear the finish line well before I could see it.

After more than eight hours of racing, I was en route to winning the biggest race of my life and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Fans were everywhere, screaming my name. Go Yvonne, go! Running along at sub-three-hour marathon pace, my legs screamed at me with every step. All at once, I wanted to hurry and get to the finish line but also slow down and soak it all in. This was one of the most profound moments of my career—of my life—and, as tired as I was, I didn’t want it to end. 

Ever since I started competing in duathlon and triathlon in the early 2000s, Challenge Roth was on my radar. There is just something about the atmosphere there: Triathlon is just part of the culture. When you arrive in town, the people there treat you like family. No one asks you how long your race is or what a triathlon is; they know the sport inside and out and welcome you like a champion. I desperately wanted to be part of it all. 

It took seven years of racing shorter distances before I could convince my coach to let me do an iron-distance event. And of course, that event had to be Roth. It was as though the course was built for an athlete like me. I did not have a strong swimming background, so the wetsuit-legal, relatively easy swim course in the Main-Donau canal suited me. I could really crank out the speed on the rolling bike course and fed on the crowd support, especially on the famous Solar Hill, which is transformed into the Tour de France on race day.

And I loved that the run is mostly on a gravel path by the canal. Not everyone loves that kind of surface, but I prefer it. And while it seems like there are cheering fans everywhere, there is one part where you go into the forest and it’s totally peaceful and quiet. You can collect your thoughts and check in with yourself before returning back to the chaos along the rest of the course with the massive amounts of people. 

In 2007, my first time racing Roth—and my first iron-distance race, ever—I won. It was such an exciting experience winning there, but I left a bit hungry. My time, 8:51:55, was just over a minute away from Paula Newby Fraser’s world record. That lit a fire in me, and my plan was to return in 2008 and win againand break the record.

Fast forward one year, and there I was, executing my plan to near perfection. Throughout the race that day, I was challenged by Hungary’s Erika Cosmor. She was relentless and wasn’t going to just hand over the win to me. Racing…really racing…a marathon at the end of an iron-distance race is so tough. I remember at one point during the run my coach was standing on the opposite side of the channel yelling words of advice and tips to me through a bullhorn in Dutch. Erika couldn’t understand, of course. I also passed my parents there. I think those moments helped me find another gear and eventually pull away. 

In the final mile or so of the run, you enter the city of Roth and cross the train tracks and you know the finish line is a couple of hundred meters away. The massive stadium is full and there’s this deafening roar that pulls you towards the finish. Entering that stadium is the best feeling, no matter what place you are. But winning is something special. When I crossed the finish line in 2008 and saw the time on the clock, 8:45:48, (a new world record!) I was flooded with so many feelings: Relief. Elation. Shock. It was just so beautiful. 

RELATED: A Timeline of the History of Ironman-Distance World Records

All told, I raced in Challenge Roth eight times, winning again in 2015. The race brought me so much success, but I also had some tough times there, too. In 2018, my final year racing Roth, I came in pretty beat up from a massive crash at a race a few weeks prior. I finished off the podium for just the second time in Roth, and I sat with fifth-place finisher Laura Siddall and watched the top three girls celebrate with their champagne and flowers. It was a bittersweet moment. I was happy for them to experience that Roth magic, but also wistful to have that special celebration for myself, too. 

This weekend, I head to Roth as a coach and a wife (my husband, Per Bittner, is racing). The thrill and anticipation and nervous butterflies are all just as palpable—in many ways, I feel like I’m racing, too, since I’ve been part of their journey in preparing for this day.  I cannot wait to hear that cannon to fire on Sunday morning. In my opinion, there’s no better race in the world, and there’s no place I’d rather be. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Yvonne van Vlerken)

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