Challenge Roth is a famous race in Europe set in the welcoming Bavarian countryside. It regularly tops the list of best races in the world, even surpassing Kona, yet most Americans have never heard of it. I had seen images from Roth when Chrissy Wellington set the women’s world record there for an iron distance race in 2011 but I didn’t know much else about it until Rev3 and Challenge combined forces for a year in 2015. I had several Rev3 teammates do the race in 2015 and I followed their experiences online and was completely envious, so when the opportunity to race Roth in 2016 was presented, I jumped at the chance, even though I had been in long distance triathlon retirement since IMTX in 2011.
Leading up to Roth
My first goal heading into 2016 was to successfully complete a Rim to Rim to Rim crossing of the Grand Canyon in March (see trip report). All of my training through Mid-March was running focused, including running the Texas Marathon in Kingwood on January 1 and completing the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler in February. It wasn’t until returning from the Grand Canyon that I started my Roth (e.g., triathlon) specific training. I started the week of March 21, leaving me about 4 months to get race ready. Given my large running base I was not worried about that portion of the race. I was also hopeful that the mental lessons I have learned over the last 5 years of ultra running would help me at Roth. My last 140.6 was at IMTX in May 2011, so I knew I had some work to do on the bike and in the pool. My primary focus was nailing my bike work outs and surviving the swim. I was also nervous because Roth has a 15 hour cut off vs the traditional 17 hour cut off most IMs have. My three previous races were all in the 12 – 13 hour range so I knew I was capable of completing the race within the time cut offs but knew there wasn’t much room for errors or mechanicals.
Traveling to an International Race
Logistics for an international race are slightly more complex than traveling by air to a domestic race due to the significant time change. This was definitely a race-cation for my family so we wanted to get to Germany with enough time to get race ready while saving the majority of our days in Europe for after the race.
There is not an inexpensive way to get your bike overseas via a bike transport travel company so I purchased a Ruster Sports Hen House for my bike and packed all of my race gear in with my bike. This allowed me to leave my regular luggage (a carry-on sized duffle and a backpack) for non-triathlon gear. The case did its job - no oversized baggage fees and it protected my bike and wheels, but it did get a bit beat up from the travel and the wheels got slightly warped. The round trip with no fees nearly paid for the case and we will definitely use it again so the case will end up paying for itself.
Luggage for a family of 4 traveling to Europe for 18 days plus gear for an iron distance race (all carry on size minus the bike gear)!
We departed for Nuremberg in the evening on Wednesday, July 13 and arrived around 2:00 PM on Thursday, July 14. It was suggested to me by Roth veterans that this was the absolute latest you should arrive to allow enough time for jet lag, bike assembly, course preview, etc. I came across two people (and I am sure there were others) that had major issues, including a broken bike frame and lost luggage, so having one extra day is insurance if you are scrambling at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. In fact, we thought we forgot my pedals at home and had to find a bike store to replace them and then ended up finding them, so yes, give yourself time for things to go wrong!
General Observations: This race is HUGE. Everything about it is big. Largest expo I have ever seen. Amazing community and crowd support. Extremely well organized but things are spread out (swim start / bike start are quite a distance from the Expo, the bike finish and run start are some distance from the finish line (which is near the expo) and there is not a lot of lodging near Roth, so traveling from Nurnberg requires about 45 minutes each way).
Plan for the race: enjoy the beautiful German countryside, live in the moment and finish the race with a smile on my face ... and if the opportunity presented itself break 12 hours, but given my training, that seemed far fetched!
Bavarian town welcoming triathletes (photo by Chris Jarc)
Line to drop off bikes in transition on Saturday afternoon before the pre-race meeting
Athlete Meeting (Photo by Chris Jarc)
The Swim – 1:27:12
I went into the swim undertrained. After being out of the water for the better part of 5 years, I only gave myself about 9 weeks in the water to find my stroke and endurance. Thankfully, after a few sessions, I found my rhythm, although I was slower than before (to be expected). I did a lot of straight swims to work on my endurance and give myself the confidence that I could do the distance. All said and done, I was only swimming once, sometimes twice, per week (I only hit the pool 11 times in total, yikes), so I went into the swim expecting a slow swim time. I hadn’t been in my wetsuit in years either and I missed the practice swim (didn’t leave enough time to find it! – as I said, the race is HUGE) so race day was my first time back in my wetsuit (a rookie mistake and I know better!). My previous IM swim times were in the 1:30 range, so I was expecting to be slower than that.
