Photos by Jay Prasuhn
The 30th anniversary of DATEV Challenge Roth went off with as much excitement and fast racing as many hoped it would, complete with two new champions, and one of the fastest female finish times in history. With 3,500 individual starts, roughly 650 relay teams, and thousands of volunteers and crowd cheerers, the entire Bavarian region was filled with athletes either swimming, biking, running or spectating—and people of all ages, nationalities and athletic backgrounds got in on the fun.
While the men’s race wasn’t as fast as in previous years—this year’s finishing time was more than four minutes slower than last year’s— this was most likely due to the incredibly warm temperatures, which led to very little wind on the bike and a miserable marathon. However, the women’s race was a true marathon showdown between two former champs (Steffen, Joyce) and a Roth rookie (Carfrae)—and played out much like last October’s marathon at the Ironman World Championship.
The men’s race began with stellar swims by Germany’s Nils Frommhold in 48:39, followed a couple seconds later by Australia’s Pete Jacobs and defending champion Dirk Bockel of Luxembourg. Within 10 seconds exited a large chase pack that included Aussie Joe Gambles, France’s Sylvain Sudrie, Germany’s Markus Fachbach, Spain’s Eneko Llanos, Germany’s Timo Bracht and 2012 Roth Champion James Cunnama of South Africa. More than 90 seconds back exited Australian Luke McKenzie in an unexpectedly far back position. Fachbach and Frommhold flew out of transition with Gambles and Bockel on their tail, while Jacobs struggled a bit through T1, dropping to 8th place out of the gate.
The sloping descents and unbelievably enthusiastic crowds helped the pace of the bike stay swift and ever-changing; Jacobs pulled up to the front within the first 20km but by the time they headed up Solar Hill near the 70km mark, Jacobs began to show signs of an implosion. Spain’s Eneko Llanos and Timo Bracht quickly surged to the front, with Sudrain, Bockel, Gambles, Cunnama and Germany’s Andreas Niedrig chasing them a minute back.
McKenzie suffered a nutrition loss early on in the bike, which caused him some time in the first lap, but by the 170km mark he had made some serious gains, eventually posting the second-fastest bike split of the day in 4:18:25 and rising up to eighth place near Gambles and Cunnama. By this time the three frontrunners had positioned themselves nicely, with Frommhold planted firmly in the front and Bracht and Bockel less than 30 seconds behind him.
Frommhold, who posted the fastest split of the day in 4:15:16, Bracht and Bockel entered T2 in quick succession, with Llanos less than a minute back of them, followed by Cunnama, Fachbach, Sudrie, McKenzie and Gambles. “I wanted to get out there today and test these guys and see what I was capable of,” said Frommhold. “And I’m happy that I did that.”
Bockel would exit ahead of Bracht in second, but by the 4km mark Bracht had passed him again, with Frommhold continuing to precariously hold his lead through the increasingly hot conditions along the canal. Frommhold, who before the race had scarcely been on anyone’s radar, managed to hold off Bracht until the 30km mark. Once Bracht took the lead, he continued to gain on the field while several other pro men began to dissolve in the heat, including defending champ Bockel, who would fall back to sixth, and 2012 champion James Cunnama, who despite GI problems managed to pass him for a top-five finish. Gambles, another pre-race dark horse, and Llanos capitalized on the defending champions’ faltering, eventually climbing up into third and fourth positions.
Bracht, who mentioned before the race his belief that he could run a sub 2:40 marathon at Roth, instead posted a 2:44:32, while Frommhold stayed strong enough for second. Llanos made a late race gain on Gambles in the final miles, climbing into the final podium position in 8:01:05. For Bracht, winning the 30th anniversary edition of Challenge Roth was the ultimate retribution after several top-5 finishes over the past decade. “I brought it all to the race course today,” said Bracht. “I’ve dreamed of winning this race for the past 10 years and now I’ve finally done it.”
Top 5 Men
- Timo Bracht (GER): 7:56:00
- Nils Frommhold (GER): 8:00:39
- Eneko Llanos (ESP): 8:09:29
- Joe Gambles (AUS): 8:10:10
- James Cunnama (RSA): 8:11:44
Much of the women’s race was undeniably affected by their starting wave—which was the same time as both the men’s pro race and the male age groupers who were predicted to have sub-9 performances.
