How Magnus Ditlev Shocked Europe by Winning Challenge Roth

A 24-year-old triathlete from Denmark with a short race resume crossed the line 10 minutes before the two-time Ironman World Champion in his first try at Europe’s biggest tri. How did that happen?

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As the peloton whistled along the roads of Denmark on Sunday to climax Scandinavia’s hosting debut of the grandest tour of all, one Danish athlete was having his own “Tour de France” moment on a solo breakaway, 600 miles due south in Bavaria at Challenge Roth.

Magnus Elbaek Ditlev’s sparkling 7:35:48 win on his first visit to the fabled Challenge Roth in front of its 200,000-plus crowd was a career high. But the 24-year-old from Copenhagen could—and should—get used to the spotlight.

“I still can’t believe the magnitude of it all,” Ditlev reflected, after defeating defending champion Patrick Lange by a thumping 9 minutes and nearly breaking the well-trod course record. He might have indeed lopped off those last 9 seconds to Jan Frodeno’s course record if only he had known that’s what they were saying in German over the loudspeaker; instead, he soaked it all in and walked much of the stadium, high-fiving the crowd. “They say it’s the biggest one-day sporting event in the world measured by the number of spectators, but I didn’t know a triathlon could be like this. Right from the moment I drove into the area, I started feeling the atmosphere. The closer it came to the race, the bigger it felt.

“On race day, during the swim in the canal I could hear people cheering and clapping the whole way—I’ve never experienced that before. On the bike, there were lots of hotspots. It was like a Tour de France stage. On the run, it was maybe even more wild. Nothing comes close to this in my career so far and it will be hard to beat.”

RELATED: Does Challenge Roth Live Up to the Hype?

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The rookie’s race (and rookie mistake)

Such is Ditlev’s novice status in the sport, his recollections of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii only stretch back to 2014—meaning the original start list for Roth pitted him against the German triumvirate that had won every Kona race he could recall. At Roth, Sebastian Kienle withdrew in the build-up, Jan Frodeno pulled out on the run, and runner-up Lange proclaimed that no one would have beaten the great Dane anyway.

With Lange, who turns 36 in August, as the youngest of the world-champion trio, Ditlev’s win struck a blow for the emerging generation. But if the whole experience proved a massive hit, there were two slight misses: being outside Frodeno’s course record by just nine seconds, and a celebration mishap post-finish.

“One of the funny parts—and it’s gone a little viral—is the big glass of beer I threw over my head went straight behind my back. I then looked and it was empty! But I’m not the first Dane who has won here and Rasmus Henning texted me with an image of him doing the exact same thing in 2010.

“Then at the after-party three or four different triathletes all said they’d done it. It’s something about the size and weight of the glass that makes people tip it over their heads rather than on their hair!”

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About that record-breaking bike split

The misdirected spillage could be more than forgiven, following a record-breaking 4:01:56 bike split backed up by a 2:40:22 marathon, but while his dry-land dominance gets the most attention, the Dane actually credits the 2.4-mile swim in the Donau Canal for setting up his race perfectly.

“I got the split from my coach that I was only 1:15 down [on the leaders, out of the swim] and went as hard as I could to catch Frodo as fast as possible.”

Coming out of the water with Lange proved a critical juncture for the race. “I was careful not to bring Patrick up with me. I knew once the group formed at the front it would be difficult to get away, and I didn’t want Patrick there because I knew he’d probably run quicker. I had to surge a bit.”

Despite only racing professionally since the fall of 2019, the 6’4” Ditlev has already shown his bike power on numerous occasions, regularly posting fastest bike splits against the sport’s best, including the last two years in Daytona. In Roth though, he switched up a level again.

“I rode the first 40 minutes thinking my power meter was broken because I couldn’t believe the numbers I was putting out. But I was closing the gap to Frodo so fast I then thought it might actually be true. It was the first time riding a full-distance bike leg where I felt like I was really pushing, so I was nervous that when I started running I might explode. It ended up being the perfect tactic.”

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Nine seconds off the Roth record

Ditlev has a degree in chemical engineering, and has adopted a similar approach of testing, iterating, and refining to triathlon, gaining enough of an understanding of his drag resistance (CdA) and power outputs on the bike to predict race splits.

“I could see from my Garmin that we were riding really fast, but any thought that it would be cool to go sub-4 hours lasted for about 10 seconds. I was just focusing on the race dynamics. It was the same with the overall course record. I was told I was really close in the last part, but if I’d have known it was only nine seconds, I might have gone a little harder to the finish.”

With Frodeno pulling out due to a flare up of his Achilles injury just two miles into the run, the marathon would become a solo pursuit for Ditlev. While Lange ran 2:35:10, the bike leg had done the damage. Instead, Ditlev had 20-plus miles to rue the absence of Frodeno.

“I rode with Jan in Miami last year, so I knew he was really strong and it would be extremely difficult to get away. With regards to his injury, I think it was a bit of a mystery for everyone. Talking before he was careful about saying too much. I hear that when he’s in Kona, he’s quite comfortable in saying he’s going for the win, but this time it was more of a ‘let’s see what happens.’