There were 550 women racing out of 3,400, not including the relays, and there were two waves of women, which started after the Pros and the men who expected to finish sub-9 hours (holy fast batman), and I was in the first wave of women. The swim is in the Main-Donau canal and is basically a large loop, swimming down one side of the canal for 1440 meters, back on the other side of the canal for 1970 meters, another short turn and 390 meters to the swim exit.
View of the Main-Donau Canal from the bridge
When the canon fired for my swim wave, I attempted to start swimming, but there were bodies all around me and I just couldn’t get into a groove. My heart rate was really high and I was starting to panic. I couldn’t catch my breath and while my wetsuit was giving me buoyancy I didn’t feel like I was getting good reach. I told myself that I would settle in after a couple of hundred meters and I just kept going.
Overview of Swim Course
Not my swim wave, but this gives you an idea of the canal at the start of the swim before things spread out
When I finally got to some clear water I started to breathe every three strokes versus every stroke and that helped settle me into my normal rhythm, although there were only a few stretches that I really felt good during the swim. I swallowed quite a bit of water and the swim seemed to take forever. Surprisingly, I was only hit in the face once. At roughly the halfway point I was siting to the shore and heard the boys call out to me with our family call – what a great surprise to see my family mid-swim! It was definitely a pick-me-up! I had mentioned to Douglas offhandedly before the race that I hated the canal portion of the swim at IMTX because there was someone walking along the canal following their swimmer and I felt like I was not making any progress, so after watching me from a distance for a bit, they took off.
Hey, looky-there, that's me!
As I was siting I tried to look around to see how many red caps were still near me (women) versus green caps (men). The men started 10 minutes behind me but I knew it was just a matter of time before they caught me. I was relieved to see red caps even though I felt like I had to be the slowest swimmer and that it would never end! With that said, I tried to stay in the moment despite my less than awesome feelings about the swim and focused on swimming buoy to buoy.
Overall, the course was laid out well with plenty of buoys and markers on the shore indicating the distance completed. The canal is not super wide so you were close to an “emergency exit” and there were lots of kayaks on the course with scuba divers on standby along the course, if needed. There were lots of spectators and tons of cheering. I definitely felt safe on the course.
When I finally reach the swim exit I was beyond relieved! I looked at my watch for the first time and saw that I swam 1:27 which was a very pleasant surprise. I had heard this was a fast swim course and I can’t help but think that it has to be true.
"Thank God that part is over!"
T1 – 00:04:40
I peeled my wetsuit off to my waist and grabbed my bag (we dropped them off that morning in number order so it was super easy to find my bag and it helped that mine was the only one left in my number range) and headed into the co-ed changing tent.
A wonderful volunteer helped strip off the rest of my wetsuit and was extremely helpful as I got bike-ready. I put on socks, bike shoes, gloves, sunglasses and ran to my bike, put on my helmet and I was off.
Bike – 6:01:21
We drove the bike course on Friday and I also did a short ride, so I went into the bike with a good sense of most of the course. The bike is two loops, plus ~10K, which includes the start of third loop and a short ~5K segment that takes you into T2. The only part of the course I was not familiar with was the last portion into T2 . It was much hillier than I was expecting so I was glad to have driven the course to familiarize myself with what to expect, but what goes up must come down, so there was plenty of “free speed” to help off set the long, slow climbs.
Previewing the Bike Course
After being slightly negative during the swim, I told myself that I was going to be positive no matter what for the rest of the day. I repeated my mantra of staying in THIS moment. I prayed, I talked to myself, I played the name game (lots of European names, so I would try to guess the country), and I attempted to stay at a comfortable effort. I had heard it was easy to go out too fast on this course and I wanted to make sure my legs had something left for loop 2 of the bike, and of course, for the run!
Excited and surprised to see the friendly face of Chris Jarc and to be on the bike!
Photo by Chris Jarc
Photo by Chris Jarc
I saw Douglas and the boys on the bridge (a great spot to see the swim and then the start of the bike) and then again at about the 35 km mark, right before the long, slow climb at Greding hill. There was awesome crowd support nearly the entire climb up Greding with people shouting “up, up, up!” and what turned out to be a pattern, an aid station towards the top of the climb. I guess it is easier to do bottle exchanges when you are going slow!
The course is quite pretty with a combination of long stretches on quiet roads (the majority of the course is closed to traffic) with turns through small villages that had beautiful architecture and invariably, fun crowd support. The weather was overcast during the first loop and it started to sprinkle around the 45KM mark of the first loop, right before a section with three big switchbacks on a fast descent. I took this section very cautiously as I didn’t want to crash – they also had a flagger reminding people to slow down and hay bales covering the corners. It was a major relief to make it down that section in slippery conditions. I felt good and was feeling better and better as the day progressed (it took a bit for me to get into my groove on the bike and let the slosh of the water I swallowed on the swim to settle). For nutrition, I was drinking Infinit every 20 minutes or so from a concentrated bottle and using my Speedfill for as much water as I wanted.