Defending champion Caroline Steffen had a standout swim performance (52:08), quickly taking off ahead of even super swimmer (and 2012 Roth champion) Rachel Joyce, Germany’s Julia Gajer and Denmark’s Michelle Vesterby. “I was pretty pleased, and a bit surprised, coming out of the water in first today; I think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” said Steffen. Behind this lead group of swimmers, the rest of the women were mixed in with age group men, including Rebekah Keat of Australia, Anja Beranek of Germany and current Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae.
Steffen led out of T1 and quickly put in some space between her and the rest of the professional women. Vesterby put in some early gains in second place along with Joyce, but by the 30K mark Vesterby started to ease off, while Beranek pushed her way up to second just ahead of Joyce.
The early miles of the bike feature rolling terrain, and Steffen used it to her advantage to lay down some serious wattage, but Beranek wasn’t going to completely let her pull away, staying within a minute and a half of her all the way up through the rows of crowds at Solar Hill. Joyce seemed to be biding her time, staying within two minutes of Steffen through the entire first lap. “You know you’re going to have to dig really deep on those days you’re racing Caroline and Rinny,” said Joyce. “Those last few miles on the bike really heated up and you knew you would be in for a really tough run.” Carfrae sat only three minutes back of Steffen at 70km—a more than comfortable amount for her to run down in the marathon. Citing an off day, Australian Bek Keat would drop out near Solar Hill.
In the second loop, much like in the men’s race, the top-seeded women began to make their strategic moves to prepare for a fast marathon against Carfrae. Beranek passed Steffen at the halfway mark, former champion Yvonne Van Vlerken rode up to fourth position, while Joyce continued her comfortable spot in third. Now more than four minutes back—but still having a great ride—was Carfrae, no doubt preparing herself for her first Roth marathon, with a keen eye on Chrissie Wellington’s run record of 2:44:35. With less than 30km to go, Joyce, probably sensing the Ironman World Champion behind her, made her move up to the front, just ahead of Steffen, while Van Vlerken slid up to third. “If you make a mistake on the bike and go out too hard it can really come back to get you on a run this not,” said Joyce. Berenak, while in the lead group, suffered a crash at the 90km mark after touching wheels with an age group relay rider, causing her to drop out of the race.
Carfrae sat in fifth position behind Germany’s Diana Riesler, who made some exceptional gains during the second lap after exiting the water more than five minutes behind the leaders.
Joyce would enter T2 first barely ahead of Steffen, followed by Van Vlerken, Riesler, Carfrae and Vesterby. But all too soon things began to resemble 2013’s Hawaii Ironman race, with Carfrae slowly eating away into Joyce’s impressive lead off the bike. Despite being more just less than seven minutes back heading out of T2, within the first 3km Carfrae had moved up to third behind Steffen and Joyce. While Carfrae continued to hold a blistering pace, Van Vlerken and Riesler began to drop off, allowing the top three women—two former Roth champions and the current Ironman world champion—to forge further away from the rest of the women.
Carfrae would eventually post a 2:53:27, not enough to break Wellington’s run course record, but enough to land one of the race’s fourth fastest female times in 8:38:53. Joyce would hold on for second, posting an 8:42:45 and beating her own Roth PR by almost three minutes. “Rachel and I have made an agreement to not race against each other outside of Kona,” joked Carfrae. “And with Caroline too. It’s just, well, it’s just too painful to seek them out on the run.” Steffen rounded out the podium in 8:48:42. All told four pro women would end up finishing in under nine hours, with Gajer posting the second-fastest female marathon (3:02:08) for a fifth-place finish ahead of Van Vlerken.”I actually stopped for about five minutes during the bike—at my parent’s house— and they convinced me to keep going,” said Gajer. “I’m happy that I kept going.”
Top Five Women
- Mirinda Carfrae (AUS) 8:38:53
- Rachel Joyce (GBR): 8:42:25
- Caroline Steffen (SUI): 8:48:42
- Yvonne van Vlerken (NED):8:59:36
- Julia Gajer (GER): 9:00:50