Alex Birch – Challenge Roth – Racing and Training

Alex meets one of his heroes

While on holiday in late 2012 I read Chrissie Wellington’s “A Life Without Limits” and arrived at the easy conclusion that she was probably the greatest athlete this country has ever produced. More surprisingly I came home determined to embark on my own triathlon adventure, albeit on a far humbler level.

Alex meets one of his heroes

Alex and Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie had started at Eton Dorney and that’s where I headed for my first two Olympic distance events. Like many before me I was instantly hooked and progressed from there to Half distance and finally onto Full distance last year. Although Chrissie will forever be remembered for her dominance at Kona she had a very special affection for Challenge Roth in Bavaria and it seemed like the perfect place to attempt my first full distance event. As a result of its popularity Roth generally sells out within seconds of the application window opening. However, all is not lost. In an attempt to bag a spot they receive many illicit “multiple entries” and once they’ve been identified they are able to offer additional places to those who narrowly missed out in the initial entry. In this way I accepted a place, trained very hard from January to July and completed the 2018 race in 11:06:13

The following race report is about my return this year in 2019. I wanted to go back because the atmosphere last year had been truly amazing. I needed to go back because I had GI issues on the bike (from mile 80) which of course rolled into the run and convinced me that I could and should have gone around quite a bit faster…

So I wrote a race plan (stated goals were a 10h30 – 10h45 finish, 75th in my AG (out of 520) and disciplined adherence to nutrition, hydration and target pace/power) and headed back to Roth on Thursday 4th July in order to race on Sunday 7th.

Accommodation: With 3,500 competitors the small town of Roth can only accommodate a small (and very lucky) number of triathletes and their friends/family. But driving to and from Roth is pretty painless meaning hotels in the surrounding towns and villages are a realistic option, as is staying in Nuremberg, just 30km by road. Last year my wife and I stayed at the Adina apartment hotel (excellent) and this year I opted for the Park Inn Radisson (v good).

Since the swim start (Main Donau Kanal )is 10km from the town of Roth (where T2 is located)many people choose to camp at the swim start or the adjoining lake (Rothsee). This is a good option if you want to avoid an extra early start (age group waves commence from 6.45am). By the Main Donau Kanal it was free

Travel: To avoid the joys of air travel with a bike box, last year we had driven to Roth from the UK. It was a 500 mile drive and took us via Brussels, Cologne and Frankfurt. I wouldn’t recommend this option; apart from it being a huge drive (even sharing the driving) the route is highly commercial, full of articulated lorries and strewn with roadworks.

If you want to flight directly to Nuremberg you’ll be going with Ryanair from Stansted. I chose this option and have no complaints. I didn’t travel with a bike box so I can’t comment on how well they treat this prized bit of kit. Another option would be to fly to Munich. It’s 150km from Roth but the roads are fast

Registration: Triathlon Park is the focal point of the event and it is here you register, the exhibitors are located, the pre-race briefings are conducted (language specific times on the Saturday), the pre-race pasta/carb party is held (where the selection, quantity and quality of food was excellent) and you use the same marquee to recover post-race.

You can register for the event as early as Thursday (10am-7pm). It opens on Friday during the same hours and on Saturday it opens at 10am but closes at 1am. Obviously these may be subject to change in future years

Swim Training: With the swim leg being held in the Main-Donau-Kanal you will probably never have an easier swim to navigate. The organisers nevertheless allow access to the canal on both Friday and Saturday morning. It is well worth taking advantage of this to gauge water temperature, current (there was a gentle pull on the out leg) and work out where to position yourself at the Start and during the race. It curves gently to the left for 1500m, you then turn left and left again to come back up the other side (with canal now gently curving to the right), passing the Start for a further 400m before again taking 2 quick lefts and heading back to the exit.

On the back of this summer’s heatwave the water temperature was just over 24 degrees. After much speculation the Pros started the race in tri-suits and most Age Groupers heaved a sigh of relief as wetsuits were given the green light. It was so soup-like I did contemplate a non-wetsuit swim, but that would have been a leap into the unknown. Decided against it.