“It would have been epic to run with him. When he pulled out, it was quite difficult to lead with such a big margin. I went from being focused on having a duel to a shift in mindset not to make any stupid mistakes.”

Even with such a large cushion, Ditlev still found himself running scared. “When you are so tired and the brain is not working 100%, you still think there’s a possibility you’ll be caught. At the turnaround point with 6 kilometers to go, I clocked Patrick being 10 minutes down but even though he’d have to run almost 2 minutes per kilometer faster, my brain was telling me I might not win.”

Photo: Lars Pamler / Challenge Roth
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What’s next for Ditlev

As the seventh-place PTO-ranked European heading into Roth, Ditlev would love to be selected as one of six men for Team Europe for August’s Collins Cup event in Slovakia. “You couldn’t make a better format for me,” he said, stating his case for the head-to-head-to-head race over 100km. Then he’ll look ahead to the second Ironman World Championship of the year, which will also be only his second full-distance race after qualifying in Texas.

“It’s difficult to compare Roth with Hawaii,” he said. “It’s a different dynamic…and there will be some Norwegians. If I have the swim level I have now, I don’t think I’ll be in front of them to T1, so I’ll hopefully pass them on the bike. And because I don’t want to run with them, I’ll have to find a way to gap them! I’d love to become world champion. I’ve always been more fascinated by it than anything else.”

Ditlev is confident that despite his larger frame, like Frodeno he’ll be able to cope with the heat and humidity of the Big Island. “We work on perfecting heat protocols and cooling. It worked well in Texas where it was 32 degrees Celsius [90 degrees F] and 80% humidity, which is probably as close as you can get to Hawaii. We need to do more testing, but we’re on the right track.”

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The path to victory

The Texas race also saw a final Ironman appearance from Ditlev’s coach, compatriot Jens-Petersen Bach, a winner of Ironman Copenhagen in 2013 and a guiding hand on his young protégé’s career.

“He picked me up a few years ago when I was completely overtrained and I can’t thank him enough,” Ditlev explained. “I was coaching myself, doing too much, too hard, in too short a time. So, it was good to have someone to tell me to do the right things at the right times—rather than everything at the same time.

“I didn’t grow up doing swimming, biking, or running, but played soccer and badminton. My sports teams disbanded when I started high school, and I had a lot of extra energy, so I started running and biking with my father. It took off from there.”

Aside from the Roth victory, Ditlev’s form in the last 12 months has been eye-catching. Other than CLASH Miami in March, when he pulled out sick on the run, he’s not been off the podium in six races, including victories in Montenegro and Portugal—events raced less than two weeks apart, with a runner-up spot in Mallorca sandwiched in-between.

“It was a really good experience just traveling three weekends in a row and having fun,” he explained. “Sometimes I get caught up too much in one thing and focus so much on it that if it’s a disappointment it’s hard to swallow. It was good to enjoy the process, traveling around training and racing in new places.”

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Magnus Ditlev’s race preparation sessions and tips

From bumper bike sets to breathing in the swim, Ditlev provides us with two key focus areas that helped deliver success in Germany.

Bike focus: 4-hour indoor trainer workouts

Magnus said: “Living and training in Denmark the weather can be challenging so I do a lot of rides indoors—even in the summer.

“Every Wednesday leading into Roth I’ve been doing 4-hour turbo sets including 3hrs of intensity at LT1, which is a little bit higher than Ironman pace and about 340-350 watts.

“It could be 3 x 1-hour or 6 x 30 minutes. At the beginning it’s extremely easy, but after 2 to 2 ½ hours—all in the aero position—it becomes really difficult.

“We’ve found that I have high lactate threshold power, but I’m not able to ride at a high percentage of it in races. For example, my power in a 70.3 is much lower than a one-hour time-trial.

“Rather than push the ceiling, the idea is to push the aerobic base. I ride at the low end of the zone to make sure I’m not burning too much sugar, and I’ve been cycling with a low cadence to try and get more strength into the legs too.

“It’s also easy to practice race nutrition because I can fill all the bottles beforehand and line them up, and I need a lot of energy that is difficult to get on a long training ride outside.”

Swim focus: Learning how to breathe

Ditlev said: “Jens sees me every time I swim, but he is not a technical swim coach, and for a few years I’ve been working with a specialist in Denmark called Bo Jacobsen—brother of multiple Olympian Mette Jacobsen. It’s more with the idea of focusing on improving technique instead of hammering meters in the pool.

“Appreciate that I was not a swimmer before I started triathlon, so I have habits that are completely wrong. Recently Bo stopped me in the middle of the lane to ask when I was breathing out. We found I have a tendency to breathe out too late, so I’ve been focusing on completely changing the rhythm of my breathing.

“It’s such a small thing, but fundamental. I always breathe to the right, so when my right arm enters the water I start breathing out ready to take oxygen in on the next breath. Now I have much more balance and the rotation is equal instead of being delayed.

“When I get it right, it feels natural and adds momentum to the stroke. But while it’s easy at low intensity, it’s extremely difficult when swimming fast because I go back to old habits.”

RELATED: How to Breathe When Swimming