As you leave a town in Germany there is a sign with the name of the town with a red slash through it, so you know that you are leaving and it was a mental check each time I passed through a town. I also used things I recalled seeing while driving the course as mental checks – a pretty house, something funny the boys said while we were on a section of the course, a scarecrow, etc – as markers.
I am always nervous on the bike about getting a mechanical of some sort, and riding 650 wheels which are frustratingly difficult (for everyone, not just me!) to change in the event of a flat, I was happy to see the incredible amount of on course mechanical support. There was a tent at each aid station, three full bike support points and roving motorcycles carrying wheels. My back derailleur had been giving me problems on Friday so I was anxious about that going into the bike. Thankfully, I did not have to deal with any mechanical issues.
There were also a ton of refs on the course to prevent drafting – you have to be 12m back to be legal. There were 86 refs on roughly a 56 mile loop! The drafting penalty in this race is a 5 minute stop on the course at a penalty station PLUS an running an additional 1K loop on the run course. I never draft and I certainly didn’t want any unintentional drafting penalties so there were multiple occasions where I had to do a bit of interval work to pass a stretch of riders so that I could maintain the effort I wanted.
There is a long descent as you start heading back into town and I pushed the descent and hit 40 mph, which is a bit nerve wracking on a bike, but I enjoyed the free speed after a relatively slower section on the course.
The most famous part of the bike course is a hill leading back into Hilpolstein called Solar Berg. I saw the boys one more time on this loop as I was approaching this section – yay!
People line Solar hill so the bikes end up going up single file through a human tunnel and everyone is screaming and cheering. It is indescribable as words just cannot convey the feeling of the experience – you have to watch this video to get a true sense of what I am talking about. The race leader, Jan Frodeno, who was attempting to break the world record, had not yet caught me (on his second loop) so Solar Hill was electric waiting for him. The excitement of the crowd carries you up the hill! Short of riding in the Tour de France, I am not sure you can experience this anywhere else!
Photo by Chris Jarc
Photo by Chris Jarc
After Solar, you quickly work your way back to the bike start to close out the loop. It was on this section that a bit of rough road caused me to lose one of my concentrated bottles of Infinit. By the time I realized the bottle was gone it was too late to look for it – besides there was a good chance the bottle was broken with my liquid gold nutrition lost. For those who don’t memorize my race reports, I had a similar issue at IMTX on the bike course with my second concentrated bottle. I need to figure out how to avoid this! It never happened on my long training rides.
With my nutrition gone, I knew I was going to have to improvise for loop two. I kept a positive attitude – I told myself that I now had room on my bike for another Roth souvenir water bottle and I was going to get to try some new nutrition!
I finished loop 1 and was starting loop 2 (but before you take the turn to T2) when police cars and escorts started passing me – the race leader – Jan Frodeno, was finishing his second lap and passing me on his way to T2. The lead car had a clock ticker mounted so that he could see the cumulative race time. He flew by! It was a pretty cool moment, especially since he went on to set the world record in an iron distance race!
I didn’t look at my bike time until I finished the first loop and I was under 3 hours. Remember, it is not just two loops, but two loops plus 10 km so I figured I was tracking for roughly 6 hours, depending on how my legs held up for loop 2. This was faster than I was expecting and I got excited because based on my swim time, if I finished the bike in 6 hours, I would have a fighting chance to break 12 hours, which had been an elusive barrier for me. I quickly reminded myself to stay in THIS moment and I went back to planning my revised nutrition strategy.
I decided to do three things for nutrition: first, I would nurse what was left of my first bottle of Infinit, second, at the next aid station I would get a bottle of the on-course nutrition 32Gi, and finally, I would start eating the 32Gi chews. Not knowing the exact calorie counts of the on-course nutrition meant that I had to really stay in tune with my body to make sure that I was not going into a major calorie deficit.
The second loop passed much the same as the first with fewer crowds and a more spread out field. I picked up a bottle of the 32Gi and didn’t love it / didn’t hate it but kept it for the calories. I also picked up the chews and I really liked them! They were easy to chew and had a slightly sweet/salty taste that really worked for me. I was surprised not to see Douglas and the boys but stayed focused on executing my race plan. Overall I felt good, was happy with my bike pace and effort and my nutrition plan was holding together.