Bike Check-In: Bikes are checked in at T1 on the Saturday between 11.30am and 4pm. You will need to have registered in order to present your timing chip and arrive in transition with your race numbers displayed on your bike, wearing an approved helmet and sporting your race number tattoos. Check-in was quick and easy and although everyone was in a good mood it was very hot (28-30 degrees) and a sense of nervousness was tangible at the prospect of racing in those conditions. Most people opted to let air out of their tyres overnight. While there were plenty of pumps on hand in transition, I borrowed one from my neighbor on the morning of the race.

Race morning: My alarm went off at 4am. I ate my tried and tested breakfast* in the room and set off for Roth at 4.45am. Despite the recent heat wave it was raining when I left Nuremberg. A local told me it would pass. Arriving at one of the many marshalled car parks at 5.15am (remember to have EUR 3 ready to avoid holding up the queue) I entered Transition at 5:45am and checked my Bike bag in at 6:15am. It rained from then until 7am, just 20 minutes before my scheduled start. As it was early the temperatures had yet to rise so it was quite chilly and without anywhere to shelter everyone used clothing from their post-race kit bag to keep warm – which of course would be wet at the end of the race. Compared to Ironman Ireland we actually had very little to complain about but it did dampen the spirits and compared to the pre-race build up in 218, this year it was much more subdued.
*Breakfast included a glass of orange juice, a bowl of porridge, 2 cups of coffee, a bagel with fruit jam, a banana and 2 pots of Muller rice. Between breakfast and the Swim Start I drank 600ml of Zero electrolyte drink


Stated goals:

  1. Sub 1h10min finish
  2. Focus on consistent hand entry, elbow led recovery and regular breathing pattern
  3. Split race into 3 sections (i) out to first turn by bridge (1500m), (ii) long back straight to turn 2 just beyond bridge (3500m) & (iii) shorter home leg to exit

 Result: 1h11mins

Analysis: Slept reasonably well, breakfast was at the right time and with the right components and entered the water well hydrated. Although first few hundred metres were unpleasant (heels pushed down constantly) I found a decent line near the buoys (centrally placed in the canal) and established what felt like a consistent pace. Exited the water feeling in good shape and was disappointed to be 2 mins slower than last year

Conclusion: Pre-race routine worked well. Strategy of swimming close to centre of canal made sense (with the current + shortest distance on left hand turns) but I got pushed around a lot at the start which was stressful and delayed finding a good rhythm. Will start wider next time and gradually converge on race line. In the year ahead I’ll continue to focus on quality not quantity but target a 01:45min/100m pace for a 1h05min finish


Course: 2 laps. Renowned for being fast (road surfaces are super smooth) but it’s no pancake. Officially 1200m of climbing but my Garmin clocked it at 1477m. Highlight is the fan tunnel on Solarer Hill at 70km (awesome). Long climb at southern end of course where wind picks up on 2nd lap, but fabulous downhill stretch coming over the other side, although you have to treat the switchbacks with respect. Crowd at hotspots were loud, enthusiastic, supportive. Volunteers on the aid stations were angels

Stated goals:

  1. 5h20min finish (21mph)
  2. Maintain average power output between 180w – 200w
  3.  Strict adherence to nutrition plan consuming 175ml energy drink every 15 mins, an energy bar every hour and a salt tablet at 2 hours and 4 hours

 On board:

  1. 2 x 700ml of SiS Go Electrolyte (at 7g of carbohydrate per 100ml)
  2. 3 x High 5 Zero Electrolyte tablets
  3. 6 x SiS Energy Bars (3 Red Berries + 3 Blueberry) at 21g of carbohydrate per bar
  4. 3 x Salt tablet

Result: 5h27mins. Avg power 185W (Normalized 200W)

Analysis: Drank 300ml of energy drink before starting bike leg at 08:34 and exited transition feeling nicely in control after what felt like an efficient swim. Nutrition plan was to eat a 40g SiS energy bar every 60 minutes (ie. at 09:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, and 1:30). The hydration plan was to consume 700ml energy drink every hour (175ml every 15 minutes). First 2 bottles were pre-filled with SiS Go Electrolyte, thereafter I would use the 2 bags of powder I had on board. To accommodate heat and high sweat rate I had salt tablets to take at 2hrs and 4hrs

