Challenge Roth 2018

July 8th, 2018 by

44th overall – 9.02.22

I started racing long course events over ten years ago in the summer of 2007, and since then I have heard story upon story about how fantastic an experience Challenge Roth is. I certainly don’t ever recall being told it’s not worth the trip, that’s for sure! So finally, this year I managed to make a plan to be in southern Germany in July to give it a go for myself, and start my eighteenth Ironman distance event. A ‘bucket-lister’ without doubt.

swim exit

First out of the water, which ended up being the highlight of my day…. but it was fun!

Racing – as with life, is full of ups and downs, and sometimes (often times?) the ideal scenario we have imagined laying ahead of us just doesn’t materialise. I most definitely didn’t visualise taking over 9 hours to complete this Ironman! Three weeks out from Roth I raced Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire, and was happy with 6th place on the day as a prep event. I got back into my training the following week and was pretty much done with the key sessions I’d planned by the following weekend, a fortnight out from Roth. But a tickle in my throat that Saturday evening (my birthday of all days) became a gunky head cold, which dragged on for that next week and in turn became a chesty problem a week out, at which point I saw the doctor and was given a five day course of antibiotics, hoping it could do the trick by race day. The week leading into an event, whether it’s a full distance or shorter, despite how you feel, you really can’t do any more productive training – what you’ve done is done and banked already. So sometimes a bit of enforced rest might not be the worst thing in the world and this was largely my frame of mind. Trying to be glass half full. I flew into Munich on the Wednesday afternoon and drove the 1.5hrs north to Roth and after a quick detour to look at the swim start, and arrived at my homestay that evening. I felt a good deal better than on Monday lunchtime whilst sitting in the doctors surgery, so I was relatively optimistic about the weekend of racing ahead. Above all however, I genuinely wanted to soak up the whole Roth ‘experience’ that so many folks had talked to me about.

I haven’t raced in Germany a tremendous number of times, but I can safely say that those few occasions have been some of the very best events I’ve taken part in. The Germans just LOVE triathlon, and I’d say long course racing in particularly piques their interest levels the most. Roth isn’t a large town by any stretch, and even though I knew this, I was still surprised by how quiet the place was on the Thursday, it felt akin to a ghost town… indeed, other than the plentiful sponsor signage and bunting that was dressing the town, it felt a lot less hectic than I expected. However, this is largely due to the lack of accommodation available in town, meaning the vast bulk of the field must stay further afield in the city of Nuremburg, roughly a 45min drive to the north. As Pros we are extremely lucky to be offered a local homestay, which is a big aspect of the Roth racing experience. I was hosted by a family in the small village of Pfaffenhofen just a mile or so outside of town, who had their own small pig farm and butchery shop which added a quirky and interesting twist to my stay! I had a great time staying with the Burmann family.


As for how I felt pre race, things seemed positive once I was settled in on the Thursday and Friday. I tried to get my bearings, found the local outdoor pool (Germans do these public facilities SO well in their towns) and seemed to have a good strong stroke, which perked me up, or perhaps it was just the simple joy of swimming outdoors, either way – you look for these little green lights! Exploratory, gentle jogs and easy spins perhaps felt more ‘bag of bolts’ than super, but that can often be the case pre race, so I didn’t overthink those feelings a bunch. I also had a podcast interview with the guys from IMTalk which was good fun. I’ve long listened to their weekly podcasts on my bike rides but have never met Bevan or John in person, but such friendly and positive blokes from New Zealand they are, and if you want to listen back you can find it here. As an aside, since I was racing in Roth without any extra support out on course, it was cracking to see them cheering after T2, it really perked me up and made a positive impact at a point when you can be feeling fairly low (who really loves the start of a marathon?!)


Approaching the infamous ‘Solarberg’ climb, where a sea of people part ways for the athletes

Race day came around in a blur of Saturday logistics and gear drops. Like so many major races, Roth requires a good dose of driving the day before to drop of bikes and bags, but it really wasn’t so bad (German road networks just work) and it gives you something to focus on all Saturday morning. It never fails to amaze / frustrate me as to how long the process of organising and prepping can take me. You’d think I’d have it all set by now, but alas, faffing is part and parcel of my DNA…

As for race morning, I seemed to feel fine, at least as fine as you can expect to feel the morning of an Ironman. I had an unintentional spike of adrenaline just before the swim start as I suddenly realised I didn’t know how to negotiate the tents and chain link fences to actually get into the Main-Donau canal…

Once in there, I took a few seconds to float around and absorb the start atmosphere. You can become immune to outside influences when you’re focused on getting ready to race, and the sheer volume of spectators lining the banks and bridges over the water had been lost of me till that point. The swim course in Roth is essentially one massive swimming pool, which allows spectators to track virtually the whole swim leg should they want to – and I’d say many thousands of them did!

