Behind Germany’s Kona Podium Domination

Photo: Oliver Baker

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Minutes after Jan Frodeno crossed the finish line to take his second straight Ironman World Championship victory, he turned around to watch another German athlete come in second; a minute or so later, there was another. In 2016, the Kona podium was an all-German affair: Frodeno at the top, 2014 winner Sebastian Kienle in second and Kona rookie Patrick Lange in third. The last time a podium was swept by one nationality was in 1997, when the top spots were similarly held by Germans—Thomas Hellriegel, Jürgen Zäck and Lothar Leder.

This year, the only person standing between the Germans sweeping the four top spots in the men’s race was American Ben Hoffman—and “standing” is a loose term, as Hoffman was barely upright when he crossed the line. In fact, if the fifth-place finisher, Germany’s Andi Boecherer, hadn’t been so busy high-fiving the crowd on Ali’i, he might have known that Hoffman was struggling to reach the finish line and could have battled for that fourth spot.

Male German athletes have traditionally had strong showings at Kona, but this year put an exclamation point on a trend that has been pointing upward for some time. Over the last 12 years, Germans have taken 17 of the possible 36 podium spots—without the aid of one single athlete’s overwhelming dominance.

At Kona this year, the running joke among the pros was that Challenge Roth was the “race we’re not supposed to mention here.” But regardless of corporate competition between Ironman and the Challenge Family, Roth is a very important event—not only to athletes, but also to the sport of long-course triathlon in Germany. Imagine the impact an event that attracts an estimated 250,000 spectators would have on the mainland of the United States. Germany also has the prestigious Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt and a host of other opportunities for athletes to wow the media and impress their countrymen.

While this year’s top German crop at Kona showed a depth that will be hard to unseat, more tellingly, all of the athletes seemed to have arrived at their prominent positions via very different routes. Gone are the days of the standalone German “superbikers” like Normann Stadler or Thomas Hellriegel; no longer are Germans relegated to one-trick wonders. Frodeno got his start in the ITU, eventually climbing to the top of the short-course world with an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008. Kienle seems to fit the traditional German archetype more closely, often relying on the strength of his bike, but is still able to run very fast when it counts. Lange, the third man on the podium, is more indicative of the dangerous future of German long-course racing.

Before this year’s race in Kona, most of the attention was focused on Frodeno and Kienle. Frodeno was the returning champ and Kienle had won two years ago. Even during the pre-race press conference, it was clear that Kienle had Frodeno’s spot on his mind, revealing that much of the German press was critical of his previous victories because Frodeno wasn’t there.

The match-up that triathlon fans were waiting for became apparent as the race unfolded midway through the bike. As the athletes sorted themselves out in the brutal headwinds approaching town, a group of an elite eight rolled into T2 first. Missing from that group was Patrick Lange, who had served a five-minute blocking penalty and was almost 10 minutes back coming off of the bike.

Up front, the showdown was materializing. “Sebi and I have been set up to have this duel for three years now, and this was the first time where we’ve actually had it,” said Frodeno of the Kona run. “Where we both have a good day, where both of us had a go. In the end it turned out to be exactly that.” The duo stole the spotlight, becoming the focus of the crowd and the race. Frodeno and Kienle would cover the first five miles in sub-6-minute-per-mile pace, bringing wistful dreams of 1989’s head-to-head Iron War battle between Dave Scott and Mark Allen to anyone who has ever heard Bob Babbitt retell the tale.

Meanwhile, Patrick Lange sat back in 23rd place—a man whose only other Ironman experience ever was a steamy victory at Ironman Texas back in July (which actually had a bike course shortened to 94 miles). As Frodeno and Kienle duked it out in front and on the live coverage, Lange was flying through the crowd in the background. Before the race, Lange had made two personal goals: First, he wanted to finish in the top 15; second, he wanted to run a 2:48 marathon. At the rate he was running, it wasn’t long before Lange had already locked up his first goal, but the realization of his second goal still remained to be seen.

At the front of the race, “Das Iron War” (as one Ironman commentator so playfully dubbed it) didn’t materialize quite as dramatically as everyone had hoped, but at least the debate was settled: Frodeno was eventually able to pull away from Kienle near the top of Palani Road, roughly 10 miles in and grab the finishing tape first on Ali’i Drive. Coincidentally, the tape was held this year by the cast of the original Iron War—Scott and Allen. Kienle finished 3:30 behind. In the meantime, Patrick Lange had been busy. The 30-year-old German crossed the line roughly a minute behind Kienle, but to the surprise of everyone—including himself—he had smashed the previous course run record en route to passing 20 men.

It was somewhat prophetic that Allen and Scott, the owners of the first and second-fastest run times in Kona, respectively, would be on hand to watch the infamously insurmountable 27-year-old course run record fall at the finish. Allen would later say that he was surprised the record took so long to be broken, but that Lange was so gracious that he apologized to Allen for breaking it.

While it’s fun to imagine what the outcome would have been if Lange hadn’t served that five-minute penalty (assuming everything else equal, it would have mathematically put him 15 seconds ahead of Frodeno), it’s less fun for the rest of the men’s field to envision a future with a new breed of German athletes and a current crop that’s not going anywhere soon.

Back in the beginning, Ironman was a U.S. thing (American men won the first 17 versions of Kona), then it all changed with Greg Welch’s victory in 1994. Since then, Australians held many of the men’s top spots during the mid-2000s to early ’10s; yet in 2016, the top Australian was Tim Van Berkel way back in 19th place. The current trend seems to be distinctly European—even the overall age group field was roughly two-thirds non-American, the lowest U.S. presence in the event’s history. For the men’s pro race, 14 of the top 20 men were European; six of the top 10 women were European.

It’s tough to pin down the exact reason why the Germans are so strong. It could be due to their huge support at home with events like Challenge Roth, Ironman Frankfurt or the highly competitive German sprint series, the Bundesliga. It could be that the old guard that was once so dominant is imparting their experience to the younger crowd (Lange is coached by former Kona winner Faris-Al-Sultan). It could also be that the German’s history in long course racing is so strong and so established that young German athletes see long-course racing as a place where they can shine. Regardless, with all of the rising stars and their lack of weaknesses, the rest of the world should start paying attention.

After the race, Boecherer had at least one theory when asked why his country produces such great triathletes. “We have good competition in Germany,” he said, but added somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “You know I think our bike [legs] are so good because it’s the first thing that we start—riding bikes to school. When I’m in America, I see everyone get dropped off at school.”

Boecherer’s advice to the youth of America? “We have like 10,000 km [in our legs] already, so yeah, go out and train!”

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