Two hours into the bike I was struggling to handle the energy drink and switched to water for the remainder of the ride. I managed to eat 5 of the 6 energy bars but it was terribly frustrating since in training I had not had any GI issues. The only change to plan was consuming 300ml of energy drink in T1 so my feeling is my carb requirements are lower than I had planned for. For this race however my target was missed, averaging 21mph for the first 4 hours but slowing progressively over the last 25 miles

Conclusion: Not as hot as last year, temperatures topped at 24 degrees, but wind made 2nd lap feel much harder. Considering the stomach issues and headwind on lap 2 I finished 8 minutes faster than last year (even though that was 7 minutes outside my target) so cannot be too harsh on myself. An average speed of 20.3mph is approaching reasonable but more bike time is needed next year to become more competitive in my age group. The get into the top 50 AG I need to ride 10 minutes faster which means targeting 22mph (35.5kmh ) for a 5h05min finish


Course: This is what can make Roth super-fast with the long run up and down the canal being not only flat, but the lightly graveled track is very forgiving on tired legs. However, it is totally exposed to the sun and can get very hot indeed, not as hot as last year, but wet sponges at the aid stations are most welcome and you should definitely apply sunscreen in T2.

The enemy in 2019 was not so much the heat as the wind. There was a very noticeable headwind from km 8 all the way out to the turn point at km 18. From there to km 25 we all of course enjoyed the tailwind before turning off the canal and heading back into Roth, where huge crowds of beer drinking locals cheer you on from tables that literally line the route. Quite an experience; and you need to keep that thought in your head as you then head uphill to Buchenbach, a seemingly endless climb to a village where more Bavarians are getting vociferously sozzled in the afternoon sun while cheering on complete strangers. But as with the canal, the return leg is downhill and with the end in sight and the prospect of finishing in the famous stadium back in Triathlon Park getting ever closer, you soon find yourself over the line, sporting your finisher’s medal and downing a large glass of chille Erdinger alcohol fee beer – and it will never taste this good again

Stated goals:

  1. Steady paced 3h 45min run
  2. Start easy, run tall with good cadence and efficient use of arms
  3. Consume 250ml water every 3km, an energy gel every 30 minutes, a salt tablet on the hour, increasing frequency if hot

Result: 3h56mins

Analysis: Initially very disappointed with the run – even if it was 17 mins faster than last year. The legs simply didn’t have the fuel to operate as intended and that was due to not being able to fuel as planned (a gel every 30 mins) due to the GI issues. Salt tablets were once again invaluable so cramp was never an issue. Interestingly I stopped twice to pee – which I didn’t do in 2018.  Last year I maintained sub 9 min miles for first 6 miles only – this year I pushed that pace out to mile 12 – which in hindsight is a real improvement, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. I kept it below 10 min/mile pace out to mile 20, but as in 2018 clocked my slowest 2 miles at mile 20 and 21. As per last year, the downhill run back into Roth allowed me to pick up the pace and finish on a stronger footing. Flat coke and watermelon again worked well – but I was underpowered throughout and will need to practice race specific bricks going into 2020 whereby I trial precise nutrition/hydration transitioning from long rides into longer runs

Conclusion: I was in good shape but my fuel plan didn’t work on the day. While I initially wanted to classify this as an avoidable failure, in hindsight it is yet another invaluable learning experience on the triathlon journey we all travel. So focusing on the positives, I went round in 10:41:50, an improvement of just under 25 minutes. Post-race I recovered very quickly (as per 2018) and was in far less discomfort when showering, refueling in the post-race recovery tent and when walking back to transition to pick up my bike. And I now know categorically that Nutrition is indeed the 4th discipline.

Final thoughts on Roth:

This is a top race which benefits from a proud and loving local community that rises to the occasion each year to deliver an unforgettable event for both the participants and their friends, family and supporters. While there is a strong sense of being part of a triathlon community in the majority of events we compete in locally, nationally and internationally, Roth is right up there for reminding you that the world is a remarkable place and human nature at its best is the most powerful endorphin of them all

And if anyone has any thoughts, ideas, insights and personal experiences on nutrition I’d be very pleased to discuss the subject with you!