I enjoyed the relatively fast first 35K of the second loop, slowly climbed Gredding, still lined with a few fans, made my way safely down the big downhill with multiple switchbacks, grinded out the open road sections and finally saw the boys again around the 150 km mark. Douglas was having trouble using the on course tracking and had no idea where I was. I think the only thing harder than racing, is spectating!
After seeing the boys, it was round 2 of Solar Berg, which was still incredible, but nothing like the first lap – spectators had clearly made their way to the run course. At this point I had about 25K left to go and I was getting excited to finish the bike. Again, I reminded myself to stay in the moment! I finished the second loop, and started the third, which takes you to the turn in Eckersmuhlen that leads you to T2 instead of out for another loop. It was definitely horse to stables and everyone around me was chomping at the bit to hit T2.
During one climb in the last 5K or so I was moving from the small ring to the big ring and my chain got stuck – and I panicked for a moment - but I hopped off my bike (the first time since the bike mount) and with one quick tug, the chain was fixed and I was on my way.
I passed a lot of people in this last section because I didn’t want to be in a drafting situation and they were going just a tad bit too slow for my desired pace. The crowd started to build again and T2 kind of snuck up on me – and just like that, it was time for the marathon!
T2 – 00:03:08
I dismounted my bike and it was immediately grabbed by a volunteer, I took off my bike shoes and started running towards the transition changing tent and another volunteer met me with my T2 bag. I went to the back of the tent and grabbed a seat right near the exit and was greeted by a naked dude doing a full change, only in Europe! I only needed to deposit my helmet and gloves and to put on my running hat and running shoes, so T2 was quick for me. I hit the port-o-lets right outside of the tent and quickly realized I had forgotten to grab my handheld water bottle. Since I was right there, I went back into the tent and quickly looked for my bag in the stack they had but didn’t see it, so I took off. It didn’t have special nutrition in it, I just like to run with a handheld to move more quickly through the aid stations and to have access to water whenever I want it.
Looking back, I am surprised by how fast this T2 time is and I thought I came in on the bike under 6:00 hours, so it feels like a couple of minutes of my bike time belong in my T2 time, but it is all the same in the end.
Run – 4:16:12
I was not worried about the run per se, so I made another rookie mistake by not really studying the course map – that meant, I had no idea what the layout of the course was, which sections were out and backs, where the half way point was, etc. In hindsight, it wasn’t a huge deal not to know, it was just a bit confusing because the course is T shaped and I remember once being concerned after going through an aid station that I was going the wrong way (I wasn’t).
I started the run and was surprised not to see Douglas and the boys but put that out of my mind. At this point I did some mental math – never a good thing for me at this stage in the race – and it was clear that I could break the elusive (to me) 12 hour mark if I just ran the marathon in a time I was more than capable of (at least on a stand-alone basis). I was 7:36:21 into the race, so I needed to run sub 4:23:39 to break 12 hours. Ironically, this was nearly the exact cumulative split I had at IMTX in 2011 going into the marathon (7:37:19) and I ran a 4:42 marathon to finish that race in 12:20.
I haven’t trained for a stand-alone road marathon for time since 2009 but I have been running trails and ultras for the last 5 years and have done many road marathons as training. I ran the Kingwood marathon on new year’s day in 3:51:51, so I knew I was capable of running sub 4:24, but my previous IM marathons had not gone so well. I ran a 4:30 marathon at IMFL in 2009 after a very conservative bike split, a 4:38 marathon at Cedar Point after going out too fast for the first half of the run and suffering through the second half of the run, and as I mentioned before, a 4:42 marathon at IMTX after a hard bike effort.
After doing the math, I reminded myself to be in the moment and to just run the kilometer that I was in and not to think of everything yet to come. I was keeping a fair pace that I checked on occasion but I knew the real test would be to see where I was time-wise as the half-way point.
I was steadily passing people during the first 5K and had sporadic conversations. Shortly after the 5K point, I ran into another American (there were only 145 in the field) named Matthew that I ended up running and chatting with for 6+ miles. I like to talk while I run, so I was in the zone. I was continuing to eat the 32Gi chews every 45 minutes or so and they seemed to be doing the trick. I made a deal with myself that I could start taking caffeine after the half-way mark. Matthew and I were keeping a decent pace and keeping each motivated so when he said at one of the aid stations that he was going to stop to stretch his Achilles, I really wanted to wait for him, but I couldn’t risk the time. He wished me luck, as I ventured off solo, still feeling strong.
The run is along the canal for a long stretch where there are pockets of crowd support but the real party and support along the course is at each end of the “T” and in the middle of the “T”.