The outward leg of the swim for roughly a mile to the initial turn buoys was a little bit of a bun-fight with constant grappling and bumping which always frustrates me no end. It would be nice if everyone felt happy and confident in themselves to swim their own race without the need to paw all over you, swim over you but most annoyingly – pull on your feet and ankles. I truly don’t get it, it makes no one swim faster to be pulling on the feet of the person in front but anyway, I plugged away and got to the turn in 4th position and watched the trio in front follow the lead kayaks towards the middle of the canal. I knew there was no current in the water, but instinct still made me head towards the canal bank, as if it was a river swim (where current would be the weakest). After a further couple hundred meters I could see the three guys to my left were slowly moving back over to my feet and from then on I took the swim lead. It was fun, for a couple of reasons; mostly the huge crowds who lined the canal – I could see and hear them so clearly, the clangers and crackers they held plus there was a small peleton of mountain bikes following too. It made the time pass! Plus, the last 3 or 4 full distance swims I’ve raced over the past 3 years have all been pretty ropey affairs for one reason or another, so to finally feel like my old self in a swim was satisfying. By the final turn buoy I wanted to make sure I actually led the swim and no one came around me, so I ‘went to my legs’ and actually started to kick. I rarely kick in a race after the first 100m! I knew I hadn’t been swimming ‘fast’ plus the first mile or so was as slow as I ever remember a race being, so it didn’t surprise me to learn that upwards of 15 guys exited the water within 20 secs of me, or indeed learn that Lucy Charles had the led the women out in a minute quicker time.


Leading the swim in just under 48 minutes, which ended up my take home from the day

It became apparent to me pretty sharpish once on the bike that I no longer felt in control as I did in the water. My heart rate was rocketing and guys were flying past me at what felt like warp speed. I still didn’t appreciate how close the whole pack had been exiting the water, but when ‘non swimmers’ such as Jesse Thomas, then Cameron Wurf and finally Sebastian Kienle all powered past me easily within the first 10K of riding, leaving me at the very back of a fast moving front group of riders, I knew that the race was going to be quick from the get go, and I wasn’t going to be seeing any more of it first hand.

I had to back off and allow my heart rate to settle. As soon as the road went up – and it does this A LOT in Roth (don’t think fast bike splits equal a flat course!) – I could feel my chest didn’t have the strength to cope with my breathing rate. So I found a rhythm I could control and made a decision to ‘make the most’ of the day as best I could. Further stellar athletes continued to pass me, the likes of James Cunnama and Ivan Rana and by 50K I had watched virtually the whole male pro field pass me by. The top age group men started to roll past by 75K and approaching the end of lap one the inevitable happened; the lead female motorbike came alongside me.


Mid way through lap 2, tracking the lead women ‘motorcade’ and trying to focus 

In many ways I was really glad that Lucy Charles had caught up (the women had started 3 mins behind us, and her swim had eaten into 55 secs of that margin!) Her motorcade of vehicles were something that I decided to turn into a positive for me – I have been able to lead many races in the past, so I just played games with myself, as if I was doing well myself, and let the media motorbikes be something to embrace once she rode past me. Thankfully there was an amateur rider who wanted to ride directly behind Lucy, so it let me sit back and just track the pace from afar. I was keenly aware that the race was being televised regionally in Germany plus there was apparently an online tracker that I most certainly didn’t want to be visible in!

Lucy rode a superbly even pace for that second 90km loop and – as a aside – by no means did I ever see a lead vehicle give her any form of assistance from a drafting perspective either. I didn’t feel great, there wasn’t much power to draw on when we (Lucy, the motos, and the fast amateur) went uphill, but I was grateful for the focus I could draw from ‘keeping up’ with her till the T2 change tent, at which point I did all I could to slink as far away from the tv cameras tracking her as I could!


Around the 15k point of the run, feeling ok and not moving too badly. Yet!

I started the marathon feeling surprisingly good. I genuinely began to think that maybe because of the relatively leisurely bike pace I might be able to knock out a half respectable run split, and at the very least get to the finish line as quick as possible! My initial few Ks were good, but then reality hit and I just reasoned with myself that I wouldn’t do any walking save for during the aid stations. This side of my own bargain I managed to uphold, despite some painfully slow sections!

I hadn’t seen any of the run course pre race, but from all that I had read and seen of the famous canal tow-path where the bulk of the run takes place, I knew it would be my type of terrain. It’s a fabulously flat, packed dirt path that we ran on for over 20K of the run. There was plenty of shade and for the most part I settled into a respectful pace in the 4.20-30/k region. I ran a few Ks with a friendly German fella who told me he was aiming for a 3.10 marathon, so I encouraged him as much as I could, plus I was passed by the eventual female winner, Daniela Sammler who I tried to keep up with for as long as possible… roughly till the halfway mark before the wheels fell off the Cartmell wagon.. so despite the lack of spectators on this part of the course, it was – for me – an enjoyable part of the whole day.

It is impossible to write about Challenge Roth and not talk about the atmosphere out on course throughout the whole day. Everything about the whole event lived up to my expectations and beyond. The spectators were incredible at certain points, like the swim start, the Solarberg climb and of course the finish area (which is itself totally purpose built for race day, like a mini Roman amphitheatre!) but at other times like out on the canal tow path, it’s a lonely old day. Howver, that in many ways is what Ironman racing is about – dealing with your own inner demons on the day, and you surely see a good few people across that spectrum as the day progresses. Would I recommend the event to anyone? Without doubt … the level of community involvement and event organisation is unrivalled and I think for that alone the trip is worthwhile.

And as for me, it was one of my few remaining bucket list races done and ticked off.


Round the corner from the finish line, greeted by John (L) and Bevan from IMTalk for a post race podcast snippet which you can find included here

Photo credits thanks go to, in order: Paul Philips, Ingo Kutsche, Paul Phillips, James Mitchell, James Mitchell, Darren Wheeler and Paul Phillips.