I finally saw Douglas and the boys at the half way point. I had just checked my watch and saw that I had run the first half in over 2 hours (2:07:34) and knew I was going to be cutting it close to break 12 hours, if I could keep up the pace. Douglas was frustrated because he was not able to track me through the race website and up until that point he had no idea where I was. He handed me my phone so that he could track me via find my friends and I reluctantly took it (audio devices are allowed on the run but I had chosen not to use one). I had been enjoying squeezing the sponges they provided at the aid stations over my head and I was not looking forward to managing a phone, nutrition, sponges, etc.
Note: absolutely zero race photographers on course, they were only at the finish line ... and since I only saw Douglas and the boys once, this is the only mid-race photo on the run.
After the high of seeing Douglas and the kids, I quickly fell into a dark place as I was really starting to doubt my ability to hold pace to break 12 hours. After a short pity party, a few things happened in quick succession that changed my outlook (and likely the course of the race for me). First, I heard Mark loud and clear in my ear reminding me that breaking 12 hours was completely within my control. Second, I got a text from Douglas telling his Mom that after losing me for a while, he had just seen me and that I should be finished in about 2 hours. She texted back, “Run Anne Run”. Nearly simultaneously, my friend Caroline, started sending me motivational messages via What’sApp. I told myself (probably out loud), ok, let’s do this and I picked up the pace. From then on, I stayed in the moment and kept trucking. I also started drinking a bit of Coke at each aid station. I saw Linus from the US Challenge FB group and he cheered me on and I ran into a former Rev3 teammate, Eric as well. I saw him rocking the bike course as well – he was crushing his first IM!
I really enjoyed the rest of the course and the big pockets of crowd support, but I was a woman on a mission. My Garmin was showing the cumulative race time and I allowed myself to check my progress every couple of KMs as a reward for keeping pace. I run mostly by feel so I had a good sense of how I was doing. As I made the turn to head back down the perpendicular section of the T towards the finish I had my first realization that sub-12 was really in reach and I had to choke back emotion and scold myself for not staying in the moment. The last couple of KM have great crowd support and I was excited to be nearing the finish. I knew that Douglas and the boys would be waiting for me before the finisher’s chute so that they could run across the finish line with me and that – and breaking 12 hours - kept me very motivated!
When I reached the chute, Douglas and the boys jumped onto the course (this is allowed) and the boys ran hand in hand with me and Douglas was right behind us taking pictures. You take a victory lap around the stadium, so it is not a particularly short run. I laugh looking back at the photos because it looks like I am dragging Tyler! We ended up passing a couple of people in the chute, which I didn’t really want to do, but it was awkward with the 4 of us barreling down. As we approached the finish line, I turned to wait for Douglas and we all crossed the line together in 11:52:30! This was a highlight for me because it truly represents the teamwork that goes into finishing an iron distance race.
The after party for this race is just like the rest of the race – huge! Athletes are led in one direction and families are led to a waiting area. I got my finisher shirt (they even let me exchange sizes without a hassle) and beer stein (we had already received an awesome backpack and a sub-par hat when picking up our packets). Then I grabbed my post race bag that I had dropped off race morning and went to the portable showers. There are separate showers for men and women and each shower is behind a door, but there is still a lot of nakedness in the waiting/changing area, so be forewarned if you are shy!
There is also a ton of GOOD food, drinks and beer. After showering, I found my family, dropped off my gear and grabbed some food. I had been told that the finish arena party was not to be missed, so we decided to retrieve my bike and transition bags and load them in the car before joining the post race festivities, plus the kids were tired of waiting around and wanted to be doing something, understandably so! Since things are so spread out, this meant quite a bit of walking, which didn’t feel great at the time, but was good active recovery! After completing this errand we made our way back to the finish arena, but it was full and they were not letting people in, so we hung out just outside to wait for the fireworks. As it got closer to the 15 hour cut off, they started letting people in and we joined the masses in the arena. There was music and dancing and the energy was incredible. We watched the last couple of people finish and they passed out sparklers that illuminated the arena, followed by a wonderful fireworks display and a video of the events of the day. I was really glad we stuck around!
My only regret was that I didn’t buy any of the Roth gear from the store when I had the chance. I typically won’t buy any gear before I finish a race and I missed making it to the gear tent after the race and the next day, in part because of the logistics of making it back to Roth from Nurnberg. The gear options and quantities are limited, so if you see something you like, buy it! You cannot buy it online. I am going to have to find someone going to the race from the US in 2017 and beg them to buy me something that doesn’t have the year on it.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. If you are lucky enough to get a spot in this race, jump at the chance to do it! It is a once in a lifetime opportunity that you will not regret!
As always, a HUGE thank you to my amazing husband and family who encourage me to chase my dreams and believe that I can do anything that I set my mind to do!